Sunday Fiction: Touching the Stars

A vignette written for “Where the Stars Used to Sing”, as well as a glance behind the scenes.

Touching the Stars

When we heard the signal echo through the heavens and from star to star, we built a ship with metal sails to follow it.

It seemed a lifetime later when we finally set foot on the planet and followed the signal being broadcast to the stars.

Low shrubs and succulents grew in patches in front of the cliff face where figures of men and animals had been painted in ochre, yellow, white, and black. The train of men and animals were so lifelike that it seemed as if the rock itself was alive. On and on, they seemed to run, and I followed them to the entrance of a cave.

At the entrance were human-like footprints that led into the cave. How long they had been there I could not tell, but they were partially covered by the red sand of the area. I swallowed hard and, without asking permission from the commander, stepped inside the cave.

Shouts came from behind me, but it was as if something – someone – was calling me towards it. I switched on a flashlight and gasped at the paintings that surrounded me. Painted in the same style as those outside, the figures inside the cave formed a dizzying zootrope of animals and people that stampeded around the cave before disappearing into the dark of a tunnel.

I ran with them, the sounds of the animals and singing people in my ears. “Follow us... follow us...” they seemed to chant to me as if they were from some faerie world and wanted to steal me away like a wandering child.

I skidded to a stop at the tunnel entrance. It was not darkness that lay before me any longer, but facets of light reflected from shards of crystals and quartz-filled walls.

My figure was reflected back at me a hundred – a thousand – times, and all I could do was stare. Still the voices echoed through the tunnel, tempting me. My breath caught in my throat as I turned around to see my commander staring past me, his awe-filled face reflecting mine.

Later, we sent back images of what we’d found. And waited.

“They’ll call again,” I said, surprised that my voice didn’t waver for an instant.

We didn’t have long to wait.

A week later, we set sail once more to follow the signal. This time it seemed to sound from the heart of the galaxy. I poured over my filled notebooks and thousands of images of the cliff face, cave, and crystals, as we travelled. The commander got the look of a starving man in his eye and I knew that he felt the pull of the signal just as I did.

When we finally landed on the planet where the signal had come from, we found their art – similar in nature, but with blue added this time to give the figures a true alien appearance – and it led us to another cave.

In front of this cave an old, gnarled tree that looked like an ancient bristle cone or olive tree stood. It’s branches all bent towards the cave, as if it, too, was being pulled by the strange signal.

As I took the rest of the environment in, I realised that even the small flowers that dotted the succulents were turned not to the light of the planet’s sun, but towards the cave entrance.

My commander hurried inside first this time and I followed on his heels. He grabbed my arm as we reached the crystal tunnel at the far end of the cave and demanded to know what meaning lay behind the crystals.

I shrugged and tried to tell him that I didn’t know, that it was too soon to say, that we needed to find the people that sent the signal first. I could as well have punched him in the gut.

“We will break through to the other side!” he spat. “It’s only crystal.”

I stayed outside while the others worked and broke through the crystals. Some came out coughing and gasping; saying that the heat was too much for them, even in their thermoregulated suits.

Three of our number died in the tunnel before breaking through to another cave. I was called upon to come and make sense of the art remnants that remained in the cave after the crystals were blasted away.

I wept as I stepped among the crystals and into the cave. The paintings that still remained on the walls were more lifelike here than anything we’d seen before. Shadows cast by our flashlights seem to bring the animals and people to life.

I followed the art to another cave where the ancient voices echoed. And, this time, it felt like home. Here, everything seemed untouched, untainted. I could hear the voices of those before still singing after their crystals had been broken.

“Follow us”, they still said and called me closer.

“To where?” I whispered and, as one, they answered – “To beyond the stars!”

I stretched out one hand and touched one of the figures on the wall that was here veiled in some kind of blue aura. Pain seared me to my soul as the rock took me.

When I opened my eyes I could see them. They were the ones who had stumbled into these caves long before and they were seated among the stars, listening to them singing across the vast emptiness of space.

And I realised that it was me they had been calling this whole time after all.

The ship with its metal sails set sail to go back home some time later. Whether they found my body on the floor or my image on the cave wall, I could not say – and also found that I did not care. Instead, I closed my eyes and listened to the voices of the stars that were as ancient as the universe itself and sung of everything they had seen. It seemed like an angel choir was singing and lifting us up.

And then I realised what had happened as I started singing as well.

I had come home.

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For those who would like to see what my notes looked like up front… ta-da!