Finding One's Way

Thanks to Mammal Tafren for his written contributions.
The original posts are here.

Intaki Prime – South Hemisphere – River Ganga

The punt rocked gently as it travelled upriver, propelled against the mild current by strong thrusts of the fisherman’s pole against the shallow river bottom. All was quiet, save for the lapping of water against the hull and the distant cries of birds wheeling overhead.

A cloth canopy positioned ahead of the till provided shade and Sakaane lounged beneath it on the pillows the fisherman had set up for her. The boat was flat-bottomed and low-slung, its sides mere inches from the surface of the river. She pushed up her sleeve and laid the exposed forearm across the smooth rail so her fingers trailed through the water. It was pleasantly cool.

“Don’t scare the fish!”

She smiled, turning her gaze to the young fair-haired boy perched near the prow with his line trailing into the water. The fisherman’s son was no more than eight and he grinned back at her.

“You don’t think they’d come to nibble on my fingers?” she asked. “You could just scoop them up then.”

The boy laughed. “Maybe!” Then he pointed to the middle of the river where the water was dark and the current much stronger. “They’re all out there, in the deep part. But I still think I can catch some here.”

His father tutted quietly and the boy fell silent, turning obediently away to leave the capsuleer to her thoughts.

The trees slid slowly by as the punt continued on its way. Sakaane knew she could have taken a car to Mammal’s village instead, but considering the stress of the last few weeks she’d decided a slow, lazy journey was just what she needed.

She dozed.

Sometime later she woke to the boy’s gentle tug on her sleeve. “Khasri! We’re here.”

Sitting up, Sakaane saw the river had turned muddy. The village of Benares stretched away from the boat along both shores, while numerous docks reached out to welcome them. The boy hopped out to help his father tie the punt, then stood quietly by.

Sakaane gathered up her robes and accepted the hand the fisherman offered to assist her out of the boat, letting the long cloth fall back to her sandaled feet once she was steadied on the dock. The robes were crimson with a silver sash and stitching, clung to her like a soft hug, and light enough to not bother despite the warm, humid air.

“Don’t forget this,” the boy said shyly, handing her a small cloth duffel strung with a braided silk rope. She thanked him and his father, paid them generously for their service, and began making her way from the river to the path leading to the monastery. Not far from its stone walls she knew she would find Mammal’s home.

Bataav had returned to Astral just over a week prior while she remained behind. Although she’d done much to prearrange handling of her mother’s affairs, there was much which couldn’t be done until after the fact. She’d convinced Aranza to stay on and manage the house—and it was Sakaane’s house now, she had to keep reminding herself. She’d forgotten how the myriad legal tasks she’d needed to handle were bogged down by red tape and other bothersome minutiae. It had taken much longer than she’d anticipated and now she was anxious to get back to space.

But not yet. Throughout it all there was one thing she kept coming back to: the wooden box beneath the bed. She’d sat up for hours each night poring over the papers written in her father’s handwriting, trying to puzzle out their meaning instead of sleeping, and staring endlessly at the photo of Darac Rin. The days spent alone left her to think of little else, wondering what she didn’t know about her parents…or what she just couldn’t remember. Eventually she took to sitting in her father’s study where she knew he had often taught her and her brothers the lessons of Ida. But those memories, too, were gone.

Bataav was doing his best to find out who Darac Rin was and what connection he had to her family. But as for the rest…

She turned off the road and followed a path leading up to a modest house. Despite the short notice, Mammal had graciously agreed to see her. Hitching the duffel’s rope more securely over her shoulder, she approached his home.

A chime sounded in the atrium signaling that someone was approaching the house. Mammal looked up from his book of poetry, his eyes not focusing on anything, but distant. He had been awaiting Sakaane’s arrival and there was little doubt that she was the visitor. The locals avoided his house for the most part, a small stone house on the hill overlooking the monastery, a house which, while appearing humble, contained all the technological trappings and improvements that the ISK of a capsuleer could buy.

In town, the fisherfolk nodded when he passed and called him Yamakivaal, doffing often imaginary caps to him and hurrying about their business. Anyone who played among the stars was to be respected, honored, and left alone.

He stood, laid his book aside on the table, dusted his simple linen pants and walked to the thick wooden front door.

“Open,” he said. The door obeyed, swinging open to reveal the slim, blonde, smiling figure of Sakaane. Mammal’s green eyes lit up at the sight of his friend and he engulfed her in a familiar hug.

She was lifted slightly off her feet as his arms encircled her. “Namas, Mammal,” she said, grinning and returning his hug with one of her own. “Thanks for seeing me on such short notice. I hope I’m not imposing.”

“Not at all. Come in, come in.” The door swung shut behind them as he led her from the atrium. “Can I get you anything?”

“A glass of water would be great.”

He disappeared down the hall. “Feel free to have a seat in the den there. I’ll be just a moment.”

She stepped into the room he indicated. The den was large and instantly reminded her of him: the furniture and decorations were strong and bold but nevertheless friendly and inviting. The armchair she chose molded itself comfortably around her as she sat down.

Mammal returned with the water and a cup of tea for himself. “Here you are. How was your trip up?”

“Relaxing. I decided to take a punt up the river from the way station instead of coming in the whole way by car. A bit long, but nice to see all the scenery.” She paused to take a sip from the glass, then added, “You have a lovely home. The view of the monastery and the river is quite nice out the front there.”

He nodded his thanks. “I find this is a good place where I can think.” He paused to sip his tea, then prompted, “How are you doing? I was sorry to hear about your mother.”

Sakaane dropped her gaze to her lap. The small duffel was there and she fiddled with its drawstring, twisting the rope between the fingers of one hand. “Thank you. I’m fine, really. She’s at peace now, and I might still meet her again someday. That makes the loss easier.” She smiled and looked back at Mammal. “Having Bataav along helped too. I wouldn’t have made it through that first week without him.”

The next moment was quiet while she gazed at Mammal, knowing he was waiting patiently for her to bring up the reason she’d come to see him. Suddenly it felt much more difficult than she’d thought it would be to begin. Finally, she said, “I probably never told you why I became a pilot. Not many people know.”

He nodded and said nothing, allowing her to continue.

“It wasn’t something I planned to do. I grew up loving music. I learned a number of instruments and I could sing. I made some demos while I was still in school and later released a few albums, did a few concerts, local gigs, that sort of thing. Life was pretty good.” She settled back in the chair. The duffel’s silk rope was still tangled around her hand and she continued to play with it absently. “Then, one day about eight years ago, I found out Quafe was sponsoring a talent event in Stacmon. Of course I wanted to compete.

“Until then I’d never been offworld. I knew squat about space. My father insisted ‘we’ had no business leaving Intaki so, essentially, talk of cosmic matters was forbidden in his house. Even though I wasn’t living at home anymore at that point I’d never really bothered to break that habit for myself. But that one time he consented to help me get to Stacmon, and he decided the whole family would go: my mother, my brothers, himself, and me.”

Memories washed over her: standing excitedly in line to board the passenger liner, her brothers trying to outdo one another with supposed facts about space travel they thought they knew, her mother already pale from worrying about jump sickness. Then, not long after, the alarms, the screaming, the fire, the stench of death. Most of what she could recall was shrouded in a haze.

“The ship was attacked by Serpentis as soon as we jumped into Agoze,” she said quietly. “The main passenger compartment decompressed. By chance, my mother and I, and some others, survived.” Her eyes flashed and her tone hardened. “They’ve taken everything from me: my father and brothers then, and now my mother has succumbed to her grief. And though I survived I was badly wounded. My back was broken, so I was paralyzed for a while and had to learn how to walk again. A piece of shrapnel was embedded in my throat, here.” Her fingers touched her neck, tracing a line where a scar might have been. “It spared my arteries but utterly destroyed my vocal chords, which had to be cloned so I could speak again.

“After that I swore to wipe every last one of those pirate scum from the face of New Eden. That was when I learned FNA was recruiting, and I signed up.” A tight feeling had grown in her throat and she swallowed thickly, trying to steady to her emotions. For just a moment she thought she could feel the metal embedded in her skin again, choking off her voice and her air. “I was very angry then,” she added. “I’m not as much anymore. But now that you know this, I can tell you why I’m here. There is something else I lost to the Serpentis that day, something I should have tried a long time ago to get back.”

She pulled slowly at the duffel to open it, retrieving a small, lacquered wood box, which she set on the table between them. Opening it, Sakaane pulled out the photo of Darac Rin.

“I…encountered…this man at the holoreel convention last March. He claimed he knew my father, which I didn’t believe until I found this under my mother’s bed. He’s a capsuleer, obviously a pirate of some flavor, and everything about him having any connection to my family makes no sense. I don’t understand how my father, a peaceful follower of Ida, could ever have come to know someone like this. But the problem is…I just can’t remember for sure.

“I had amnesia when I first woke up in the hospital. Sometimes I still have trouble remembering my youth. But there are gaps, some things that I just can’t recall no matter how hard I try. I’m Reborn, Mammal, at least twice, and I know I had recollection of those lives. My father raised me according to Ida and I know I used to sit for hours to listen to him teach. But all of that is gone from my mind now.

“There are few people I know who are well-versed in matters of spirit and soul. Of them, you and the Suresha are perhaps the only ones I trust to learn from.” She picked up the photo and gestured with it. “I feel, in order to understand and deal with this, I need to reclaim the knowledge of Ida and the memories I’ve lost.” She looked at him in earnest. “Will you help me?”

Mammal gestured for the photo and nodded silently as he received it, looking at the man pictured and seeking to commit his features to memory.

“There are many Idic paths and each of them is a reflection of some truth in the universe. However, the thing about a reflection is that it rarely contains an image as clear as the original. Some of the reflections are very shadowy indeed. So each of us looks into a dark mirror and tries to make sense of what we see.

“Sometimes I find it hard to believe that others who profess to follow the Ida are seeing the same thing as I am.”

He took a sip of his tea and shook his head, staring away. After a moment, he refocused on Sakaane. “At any rate, I’m happy to help you in any way I can. You should know, though…” He paused, taking a breath. “I’m not coming back to the Front. I’ve spoken to Saxon about resigning and walking my own path. Knowing that, do you still want to hear from me?”

“You…what?” She couldn’t believe what she’d just heard. “Why… I don’t… I mean…” Words failed her. The lump in her throat swelled painfully and tears rushed unbidden to her eyes as the news sank in. “That’s not funny,” she whispered finally.

Mammal reached forward and tenderly wiped a single tear that was running down Sakaane’s cheek away with an outstretched finger. “I wish I could say I were joking, jaatreer’ahm.” He smiled sadly. “But that’s a selfish wish, a wish to save myself a sad parting. It’s for the best that I do what I do. I won’t be very far away. I just need to be master of my own destiny for now.”

“Of course.” She nodded slowly, knowing he was right but finding the disappointment impossible to ignore. “I’m sorry, Mammal…but what can I say? This was the last thing I expected to learn from you. Whenever I think of ILF, three people always come to mind and even if I can understand your choice, I’m unhappy about it. Corp won’t be the same without you.”

The skin on her face tingled where he’d touched her. Too many reasons to weep lately, she thought. Then, taking a breath and wiping her eyes again, she reached for the glass and gulped down a generous mouthful. The water was sweet and cool and managed, a little, to ease the upset.

“As to your question… Your choice doesn’t change who you are or how I feel about our friendship. Unless of course you mean to tell me you’re running off to join the Serps.” She managed to quirk a small smile. “I might have a small problem with that.”

“That,” he said, his voice tight, “would never happen. Now, is there any specific way I can help?”

The quirky smile became a grin. “No, of course it wouldn’t.”

Sakaane considered how she would answer Mammal’s question and eventually spread her hands helplessly. “I feel like a neophyte, which my mind rebels against because the knowledge should be there. I honestly don’t know where to begin.”

Then she added, “I guess I’m simply asking you to teach and guide me. And as for my Reborn memories… Well, I’m not sure if those can be recovered at all now given how much time has passed. You’re Reborn, right? I understand Jyotmimana is as well… I wonder how you and he recalled your memories? Perhaps a similar technique could also help me recover what I don’t remember.”

“No, I am not reborn in the same way Jyoti is. The reborn among our society achieve their status through means I consider to be repugnant. My family are diplomats, and I’m proud of the fact I did not achieve my Idic knowledge at the expense of a baby’s chance at life.” He smiled to take some of the edge from the words. “However, we cannot help the lives into which we are born, or reborn.

“In the way I think you mean, all of us are reborn. We live, we die, we live again. Every one of us makes countless turns of the wheel. Those that can remember their past lives with clarity are not named ‘reborn’, but ‘Idama’. An Idama remembers every one of their lives and accrues the wisdom of experience.

“It is in each of us, not just the caste that labels themselves as ‘reborn’, to achieve this enlightened status. You will hear differently from Jyoti, but I follow a different path. I believe that in theory, even a non-Intaki could become Idama, if he or she were able to sufficiently discipline themselves in the Idic way.

“I would recommend caution where Jyoti is concerned. He may wear a fairer cloak than he once did, but he is unchanged, and the words he speaks are poison. I cannot warn you enough of the danger of Bataav associating with him too closely. His heart is twisted and his version of the Ida is a shadowy reflection, like a puppet show, in front of a fire, played by an idiot.”

“Hmm.” Sakaane was surprised at the conviction behind Mammal’s words. An odd sense of unease crept over her at his warning and suddenly she felt she’d stumbled into uncertain territory.

Her thoughts flashed to Jyotmimana’s odd behavior at the anniversary celebration in December and the peculiar way he and Bataav had greeted each other. Had there been more to that than she’d assumed? Although she knew Bataav could certainly take care of himself, his safety was nevertheless of paramount concern to her. She would not allow the man she loved to come to harm.

But…she couldn’t ignore her own experience either. “The few times Jyotmimana and I have spoken, he’s been polite and never given me cause to question his intentions.” She smiled and shrugged lightly. “Certainly his cynicism has a tendency to grate. Mostly I’ve found him to be passionate about our people and his beliefs, and cannot fault him for that. To me he seems lonely, and sometimes I wonder if he has nothing to be happy about. For some reason I’ve come away from our interactions feeling like I ought to have given him a hug. But you’ve obviously known him much longer than I have,” she added, “and I’ll keep in mind what you’ve said.”

She rolled her nearly empty glass between her hands. “As for the matter at hand… Well, I can’t be sure since I would have only been an infant at the time, but it may very well be that some ritual of reincarnation was involved at my birth. I don’t claim at all to have had any sort of clarity about my past lives, but there were memories.” She sat forward and rested her elbows on her knees, the glass still in her hands. “My understanding is my father came to Ida as an adult, and later brought my mother into it when they were married. So, I was the first of us to be considered Reborn. I don’t recall if my brothers were or not.” As she fell silent, she wondered if Mammal would be disappointed. If he felt certain practices were loathsome, would he continue to offer her his help if it turned out she’d previously been involved in them?

Mammal listened to what Sakaane had to say about Jyoti, and simply nodded his head when she finished.

“As I said, we’re all reborn. It is better for you to try to master the memories through discipline. I will start by giving you a mantra to practice. This is the Universal Mantra. When you meditate, repeat this in your head, or out loud. Whenever a thought might enter your head, focus on the mantra at the expense of the thought. Eventually you will find your mind completely blank, without even the mantra to intrude.”

He turned his bracelet once around his wrist.

“After a while, in those moments of silence, you might be able to access your past.”

Mammal paused to sip his tea.

“I must warn you, however, that this can take a long time and most never achieve it.” He smiled. “Here is the mantra:

“Ragtrenasal suprabyl nepryktun,
Bhaavasal narav nepryktun,
Shinaakasal nepryktun cahet siddhakyl,
Esaarthasal nepryktun asta bhadaan.”

She repeated the manta carefully to herself, committing it to memory. Then she said, “I want to say it sounds familiar, but that’s probably just wishful thinking. I might at least have some advantage over others, given I must have done this, or something like this, once before in this lifetime already.”

Then she drained her glass and set it gently on a coaster. Mammal was still holding the photo of Darac Rin and she nodded to indicate it. “If nothing else, I hope to achieve some clarity and equanimity regarding him. Whatever his intent is, I know I can’t rush ahead blindly or with…my usual fire.” A shiver raced briefly up her spine. “Considering what happened at our first meeting, I’m not sure doing so would work out in my favor.” She reached to retrieve the photo and placed it back in the box.

“The mantra will be a good first step, Mammal, thank you.”

“It is only a very small first step. Once you master it, we can devise a mantra just for you, one that is attuned better to your own particular way of being.”

Feeling that their time together was drawing to a close, Sakaane slipped the box back into the duffel. “I’ll look forward to that, and our next meeting.” Then she smiled. “Obviously I’m not the only one trying to find my way. Best of luck to you…to us both.”