A Swarm of Stars, by James Bruce May

Toppo, God of Maps, stood on his viewing platform looking down at Earth. He longed for just a single pair of eyes to look back, but knew his vigil had to end. Decades ago, he’d watched mankind create a new technology with which to navigate the world. A device was distributed across the planet and billions of people switched their attention from the stars to look instead at small screens glowing in the palms of their hands. Thus, in one sweeping wave, all of his worshippers forsook him.

He wiped a tear from his crystalline eye and flicked it over the balustrade to fall away with a meteorite’s flash. He recalled the golden day when he first put his map in the sky, remembered the excitement of scattering the stars, the elation of sculpting the heavens. The pattern he fashioned was so elaborate, so precise, it would never fail to draw the eye towards his platform, the brightest star of the night by far. After his epic work was realised, he’d basked in the gaze of the lost multitudes for eons.

But now, no one looked up at all. Explorers had run out of room to explore, sailors sold out to sonar and even astronomers, having become obsessed by the dark divides which held the stars in place, no longer trained their telescopes towards Toppo.

The god stood staring at the world turning blue and majestic below. Hadn’t he demonstrated direction to its people, hadn’t he sheltered them from the terrors of the unknown? Hadn’t he given them a sense of the world around them, showed them scale, delineated to them their place in the order of things? And how had they thanked him? With treason. By turning on him. By replacing him.

It angered him.

‘Curse them,’ Toppo said, his breath a nebulous mist. Tendrils of that mist twisted, curled and fell, spinning faster and faster, dropping as arrows towards Earth, spearing through its skies as lightning that cracked and hissed, thumping the ground with a rumble that shook mountains. Trees shuddered and shed their leaves. Birds took wing into a cold, rising wind. Clouds gathered and a bitter rain pelted down, melting street signs wherever they stood, washing road markings away into gutters. Compasses span in drawers, and satellites plummeted to earth, smashing to smithereens in eerie, empty wastelands. Every map in every house, museum and glovebox disintegrated, slipping to the floor like sand through an hourglass. And then, in the blink of Toppo’s crystalline eye, every memory of every path, every shortcut down every alley, the meaning of every landmark, the remembered image of every front door, all blinked out, vanishing to oblivion.

Toppo turned his back on the glowing blue planet and stepped to the edge of his platform. He somersaulted off, performing a graceful dive towards the distant stars. He floated out into their icy light and, arms outstretched, began to heave and haul, push and shove, stir and spin until the sky danced in magnificent, mysterious beauty all around him.

*****

Jean awoke from her nap with a grimace. Her usual urge to go to the loo was much, much more acute. The baby in her womb kicked. Frowning she stretched, glancing at the phone on her bedside table to check the time. It was still the afternoon but her bedroom was dim. She could hear the persistent tapping of rain at the window. Jean’s frown deepened as she felt dampness in her knickers. She pushed the covers back and saw a small amount of pink mucus had escaped. This was the show her midwife had told her about.

Her baby was coming.

She sat up but had to bend over as tightness stretched over her abdomen, squeezing pain downwards like a rolling pin was flattening her as it might flatten a great lump of pastry. She groaned, arms protective over her swollen belly. Her back ached and sweat gathered on her brow as the contraction passed. She took several deep breaths and reached for the phone, pressing the button to call Thomas.

‘Hey babe,’ he answered, ‘how’s it going?’

‘Thomas,’ Jean said, ‘the baby’s coming!’

‘Now? Are you sure?’

‘Yes. Definitely sure. Please come home!’

‘Okay. I’ll leave the office and take a cab. Should be there twenty minutes max.’

‘Be quick,’ Jean said, leaning forward and groaning again.

‘I will,’ Thomas said. ‘Hang in there angel, I’ll be with you as soon as I can!’ The phone speaker rustled and Jean heard her husband say shit shit shit under his breath, but then his voice returned. ‘You’re amazing; this is amazing. I love you. You’re going to be a mum today!’

‘Yes, yes, I love you too. Just come home.’ Jean hung up and pulled the duvet into her fists, clenching her jaw as the tightness returned.

*****

Thomas stood and grabbed his jacket, startling nearby colleagues with his sudden movement.

‘I’ve got to go,’ he told them. ‘Baby’s coming!’

Calls of Good Luck! followed him out through wide glass doors onto the rain-washed street. Several people stood shaking their heads under umbrellas. One man walked back and forth muttering. Thomas pushed past them, looking left and right for a cab. He saw one approach and hailed it. The black car veered across the road, hazard lights flashing, heat spewing from its front grill as it drew up next to him. The driver expelled a huge breath as Thomas opened the door.

‘Home, please,’ Thomas said, ducking in out of the rain.

‘Look, sorry mate, not sure I can take you anywhere right now. Car’s all buggered and I’m having issues.’

‘What? But you have to. It’s an emergency!’

‘Emergency?’

‘My wife’s about to give birth!’

‘She is? Oh bugger.’

‘Exactly.’

‘But I’ve got issues regardless. Something about this rain, it’s messing with my nav system and –’

‘You have to help me,’ Thomas said. ‘It’s an emergency. Come on. Please.’ He looked at the mirror and into the cabbie’s uncertain eyes.

‘All right,’ the driver said after a pause, ‘I’ll try. But the car’s all buggered…’

‘Seems okay to me,’ Thomas said, looking around the interior of the car.

‘All right, I said all right! Where’s your wife?’

‘Home. She’s at home.’

‘No problem,’ the driver said. ‘Where’s home?’

‘It’s,’ Thomas said, but then hesitated. ‘Er, it’s just down the road. Thanks.’ Thomas frowned to himself and sat back. ‘It’s just down the road,’ he said again, his voice quiet.

The driver pulled away, narrowing his eyes at Thomas in the mirror. He stopped at the first junction.

‘Where next, left or right?’

‘I, er…’ A balloon of alarm rose within Thomas, his breathing quickened as he turned to look at the street’s unfamiliar shop-fronts. He pulled a sweaty palm through his hair. ‘Fuck,’ he said. ‘I can’t for the life of me remember!’

‘You can’t remember where your house is?’

‘Well it must be here somewhere,’ Thomas said, eyes wide.

A car behind sounded its horn, so the cabbie took a left. ‘Why not try calling?’

Thomas took his mobile from his pocket and held it to his ear for a moment before snatching it away. ‘Bloody network’s jammed!’

‘Look, try to relax,’ the driver said. ‘It’s just your stress manifesting.’ A father himself, he knew such apprehension well. But as he watched his passenger flinch about behind him, his suspicion solidified. Things had been out of kilter ever since this rain had started beating against his windscreen a little earlier. The downpour was so strong, it’d blurred his view and he’d missed a turning and got lost. He hadn’t missed a turning in twenty years! He’d tried some back streets and found his way onto a busier road, but his sat-nav stopped responding, and when he pulled over to check the map on his mobile, even that couldn’t track his whereabouts.

He’d had that feeling of leaving the house thinking he’d forgotten something, but not knowing exactly what that something was. Yet he remained unfazed, even when he opened his dusty glovebox to see his old street atlas had been mislaid: he knew the roads of this city as well as the moles and birthmarks on his children’s bodies. He set off again, but every time he tried to spot a street sign, he just missed one or the rainwater blurred his vision again, right at the crucial moment. He’d never known weather to have this kind of an impact.

After a while he began to notice other cars driving erratically – performing sudden U-turns, risking dangerous overtakes, stopping without warning – and he suspected that whatever was wrong, it was wrong universally. He had no idea where he was and he became stressed.

Next thing he knew, Thomas was waving him down, opening the door to an altogether more urgent set of problems.

The cab driver watched as his passenger wound down the window to look at the buildings going by. His panic seemed to have passed, and he scanned the streets speaking under his breath: ‘We’ve got to find her; we have to find her.’ The driver nodded to himself, tightening his grip on the wheel. He resolved to do whatever he could to help this man find his wife.

 *****

Jean pulled on her coat but had to lean against the wall as another contraction came. Pain cramped into her thighs and about her back, tightening across her tummy and hunching up her shoulders. She leant on the wall breathing hard. She’d waited over half an hour for Thomas, the pain becoming more frequent, less manageable.

‘Where is he?’ she said, clenching her jaw and bending to pick up her bag of essentials. He should arrive any minute, so she thought she’d go outside to wait. She wanted to get to the hospital as soon as possible.

She stepped out onto the rain-washed street, her front door clicking closed behind her. She tried to spot the faces of the people driving by, but the rain on the glass smeared their features like they were painted in running watercolours. She could see no sign of Thomas. The rain was heavy, so she decided to go back inside to call him, but when she turned to walk back into her house, she froze. A row of terrace houses lined the street in front of her. She looked at their doors of red and yellow and blue, but found she had no idea which one was hers.

‘What in the name…’

Her baby kicked again, engendering another bout of pain. She put her hands on her knees, tears gathering in her eyes, but she blinked them back at the sound of screeching brakes. A black cab was swerving across the road, splashing through puddles, speeding and sounding its horn.

‘Thomas!’

Thomas was leaning out of the taxi’s window. He spotted her and pointed towards her. He shouted ‘That’s her!’ and the driver pulled up opposite. Thomas sprang from the car and ran to Jean, pulling her into a close embrace. They stood hugging in the rain.

‘Thomas, I felt so lost!’

‘Thank God we found you,’ he said. ‘I was so worried.’

‘We have to get to the hospital.’

‘What are you doing out here, why aren’t you at home?’

Jean frowned up at him. ‘But I was at home, I was waiting for you –’ she broke off with a groan. ‘Look it doesn’t matter. We have to go. Our baby’s coming, Thom.’

Thomas kept his arm around his wife as they crossed the road to the taxi. He opened the door and they both got in. Jean sagged into a seat and Thomas sat forward. ‘We’ve got her! Well done that man,’ he said to the driver.

Jean looked at the cabbie’s eyes in the mirror. ‘Thank you,’ she said.

‘Pleasure,’ the driver said with a nod.

‘Right! To the hospital,’ Thomas said.

‘Right,’ the cabbie said, concentration covering his face as he sped off.
Jean watched as they left the strange street, looking through the window at the rain falling into the oncoming evening. Lamp-posts flicked on as the car drove down darkening roads. Jean’s contractions came steadily, pain knuckling around her midriff, causing her to gasp and moan. And then her waters broke, soaking her knickers and cotton trousers, seeping into the car seat beneath her.

‘Oh, shit,’ Thomas said.

‘What’s happened?’ the driver said.

Jean breathed through her teeth but did not cry.

‘It’s okay,’ Thomas said, addressing everybody in the car. ‘How far to the hospital?’

‘We’re close,’ the driver said. ‘I’m sure we’re close. Hold on!’

‘I don’t think I can,’ Jean said, kicking off her soaked trousers. ‘Call an ambulance, Thom.’

Thomas took off his jacket and covered Jean’s thighs. He tried his mobile again but it was no use. ‘The network’s jammed, darling. But it’s okay,’ he squeezed her hand, ‘we’ll get there any minute.’

‘Oh, God,’ Jean said, throwing her head back. ‘We’re not going to make it in time!’

The cabbie watched his mirror in disbelief. He knew of other drivers this had happened to, but he never thought it would happen to him. He always got his punters to where they needed to be. He kept searching for signs to the hospital, even listening out for sirens he could follow, but it was no good. He just couldn’t find his way. He looked back into the mirror and met Jean’s eyes.

‘Pull over,’ she said.

Thomas stroked her hair. ‘Darling, we’re nearly there –’

‘I’m not going – to have my baby – in the back of a cab!
The driver stopped the car, got out and went to the boot. ‘I’ve got a blanket in here,’ he said as Thomas opened the door. The cabbie looked up. ‘Looks like the rain’s stopping, at least.’

‘Good,’ Thomas said. ‘Let’s put the blanket on the pavement by the door.’ He helped Jean climb out of the car. She lay down on the blanket and propped herself up on her elbows. Thomas folded up his jacket and wedged it under her back. He rolled up his shirt sleeves and unzipped her bag to retrieve this and that, trying to think back to all those antenatal classes they’d attended. Then he turned to the cabbie with earnest eyes. ‘Thanks so much for getting us this far,’ he said, standing. ‘Please stay and keep us safe. I swear I’ll make it up to you once this is over.’

‘Don’t worry,’ the cabbie said. ‘And good luck.’ The two men shook hands. Thomas returned to Jean and the driver walked around his car to keep watch. He listened to his passengers, one saying push, the other grunting in pain.

Above the cabbie the clouds began to glide apart. He stood watching the sky, thinking of his own wife, hoping she and the kids hadn’t been caught up in this freak weather. They were probably at home wondering where he’d got to. They’d never believe all this when he told them about it later. The clouds drifted away to reveal the night sky and the driver blinked and rubbed his eyes. He stood and stared, mouth agape. The stars above were swarming. The heavens glittered like myriad diamonds washed in black waves caught by moonlight.

Behind the taxi, Jean heaved and heaved. After a great, long effort, with one final push she gave birth. Thomas delivered their baby, cutting its chord with scissors from the bag, wiping its tiny frowning face with Jean’s spare pyjamas. Jean lay back, listening to the small cries of her firstborn as she watched the flowing stars above, breathless. Thomas wrapped their child and brought it to Jean’s breast.

‘It’s a girl,’ he said. ‘She’s beautiful.’

*****

All across the world chaotic scenes came to a close as men, women and children stood still, casting their faces to the skies. People stood on balconies, on beaches, in city squares, in the middle of roads or country lanes: all looked upwards. Some stood alone but most stood together, dropping whatever they were holding to clasp the hand of the person standing next to them. Millions of mobiles fell from fingers to crack broken on the floor.

The stars, which had spun enchanting through the night, began to settle in place. They twinkled as they came to rest, silent and serene. People began to point as their eyes were drawn across the sky towards the brightest star in the heavens, which winked above like some god’s shining crystalline eye.


James Bruce May read Creative Writing at Greenwich University and Goldsmiths College in London. His work has appeared in HARK Magazine, Open Pen Magazine, Ink Sweat & Tears, The Fat City Review, The Puffin Review, The treacle Well and others.

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