Credence Foundation
Author:Marco Guarda

Chapter Twenty-Four

The extragalactic shuttle took off with a deafening rumble.

It rose slowly but steadily above the thick, whirling cloud of vapor its rockets had released, climbing through the atmosphere. It drew a perfect white arc against the blue of the sky as if it were the tip of an invisible, huge compass set on the horizon.

There was the usual bustle in the spaceport hall.

There were people who went and people who came, people who saw each other a couple of times in a whole year, and people who sat side by side every day—people who, despite doing and sharing the same things, knew absolutely nothing about each other.

Their faces looked alike; they weren’t pretty and they weren’t ugly—they were just faces. Faces that didn’t tell anything about the worlds that lay behind them, faces endlessly moving back and forth.

Trumaine stood amidst the crowd, as still as a rock in the churning sea, contemplating the faces that whirled around him.

The faces didn’t mind him watching them; from time to time, they would look up and stare back, just like that, without showing any feelings—then they would go back to being just faces in a crowd.

Faith had told him that telepathy was a skill within; it lay dormant at the bottom of the human mind, but proper training would have stirred that ability in everybody. Trumaine wondered if he too had it in him and, for a moment, he tried hard to expand his perception beyond its physical limits, reaching out to the minds that lay behind the faces—to see if he could glimpse anything of those unknown worlds ...

He focused on the hazel eyes of a young woman hurrying in his direction, straining to penetrate her mind—but all he got was a mild headache.

Trumaine watched the woman as he passed him without noticing him and was swallowed in the crowd.

He grinned. He was happy he wasn’t a telepath after all; he would never be, and that felt just about right. Everyone had the right to their own privacy, to their dreams, their hopes, and their memories—it was those invaluable gems that made people what they truly were and he had no business knowing them.

Again, Trumaine glanced at the crowd ...

As if he were a wise Zen master who had just been granted a farther level of knowledge, he nodded slowly and smiled.

He finally snapped out of his considerations and stepped toward the video message booths that lined the far side of the hall.

Trumaine entered one of the booths.

It was tidy and absolutely efficient—they always were—but that morning, it felt strangely desolate and unfriendly.

The large obsidian window that was the video message monitor loomed over Trumaine like the yawing mouth of some mysterious, chthonian god about to give its awful response: a verdict that would change his life forever.

Trumaine swallowed hard, then shifted his hand over the panel to his right, touching it—it felt so cold he had to fight the impulse to withdraw his fingers.

The gaping jaw came to life and the obsidian blackness turned to pearl white: the passage was opening.

Trumaine knew he must say the words, but he was afraid of the consequences. What if she didn’t want him back? What if she had started a new life with someone else? What right had he to interfere in all that? he wondered.

“Video call for Starshanna Andrews,” he said at last. “Department of Marine Biology. NGC-4414, Coma Berenices, Aquaria.”

Two words floated silently to the milky surface of the monitor: CALL SENT.

It took a while for the light-blue interiors of a large house to fade in on the screen.

Here, I’ve done it, thought Trumaine.

There was no turning back now, the dreaded passage was open.

A crop of strawberry blond hair appeared on the monitor; it was long and wavy and formed rebel curls at the ends—a woman’s hair. But the woman wasn’t yet looking into the camera, she was rather groping for something that was momentarily out of her reach.

“Who’s this ...? What time is it ...?” she said with a dreamy voice.

“Starsha ...” said Trumaine in a whisper.

The woman stopped searching at once. She wiped her hair from her face, revealing a couple of amber eyes and a plain forehead ... Starshanna glanced up.

“Chris? Is that you?”

There was a peculiar sweetness to her voice Trumaine didn’t remember; it was warm and rich and it went straight into his brain.

More, she looked lovely.

“I woke you up,” apologized Trumaine.

“Got to be up in half an hour anyway.”

“How’re you doing?”

“The usual. You?”

Trumaine wavered—it was now or never.

“They gave me the citizenship I have been looking for all these years, Star,” he said.

Starshanna, overwhelmed by the news, let out a squeal of surprise. She held her hand over her mouth, happy and confused at the same time—she didn’t expect it anymore.

“I’m coming back ...”

“Chris. Are you for real?”

“I’m for real, Star ... This is for real.”

Then, all of a sudden, Starshanna’s merriment and good disposition vanished. Something hard, unyielding and unforgiving replaced them.

Her eyes bore into Trumaine’s like drills.

There certainly were many ways to know the truth about a person, besides telepathy, after all, he thought.

“Tell me, then,” she asked. “What is it that you believe?”

Trumaine had the unpleasant feeling it wasn’t Starshanna talking anymore, but an undecipherable sphinx, an uncompromising demon angry for truth that would have devoured him if he had lied.

Trumaine went back to his painful memories of Maia, recalling all that had happened in the last twelve months ... This time, he couldn’t feel guilty. No, he wouldn’t blame himself anymore, because he had finally resigned to the only evidence:

“It was an accident, Star, it all comes down to a goddamn accident ...”

“Say it again,” bid the unfathomable sphinx.

“It wasn’t my fault,” repeated Trumaine. “It was nobody’s fault, Star—it just happened ...”

The sphinx studied Trumaine for a long moment, weighing the words he had said on mystical scales of truth and deceit, about to give its response ...

“I can’t live without you, Star,” pleaded Trumaine.

But the sphinx couldn’t be bribed, there were no words in this world that would accomplish that.

The sphinx took one more moment to ascertain the truth ... The scales clicked and, at long last, the monster returned its verdict. But it wasn’t like the sphinx to award prizes for truth—truth didn’t need remuneration.

The questioning monster took off in the flutter of wings that were Starshanna’s eyelids, leaving only her amber eyes. She was again the woman Trumaine loved.

Starshanna looked up at him and smiled.

“Come back,” she said. “Come back home ...”

The ticket machine inside the office desk whirred and clicked.

At long last, it spit out a thin strip of plastic that looked like a very complicated sample of fancywork. On its front, a word shone like gold: AQUARIA.

A thumb and forefinger closed around the ticket, retrieving it and delivering it ceremoniously into the palm of the passenger standing in front of the desk—Trumaine.

“The last time you were here, I had to go through a lot of paperwork to get your baggage back, Mr. Trumaine, sir. I would really hate to do it again,” said the boarding officer, worriedly. “I hope there won’t be any second thoughts this time.”

“No second thoughts,” promised Trumaine. “I’m leaving for good.”

“I really do hope so,” said the officer.

He handed Trumaine his credit card along with his identification badge, then motioned him toward the corridor behind him.

He watched Trumaine go from the corner of his eye, until he disappeared into the corridor.

Only then did he dare forget all about the measured phlegm Aquarians were famous for and did what he had in mind:

Nimbler than a monkey, he vaulted over his desk and bolted to the corridor hatch—he slammed it shut, then spun its handle viciously, sealing the corridor once and for all, making sure Trumaine wasn’t coming back to bother him anymore.

A green-eyed beauty had welcomed Trumaine on the other end of the corridor.

She had shapely arms and legs the color of polished alabaster and her hair was an indefinable color: depending on the angle the light fell on them, it shifted from quicksilver to light blue to pearl-white, looking very much like whirling seawater.

The beauty produced her standard smile: a polite sample of efficiency which included a good amount of ice. Trumaine wondered it wasn’t there to prevent any wrong idea those legs might stir in the passengers’ minds.

When the flight assistant had looked at the ticket in Trumaine’s hands, her standard smile had widened considerably, to the point of revealing the perfect ivory of her teeth, and her tone had become decidedly warmer.

“Welcome aboard the Neptune, sir,” she said in a calm, silvery voice that rolled over carelessly like brook water. “If you will be so kind to follow me, I’ll show you to your seat.”

Without really waiting for an answer, she preceded him into the spaceship.

Trumaine had been aboard the Neptune before, of course. He had traveled in economy class, since he couldn’t afford anything better. His journey companions would be stocky, overweight settlers, their round wives and their ruddy children—they would struggle to fit in the too small chairs, at the same time jabbering endlessly with their neighbors, while sullen flight attendants would push serving trolleys, delivering airtight beverages and precooked food bricks—the same standard meals that were served aboard most spaceships.

As he had always done, Trumaine ignored the staircase to the business class and went straight into the economy class. Only then he realized that the alabaster legs hadn’t followed.

Puzzled, he returned to the staircase.

“This way, please, sir” said the blue-haired mermaid.

“I thought I paid for an economy ticket,” protested Trumaine.

“First-class citizens always travel business,” she replied in a flat, final tone.

The warm smile appeared briefly on her lips like the sun on a cloudy March day.

“This way,” she said.

The chairs in the business class were at least twice as large and comfortable as in the economy class; they were spaced out so widely a man could stretch out almost completely before touching the next row. Trumaine realized there were no corridor seats in here, only seats with a view.

The green-eyed beauty showed him to a plush corner decorated with a blue rose in a blue holder.

“Here you are,” she said.

“If you need anything during the flight, don’t hesitate to reach out for your buzzer.”

Her fingers pointed at the “buzzer”—no more than a shiny brass bulge in the chair armrest.

Trumaine glanced at the alabaster legs as they went back to the main hatch of the Neptune, then he loosened his tie, the collar of the shirt underneath and, with a sigh, he slumped down on his seat.

He looked out of the porthole, at the boundless stretch of the ocean that lay beyond it, then closed his eyes and fell asleep in moments.

Space was a bit like the ocean—it had no bounds. Like the ocean, it was dark and cold and forbidding, and the celestial bodies that dotted its emptiness were just like small, forgotten islands.

Earth glowed brightly against the blackness that was space, looking like a longing lover’s deep, blue eye.

A shiny object rose from the clouds, glittering in the sunlight—it was a departing spaceship.

Pushed over by massive, howling rockets, the mountain of metal ascended, barely making it against gravity, coming to the infinitude of space.

The hull of the Neptune kept growing—soon, all her portholes became visible, even the one behind which Trumaine lay, peacefully asleep. Despite the mayhem of her rockets, the ship cradled him in a padded, comfortable silence.

The spaceship kept rising until, all of a sudden, she vanished like in a deceitful mirage, leaving behind her the stretch of terrestrial space and the oblivious, slowly stirring cauldron that was Earth.

Twinkling specks of light punctured the darkness.

They grew in size and strength, becoming pulsating beacons.

Out-of-scale gas giants, planets and planetoids rolled into view, populating the cold, lost emptiness, revealing the jarring vision of an alien solar system rotating around its own sun.

The exploration of the livid harshness was repaid once and for all when, unexpectedly, a blue planet appeared.

Earth’s twin was twice as big and bright and, except for a thin and long strip of land laid across one of its meridians, it was completely covered in water. It revolved slowly, showing its lit side, a glorious day shrouded in vapors.

Sixty-some miles above Aquaria, the flimsy image of the Neptune flickered to life and became solid in moments; she thrust on, descending toward the planet. Her rockets engulfed everything in their backwash, until all was turned to a bedazzling flare of light.

Shapes emerged from the whiteness of a sunlit morning, revealing a modern hi-tech vacation house topped with a slanted roof covered with solar cells.

A channel filled with lapping water enclosed both the house and a wide patio covered in polished blue-shaded flagstones, upon which found place a couple of design deckchairs and a table.

A tanned man sat at the table, apparently having breakfast—as the light dimmed, it was clear it was Trumaine.

A grizzled stubble grew on his chin and his hair was longer than usual and wiry with salt. He had put on some weight—just a bit of healthy roundedness that looked good on him—and looked as carefree as he could possibly be.

He was now lost in the perfect oblivion of a black and thick coffee contained in a fuming cup sitting in front of him. He smelled its inebriating aroma, then took a long, deep and fulfilling sip. As he put down the cup on its saucer, it let out a silvery chink that sounded exactly like a counter bell.

As if summoned, a woman came out of the house, carrying a tray filled with the Aquarian equivalent of pancakes. She set them on the table, looking down at Trumaine.

Also tanned, Starshanna’s hair had bleached a little in the sun of the long Aquarian summer, turning the color of honey—she looked radiant and she was.

Trumaine glanced up at her, into the mysterious depths of Starshanna’s eyes ...

Yet, if this was paradise, it was still missing something; a touch of a color different from the predominant blue of Aquaria, a cheerful note that could break the pleasant sameness of a long vacation’s morning.

Starshanna was about to sit, when a buzz from the front door interrupted her. She went back into the house. When she came out again, she was holding a plastic envelope.

“How old-fashioned—a letter!” she said amusedly.

“A letter?”

“It’s for you ...”

Starshanna handed the envelope to a puzzled Trumaine. He tore it, retrieving a plastic sheet covered with a fluent, thick handwriting.

He read it with a frown.

Hi, Trumaine. It’s me, Faith. Probably we won’t get any more chances to meet again, so I wanted you to know that I won’t forget you. There was one last thing I had to do. I don’t know if it was the right thing, since you told me that the past is better left behind. But I kind of hoped that, somehow, the past you thought dead, wasn’t completely gone. Not in your heart, at least.

Trumaine turned the plastic sheet around, but there wasn’t anything else on it.

“What is it?” asked Starshanna.

“Just greetings. From a friend ...”

Trumaine’s brow was still furrowed, he couldn’t understand that letter—what was the meaning of Faith’s words?

He put down the sheet, shaking his head.

He was about to reach out for his coffee again when, suddenly, a modulated whistle rang about.

A befuddled Starshanna and Trumaine stood slowly. They stepped to the edge of the channel, looking down at a previously unseen dolphin.

Arthur swam in circles, excitedly, frantically poking his head in and out of the water, clicking loudly.

“What’s up now?” asked Starshanna to the dolphin.

Trumaine peered deeply into the water, trying to fathom why Arthur was acting like that.

At first, he didn’t see anything.

Then, after a while, he glimpsed a dark, quickly emerging shape. He stood back as something broke the surface with a splash:

Gasping for air, looking up with a smile at the warm Aquarian sun, Maia heaved herself out of the water.