by Frank W. Haubold
Dedicated to Rainer Maria Rilke
They glide along like shadows, no morning nor day. Their ship is fast, so fast that the light of the stars seems a blur. Still, they cannot feel the velocity.
The men seek escape in rituals as unreal as the time on their chronometers. They inspect the machinery and their weapons, study the logbooks and prepare for events that may never happen. They have their meals at scheduled times and they try to sleep when the lights in their cubicles are turned off.
They are waiting. And the longer the waiting takes, the more unlikely it seems that it will ever end. There is no way to comprehend the vast distance they have covered. What if the instruments are lying, what if they’ve become lost long ago in the depths of the unfathomable dark ocean?
Christoph doesn’t want to think about it. He has volunteered just like the others. He wants to fight, wants to confront the enemy. That’s why he left his homeland.
The long wait is undermining his courage and sometimes he gets homesick. He shouldn’t have left in summer, on a sun-filled day full of vibrant colours. Maybe the memories of a farewell in fall would have been less painful …
Christoph wants to talk, but Maurice, his cabin mate, looks so sad and lost in thought that he doesn’t dare speak to him. The short French navigator has grown quieter every day, like a child that has been up for too long and finally wants to go to sleep. Next door, someone is singing and playing a guitar – Parker, the gunner. His voice sounds raspy and it takes a while until his singing is in unison with the music:
Oh Sister, when I come to knock on your door
Don’t turn away, you create sorrow …
Parker always sings that song when he feels blue. He sings it often.
… Time is an ocean, but it ends at the shore
You may not see me tomorrow.
The walls are thin and Christoph imagines that the wistful melody is being heard in other cubicles too. But nobody knocks against the walls demanding quiet. Maybe because they all left somebody behind. That’s why it has become their song too, their farewell, as if they had the same sister, wife or mother. You may not see me tomorrow…
The song fades away and the ship keeps gliding soundlessly through the night.
Suddenly, the little Frenchman jumps up, pointing to the screen: „Look!“
But there is nothing, just darkness and the twinkle of faraway stars.
„Look,“ Maurice says once again and now, Christoph too can perceive the shimmering figure floating by like a vision – divine in her radiant glory yet stirringly human: The Holy Madonna of the Last Days …
„What was that?“ he whispers with trembling lips when the Madonna had diminished into a yellowish mist.
„Regards from the Order, what else?“ the little Frenchman smiles, but his face has become pale.
Of course Christoph knows the nature of the shining object – the friars had sent out thousands of them – and yet his pulse is racing.
With burning eyes he stares at the screen until the last glimmer has faded away.
„What’s her name?“ Maurice asks and it seems as if he looks right into Christoph’s heart.
„Magdalena.“ Just four syllables and a flood of memories.
„Will she wait for you?“
„No,“ says Christoph, turning away. „I hope not.“
„A pretty name,“ the little Frenchman says. „Like my Marie-Claire. She is fair like you.“
„And yet you left.“
„Yes, but not to die.“
Christoph reflects on Maurice’s comment and suddenly the pictures are back again: Magda’s smile when they said their good-byes, her almost fragile figure at the airport as she was waving at him, forming the victory sign with her fingers. As if victory was possible …
Fortunately, the room is dim so his companion cannot see the tears in his eyes. They fall into silence until fatigue erases the pictures.
Eventually, the waiting comes to an end. The men can sense the change before the alarm signals start flashing. When the reverse thrusters are engaged, they are ready. The braking pressure pushes heavily on their bodies. Every movement, every breath takes great effort but no harsh words are uttered. Their destination is close. Nobody asks what this destination looks like or what may happen to them. Neither does Christoph. To return from the realm of shadows is reward enough.
Days later. The weight on their bodies has either eased or the men have become accustomed to it. Their daily routine hasn’t changed much but there is a new expression on their faces – hope. Now that the abyss lies behind them they have found their courage again. The enemy might be strong but certainly not invincible. Nobody s invincible …
They are having dinner when the sirens start howling. But it’s not the enemy, not yet.
A city is drifting by, thousands of miles away but not far enough for the raptor-like eyes of their ship. Something has happened to it. The dome has burst into pieces, the highrises smashed as though by a giant’s fist. Frost covers the fields of wreckage but down in their depths, something red is flaring. A lone fire for the dead that slowly dies away.
The room has grown silent – and cold.
The message is clear: „You come near, and that’s how you will return!“
It’s not the first nomad city destroyed by the enemy and sent back to earth like the chopped-off head of a luckless warrior.
You may not see me tomorrow …
The necropolis has long since disappeared into darkness but the men still sit there and wait. Wait for somebody to break the silence. And then, it’s Parker – Parker, of course – who takes heart.
We-e came down
The rivers and highways
We-e came down from
Forests and falls …
He sings, this time without accompaniment but nobody seems to mind. Some of them know the song and, hesitantly at first, they join in. Others just listen, strangely touched by the solemn melody and the almost hypnotic rhythm of the verses.
We-e came down from
Carson and Springfield
We-e came down from
The places sound familiar, even to those who have answered the call to arms from the remotest corners of the realm. In this moment, they feel close to each other, closer than ever before.
And I can tell you
The names of the Kingdom
I can tell you
The things that you know …
The men have encountered death. They are tired beyond measure and the enemy is close. Yet, there is a radiance in their eyes …
„Take this!“ Maurice says, handing Christoph something that looks like a piece of crumbled paper. It is not paper but a small, half-dried flower.
Christoph sniffs at it. In fact, there is a faint fragrance, not much more than a whiff. Spring.
He wants to say something, wants to thank him but the little Frenchman shakes his head, smiling. „Marie-Claire will pick new ones for me when I’m back.“
Christoph envies his confidence. Gladly, he would like to believe in a safe return home. But he can’t even manage to dream about it.
Later on, he finds a spot for Maurice’s present – in the left front pocket right above his heart. Now, a woman who is a stranger to him is protecting him.
In the morning they reach the last bastion before no man’s land: Cadbury – the city of steel, shimmering blue in the corona of the magnetic force field. The airfields are crowded with ships: armoured destroyers, elegant light aircraft and tiny short-winged fighters. The Armada. From here, they go their separate ways. Words are not easy to find.
„Good luck, friend!“
„Same to you. See you back home.“
They shake hands. Then, Maurice disappears into the belly of an armoured colossus.
The pilots are waiting. The underground hangar they’ve been taken to is huge. Beneath the ceiling, humidity condenses into veiled white mist.
Then the commander, Admiral Spork, finally arrives. The eighty year old man jumps out of his jeep with the agility of a twenty-year-old. His age is only betrayed by his eyes and what they have seen. He has encountered them, and has survived. This alone makes him a legend.
The man next to him is shorter and wears sunglasses. He doesn’t look like an officer. Only when he takes off his sunglasses does Christoph comprehend what he is. His penetrating eyes radiate a brightly shining blue.
One by one, the men step forward and Spork assigns ships and gives them their orders. Most of them will be flying escort vessels.
Then, it’s Christoph’s turn. He steps forward, saying his name. The short man’s gaze pierces him like spotlights. The brightness is not only in his eyes, it is everywhere, penetrating Christoph as if he was made out of glass. In the blink of an eye, the sensation is over. Christoph is able to see again. The small man whispers something into Spork’s ear, then the decision is made: „Falcon.“
That’s a lot more than he expected. He, the youngest, is going to fly with the vanguard …
Back in his quarters, he dictates a letter to his mother. The passage went smooth, she ought not to worry. No word about Spork and the honour he was granted. Love, Christoph. It was like a farewell. When the answer comes, he’ll be gone …
Next day, the first test flight with the Falcon. A wee bit of pressure on the throttle, and the engines are roaring, pressing him into the seat with their thrust. The joystick reacts to the slightest touch. The Falcon lifts up its raptor’s beak and within an instant, the airfield lies far, far below them. After receiving clearance, they break through the shimmering blue energy field. Again, darkness is engulfing them but this time, Christoph can feel the velocity, is in control of his own course and destination. They get used to each other quickly, the “Falcon“ and him, melting into one another to become one being – with alert senses and limbs made of steel. Exhaustion only comes when Christoph is back on the ground. Like a drunk, he staggers across the airfield, dragging himself to his room where he falls asleep immediately.
A scream cuts into his slumber. Christoph jumps to find himself on a steep rockbluff with a forest far below. Then, another scream, filled with agony.
He looks down, his keen eyes penetrating the woods. There, among the trees, something bright. Pushing himself off, Christoph jumps into the void. He is scared but something is telling him that the air will carry him. He spreads out his arms – no, not arms, wings! – and glides toward the tree tops. Branches reach out to him, trying to stop him but he pushes them away. He flies, tumbles, runs toward the screaming that is now hardly more than a whimper.
In a clearing, he finds a cross, a cross made from raw logs. As he looks up, a scream escapes his throat. Magdalena!
She is wearing the same white summer dress she wore back then at the airport but now, it is drenched with blood. Somebody has driven big carpenter’s spikes through her palms and feet.
„Help me,“ she whimpers, but strangely enough, the mouth uttering the cry for help seems to be smiling.
With one big step, Christoph reaches her. With his bare hands, he pulls out the spikes and the woman slides into his arms. He holds her close and then it’s Magda who’s pressing against him. Claw-like, her fingers are digging into his neck. He doesn’t feel the pain, only a strange sense of weakness. Then, she lets go of him. Her mouth is red, red from blood – his blood. And then she laughs, a wild triumphant laugh and is still laughing when Christoph wakes up in horror, dripping with sweat.
It takes a long time until his heartbeat calms down. Christoph now knows that he had lost Magda the day he left. He gets up and turns on the terminal.
The message, addressed to Magdalena K., contains only two words: „Forgive me.“
You may not see me tomorrow …
The morning belongs to the rumours. The whispers are spreading fast through the hallways: „We’ll be off soon.“
Good, Christoph thinks to himself. I’m ready.
At the airfield, two men are awaiting him. The others.
Christoph knows it before the first word is spoken: O’Brian and Romanow will fly with him. Their Falcons are ready for take-off. Christoph has to hurry to follow them. The two of them are very fast, chasing each other like children.
Flashing beams of light penetrate the night. He evades them by pulling up the Falcon until red spots dance in front of his eyes. „Well done,“ somebody compliments and that feels like a gift to him.
A signal calls them back. Spork. He wants to speak. As they land, they see the men already formed into squads. Ten thousand men, maybe more. Who wants to count them all anyway?
„Tomorrow,“ says the Admiral and his voice sweeps across the square like a cold gust of wind. „Tomorrow, the Armada will launch.“ They have to be ready to move by noon. He doesn’t promise them anything, especially not victory. That’s why they trust him.
Then, it’s over and the men hurry to their quarters to pack.
There’s not much that Christoph is going to take with him. Besides the necessities, only a tiny album – Mother’s farewell gift. The pictures show a serious-looking young boy smiling shyly into the camera. He looks strangely indifferent, even on the last picture with Magda. Christoph touches one of the sensor fields and the frozen scene comes to life. He is watching his younger self, listening to the familiar voices. Then, he closes the album with a determined snap. That’s over!
The next morning, he is one of the first to get to the airfield.
They glide along like shadows, no morning nor day. Their ship is fast, so fast that the light of the stars seems to blur.
But something is different here in no man’s land. Neither the darkness nor the stillness is their enemy. They are taking turns, O’Brian, Romanow and Christoph. One is resting, the others are on guard. But how do you find sleep when the void in front of you could turn into a blazing inferno at any second? The enemy is close, and they know it. The fleet had picked up a distress call from a nomad city but later the signal falls silent. By the time they arrive, the city is drifting through the night like a burning vessel. Sheaves of sparks explode into space like swarms of fire-flies and then burn out.
They find no survivors.
As Christoph makes his report, he is shocked by the sound of his own voice.
Silently, they return to their fleet, leaving the dying city behind. They’ve never been this close to death before.
They glide along like shadows, no morning nor day. With burning eyes, they stare into the darkness but the enemy stays invisible. They don’t know anything about them. Maybe, they are nearby, just waiting for the right moment to attack. Uncertainty is tugging at their nerves. One hour follows the other. Watch, sleep, watch. And always present is the fear of them, the invisible. Their sleep is troubled and they wake up with aching limbs.
The Armada is somewhere far behind them. If there is still an Armada. Radio silence has been ordered. Watch, sleep, watch. Minutes turn into hours, days, maybe even weeks. Time has lost its meaning. There is nothing around them but darkness and – somewhere out there – the enemy. If there is an enemy at all. If anything at all exists out there.
Christoph feels tired. His eyelids are getting heavy as lead. Sometimes he jumps, realizing that he has fallen asleep. On duty! He doesn’t care. Nor does he care about the enemy. Even fear can diminish with tiredness.
And then, a miracle! A city, almost near at hand. No burned-out, annealed relic drifting toward the sun. No, this city is alive. The radiating blue of its dome is blinding to the eye.
A fata morgana, a mirage, Christoph thinks, but a quick glance at the instruments tells him different. In fact, the Falcon had located the object long before.
Indeed, radio silence has been ordered but this was important enough to disregard the order. Christoph calls the „Lancelot“, the flag ship and reports his discovery.
Anxious seconds pass by before the answer finally comes: „Reconnaissance authorized. Be very careful, Christoph.“
The voice sounds concerned and all of a sudden, Christoph knows who the voice belongs to. To a short man who needs to protect his eyes with sunglasses …
For a moment it seems cooler in the cabin than before, then Christoph finally confirms the order and breaks contact.
Meanwhile, the Falcon has made contact with the foreign city. Her name is „Joyous Gard“ and she is a work of art. An odd sounding bit of information.
O’Brian and the Russian want to explore the city right away. All fatigue has evaporated. They are like children now, all three of them. With wide, shiny eyes they watch the strange city glide through the night like a blue shimmering jewel.
Only a few white, feather-like clouds blur their view as they break through the energy dome and set course toward the city. But they don’t find what they expected. No nomad city with towering skyscrapers, no streets seething with traffic.
Joyous Gard is not much more than a village surrounded by meadows and grain fields. A stony castle is sitting on a hill above, its walls and turrets gleaming in the glow of the setting sun.
The men can hardly believe what they see. There is no airfield, not even a concrete road. They have to land on a meadow, warily watched by a herd of brown cows grazing there. The herdsman is just a little boy, staring at them in amazement. His eyes are big and round with wonder. As they approach him, he runs away.
They have to smile as their eyes follow him. Not too long ago, they were children themselves.
Christoph bends down to pull out a few blades of grass. They smell of summer like the air hovering warm and lazily over the fields. When did they last breathe such air?
A work of art, Christoph thinks to himself as they climb up the cobblestone path to the castle. It is true. There is nothing to disturb the magic of this place. The surrounding landscape looks as though it was painted by a master’s hand. No thought of danger.
At the castle. Its big gate stands open, invitingly. The courtyard is full of life. Dogs barking, doors slamming, hustling and bustling. Somewhere, meat is being roasted. The smoke goes straight up into the air, yet the smell is everywhere.
Their arrival wasn’t unnoticed. Curious faces everywhere but nobody approaches them to ask about their comings or goings. The guards at the entrance salute. Their uniforms are a bright poppy red. Inside, flaming torches light the way upstairs to a great hall.
The doors swing open and they stand there blinded by candles. Hundreds of them. Their light is reflected in the windows, is glistening on silver baubles and the ladies’ jewellery.
A gentle ringing, and the murmur in the hall dies down. A man in a gold-braided uniform rises to welcome the strangers. For a long time they’ve been travelling, he explains, so long that only the eldest can remember the last visitors. Now, finally, the waiting has come to an end.
It’s not only the friendly words that make the men self-conscious; it’s also that all eyes have now turned toward them, the strangers. And there’s more than just curiosity that Christoph can read in their gazes. He feels himself blushing. Then, finally, they are invited to have a seat.
Slowly, conversations are being started but Christoph is too occupied to listen. For only an instant, he has looked into the eyes of the woman sitting across from him. Genevra, as the others address her. Never again will he seek her gaze, he swears, already knowing that he is going to break this vow.
Then, the meal is served and eventually, tensions loosen. Glasses clink, toasts are being proposed. Laughter resounds, clear as a bell, soaring into the air like butterflies, spreading wildly. The wine is loosening tongues, the noise level is rising. Jokes make their rounds, invoking laughter and meaningful glances. Soon the strangers’ timidity eases, allowing them to finally feel like guests. With their senses vividly alive, they see, hear, smell, taste everything in exciting, yet strangely familiar ways.
Even Christoph, who has been staring at his plate for the last few minutes, is coming back to life. Of course, he wouldn’t look in her direction and if he did, then only for the tiniest moment. She doesn’t notice, or does she? A smile is playing around the corners of her mouth, fleetingly but certainly not accidentally. She knows, he thinks to himself.
The wine soothes the burning in his throat. Christoph lifts his glass to get it refilled with the red, velvety liquid. Like her lips, he is thinking. Forgotten is his vow, also forgotten are Magdalena and every other girl he ever desired. They are like shadows, infinitely far away. Forgotten is the enemy out there, even death is forgotten … no, not that.
She knows, he once again thinks to himself, drinking greedily, as if the wine could extinguish the fire burning inside him. The fire dedicated only to her.
Then, the dance. It almost seems as if this was what everybody was waiting for. As the first chords of music ring out, the hall begins to fill with dancing couples. Black are the men’s suits, snow-white the ball-gowns of the ladies. The contrast is almost painful to the eye.
Genevra is also dancing. Light-footed, seemingly weightless, she glides over the dance floor, swinging herself into the arms of her partner – who Christoph hates for that – extricates herself from him, spins a pirouette and then resumes with the rhythm of the music again.
Christoph doesn’t know how to dance. When was he supposed to learn, and where? His partner is the Falcon and theirs is the dance of war …
„Are you dreaming?“ O’Brian asks with a pat on his shoulder. Startled, Christoph smiles self-consciously. They get their glasses refilled and drink to each other. „To what we love,“ the Irishman is booming, winking meaningfully at the lady next to him. Then they drink as if they were expecting a long drought.
Some time later, when Christoph wants to get his glass refilled, he notices that O’Brian and the blonde lady have disappeared. He is alone, and Genevra is still dancing. Since there is nothing to hold him any longer, he leaps up from his chair, runs out of the hall, through dim hallways until he finds a door that leads out into the night. He finds himself standing alone in a darkened park. The festivities are far away. And the light is a lie.
Later on … His defiance and jealousy have vanished, erased by the night and the shadows of the old trees. It is quiet here, as though the festival is happening on another planet.
Suddenly, footsteps, swift and light as a feather. Christoph freezes, doesn’t dare to turn around. Only when the woman is bending toward him and he can feel her breath on his skin does his heart start beating again.
„You.“ That’s better than any name, even a name as pretty as hers. And then once again: „You.“
She takes his hand, cold from the night and the shadows and Christoph follows her like a child. Like the child he’ll never be again.
The chamber in the tower is small and dark but between them they have all the light and warmth they need. Something rustles and falls to the floor, a bright spot shimmering like moonlight. Then, Christoph too is as naked as on the day he was born. They look at each other, warming each other with their smiles. Nothing separates them anymore. They seek and find each other, pressing close to each other, holding on to each other. They are blossoming and withering, restlessly, breathlessly, glowing like shooting stars, then dying away, until sleep finds them, wrapping them in its blanket of darkness and warmth.
When Christoph awakes, he is alone, the spot next to him empty. And cold.
It is daylight already. The morning sun is casting a streak of red light through the window.
Too red, Christoph realizes, jumping into his clothes at once. He hasn’t yet reached the door when the glass pane bursts and flames blaze into the room.
The castle is on fire. Flames are licking through the staircase and the hallways. Somebody is screaming and that’s worse than the smoke and the hissing flames. While running, Christoph slips the silver mask over his face. He runs, stumbles over a burning beam, falls, struggles to his feet again and manages to get outside just moments before the roof collapses behind him, burying everything under it.
It’s quiet after that. The cries for help have ceased.
Only a few have escaped and stand staring into the embers, not able to comprehend what has happened.
Genevra is not among them.
Christoph knows what this means but still, there’s hope: Maybe she has managed to rescue herself, maybe she’s found safety by now …
And O’Brian? Romanow?
He’ll mourn for them later when there is time for it. Right now is the time for other things. Christoph looks up at the red sky, fists clenched. The tongues of flame are still licking across the land, burning fields, setting trees and thatched roofs ablaze like torches.
Joyous Gard is dying and he must hurry.
One last glance back, then he starts running. Rushing headlong, breathlessly, he speeds down the hill to where he is waiting: his last companion.
He can already see him, the Falcon, his silvery skin glowing from the reflection of the fire. So far, he’s been spared from the flames but they are advancing now. Quickly.
Go back! Run! But Christoph won’t listen to the voice, will never listen to it again. Without fear, he keeps running toward the fire.
Then, it’s over. They’ve been attacked and injured. Injured but not defeated. Black smoke comes from the tail of the Falcon. Christopher pulls off his mask and tastes blood. Warm and sweet. Like her lips, he thinks to himself. Pulling the joystick down, he makes the Falcon roar like a wounded animal.
And now, they are racing towards the enemy. The Falcon is dragging a fiery trail behind him but he is still young and strong, just like the man controlling him. And fast.
The enemy is watching them but seems to be bewildered. The shield that conceals him from human eyes must be breaking down. In fact, Christoph can see him now, his stocky body and his gaping mouth from which flames are shooting. Above it the eye, darkly red and menacing. He wants to, has to smash it.
In a burst of white light he launches his weapon and follows it with his eyes, timidly and with a pounding heart, like a child that has just thrown a rock. For an instant, time seems to freeze. The flashing missile seems to hang in mid air but then it finds its target and the eye explodes into a thousand bloody fragments.
After that, a deep silence surrounds him, a lightness he has never experienced before.
Like hunters closing in on their prey, more of the enemy encircle Christoph. He knows he’s going to die and his faithful Falcon along with him. But he is not afraid. Not anymore. The festival was short but it had happened. He whispers her name and smiles. Then, it all comes crashing down on him. Sixteen fiery swords leap towards him with gleaming blades. Together with him, they burst into a fiery red flower, eventually fading away.
The man on the bridge of the „Lancelot“ stands there in silence. He takes off his sunglasses, staring out into the night that, for him, was never truly dark. He watches the Falcon speed by, burning and doomed, sees the spear of light and hopes the lad’s shot found its target. But the enemy remains invisible. Even to him. Until the flaming swords strike, hurling flashes of fire into the night that burn into his retina, burn into his brain and transform into letters and numbers. Quick as spider legs, his fingers whisk across the keyboard of his terminal, transmitting coordinates and target instructions for the destroyers lurking in the dark with their engines shut down.
Spork, the Admiral, is standing next to him, motionless. They wait as light torpedoes glide into launching tubes behind them, target coordinates are repeated and men prepare to die. Maurice, the small Frenchman, is also among them. Of course, he is thinking of Marie-Claire and the blossoms she will pick for him from Brittany’s cherry trees. Parker longs for his guitar. He would like to sing about her again, the girl he never really knew. You may not see me tomorrow …
Then, they are ready. All of them. And they become quiet, dead quiet. Their breathing is slow and shallow …
„Fire!“ the admiral commands. He didn’t shout it but the word rings in their ears. The short man puts his sunglasses back on and turns away.
Then, a hundred suns are rising.
Later, in fall …
A ship lands in the village square. A military ship, slim and black. A man gets out, pausing for a few moments in front of the monument that has been erected for the lad. Despite the rain, he is wearing sunglasses. Walking down the street, he finds what he is looking for. It’s the only house where the weeds are spreading through the fence. He knocks at the door and is invited in by a woman wearing mourning clothes. And he stays for a long time, the stranger, since he has much to tell. About abysses and burning cities. About castles, festivals, love and death. And about a young lad who she never knew in that way. Yet, she was his mother …
She weeps when he is finished but she extends her hand to bid him farewell. As he leaves, she stands at the door for a long time, watching his short figure disappear into the grey light of dusk.
Translated by Jutta Ploessner
First published as „Das ewige Lied“ in:
Nova 8, Verlag Nr. 1, 2005
Copyright © 2005 by Frank W. Haubold
Frank W. Haubold was born in 1955 in Flankenberg, Saxonia, and now lives near the Saxonian city Meerane. He studied Informatics at the Technical University Dresden and took a doctoral degree in 1989. His first novel Am Ufer der Nacht was published in 1997. Since then he published four story collections and edited several anthologies. In 2008 he was the first writer to win the German Science Fiction Award for the best novel and the best short story in the same year, for his novel Der Schatten des Mars and the story „Heimkehr“. His homepage is at www.frank-haubold.de
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