By Gerri Leen
Lieutenant Sirella Nacleth breathes in green dust and tries not to cough. Her feet feel too heavy to move, but she forces herself to walk on, ignoring the heat that blasts down and around her, heat carried by winds that do nothing to cool the air from the sun above. This planet is a harrowing furnace, and she is bound here for the rest of her life—or until her people find her.
Or until her enemy’s people do. She glances back and sees that the Vermayan has finished filling in the deep grave he put his crewmates’ bodies in. She’s assuming the Vermayan is a he. It’s hard to tell from where she stands, and she doesn’t intend to get very close if she can help it.
If their ships hadn’t crashed almost on top of each other, she might not have seen him for days, if at all. But their ships did land nearly twisted together, and the bodies of the crews are strewn all over. She has to get closer to him than she likes just to retrieve her dead.
She’s the only one on her ship who survived the crash. Her left arm is broken, and her right ankle wrenched. Her back feels strained and her head hurts. But she’s alive. She’s alive and burying her dead, shoveling one handed and pulling her crewmates behind her as she limps from body to hole, body to hole.
The Vermayan is way ahead of her. There are no rust-colored bodies strewn over the plain anymore, while so many of her own dead still lie waiting for her to reach them. The green sand blows over the bodies as the blazing wind lifts stinging grit and flings it at her, making her eyes hurt and her lips crack. She will help her friends; she will give them rest. But not soon. She’s only one person. And she’s tired. So tired.
The Vermayan has sat down. He’s watching her as she limps toward the next body, which is halfway between where she’s dug her hole and where he’s resting. Glancing at his rank, she sees he’s the Vermayan equivalent of lieutenant. He’s taken his weapon out of its holster and is playing with it—no, he’s checking it. She laughs bitterly. If it’s built as poorly as hers, it will be clogged with the fine green grit of this damned world. And since his ship didn’t perform any better than hers, why should his gun?
“It won’t work,” she says, unsure why she bothers. He won’t understand her and talking will only make the dryness in her throat worse.
He gets up, closes the weapon, and aims at the ground. The gun sort of clicks as he pulls the trigger, but it doesn’t fire.
“Nothing like fine Vermayan craftsmanship,” she says, laughing as he drops the weapon on the ground. Obviously, the Vermayans went with the lowest bidder, too. She’s sorry she laughed when her throat begins to itch. Soon she’s coughing, and she imagines her lungs are filling up with green dust.
He stares at her, and she stares back at him as soon as she gets the coughing under control, wondering if she should challenge him to a hand-to-hand duel. They are enemies: the Revirian Confederation is at war with the Vermayan Union. Surely they should fight?
She moves on. She’ll fight him later. When her arm doesn’t jolt with pain each time she moves it wrong. When she can actually move gracefully again on her ankle and not feel like a crippled old woman.
When she’s found some water. She’s almost out of the small amount that she salvaged from the wreckage. She’ll die without water.
But first, she has to finish burying her dead. She can’t leave them in this blistering heat, can’t face them if she abandons her duty. She’ll imagine their accusing faces. She’ll see them look over at their enemy and note that he’s buried all of his dead—what’s wrong with her?
She sighs and drags the body of the navigator back to the hole it took her all day to dig. She can’t settle him gently into the hole as she did the others; her broken arm refuses to cooperate any longer with such foolish demands. She ends up rolling him into the hole, easing him over the edge with her foot.
The sound of his body landing on the others makes her wince. She hears another sound, whirls, and sees the Vermayan dragging the medic’s body toward her. She reaches for her knife, and he stops walking and stares at her. Their eyes meet, and she tries to read what emotion has prompted him to help her, but his dark eyes are barricades she cannot see past.
He says something in a language she’s never been taught. His tone is guttural and harsh. He sounds impatient.
She sees that his water carrier is half empty. Why is he helping her when he could be out looking for water?
She holds onto her knife but doesn’t pull it out of the sheath. The handle of it is comforting and familiar, and it makes her feel stronger. The Vermayan also wears a knife; its ornate hilt is carved with symbols and inlayed with some kind of golden metal that shines in the bright sun. Following her gaze, he sees that she’s studying his weapon. He smiles—it’s not a pretty expression. She wonders if he meant it to be.
Easing the medic down, he walks off, and she watches him go. He’s collecting the captain now. She doesn’t want his help with the bodies, but she can’t face the idea of trying to drag them all to the grave herself, not when just easing the medic up enough to get her to the edge of the hole is such torture.
The Vermayan gets closer this time before he sets the captain down. Something falls, and she realizes it’s part of the captain’s weapon. The thing has shattered, but the Vermayan collected the pieces and carried them back with the body. He crouches down, touching the pieces of metal. One of them is sharp, and he holds it up, a questioning look in his eyes.
She nods. He’s right. They should keep it as a knife.
When did she and the Vermayan become they? Frowning, she reaches down to pull the captain toward the grave. He’s lighter than he should be, so she looks back and sees that the Vermayan is helping her move him. His eyes are wary as he stares her down, but she’s too tired to tell him to let go.
They ease the captain into the grave together, his body settling gently, not landing hard as the navigator and medic did. She’s glad; the captain was good to her, made her feel welcome when she was a green recruit. She doesn’t want her last act for him to be one of desperate disrespect.
Turning, she marches slowly across the sand to the last of the bodies. Her black uniform is greenish, as if covered with pollen from the trees that line the streets back on Doala. There are no trees in sight, and her home world seems very far away. She’s not even sure what planet they’ve crashed on—maybe it’s not a planet at all, maybe it’s a moon. This area of space is a wasteland; their ships fought in the middle of the astral desert, and it’s just possible they were lucky enough to crash on what passes for an oasis in this sector.
As oases go, it’s pretty dismal.
She leans down and sees that the body she’s approached is Justina’s. Her friend is lying at an odd angle, broken, shattered inside. Sirella was in the back of the ship—it was probably what saved her, but she isn’t sure she’s glad she was saved.
She wonders if the Vermayan would have buried her, too, if all of his enemies were dead instead of just most of them.
He’s already dragging the engineer back to the grave. Justina was assistant engineer. She was in love with the ship, more than she ever had been with any man. This was supposed to be the start of a long, adventurous life. Life is rarely long during wartime, though, and Justina must have known that on some level.
Sirella brushes her friend’s hair from her face. Her skin is unmarked. No sign of the trauma that’s written in the crooked way her bones lay. She’s still so beautiful, still so young. She’ll be young forever.
Sirella reaches for Justina, using her bad arm. Pain erupts, and she cries out. She looks to see if the Vermayan heard her but thinks he’s too far away. Panting for a moment, she presses her throbbing arm firmly against her body, then drags Justina with her good one.
The Vermayan walks past her, the engineer already in the grave. She sees his eyes drop down to where she’s cradling her arm against her stomach, but he doesn’t stop as he heads back to the main wreckage of his ship.
The walk to the grave seems even longer, or maybe it’s just that her back is aching more, the strain made worse from pulling and lifting. She ignores the pain, finally gets Justina to the edge, and whispers a silent apology as she pushes her into the hole. Her friend’s body lies just as crookedly on the top of the pile as it did on the fine green sand.
Sirella pushes herself up with a groan, picks up the piece of wreckage she used to dig the hole, and starts to fill the grave in. The Vermayan comes up, but she refuses to stop. She’s not sure how she managed to climb out of the hole with a broken arm when she first dug it—she can barely remember digging or pushing the first bodies in. She must have been in shock. She may still be in shock, but she doesn’t dwell on it because she’s not a medic and isn’t sure what she should do. She’s a tactical officer; she shoots things.
If she’d been a better shot, maybe her ship wouldn’t be lying in pieces behind her?
Maybe the Vermayan wouldn’t be helping her move dirt into a hole that’s filled with her dead friends? Maybe he’d be the dead one?
She tries to lift the dirt, but her strength is giving out, so she starts to push it toward the hole. She feels the Vermayan touch her arm and shrugs off the touch. She will finish this.
He touches her again, and she ignores him. He touches her a third time, and she pulls her knife out and turns on him.
His eyes show emotion now. They’re confused—and angry. She’s cut him and his hand drips blood. A hand that is holding a sling out to her.
They’re frozen, staring at each other, his dark eyes piercing hers, his frown deepening as he holds his hand over the cut to stop the bleeding. It isn’t deep; she struck out in rage, not with any real intent.
He pushes the sling out to her. His blood is red like hers, and it’s soaked into the fabric. Taking the sling, she slips it over her head and tries to get her arm in it. She can tell by his eyes that she isn’t doing it right, but he makes no move to help her. She gives him credit for not being stupid.
Putting the knife back, she moves closer to him and looks down at the sling that she has twisted so badly. “Help?”
The word can’t possibly make sense to him, but her tone does, and maybe the look in her eyes. He tears a piece of cloth first from his uniform, tying it around his hand before reaching out to adjust the sling. Once it is in place, he steps back, picking up his own version of a shovel, which he dropped when she cut him. He moves away from her, to the far side of the pile of dirt.
She feels bad. She has hurt her enemy’s feelings, and she feels bad. She also feels stupid for feeling bad.
She shouldn’t hurt his feelings; she should hurt him. She should kill him.
She goes back to digging. Moving closer to him as she works, she says, “I’m sorry.”
He looks over at her. Pointing to his hand, she then makes a face. She hopes it is the same expression that conveys regret in his culture. He nods, seems to understand. Or else he’s just being agreeable because she’s unpredictable and stabs those who try to help her.
They go back to shoveling, and soon the grave is covered up, and she can stop working. She drinks sparingly from her water container even though her throat feels dry enough to cut her if she swallows too hard.
The Vermayan lifts his own bottle and shakes his head. He says something. She has no idea what it means, but then he mimics filling the bottle. He starts to walk off, his walk sure, as if he knows exactly where to look for water on this terrible world.
She watches him go. She wants to lie down in the small shade offered by one of the big pieces of his ship. She wants to fall asleep and never, ever wake up again.
He barks something out at her—it sounds just like the captain ordering her to fire, so she follows him until he slows and waits for her to catch up. He doesn’t look at her as they walk; his gaze is fixed on the ground, on the sand that shifts as they move and makes her ankle hurt even more.
They walk and walk and the sand turns into something less fluid. Leaning down, he picks up two small stones. He seems to be rolling them in his fingers, as if checking them for smoothness. Then he pops one in his mouth, seems to be rolling it around in there, too.
Does his species eat rocks? He sees her look and smiles, then opens his mouth. The stone is still there. He closes his mouth, goes back to sucking on the rock, motioning for her to do the same. Her enemy wants her to pretend the smooth yellow stone he found is some kind of sucking candy? He’s clearly insane, but she slips it in her mouth anyway. They’ll go insane together.
At first, the rock tastes only of dust and a lifetime spent lying in the sand. The dirt does not taste green—she wonders what she thinks green should taste like. Swirling the stone around some more, she realizes her mouth is less dry. She looks up at the Vermayan, and he nods, then turns and walks on.
She follows him as he heads down, always down, and she remembers that water is usually in low-lying areas. He still has his shovel, and she realizes she doesn’t have hers, but he didn’t tell her to bring it. With her broken arm, she won’t be much of a digger.
The sun beats down unmercifully, and she tries to tear off some of her shirt to make a wrap for her head, but she can’t do it with one good hand. Grabbing her knife and using her bad hand to hold the fabric, she cuts into it to start the tear. The rest is easy.
He watches her as she wraps the strip around her head, then nods as if she has done something very smart. He’s soon wearing his own version of a turban.
She realizes there are no animals on this planet—or none in this area at least. Other than the sound of the relentless wind, there’s nothing. No hum of insects, no faraway screech of birds, no rumbling or roaring that would mean something larger. They’re alone here. It would be easier to find water if they weren’t. They could follow the game trails. But there is no game here, no predators. Only the two of them.
They were game to each other just a day ago. Their shiny ships attacked like two great beasts thundering toward fatal collision, fighting until they fell out of the sky.
The Vermayan makes a sound as if he’s excited. He rushes to something that looks like any other piece of ground they’ve covered except that there are more of the short, spiny bushes that seem to be the only form of vegetation. Kneeling, he begins to dig down into the sand with his hands.
The sand is no longer dusty green. Where he’s uncovered it, it’s a dark, wet green.
She thinks it’s the prettiest green she’s ever seen.
He stands and begins to dig, moving quickly, which is good because the water wells up rapidly and then begins to soak back down as soon as he stops digging. Dropping to his knees, he fills his container, motioning for her to hurry.
By the time she has her bottle undone, the water is gone again.
He holds his hand out for her container, and she stiffens. Water is life. More than their useless guns, their knives, even their wits and will to survive. Water is life, and he wants her to give him her only way to hold it.
On the other hand, if he wanted her dead, he could just walk away and leave her to try to dig it up herself. She hands over the container, and he begins to dig again, and as water wells up, he dips her container in, filling it. There’s sand in there now, too, but she can live with that. Or she can filter it out with more of her shirt.
It occurs to her they will probably need the fabric from the uniforms of their fallen comrades if they’re on this world for very long. She knows she could never have taken them, though. Just as well they lie buried, out of reach. She wonders if the Vermayan could have taken them from his crewmates. Studying his face as he digs again, then uses the water to wet his turban, she thinks he probably could not have.
She pulls off her turban and lets it fall into the water, and he moves it around for her until it’s sopping wet, then hands it back.
It feels blessedly cool when she winds it around her head again, and the sensation of water dripping down her face makes her smile. He pushes the sand back into place, then stands, and she follows him back to the broken ships, to the graves, to the spot where their two lives came together. Whether they wanted them to or not.
Digging around in the wreckage, he pulls out what looks like rations. She does the same, comes up with more than he does—the rations were kept in the back, where she was during the crash. She ran back there to try to get the auxiliary lasers online after the primaries shorted out. She didn’t expect the ship to take that final hit, to virtually ram the Vermayan ship as it, too, reeled out of control. She didn’t expect both ships to tumble down until they hit the surface with such terrible force. It was probably only because she was strapped into the padded targeting seat of the auxiliary station that she wasn’t crushed like her friends.
She’s still not sure she’s the lucky one.
They’ve been on this hideous world for three days now. Their rations are half gone. Their water supply holds up, but only with daily trips to the place the Vermayan first found them water. For two days, he’s led them out in other directions, hoping, she thinks, to find an area verdant with plants and not just this endless expanse of green sand and rock. But they’ve found only more dust, more wind, and no water.
Her arm hurts less now, but it seems to be healing crookedly. She knows if she was rescued today, the medics would re-break it. They did it to her leg when she broke it in training, out in the Doalan woods with her squadron.
She can still remember the sound of bone sliding against bone. There was no pain—they’d given her something to numb that—but that may have made the sound worse. She wasn’t distracted, could focus on it fully. The sound of her bones being split apart then eased back together was the only thing she knew, and her focus gave her an unnatural presence in the now.
She feels that here, on this world. That she is unnaturally present. Water and shade have become her world. There is so little of either, and she feels a sense of panic every time the Vermayan sets out to explore. Why leave this place? Somewhere else is just somewhere not here, and here is safe…and somewhere else may not be.
She looks over at the Vermayan. He’s dozing in the late afternoon heat. Tomorrow, he’ll lead her off in the last direction, the one opposite where they found water. He’s like that: regimented, disciplined.
She doesn’t think she’s that way at all. If he weren’t here, she would have taken her knife and opened the veins in her wrists. She would have let her life drain away into the sand. Green and red make brown—her blood would have finally turned this awful dirt the right color.
But he barks orders at her in his strange language as if she was a member of his crew, and some follower part in her doesn’t want to disappoint him. He’s appointed himself guardian of their safety. She can’t get in the way of that.
He holds out a ration to her—they both prefer his food to hers—and she takes it. Then she realizes the pile they’ve been working through is gone and tries to hand it back. They’re enemies; she shouldn’t eat the last of his food.
Pushing it back to her, he smiles a bit, and now that she’s gotten used to the fierceness of the expression, she finds it comforting.
He says something that sounds like, “Vrenden Kai.” His tone isn’t forceful; he isn’t ordering her to do something. He points at himself, then says the words again slowly.
His name is Vrenden Kai.
“Sirella Nacleth,” she says, pointing to herself.
He nods and closes his eyes again. She wonders what prompted this exchange of identities. They’ve been together for three days; why does he choose to share now?
She looks at her own pile of dwindling rations and thinks that perhaps he’s losing hope. They have one direction left to explore, and unless they find something they can eat, they will starve to death when her rations run out.
She’s seen people on hunger strikes, people who were demonstrating against the war back on Doala. They didn’t die, of course. They collapsed and were taken to the hospital where their generally rich parents paid for private rooms and nutrient supplements. She and Vrenden Kai won’t be so lucky. They won’t be rescued before hunger closes in. They’ll die slowly. Painfully.
She wonders if they’ll consider killing each other for food. She doesn’t think she would; but she’s never been hungry enough to face the question. She doubts Vrenden Kai has been either.
Vrenden Kai. She doesn’t know which is his last name, which his first. “Vrenden,” she says softly and he opens his eyes. “Vrenden?” she asks.
He shakes his head. “Kai.”
Kai is his given name. She touches her chest. “Sirella.”
“Sirella,” he says softly, his harsh voice doing strange things to the vowels. They are less clean in his mouth, less fluid. It’s as if he’s laid a fine coat of dust over her name. Suh-rull-uh.
He closes his eyes and is asleep quickly. The first night, neither of them slept much. She dozed but was afraid to let go, afraid of what he might do. When she glanced over at him and saw him looking back at her, she realized he was afraid, too. Somehow that made it worse, harder to let go.
The next night, she was too exhausted to care what he did to her. He could have her body, could even kill her. So long as he let her sleep through it, she didn’t care.
Tonight she thinks they’ll both sleep deeply again. Exploring this world is exhausting and her whole body aches. Lying on the hard ground is not the relief she might seek if she were back home—or even on the ship—but she isn’t home, nor on the ship. She’s here. On this wasted world. With her mortal enemy who gave her his last ration when he could have kept it for himself.
She studies him while he naps. He looks completely relaxed, but she knows he’ll get up again just before the sun goes down and lead her to the water, and they’ll fill their containers and the spare bottle she found in the wreckage of his ship. They’ll wash the dirt off their faces and drink greedily from the ground. There’s not enough water to take a bath. They both smell bad, and she knows that’ll only get worse. She used to pride herself on her looks, on her long brown hair that was so clean it shone in the sun. It may still shine, but if it does, it is because of the oil and dirt that coat it now, not any natural brilliance. She’s filthy but at least she’s still alive. She knows that should be worth something.
When they’re done with the water, they’ll walk back to the wreckage in the light of the setting sun, and as the temperature goes down to something nearly as uncomfortable as the daytime’s heat, they will huddle under the emergency blankets that he found in the wreckage of her ship. They would build a fire if they could, put it between them so they could shiver next to warmth. But the spiny shrubs go up like a flash, and there is nothing to sustain the fire. Unless they can find real wood, they’ll have to resign themselves to shivering until dawn comes and the sun rises and the cycle of blasting heat begins again.
She pulls out her knife and sees him stir, then sit up. He’s watching her as if he can’t decide why she’s unsheathed her weapon, and his hand goes to the place she stabbed, where the skin is healing slowly under his fabric bandage. His eyes aren’t as hard as they were that first day, but there’s something there. Something dark and unsettled, as if he’s fighting some demon just by trusting her.
She realizes that he’s still as afraid of her as she is of him. Even though he was the one to reach out first, he’s afraid. She sets the knife down on the blanket she’s using as a cushion and looks at him.
He pulls his dagger out, too. Laying down on his stomach, so his head is closer to her, he moves the dagger so that the golden tracings catch the light. She smiles and he smiles, too.
“Merelven mostic,” he says, and she has no idea what it means. He touches the symbols, saying more nonsense words as he goes over each one. She thinks maybe he’s trying to tell her a story, or maybe his history is etched into that knife hilt. She waits until he’s done, then smiles softly.
He smiles back, the look making it clear he knows she doesn’t understand. “Sirella,” he says softly. Then he shakes his head and puts the knife back into its sheath.
He rolls to his back, closing his eyes again. His breathing shifts into that of sleep as she sits and watches him. Playing with her knife, she wonders what stories she could tell him of her life or of Doala or the Confederation. There is nothing etched onto her knife; the handle is made of some utilitarian blackish material, slightly sticky so that she won’t lose her grasp on the weapon if she sweats—or if her hand is covered in blood.
Her hands are already covered in blood. Her crewmates lie below her a short distance away. Buried in a heap, their bodies broken because she missed the shot that should have been easy.
“Sucker shot,” the captain said as he’d grinned at her when the Vermayan ship pulled into range.
And it should have been—should have been a sign that their luck had finally turned. A sucker shot—lucky for them, not so lucky for the Vermayans. But it hadn’t been easy at all. The shot went wide.
She missed. She missed, and her friends died, and their blood covers her hands, but this knife will not slip. Ever.
She knows she could move now, one quick burst and she’d be over the Vermayan. She could bring the knife flashing down, bury the blade in his body, down low where his kind keep their heart. His eyes would fly open, and he might reach for her hands, try to pull them away. Or he might grab his own dagger and strike out at her. She doesn’t think she would try to stop him if he did.
She looks down at the knife. She should kill him—despite this strange union of desperation, they’re enemies. She has a duty to kill him.
She slips the knife back into its holder, then leans against the wreckage and closes her eyes.
As she suspected, sleep comes easily.
Sweat pours into her eyes, and Sirella pulls off the head wrap, wringing it out so that it will again catch some of her perspiration. It feels hotter today than it has the three days before. She wants to sit, but there’s no shade, and resting in the sun is barely rest at all. The Vermayan is ahead of her. He seems to have less trouble making headway through the shifting sands, but then his ankle isn’t hurt.
At first, he didn’t appear to be injured at all, but she’s seen him hold his side, and he has burn marks on his left hand and arm. His right knee is bruised and cut—she noticed it the night before, when he tore off more of his uniform shirt and wet it and used it to fashion a makeshift brace for his knee.
He turns to look back at her, waits for her to catch up. He surprises her by kneeling down and pulling up her pant leg, his hands surprisingly gentle on her swollen ankle. She isn’t sure what he expects to accomplish, but when he stands back up, he’s nodding. “Silvesh.” He smiles at her.
She hopes it means “better” and not “infected and about to kill you.” Although maybe that would be preferable to slogging around the desert in search of vegetation they can actually eat. The spiny bushes are inedible, and there’s nothing else around the immediate crash area.
As they walk on, she scratches her arms; red bumps cover the skin. She’s seen no insects on the planet, but something is eating them alive while they sleep. He’s covered with the bite marks, too. She scratches harder, and he barks out something as he slaps her fingers away from her skin. “Stop it,” is easy to understand in both their languages.
He glares at her, then heads up the rise. The terrain is growing rockier in this direction, and it is growing more interesting in other ways—the rises look like hills, and she sees small clumps of some type of grass growing.
He turns and she points to the grass. He’s so focused on leading them ever onward that he missed it. Crouching down, he studies the shoots, then looks up at her and smiles. “Machrin.” It is the same word he uses when he hands her a ration bag. Food. They’ve found food.
“Not much machrin,” she says, motioning to the few clumps, miming picking them, then looking for more.
He nods. Not enough food. He marches on and she follows.
They have become adept at this strange form of sign language. They act things out as if they’re both mimes. In a sense, they are; they share no common words. They can talk as much as they want, but they’ll only ever be babbling. But their hands and faces and bodies can make pictures, and words and ideas come to life as they play survival charades.
They top the rise, and she gasps in pleasure. On any other world, the sight of a few trees and more of the grass would not be cause for celebration. Here it means food and probably water to spare. They walk to the trees—they’re short and spindly like the bushes, too squat to sit under. But they’ll burn. She touches the bark reverently and looks over at him. “Fire,” she says, holding her hands out as if warming them in front of a roaring blaze.
He smiles and holds his hands out, too, obviously looking forward to a night with some warmth. He begins to test the branches, trying to break some off easily. The tree is having none of it. She knows she’ll do no better one handed. She looks pointedly at his knife, but he pulls out the piece of the captain’s weapon that he first identified as a possible cutting tool and begins to work on the branches. Soon, he’s sliced through enough to break off some pieces. They leave it in a pile to collect later, and continue to explore.
He leads them to the lowest area and digs for a moment with his hands. The sand is wet. He hasn’t brought his shovel, but it doesn’t matter. Their other water hole is still giving them what they need. But an alternate source for water will be good. They cannot afford to be too dependent on any one thing. She knows it’s why he pushes on again, toward some low hills. The grass may be seasonal or may provide little nutritional value; they need other sources of nourishment.
The low hills turn out to be higher than they appear. There are large rocks clustered at the base, some areas of true shade finally. And some new plants, thick-skinned like succulents she’s seen on some of the hotter worlds of the Revirian Confederation. She points to one of the bigger plants, mimes for him to cut a leaf off. He does and quickly turns the leaf upside down so that the fluid inside won’t run out. He tastes it, nodding to himself as if giving it the all clear, but she knows the most he can do is determine that it tastes all right. If it’s poison, they may not know until he falls ill. But she notes the liquid is clear not milky, something she remembers as being important from the brief survival training the Revirian recruits got. He drinks more of it, then hands the leaf to her.
She drinks it, too. It tastes sweet, an unexpected sensation. Smiling, she hands it back, and he scores the skin and then peels it off, exposing the pulpy flesh. He bites a piece off and chews carefully. Again he nods, as if he is a walking bio lab, and she laughs. At his look, she mimes eating happily until she clutches at her throat as if she can’t breathe. He doesn’t laugh, but his lips curl up in an unwilling smile.
He thrusts the leaf at her, pointing and then clutching at his throat. Obviously, he’s not going to die alone.
She eats. The flesh is less sweet than the liquid, tangier but still full of fluid. She moans, then hears him laugh at her sound of pleasure. The flesh is surprisingly filling. Her stomach was rumbling earlier, but now she feels good—she supposes the plant’s flesh is very rich, hopefully teeming with vitamins and minerals they will need to stay healthy.
He cuts off another leaf, and they share the juice, but she lets him eat the flesh while she sits watching him.
“How did you survive the crash?” she asks.
He looks at her curiously.
She mimes something falling out of the sky, crashing to the ground. Drawing out a rudimentary spaceship in the sand, she then puts a mark near the back, where she would have been sitting. He leans over, puts a mark even farther back and points at himself.
She pretends to crawl into the weapons seat, drawing protective belts around her, pulling the top over her head. She acts out firing a huge weapon, then hitting against the sides of the seat but bouncing back. She tries to convey the idea of padding.
He nods, pretends to fire, too. Then he makes the sound of laser blasts. Bing bing-bing-bing. She laughs because it’s too rich. They’re the cause of this—they and their bad shots.
She wonders if he thinks his hands are covered with blood, or if he’s more accepting of his role in all this.
He pretends to have the target lined up, and she knows it’s her ship after she missed the sucker shot. He narrows his eyes, squeezes off the shot. His hand shows the trajectory, straight and straight and then whipped off the side. Another sucker shot wasted.
After they missed each other, there were a few minutes of false peace as both of them scrambled to correct their targeting systems. Then there was nothing but streaks of bright light and the eruptions of damage as the ships battled. The barrage was costly; they lost control, both ships drifting toward each other as the primary systems shorted. That was when she raced for the back, to the auxiliary weapons system. She was about to fire, waiting only for the system to come online, and it did, but too late. She could still feel the impact as the ships collided, could imagine her lasers tearing his ship apart, even as his own secondary lasers probably engulfed her ship.
They fell to the surface like two insects mating.
All because of two bad shots. She looks at him, and he smiles a bit sadly and draws out something around the ship she’s marked in the sand. They look like lines of interference—some kind of field, perhaps. She nods. Yes, blame interference. She’d rather not think it was solely her fault that everyone who trusted her is dead.
“Sucker shot,” she says, and he looks at her, his eyebrows drawn.
She cannot think how to act out that concept, so she just shakes her head and shrugs.
He finishes the leaf then leans against the rock, enjoying the shade, in no hurry, apparently, to head back. It’s getting too late to press onward. Watching the sky, she wishes, not for the first time, that a bird would wheel overhead, or an insect she could actually see would buzz around her. She never thought she’d miss insects.
She wonders why this world has no life. If they walked long enough and far enough, would they run into some other climate zone? One with surface water and animals and noises all day and night from the life around them? Pursing her lips, she closes her eyes, forcing herself to listen as hard as she can. She can hear his easy breathing. She can hear the wind as it whips grains of sand against the rocks. She can hear her own heartbeat if she listens even harder. But nothing else. She relaxes her mouth and realizes that her lips don’t hurt, don’t even feel as chapped.
She touches them; they feel softer but also a bit numb. As if something in the liquid has made them stop hurting. “Kai?”
He opens his eyes. She awkwardly cuts off a small leaf and reaches for his left hand. He pulls back.
She mimes spreading the liquid on her skin, points to the burns on his arm, then to the gel. Then she touches her lips, breathes out loudly as if in relief.
He slowly extends his arm, and she squeezes out the liquid. He watches her as if he’s waiting for her to rub it in. The liquid starts to run off his arm, so she does it even though she feels repelled. He’s different than she, darker with his rust coloring, but different in other ways. His skin feels tougher, more wizened than hers, but she doesn’t know if that is how all Vermayans are or if he’s spent too much time in climates like this one.
She can feel his eyes on her as she rubs in the liquid, but she doesn’t look up. She hears him sigh and realizes that he must have been in great pain but was hiding it. Pulling her hands away, she studies him. He looks more like her than not. Two arms, two legs, facial features similar if more pronounced on him. His skin might be leathery, but it’s still skin. She was taught in training how to kill Vermayans, so she knows that his internal organs differ from hers in function and placement. But the differences are minor. She would have to aim lower to deliver a fatal blow to the heart, aim higher to hit his liver and poison his whole system slowly. But the Vermayans reproduce the same way, eat and eliminate what they eat the same way. They need water and air and sleep to survive. They’re not so different. He’s not so different.
Especially since he’s a shooter, too.
She realizes he’s looking at her curiously as he eats the pulp of the leaf she cut for him.
“We’re enemies,” she says, but she isn’t sure if she’s confirming it or questioning it. She knows he’s waiting for her to explain, but she doesn’t feel like trying. A question comes to her instead. “Are you alone?”
He cocks his head at her. She draws in the sand again. Simple figures, two tall, one smaller. She pantomimes rocking a baby, and he seems to understand. He points to the tallest figure, nods. Then to the other two and shakes his head. His palm turns upward, a question for her. Is she alone too?
She nods. “Just Sirella.”
It seems to translate, because he nods sadly. His face becomes bleak, and he looks away from her.
He looks back at her, and she’s surprised to see anger. He glares at her, and she shrugs helplessly. What has she done?
He points again to the larger of the two figures in the sand and this time says some other name.
He repeats the name. Then he draws in a smaller figure in the arms of one of the adults. He pretends to fire at the drawing, pulling the trigger four times, then he points at her.
She meets his eyes, even though she doesn’t want to. Was this a brother? A friend? She sees his anger fade. He shakes his head, as if regretting what he just did. Pushing himself to his feet, he kicks at the dirt, rubbing the picture out altogether.
“Sirella, jarsten.” It is clearly an order. One that sounds like, “Let’s go.”
She pushes herself to her feet and follows him to the pile of wood. Without speaking, he grabs most of it and sets off walking, not even looking back to see if she’s following. She loads up the rest of the branches, awkward with her one arm in the sling. A piece of wood shifts, almost falls, and she catches it before she drops it. It pokes into her arm; it hurts but she ignores the pain.
Walking slowly, she follows him to their camp. He never looks back at her, and she doesn’t try to catch up.
They’ve all lost someone in this war. He’s not the only one to have friends or family ripped away. She could name some herself, loved ones who’ve fallen for the cause.
The cause. What is the cause, exactly? When she was on the ship, it was so easy to believe in all the reasons that the Vermayans were evil, why they had to be stopped. But here, on this world so harsh that everything is scrubbed down to the most basic level, it’s difficult to remember why they’re fighting.
He’s waiting for her when she trudges into camp. Taking the wood from her, he piles it near the rest, within arm’s reach of their sleeping area. She sees he’s laid the fire, has put the wood on the bottom, spiny fast burning bush on the top. All it needs is to be lit. It will be a great fire.
He’s watching her, his eyes sad.
She points to the fire he has readied and tries to smile. “Good.”
He nods and repeats it back, “Good,” as if seeking connection. Then he picks up their water bottles and heads for their usual digging hole.
For the first time, she doesn’t follow him.
He doesn’t seem to care.
Part 2 to be continued in Escape Pod Episode 633.
About the Author
Gerri Leen lives in Northern Virginia and originally hails from Seattle. In addition to being an avid reader and an at-times sporadic writer, she’s passionate about horse racing, tea, whisky, and art. She has work appearing in: Nature, Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, Daily Science Fiction, Grievous Angel, Grimdark, and others. She’s edited several anthologies for independent presses, is finishing an urban fantasy novel, and is a member of SFWA and HWA.
About the Narrator
New York Times bestselling author Alethea Kontis is a princess, storm chaser, and Saturday Songwriter. Author of over 20 books and 40 short stories, Alethea is the recipient of the Jane Yolen Mid-List Author Grant, the Scribe Award, the Garden State Teen Book Award, and two-time winner of the Gelett Burgess Children’s Book Award. She has been twice nominated for both the Andre Norton Nebula and the Dragon Award. She was an active contributor to The Fireside Sessions, a benefit EP created by Snow Patrol and her fellow Saturday Songwriters during lockdown 2020. Alethea also narrates stories for multiple award-winning online magazines and contributes regular YA book reviews to NPR. Born in Vermont, she currently resides on the Space Coast of Florida with her teddy bear, Charlie. Find out more about Princess Alethea and her wonderful world at aletheakontis.com.