Perhaps inspired by the anime OVA Voices of a Distant Star (ほしのこえ, Hoshi no Koe) by Shinkai Makoto. Perhaps inspired by Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J. K. Rowling. Also an attempt in another genre, which I think I'm just not good at. Have a guess.

Shiroi Hana (白い花)


They liked to sit at one of the rows of plastic chairs lining the long corridor of glass and steel, and watch the many people that passed by. There were patients in ash-coloured sleeping gowns, wandering dazed in their padded slippers. There were doctors and nurses that hurried past in flashes of harsh red, each time the dusty evening light outside the windows streamed in and lit their white coats and hair. There were humming robots with external defibrillators and boxes of sterilised equipment in their arms, forever rolling on their wheels at uniform speed.

For hours and days on end they would do that, oblivious to everything else going on beyond the rectangular panes of light.

– – –

He turned to her one day, and smiled. "I'll be discharged tomorrow," he said.

She looked down at his leg. It was still encased in the armour-like cast, slightly scratched and worn, but she noticed he could, after nearly three weeks, move his leg up and down quite easily.

"I can still walk, I'm sure," he assured her. "Though I don't know if they'll let me go for the test flight again, after that crash error." He paused. "I feel horrible. The Pilot lost both his legs."

"That wasn't your fault."

"Still . . ."

He sighed wistfully, and gazed out of the window before them. The needles of skyscrapers of the Metropolis and passing formations of scramjets and spacecraft carriers in the twilight threw shadows askew on his face, and she saw how much he wished to be close to the sky, and its clouds and its sun.

"What is it like to fly?" she asked him.

Two nurses briefly obscured their view as they went past, talking excitedly about someone's sister in the Maternity Wing, and about her first baby in ten years of marriage.

He smiled at her once more.

"Something like that," he said.

– – –

She saw him almost daily for the next nine days, once with a fruit basket, once with a card, once with a puzzle cube from the gift shop at the ground floor, and once with a plastic replica of an extinct flower. She remembered reading about it in an electronic book: it was a 'paper-white narcissus'.

Each time, he detailed to her his attempts for another tryout at the Interplanetary Locomotive Task Force, and voiced his disappointment at every failure. Each time, before she could encourage him, he would shrug carelessly and laugh, the sunlight filtering through her ward window and setting his brown hair aglow.

"How about you, Harue?" he asked, during his fifth visit. "Are you feeling any better?"

She nodded at him, smiling. "Yes. It's my last day. I want to go outside."

"I can go with you," he said enthusiastically, seating himself in the chair beside her bed. "I've got a bike. We can go riding around Fylingate, or go to the hangars — that's where they keep the special spacecraft for missions in the Abingdon division — maybe you can see which one of those I could have piloted, and how they could have reprogrammed the landing modules —"

She stared at him.

"Or," he hastened to add, flushing. "Or we can go and do something else. We can go anywhere you like. But I think you take a couple of days more rest at home, just in case. And then — and then you may want to read this while you're at it."

He pushed into her lap a small rectangular package he had been hiding behind his back, not saying any more. Gingerly she removed the wrapping, and saw the object: a hard cloth-covered jacket, encasing hundreds and hundreds of paper sheets full of printed words.

She ran her fingertips over the words gilded on the spine: The Secret Garden — Frances Hodgson Burnett.

"Sorry," he muttered, his head still bowed.

"Why?"

He raised his dark eyes and blinked into her clear, hazel ones. "Because . . ." he flustered. "I — I shouldn't have gone about complaining about whatever it is that I failed to do, and . . ."

"No, not that." She held up the tome, the first physical book she has ever seen. How different it seemed, she marvelled, from its many digital counterparts she kept in her handheld computer.

"Oh." He broke into another smile. "There's an old lady living in a side lane near my house, and she was clearing out her ancient junk when I passed by. Then I saw that, and she said it was a real book. And I thought that . . . that you might like it. She let me have it, anyway."

She looked at the book again, and touched the wine-coloured cover, and the golden print on it, and the fragile paper pages, and the small black type that made tiny ridges all across them. Between two of the several pages was a long rectangular piece of decorative paper with a ribbon, marking out a black-and-white picture of a girl and a boy in a garden of blossoming flowers.

"Thank you," she said quietly.

His smile softened. He reached a hesitant hand towards the back of her head, and stroked her hair, as lightly as he could, as if he were gentling a little sister of his.

"Call me when you have finished reading the book, all right?" he said. "Then after that, we can go anywhere you like around Fylingate."

– – –

She sat behind him on his bicycle, and watched the streets and buildings scroll along her as he slowly pedalled. He had not said anything about his healing leg, even though the cycling could have been strenuous for him, and she wondered.

They had stopped for a while outside a convenience store, where cold, recycled air whirred and mixed with the warm currents of metropolitan summer that smelt like concrete and wilting blades of grass. He had taken huge bites of his pre-warmed honey crêpe, and stared thoughtfully at the electric cars that sped past every now and then, the way she did at the cables that snaked and wove their way around the city on high metal poles.

Now they wheeled past a high wire fence that stretched far into the distance and separated them from a vast area of ground barren of vegetation. Nearly a kilometre away was a row of gigantic grey machines, hulking and stark in the endless blue of the sky. The bicycle braked abruptly, and her wind-teased hair fell about her shoulders just as suddenly.

To the left of those jets, experimental spacecraft and some control towers and stations scattered about the terrain, she could see a single craft, standing slightly larger than the rest. Its frame was long, glinting sleek and white, as with the broad horizontal stabiliser at its tail and fins, which had additional broad red stripes. Two cockpits sat at the heart of the machine, almond-shaped, sealed with glass, and flanked by slim white wings whose undersides shone dull silver. Pinpoints of people in overalls were hovering by this impressive craft, fixing and welding, and more others were in the square rooms of glass nearby, calculating even more fervently in preparation for a next successful launch.

"That," he declared, more to himself than to Harue, "is Avior 5. The one I was in when it so nearly crashed."

She tightened her hands around the book in her canvas bag.

"I don't know if there were any more test flights after that — it was supposed to be for a flyby to Chryse Planitia on Mars, because the Task Force and some developers were interested in using that site for the construction of a space hotel. They're going to have a chain of those on the other rocky planets and their satellites . . ."

"Will you be going to the other sites too?" she asked.

He looked at her, and there was just a look of distant forlorn on his face.

"No," he replied. "It'll take years for my leg to heal completely, and even beyond that I won't be able to run as much as I used to." Now he laughed, a dry laugh ringing empty into the stale daylight. "Seventeen years old and my childhood dream is gone forever . . . too high above to ever reach again."

She raised her head to the zenith. The sun was hiding shy behind a patch of cloud, and she reached out an arm towards it, curling her fingers around where she thought she could grasp the star. Perhaps she thought it was easier, being three years younger than he was.

"It's not that difficult," she said. She took his hand off the handlebar, and held it in the air together with her own. There, now both of them had the entire sky in their hands. She smiled at him, but he did not see.

For a few moments everything was still. Then a faintest breeze caressed their skin, and the sun burst out in all its glory, throwing their gazes downwards and their shadows on the ground in one haphazardly irregular polygon.

"Like that," she finished, a little belatedly.

He did not say anything, and she could not see if his face gave anything away. Instead his upraised arm took hers down, and slipped it around his waist, secure. With a flick of the kickstand he pedalled off again, this time veering off to another street on the right, and past the wavering field of pale flowers that she hid her face from, behind the warmth of his back.

– – –

The second time she read The Secret Garden, the only book she had, was in a curious room in his house. One wall was paned entirely in glass, and the eastern side of Fylingate was visible from atop the small hill.

In the afternoons the room was toasty, and it was during one of them that she settled against a cushion at the foot of the couch, and started to read to her heart's content. He would drop by with biscuits and iced tea; sometimes he would watch her read and wonder why the fuss, sometimes he would stare out of the window and dream of being Secondary Pilot for another mission, and sometimes he would simply fall asleep on the couch.

Every time, the city beyond the window buzzed and burned, and every time it began to glitter towards evening, casting a pale haze around the fringes of the crimson sky. The times she finished the book and the very few others he had managed to find for her, she would turn to find his face close to hers, fast asleep and smiling.

There was once, a year into their acquaintance, when he led her to the attic of his house, where his parents stored many belongings and memories of their past. What intrigued her the most was another bound volume, this time in leather, which housed what she knew as 'photographs' — images from cameras printed on glossy and matted paper instead of liquid crystal, still instead of moving, and flat like digital pictures yet real to the touch.

"Is that you, Shiro?" she asked, pointing at a toddler in one photograph, lit in the light cascading in from the Catherine wheel window.

He laughed. "No, that's my cousin Ken. He's thirty-two this year, working in the main Abingdon HQ. I think photos were gone long before we were born."

It was almost the same as reading a book full of words, except that this — a photograph album — was full of pictures, and pictures that told not just a story but several, of life and laughter and perhaps love, in pieces misarranged.

She touched a particularly glossy photograph of a young man in a formal white shirt and dark trousers, who stood smiling in a park decades past. "How else can we capture these . . . happy moments in our lives now?" she murmured.

"Cameras?"

"They're not the same."

Before she could think of any alternatives, however, she felt his hand cup her cheek warmly, and then his lips soft upon hers. She let the album rest in her lap and closed her eyes, and even then she saw, in delicate little flashes, all the small moments of their lives they spent together.

She saw their afternoon cruises on a bicycle. She saw their stolen trips to the hangar where they lay on the long aluminium roof watching stars and satellites and passing flashes of spacecraft. She saw the one time he gave her the white narcissus, and the several times they looked at each other in silence and curious unspoken emotions. And she saw that first time, when her aimless exploration around the hospital led her to his ward, he lying listless surrounded by complex metal constructions over his leg, and she surprised, laughing out loud unintentionally through her special air mask, and he laughing back at her in return, one ordinary day in exiled summer in their bustling world of Fylingate. And she saw, behind her eyelids, his presence so close, and warm, and comforting.

In the same fleeting moments she remembered something else, something she had read in another digital book in another time, one of a story that told of this tenderness stirring gently inside her heart which had managed to survive so many millennia of humanity's existence in this world, and perhaps for many more.

And all that, she knew, she would remember, even without cameras, or anything else. And perhaps, he knew it too.

– – –

The second time she cried, in his presence, was soon after his father's return from Miranda, and the questionings that ensued, despite the boy's countless messages to him carrying even the most trivial of his updates. His father, adamant about his impression of the girl, had refused to talk to her; it was only after much persuasion that he could get her to go with him and explore his father's spacecraft, the Navigator 2, as an excuse to talk in private.

"It's not your fault," he insisted, almost angrily, when they sat alone in one of the secondary control rooms in the empty hull. The blinking lights on the dashboards lit the tears streaking down her face, as he gazed at her. "It wasn't you that tampered with Avior 5, it wasn't you that made me fracture my leg in the first place!"

"I made you love the skies less," she whispered, too softly.

He merely ran his fingers through her hair, and kissed her gently on her brow. "No, Harue. I love both the skies my Dad is always in, and the ground we're always on. I can still fly, but just never as a Pilot again."

She shook her head, and would not look up at him.

"I . . . I can always go and find another related career in the Task Force," he said, helpless. "Or we can go flying together, at the back of a commercial craft, instead of . . . of . . ."

Now he watched, silent, as she wept over all that he could have had. Yet he thought of all else that he had received in return, and troubled deeply, torn between what still remained as his utmost passion in life, and what he had begun to realise from a beloved so new yet so familiar.

– – –

She remembered reading another electronic book — one of several in her handheld computer which she carried with her everywhere — which told of a 'science fiction' story. In it, a man travelled through time using a Time Machine; while travelling, he could see how the world changed around him, but in fast motion: the paths of the Sun and the Moon along the ecliptic, the streaks of clouds and stars.

It was a story from a book that was written nearly two hundred years ago, and she thought the author divinatory, even though what Time Machines they had today were much smaller than he had thought. The Time Renversement Devices were reserved, however, for only the most controlled and critical of situations: moderate surgical errors, human tracking, chronometry-related research and anything else that saw no distinct endangerment of people's and animals' lives.

Safe in her room in a small house west of Fylingate, she reached into the pocket of her coat behind the door, and retrieved a small silver machine. A small disc of titanium, no larger than half her palm, rested on her hand, while a chain of silver trailed from it and skimmed her knee. In the centre of the disc was a rectangular glass panel enclosing a small helical structure supported by a slim metal rod, and on the right a vertical row of small touch-sensitive buttons.

She depressed the border of the circle at the sides; a tiny hidden square slid out at the left, revealing a fingerprint scanner, and at the right a larger panel uncovered a blank OLED monitor. Her little finger touched the scanner, and the machine whirled into life. By then it would have sent her personal information to the National Intelligence Bureau, but by the time it was verified and found to be abuse, it would be too late.

Her trembling fingers keyed in the specific date and time of destination, and as it blipped in confirmation the helix began to spin rapidly on its axis. She put the chain over her head, and let it rest gently against her chest.

She knew how it worked, because she read about it in an online periodical; she had one in her hand, because Shiro had not seen her when she took it from a forgotten drawer in Navigator 2.

Now a golden spherical matrix expanded from the device, enlarging until it contained her entire body, and stabilised everything cocooned within. Beyond the meshes of light space-time dilated, then warped, then began to undo itself. By the tiny clicking and spinning of the spiral, she saw the autumn leaves outside her window rising upwards and back onto their branches — and then everything reversed in acceleration, just like the author had written.

– – –

Everything came and went in powerful snatches, too quickly to properly register. Yet she saw, more clearly than anything else, him — his smile, his bicycle, his arms, his tears, his house, his white spacecraft, his sky, their sky . . . then his crutches, his leg cast, his hospital bed.

And then she was off her ambulance and back to the field of flowers, the vast plain of olive green and ghost white and undulating hallucinations that they always passed by after visiting the hangars. The silver chain around her neck snapped all of a sudden, and she fell onto her back by a tree, hidden from the main road by its buttress roots and the wave after wave of blossoms and leaves that hovered about her and entwined her body and senses with their sweetest pollen.

The first time she lay there, she had succumbed to the scathing heat of the midsummer, and remembered too late her acute allergy to the meadowpines. Now she willingly let their poison take her and their beautiful pictures dance in the air, entertaining her while she wasted away into what she hoped was death.

Now the boy who met and loved her once upon a time in the future would never again.

She remembered an image of a red sea of giant poppies as a girl, a scarecrow, a tin man, a lion and a little dog weaved their way through it. She remembered a tale of a young tourist who went back to a world of tyrannosaurs and ferns, and accidentally crushed a butterfly under his boots, and returned to his time to find his own world overrun by giant vines and mutant carnivorous insects.

Yet the last thing she remembered — and saw — was a facsimile the eddying petals conjured against the blue of the sky: a white flower on a single stalk. It was this that she brought away with her, along with a small smile, and a lost tear that fell unnoticed from her closing eyes, onto the ground of an altered past.

-fin-