author's note: the song, "The Magi (the Heart of Man's a Palace)" is on the Peter, Paul & Mary Holiday Album. If you can at all get your hands on a copy, I recommend doing so.
[a partridge in a pear tree]
The Heart of Man's a Palace
by Tenshi no Korin
Oh the magi were the prophets and they wandered through the desert
they saw the star above them and they knew they'd find their way
through the valley of the shadow with the hope of human kindness
they were strengthened by the vision of a new and brighter day
"Are you cold?"
Billy Lee must have looked it, to warrant notice from Bart. And he was cold, shivering in his coat on the fading warmth of transport's hood.
"A little," He admitted, turning his face to the stars. They had never seemed so bright in Aquvy, nor so many; the air had always been full of fog from the sea or the almost constant rain. In the desert of Aveh the sky looked as if it had been sprayed with two shotgun barrels of diamond dust, countless stars sparkling so clearly that they seemed mere miles away.
"Gets cold in the desert, at night." Bart sat down as well, pulling his knees to his chest. His eyes followed Billy's to the sky. "Gorgeous, aren't they? No humidity. You can see for miles." He shivered in his own jacket, hands in his armpits. "'course, that's why it's damn freezing." He gave Billy an apologetic look. "I'd bring you a blanket, but I figured they'd need them inside, you know. Sorry."
"I don't mind." Billy leaned his back against the dark windshield. "If you look straight up, it's like you could fall into it. It looks like water."
Bart absently twisted his braid around his hands, looking back at Billy with the whole sky reflected in the windshield glass. "Looks like you're floating in it," he teased. "I never saw the ocean until I was fifteen, you know. And even then, only at a distance." He held out the end of his braid and took it in strokes across the stars, as if painting them in. "I used to imagine that the sea would look like the desert sky at night."
The shuttle door opened and closed, and both of them sat up quickly, anxious looks on their faces. But Jessie shook his head.
"Relax, boys. It'll be a while yet."
"It's been awfully quiet in there." Bart thumped back on the hood with sigh.
Billy leaned towards his father, looking concerned. "Is everything all right?"
Jessie unslung a coil of cable off his shoulder, kneeling to hook it up to the generator. "Don't you worry about it none, Billy Lee. Elly's one tough cookie, and if there's one thing I know, it's that most babies are gonna be born without any help from outside forces." He grinned. "Fei might have a coronary before it's over with, though. Maybe he'd be better off drinking what I left for Elly."
"It was still a hell of a time to break down," Bart scowled at their immobile transport. "Damn solar engines. If only they'd retain their charge for more than an hour--"
"What about Citan?" Billy slithered off the hood, trudging though the sand to stand beside his father. "He knows what he's doing, doesn't he?"
Jessie grunted noncommittally. "Hyuga knows enough to get her through it, Billy. He passed basic med at Jugend."
"Since when does basic med class cover babies?" Bart asked, but Jessie didn't answer.
"If we hadn't been held up with those supplies we could have gotten back to Bledavik." Billy absently handed Jessie the ratchet he gestured for.
"That outpost needed those supplies, Billy Lee." Jessie sat back on his heels in the sand, scowling at the generator. "Besides, doesn't make any difference now. I'm telling ya, kid. Don't worry about it." Jessie squinted up at this son. "Your mama had your little sister with just me and a bottle of whiskey for help, and she'd been sick a week before. Trust me. This one'll be squalling before the sun comes up." He picked up the small power converter and slogged over to the front of the transport with it. "Hop down now, Bart. I've gotta hook this in if we're going anywhere tomorrow."
Billy scuffed his boots in the sand, and shivered as Bart climbed down.
"There sure are a lot of them," Bart said, looking at the sky again. "I wonder," he seemed almost to be speaking to himself, "Which one it is."
Billy tore his gaze from the closed door of the transport. "Which one which is?"
Bart opened his arms, as if to indicate the entire stretch of the heavens above them. "Which one we came from. It could be any of them."
Billy, looking at the sky, felt his heart stutter. "But there are so many."
Bart dug his hands in his back pockets. "That's what makes it interesting. It could be that one, or that blue one, or... hey, what's that?" He pointed, and Billy followed the line of his arm to a small bright spot, lost in the myriad points of light. It was smallish and cloudy purple, like a bruise.
"It doesn't look like a star," Billy said.
"It's not." Jessie slammed the hood of the transport, and nodded. "That should do it."
"What is it, then?" Billy asked, afraid to take his eyes off the spot, thinking he wouldn't be able to find it again if he did.
Jessie studied the mark, low on the horizon over the roof of the transport. "Supernova," He said, and dug in his duster pocket. "It's what happens when a star dies. Hell of a mess. Pretty, if you're not there at the time." He discovered what he was looking for, and handed a double-lens scope to Billy. "Lookit it through that, if you want. You can see it better."
It took Billy a while to find it, through the scope the transport was a blurry looming shadow, the stars as big as coins.
"Let me see," Bart said in Billy's ear, impatient.
"Just a second, I haven't got it--" The nova burst silently across the scope's lenses, like a great dark blue flower. Billy could see swirls of light in it, pink and magenta and white. "oh. ...it's beautiful."
"I want to see," Bart insisted. "Before it goes away."
"I wouldn't worry about it leaving," Jessie said, even as Billy reluctantly handed the scope over. "Light travels slowly, in space. It'll be there a while. I forget," he smiled ruefully, "that what was common knowledge in Solaris isn't on the surface."
"Have you seen one before?" Billy wanted to know. After seeing the nova close up it seemed he could still detect colors, layers of light, swirling like a cloud of incense. Or maybe he was just imagining things.
"Not actively." Jessie ruffled his pale hair. "We never did much star observation in Etrenank." He shot Billy a meaningful look. "But then, from there, the stars were down."
"Whoa," Bart said, impressed. He had just managed to find the nova; it had taken him longer with only one good eye. "It's huge! It's like ten times the size of the stars around it." He lowered the scope and looked at the purple smudge, then lifted the scope again. "And you say it'll stick around? I want Sig to see it."
"It probably blew up a few millennia ago, Bart." Jessie checked the gauge on the generator to make sure it was charging properly. "It'll show up for a while now. Probably been there for ages, you just never noticed it."
"It hasn't," Bart murmured. "I know this sky like I know my own face. I never saw it before tonight."
"Millennia?" Billy felt that same shiver in his heart again, and it wasn't the cold air that made every hair rise on the back of his neck as he looked at the long-dead star. "Ten thousand years?"
Jessie gave his son a long look. "Or more, Billy Lee. Depends on how far away it is."
"Our ancestors came from far away, didn't they?" Billy folded his arms across his chest. "They left their world behind. They brought everything with them."
"Billy," Bart said slowly, scope dangling from his hand, "what are you getting at? You think that that..." He nodded at the nova, "You think that's where... where we came from?"
"I think it could be," Billy said evasively, but his pulse was roaring in his ears. He had never been so certain of anything in his life. "I think..."
"It is," Jessie finished, coming over to stand with the other two. "I think you're right."
"I think so too," Bart whispered. His good eye was wide, focused on the cloud of dust that was light years away.
"We'll make it, won't we?" Billy's voice was strained, his hands clenched until the knuckles went white. "There are so few of us left. There are more stars in this sky than heartbeats on this planet." He shook his head, and looked at the sand at his feet.
"Survival isn't about making it through one big battle, Billy Lee." Jessie put his hands on his son's shoulder. It was needed human contact; Billy felt like the space between the people on their nameless world was like the vacuum between the stars. "Survival is every day, enduring. It's picking up and going on. It's living and knowing how fragile we are, how few we are."
"We'll make it," Bart said, taking a step forward, his gold hair shining in the starlight. There was no question to his voice. "Ten thousand years, and we aren't through yet. We'll make it. I know we will." He turned back to the nova, unbowed. "We've come this far. We've come this far on our own, with only each other. It's enough. If there were only a hundred of us, only ten, it would be enough."
Billy wanted to say that he was not so certain, that everything was against them, even their own natures. But there was a thump and a bang from the door of the transport and Fei staggered out, some undefined emotion raw on his face. His arms were streaked faintly with blood, and as he lifted the bundle in his hands to the sky, a cry shattered the desert stillness, wordless with life. And Fei's voice joined it, naked with wonder.
And the wise men spoke of peace on earth
of harmony and struggle
know you now a cycle's gone
and a new one is revealed
in the weaving of your fingers
in the whisper of a love that's born again
in the weaving of your fingers
in a promise that he made that never ends
twelve days of christmas
b i s h o n e n i n k