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EP556: In a Manner of Speaking

AUTHOR: Charity Tahmaseb

NARRATOR: Amy H. Sturgis

HOST: Tina Connolly

about the author…

Charity Tahmaseb has slung corn on the cob for Green Giant and jumped out of airplanes (but not at the same time). She’s worn both Girl Scout and Army green. These days, she writes fiction (short and long) and works as a technical writer. Her short speculative work has appeared in Flash Fiction Online, Deep Magic, and Cicada.

about the narrator…

Amy H. Sturgis holds a Ph.D. in Intellectual History and specializes in the fields of Science Fiction/Fantasy and Native American Studies. She lives with her husband, Dr. Larry M. Hall, and their best friend, Virginia the Boston terrier, in the foothills of North Carolina, USA.

In a Manner of Speaking

By Charity Tahmaseb

I use the last of the good candles to build the radio. I still have light. The fire burns, and there is a never-ending supply of the cheap, waxy candles in the storeroom. I will–eventually–burn through all of those. My fire will die. The cold will invade this space.

But today I have a radio. Today I will speak to the world–or what’s left of it. I compare my radio to the picture in the instructions. It looks the same, but not all the steps had illustrations. This troubles me. My radio may not work.

I crank the handle to charge the battery. This feels good. This warms my arms, and I must take deep breaths to keep going. I shake out my hand and crank some more. When buzz and static fill my ears, I nearly jump. That, too, sounds warm. I am so used to the cold. The creak and groan of ice, the howl of the wind. These cold sounds are their own kind of silence. They hold nothing warm or wet or alive.

I decide on a frequency for no other reason than I like the number. I press the button on the mouthpiece. This, according to the instructions, will let the world hear me.

“Hello?” My voice warbles and I leap back, as if something might spring from the speakers.

Nothing does, of course. In fact, nothing happens at all. It takes more than one try to reach the world.

“Hello? Hello? Is anyone there? Can you hear me? I would like to talk to you.”

Perhaps I should try another frequency–or try a little patience. If someone is out there with a radio, might they right now be cranking a handle to charge a battery, or sleeping, or adding wood to their fire? This last is something I must do and soon. The embers grow a bright orange, but the chill has invaded the edges of the room.

That means venturing outside. Of all the chores, I like this one the least. The trek to the shed is short, but nothing lights my way. The dark is just that: dark. While the cold is fierce, I know nothing can lurk outside my shelter, waiting to pounce. And yet, every time I collect wood, it’s as if a predator stalks me. I anticipate claws digging into my shoulder, sharp teeth at my neck, my spine cracked in half.

But the only thing outside my shelter is the cold. But it is the cold that will take me in the end. So in a sense, I am its prey and it is stalking me.

With my parka buttoned tight, I clip myself to the rope between my shelter and the shed. Wind tears at me, and I plod to the shed. I pat the pile of wood, reassured that yes, it is substantial. For now. With my arms full, I push against the wind and spill into the shelter.

It’s then I hear something. At first, I don’t recognize it because it’s been so long since I’ve heard that sound. Then the notion of it lights my mind. I fly across the room, wood spilling from my arms, the wind banging the door behind me.

It’s a voice.

I grab the mouthpiece, my thumb clumsy through wool mittens.

“Hello! Hello! Are you there? Can you hear me? Hello?”

The wind screams at my back. The door slams against the wall, the noise like a death knell.

“Please. Talk to me.”

My small space is chaos. Whirling snow, slamming door, biting wind, and scattered wood. It is too loud and too cold for anyone to hear me over the radio, and I have foolishly let the heat escape. It will take hours to warm the air to the point where I can sit without my body convulsing with shivers.

I have been so very foolish.

I fight the wind to shut the door. With it latched, I turn to inspect the mess. Stoke the fire first. Perhaps by the time I stack the wood and sweep the debris, the flames will throw enough heat that I can sit, crank the radio, and try again.

After I clean, after I heat my insides with broth, I crank the handle and try the radio again. I send my voice into the endless night, into the world, maybe even the universe. My voice could go on forever, long after I am gone. But that doesn’t seem to matter.

No one answers.

* * *

When I wake, my nose is chilled, but only slightly. The air holds enough warmth that I can move and think. The fire is hungry, I can tell, but content to give me heat for the moment. Last night’s folly has not ruined anything. My gaze lands on the radio, and I wonder. Is it more of a curse than a possible blessing?

I will try again today. It will not hurt to try. It will keep me warm and keep me busy. As long as I don’t hope too much, it cannot hurt me, either.

After I eat a can of peaches for breakfast, I set to the task of cranking the handle and giving the battery a full charge. I debate switching frequencies. I wonder if that voice I heard was merely wishful thinking. These thoughts do not stop my thumb from pressing the button.

“Hello? Are you there? I think I heard you last night. Well, it’s always night here. I mean, before. I heard you before.”

Even now, without the sun, I still think in night and day, breakfast and dinner. I could have broth for breakfast, but I never do. I could reconstitute eggs and eat them for dinner, but again, I never do. I am a creature of habits. Now, these habits are all I have left.

“Is there anyone there?” I speak slowly, in case these words must fight the static to reach whoever is on the other side. “Should I change frequencies?”

This seems to be a silly question. If no one has answered my other calls, I’m not certain why this would compel them to. My fingers touch the dial. I’m about to spin it when something crackles over the speaker.

“No.”

I stare at the space in front of the radio as if it’s possible to see the owner of this voice.

“No?” My reply is a tiny thing.

“Don’t … don’t change the frequency … there’s a good girl. Hold tight, I’m having some technical difficulties, but I’m here.”

“I don’t understand. You can hear me?”

“I can hear you.”

“You have a radio too?”

“In a manner of speaking. I have a way to talk to your radio, at least.”

Again, I stare at the space in front of the radio. I even wave a hand in the air. The voice is so rich and deep and clear. Yes, there is no static on my frequency. I wonder if that is something this other voice has done.

“Are you a man?” I ask.

“In a manner of speaking.”

I laugh. The button on the mouthpiece is still depressed, so this voice, this man, hears my laughter. His own in response is as rich as his voice.

“I don’t know what that means,” I say.

“I don’t either, except that I was a man, once–or male, at least. If that makes sense,” he says, his reply filled with both humor and sadness. “Now I am, perhaps, less than that.”

I still don’t understand, but I’m not certain it matters. Not when there’s a voice on the other side of this endless night, not when that voice wants to talk to me.

“I’m Soshi,” I say, a strange, unaccountable shyness invading my voice and heating my cheeks.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Soshi. I am Jatar.”

I like the way his name feels in my mouth, and I say it out loud. “Jatar.” Yes, it is delicious. Speaking is delicious. I touch my cheeks. The skin burns hot, but my fingers are like ice. The fire. Too late, I realize I’ve let it die down far too much.

“Oh, no,” I murmur. “I forgot about the fire.”

“Go, go. Tend to your fire. Then fix yourself something to eat, and come back and charge your battery. I will be here, on this frequency.”

“Always? When I call, you will be there?”

“In these times, Soshi, there aren’t many things I can promise. But I will promise you this. I will always be on this frequency, and I will always hear your call.”

* * *

Jatar won’t talk to me until I’ve assured him that I’ve fed myself, tended to the fire, and the other chores. How he knows I need to do these things puzzles me. Of course, I did fling my words into the darkness before we found each other. So I ask him.

“Yes,” he says. “I did hear you. I have trouble on my end. Your radio is nothing like the device I use.”

“You still have trouble?”

“Had. I mean, I had trouble. But you can hear me now, yes?”

“Yes.” Sometimes I want to nod or smile, but I know he can’t see these things. We have nothing but voices to guide us–their tone, their thickness or thinness. How a smile makes the throat warm and disapproval has an edge.

“You are not on earth,” I say, “are you?”

The frequency carries his sigh to me, and the sound holds reluctance. “No, I am not.”

“You are lucky then.”

“I don’t know about that.”

“Where are you?”

“I don’t know about that, either.” By the way he says this, I know he wants me to laugh.

I do, but I also want to know the answer. “Where are you?”

“I’m not certain where matters all that much, not anymore.”

“But you must be somewhere.”

“Must I, dear girl? Must I really?”

I don’t know how to answer that. I crank the handle to charge the battery, just so I don’t lose the connection. I hate that, every morning–or what I call morning–charging the battery, sprouting sweat, and praying that Jatar’s voice will come over the speaker and fill my little room with warmth.

“Maybe you are in my radio,” I say now.

This time, he laughs. “What I wouldn’t give to be there, living inside your radio.”

“You would have to be very small,” I say. “Smaller than a mouse.”

“You wouldn’t need to feed me very much.”

No, I wouldn’t. A thought seizes me. I think of small things, tiny things, mouse-sized things. I think of their absence.

“I killed them,” I say. The confession both lifts me up and weighs on me. I know its truth.

Our frequency is clear of buzz and static. So when there’s silence, it stretches long and empty.

“Who do you think you’ve killed,” Jatar says at last, his words quiet and low.

“The mice. When I first … found this place, there were droppings everywhere. The food is in metal containers and on metal shelves. But I stopped leaving crumbs. No more crumbs, no more mice.”

“And it’s you, not the lack of sun or heat that’s responsible.”

“I don’t need to eat every last crumb.”

A few nights ago, I left a bit of cracker on the floor, deliberately. I placed it well away from my sleeping pallet. My first nights in this space, I was consumed with the fear of mice, of rats, crawling over me in my sleep. I jerked awake so many times, breathing hard, cold sweat washing across my skin that I almost gave up on sleeping. But this time, when I woke, the crumb remained, untouched.

“Oh, dear girl, you did not kill the mice. They no doubt went elsewhere. They are resourceful creatures. Besides, they carry diseases. They could contaminate your food, your water…”

Jatar’s voice fades, either from the buzzing in my head or failing battery power. I remember standing over that crumb, then falling on my knees next to it. For how long I stared, I don’t know. Here’s what I do know:

I picked it up and ate it.

“I can’t talk now, Jatar,” I say into the mouthpiece.

“Soshi, please. Listen to me, you did not kill the mice.” Jatar’s voice fills the air. He does not stop talking, not even when I refuse to respond. “You’ll lose me soon if you don’t crank the handle.” He knows the life of the battery–or at least how to gauge it. “Crank the handle, at least. Tell me you’re still with me.”

But I don’t. I sit, curled by the fire, chin on my knees. I could’ve captured a mouse, tempted it with some crumbs, built a home for it, close enough to the fire so it would always be warm. We would dine together, morning and night. I could spare what it would need to survive. I would have given it a good mouse name.

But I don’t have a mouse. Something about that makes me clutch my legs to my chest. Salt from tears irritates my cheeks, but it’s only later, when the tracks have dried, that I scrub my face with my palms. I’ve forgotten to eat, and the fire is low, but it’s the radio that I reach for. My chest heaves as I crank the handle.

“Jatar,” I say when there’s enough power to carry my voice. “I want a mouse.”

“I know you do, dear girl. I know you do.”

He is there; he is always there. Maybe he does live in my radio. Maybe Jatar is my mouse.

“I know you do,” he says one last time. His sigh carries so much weight I’m surprised the air isn’t thick with the sound. “Your fire,” he prompts.

“I should stoke it.”

“Dinner?”

“Not yet.”

“Tend to your chores. I’ll be here when you’re done.”

“You will?”

“Where else would I go?”

* * *

I have found a rubber band, one that feels stretchy and fresh in my fingers. Its edges have not rotted away. It is strong, and when I wrap it around the mouthpiece, the button remains depressed. I love my radio, but now I am no longer tethered to it. I can use both hands while talking to Jatar.

Not that he can see my hands. But I can stoke the fire, feed myself, and crank the handle. I can fall silent, and he will not worry–too much. He can hear the rustle of my boots against the floor, the whisper of the broom, the crack and sizzle when I stoke the fire.

“Have you gathered wood recently?” he asks now.

“Last night … yesterday. It’s stacked high. I don’t dare bring anymore in for a while.”

The air is too dry; sparks from the fire have too great a range. The thing that keeps me alive can also kill me. At least then I’d be warm, I tell myself. I don’t speak these words to Jatar, but my laugh gives me away.

“That sounds morbid.”

“It is,” I admit. “I was thinking about the fire, how it might kill me before the cold does.”

“I wish you wouldn’t–”

“It’s like that poem about the world ending in fire and ice. And I think it could be both, couldn’t it?”

“I suppose it could, and suppose we change the subject?”

I agree, but don’t know what to say at first. Jatar does not talk much about himself, although I wish he would. That doesn’t stop me from trying.

“Can you see the stars where you are?” I ask.

“On occasion, yes, I can.”

“Ours left. Actually, that’s not right. I’m guessing they’re still in the sky.”

“Your guess would be correct.”

“We blotted them out, all the stars, our sun, and now we have nothing. You know, when I first found this place, you could still see the stars from here. I thought: oh, I am so lucky. There used to be a stream. It even had fish, although they swam funny, so I never ate them.”

“That seems like a wise decision.”

His words have a teasing quality that makes me want to talk more so I can hear the humor and approval in his tone.

“It must have been a beautiful spot, with the mountains and the woods. I wonder why no one else ever came up after I did. Was it just too late?”

“Perhaps they weren’t as smart as you.”

“I don’t think that’s it. I think something happened, but I just don’t know what that something is.”

“Hm.” Jatar sounds as if he’s giving this much thought. “It’s possible that the only thing to happen was self-inflicted, especially with the cities, as crowded as they were. Disease, fighting. It’s hard to say.”

“The cities were crowded. It’s why we left.” I nod before stopping myself, since Jatar can’t see me. I may be the only witness to these things, and yet, I might as well be blind for all I’ve seen. Self-inflicted. The phrase makes me think of something else I found along the stream, something else I witnessed, and yet didn’t.

“I’m wearing a dead woman’s boots,” I say.

I must shock Jatar with this confession. Silence greets me, and I wonder if I need to crank the handle again. At long last, he coughs.

“Dear girl, Soshi … I don’t know what you mean by that.”

“When there was still some sunlight, when I could walk along the stream, I found a body, a skeleton, really. Small, like me, so I’m guessing it was a woman. She was mostly bones, but the gun was still in her hand, and for some reason, nothing had chewed away the boots on her feet. Thick leather. They’re heavy, but they are very good boots.”

“The boots on her feet.” Jatar says these words slowly. “Your boots?”

“I had to shake her bones from them, but yes. I took her boots.”

“Did you leave her gun?”

“By that time, there was nothing left to shoot. I didn’t see the point, even though I was still scared. I didn’t think anyone would climb up this high in the mountains, not if they hadn’t already.”

“So you left the gun.” Jatar’s voice is tight as if this is something he absolutely must know.

“I left the gun,” I say. “What would I shoot at? The wind? What would that do? Maybe cause an avalanche?”

“Yes, I suppose it could.” He clears his throat. “I don’t like this subject either.”

“Then you tell me something about you.”

“I am not that interesting.”

“Are you a scientist?”

Jatar is intelligent; I can tell he holds back in saying things, perhaps so I don’t feel bad for not being all that smart myself.

“A scientist?” he says. “Is that what you think I am?”

“You are very smart.”

“I don’t know about that, but you could call me a scientist, in a manner of speaking.”

I sigh. The radio carries the sound to wherever Jatar is, and he laughs.

“What do you study? Planets? Stars? Solar systems?”

“Yes, you could say that. I … take the temperature of things. Some of those things include stars and planets.”

“Earth?”

There’s the slightest hitch in our frequency, the slightest bit of hesitation in his voice. “No, actually, Earth wasn’t something I monitored.”

“But you are now?”

“On my own time.”

“You must have a lot of time.”

Here, he laughs, the sound so clear and hearty, I can’t help but laugh as well.

“Oh, yes, I do,” he says. “I have time to spare.”

* * *

“I wish I knew what day it was,” I say.

I am trying to draw Jatar out, get him to respond. Today he has been so very quiet.

“I always know what day it is,” he says.

“Somehow, I don’t think it’s the same as mine.”

“It is, and it isn’t.”

“Because if I knew what day it was, we could have a party.”

“What kind of party?”

“Well, that depends on the day. See? It’s important.”

His laugh filters through the speakers.

“It could even be my birthday.”

“Oh, dear girl, it certainly could. You deserve lots of birthday parties.”

“Would you get me a present?”

“As many as I could carry to you.”

“Like what?”

“How about a mouse?”

“I would very much like a mouse. I would name it Jatar.”

A harrumph comes from the speakers, one so strong the radio seems to vibrate with it.

“I think,” Jatar says, his words slow, “that I should be offended.”

Before I can explain that having a mouse named after you is an honor, the floorboards shake beneath my feet. I give a little cry, no more than a yelp from the back of my throat, but Jatar hears.

“What is it?” he demands.

“I don’t know. The house is …”

I can’t find words to describe the tremors that run through it. It’s like my house has suddenly caught a fever and is shaking with chills. Then there’s an awful groan.

“Oh, dear girl,” Jatar says, and now his voice is low, but taut, as if it were nothing more than a rubber band stretched to its limits. “Stay by me–I mean, the radio. Stay by the radio. Do not open the door. Do not go outside. Stay as still and as quiet as you can.”

I retreat to the radio, grip the mouthpiece, although I don’t need to. Another groan sounds. It is like nothing I’ve heard, not even in the days when we fought to leave the city, and certainly my mountain has never made such noises.

“What is it?” I whisper, my lips only a breath away from the mouthpiece.

“I have heard this sound before.”

“Will it eat me?”

“No.” This word is not quite as tight as all his others. It almost sounds like he wants to laugh. “It won’t eat you, dear girl.”

The roar comes next, so loud it steals my breath. It reminds me of the few trains that still ran, back when we were walking, back before I was alone. We’d follow the tracks, and the roar would sneak up on you. Someone always kept watch.

Or did. Because, of course, the trains stopped running after a while. We still followed the tracks. They would lead us somewhere important, somewhere safe. I’m not sure how true that was, because they didn’t lead me here, to my mountain, where I’ve been safe.

Until now.

The floorboards jump beneath my feet. The force knocks me into the wall and knocks embers from the fireplace. I claw my way across the floor. Before I can cup the glowing ember in my hands, I jerk back. I glance around, but the world shakes too hard, and my feet are too unsteady. Already smoke rises from the wood slats. I bite my lip and sacrifice the back of my left hand and shove the ember into the hearth.

I must scream. My throat aches as if I have. Jatar’s voice pours from the speaker in response. He must fight to be heard over the roar and rumble and chaos that have swallowed my house.

Then, everything is quiet. The world. Jatar. So quiet I can hear the fire sputter. My gaze goes there first. Build the fire back up, make it safe. My left hand is nearly useless. If pain could scream, it would fill this space, this mountain, this world. I worry that I have done more damage than I can repair.

First things first. The fire. I build it up. I don’t know if it’s the stoked fire or if my hand makes me feel as if I’m on fire, but the air is warm, warmer than before. I glance about, knowing I must dig out some first aid supplies, perhaps scoop up some snow or ice from outside.

“Jatar?” I say, hoping to hear his voice.

Nothing.

Panic seizes me before I remember: the battery. It’s an awkward thing, cranking the handle with my right hand, bracing the radio with my left elbow, but I manage it.

“Jatar?” I say, before I even have a full charge.

“Soshi? Dear girl, are you okay?”

“I burnt myself, but that’s better than the house burning down. I’m going to get the first aid kit.”

Actually, in the storeroom, I have many first aid kits, more than I could ever use.

“And maybe some snow,” I add, making my way across the room. My legs wobble, and I take unsteady and erratic steps.

Behind me, Jatar is saying something, but he sounds so very far away. Shock, I think. How do I cure myself of that?  Hand first, then the shock. I open the door to the outside. All I want to do is grope around, grab a handful of that sharp, crystalized mix of icy snow, and cool the fire of my skin.

At first, I don’t understand what I see. I can only open the door part way. Something solid, cold, and white blocks its progress. The rope lifeline that leads to the woodshed is gone. That is no matter. Because my woodshed is also gone. Either that, or it’s buried beneath a mountain’s worth of snow.

Why the avalanche spared my little house, I do not know. But it has. And yet, it hardly feels benevolent. I do not feel grateful.

For a very long time, I do nothing but stare at the snow. Then I shut the door. I throw the deadbolt.

I will never open it again.

* * *

I use the last of the dying embers to light a cheap candle. The flame throws little light and even less heat. A couple of them on the hearth chase away the worst of the dark–if not the cold. Jatar is speaking to me now, urging me forward. Before the cold can steal all my rational thoughts, I scrawl Crank the handle on any surface I might chance to look at–the floor, the walls, the plastic tub that once held the blankets and clothes I stumble around in.

My fingers are black from the burnt bit of wood that was my makeshift pen. I use as little water as possible to wash, although this is from habit. I will run out before the water does.

“The storeroom,” Jatar says. “You can navigate in the dark. I’ll help you. Don’t take a candle.”

“All right.” I push to standing.

“Go straight back and then to your left.”

“My left.” I don’t say it as a question, but that’s what it is.

“That’s the hand with the burn.” He never scolds, even when my words come out stupid.

“On the shelf, above your head, there will be another bin of blankets and things to keep you warm.”

Halfway inside the storeroom, my mind blanks. Everything is dark, but Jatar’s voice echoes behind me.

“A few more steps, dear girl. Just a few.”

How he knows what I need to do, I can’t say. Perhaps, before the avalanche, I spoke of these things. Yes. I nod to myself. I did. I told him where everything was and now he’s telling me. I lug the bin from the shelf and emerge into the dim light of the main room.

My movement causes one of my candles to sputter. It gutters and dies. Maybe it’s the cheap wax, but it sounds like someone drowning.

“Soshi? Are you there?”

“Yes, I’m here.”

“That noise?”

“One of my candles,” I say. “The flame went out.”

“It sounded horrific.”

“It sounded like someone’s throat being slit.”

Jatar’s voice fills the speakers, but I don’t understand him. His voice has a musical quality to it, as if he uses notes rather than words. But I recognize the tone.

He is scolding me.

At last he comes to himself, the notes fading into lyrics I understand.

“Soshi, please.”

He doesn’t call me dear girl, and I think that hurts more than anything else. That makes me rush to explain before the cold steals this piece of me as well.

“I said that because I know what it sounds like. I’ve heard it before. It’s why I left the group. They weren’t collecting children because they were kind. They were collecting children because they were hungry.”

Jatar is silent.

“I ran away,” I continue. “I’d rather die alone than be someone’s dinner. I left the group, stopped following the train tracks, and found my mountain.”

“I had no idea, dear girl, no idea. You’ve never … I mean, I didn’t know.”

“I don’t like to think about it.”

“Then we won’t speak of it ever again. Go on, open the bin. There are warm things inside.”

I pull the items out, one by one. They are heavy in my hands, thick wool coats that might weigh more than I do at this point. There are light things as well, down-filled jackets and sleeping bags that sprout tiny feathers when I squeeze them. At the very bottom, there is something furry and soft. I don’t recognize it, and it isn’t something you wear. It almost looks like…

“Jatar! I have a mouse!”

“Do you now?” He sounds amused.

“Yes! Did you … did you find a way to send me a mouse?”

“I did, dear girl, I did.”

“Is it my birthday?”

“I think it might be.”

“I should have a can of peaches then.”

“You should have two.”

“Oh, I don’t know if I could eat two whole cans.” I am not as hungry as I used to be. Sometimes Jatar must bully me into eating.

“Try,” he says now. “Pretend I’m there, and the second can is for me.”

In the end, I manage to eat one and a half cans. This gives me energy to make tea. The drink heats my throat, my stomach, and for a few moments, I can pretend I feel warm.

“You know what you should do, now that you have a mouse?” he asks.

“What?” I am amazed that there’s something I can do, so he has my full attention.

“Build a nest, one you can share with it. You can keep each other warm.”

I do as he says, piling the heavy coats along the floor and against the wall near the hearth. I move the radio within arm’s reach. I can keep the candles lit from here. I curl into the blankets and pull the mouse to me.

“Would you mind,” I ask, “if I called him Jatar?”

“I would be honored.”

* * *

Crank the handle.

I know the words mean something, something important. I know there’s something I must do, but can’t remember. When the last of the candles dies and the dark erases the words, it’s almost a relief.

I pull my mouse to me, cuddle him against my neck. He is so soft.

“Don’t be scared,” I whisper.

Because he is scared, of the dark, of the cold so sharp it feels like a knife’s blade. I dig us further into our nest.

“Close your eyes, Jatar. Go to sleep.”

I shut my eyes. The sound of a voice pricks my ears, but I think this voice is in my head, not in my house. It is a rich voice, amused and musical. When I try, I can make this voice laugh.

And in that laughter, there is warmth.

* * *

It’s the silence in the end that’s the worst, when Soshi’s voice no longer fills my shuttlecraft, when I know she’s alone, in the dark. She has her mouse, I tell myself; she has her version of Jatar. She is not alone. This thought offers nothing, not even a cold sort of comfort.

Earth was never in my sector of responsibility. Before Soshi, I knew very little of it, just that it was another small, life-bearing planet. Enough small, life-bearing planets implode on our watch that one more hardly makes a difference.

Except, of course, when it does.

As always, the jolt takes me unaware, throws me into the control panel. Pain shoots along my extremities. The grind of metal on metal follows and what sounds like a ripping. I brace against the floor, the craft shuddering beneath me. I count to three.

And then it ends. Everything is solid around me. Everything is as it should be. Everything is the same.

“Hello?”

Including Soshi.

“Hello? Hello? Is anyone there? Can you hear me? I would like to talk to you.”

Why my communications system picks up her transmission, I don’t know. It hasn’t failed to yet, just as the crash never fails to surprise me, never fails to injure. I push to stand, then fall back. I strain and stretch, managed to press a button, call out a few words, although they are rough. My memories are intact, but each time, I must relearn her language. In those precious moments, it is easy to lose her.

“Hello! Hello! Are you there? Can you hear me? Hello?”

I can’t find the will to move. I’m not certain I have it in me to live through this again–I’ve lost track of the number of times.

“Please. Talk to me.”

If I lie here and soak in my own juices, what good will that do? But if I claw to stand, lock onto her frequency, what good will that do?

Every time is different. Every time … breaks me a little more. My sigh comes across the frequency, changes her thought or her footfall or something, and I open up another vista into her soul. Just when I thought I knew all of Soshi’s trials, she tells me of shaking bones from a dead woman’s boots and those who collect children in order to eat them.

I spend this time between her first call and that last, desperate one deciding. Earlier, I researched. While Earth never was in my sector, our information is complete, and what’s stored on the shuttlecraft is more than I’ll ever need. Quite against my will, I’ve become the foremost expert on hypothermia in humans.

When the end is near, I coax her into burrowing, better that than paradoxical undressing. I know when the avalanche will strike and her best chance to survive it. Once she stepped outside and it took her. I listened to icy silence until the battery on the radio finally died.

I have a complete mental inventory of her storeroom. What she finds in the bottom of that bin, I’m never certain. A child’s toy? A fur-lined glove? A hat meant for an infant, perhaps, with whimsical ears.

“Hello? Are you there? I think I heard you last night. Well, it’s always night here. I mean, before. I heard you before.”

My strength returns, but so does my resolve not to answer. Does it matter, one way or another, if I’m there for her? Must I bear witness? She dies. She always dies. Once, I’d like that not to happen.

“Is there anyone there?” Her words are slow, deliberate, plaintive. “Should I change frequencies?”

Her question holds humor, as if she recognizes that it’s a somewhat ridiculous thing to ask. The first time I heard it, I launched myself to my feet, smashed into the control panel, and opened a communications channel. Now, I hesitate, but thoughts cloud my mind. She will not find her mouse without me. She will step into that avalanche.

She will die alone.

I propel myself off the floor. I land with a crack against the control panel. I still ooze, and I coat the surface with what can only be described as slime, at least in human terms.

“No.” It’s more of a cough than a word, but it crosses space and time and opens her up to me.

“No?”

Her voice is filled with so much hope, choking out a reply is almost impossible. The panel is such a mess that establishing a permanent link is, also, almost impossible.

“Don’t … don’t change the frequency … there’s a good girl. Hold tight, I’m having some technical difficulties, but I’m here.”

I’m always here.

In a manner of speaking.

Comments (3)

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  1. Angelica says:

    This is one of the best stories I’ve heard in a long time. I love it!

  2. This is fantastic. I loved it, despite the sadness. The mood was consistent throughout. Thanks.

  3. Luke says:

    This was beautiful and moving. Thank you.