Bedtime Story

by Leo David Orionis

"Once upon a time," Daddy said, "there was a World, O Best Beloved, and a Land within or perhaps upon that World, whose nature I do not know, but up close and in its daily Workings it was a land like our own, most of the time, and if you did not look too closely, or think too deeply about it."

In that Land the People could change their Shape and their Nature, to present to each other whatever Aspect they wished to have seen, and thus to be respected, or loved, or feared, or tolerated, or just left alone, howsoever they desired. And in this, too, they were like ourselves, and believed they were what they showed to others.

Now there was a boy in that land, a Young Man With A Bright Future as he seemed, who was very Smart, with many Talents, and a Student of many Fields and Interests. And he did well in the School he attended, and there were many who considered themselves his friends, and spoke kindly to him. Whether he considered them his friends, too, and understood the obligations of one friend to another, I cannot say; but that was the Aspect he presented, anyway.

A Catastrophe came to pass, and the Young Man found himself in a mass of People being trucked from place to place to be safe from it, with no consideration taken of their Aspects or their Achievements, only "Go there!" and "Come this way, please," and "We're having dinner now; sit and eat." Presently, as time went by under this new routine, the day grew dark. The trucks stopped in a ruined town on the way to wherever they were going, everyone got out, and they were herded into various buildings that were still standing, so that they might sleep under roofs, sheltered from the forces of the Catastrophe, which involved a lot of rain, whatever else it might be. Our Young Man, going where he was directed, and more confused and bewildered by the moment, proceeded up the aisles of a church, where he was expected to spend the night in a pew, and sleep sitting up. And this didn't bother him; but the lack of Books to read, and Classes to attend, and Tests to take, and Homework to do, bothered him very much; for without them, how was he to project his Aspect?

I do not know the name of this young man, or anyone else, or indeed the Land they lived in, or their World; but let us say, for convenience, that his name was Markettiu. As he walked up the aisle, staring straight ahead, a voice spoke, saying "Markettiu? Is that you?" and he turned his head. The speaker, he saw, was a Young Woman with a Certain Quiet Beauty, in an Exotic Sort of Way, who was Shy, and Soft-Spoken, who had attended the same School he did, before the Catastrophe. And she was the first person he'd seen, since the nightmare began, whom he knew. He stopped. "Karatekki?" he said; for her name might as well be Karatekki as anything else. He clasped her hand, and they talked a little, for she was at the end of the pew, right on the aisle. Behind him, the line of people waited dully, little caring, after days of going from place to place to place, where they were, or whether they moved or stood still.

But others cared, who were charged with getting refugees away from the Catastrophe, and keeping them safe, and fed, and well. One of these came up and said, "What's the problem here? Why isn't this line moving?"


"Oh no!" Baby said.

"Oh no! and Oh yes! and maybe a little Oh well! too, O Best Beloved. For right here the dream (to me it was a dream, like the dreams you have when your mommy puts you down for a nap, or when I tuck you in for the night) grew very strange. It unraveled into many, many threads, and each thread was their whole World, and in each thread things went differently from then on, some to bad endings, or sad endings, but some to good or happy endings."

"I don't understand, Daddy."

"Neither do I, not really. But that is what happened. In some threads the person who said "Why isn't this line moving?" was a Very Important Man, with his mind full of Important Tasks, who only cared about making things Run Smoothly, and that was bad for Markettiu and Karatekki. In other threads the person was a Caring Woman Full of Compassion, who worried about life after the Catastrophe, and what would happen to the refugees; and that was good for Karatekki and Markettiu. In some threads Karatekki took her hand from Markettiu's, afraid of confrontation, and bowed her head, and wouldn't stand up from where she was sitting, and he never saw her again. And in some threads Markettiu said, "I'm sorry," and let go of Karatekki's hand, and started up the aisle again, and she never saw him again."

"But which one was REAL, Daddy? Which one really happened?"

"They all really happened, Tickly-Toes. Or else none of them really happened. That's just the way it is."

"Oh no, Daddy! I'll have bad dreams! Tell me a good one, please!"

"Koheyasisu asilosomadumusimalasu," he said, which means, more or less, "As thou commandest" in the language they were speaking. And seeing that she snuggled down warm in her comfy bed, and was already half way to sleep, he sang her the rest of the way there.


"I know her," Markettiu said to the person who came up to see why the line had stopped. "Please…"

And because thou so choosest, O Heart of My Heart, we will say that the Person to whom he spoke was an Elderly Woman with Grandchildren, who had been an Important Person before the Catastrophe, but now was concerned with saving as many people as she could, and to everyone recovering afterwards as best they could. She took in the situation with an Experienced Glance, and said to Karatekki, "Do you want to be with this Young Man, Child? Do you know him?"

"Yes, please," Karatekki answered, softly, but with conviction. "He's the only one I know from Before."

"Then let go of his hand," said the Grandmother, whom we'll call Hajami, I think. "Let go of his hand, and come out of that pew by yourself, and stand up. Or if you wish to remain where you are, sit there by yourself. I leave the choice to you, my dear."

Then, because you wanted a good ending, my Ziri-Ziri, Markettiu lets go of her hand, and Karatekki stands up out of the pew, and they wait to see what will happen next.

"Very well," Hajami said. To the person who'd been next in line behind Markettiu, she said, "Take that spot, please," so that he sat where Karatekki had sat. Then she led the line up the aisle, to where the pews weren't full yet, and started them filling in the empty spots as before. There were no objections; the people had slept sitting up many times before now, and at least they weren't in a truck or a bus, rumbling and grumbling down a dark road, with the smell of engine exhaust in their noses.

"Take this line and keep it moving," Hajami said to a Man. "I need to put these children where I can find them in the morning."

"Adopting strays, ma'am?" the man said, not unkindly.

"Aren't they all strays?" she said. "For that matter, aren't we strays, too?" Then she took Markettiu and Karatekki, and gave him to the cooks and cooks' helpers to bed down for the night, while Karatekki she put in a spare room of the bus where she herself slept, when she had time to sleep, and managed the paperwork to keep the whole lot of trucks and buses moving away from the Catastrophe and towards safety.

In the morning Hajami found, as she had hoped, Markettiu working hard at whatever tasks the cooks gave him; feeding so many people was a job that never ended, from acquiring the food, storing it until it was needed, preparing it, cooking it, and feeding it to the people they were saving. "Get in line and get your breakfast, girl," the old lady said to Karatekki. She went to Markettiu, who was doing some simple chore he'd been assigned: peeling beets, perhaps, or shelling peas.

"Have you eaten?" she asked him.

"Yes, ma'am. The cooks and their helpers ate first, before we started serving everyone else."

She nodded. "One of the perks of being with the cooks," she said. "They always eat, if anyone does, and they always eat first. I could leave you with them; and the girl could help me with paperwork. Would that suit you, boy?"

"Markettiu," he said.

"Excuse me?"

"My name is Markettiu," he said, "not 'boy', ma'am." He had woken up out of his helpless refugee daze, and was once again a Young Man with a Future. He had changed something, reaching out to Karatekki, and it had changed him, too. "And her name is Karatekki, not 'girl'. If you please, ma'am, and thanking you for what you've done for us. Or me, at least; I don't have the right to speak for Karatekki."

"My, someone's feeling his oats, this morning," Hajami said dryly.

"Is that what they were?" Markettiu asked, diverted. "They were good," he said hastily, "but strange to me."

"Probably barley, actually, now that I think on it," Hajami said, amused. "So; want to be a cook's helper, eventually a cook, young man? I'll ask Karatekki what she wants, since you wash your hands of her."

"I don't! But I don't own her, and I can't speak for her. Surely you see that, ma'am?"

"Oh yes," she said. "Wanted to make sure that you did, is all. Speaking just for yourself, then, would cooking suit you?"

"If that's what you want me to do, ma'am, I'll do it. Nothing wrong with being a cook, and my folks taught me how. But…"

"But what, Master Markettiu?"

"Mother Hajami," he said, revealing that he'd learned her name somewhere, "I can do more than cook, if you need me to. I have all my math courses up to beginning calculus, I have all the science and history courses for my age, and I know four languages, Harkkesh and Taavai fluently, Lachishi and Manendu from school classes. I can type 120 words a minute, I can write letters and reports, I had started learning to program scientific and business computers when all this happened. Is any of that useful to you?"

"So you don't want to get your soft white hands dirty, do you?" she said.

"Ma'am, if you don't need another paper pusher, I'll do whatever you do need! If I'm not very tall and muscled yet, well, the men in my family do that later on; I expect I will, too. I can saw wood, drive nails, paint, string wires, put up shingles, raise walls, do plumbing, frame windows, hang doors; what my father didn't teach me, shops at school did. I can burp a baby, too, change diapers, keep children out of trouble while their mothers sleep, read them stories, or tell them stories if there aren't any books around; I had little brothers, and my mother taught me things, too. Whatever you want. Whatever you need. Please, I want to help."

Hajami grinned. "Did you just volunteer to change diapers, boy? Did I really hear that, or are my old ears playing tricks on me?"

"I'll help any way I can," he said.


The trucks and buses had been cleaned and washed, inside and out, while the passengers slept under roofs. A mechanic in overalls had the hood of one of the trucks up. He reached in and did something. There was a clicking noise, but nothing happened. "Son of a sea cook!" he swore. "Why won't you start, you clapped-out piece of ironmongery?"

"Excuse me, sir?" Markettiu said.

The mechanic looked him over. "Yeah, whaddaya want? You're one of the passengers, ain'tcha?"

"Yes, sir. Mother Hajami sent me to ask what state the transportation is in, this morning."

The mechanic snorted. "Jabber fancy, don'tcha? You a Jakota, boy?"

"Yes, sir. And my name's Markettiu, not 'boy'."

Now the mechanic grunted; he hadn't expected a "yes" to the question about the other's religion. "I had a brother named Markettiu. He died in a mudslide a couple of hundred miles back."

"I'm sorry, sir."

"Me, too. The bastard owed me a hundred bucks." He stuck out a hand. "My name's Shubash, Markettiu." It was a Jakota name.

Markettiu shook it firmly. "Pleased to meet you, sir."

"Can the 'sir', Markettiu. I told ya, it's Shubash. And can the fancy talk, too; it'll just make the Harkkeshu think you're queer, y'get me?"

"I'm sorry, sir—Shubash," Markettiu said. "That's not the way my parents raised me."

The mechanic shrugged. "Travel your own road, son; I can't travel it for you. As for the transport, tell the Old Lady it's all been cleaned out and cleaned up, and it's ready to go except for Truck 40, which won't start for some reason I can't figure. You know anything about truck engines?"

"Sorry, no. That's a shop course I hadn't taken yet, when all this started."

" 'Shop course', he says. Ya don't learn transport from shops, you learn it by doin' it."

"Whatever works," Markettiu agreed. "My father could build a house from the foundation up, and he'd mix the concrete himself. He could raise the walls, finish them and the roof, put in the plumbing and the wiring, and make the furniture if he had to; and he taught me all those things. But he wasn't an auto mechanic."

"Too bad," Shubash said. "I could use another pair of hands with some wit behind them. Well, voiyat vat, go tell the Old Lady what she wants to know, son. I got no more time to jabber."

"Voiyat vat," Markettiu said, and left Shubash to his work.


The baby was asleep. Her daddy kissed her short curly baby hair and turned out the lights with a gesture, not wanting to wake her with a voice command to the ship. He went to the door to leave.

"Papalo?" said a sleepy voice.

"Yes, Zirizirileikelilungominalihasi?"

"You forgot the ending," she complained drowsily.

The ending? What did she—ah. "And they all lived happily ever after," he said.

"Really, Daddy? Really and truly?"

"Really and truly, O Queen of Belly Buttons. Just as Mommy will, and I will, and you will."

A little girly giggle. "Silly Daddy…"

When he heard nothing more, he queried the room. She was too young to have intrinsics yet, but the room monitored her constantly, down to her tissues and DNA. She was truly asleep now, falling fast towards dream state, and the deeper forms of sleep beyond that.

Asilo walked down the corridor a little way. This quadrant of the vast ship was in sleep mode, with the decorations turned off, both the wall displays and the holographic statuary. The walls were a uniform soft green, glowing slightly. All the view ports were deactivated, of course; at present, with the old Universe crunched and the new Universe unborn, there was literally nothing to see, except distant universes that leaked light. And how he wished he knew what that meant!

He entered the apartments he shared with the other Aziri, his wife. She was sitting at a work table, a virtual keyboard projected before her on the table top, a dozen view screens floating in front of her head. As usual, he had no idea what she was working on, or even what most of the symbols on the screens meant, or the expressions in which they were used. He knew himself, without question or qualification, to be a high-level genius; but Aziri might well be the most intelligent person the human race had ever produced.

She looked at him and quirked an eyebrow. "Relativity parables? You do remember she's a baby, right?"

"She's a Very Young Woman with a Very Bright Future," he said, "and she's her mother's daughter, even this young."

"Flattery will get you everywhere, Funny-Face," Aziri said. She told her intrinsics to suspend her work, and the holographic input and output devices vanished. "Come to bed," she said, and took his hand.

Undressed, they lay on the bed on their sides, face to face. "Tell me a bedtime story," she said.

"As thou commandest, my heart. Do you want to hear more of the one I was telling Ziri?"

"Tell her the rest tomorrow night, and I'll listen in again." She traced his nose, much bigger than her own, with a delicate forefinger. "I like the way you tell your own people's stories."

"Well, if you listened to the story I told the baby," he said, "then isn't it your turn to tell me one?"

"Mmmmaybe," she said softly, and pushed him over onto his back. Then she spread herself on his chest, and said, "Once upon a time, O Best Beloved…"

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