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Sheila Clark

"It's bedtime."

"Yes, Mother." It never occurred to the boy to object, to plead for 'just five more minutes so that I can finish this'. He had been brought up to a strict tradition of obedience to his elders.

With a regretful glance at the last fifty or so pieces still remaining to be fitted into his jigsaw, followed by a resigned shrug - it would only take him a few minutes tomorrow night to finish it - he undressed quickly, pulled on his pyjama trousers and headed for the bathroom. He washed his hands thoroughly - he hated the feel of dirty hands - splashed water over his face and, in the manner of small boys the universe over, totally ignored the demands of the back of his neck for the attention of soap and water. His teeth were quickly brushed - his mother, he knew, would quickly detect his failure to do so if she did not smell the toothpaste on his breath. Within eight minutes of his mother's call, he was in bed.

Exactly ten minutes after she called, his mother walked into his room and crossed to the bed. She bent over him, kissed his cheek, and said, "Goodnight, son. Sleep well."

"Goodnight, mother."

She put the light out and closed the door.

He waited for another five minutes - long enough for her to return downstairs, settle in her favourite chair and pick up her sewing.

He got up and moved on whisper-soft feet to the window, knowing, even in the total darkness, exactly where it was and how many steps it would take to reach it - it was a trip he made nearly every night. Carefully, he moved a curtain aside, wondering, as he always did, why his mother insisted on having the curtains drawn - the night outside was nearly as dark as the blackness inside the room.

But outside was the night sky, dotted with stars - some brilliant, some faint; some visible every night during this season, some only seen on frosty nights.

This was a night of frost, and the stars were brilliant. He gazed up at them, automatically identifying the visible constellations even although the main stars were almost lost in the mass of stars that were usually so faint that they only showed on such a night as this.

He sighed. The stars called to him as nothing else did. Given a free choice he would select a career that would take him out there, into space. But he did not have a free choice and he knew that only a miracle would ever give him one. It was expected that he would follow his father's career, and his training in it had already begun, young though he was. That he had no interest in it, no real aptitude for it (as his father had) had never been considered. His parents' attitude was that even if a child expressed an interest in one particular career, it was most likely to be a passing fancy; that he was as yet too young to know what he wanted to do; that they knew better than he did what was best for him. They believed that given the proper training he would develop an interest in the work he was being taught to do.

He continued to gaze hungrily at the stars for many minutes. If only his parents were progressive, like his friend Sumo's, and willing to let him at least try to break loose from the family mould! Though the boy had to admit to himself that perhaps it was not so much a progressive viewpoint as their wish to see Sumo better his station in life.

As always, cold drove him back to bed after about half an hour, and he stretched his toes down to the bed-heater, grateful that he was allowed that little luxury during the cold winter nights.

He was still wide awake, and lay wishing for the arrival of the magic tenth birthday, only a few weeks away, when he would be allowed to stay up for a whole extra hour.

He sighed again, trying to attain the proper attitude of gratitude for parents who were interested enough in his future to train him for it (little though he liked the work for which he was being trained). And it was, after all, a double training - his father, while actively following a diplomatic career, had, in his youth, been taught that it was his duty to maintain an interest in the running of the family estate; an estate which had belonged to his family for generations. That he had no real interest in a rural life and let his estate manager, a conscientious and loyal employee, make the major decisions, was, in his view, unimportant; he spent a few days each year going over estate matters with the manager and knew exactly what was going on - and he was training his son to accept the same sense of duty. At least one day each week was spent with the estate manager. The boy found those days more interesting than the many hours spent with his father, hearing about boring diplomatic problems and the even more boring techniques of negotiation, and he had already decided that when the time came, if he could not entirely choose his own life, he would concentrate on the estate.

For he could summon up no enthusiasm for either diplomacy or politics, the only alternative he would be allowed; as for the protracted negotiation in which his father excelled, his youthful logic considered it unnecessary. If men of goodwill on both sides got together, he believed, and treated each other with honesty, trade agreements, etc, could be accomplished in half an hour instead of half a year, and with a great deal less acrimoniousness than was often the case.

The boy closed his eyes and tried to sleep, but the harder he tried the wider awake he felt. He heard his parents' footsteps on the stair and then the soft sound of their door closing, and knew he had been in bed for at least two hours.

He got up again and returned to the window, but even the stars failed to hold his attention this time. He felt restless and had no idea why.

Then he realised at least part of what was wrong. There seemed to be a strange hush in the night - usually there would be the call of night birds, the squeaking of nocturnal animals, the distant howl of a hunting predator. Tonight there was nothing.

Puzzled, but satisfied that he had identified the reason for his wakefulness - he must have noticed the unnatural silence without registering it - he allowed the cold to drive him back towards his bed.

He was half way there when, with a suddenness that was all the more shocking for its strangeness, the whole house shook violently.

Earthquake! The boy had never experienced one, but realised instantly that that was all it could be. He turned and scrambled back towards the window, reaching it just as a crashing sound behind him announced the collapse of at least part of the building. He pulled the window open and leaned out, groping for the coiled rope fastened at the side of the window, there in case of fire. Glad of the regular practice his mother had insisted on, he shook it loose and slid quickly down it. The ground had steadied again, but just the same he ran, ignoring the pain when his bare foot came down on a sharp pebble, putting distance between himself and the house just as he had been taught to do if there was a fire.

At the edge of the garden he stopped and looked back, only half aware of voices shouting somewhere not too far away.

The outline of the house, as seen against the backdrop of stars, looked wrong, and with a feeling that everything that was secure in his life had collapsed he registered that part of the roof had fallen in. Even as he watched, more of the roof fell with a crash that seemed to echo all the way from the ten-mile distant extinct volcano.

Child-like, his first positive realisation was that he would never now be able to finish his jigsaw. Then, almost as strongly as before, the ground shook again with a grating, rumbling sound that filled him with terror, sending him to his knees. Still more of the roof fell in, and fear for his parents hit him.

Although distant rumbling could still be heard, the ground steadied again, and he scrambled to his feet, for the first time fully registering the sound of a panic-stricken animal somewhere in the grounds and the distant voices. They seemed to be coming from the general direction of the servants' quarters. He headed that way. Manager Satti would know what to do.

At the servants' quarters - a group of small houses some quarter of a mile from the main house - he found chaos. All of the buildings had collapsed and one of them was on fire. The flames lit the area around with a red glow that seemed a portent of further disaster. There was no sign of Satti. Nearly half of the junior servants seemed to be there, but none of the senior ones; nobody seemed to know what to do.

One of the kitchen maids saw the boy and to his horror the servants clustered round him, begging for instructions. What should they do? What could they do?

"Where is Manager Satti?" he asked, trying to sound more confident than he felt.

"Nobody has seen him," was the reply. "It is his house that is burning."

The boy looked at the burning ruin, and shuddered. Anyone inside there was hopelessly trapped. He hoped that Satti - and the other senior servants, who lived in the same house - had been killed by the falling building before the fire started.

"And my father?"

"We haven't seen him either."

"Then we should try to find him. He will know what to do."

The boy directed the men to go to the main house and look for his parents. Not caring who gave the orders, as long as someone did, they obeyed without question.

He turned to the women, trying to remember what he had read about earthquakes. "We will need some sort of shelter until morning, even if it's only some sort of tent. We shouldn't be too close to anything that could fall on us." Even as he spoke he guessed that very little in the area would be left standing - not after two major shocks.

The distant rumbling got louder, terminating in an explosion that left the boy temporarily deafened. Moments later, he was sent flying by a blast of hot air. He rolled over and over, coming to a halt against the remains of a wall with a thump that left his body aching all over. What had happened to the servants, he had no idea. He guessed that the women, at least, must have been thrown somewhere close to him, but although he called out he got no reply.

He lay still for a bare moment, then scrambled to his feet as ash began to rain down on him. Choking - the air seemed filled with the stuff - he pulled his pyjama jacket over his head, wincing as hot ash landed on his unprotected skin.

If he had been a little older, the sense of responsibility for his dependants that he had already been taught would probably have kept him there, trying to help them. As it was, his very youth saved him. The instinct for survival took over. He had to get away!

The ash had smothered the fire in the burning house, but in the distance he could see a red glow, not quite bright enough to light the dark night. Something told him that the danger was coming from that glow. He turned and began to stumble away from it.

Somewhere ahead of him he heard a terrified horse whinnying again and again. He groped his way towards the sound, finding the stable, by some freak, hardly damaged. The beast - the only one in the stable - was a young mare, stalled because it had been planned to take her to the stallion within the next day or two. She trusted men, and his presence calmed her sufficiently for him to saddle and bridle her, even though he was hampered by having to do it by feel. Remembering the ash, he searched for a cloth; finding a rag that one of the grooms used to clean the harness, he wrapped it round her nose and mouth, tying it to the bridle. He led her to the door, scrambled into the saddle and gave her her head.

* * * * * * * *

The tired mare had long since dropped to a walk as a reluctant dawn half penetrated the darkness. In the dim light he saw the desolation around him; ash-covered, everything was a uniform grey. He glanced back, and saw a red and black silhouette against a dark grey background - a huge, threatening cloud hugging the dark summit of the old volcano.

Not until then did he realise that the volcano, thought to have been extinct for twenty thousand years, had erupted.

The air was still full of a fine ash that he guessed would take many days to settle.

The mare stumbled, and he reined her in. She could not go much further without a rest. He did not know how far he would have to go to find help; but even in his shocked state he realised that he stood more chance on horseback than he would on foot. He dismounted and sat leaning against a boulder, looping the reins firmly around his wrist. He, too, was tired; he dozed uneasily, wakening often. He was close to the end of his endurance.

The day remained dark as the thick layer of ash from the volcano blotted out most of the light. When he guessed it was noon, he remounted and urged the still-tired mare onwards.

Nearly an hour later, he heard an engine, and roused himself enough to look round. A four-wheel drive heavy-duty land vehicle was lurching its way towards him.

It stopped beside him and a man jumped out. "You're safe now," he said. Then - "God, you're just a kid!"

The boy swayed, the exhaustion that nervous energy had held at bay overcoming him with the arrival of help and the realisation that he no longer had to depend on himself to reach safety. The man caught him as he toppled from the saddle; he clung desperately to his helper, seeing in him a symbol of safety in a world that had suddenly become hostile. He had been taught that it was wrong to cry, that men did not cry; but now that he knew he was safe his overstrained nerves defeated his control and he sobbed helplessly.

"You'll be all right, son." The man patted his back awkwardly, not very sure how to deal with a child's tears. "You're safe now. You'll be all right," he repeated over and over.

At last the harsh sobbing eased to an uneven breathing. The man breathed a silent sigh of relief. He could cope with this. "Anyone else back where you come from?" he asked gently, prepared to hear the child say 'My parents'; he guessed that the boy's parents had sacrificed themselves by giving him the horse and telling him to ride for his life.

"I don't know... I think everyone else was killed," he mumbled, too numb with shock and exhaustion for it to mean much yet.

"Come on, then. We'll get you back out of this."

"Wait - my horse. You can't leave her. I won't leave her."

"There's no room for her," the man pointed out. "She'll be all right."

"No... she saved my life. I won't leave her here alone. There's nothing for her to eat or drink."

The man glanced back at his companion in the cab. The driver shrugged as he reached for his radio. "I guess I'd feel the same. Search car seventeen here, co-ordinates 2354.5510. We've found a kid alive, but he refuses to leave his horse. Can someone come out and collect it?"

There was a brief silence. "Arranging to have it beamed out. Is it his own horse or just one he found?"

"She's mine - at least, she belonged to my father, but I think he must be dead. I didn't see him after the house collapsed in the earthquake." The boy's voice trembled; his control was still tenuous.

"All right. She'll be looked after for you. You'll be able to claim her once you've been checked out by the doctors. Car seventeen - we'll beam the kid out too. Carry on with your search."

"On our way."

The mare shimmered away, and moments later, another transporter beam caught the boy.

* * * * * * * *

The estate was gone, covered with volcanic ash; the buildings were all flattened, the weakened stable having gone in one of the aftershocks. The land was still his, however, and in a few years things would begin to grow there again; in a few more years it would be possible to begin farming it again. Several of their pedigree animals, that had fled in terror from the earthquake, were found and formed the basis of a new herd which continued the bloodline that the family had been building up for four generations. Although the insurance companies refused to reimburse anyone for property and lives lost in the eruption under the terms of the small print, there was plenty of money banked and the boy inherited it all; the bodies of his parents, crushed by the falling roof of their home, were recovered some weeks later. The boy's uncle, his father's younger brother, gave him a home while he grew up; and when he finally left, promised that the mare would continue to be well looked after.

Ten years after the eruption, able now to choose his own career, Hikaru Sulu walked through the doors of Starfleet Academy on his way to the stars.


Copyright Sheila Clark