by shukyou (主教)
illustrated by beili
Shayel began to mutter something under his breath as the ship hit the atmosphere, something in Hallic that Uzhab couldn’t understand. Uzhab chose not to interpret it as a critique of his piloting skills. “Switching engines,” Uzhab said, pulling the lever that toggled off the propulsion system that had ferried them from the carrier to Aubor IV. The small ship shuddered violently. “How’s the air?”
“Steadier below.” Shayel kept his head bent over the console. “Clean. But thin.”
That explained the trouble the atmospheric engines were having, then. Shayel had speculated earlier that after nearly a century without maintenance, the terraforming systems that kept the planet’s air breathable would probably be working well under capacity. They’d brought portable respirators for each of them, but there was nothing to be done for their landing. Uzhab kept his fingertips pressed to the four points of the guidance system, easing it to stability as best he could. “Everything still looking good?”
“I’d let you know,” Shayel said, his tone icy. Uzhab had almost learned not to take it personally. The Halla preferred cold climates, after all. Who knew if their personalities determined their habitats, or the other way around?
At least he wasn’t complaining about the ride. Uzhab’s first read of him had been that he was smart but soft, the kind of man who could barely survive out of recycled air. He’d been surprised as hell upon learning that the contract stipulated Shayel’s coming with him to do the survey. He wanted to say it’d been the reason he’d taken the job, but the real reason had been it’d been that, starvation, or turning tricks in spaceports. To avoid the latter two, a year on an abandoned colony world didn’t seem so bad.
As the cloud layer parted, Uzhab could see the world below begin to take shape. He had to keep most of his attention on the flight console, but he caught in glimpses the shape of the city structure, the way roads connected smaller destinations to a central hub like spokes on a wheel. That center was where they were heading, a sprawling mass of buildings on a flat coastal plain. Once it had been called New Pakha City. Now it wasn’t called anything at all.
Once the air around them began to thicken a bit, the small ship began to stabilize. “Landing coordinates still viable?” Uzhab asked.
Shayel was quiet for a moment, to the point where Uzhab was nearly convinced that the silence meant that Shayel had simply stopped asking questions with obvious answers. But then Shayel sighed with obvious relief. “Mostly,” he confirmed. “The landing platform appears unstable, maybe cracked.”
“Better to put down on ground,” Uzhab said. “You can be sure that’ll hold.”
“All right.” Shayel tapped the screen a few times, and Uzhab saw the landing coordinates on his map shift slightly to the north. It appeared to be a large rectangular clearing, an urban greenspace. Uzhab felt bad about landing there, even though he knew nobody had used it for its intended purposes for a long time. It still felt too nice for a ship like his.
With things under control, Uzhab took his hands off the consoles and let the autopilot take over. “We’ll be down in a minute.”
Shayel again made no reply. This time, though, when Uzhab glanced over his shoulder, he saw that Shayel was not ignoring him out of any spite — he was staring, transfixed, at the viewscreen. His thin lips were slightly agape, and his pale eyes were wide as he took in the view. He said something again, his voice so soft that Uzhab couldn’t even identify the language, much less make out the words. His hand gripped the side of the console, dusky fingers clutching with such strength his knuckles went pale. How long had he waited for this? However long it had been, the wait was over.
“Well,” said Uzhab, nodding to the approaching city, “we’re here.”
The feeling of stepping out of the ship was unlike anything Uzhab had ever experienced. He’d been to more ports than he could count and seen hundreds of separate planets, but even the most isolated of those had still been vibrating with activity. Never before had he literally been the only person on a world.
A few seconds later, he was one of two as Shayel followed him down the ramp and out onto what must formerly have been a well-manicured park. Now the grass was still a lovely green, but the tallest blades were as high as Uzhab’s knees and dotted with white wildflowers. They looked almost like snow in patches, though it was high summer now on this part of the planet.
Beyond the boundaries of the park were the buildings of the city — or, more accurately, what had once been those buildings. They were still buildings, Uzhab supposed, though not according to their original specifications. In the hundred years since Aubor IV had been hastily evacuated, the plants had grown unchecked, as though reclaiming what had once been theirs. Vines stretched up the sides of walls, twining with one another and darting in the holes of broken windows. At street level, ornamental trees grew far out of bounds, their limbs jutting into unmanicured configurations. Every road and sidewalk was cracked, broken from beneath by powerful roots, and into those cracks grew all sorts of wild green grasses.
There were no animals that Uzhab could see, but he supposed the ship’s landing had been loud enough to run most of them off. They’d be back once they decided the threat was unfounded, that the roar of engines had been no more threat than the crack of thunder. He wondered how many of them would be native to the planet, and how many of them would be species brought in by the colonists. He was hardly a biologist, but Uzhab had a certain respect nonetheless for things that survived despite their contexts.
Uzhab resettled the respirator beneath his nose. They’d been designed for Halla, and as such, his beard made it an awkward fit. It didn’t so much matter, though; he was Doqar, not so many centuries removed from a homeworld with hot, high deserts. Air quality troubled him little.
“How does it feel?” Uzhab asked Shayel.
“Feel?” Shayel said, as though it were a stupid question to ask. “It feels like we have work to do.”
“I know, but–” Uzhab stuck his hands in his pockets, shrugging. “I don’t know. I think it feels nice.”
Shayel arched one of his pretty eyebrows. “Nice?”
“Yeah. Maybe. I don’t know.” Uzhab shut his eyes and let the sun beam down on his face for a minute. “Feels like it was a nice place to live.”
“I’m sure it was,” Shayel said, his voice turned to ice again. “Before your people destroyed it.”
Before Uzhab could even get himself together enough to say that he was sorry, that was stupid of him to say, he didn’t even know why he did it, Shayel was walking away, toward the edge of the park, already engrossed in whatever his handheld scanner was telling him. Uzhab let him go, keeping an eye on him from a distance. That was what he’d been paid for, after all, not to make conversation. It was a job, and when it was over, he could go back to being the forgotten waste of the universe. Keeping his mouth shut for a year was the easiest work he’d ever had. He just had to remember to keep doing it.
The Halla and Doqar had signed their peace treaty seventy years previous, ending almost three centuries of war. At least, that was what all of Uzhab’s schooling texts had ever told him, though he’d never quite known what to believe of that. For starters, it had never seen to him much like a war. Wars were two-sided, a case of push and pull between sides that each had some fair chance of victory.
What the Doqar had done to the Halla had been nothing fair. The Halla had inhabited several strategic systems, controlling their resources, and the Doqar had decided that those resources would be better off in Doqar hands. Without warning, they’d begun to take them, and did not stop. At least two of Uzhab’s great-great-something-grandfathers had been part of the first raid on the Hallic colonies, a fact that was a proud piece of family lore. To the Doqar, family was everything. The Doqar were everything.
Uzhab wondered sometimes what his own family said about him now, the absentee son. Maybe they told people he was dead. For all intents and purposes, he was.
Those schooling texts had never talked about places like Aubor IV. In fact, he’d never even heard of the Auborius system before a sometimes-friend had passed on word that there was a Halla man looking to hire someone for transport and support on the year-long project to survey and reclaim an abandoned colony world. Uzhab had tried to read up on the place, but Doqar archives were spotty. Maybe the Halla kept better records, but if so, they kept them beyond Uzhab’s reach.
Obviously it hadn’t been a terrorist base, or the Doqar would have left the surface marked with many more craters and piles of smoldering rubble. Clearly it hadn’t had much in the way of exploitable resources, or the Doqar would have moved in right away and begun harvesting procedures. Most likely, it had just been a place where Halla had lived. That alone was enough to justify whatever they wanted to do to it.
It seemed to Uzhab, as he walked the perimeter at dusk, that what they’d done was simply clear the planet out. He’d braced himself for piles of corpses, maybe even mass graves, but the only evidence he saw of a violent struggle came from telltale signs of charged energy weapon discharges. Even those were few and far between, though still visible in the way the vines seemed to grow around them, as though the holes made in the walls were still as dangerous to touch as the beams that had made them. Uzhab had firearms training, but he’d never liked the feel of them. This, of course, had been another mark in his familial disappointment column.
On a low retaining wall along one of the boulevards, Uzhab sat for a moment to take in the view. It wasn’t hard imagining what this place must have been like before the evacuation. Time had removed most of the signs of active habitation, but the bones of civilization took far longer to break down. The shell of a streetcar lay toppled across what must once have been a main thoroughfare, the writing on its side unreadable for the growth of moss — not that Uzhab could have read it anyway. He knew barely a dozen Hallic words, and most of them were swears, slurs, or both.
They were here to bring it back to life, or at least that was what the initial information had claimed. Shayel himself had not been forthcoming about the ultimate goal of their expedition, but all the plans sounded consistent with eventual return of colonists, provided what they found during their survey supported it. From first glances, it looked to Uzhab like it’d take a little work, but he didn’t see why not.
Figuring that out wasn’t his job, though. He’d been hired for three things. First, he had a ship of his own, plus piloting knowledge and the freedom to take it anywhere he chose. Second, despite his dislike for firearms, he knew his way around knives just fine. And third, he had done his fair share of surviving away from power grids and other modern conveniences.
There’d been an unspoken fourth, too, and that was that nobody cared enough about Uzhab to miss him if he up and vanished for a year. He supposed that must have been true about Shayel, too — but Uzhab had known better than to ask.
Before it got too dark to move around safely, Uzhab headed back to his ship. It was a small craft, developed for short runs. Uzhab had converted half the cargo hold into a living space back when he’d first bought it. It had taken little effort to install a second bunk against the opposite wall. Shayel was sitting there now, his long legs pulled up in front of him, tapping at a tablet braced against his knees. “Quiet out there,” Uzhab said, settling his respirator on a shelf by the aft door. The ship’s air reclamation system would keep things set for them as long as they were inside.
“Hm.” Shayel idly scratched just beneath one of the horns that curled against the sides of his head, not bothering to look up.
Uzhab shrugged out of his light jacket and began to disarm, placing his blades in their respective clips against the back wall. “Hungry?” he asked.
“Ate already,” Shayel said, again without pausing what he was doing.
Exercising all restraint, Uzhab did not sigh pointedly. Fine, he’d stop trying to be friendly. He’d heard of religious devotees who went their entire adult lives without speaking. He could manage.
What served as the ship’s galley was little more than a sink and two cabinets, one refrigerated. Uzhab pulled a packet from hundreds tucked into the unrefrigerated space and tore off its top. The smell of the contents made him wrinkle his nose, to the point where he checked the packaging to see if it had been ruptured somehow, spoiling the stew inside. But no, it was just apparently how this particular dish was supposed to be. When buying provisions, Uzhab had made sure they’d had plenty of native Halla dishes. He was starting to regret his decision.
It tasted all right, which he supposed was all that mattered. He missed that exoskeletal crunch, though, so he dropped in a handful of dried beetles, stirred them around, and tried again. Mm, much better. The jar he’d brought wouldn’t last long, but he’d already done his research and determined the insect life of Aubor IV was edible. Maybe he should start figuring out how to trap and store them. Summer was the perfect time for insect harvesting.
With his dinner packet in one hand, he stood there for an awkward moment, not quite sure where to put himself. He’d eaten many dinners alone in the hold, but he wasn’t sure about propriety now there was someone else there too. He thought about going back outside, but the idea of trying to eat and keep his respirator on at the same time seemed like more of a pain than it was worth. Fortunately, there was a third option. “I’ll be up front,” Uzhab said, nodding toward the door that divided the ship in two. “If you need me for anything, just holler.”
This time Shayel didn’t even so much as flinch to indicate that, yes, he had heard. Fine, fine, Uzhab was stopping. This was him, stopping.
He tucked up in the pilot’s seat and watched through the front viewports as night fell on the deserted planet. Little flickers of light began to dance in the summer evening — some species of firefly. Uzhab was excited to see so many of those; they were delicious.
He stayed there until he was long past done with his meal, until the sun had slipped so far from the sky that even the infrared spectrum was only barely visible to him. By the time he returned to the hold, Shayel was lying on his side facing the wall, not making a sound. Uzhab dimmed the lights, then stripped down to his underclothes and got into his bunk. They both needed to sleep. Tomorrow would be a big day.
Uzhab didn’t scare easily; having four older brothers had seen to that. Even so, he’d braced himself to be spooked by the uncanny nature of an abandoned city. He’d pictured them going through houses where food had been left on tables mid-meal, where children’s toys lay scattered across lawns as though their owners had just been called inside. His spine was straight against what he’d assumed would be the eerie experience of feeling like someone might still be lurking around every corner.
Exploring the city was nothing like that. Even the most credulous of observers would have been hard-pressed to believe anyone still lived there. Too much of the wilderness had crept in, no longer beaten back by the gatekeeping gardeners of civilization. No inhabited city would have let itself get like this, without the clean lines between the natural and the artificial. Colonies were established by beating back the chaos of whatever surrounded them, be it the forest or the desert or the long dark between the stars. It was not in their nature to exist and also to be overrun.
Uzhab took a careful step, hand hovering near the handle of the kukri strapped to his thigh. He was listening, learning the rhythms of the new world around him, not wanting the planet’s heartbeat to become dangerous without his noticing. The strap of his respirator now hung beneath his chin instead of above his lips; it was there if he needed it, but he’d already acclimated well enough that it was more nuisance than aid.
Shayel hadn’t, though; that much was obvious in every heavy breath. He looked even more ashen than usual, which was saying something, considering the grey-toned skin of the Halla. He came to a stop against a rusted, half-twisted handrail lining steps leading up to the base of the nearest atmospheric tower. He was hunched over one of his instruments, but Uzhab could tell he wasn’t reading the screen. He was trying to catch his breath, and at the same time trying to make it look like he wasn’t.
“Here,” said Uzhab, taking a canteen from his hip. He handed it to Shayel. “Drink.”
“I’m fine,” Shayel said, barely managing to wheeze out the second word.
Uzhab narrowed his eyes. “Look,” he said, letting his voice drop into his chest register, the one where he could rumble like a well-tuned engine, “you hired me for this. Let me do my job. Drink.”
Shayel’s pride visibly went to battle against his exhaustion, and Uzhab was pleased when the latter won after a brief struggle. Shayel took the canteen and raised it to his mouth, then immediately pulled a face. “What’s wrong with it?”
“It’ll keep you going.” Uzhab shrugged. “It’s good for you.”
“It tastes–” Shayel lifted the canteen to his lips again, getting enough on his tongue to make him shiver. “It tastes like salt.”
“Salt’s good for you.” Lifting his hand to shield his eyes against the midday sun, Uzhab squinted up toward the building. “Want me to run up and see if I can see what you’re looking for?”
Shayel shook his head as he stoically managed down a mouthful of the fortified water from Uzhab’s canteen. Uzhab would have warned him about the taste, but after this long of drinking it, he’d honestly forgotten there was anything objectionable about it. “You don’t know what I’m looking for,” Shayel said.
“Well, yeah, because you haven’t told me.”
Giving a disgusted little snort, Shayel capped the canteen and tried to hand it back. “I need to see for myself,” he said, gripping the railing, which was hardly steadier than he was, with his free hand.
“Wait,” Uzhab said, stepping in front of him. He held up a hand at chest height, and Shayel stopped mid-ascent. “Let me at least go hack a path. Make sure there are no beasties up there. When I give the all-clear, you come. Fair?”
Another battle waged with Shayel’s pride right before Uzhab’s eyes, this one longer and harder-fought. Uzhab had a point, though, and Shayel eventually had to concede it. “Fine,” Shayel grunted, half-staggering over to a dilapidated bench. He still held the canteen. “Don’t dawdle.”
“I won’t,” Uzhab promised. “Could be a minute, though, depending on what I find. Might as well eat while you wait.”
Surely Shayel knew that Uzhab was handling him; he seemed perceptive as any man Uzhab had ever met, and it wasn’t as though Uzhab was being subtle. Uzhab had come from a family of men like that, though, and he knew what could be salvaged in the pretending, even if everyone knew pretending was all it was. Shayel grunted in response, and Uzhab took off up the stairs without mentioning the water again. With any luck, by the time he returned it’d be gone.
There were plenty of things to be repaired in the abandoned city, but getting the atmospheric towers back online was high on Shayel’s list. Uzhab supposed he understood why — if they were a lost cause, either the colony project would have to be abandoned, or Shayel would have to finance getting new ones built, which would set the project back years, if not decades. If they could be coaxed back into working order, though, maybe Shayel’s dream of resurrecting the planet would be that much closer to reality.
There were no large predators living up here, nor had Uzhab expected there to be. Instead, there was only silence and the warm, salty air. The small hill that held the tower overlooked the city on one side and the sea on the other. Everything was so green, like a diaphanous emerald blanket had been spread over hills and buildings alike. The terraforming had done a good job, if the remaining vegetation could keep the air nigh-breathable all on its own. It might not be able to stand the influx of ten thousand new sets of lungs, but two, it could handle.
To make it look like he’d gone ahead for some reason other than pity, Uzhab pulled out his blade and hacked away at the vines and brambles until the door to the base of the tower was accessible. He worked up enough of a sweat doing it that he strapped his respirator back on for a few good, deep breaths.
What must it have looked like, the sky filled with Doqar ships, threatening annihilation? Would evacuation have been panicked, people crying and pushing, scrambling to make sure they got seats before their neighbors did? Or would it have been orderly, with long lines of resigned colonists patiently moving toward ships? There was evidence of weapons fire in the city, but Uzhab had no way to tell if that had been to suppress a populace or tame a few wild holdouts.
A century earlier, Uzhab could have been one of those soldiers, ordered to fire into a frightened crowd. He didn’t like to think about it.
He gave a shout, and a few minutes later, Shayel arrived at the top step. “It’s nice up here,” Uzhab said, nodding toward the landscape. “Nice view.”
“Mm,” Shayel said. He did take in the view, though, and the look in his eyes was like the wide-eyed expression he’d worn as they’d been landing, almost like he couldn’t believe they were really there. Then he seemed to remember himself and frowned at the sun. “It’s hot.”
Uzhab hoped Shayel didn’t expect him to do something about that. “Yep.”
Shayel stood there for a minute more, then pulled out a device that plugged into the side of the keypad. The characters on the keys — Uzhab assumed they were numbers, but he couldn’t tell — glowed to life. Shayel keyed in one sequence, adjusted a setting on his device, and keyed in a second. With a heavy thud, a mechanism behind the door moved, and the door swung open, revealing the control center for the tower. The corner of Shayel’s mouth twitched, giving his face the vaguest hint of satisfaction.
Shayel was breathing hard again by the time they made it back to the ship, but he seemed less miserable overall. Uzhab didn’t have the engineering know-how to understand all Shayel had been able to accomplish in the control center, but he could gather it had gone a long way toward getting the system up and running again. That meant the system could be gotten up and running again. And that was a big deal.
As Shayel sat down on his bunk, Uzhab opened the pantry. “Got any dinner requests?”
“Not hungry,” Shayel muttered, pulling one of his many tablets out of his bag and tapping its screen to life.
Uzhab snorted. “Bullshit.”
Shayel’s brow furrowed, and he shot Uzhab a look of pure disbelief. “I’m sorry, what did you say to me?”
“I said it’s bullshit. Bullshit you’re not hungry.” Uzhab selected two ration packs at random and tossed them both at the foot of Shayel’s bunk. “And even if you aren’t, you know you need to eat, so it doesn’t matter whether you’re hungry or not. Unless you think you’ll get things done faster if you starve to death first, in which case, I can’t wait to see a corpse refit power couplings.”
Not a single muscle moved in Shayel’s entire body, much less his face.
Uzhab snorted and snatched a third packet from the pantry. “Or don’t,” he said with a shrug. He slipped it in one of his deep pants pockets as he headed for the ship’s exit. “Live or die, I get paid the same.” He’d made certain that clause was the top line of the contract they’d signed.
As he walked out into the night air, Uzhab wondered what reason he had to be upset. Part of it was basic compassion — nobody liked to watch someone else, even a near-stranger, work themselves sick, especially when there was no need. Hard work was a thing Uzhab appreciated as well as anyone. But there was a heavy line between pushing yourself to accomplish something and just plain being stubborn.
Maybe, though, that wasn’t all of it. He thought about standing up on that bluff overlooking the city and the sea. He’d found himself actually liking this place, this strange empty planet overtaken by weeds. He’d spent his whole adult life bouncing from port to port, mostly in the depths of space, where the closest he got to nature was a well-manicured arboretum. It was good sometimes to be somewhere more solid than a shuttle.
He took off his boots and stood there in the field, letting blades of grass slip between his toes. The ground was still warm from the day; he wouldn’t have expected that. It would be a nice place for people to live again someday, and it’d be nice during the hard, hungry times to come to remember that he’d once helped do something good.
Or at least he’d tried to help do something good, for all Shayel let him. He sighed as he chewed at his dinner and watched sunset paint the western sky with pinks and oranges. Damn it, he had decided not to let that bother him. Seemed he hadn’t decided hard enough.
He didn’t make his way back to the ship until darkness had well and truly fallen over the city. Shayel was lying facing the wall, just as he had the night before, maybe asleep, maybe not. An empty packet lay in the trashcan. Uzhab stared at it until he realized there was nothing to be read about the situation from it. Some languages remained unknown to him.
“Don’t touch that!” Shayel snapped.
Uzhab stopped with his fingers hovering just above the doll. It was a pretty little thing, pristine in the way of collectibles, not things children really loved. “What’s wrong?”
Shayel pressed his lips together and looked back down at his instrument. “Just … don’t.”
“Okay,” Uzhab said, backing off. He eyed the doll suspiciously. “Is it trapped?”
“Is it…?” Shayel frowned first at him, then at the doll.
“Trapped. Rigged.” Were the Halla prone to booby-trapping their abandoned possessions? Uzhab had never heard of such a thing before, but considering the tactics some of their resistance groups had employed during the war, he supposed it wasn’t outside the realm of possibility. “Like, if I touch it, it’ll blow up in my hand. Because if there’s traps–“
“It’s not trapped,” Shayel said with a sigh. He took a deep breath of respirator air and exhaled with his eyes shut. “Just … don’t. You shouldn’t.”
Uzhab supposed he didn’t need much more explanation than that. “Okay,” he agreed, stepping back and shoving his hands into his pants pockets.
After a week of steady work on the tower infrastructure itself, the next step was to get it back on the power grid. From what few things Shayel had said, Uzhab had pieced together that apparently the power grid schematics he had on file reflected the original build, not modifications that had been made in the centuries since Aubor IV had been settled. To map the extant structures, Shayel needed access from another place that pulled power off the grid. For that, he’d chosen to break into a small free-standing building, which Uzhab recognized only once they were inside as a house.
Uzhab had never been inside a Halla house before. He was startled by how spacious it was, how high the ceilings were. The building’s north side was nearly all windows, which let in more daylight than Uzhab would have known what to do with in a home. Age and decay had done their best, but the house had remained sealed well enough that most of its electronic components, if not functional, at least hadn’t been destroyed.
Shayel nodded and went back to the console he’d plugged into the wall — or least, he appeared to. After a minute, though, it became clear to Uzhab that Shayel’s hands weren’t moving, and he wasn’t reading anything. “It’s…” Shayel didn’t look up, but it was clear from the tone of his voice that he was addressing Uzhab. “It’s disrespectful.”
“You don’t have to explain.” Uzhab shrugged, trying to be a man unbothered by anything. “You don’t want me to touch, I won’t touch.”
“It’s disrespectful,” Shayel repeated, his voice a little louder this time.
“Do you want me to say I’m sorry? I’m sorry.” Uzhab moved his hands to make clear that they were buried in his pockets past his wrists. “I’m sorry I was disrespectful. Didn’t mean to be. Not touching.”
“These people, they–” Shayel straightened his shoulders, then stood, pulling himself to his full height. When he stood like that, the top of Uzhab’s head barely reached Shayel’s shoulder. “They had everything taken from them. They were just trying to live their lives in peace. They weren’t a threat to anyone. They were families. Civilians. Children.”
Uzhab shifted his weight on his feet. He’d never suspected otherwise, but he also gathered this wasn’t the time to make that protest.
Shayel ran his fingertips along the edge of the counter, leaving trails in the accumulated century of dust. “They hadn’t done anything wrong, except being Halla,” he said, curling his long fingers into a fist. “And your people would have wiped them from the galaxy for it.”
“I know.” Uzhab’s eyes darted toward the exit. “Maybe I should wait outside–“
“Why are you here?”
The question caught Uzhab off-guard, not because he didn’t know how to answer it, but because he did. They both knew the answer. He was here because Shayel had wanted transit and a bodyguard for a year-long colony survey, and Uzhab had fit the bill. They’d even signed paperwork about it well before stepping foot on Uzhab’s ship. Why was Shayel asking that now?
Uzhab pressed his lips together for a moment, then shrugged. “I’m here because you’re paying me to be,” he said at last, because it was the truest, plainest answer he could give. “I’m trying to do the job you want me to do.”
“Doing your job, yes.” Shayel stepped forward, and as he did, Uzhab began to reconsider his opinion of the home as spacious, now that Shayel was taking up so much of it with his presence. “Like the Doqar who ran my people out of their homes.”
“Yeah, it was shitty,” Uzhab agreed, not liking the way he had to bare so much of his throat craning his neck to meet Shayel’s gaze. “What they did, it was shitty and wrong.”
Shayel frowned enough that Uzhab could see he’d been thrown off his rhythm. He’d been spoiling for a fight since they’d entered the atmosphere — if not a physical one, then at least a verbal altercation. From the moment they’d met, Uzhab had sensed something running beneath Shayel’s skin like a current through a cable. He’d taken it for general discontent and orneriness, but this close up, he could see that Shayel’s frosty exterior concealed high-voltage anger. He’d been picking and poking, being irritable and downright rude, likely in the hope that Uzhab would snap and yell back, defending the honor of the Doqar all the way into a shouting match. Uzhab had met people like that before, ones only comfortable with someone else once they’d established their mutual hate.
But Uzhab had older brothers, and he knew a thing or two about being baited. “They were wrong,” he said again, his voice steady and even. “The whole damned war was wrong.”
Shayel’s shoulders moved with the effort of breathing through the respirator. “I know who your grandfather was,” Shayel spat.
And there it was, clearly meant to be the bomb set to blow up any remaining good will between them. Uzhab hadn’t mentioned his family during negotiations, but he also hadn’t been so foolish as to think Shayel wouldn’t run a background check on him. If he’d been asked, he would have even drawn a family tree. But Shayel apparently had had other plans for that information. “Okay,” said Uzhab. “He was wrong too.”
Now Shayel’s confident expression faltered completely. “Aren’t you going to defend your great ancestor?”
“Why?” Uzhab shook his head. “He was a butcher. They gave him medals for killing civilians. I had to see his statue every morning on the way to school. He was no good without a war to fight, so he tried to keep it going by pouring hate into the ears of anyone who would listen. He was a sad, shitty man who didn’t know what to do if he wasn’t killing anyone — and he’s dead now, by the way, in case whatever research you did didn’t turn that up.”
“What kind of Doqar are you?” Shayel asked through clenched teeth.
That just made Uzhab laugh outright, and whether that was the right or wrong answer, he didn’t care. “A shitty one too, I guess,” he said, turning his head away from the confrontation of Shayel’s gaze. Uzhab would battle to the death if he needed to, but he’d also never seen any shame in being the one to back down from a meaningless fight. “You want someone to defend him, go talk to the rest of my family. They probably wish that statue had been naked, so they could have sucked his great and majestic cock every time they passed.”
Wrinkles of disgust crinkled the flat bridge of Shayel’s nose. Right, Uzhab had forgotten the Halla were like that about sex between men. He supposed they could afford that kind of attitude in a species with an even sex ratio.
“Look,” Uzhab said at last, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry it all happened. And if it makes you feel better about it to scream at me, go ahead. You probably won’t say anything that isn’t true anyway. But” –Uzhab pointed back to the console Shayel had plugged into the house’s outlets– “your little thing is blinking, so you might want to go pay attention to that.”
For a long moment, Shayel hesitated, giving Uzhab such a glare that Uzhab wondered if he shouldn’t go for one of his knives for sheer self-defense. Then the console started beeping, and that appeared to be enough to warrant Shayel’s attention. He turned away and strode back toward his equipment with all the haughty confidence of a king. Uzhab shrugged. If Shayel needed to behave like this, then that was his business.
Without announcing his departure, Uzhab slipped out the door of the house and walked back outside. He smelled rain on the air and wondered if they should get back before the skies opened. Then again, he figured, maybe being soaked to the bone would make Shayel miserable, and maybe being miserable would make him feel better. In an infinite universe, anything was possible.
The day after the first tower came back online, Shayel collapsed. Halfway up a staircase, his knees buckled and he pitched forward against the higher steps.
Uzhab was at his side in a second. “What’s wrong?” he asked, looking Shayel over. Uzhab didn’t see any blood or obvious wounds on Shayel, save a small scuff on one of his horns where he hadn’t caught himself in time.
What he did see, though, was that Shayel’s lips were grey. To some degree, that wasn’t notable — the Halla were always grey, at least by the metrics of the ruddy Doqar. But this was a deeper shade, one far closer to blue than it should have been. He placed his hand flat against Shayel’s chest and could feel both of his hearts hammering inside. Uzhab wasn’t a medic by any means, but he could put two and two together. “Why didn’t you tell me you couldn’t breathe?” Uzhab asked.
Shayel shook his head and tried to push Uzhab away. Uzhab could see a blue tinge to Shayel’s fingertips as well. Was that recent? Or had he only just noticed? “I’m fine,” Shayel said, making an attempt to stand that didn’t go far. “Tripped.”
“Bullshit.” Uzhab lifted Shayel’s chin with his fingers, looking him over for more signs of what he was already certain of — that the air was still too thin for Shayel’s lungs, and that Shayel had pushed himself too hard regardless. “Back to the ship.”
“I’m fine,” Shayel said again, shoving at Uzhab’s shoulder. He might have had better luck trying to push over a building.
“Back to the ship,” Uzhab repeated. “You walk or I carry you. You weigh, what, seventy kilos? I could carry two of you, one over each shoulder.”
Shayel grimaced, probably at the knowledge that it was not an idle threat. Uzhab had often worked stacking cargo on ships that couldn’t afford maglev loaders, and he looked it. “I have to–“
“You have a year,” Uzhab said. “We’ve been here a month. You can spare a day off.”
The pain of acknowledging that Uzhab had a point was written all over Shayel’s face, but at least Shayel knew a war he couldn’t win. He nodded and let Uzhab help him to his feet, then braced his arm across Uzhab’s broad shoulders as they started back. Their height difference made the walk a bit awkward, but Uzhab was in no hurry. He took his time, letting Shayel control their pace. He had nowhere else to be.
As they crossed one of the main thoroughfares, Shayel glanced up to see the top of the tower peeking over the buildings. “It’s working,” he said, catching the words between gasps. “It should work.”
“So why don’t we give it time to work?” Uzhab suggested. “It’s one tower. This is a big planet.” At least, these were all things Uzhab assumed would matter. The truth was, he wasn’t entirely sure what an atmospheric tower did, other than generally keep enough oxygen in the air. That was the essence of terraforming: taking a planet where people couldn’t live, and making it so they could. And if anyone could do that pretty much anywhere they wanted, why the hell did his ancestors ever believe they had to take someone else’s world?
Shayel cleared his throat. “A day. Maybe.” Uzhab didn’t even bother rolling his eyes.
Back in the ship, Uzhab sealed the exits, then went to adjust the ship’s air mix. By the time Uzhab returned to the hold, Shayel was stretched out on his back in his bunk, one forearm across his eyes. He didn’t look great, but he looked less hypoxic, which Uzhab supposed was a good sign. “I’ll take a look at your respirator,” Uzhab offered. “Make sure it’s working okay.”
“It’s fine,” Shayel said, his voice soft. “I probably set it too low.”
Uzhab filled two cups with water and put one by the side of Shayel’s bunk; he was accustomed by now to how Shayel would only do something for his own benefit if it was at least mostly his idea first. He sat on the edge of his own bunk and rested his elbows on his knees. “Let me know if you change your mind.” Large-scale engineering was beyond Uzhab’s ken, but he had plenty of experience making gadgets go.
Shayel didn’t answer, but after a moment he rolled over on his side and took the cup of water from the floor. His hands shook as he lifted it to his mouth, something Uzhab pretended not to notice. He’d have to hope that would go away. If it didn’t … well, he’d fight that battle when it came to him.
He wanted to ask how Shayel was feeling, but he didn’t expect Shayel would appreciate anything that could be read as pity. Uzhab didn’t relish the idea of sitting around in the ship all day with a cranky companion, though, so he decided to try something else. He went to one of the walls near the ship’s aft door and tapped open a panel. Inside were two earpieces. “Here,” Uzhab said, tossing one onto the side of Shayel’s mattress.
Shayel picked it up delicately between his fingers, as though it might bite him. “What’s this?”
“Person-to-person short-range communication.” Uzhab fixed his over his ear. “I’m going out.”
“Going out?” Shayel frowned. “For what?”
Uzhab shrugged. “Whatever you want, I guess. Look,” he added, before Shayel could point it out himself, “I’m not an engineer. But there’s got to be things you need done that don’t need technical skills. I can see there’s at least six other towers around that we haven’t even gone near. I can spent the next couple of days making sure we can even get to them when we want to. Clearing a path, cutting brush. Grunt shit. So when you get back out there, it won’t slow you down.”
Shayel’s brow furrowed even deeper, in a way that Uzhab was quickly learning meant that Uzhab was right and Shayel hated it. “So why am I wearing this if you’re cutting brush?” he asked, holding up the headpiece.
“You don’t have to.” Uzhab shrugged as he started for the door. “Rest up, do whatever you want. But if you turn that on” –he pointed to the earpiece– “I’ll be on the other end.”
Honestly, Uzhab expected to pass the rest of the day in silence. He wasn’t too bothered by the idea; he’d spent a great deal of his life alone, with only his own thoughts for company. Once outside the ship, he hopped up on its rear engine for a better view, trying to determine the most promising direction. Of the six remaining towers, only the one to the northwest looked close enough that he could make it there and back with such a late start. That would be it, then.
He hadn’t brought any kind of navigational aid, but he hardly felt one was necessary; the settlement had been planned well, its paths and buildings laid out in a logical order. In the same way the surrounding towns branched out from the hub of New Pakha City, the city itself radiated out from a central point near the greenspace where they’d landed. The Halla thought in clean geometry: circles, squares, lines, radii. They seemed to find beauty in orderly things. His grandfather had deemed their entire aesthetic repressive — “constipated” was the word he’d used, which had never failed to make his fathers and brothers laugh.
That wasn’t quite it, though, Uzhab was beginning to realize. Repression indicated that there was some wild desire beneath straining to get free, tamed to the point of misery. Uzhab didn’t see any conflict like that here. It was more the appeal of simplicity over excess, the measured over the organic. In that, Uzhab supposed it was blasphemous to find a Halla city in this state, all good intentions about order overrun by the chaos of nature.
He was halfway down a deserted street when he suddenly heard a voice muttering in Hallic, which nearly made him jump out of his skin and begin believing in ghosts. Seconds later, though, he mercifully remembered the earpiece. “Hello?” Uzhab said, his voice sounding strange in the otherwise empty air.
The muttering stopped short, followed by a throat-clearing. “Is this … do you hear me?” asked Shayel.
“Yeah, I hear you.” Uzhab grinned. “You hear me?”
“It doesn’t fit,” Shayel said, and it took Uzhab a moment to realize he’d been talking about the earpiece. Uzhab hadn’t even thought about how different the shapes of Doqar and Halla ears were. “I had to patch through the ship’s comm array.”
Uzhab’s eyebrows raised in surprise. “You can do that?”
Shayel huffed. “Yes, I can do that.”
“No, I mean–” Uzhab sighed. “I didn’t know the ship could do that.”
“Oh.” A quiet sound came through the connection, possibly the sound of fingers drumming on a console. “Well, it can.”
“Neat.” Uzhab kept walking down the thoroughfare. This part of the city had fewer tall buildings and more houses like the one they’d entered before. The scene read as far more chaotic than the central area. There were no signs of gunfire, but some doors hung half-open, and the tattered remains of softer possessions, unidentifiable now due to age and weather, lay scattered across the ground. This had been where they’d gathered all their things while being forced out. There’d been no coming back for anything left behind.
They said nothing else of consequence to one another for the rest of the day. Through the connection, Uzhab heard the vague sounds of Shayel’s moving around the ship: closing cabinet doors, running the faucet, tapping at his tablets. He supposed in turn that Shayel heard him as he hacked back brambles that overgrew the street at several points. Other than that, they did not speak, except for Uzhab to announce that he was heading back to the ship, and Shayel to acknowledge it.
Still, the silence between them managed to feel companionable, far more so than any other exchange between them had thus far. They weren’t speaking to one another, but they could, at any moment — not touching, but in arm’s reach. Uzhab of course resolved to say nothing about that`, lest Shayel discontinue the exercise. But quietly, he found it comforting to be a little less alone than he had been before.
“Is it blinking yellow?” asked Shayel.
Uzhab tapped the panel. “It’s not blinking at all.”
Shayel exhaled in frustration, and Uzhab could hear the bunk creak as Shayel sat down hard on it. “Look around and see if you see any frayed wires. Like something a rodent chewed through.”
With a grunt, Uzhab lowered himself to the floor and peered underneath, squinting into the narrow space between the cabinet and the floor. “Nope,” he said, somewhat grateful for that fact. If he had, he couldn’t have reached it anyway. Halla systems architecture expected the people maintaining it to have much thinner fingers, and no claws.
“Then I don’t know.” Shayel’s tone was thin. “I can’t do this from a distance.”
“We’ll leave it,” Uzhab said, trying to head off further frustration on Shayel’s part. “I’ll circle back.”
In the week since Shayel had collapsed, he’d only left the ship a handful of times, and never to go any farther than the buildings at the edge of the greenspace. As it turned out, Uzhab had been right about the respirators. They’d been designed for the facial shape and lung capacity of the average Halla, but they hadn’t been meant to work in salt air. Over the first month on Aubor IV, they’d corroded quietly, giving less and less oxygen until they produced nearly none at all. With the first atmospheric tower going, Shayel could chance short trips, but nothing more.
Thus, Uzhab’s initial foray into the world as Shayel’s proxy had instead become a regular arrangement. Every morning, Uzhab geared up with the supplies he needed for the day, while Shayel became the voice in his ear, asking him to describe what he saw and telling him what to do next, guiding him through a landscape unfamiliar to them both.
Uzhab opened the hatch in the floor and started climbing back down the access ladder he’d used to get to the rooftop. He’d gone to investigate what had looked like a communications array, and though he’d been right about its purpose, he hadn’t managed to get it to do anything. Shayel got the most frustrated when things like that happened, places where the situation might have been different if he’d been there in person. Once Uzhab had been unable to rewire conduits for a solar array, and Shayel had sulked the whole night through.
Thus, Uzhab was determined to change the subject. “What are those trees with the white bark?” he asked as he descended.
There was a small pause from Shayel’s end. “Which ones?”
“With the giant leaves. Bigger than my hand.” Near enough to the ground, Uzhab hopped down the rest of the way, landing with a graceless oof. “At least as tall as most of the houses.”
“Why do you want to know?”
Uzhab shrugged as he resettled his pack on his shoulders. “I just like them. They’re pretty. And I’ve never seen bark that white before.”
“Sorry,” said Shayel. “They must be native to this world. I don’t know.”
“Ah. Okay. Just wondering.” Uzhab stepped back out into the sunlight, smiling as its warmth hit his face. “I like trees. Didn’t grow up near many.”
“You didn’t grow up near trees?” asked Shayel, audibly incredulous.
Uzhab laughed. “Most were scrub brush at best. Not big trees like this, like the type you could climb. I remember learning about the Vanyyar when I was younger and hearing they built houses in trees, and wondering, how the hell would that work?”
That won a soft chuckle from Shayel, one Uzhab wasn’t sure Shayel knew had been heard. “My parents built me a tree house.”
“A whole house?” Uzhab frowned. “How old were you?”
“Not–” There was that tapping sound again, the thoughtful drumming of fingers. “Not a real house. A platform with walls and a roof. And a ladder you had to climb, up the side of the tree. Small enough I couldn’t stand up in it, even when I was a boy.”
“And you lived there?”
“No,” Shayel said, and there was that chuckle again, the barest laugh. Uzhab found the noise strange, because he couldn’t picture what expression must accompany it. He’d seen Shayel neutrally pleased from time to time, usually when some technical effort proved a success, but he couldn’t think of a time he’d seen the dour man so much as crack a real smile. “I played there.”
At least Uzhab knew better than to point out what a strange thought that was: Shayel, playing. “What game can you play in a tree?” Uzhab asked. He tried a nearby door and found it locked, so he left it for now. After what Shayel had been like about touching the doll, Uzhab didn’t supposed he’d be too keen on breaking and entering.
“Not formal games. Imagination games. It was a place to–” Shayel interrupted himself with a throat-clearing cough. “It was a good way to get out of the house sometimes.”
Uzhab knew what that was like. “All by yourself?”
“Sometimes.” Shayel gave a small grunt. “Mostly. My only sibling is much older than I am, already grown by the time I was born. And I…” Shayel’s voice trailed off, and he was silent for so long following that Uzhab wondered if he might not have dropped the thread altogether. But something told him Shayel had more to say on the matter, so he shut his mouth and cut back some vines, and after a minute, Shayel continued: “It won’t shock you to learn that even as a child, I wasn’t so good at making friends.”
For the near-lighthearted tone of Shayel’s voice, Uzhab could tell this moment was made of glass. He had to handle it carefully, or it would shatter beyond repair. He paused for a moment to wipe his blade on his pant leg. “Yeah, well, it will shock you to learn I wasn’t great at it either.”
“You?” asked Shayel, his voice soft with genuine confusion. “You seem like the type surrounded by friends.”
“You’re thinking of my brothers,” Uzhab said, swinging the kukri toward the vines again. It was easier to talk and move at the same time. “The life of the party. Everyone’s favorites. They were real specimens of Doqar manhood. Probably still are, for all I know.” He wiped his forearm across his brow. Aubor IV was too cold for his tastes in general, but he could still work up a good sweat. “Haven’t seen or heard from them since I left. And they sure as hell haven’t come looking for me. If you’ve done a background check on me lately, you probably know more about how they’re doing than I do.”
There was a small pause from Shayel’s end. “Do you want to know?”
Uzhab whistled through his teeth. “I don’t know. Do I?”
“They’re all still alive,” Shayel said.
“Good enough.” Uzhab began working at the viney mass again. There were surely easier ways to beat back the wilderness, but none quite so viscerally satisfying. Would he have been sad to learn of their passing? Probably. They were still his brothers, no matter how much they were probably glad to pretend he was dead. “Do me a favor, though, and don’t tell me about my fathers.”
“Can I ask why not?”
“Because they’re going to be alive and I’m going to feel guilty about it, or they’re going to be dead and I’m going to get weird about it.” Uzhab grabbed a whole handful of the vines and yanked them off the building’s surface, feeling a great satisfaction as a giant sheet of green tore away. “I’m going to remember the, like, five good things they did for me, and get nostalgic for those, and it’ll make me wish I hadn’t left. And I don’t wish I hadn’t left.”
To Shayel’s tremendous credit, he didn’t ask for the why about that. Maybe he already knew somehow. More likely he could hear from Uzhab’s voice that there was nothing to say. The truth was, there really wasn’t. There hadn’t been any big event, any inciting incident. He’d just endured his misfit existence until he’d seen a way out. A lover he’d once told the story to had compared it to having a wild bird trapped in a starship: Everyone was happier, the bird included, with its removal.
Uzhab had not actively been looking for a way to change the subject, but he still found himself grateful for the small solar array that caught his eye at that moment. He asked about it, and Shayel suggested he go take a look, and that became the rest of their afternoon — examining the system, testing to see what was still operable, brainstorming about how to replace what wasn’t. It was a project, and they could both concentrate on a project.
He didn’t know what he’d expected to find that evening, but when Uzhab at last made his way back to the ship just after dark, he found that Shayel had fallen into near-silence again. He wasn’t sniping anymore, but his one-word answers to nearly all inquiries made Uzhab wonder if the man in the ship’s cabin and the man talking him through testing solar cells were in fact the same person. He even had the wild thought that patching their communication through the ship had somehow awakened a previously undiscovered artificial intelligence, and that had been Uzhab’s conversation partner during his expeditions into the city.
But no, in a weird way, it made sense. After all, the thought of looking a Halla in the eye and talking about his own family made Uzhab shudder. Maybe Shayel felt the same way. Maybe there was just something to the remoteness of a voice-only connection that made such topics curiously safe.
Even so, when Uzhab came back in from doing his nightly walk of the perimeter and saw Shayel lying on his side as usual, facing the wall, he cleared his throat. “Good night,” he said to the presumably sleeping figure.
A soft voice came from Shayel’s side of the room: “Good night.”
“Is there any reason to believe the water around here wouldn’t be safe?” Uzhab asked, staring at the pool in front of him.
Shayel swore in surprise. “Don’t drink that!” he admonished through Uzhab’s earpiece.
“I’m not going to drink it,” Uzhab said. “I want a bath.” The sonic devices on his ship did hygiene well enough, but he missed being able to soak the filth off, not just gently vibrate it away.
“Where did you find a bath?”
“About where the elevation starts to change.” Most of the other water features he’d found in the city had been artificial, and thus cracked and dried up, or choked with stagnant rainwater. This, however, was a clever design that had tapped into an extant stream to mimic natural pools. It was too orderly to be anything but designed, but Uzhab had to admit the designers had done a good job. He reached down and dipped his fingers into it, then pulled back with a yelp. “Woo! Never mind. Snowmelt.” Even at the tail end of summer, the water was still shockingly cold.
Shayel made a thoughtful hum. “Can you see a sign around there?”
Uzhab pressed his lips together for a moment, biting back less generous responses. “I can see several signs. I just can’t read them.”
“Then … can you see if there’s a big sign, and the topmost character looks like a vertical line and three small circles down its left side?”
Uzhab glanced around. Wear and decay had rendered several of the signs illegible, even if he had been literate in Hallic. There was something that looked like a large sign face-down on the ground, though, and when Uzhab picked it up by the corner, he saw characters there. It was hard to tell top from bottom, but at one of the ends was the line and circles Shayel had described. “Yeah, I see it,” Uzhab said.
“The Ethean Springs!” Shayel sounded utterly delighted. “My grandfather told me stories about those!”
Somehow, Uzhab felt as though a loose component of his brain’s engine had suddenly settled into place. “Your grandfather lived here?”
The silence that followed let Uzhab know that he had never been meant to know that. Shayel had done his homework on Uzhab, but the sharing of information was not intended to go both ways. Shayel exhaled slowly. “Yes,” he said at last. “Three of my grandparents were born here.”
Uzhab had never much questioned the reasons behind this mission — for instance, why it was necessary to reclaim this abandoned colony when the Halla had made so many others before and since, or why the survey team was an ill-prepared and mismatched pair instead of a government-funded army of scientists and engineers. “Did they live nearby?” Uzhab asked, looking around. These pools were on the outskirts of the town, where the land became much rockier and more vertical.
“I think so. My grandfathers, at least. I didn’t…” Shayel made a low exhaling sound as his sentence trailed off.
“You don’t have to tell me.” Uzhab imagined a place like this would have been nice in the high summer heat, especially for someone with Halla temperature preferences. He’d brought clothes for all climates, but already he was wearing long sleeves against the chill that came on past sunset. He thought ahead to winter with a shiver. “Your family business.”
The com line remained quiet, which Uzhab supposed he deserved. He didn’t blame Shayel — in fact, knowing that about his grandparents made a lot of things make sense. He got that it must be strange to sit back and watch a place explored through Doqar eyes. Add in the fact that Shayel’s ancestors were from here, and no wonder Shayel got weird about things sometimes.
Uzhab pulled out his navigator and turned to the north again, following the paths laid out for him on the map. His most recent task was to walk the main arteries of the power grids, running a device over them that would tell Shayel where the current could still be carried and where repairs would need to be made. It was probably something Shayel could have dispatched a drone to do, but a drone would also not have found the Ethean Springs, so Uzhab took some pride in his utility there.
After several minutes of silence, Uzhab heard Shayel’s voice come so soft and clear from the earpiece, he actually turned to make sure Shayel had not somehow manifested just over his shoulder. “My ancestors were among the original colonists,” Shayel said. “My family are shrine-keepers.”
What little Uzhab knew about Halla society did not extend much to their religion, beyond what his own grandfather had railed about the “inane pageantry” of their “laughable superstitions,” which wasn’t much to go on. “Are you?” asked Uzhab.
“Bit hard to be a shrine-keeper without a shrine.”
The reasons for their return became clearer by the moment. Uzhab walked through the streets of what might have been a commercial district, once. The deterioration was worse over here, though; a landslide had covered up several blocks and damaged many surrounding buildings. The only way Uzhab could even judge the extent of the damage was to compare the map in his hand to what wasn’t there. “I haven’t seen a shrine, I don’t think,” Uzhab said.
Shayel chuckled. “You have. You just didn’t know what you were seeing.”
Well, Uzhab had no trouble believing that. “So are you going to?”
“Am I going to what?”
“Be one again,” Uzhab said, making his way around a particularly stout boulder. “When this is all back up and running. Is that the plan?”
There was a sound Uzhab couldn’t identify from the other side of the line, a muffled noise that gave no real clues as to what had made it. There was safety in at least some small deniability, even in conversations like these. “I don’t have the training,” Shayel said at last. “You have to … well, you should be trained from when you’re very young. That, for me, didn’t happen.”
Uzhab nodded. “Sorry. Or … congratulations? I guess whichever one is appropriate.”
“Honestly?” Shayel said. “I don’t know which one is appropriate. It feels like something I should have done? But obviously something I didn’t want enough, or I would have insisted, even as a child.”
“Instead you had your treehouse.”
“I did,” Shayel agreed. “I had my treehouse, and sometimes I pretended that was my shrine. I pretended I was doing my grandfathers’ rituals, only for thousands, instead of just for my family and whatever other refugees had come over to our house for the holiday. But … I had a child’s grasp on what they were doing. They were already old when I was born, and all of them died before I came of age.”
Climbing over the rocks blocking the street had winded him, so when Uzhab saw a stone bench, he took the opportunity to sit for a minute and catch his breath. “What about your parents?”
“Oh, they think I’m ridiculous. That this is just something I need to get out of my system. That I’m wasting my inheritance fixing up something that should be left broken.” Shayel’s tone was more weary than bitter. “They’re expecting me to return with my tail between my legs, admit I was a fool, and give them permission to find me a wife.”
Was that last comment a door? Or a trap? Uzhab couldn’t tell, and so he left it shut. “You don’t seem like the kind of guy who gives up,” he pointed out instead.
“I’m not,” Shayel said, with perhaps a note of pride in his voice. Uzhab felt it was well-deserved — in his experience, tenacity was a virtue. “Are you going to be all right for a while? I think I’m going to go lie down.”
“You okay?” asked Uzhab.
“I’m fine. Just a bit of a headache. I’ll leave the comm open, though, so shout if you need me.”
Uzhab nodded. “Have a good nap.”
The ship’s comm system was designed to filter for voices, but other sounds still got through, and Uzhab could hear the soft, metallic pad of steps as Shayel traversed the ship to his bunk, then the creaking of metal as he lay down atop it. It was so easy to picture him there, turned on his side, knees just bent to compensate for the slightly too-short mattress. He was starting to forget what his ship had looked like without.
He had the stray thought that he should keep his eyes open for houses like the first one they’d found, ones that had remained more or less sealed and intact. Shayel couldn’t leave the ship long enough now, but once the air was better, he’d probably like a little more privacy and space. Maybe Uzhab could even fix it up for him a bit first — not turn the power back on or anything technical like that, but at least clean it up a bit. Like he was doing everywhere else: cutting back the vegetation, clearing away debris, making it somewhere someone might like to live again.
Remembering the way Shayel had yelled at him for almost touching the doll brought that line of thinking to a halt. Shayel wouldn’t see fixing up a house for him as a nice gesture; he’d see it as splitting the bones of his ancestors. Slumping back against the bench, Uzhab shook his head. Better not.
Perhaps Uzhab could forget who they were, beyond just two people on a planet. Shayel couldn’t — and maybe he was right not to. Drop both of them back a hundred years in Aubor IV’s past, and they would have been standing in very different places: Shayel frantically gathering his few possessions before being forced off the planet at gunpoint, Uzhab holding the gun. Uzhab had thought he’d been forced to grow up in the shadow of the war. He was starting to realize that he had no idea.
Tempting blasphemy, he cursed his ancestors beneath his breath. They’d done so much damage and walked away, letting someone else clean up the mess. That mess stretched across planets, star systems, wherever the Halla had been, and wherever they’d been scattered to.
Uzhab had benefited from the legacy of war. He’d grown up with money, comfort, stability, education. He hadn’t tried to wipe the Halla out, but he’d been born into a world paid for by their stolen property. But he, one Doqar, couldn’t take or give any of it back. He had barely anything but a ship, the clothes on his back, and his hands.
So he put those hands to work. Stone by stone, he beat the landslide back for a full city block. The rocks small enough to move, he gathered into neat piles; the boulders too large to lift, he dug around until he could roll them away. More than once, he told himself that this was foolish, that there were tools far better-suited for earth-moving that could get the job done in a fraction of the time. He didn’t stop, not until the sun was slipping down behind the mountains and his hands were cracked and bleeding. Two of his claws had split, and he grimaced as he picked gravel out of a gash on the side of his palm. He didn’t even remember getting cut.
Instead of heading straight back, Uzhab retraced his path to the springs. In the growing dark, he could see a few larger animals come to drink: herbivores and scavengers that scattered when he approached, probably thinking he was some great predator. No, he came from a line of predators, but he was no predator himself. He had been too stupid to live among the predators; if he hadn’t left, he would have been eaten as a lesson to others about weakness.
Uzhab thrust his hands into the icy springs and felt his whole body rebel. The water was so cold that it made him want to cry out, but he bit his lip so Shayel didn’t hear and think something had gone wrong — or, for that matter, yell at Uzhab for polluting the springs with his Doqar blood. Uzhab would just have to hope nature could take care of little things like that.
He left his hands submerged until he could feel the swelling start to decrease, then pulled them out with a splash. “What was that?” asked Shayel.
“Oh, it–” Uzhab shook his hands dry, feeling them tingle. “Just me, washing something off.”
“Are you still at the springs?” There was a note of worry in Shayel’s voice.
“Yeah,” Uzhab said, turning toward the path. “I’m starting back now.”
“It’s nearly dark out.”
“For you, maybe.” Uzhab gave one last glance over his shoulder toward his day’s progress. Maybe it was stupid to feel proud of such useless work, but he did anyway. “I’m fine. I can see better than Halla can.”
Even moving in a mostly straight line, the path back to the ship took longer than Uzhab had expected, until he very nearly couldn’t see anymore. He had his kukri out, though it pained him to grip the handle, just in case one of those carnivores got a big idea. He knocked the flat edge of it against the buckles of his pack every so often, hoping the strange metallic sound would be enough to deter anything that might think he looked tasty. In his experience, most things with sharp teeth avoided confusing prey. He, meanwhile, had spent much of his life perfecting that confusion.
As he began to approach the last few streets leading to the greenspace, he began to be able to see better, and then even better as he got close. He chalked it up at first to moonrise, assuming that the high buildings were the reason he couldn’t see the moon itself, only its ambient light. But the light grew brighter still, until he took the last step into the clearing and realized what had happened.
The ship shone like a beacon in all directions, all its exterior lights blazing, to the point where Uzhab had to lift his hand and shield his eyes from how strong the beams were against the surrounding darkness. “Thanks for leaving the light on,” Uzhab said with a chuckle.
“Just … trying to help,” Shayel said.
They ate their dinner and got ready for bed in relative silence again, but more than once, Uzhab noticed Shayel glancing in his direction. At his hands, Uzhab figured as he rubbed them with regenerative cream. He resolved that if Shayel asked, he would be honest about how the injury had occurred. But Shayel didn’t.
When the first real cold snap of the year came, it brought with it thunderstorms that kept them in the shuttle for two days, keeping to themselves as much as the confined space would allow. The following day, Shayel felt confident enough to venture out again, to see about getting one of the other towers up and running. He strapped on the respirator Uzhab had been using, which had gotten less corroded for having been used less, and the two of them set out together.
After a day of solid hard work, Shayel managed to get the second tower’s start-up sequence going, though it took so much out of him that had to stop several times on the way back to catch his breath. When they returned, Shayel fell down on his bunk. After a few minutes to let him sink into sleep, Uzhab went over and gently slid his boots off his feet, careful not to wake him. He’d had a hard day.
A very real part of Uzhab wanted to jump behind the ship’s controls and pilot them to the nearest starbase with a medical center, to flood Shayel’s lungs with oxygen until he returned to his normal cranky self. He knew he probably should. He didn’t. Shayel would certainly never forgive him for that, would likely never even speak to him again, and would absolutely not ask him to come back to Aubor IV when he returned, stubborn as ever.
Perhaps it was stupid and selfish, but Uzhab didn’t want to lose Aubor IV. He’d started growing a great fondness for it as he learned its roads, mapped its paths with his feet. He’d already started to feel the planet’s daily rhythm. He’d learned the noises and smells it made. He’d gotten used to feeling its sun on his face as he walked between the abandoned buildings. He knew how the roads reflected back the day’s heat in the cool of the evening. Sometimes he lay atop the ship in the evenings and tried to connect stars into constellations. It was a good world. It had been a good world. It would be a good world again, someday.
During his daily expeditions out, Uzhab began to forage. They’d packed more than enough rations to last the year, but Uzhab had grown well and truly sick of them so many months in, and he suspected Shayel was at least starting to feel the same. He knew Shayel wouldn’t much appreciate his insect-gathering, so he concentrated on nuts and fruit from the trees — always bringing them back for Shayel’s inspection first, lest some enticing plant carry some less-enticing poison.
He thought about hunting, but dismissed the idea. There were plenty of edible game animals and birds around, and he had faith in his ability to track and trap any one he chose. The next steps, however, were prohibitive: He didn’t want to butcher animals in places their blood might attract predators, and he absolutely wasn’t going to clean a carcass inside the ship. Besides, the miniscule galley meant no way to cook anything he caught, and barely any way to store it, cooked or raw.
Fish, however, were a different story entirely, which was how Uzhab found himself down on the end of a sturdy jetty, keeping an eye on three different crude bobbers floating atop the calmly rolling sea. “You know, the first time I ate fish was on a space station,” he said.
“Really?” Shayel sounded surprised, back in the ship. There had been no particular reason for Uzhab to grab the communicator on his way out the door, considering that he wasn’t investigating anything on Shayel’s behalf or following his instructions — nor, he supposed, was there any reason for Shayel to turn on his end of the connection. It was by now simply a force of habit.
“Not a lot of fish where I come from, and those there are, Doqar tend to leave be. But here I was, off-world and confronted with fish. And on a date!” Uzhab laughed at the memory of it. “An honest-to-goodness date. Like you do with someone you like and might want to see again.”
“And was the fish her idea?”
Uzhab hesitated for only a beat before answering, “His, actually, yeah.”
“Ah,” said Shayel, too quickly, too casually. Uzhab could practically hear all the muscles in Shayel’s body tense. Smiling quietly, Uzhab waited to see how Shayel would change the subject, what he would do so they wouldn’t have to discuss such disgraceful things. He was startled, therefore, to hear Shayel follow up by asking, “How did … the rest of the date, how did it go?”
Glad Shayel couldn’t see the undisguised look of surprise on his face, Uzhab cleared his throat. “Honestly, the fish was the best part.”
“No second date, then?” asked Shayel.
“He was hot, but–” Uzhab combed back his hair from where the sea air kept blowing it into his face. He didn’t know yet if he trusted having so much water all in once place. “Sometimes there’s just no spark. Nobody’s fault.”
“And you were looking for a … a spark?”
One of the lines jerked, but bobbed back undisturbed a second later. Fishing was a disappointing enterprise and Uzhab was learning quickly he didn’t much care for it. “I didn’t know what I was looking for. I felt very mature at the time, but I was basically a child. I was just a couple years out of running away, still at the point where I was glancing over my shoulder every time a Doqar-shaped shadow passed by, sure it was my family. It took a few more years to really get it through my head that no one was coming.”
Shayel was quiet on the other end of the line, and Uzhab supposed he couldn’t blame him. It made sense that Shayel couldn’t understand a family who would be glad to see one of its members gone, any more than Uzhab could wrap his head around the idea of a small, stable household that wanted to bring home its wayward son. Did Shayel feel guilty about that? Uzhab hoped not. Shayel clearly had enough guilt weighing down his every decision, he didn’t deserve more on behalf of a Doqar he barely knew.
“It was really good fish, though,” Uzhab said after a minute, laughing to himself. A devilish little spark possessed him, and he decided to push a bit, to see how far he could get before Shayel pushed back in self-defense: “And he was good in bed. So the evening wasn’t a total waste.”
“Ah,” said Shayel again — again, so fast that the calm behind it had to be forced. Uzhab wondered if Halla could blush, and if they could, what Shayel’s smooth, soft cheeks would look like with a touch more color in them.
Of course Shayel was attractive. That much had been obvious from their first meeting. But Uzhab was not an animal in heat; he’d had many dealings with many attractive people before, and he’d managed to behave like a sentient being around all of them, without making it anyone else’s business unless they showed a mutual interest. He’d been more than content to acknowledge this fact about Shayel and pay it little mind.
But that had been before, when their relationship had been strictly business, or even business with a bit of needless antagonism. Now that they had spent so many hours in conversation, it was harder to keep down the thoughts that curiosity bubbled up to the surface, like picturing a blush in Shayel’s cheeks, or wondering what his hands felt like, with their long and clawless digits. The few times Uzhab had made contact with Shayel’s smooth skin, it had been cool to the touch. How could he not wonder if that chill would be as pronounced beneath his clothes, in the more closely guarded parts of his body?
It was a wicked streak born of these imaginings that led Uzhab to press on with his teasing: “Still, it was nice he even thought in the first place we might like spending time together with our clothes on. Most people cut a lot quicker to the chase.”
“To the…?” Shayel started, then swallowed hard.
“They see you and they want you, they don’t try to court you. They just ask, how much?”
Before this moment, Uzhab hadn’t known it was possible to hear someone be scandalized. A stutter in Shayel’s breath and the creaking as his shifted his weight in his bunk told a story all on their own. “So you’ve…” Shayel inhaled sharply. “For money?”
“It’s a pretty good way to get by,” Uzhab said, telling the truth. “It’s better when you’re set and that’s just extra. You can be picky. It gets less fun when times are thin, and it’s a lot harder to say no.”
“And … for men?”
“And anybody else.” It was strange, to be sitting on the jetty in the sunlight, thinking of all the hours he’d spent twined with other bodies in darkened crew spaces, half-lit bunks, even deserted corridors. He could feel his cock begin to stir inside his loose trousers, making him keenly aware of just how many things were unacceptable in close quarters. “Given the choice, though, I’ll choose men. I guess that’s not too surprising, though, is it?”
Sex ratios among the Doqar, as far as records went back, had always been skewed somewhat male. Over the last millennium, though, they had become skewed so male that Doqar society had become nearly entirely sex-segregated. A high-ranking or influential man might be able to acquire his own, exclusive female mate as a status symbol, but someone as far down in the birth order as Uzhab would never have had a chance. The relationships that formed in light of this were something Uzhab knew for a fact the Halla considered proof of Doqar barbarism, though Uzhab didn’t know why they focused on that, when they had so many better examples.
Shayel’s voice was low, a bit hesitant: “I suppose I’d thought that might have been part of why you left.”
That made Uzhab chuckle. “Because I’d never have a wife? No. Maybe some, but not me. We can’t help who we are, I guess.” Uzhab sighed up at the clouds rolling lazily across the blue sky. “No, I shouldn’t speak for anyone else. I can’t help who I am. I’ve tried, but the only thing that ever worked was being me.”
“I envy you,” said Shayel so softly what Uzhab wasn’t sure he’d been meant to hear the words.
“You shouldn’t,” Uzhab said. “It sounds admirable when I say it like that. Find me at some far-flung spaceport when I haven’t eaten in a week and ask me how it’s working out for me.” He yawned and stretched his arms above his head, hearing the vertebrae pop as he arched his spine. “So what about you?”
“Me?” Shayel squeaked.
“Yeah.” Uzhab checked one of the lines and swore under his breath when he realized that something had eaten the bait right off. He got to work resetting it, this time with a more securely fastened grub. “You said something a while ago about getting your parents to find you a wife. You have a lucky lady in mind?”
“Ah–” There came that blush again, clear as day even in that single syllable, which was why Uzhab was surprised to hear Shayel’s answer: “No.”
“No? There’s not–” Uzhab frowned as his tease was derailed by his not knowing what the Halla considered attractive. Whatever it was, he couldn’t imagine Shayel didn’t fit into that category. “You’re not fending them off with a stick? Driving away hordes of swooning women every time you step out your door?”
“No,” Shayel said again, as though that much should have been obvious. “They don’t — we don’t behave like that.”
Uzhab smiled at the comical image of Shayel surrounded by eager admirers, sputtering and trying to keep his cool as they pressed up against him. He’d be very cute like that, pale eyes wide, lips parted. “So I guess while I’m out beating back the wilderness, you’re not in your bunk writing love letters to some nice girl back home?”
“Hardly.” Shayel snorted. “More like they’re going to have to bribe someone to settle down with me.”
“What? You’re a catch! You’ve got–” Uzhab gestured to the whole world around them, even though he knew Shayel couldn’t see. “You’ve got ambition! You’ve got a whole planet!”
“I’ve got an obsession,” Shayel corrected him. “And not a particularly popular one. Why do you think I had to contract out? You think I wanted an alien partner instead of other descendents, like me? We all grew up hearing the stories from our grandparents and our great-grandparents, but…” There was a thoughtful pause, and then the creaking of the bunk, presumably as Shayel lay down atop it. “Our parents were the first ones who got sick of it, I think. They couldn’t understand the nostalgia. They were born on other worlds, into the peace. They just wanted quiet lives, and that was what they told my generation instead of their parents’ memories.”
Uzhab frowned. “So why are you here?”
Shayel’s voice was distant, even more so than for just its physical remoteness. “I almost don’t know anymore. I wanted–” He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I thought it would be an easy fix. A year? More like a month! Six at most. Part of me thought it would be as easy as walking back into a room and flipping a switch. And then everyone could see how our grandparents had been right to love this place, how it really was this paradise they’d promised. And I suppose it never occurred to me, not really, that I was hearing the stories from people who’d last been here when they were children. Of course it had seemed perfect to them, and of course I believed them, because I was a child myself when I first heard them talk about Aubor IV. Do they tell fairy tales on Doqar?”
“Yeah,” Uzhab said. “Maybe not with actual fairies, but I know what you mean.”
“Well, imagine that you have a favorite fairy tale, the one you hear all the time. You can’t get it out of your head. Then one day — magic!” Shayel snapped his fingers. “It turns out the fairy tale is real. It’s real, and you could go there, if you worked hard and learned all the right things and said your prayers and loved your people enough. You could be the hero who got it all back for them, back from the monsters who’d stolen it in the night. And then you get there and realize that you didn’t actually do the right things at all. You should have left it all in the realm of make-believe, in a fantasy small enough to be contained in a treehouse.” He snorted. “And you’re no hero after all.”
Uzhab didn’t know how to respond. This was more than Shayel had ever said to him about the project — but more than that, he was willing to bet this was more than Shayel had ever said to anyone about the project, or about anything else that personal. Uzhab could only imagine how excited Shayel’s grandparents had been that someone had been willing to listen, to be as excited by hearing their stories as they had been about telling them. Maybe they hadn’t meant to place such a burden on him by the telling, but the weight nevertheless was there.
So after a long moment, Uzhab simply said, “I think this is pretty heroic.”
“What?” Shayel made a startled sniffling sound; had he been crying?
“Heroic. All of this, this … whole place.” Uzhab lay back on the jetty now, his arms pillowed beneath his head as he stared up at the autumn sky. “You’re single-handedly trying to bring a whole planet back. Maybe it’s not what you thought it would be when you were a kid, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. And you’ve made some real progress! That takes serious guts. Most people I know wouldn’t dream of doing that alone.”
“I’m not, though, am I?” came Shayel’s soft reply. “Alone.”
No, Uzhab supposed. For the first time in probably both of their lives, that was true.
He brought back three fish to the ship — not much of a catch, but Uzhab was proud of his work anyway — and roasted them over a small fire pit built a few meters from the ship. The meat was fine on its own, if a little bland from a lack of seasoning. Shayel had the idea of combining the fresh meat with one of the ration packs, a combination that elevated both components.
The silence that fell as they ate together was companionable, not uncomfortable, as it had often been in the past. Even so, Uzhab wanted so much to continue their conversation in person — to ask Shayel face-to-face about his thoughts on heroism, or family, or love, or anything beyond simple, immediate concerns, like which stew might go best with seafood.
By now, though, the rules of the game were clear. Uzhab supposed they even made sense: After all, all Shayel had to do was look at him to remember who Uzhab’s people were. But as nothing more than voices through a set of speakers, they could each become anyone at all.
The worst part, he thought trudged through the street, was that he should have known better.
He’d been too cocky, assuming that he could make it to the third tower and back before the real weather kicked in. They were so close to getting it up and running, and by Shayel’s calculations, that would go a long way toward settling out the oxygen levels in the atmosphere and letting him walk outside freely. Uzhab could tell that the cabin fever was really setting in by now, whether or not Shayel wanted to admit it. The few trips Shayel had made out since getting the second tower running had been brought such a smile to his face, even if they’d left him exhausted. Uzhab had hoped that if he could get the power lines cleared, the third tower could kick back in to life and work through the storm, and by the time the weather cleared, Shayel might be able to leave the ship whenever he wanted.
The snow had already been falling as he’d stepped outside, but Uzhab had been able to dismiss flurries that hadn’t even been collecting on the ground. However, by the time he’d neared the base of the tower, eight kilometers away, the weather had taken a distinct turn for the worse. Snow, he could handle well enough, even if he didn’t care much for it, but the storm had brought a thick, wet sleet. Instead of piling up into polite, powdery drifts that Uzhab could just trudge through, the top layer froze into a hardy, icy crust.
There was nothing for it but to return to the ship, and for a while, he was sure he was going to make it. It was a grueling sort of progress, with each step taken on blind faith as he kept the hood of his coat tucked down around his face. He wasn’t made for this kind of cold — no Doqar were. Already he could feel the pain of every step taken on too-cold feet.
And then the whole mess gave way. Uzhab took a step just like all the ones before it, but this one spun out his boot onto a patch of ice. He went not only down, but down and forward, pitching into what must have been some sort of decorative pond. The surface had frozen over, but not so much that it could support his weight. Down he went, into not only the snow and the slush, but the water.
The chill was like a knife. The snowmelt at the springs had been bad enough on his hands; this was a thousand times worse. He cried out as he flailed, dragging himself toward what he hoped was the water’s edge. Summoning all his strength, he managed to pull himself out of the pond, onto the snowbank — but by then it was too late. He was soaked from his feet to his chest, all the way to his skin, and shivering so hard he could barely stand. Getting back to the ship was no longer an option, not when his clothes would freeze to his skin before he reached the edge of the block. He needed another option.
“Are you in?” asked the anxious voice in his ear a few minutes later.
“Yeah, I’m in,” Uzhab said, pulling the door behind him before more of the blizzard could follow. With its latching mechanism wrenched outward, the door wouldn’t shut fully, but there was nothing he could do about it now. The house wasn’t much to speak of, but it seemed to have weathered the years better than many of the other buildings. Sandwiched between two other structures in a tight row, its shared walls were shored up, and its front and roof had looked sturdy enough that Uzhab had decided it was his best bet for shelter. Of course, his options had been limited indeed. He leaned against a table and tried to catch his breath.
“Are you all right?” Shayel sounded positively wound tight enough to snap.
“I am,” Uzhab promised. “It’s about as cold inside as it is outside, but at least it’s dry.”
“You’ve got to get out of your wet clothes,” Shayel said, as though Uzhab didn’t know how this all worked. “Try upstairs. See if anything useful was left behind.”
He’d get no argument from Uzhab there, even if climbing the stairs in waterlogged boots made each step ten times harder. The home had been stripped of essentials and valuables, like all the other homes Uzhab had seen, but he exhaled hard with relief to see that a large bed and several blankets had not been among the evacuees’ portable possessions. There were multiple pieces of clothing lying around, discarded or forgotten, and he scooped them all up on the bed. Then he took a deep breath and began to strip off his wet gear.
The boots were a blessing to be gone. The coat, however, was a different story, and by the time he was peeling off the clothes that had stuck directly to his skin, he was barely even shivering anymore. That was a bad sign. He clenched his teeth and breathed through his nose as he stripped down naked, then all but dove into the little nest he’d built for himself. He touched the clammy skin of his thighs and shuddered.
It was only once he was buried beneath that he realized what a crime he was committing here. Shayel had once snapped at him for daring to touch a doll; this had to be insulting by a whole different order of magnitude. Uzhab winced and drew the covers tighter. Maybe there was some ritual he could do later, some Halla blessing he could perform to say thank-you to the spirits of the people who had owned the house. He tried to imagine the face they’d make, seeing him like this. If they’d been here to raise a protest, he’d probably still be freezing in the street.
Settled under the covers, Uzhab sighed and tucked his knees up toward his chest, trying to make the best use of his body heat he could. “How long’s this supposed to last?” he asked Shayel. His words made soft clouds of vapor. “The storm, I mean.”
“It’s–” Shayel exhaled hard. “It’s hard to tell from the sensors. It blew in fast, and now I’m just seeing more of it over the water.”
“Like a hurricane?” Uzhab asked. “In winter?”
“I don’t know!” Frustration was evident in Shayel’s voice. “There’s a weather net that should keep storms like this from happening, but…”
Uzhab chuckled grimly. “I think I know what your next repair project is.”
Shayel sighed. “Are you safe?”
“I think so,” Uzhab said, looking around. “Unless I’m likely to be attacked by household appliances.”
Shayel made no sound suggesting he found any humor in Uzhab’s attempts at levity. “Stay where you are. Just stay put. It can’t last … it can’t last long.”
“Maybe my boots will be dry by the time it’s over,” Uzhab said, even though he knew full well that water was going to freeze rather than evaporate, left in the ambient air. His hands ached every time he clenched his fingers. He couldn’t tell how cold the inside of the house was, and he didn’t want to know. It wouldn’t do him any good, anyway, the exact number of degrees below zero waiting for him outside the blankets.
He bundled back up under the covers, drawing his entire head under, until the world was soft and muted by fabric. After being abandoned for so long, the sheets smelled new and clean. Uzhab pressed his nose to them, wanting some hint that someone had been here before him, that he wasn’t as alone now as he felt. But there was nothing.
There was a bit of food and his canteen in his pack, but sustenance wasn’t his biggest concern. The cold was aggressive now that he wasn’t moving anymore, creeping in despite his body’s attempts to beat it back. There was only so long he could keep it out, and only so much his own body heat could do against it. Even when the storm was done, the air wouldn’t just spontaneously return to a pleasant temperature. This was a problem that would outlast the snow.
Uzhab wanted to kick himself for being stupid. Then again, why bother with self-flagellation? All he had to do would be to wait around for the cold to kill him, and that would be punishment enough for his errors.
Through the headset, Uzhab could hear rustling sounds, the noises of hasty packing. “I know where you are,” Shayel said. “I’m coming to get you.”
“No!” Uzhab all but bolted upright. “You stay the fuck where you are.”
“You need help.”
“And you’ll need it instead if you try to move in that storm. Look,” Uzhab said, running his hand over his face, “I couldn’t get through it. What makes you think you could? And if you get stuck, there’s no one left to come for you, and we’re both screwed.”
“Then…” There was a clank Uzhab knew to be the sound of an object’s being thrown in frustration. “I can take the ship to–“
“You can’t take off in this weather,” Uzhab said. “Even I wouldn’t, and I’ve been flying that bucket of bolts for years. You’re not going to improve the situation by crash-landing.”
Shayel grunted. “Then what do we do?”
“We stay put,” Uzhab said, not liking the answer, but not seeing anything better.
He poked his head outside the covers for a moment and considered the clothing there. Halla were on the whole much taller and thinner than Doqar, but they often preferred voluminous clothing, and Uzhab was in luck. There was long-sleeved robe among the garments that looked like it just might work. He pulled it back under the covers with him and held it to his chest until it warmed to a reasonable temperature, then slipped it over his arms. The front barely closed around his thick chest, but a closer layer of fabric was already a big help with insulation.
“How are you doing?” asked Shayel, who barely finished the sentence before sighing. “I’m sorry. Stupid question.”
“It’s okay.” Uzhab smiled a little. He’d always figured he’d die alone and forgotten. It was strange, at last, to realize that there might now be someone in the universe to mourn his passing — and stranger still for that person to be Halla. “Tired. Getting here wiped me out. I might take a nap.”
“Is it safe to sleep, in the cold like that?”
Uzhab snorted a little laugh. “Sleep’s going to happen, one way or another. Might as well be when I choose.”
There was a small pause. “All right,” Shayel said at last. “But I’m going to wake you up in a few hours.”
“When the storm’s stopped,” Uzhab said, offering it up almost as a prayer, like speaking it in to the universe might just make it so.
The storm hadn’t stopped by the time Uzhab woke again, and Shayel wasn’t the one to wake him. There was great creaking sound followed by a crash, enough to make Uzhab sit bolt upright to make sure the ceiling hadn’t fallen in. “Fuck!” he gasped.
“What?” Through the connection, there was the sound of an object’s being dropped in surprise. “What’s wrong?”
“It’s–” Uzhab looked around. The room had been dark before; now it was brighter, despite how it must be nearly evening. He looked up and realized that what he’d assumed earlier was a solid ceiling was in fact a wide skylight. “It’s okay. I think a sheet of snow fell off the roof.” He glanced up at the sky as he drew the covers closer around him. “It’s still coming down out there.”
“Yeah,” Shayel sighed. “Here too. Drifts are piling halfway up the windward side of the ship.”
“Are you okay?”
Shayel snorted, though not unkindly. “Your ship is made to operate in the vacuum of space. I’m well-insulated, thank you.”
“Good.” In the fading light, Shayel poked around at a few more of the abandoned articles of clothing. He managed to find four socks with enough give that he could pull them over his feet, though he regretted not having trimmed the claws of his toes more recently. Everything else, though, was made for people much smaller than he was. He braved the air beyond the covers long enough only to find that his own clothes had indeed frozen through. The house was not nearly as well-insulated as he had assumed from the outside, and every time a gust of wind roared down the street, he could feel the chill break like a wave and steal any accumulated heat from the air.
Above him, through the skylight, he watched the snow whip across the grey sky. It was majestic, the sheer power of it. He should have had more respect for it earlier. Instead, he’d been stupid and cocky and overconfident.
…No, that was being unkind. He’d just wanted to make things work. He’d wanted to do it for Shayel, to give him a better chance at a world beyond the confines of the ship — and instead he’d just trapped himself, probably for good.
The resignation that Uzhab had felt earlier had only grown. It was very likely he was going to die soon, either frozen inside the house, or frozen in the streets as he made some misguided attempt to return through the storm. He supposed he should have been more upset about it, but here he was, facing the end, and the only regret he could find was that Shayel was going to think it was his fault. Shayel didn’t need that. More to the point, he didn’t deserve it. He deserved to have this all go right for him, to be the hero his grandparents had dreamed he would be.
Uzhab held his hand over the device hooked over his ear, as though something more than sound might be able to reach through it. “I’m sorry,” he said.
“Sorry?” asked Shayel. “What do you have to be sorry about?”
“…Everything, I guess.” Uzhab closed his eyes as he turned on his side, drawing his knees up to his chest. He could feel one of his ragged toe claws begin to wear a hole in one of the borrowed socks. “That I got myself out here. That I couldn’t fix things earlier. That I bought shitty food. That I brought you to a planet where you can’t even breathe. That I’m not … that I don’t deserve to be here.”
“That’s not…” Shayel’s voice trailed off, and that was fine. He couldn’t deny it. They both knew it was a grotesque insult to have Uzhab here at all, that Shayel would never have hired him if he hadn’t been desperate.
Uzhab sighed. “It’s okay. It really is. I’m glad I got to be here.” A smile curled his lips as he thought about the planet’s summer beauty, when everything was warm and green and sunlight off the water’s surface. “Can you bury me by the ocean? Once the ground’s thawed?”
Shayel swore for several seconds straight. “I’m not burying you! Nobody’s burying anyone.”
“It’s okay,” Uzhab said again, hoping it was clear that he really meant it. “Even if you don’t get my whole body out there. Just a little marker, maybe. A couple of pretty stones. Something that doesn’t make the landscape too ugly.”
“I’m not going to do it because you’re going to be fine,” Shayel spat through gritted teeth. “Stop talking like that.”
That, Uzhab figured, was the real difference between the two of them, deeper than any racial or historical divisions. Shayel came from a world where people didn’t just die; Uzhab came from a world where they did. People disappeared from Uzhab’s life left and right. They operated in orbits, occasionally intersecting with one another, and sometimes when the time came around for that confluence, the other person just wasn’t there to meet anymore. There was no real effort put toward permanence, because nothing lasted anyway. Building cities made you vulnerable. Building relationships made you vulnerable. Best to live with only what you could carry. That way you didn’t miss anyone else when they went away, and you did them the courtesy of not making them miss you either.
Just Uzhab’s luck that he’d manage to fuck up that lifelong principle so badly right before he died. “When you rebuild this place, when you bring people back here, I think you should keep the green,” Uzhab said. “Not all of it, but some of it’s pretty. The vines climbing the building walls. The trees pushing up through the concrete. It makes it so peaceful, so nice. I really love this city.”
“I hate it,” Shayel spat.
Uzhab’s eyes snapped open in confusion. “What?”
“I hate it,” Shayel repeated. There was a clear sniffling sound then, one that couldn’t be muffled. “I hate this entire planet. I hate it. It should have been left alone to rot. I wish my grandparents had flown away and never looked back.”
“It’s not so bad.”
Shayel scoffed again, so angry the noise was near to a growl. “It’s like … like how you thought my treehouse was a real house, when you first heard about it. If all you hear about it is the most basic facts, then it’s easy to misunderstand. But it was worse than that. I wasn’t listening. I wasn’t hearing what wasn’t being said. You can’t–” Shayel exhaled hard and made a sound that could have been running something across his face — his hands, or a piece of tissue. “You couldn’t imagine what I thought this planet was going to be like. What my grandparents’ stories made it sound like. Perfect. Like…”
When it became clear Shayel wasn’t going to finish the sentence, Uzhab offered, “Like paradise?”
Shayel made an affirmative noise. “And it … it’s not. I wish I’d never come here. I wish I’d left it as a grave. I wish I’d set it all on fire from orbit. It’s a horrible place. It’s out of control. It’s broken. Everything’s broken. Everything’s disgusting and corroded and overgrown and it’s all shit, everything about this place is shit.”
“You’ll change your mind,” Uzhab promised. “When you can leave the ship and see it like I have. When you can just walk around in it. And not feel like you have to fix it all the time.”
That was an impact sound through the connection, so loud that Uzhab wondered what object had gone sailing against the wall this time. “I can’t do this without you!” spat Shayel, enunciating every word with knife-like precision.
Uzhab frowned. “Sure you can. You just need a couple real engineers–“
“Shut up,” snapped Shayel, so Uzhab did, letting the only sound between them be the heavy, angry huffs of Shayel’s breath. “Shut up, shut up, you’re not going to die, you’re not going to freeze out there, you are the only person who has ever believed in me and you’re not just … you’re not!”
“Shayel,” Uzhab said softly. Had he ever even spoken his partner’s name aloud before? It was strange how little effort it took, how much of the sounds were just air. Most of Hallic was like that, little musical whispers. He should have taken the time to learn at least a little bit of it. Enough to read some of the signs, maybe. That wouldn’t have taken so much effort, would it? He could have done that, at least.
“What?!” The word was shouted, but Uzhab didn’t take it personally. Anger, like all other forces in the universe, escaped along the path of least resistance.
“Tell me…” Uzhab held his hands close to his mouth as he spoke, letting his breath warm digits that were starting to go numb. “Tell me what you were planning.”
“This place. When you got here, to paradise. When you fixed it up in a month. What was going to happen next?”
Shayel didn’t respond right away, but Uzhab could still hear him, his movements transmitted through their constant connection. He’d gotten good at imagining which noises must correspond to which things Shayel was doing. Despite his occasional tantrums and bouts of throwing things, he was in fact quite graceful. He moved without making much sound at all, which was why Uzhab had learned to listen.
At last, Shayel sighed and began: “I was going to bring everyone back. All the people who had been here before, they’d have to be so old by now, if they were even still alive, but they have children and grandchildren, like me, and great-grandchildren by now, I suppose. I was going to bring them back. I was going to say, look, this is your city, this is your inheritance. It got stolen from you, but I brought it back. I got it back for you. I undid the past.”
“And then what?” asked Uzhab softly.
“And then, they…” Shayel swallowed hard. “They come back! They all come back. They move back in and live in all the buildings, and the shrines come back, and they don’t have to live like refugees anymore, because they can come back where they belong. And it’s just like everything should have been. It’s where all of us would have been born if none of this had ever happened.”
“Except…” Uzhab pressed his lips together for a moment, thinking. “It’s not, is it?”
“What do you mean?”
What did he mean? Uzhab wasn’t wholly sure, but he supposed now was not the time to let things pass unsaid. “You said three of your grandparents were born here, right? Where was the fourth from?”
“My father’s mother.” Shayel made a thoughtful exhale. “The Cadenae Colonies, I think.”
“That’s a long way off, isn’t it?”
“Yeah?” It was less of an agreement and more of an encouragement for Uzhab to explain what he meant.
“Well,” Uzhab began, “that means if they hadn’t left, your grandfather would probably have never met your grandmother, and your father wouldn’t have been born. And then neither would you. So … no, you wouldn’t have been born here. You wouldn’t be you at all.”
“Are you saying I should be grateful for their exile?”
The snappishness in Shayel’s voice made Uzhab smile, though he tried to keep the sound from his own tone; he didn’t suppose Shayel would appreciate knowing his anger had become almost sweetly familiar. “No, no,” Uzhab sighed, closing his eyes again. “I don’t know. I don’t know what I’m saying. Except that … maybe trying to bring back something old was only ever going to make you miserable. Because you’d never be able to do it. Because you weren’t even trying to bring back something real. You were trying to bring back an idea about the past. And maybe it’s even a nice idea. But that doesn’t make it real. And you’re making yourself miserable trying to undo the past when … maybe if you stopped trying, you’d see that the future is way more interesting.”
The silence that followed that was so intense, so heavy, that Uzhab knew the whole line had been cut. He wondered if it might be the weather’s fault, but in his heart of hearts, he knew better. Shayel, in a fit of anger, had severed the link between. From the ear without the communication device, Uzhab could hear the storm’s bitter howl, but from Shayel’s side there was only emptiness.
Damn it, he shouldn’t have said it. He shouldn’t even have thought it. Maybe he hadn’t meant that Shayel should be grateful for the war and all its horrors, but that was sure what it had sounded like, wasn’t it? And right after Shayel had sad those nice things about Uzhab believing in him, too. He was an idiot, and an idiot who could barely feel his limbs anymore. The cold was like the silence between them. One or the other would eventually swallow him whole.
“Shayel?” Uzhab chanced after what felt like a year’s waiting, praying the interruption had been only a temporary accident. “You there?”
“Can you hear me?” he asked. “…Are you mad?”
The only answer was the absolute absence of sound in his ear. It was indeed quieter than Shayel himself could ever be; that was a dead connection. Uzhab cursed as he felt tears sting the corners of his eyes, only to chill painfully once they began to roll down his cheeks.
Well, he supposed he deserved it, to die in the quiet like this. He didn’t believe in ghosts, but on the off chance he was wrong, he assumed every Halla spirit haunting this planet could not have been more thrilled to watch him freeze to death. Let that be his contribution to them against the sins of his people, then — one last bit of entertainment to satisfy any lingering need for vengeance. It wasn’t enough, but maybe it would be enough to let them sleep. Maybe it’d even be enough to let him sleep.
He wasn’t angry at the planet, or at the city, or at Shayel. He was angry at himself, but that was nothing new. He thought about the seaside, about the pretty way the coast and the water embraced one another. He hadn’t had a chance to explain to Shayel where, exactly, he wanted to be buried, but it didn’t really matter. Shayel would choose a good place anyway. Despite his occasional half-cocked ideas about rehabilitating abandoned colonies, he had good taste. Besides, it wasn’t as if there were a bad place to be dead. It was all the same — unless of course ghosts actually turned out to be real. Uzhab would deal with that as necessary, though. There was no sense in worrying about possibilities now, when he’d know the truth very soon.
“I’m sorry,” he said anyway, maybe hoping that the connection would come back, or that somehow Shayel could hear. “I’m sorry I’m the best you could get. Because you deserved someone better. You deserved someone who deserves a home like this.”
There was no reply. He hadn’t expected one.
He shut his eyes and paid attention to his breathing, and he thought about fishing on the pier, watching the lines bob in the water, making Shayel laugh and blush with stories. If he tried hard enough, he could remember what the sun had felt like on his face, how the world had felt so ready to let him be a part of it. That would have to be enough.
The sheer concussive magnitude of the crash that yanked him up from his icy haze made the previous snowfall seem as threatening as a raindrop. This was beyond loud, a sound so great and deep it was no longer even sound. He felt a shockwave rattle his chest as he gasped for breath. Was he dead? Had a meteor just hit the planet? What the hell was going on?
Uzhab had barely managed to make sense of the fact that he was still alive when he heard a small herd of animals approaching him. No, that wasn’t right — it was a herd of one, and the animal in question looked for all the world like Shayel. That couldn’t be right, though. Shayel was safe, several kilometers away, on the other side of the storm. And besides, Shayel hated him: for being Doqar, for being obnoxious, for talking too much, for getting himself stuck out in the storm like a cocky idiot. He wouldn’t really try to do something as stupid as mounting a rescue.
He had a full half-second to think all this before Shayel was on him, throwing his arms around Uzhab like Shayel was the dying one, and Uzhab his only lifeline. Uzhab buried his face in the corner of Shayel’s neck and marveled at how warm he was, how very nice he smelled.
What followed only half-stuck in Uzhab’s memory, leaving everything a fuzzy stretch of disjoined images. “Hypothermia,” he told Shayel, or at least tried to tell Shayel; he couldn’t exactly tell how well his mouth was working.
“Of course it’s hypothermia, you absolute,” Shayel said, finishing the sentence with a word in Hallic that Uzhab assumed was not kind. “So get your” –another swear word– “up and move!”
Uzhab was trying, he truly was. The fact that his body was not responding at the speed he wanted was irritating him to no end. He tried to cocoon himself in blankets and hissed every time they shifted out of place, exposing his core to the chill air. He expected to wince when he put his socked feet on the cold floor, then found it was even worse when he couldn’t tell its temperature at all. Leaning on Shayel, he shuffled his way toward the stairs and down them. He couldn’t have entered the house more than a day previous, but it already felt like years since he’d seen the front door. It hung at an odd angle now, as though the frame couldn’t hold it right anymore.
Stepping out into the street told him why. The storm was still whipping all around them, reducing visibility to little more than arm’s length. That was enough, though, for him to see what he soon recognized as the aft door to his ship, which was now parked where a building had so recently been.
It would not be until much later that he understood the full physics of the scene before him. The shielding on spacefaring vehicles such as his was designed primarily for the purpose of withstanding micro-impacts at near-light speeds, so that every bit of space debris did not become a bullet propelled by the craft’s own velocity. However, the same armoring was also built to handle larger forces, keeping the hull from buckling every time it entered an atmosphere or pushed up against another craft’s docking rigging.
What this meant in practice was that the row of high-ceilinged houses across to the street, left to the unsubtle mercies of weather for a century, had collapsed completely, while the ship that had landed on top of them had not suffered so much as a scratch.
The wind threatened to knock them over at every step, but they traced back the path Shayel had cut only a few minutes previous, stumbling over waist-deep snow and debris until Uzhab beheld the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen: an open doorway, and the warm, dry world of his ship’s interior on the other side. Shayel yelled something, but the storm whipped the words away so that all Uzhab could feel was the vibration of Shayel’s chest as he pressed against it. One step at a time. He had enough energy and concentration left for that. He closed his eyes and let Shayel lead him.
He became aware that they had finally made it into the ship only when he collapsed and found himself not buried in a snowbank, but on a dry, bare floor eternally scuffed from years of loaded and unloaded cargo. Uzhab tried to say something bold or possibly even clever, but instead just blacked out.
The following days passed in a warm grey haze. At some point, he was propped up and given some hot soup to drink, though he couldn’t tell if his complaint about its taste actually made it past his lips or was all just inside his head. He was dimly aware of pain from time to time, but it never seemed to rise above the level of a dull ache. He had heavy blankets piled on him, so many that he couldn’t move. He didn’t mind, though. He didn’t have anywhere to be.
When next he woke — and really woke, not just surfaced from sleep before submerging again — he finally realized why the blankets were so heavy. One of them, the one generating the most heat, was Shayel himself, curled up half-beside, half-atop Uzhab’s body. His head pillowed on Uzhab’s shoulder, he was fast asleep — not the dainty, quiet rest he’d affected so many times before, but outright snoring.
Uzhab also became aware that somewhere in the process, he’d been stripped naked again. He could feel most keenly the places Shayel’s body pressed against him, the particular warmth of Shayel’s skin against his. How long had it been since he’d been held like that, awake or asleep? Longer than he could easily remember.
He also exceptionally had to make use of the toilet, and probably the shower too while he was at it. He didn’t know how Shayel could stand being that close to him; after so many days of freezing, sweating, and everything in-between, Uzhab could barely stand himself. The matter of extraction, however, was a touch complicated. Uzhab took a deep breath and began to withdraw his arm from where it curled around Shayel’s back, moving as little as he could in the hope of leaving Shayel’s rest undisturbed.
He had barely so much as twitched when Shayel’s eyes snapped open. “Are you okay?” Shayel asked, his eyes already scanning Uzhab for some sign that things were less than optimal. He lay one hand square in the center of Uzhab’s bare, furry chest, his touch not nearly as cool now as Uzhab had first experienced.
“Fine, just–” Well, he supposed he was past the point of dignity now anyway, so he might as well be honest. “I have to piss pretty bad.”
“Oh.” Shayel rolled back away, taking the blankets — and his own heat — with him. He was wearing only a sleeveless undershirt and shorts. By the standards of his usual many layers, he was practically naked, which somehow felt more scandalous to Uzhab than his own actual nudity. He was strangely grateful for his bladder’s nagging, or he might have gotten caught staring and forgotten why he had moved in the first place. “Do you need help?”
Uzhab stretched his legs, then grabbed the edge of his bunk, using it to pull himself to his feet. “No, I–” He wobbled there for a moment, his knees threatening to buckle before remembering how it all worked. “Got it. Thanks.”
The dozen or so steps to the bathroom were precarious, but the ship’s cramped space meant that whenever Uzhab needed steadying, something sturdy was always within reach. The toilet was a relief, and the sonic shower less of a disappointment than he’d found it previously. It at least vibrated away his general stench, for which he was grateful.
When he emerged again, he could see from a better angle the setup Shayel had made for his recovery: the mattresses of both their bunks pushed together on the floor, forming the base of a nest composed of blankets Uzhab knew they hadn’t brought with them. Were they ones he’d wrapped himself in, or had Shayel made another trip back into the house, raiding it for useful supplies? “That’s better,” Uzhab said. He made his way back to the makeshift bed, figuring that lying down was the safest solution to feeling like he was going to fall over.
Shayel pulled a glass of water from the sink and brought it to Uzhab, his eyes downcast. No, it was more than downcast — he was doing his best to look at anything but Uzhab. Oh, right. Uzhab took the water with one hand and pulled the sheets over his lap with the other. He wasn’t up for clothes yet, but he could affect a little modesty. He took a sip, then looked up at Shayel. “Did you actually drop my ship on a bunch of houses to rescue me?”
And there it was — that blush, that startled pinkening of Shayel’s pale cheeks that Uzhab had only imagined. It was real, and it was more charming than he could have anticipated. “Yes,” Shayel admitted at last, keeping his gaze averted. “I’m … at least pretty sure I didn’t break anything.”
“Except a bunch of houses.”
Shayel sighed and raked his fingers through his hair, drawing it away from his face. “I…” He was blushing even harder now, trying to fan his cheeks with his hand. “If you’re all right, I’ll turn the temperature down. It’s very warm in here.”
“Go ahead,” Uzhab said, sipping a little more water. He felt like shit, but in a good way, a contradictory sensation he associated with the dozen or so times in his life he’d managed to cheat death. Being alive made you grateful for little things like feeling bad.
As the room’s air filters hissed, Shayel sighed relief. He tied his hair up in a little knot between his horns, baring the back of his neck, except for a few tendrils still sweat-stuck to it. “Better,” he said. “I’d step outside for a minute, but … we’re a little buried.”
“Storm still going?”
Shayel nodded. “At this point I’m starting to wonder if the broken weather net isn’t making it worse.” Exhaling heavily, he sat down on the edge of his bare bunk. “I can’t imagine the people who lived here just accepted getting absolutely buried every winter.”
“I know I wouldn’t.” Uzhab pressed his lips together and let his own gaze fall away. He wished he could turn out the ship’s lights, or put up a curtain between them, or somehow return them to the distance that brought them closest to one another. Talking to Shayel had become the easiest, most natural thing in the world — so long as they were nowhere near one another at the time. “You turned off the comm system on purpose, didn’t you?”
Shayel’s pale eyes widened, an obviously guilty expression coloring his face. “Yes,” he said, leaning forward to catch his forehead in his hands.
“Because…” Shayel took several deep breaths, his bony shoulders rising and falling with each. “Because you would have tried to talk me out of it. And I couldn’t argue with you and learn to pilot a ship in a whiteout. I had to concentrate.”
Uzhab barked a laugh, a noise that startled Shayel into looking up and meeting his gaze. “Probably, yeah.” Uzhab leaned back against the wall of the ship. “Fuck, I’m sorry.”
“Don’t,” Shayel said, his voice soft.
“I am! I’m sorry. For everything.” Uzhab rubbed at his eyes with the palm of his hand, trying to scare back tears before they even appeared. “For being stupid. For getting stuck. For making you destroy part of your city to save my ass–“
“Fuck this city,” Shayel snapped.
With a chuckle, Uzhab shook his head. “You don’t mean that.”
“No, you don’t. You love it. Or you will. I’ll fix the towers, soon as the storm’s done, I’ll–“
“Stop!” Throwing his hands into the air, Shayel rose to his feet. “You nearly died, you–” He interrupted himself with an exasperated growl, pacing the few steps the ship’s cabin would allow his long legs to traverse. “You’re done, your contract’s done, you can leave just as — just as soon as this — and I’ll pay you all of it, everything I agreed.”
“Hey!” With shaky effort, Uzhab made his way to his feet. “I’m staying.”
“No, you’re not! How can you? You don’t need to! You don’t–” Shayel clenched and unclenched his fists several times. “It’s not your city, it’s not your obsession, it’s not your problem! And it nearly got you killed anyway! I nearly got you killed!”
“I nearly got my own ass killed,” Uzhab said, his voice low. “You’re the one who saved me.”
Shayel stamped his bare foot against the ship’s floor. “You wouldn’t even have been here if it weren’t for me! If I’d been better, if I’d just been able to breathe better, if I’d been able to leave this ship and do something instead of making you…” He let his face fall into his hands. “Making you clean up my mess. Like someone always has to.”
Uzhab had never been too good at reading people, and he’d never had much luck at dealing with other people’s emotions. His own battered state, however, meant that he could see his same exhaustion mirrored on every inch of Shayel’s trembling frame. He thought of how quickly Shayel had woken, how glass-fragile his sleep had been. How much of the past few days had Shayel spent awake? How much of the past few months?
“Come on,” Uzhab said softly. He reached for Shayel’s wrist, and though Shayel jerked at the touch, he didn’t pull away. Uzhab wrapped his fingers around Shayel’s wrist and palm, and then tugged him forward. “It’s your turn to get some rest.”
Shayel made a miserable little sound, but he didn’t protest as Uzhab led him down to the pile of mattresses and blankets. He lay down on his side, turning away from Uzhab as he always did. This time, however, Uzhab wasn’t going to let either of them get away with that distance. Before Shayel could settle fully, Uzhab just got up and moved to his other side, stretching out his arm beneath Shayel’s head.
Shayel froze, the caution of a prey animal in an uncertain situation. “Come on,” Uzhab said softly. “Get comfortable.”
“It was only–” Shayel pressed his lips together. “I wanted to make sure you were warm enough.”
“But you turned down the heat.” Uzhab shrugged. “Wouldn’t want me to get cold again, would you?”
As excuses went, this one was whisper-thin. Even so, it was enough to get Shayel to uncurl his body, letting his cheek come to rest against Uzhab’s shoulder. He began to settle in, even going so far as to let his arm rest against Uzhab’s chest — before making a startled noise and pulling back. “You’re, um, very naked,” he murmured against Uzhab’s skin.
Uzhab placed his palm against Shayel’s back, drawing him closer. “I was before, too.”
“Yes, but–” Shayel exhaled hard through his nose, pressing his whole face into Uzhab’s shoulder. “I don’t really know where to put my hands.”
That made Uzhab laugh. “You can put your hands anywhere you want,” he offered.
Instead of laughing along with him, though, Shayel sighed and drew back into himself. Uzhab could feel how his posture seemed deliberately designed to keep his middle as far away from Uzhab’s body as possible. “No, I can’t,” Shayel said at last, his words edged with sorrow.
“Yeah. You can.” With his free hand, Uzhab tucked a claw gently under Shayel’s chin and lifted his face, until they couldn’t not look at one another. There were dark hollows around Shayel’s eyes, almost bruise-like in their intensity, but his pupils were still luminous. Uzhab didn’t know if that glow fell on a part of the spectrum that Shayel could even see. It was like a secret Shayel didn’t even know he was keeping.
Shayel swallowed hard. “I can’t,” he said, even as he let his hand come to rest against the side of Uzhab’s waist.
“Then can I?” asked Uzhab.
“Put my hands where I want.” Uzhab let his touch linger under Shayel’s chin for a moment, then began to drag the smooth, blunt curve of one claw down the underside of Shayel’s chin, down his throat, to the soft hollow at the base of Shayel’s neck.
Shayel’s whole body tensed as though Uzhab had touched him with a live wire. He tilted his head back so quickly it must have been on instinct, not to pull away, but to expose more of his throat to Uzhab. His breathing grew ragged and heavy.
How long had he known this, that Shayel was attracted to him? For some time, Uzhab supposed, but he’d been willing to chalk it up to the strange and occasionally agonizing whims of desire, the way fantasy might fuel thoughts reality would not tolerate. He’d suspected from the way Shayel spoke about the matter that Shayel was indeed attracted to men, which Uzhab knew would have made it no easier for him to fit into Halla society. But there were light-years between getting hard for something and actually wanting to do anything about that, a distance Uzhab had never intended to trouble.
Of course, he’d never intended a number of things in his life, and yet here they were. “Can I kiss you?” asked Uzhab, fully prepared for the answer to be no. It would hurt, of course, to have Halla taboos stop him here, but he would manage. This was already more than he’d ever expected.
Shayel’s cheeks were pink again now, and a less careful observer might have mistaken the expression on his face for pain. Uzhab knew it for what it was, though, and when Shayel nodded, he leaned in to cross the distance between their mouths, drawing Shayel into a gentle kiss.
Uzhab had planned to go slow, to let Shayel acclimate to what it was to touch another person like this. Shayel, however, seemed to have other plans. Instead of reluctantly allowing himself to be kissed, the touch of Uzhab’s mouth seemed to be all the encouragement Shayel needed. He grabbed for Uzhab with the same desperate intensity as when he’d found Uzhab alive, carding his fingers through Uzhab’s thick hair and not letting him go. Shayel was trembling now, so Uzhab wrapped his arms around Shayel. He was light and thin, especially compared to Uzhab’s stocky frame, but he wasn’t fragile. The more Uzhab clung to him, the clearer that strength became.
“Yes,” Shayel murmured against Uzhab’s mouth, confirming the already-answered question. “Kiss me.”
Uzhab rolled over so Shayel was on his back now, with Uzhab on top of him. He grabbed one of Shayel’s hands and pulled it away long enough to plant a kiss on his wrist, just over his pulse. Then he pinned it down to the floor, hoping he was on the right track. He wasn’t disappointed: Shayel gasped and arched his back, half-trapped as he was beneath Uzhab’s naked body. Uzhab kissed him harder then, letting his hand push the fabric of Shayel’s undershirt up his chest, baring more of his middle. He brushed the tips of his claws just beneath Shayel’s ribs, making Shayel squirm and swear. Uzhab was liking that foul mouth of his more and more with every minute.
With his knee between Shayel’s legs, Uzhab leaned in and pressed his thigh forward. He wasn’t going to let Shayel hide anymore how hard this made him, and Uzhab in return wasn’t going to hide how much he enjoyed that reaction. With only the thin layer of Shayel’s shorts between them, there was no mistaking the distinct outline of Shayel’s erection.
More than anything, Uzhab wanted to take Shayel just like that, right there on the floor, to have Shayel wrap his legs around Uzhab’s waist while Uzhab gave him the fucking he so obviously and desperately needed. And if the case had been only that Shayel was obviously completely inexperienced, or that Uzhab himself was still feeling like he’d nearly frozen to death only recently, he might indeed have done just that. The two together, though, gave him enough pause that he sighed and drew back from the kiss, pressing their foreheads together. “You need some sleep,” Uzhab said. “And we … probably need to talk about this some more, before you let me do something you’ll regret later.”
Shayel gave an embarrassed laugh and covered his face with his forearm. “You expect me to sleep like this?” he managed.
Uzhab supposed he had a point. “Here,” he said, turning the tips of his claws against the surface of Shayel’s skin — nowhere near hard enough to scratch, but just enough to make Shayel shiver with their bite. “Here’s what we’re going to do.”
“What’s that?” Shayel asked, his voice barely a whisper.
“I’m going to make you come,” Uzhab said, teasing down the line from Shayel’s navel to the waistband of his shorts. He let his touch linger there for only a moment, then pushed the fabric down. “I’m the first person who’s ever done this, right? The first person who’s ever touched you like this?”
Shayel nodded, shutting his eyes even as he eagerly lifted his hips to accommodate the motion, letting Uzhab bare him from the waist down.
Uzhab smiled, pressing a kiss just below Shayel’s ear. “And I’m going to touch you until you come. And then you’re going to get some sleep, and I’m going to be with you, right here, the whole time. And then you’ll wake up, and we’ll have a conversation about…” Uzhab let the pads of his fingertips brush up and down the length of Shayel’s rather insistent erection. “Well, you’re the planner. What’s your plan for what we talk about when you wake up from your nap?”
Shayel bit his lower lip and breathed through his nose for a few beats. “I…” He turned away his face as though he could hide himself, as though even now he could slip back beneath the cloak of invisibility and plausible deniability. He wasn’t used to being seen for what he truly was. “I want you. To … to touch me.”
“I’m doing that now, though,” Uzhab purred against the curve of Shayel’s ear, his fingers wrapping more firmly around Shayel’s shaft. “Is this all you want?”
Without hesitation, Shayel shook his head. No, Uzhab didn’t suppose this was all Shayel wanted. He would have bet his ship that there were entire worlds of fantasies inside Shayel’s head, desires he’d been told all his life that he should be too ashamed to acknowledge, much less indulge. It was obvious in the way he responded so easily to Uzhab’s touch. He was starved for that kind of contact and attention. Fortunately, that was a need Uzhab could fill.
Uzhab nuzzled the curve of Shayel’s jaw with his beard. “Do you want me to fuck you?” A pause, and then Shayel nodded even as his cock jumped tellingly in Uzhab’s hand. “Do you want to fuck me?” Shayel nodded again, which made Uzhab chuckle with delight. He stroked Shayel more eagerly now, loving how responsive Shayel’s body was to every sensation. “Do you want to taste me?”
Shayel gasped something in Hallic, which Uzhab decided to translate as ‘yes’. That was affirmation enough for Uzhab, though, who caught Shayel’s earlobe between his teeth and flicked at it with his tongue, letting Shayel know he wasn’t the only one who had thoughts about mouths and where to put them. “Do you want me to hold you down?” Uzhab purred.
Shayel’s breath caught in his chest, the telltale sound of a man who’d just been found out. “I can take you,” Uzhab said, letting his words rumble through his chest. “Give you what you’re not supposed to want. Hold you down right here, on the floor. Fuck you until you can’t protest. Ride you until you can’t see straight. Make you come until you can’t remember your name. Have you screaming for me to give you more, faster, deeper. Make a mess of you. Make you mine.”
That last promise was what pushed Shayel over the edge. He arched his back and came hard in Uzhab’s hand, shooting ropes of come over both of their bellies, gasping in pleasure and surprise alike. Before Shayel could even start to gather himself again, Uzhab bundled him close and pulled the blankets over them both. He drew Shayel’s head to his shoulder, kissing his hair and stroking his back. “I’ve got you,” he murmured into Shayel’s soft hair. “I’m right here.”
He wasn’t half surprised when Shayel burst into tears, and he’d been around the block enough times not to take it personally. It wasn’t a gentle little cry, either — Shayel’s whole body was wracked by great hiccuping sobs, which poured out of him with no less force than his orgasm had. “Fuck, I–” Shayel buried his face in Uzhab’s shoulder, cheeks hot with shame. “I’m sorry, I can’t–“
“It’s okay,” Uzhab promised, because for perhaps the first time in his life, it actually looked like everything might be okay.
It took several minutes for Shayel’s crying jag to subside, and Uzhab held him throughout, whispering little nothings of comfort. “I’m sorry,” Shayel managed at last as the tide of emotion receded, leaving him exhausted and washed up on its shore. “I’m sorry.”
“Nothing to be sorry about.” One of Uzhab’s old shirts was lying within arm’s reach beneath his bunk, and while it wasn’t clean clean, it was clean enough to give Shayel for his face.
Shayel look it and scrubbed at his eyes and nose. “I’m sorry, I don’t know why–“
“It’s okay,” Uzhab said again. “It happens.”
“It…” Shayel swallowed hard. “It does?”
Uzhab nodded. “Yeah. Not often, but … it does.” He smiled and nuzzled his nose along the rugged curve of Shayel’s horn, mapping the texture. “Sometimes it’s just all got to come out.”
“Oh.” With a deep sigh, Shayel tossed the sodden shirt to the side and tucked himself back up under Uzhab’s chin. It was somewhat a ridiculous arrangement, considering how much taller than Uzhab he was, but Uzhab didn’t mind. Stranger things had happened. Shayel swallowed hard and wrapped his arm around Uzhab’s chest. “…I’m sorry I ruined this.”
“Hey.” Uzhab turned Shayel’s face up to his own and kissed him softly. “Nothing ruined. I just got to make the handsome man who dropped a ship on a house for me come, and I’m feeling pretty good, actually.”
In response, Shayel squeezed him tight, calming himself with deep, measured breaths as he settled back in against Uzhab’s body. “I’m not going to regret this, you know,” Shayel whispered.
The hateful voice of self-doubt told Uzhab that of course Shayel would regret it, that he’d wake up disgusted with his actions and with Uzhab for allowing it. Uzhab gritted his teeth and pushed past it. He had to believe this was something new and good for both of them, that whatever came of it, the future would be better for each of them because the other was in it. Maybe it was a ridiculous thing to put his faith in, but so what? The universe needed more ridiculousness.
“Go to sleep,” Uzhab said, kissing Shayel’s forehead. “I’ll be right here.”
There were many things they needed to say to one another, starting from apologies — not reflexive gasps of “I’m sorry,” but actual, real apologies — and continuing on to sorting out the differences between what Shayel’s fantasies contained and what he actually wanted. For now, though, there was no need to rush to get anywhere. The storm outside would eventually end, and when it did, there would be a whole world just waiting.
The early morning was bright and clear, the perfect weather for watching for incoming shuttlecraft. They flashed like meteors as they burned through the mesosphere, then began to grow as dark silhouettes against the pink sky. Shayel grabbed Uzhab’s hand and squeezed it with all his might. “What if they hate it?”
“Will you stop?” Uzhab nudged Shayel with his shoulder, but did nothing to remove the vise-like grip from his hand. “If they hate it, they can fuck off. In fact, I think that should be our new motto. We’ll get a flag that says it in five languages: if you hate it, fuck off.”
That at least won a laugh despite Shayel’s otherwise all-consuming anxiety. He had been like this for weeks, wound tight as a bowstring, so much that making sure Shayel actually went to sleep had become Uzhab’s nightly task. Fortunately for him, he loved his work.
What had become of Aubor IV hadn’t been so far off the vision of the project Shayel had nurtured since childhood. There was still plenty of work to be done, especially beyond the city’s borders, but the two of them together had at least prepared it for living while those improvements were made. The streets were largely clean of debris, power was restored to most of the buildings, the repaired weather net was ready to disrupt storms instead of encourage them, and perhaps most importantly, seven hardworking atmospheric towers meant they could all literally breathe easy.
Some critical differences remained, however — the first among them being the absence of Shayel’s family. When he hadn’t returned with his tail between his legs after his year-long experiment, chastened into proper behavior, his parents had been upset; when he’d showed up to their estate in a Doqar ship, they’d outright disowned him. No matter how much he’d tried to explain that he’d done it all for them and for his grandparents, they’d slammed the door in his face and told him not to return until he could be reasonable. Shayel had managed to stay stone-faced throughout, but they couldn’t have crushed his heart worse if they’d stomped on the actual organ in front of him. He’d fallen into such despair that Uzhab had begun to wonder if the dream could truly survive such a blow.
That was, until the next day, when Shayel received a message from a childhood friend of his, a woman he hadn’t spoken to in years. She’d said she’d been sorry to hear through the grapevine about what had happened — and then pointed the camera at her husband, who was playing on the floor with their three young daughters. There was no mistaking his Doqar heritage, and the giggling children displayed features of both halves of their lineage. Was there perhaps, the woman on the recording asked shyly, a place on Aubor IV for them?
Shayel had not been able to reply ‘yes’ fast enough. That at last had been the missing piece.
If asked the previous year, Uzhab might have guessed there were a dozen or so Halla-Doqar marriages scattered out there, strange partnerships that defied their peoples’ histories. It turned out there were hundreds, every one of them certain they’d been the only one, trying to navigate the universe all but completely cut off from their families. Other Halla began to respond as well: ones who’d married against their families’ wishes, ones with too many partners or none at all, ones who loved a heritage that had never loved them back.
What had shocked Uzhab, though, was when inquiries began appearing from Doqar strays. They were like him, self-imposed exiles who had rejected Doqar society and been left with nowhere to go because of it. Uzhab had spent a full day gathering the courage to ask Shayel if maybe, just maybe, there could be room for them as well — only to find that Shayel had already messaged them all back saying, yes, come, welcome home.
As the approaching ships grew larger in Uzhab’s vision, he turned and gave Shayel’s tunic a straightening tug. “They’re going to love it. And you.” Uzhab squeezed Shayel’s hand. “And if they don’t, they have to answer to me.”
Shayel rolled his eyes, but his smile gave away everything else he was feeling. “You can’t beat up everyone who doesn’t love me.”
Uzhab shrugged. “I can try.” As threats went, it was hardly hollow. In fact, Shayel had made Uzhab damn near swear a blood oath that he wouldn’t go back to Shayel’s parents’ home, and that was still a promise Uzhab daydreamed a lot about breaking.
Shayel just shook his head. “Behave.” He punctuated the command by poking Uzhab in the center of his chest.
“Make me,” Uzhab replied with a wink, “Mr. Mayor.”
With a long-suffering sigh, Shayel narrowed his eyes. “Don’t you start.”
“Don’t tell me,” Uzhab said, pointing toward the sky. “Tell them.”
The collective roar of the multiple crafts’ landing engines was louder now, enough that speaking would become difficult until all the crafts were safely on the ground. In a few minutes, their doors would open and the first new residents would emerge into a new day’s sunlight. Until then, there was nothing left that needed be said between the two men who had made it all possible. There were only the last moments of quiet before new life came spilling out onto the planet’s surface, when Shayel would at last be able to step forward and gather to him his people — his real people, not the imagined ideal of his ancestors, but the real-life misfits and outcasts and homeless children of the universe. With Uzhab proudly at his side, he would stand before them and open his arms and be able to tell them all at last, yes, come, welcome home.