Fiction: Tribes of Gypsies

It's day 24 of Mainlining Christmas's "25 Christmas Eves." Today, I've got another science-fiction story, this time set a bit further out. It's called "Tribes of Gypsies," and I think it's one of the better ones. Tomorrow, we'll wrap up this series with something... a little different.

By: Erin L. Snyder

If I’m going to hold the books someday, I have a lot to learn.

Today is December 24, and tomorrow is Christmas Day. It’s an old story, and the old ones are hardest to grasp. Truth and myth are entwined; fable and metaphor are one and the same with description. Learning the words is easy. Memorizing is only a matter of time. But untangling what is from what’s said is a skill my grandfather spent his life mastering.

There were never such things as dragons, but there are fish large enough to swallow a man whole. Alligators are not mythical; vampires are. There are wolves, but not werewolves. I spent weeks studying the writings about dinosaurs before I asked father.

“No. They’re made up,” he answered, paused, considered, then corrected himself. “No, I’m sorry. Dinosaurs are real. Or they were once.”

I’m used to this. I should have asked Grandfather instead, but I didn’t want him to know I was having so much trouble. Father’s an engineer; the things he sees make it hard for him to think, to remember. I understand, and am glad I’m not suited for that work. My sister, Lue, and our brother, Thom, are. They’re learning the trade with Father, who says it’s for nothing; that they’ll never need to practice the trade in earnest. “We’ll reach Earth before that,” he says. But he yells at them if they don’t pay attention to his lessons about grav condensers or air circulaters. He says they’ll never have to carry on the tribe without him, but we’re so far. And he’s not as strong as he was once.

Lue and Thom have always been smarter than me, and I pity them. If you’re human, being smart makes you an engineer, and they’re starting to show the signs. Staring into the core changes a person. Working on machines that bend space bends the mind. I used to think there was something wrong with my dad, because Grandpa isn’t like that. But Grandfather keeps the books, like I’m going to. Until Lue and Thom went to learn Father’s trade, I didn’t understand.

They used to be so fast. They used to hang around the Meb, back when we were on Esx, and the Meb won’t put up with you if you aren’t clever. More than clever: brilliant. Meb get bored communicating with humans. They get bored with almost anything other than themselves. But they made friends with Lue and Thom. They’d sit around, communicating with box-translators, making jokes I couldn’t understand, talking about math and science.

I’ve never seen a Meb become an engineer. I asked my father, but all he’d say is, “They don’t do that work.” I think they could but won’t. I think they know what it does to you.

These days, Lue and Thom can barely talk to me after a day in the core. Even when they get a day off, they usually just want to go somewhere and sit silently. It’s like something’s burning out inside of them, and they’re trying to remember what it was.

This will be our first Christmas on the Ile. Last year, we were on Esx Station. Grandfather jokes that he’s glad he’ll be able to die off of Esx, that if he’d passed there, the Jithi would have eaten him. Father scolded him for the jokes. He said stories of Jithi eating alien flesh were just old tales. But when the Jithi look at you, you’d swear they were wondering what you taste like. Sometimes old tales are true.

We spent a year and a half on the Esx. Father said he rebuilt half the systems on the station in that time, and I’m sure if the Jithi had their way, he’d still be there, earning our keep working on the other half. Humans make good engineers, I’ve heard.

There’s little good I can say about Esx, but when the station reached the right part of its orbit, you could look out across the stars and see Earth. Well, you could see Sol, but that’s the same thing. Grandpa used to point at it. “That’s home,” he’d say, softly. “My mother’s mother used to tell me about it.”

We were close on Esx, closer than our tribe’s been since our ancestors left to colonize Ulisin. But seeing the Earth and reaching it are not the same. The Jithi swore a human ship had left right before we arrived, that one came through every six months or so. But we waited a year and a half on the station, living in the lower cord, fixing the Jithi’s station, before growing suspicious. Trade routes are complicated. They change over time. Some are abandoned and others established. They’re easy to lie about and hard to verify.

I didn’t like Esx station or the Jithi who ran it. I still avoid the Jithi aboard the Ile, but at least they’re not in charge. They’re passengers like us. Just gypsies moving through the stars. Almost everyone on the Ile is. Maybe even the Helb.

The Ile is a Helb ship. I’d always heard it said the Helb were slow in the head, but at least you can trust them. I’ve never heard a Helb called a liar. I’m not even sure they know how.

It’s good to be moving again. We haven’t been on a ship since the Porpo, the only human vessel I ever knew. I miss the Porpo to this day. I loved it and wish we could have remained. But Father said it was time to leave and tolerated no questions. The core of the Porpo always made a tinging sound, like a bell. You could hear it everywhere on the ship, but it was quiet and never troubled me. But I think Father knew more about it. Lue said so, that a Master Engineer like Father knows when to leave a ship.

I asked Lue whether she thinks the Porpo ever made it to Earth, but she just shrugged. I think she liked the captain’s nephew, and doesn’t want to think about it. But maybe she’s just lost. Engineers are usually like that.

There’s another tribe of humans on the Ile. The Goeng are an engineering clan, like us. There are twelve of them here. Their leader, Zhen, arranged for us to be on the Ile. The Helb negotiate with him directly. The captain of the Helb’s translator only recognizes Chinese.

Fim, another Helb, has a translator which recognizes English, but he only speaks to me and my grandfather. I’ve tried to get him to speak with Father, but he’s always refused. His place on the ship confuses me. Grandfather suggested that maybe he keeps the Helb’s books. They don’t seem to have books like we do, but the comparison seems sufficient.

Grandfather’s asleep, and I’m studying the books. I’m reading the computerized versions, of course, so I don’t wear out the bindings on the Holy Books we travel with. The Holy Books are printed on paper; artifacts of Earth. If we ever lost the ability to use the digital, we would turn to them. I used to laugh at the idea, but we met a tribe on Esx whose family computers were destroyed a generation prior on an Pifi-Lur ship. Something had happened there involving radiation. My brother and sister understood the details and tried to explain, but it is increasingly difficult for us to communicate these days. We tried to help them by giving them a copy of our digital records. At first they were grateful, but that changed as they read. Eventually, they accused us of giving them false books, of spreading lies. They deleted the files we gave them.

“They’ve been out here too long,” Grandfather explained. “Telling stories from memory. They’ve lost sight of what’s real.”

He was right. They said things that made no sense, that the city of Chicago was built on the wind itself and sailed all over the world, and that snakes could grow so long they could circle the world. It was impossible to talk to them about Earth, and they’d yell at you if you tried. I once thought one of them was going to attack Thom for insisting whales couldn’t walk on land.

After that, I took my job more seriously. One day, we will reach Earth, and when we do, we will need to prove we belong. We will need to tell them who we are, so we must never forget.

I’m studying the books of Christmas. There are so many stories. Myths of Jesus and Saint Nicholas. Tales of Santa Claus and flying reindeer, which I’m now certain don’t exist. Accounts of trees growing inside of houses, covered in lights (there is some truth to this, though I do not fully understand). I have read of snowmen and elves, gifts and plants hanging from passageways which fill men with lust. These are old stories, and it is hard to know what to make of them.

Eventually I grow tired and go for a walk. In the hall, I hear arguing: my father and Zhen.

“We’re passing the nebula by!” Father screams.

“Helb won’t go in,” Zhen says. “They’re in a hurry. I’m sorry. I don’t know what to tell you.”

“It wouldn’t take more than a week. A week! We could get off at any of the stations. Please. Can you talk to the captain again? Make him understand.”

“I’ve done all I can,” Zhen says. “Why do you want to leave so badly? The Ile’s a good ship. She’s safe, clean. Better than any of those stations. Most of them are infected with bugs from a dozen planets. Not a good place.”

“We’re going further and further from Earth,” my father says.

“So?” Zhen replies. “Why are you so anxious to reach Earth?”

“It’s where we belong,” my father explains.

“Your ancestors didn’t think so.”

“And we know how well that worked out.”

“You have too much faith. I hear stories sometimes from young tribes passing through. I hear Earth’s gotten worse. War. Crime. Disease. Not a good place to be.”

“Maybe in China,” my father replies. “But not America. Never America.”

I hear Zhen laugh. “What does it matter? They’d never let you into America. I don’t think they’d let you into China, either.”

“My family is American,” Father says forcefully.

“Your ancestors were American,” Zhen says. “That’s not the same thing.”

“They’d take us,” my father tells him. “We remember who we are.”

“You remember who you used to be. It’s not the same thing.”

“They’ll take us,” my father insists. “Besides, it’s no concern of yours. Just take my message to the captain.”

“The captain’s plans won’t change,” Zhen says. “I’m sorry. But it’s for the best. You have it good here. And the Ile is better for having you. You’re a good worker, and your children are smart. Maybe someday, maybe our tribes become one tribe, eh? You’re younger daughter’s about the age of Qing. Who knows.”

There’s a moment of silence. “I don’t think you ever asked the captain to change course. Listen, Zhen, I’m getting my family off this ship and my daughters away from your sons.”

“Do what you think is best. But you’ll be making a mistake.”

I hear my father walking towards me. I quietly move back to the room I was studying in, so he won’t know I was spying. I sit down and pretend I’m still reading. He opens the door and steps in.

“Kija, I wanted to talk to you. It’s about... that Helb you keep meeting with. I know he won’t talk to me, but maybe you could take him a message. We’re nearing the Juthinar Nebula. There are some stations there, and... if we could reach them, I think we could... we might be able to book passage back to Earth. Or at least to Ottite. And that would put us near some shipping lanes. It would only be a matter of time if we can get there.”

“I... I’ll ask him,” I tell my father.

“Good. I think... I don’t think Zhen did. I think Zhen... there are people who hate being human, Kija. They... they don’t want to return to Earth, because.... I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. Ask your friend. See if he’ll talk to the captain. See if maybe he’ll help us.”

I nod. I don’t remind Father that Zhen has always helped us when we wanted better quarters and food, and I certainly don’t tell him I kind of like Qing. He looks funny, but he seems smart and kind, and he holds the Goeng’s books like I hold ours. I don’t say these things, because while they are true, they aren’t what important. What’s important is getting home.

I think Fim is surprised to see me, but it’s difficult to read the Helb. They walk on two legs, like humans, but have three arms, like the Meb. Their middle arm is longer than the other two, and sometimes they lean forward and use it like an extra leg. Their heads are large, but flat. They have four large eyes, which occupy most of their face. They’re very sensitive to the light, so they keep most of the ship dark. They let us keep our areas as bright as we’d like, however.

Usually, Fim seeks me out. He seems more curious about us than the other Helb, but I don’t know why that is. Maybe he’s just the only one able to communicate with us.

“Hi, Fim,” I say.

He turns on his translator and utters a short series of clicks from his throat. “Hello,” his translator says almost instantaneously. I didn’t need the translation to recognize the greeting.

“I wanted to talk with you,” I explain. “It’s about my family. We’re trying to get home. If we could go through the Juthinar Nebula, it would be much easier. Zhen won’t convey our message to the captain, and we wanted to know if you’d help.”

Fim adjusts the dial on his translator. “Zhen speaks for humans. It would improper. I would be interfering with your species’s business.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Zhen negotiates for all humans. It would be improper for me to interfere.”

“But we want you to,” I explain.

“It would be improper.” If he’s irritated, it’s not coming through the translator. But then, I doubt my irritation is, either.

“Fine,” I say. “I’ll tell my father.”

“I regret if you are saddened.”

“That’s... that’s okay. Merry Christmas, I guess.” I mean it as a joke, but Fim touches his head with his left hand. It’s a sign of interest from the Helb, I think. “It’s... it’s a holiday. On Earth.”

“It is the star holiday,” Fim says.


He adjusts his translator again. “Christmas. It is the Earth celebration of the guiding star.”

“There’s a story about three men and a star,” I say. “That’s part of Christmas.”

“Follow,” Fim says, and begins leading me through the ship. It’s difficult to navigate in the dark, but I do my best. There’s some light, but not much. We travel for almost ten minutes. We’re deeper in the Helb’s section than I’ve ever been. Fim leads me into a room. He adjusts a dial on the wall, and the light begins to increase. It’s still dim, but it’s enough for Fim to shield his eyes with his outer hands. With his middle, he adjusts a control on the wall nearest to us.

The far wall opens to reveal a series of panels, each containing a piece of artwork. Fim enters some sort of command, and they begin flipping by, moved by a mechanical arm. I see a cutout of a stone wall go by, followed by some sort of animal hide and things closer to what I’d recognize as canvases. Each piece houses a picture, always of an impossibly bright star.

The slides stop with a picture from Earth depicting shepherds, animals, and angels overlooking the baby Jesus. Overhead, occupying the majority of the painting, is a star.

“The guiding star,” Fim says.

“Where did you get this?” I gasp.

“Earth,” he says.

“You... you went to Earth?”

“Seventeen..... ago.” It takes the translator a second, then it repeats, “Twenty-four point seven four years ago.”

“Could... could you go back?” I ask.

“There is no reason,” he says. “We seek the star. All through the galaxy, we follow it. It is like our own star made whole. Our star, on our homeworld, is its reflection. This is the true star.”

“I don’t understand.”

“No one but the Helb understand. And then, only some. Most Helb won’t leave. They think there is only the one star. But we have found proof.” He motions to the paintings. “The guiding star has appeared to many worlds. Even Earth. It is your Christmas.” With all four fingers on his middle arm he points to the star.

“Thank you for showing me this,” I say, “but I should be getting back. I have to get ready for Christmas Eve.”

“No hurry,” Fim says. He goes to a panel and enters some data. I can’t understand what he’s doing. Even if I could read their symbols, the screen is far too dim to make anything out. “On Earth, Christmas Eve was..... ago.” It takes the conversion programs on the translators a few seconds to catch up, and then it repeats, “On Earth, Christmas was three weeks ago.”

“No,” I say. “We have an electron clock. We’ve had it for generations.”

“It must have lost time,” Fim says. “Most do, if they’re not calibrated.”

“No. It’s... we always. I... I need to get back,” I say again. “I need to talk to my father.”

“Of course,” Fim says. “Follow.”

He begins leading me back the way we came. “My father won’t be happy about Juthinar,” I say, but Fim ignores me. He leads me back to the human section and thanks me for the discussion. He tells me he’s learned a great deal more about humans and about his own search. I nod, but I don’t care.

I don’t go in search of Father; not yet. I know he’ll find me soon enough to hear Fim’s answer, but I don’t want to tell him yet. He’ll be upset. He might even yell. So, I go back to the room where I study.

Grandfather’s awake now, and he’s going over the books. I’m crying when I come in, so he asks what’s wrong.

“They... they said our clock is wrong,” I say, and I tell him about meeting with Fim.

Grandfather shakes his head. “That’s impossible. The clock’s been with us for ages. It’s always worked.”

I smile, but I wonder. If a few seconds have been dropping away since our clan left Earth, we’d never have noticed. It could easily add up.

“The Helb visited Earth,” I tell him. “They have a painting of a star.”

“All these Helb care about is their star,” Grandfather mutters. “He tell you they’re seeking a magic star? They’re chasing nothing. A figment. Their planet... it never spins. It’s always night there on one side of the planet, and the other’s too damn close to their sun. Life only grew in the dark. But there’s a star close by. A sister star to their sun. They can see it part of the year. Their species evolved looking up at it. Using it to guide them. Their species is hardwired to want that light. Most Helb understand that. These... these are damn pilgrims. They think there’s a perfect star out there. One that heals the sick and brings back the dead and all that, and they’ll search the whole galaxy. But... it’s just a story, Kija. Just a stupid story.”

I listen to him, but it just makes me more conflicted. I hide it as best I can until my grandfather leaves to lie down. Then I go for a walk to the outer rim of the ship. I pass dozens of aliens; some are species whose names I don’t even know. The Helb make deals with many gypsies from many worlds. I wonder what they’re looking for. Stars. Paths home. A way to escape whatever war or plague they’re running from.

In the end, they’re all just chasing stories. They’re chasing made-up stars and imagined stories of worlds they’ve never seen.

When I reach the edge, I look out. We’re passing close to a solar system, and the star shines bright. I reach out and touch the glass. The light is blue and soft. Silent and peaceful.

“Kija!” I almost jump. My father is marching towards me. “Did you find him? Did you ask?”

“I... Fim said he wouldn’t do it. I tried to make him understand, but....”

Father just sighs. He doesn’t look angry, just sad. “Helb,” he says beneath his breath. “Their heads are thin. Do not worry. We’ll find a way. It might take longer, but we’ll find a path that leads back to Earth someday.”

“I... I know,” I say. I should feel bad lying to my father, but it doesn’t seem like a lie. It seems more like a story.

Father looks out the window with me for a moment. The light is beautiful. “We should get go. We need to get ready for Christmas Eve. We’ll put up lights. Lue and Thom have already started drawing the tree on the wall. If we hurry, maybe they’ll let you draw the star on top, if there’s any chalk left.”

I look at him and nod. “I’d like that.” I take his hand and we start back. This will be a beautiful Christmas Eve.