<"Aren't you going to take a break?
<"No. Here, I'm in my element.
"> Arnd found F'ejen's answer a bit off-putting, how could repeated exposure to gruesome injuries be your element?
<"I don't know about you, but I need some time off this ship.
"> Given all that has happened in the past few days, nobody could blame her.
<"Just stay safe, bring a gun with you.
<"Already planned to.
"> Arnd just hoped she wouldn't have to use it, she had seen enough violence on this voyage.
<"See you when you get back, boss.
"> The physician turned back to his workstation as Arnd left the medical ward.
Rifle in tow, Arnd saluted the guards present at the cargo bay door, still open to the hangar. The noise of the space was drowned out by her sense of mild euphoria. She could finally leave that godsforsaken ship of her own volition! No work, no responsibilities, just relaxation.
She entered the maw of a windowed elevator sat at the center of the floor and rode it down to the settlement below. Darkness swallowed the lift as it passed by the support layer for the hangar above. When light entered the capsule again, a dimly lit supercity filled Arnd's view. A chaotic skyline backed by a clear view of the universe beyond through tempered plastic 50 meters thick. Gargantuan pillars stretched up to cradle the layer between habitability and the void. Vehicles of all makes and models zipped between the monoliths like so many guju scuttling about their hives. Lights from the artificial world below painted a picture of a city in motion, only fitting given the slow drift of the station.
The elevator hissed to a halt and Arnd stepped from the box, only to have her presence immediately replaced by a group of civilians. Arnd watched the container rise up along it's thick support pillars before turning to face the planet, the city. Dense crowds of x'erren choked the walkways, Arnd had been forced to squeeze through people too obstinate to move far too often for her liking. Shadows in a city so well lit were rare, but what shadows persisted were pitch black, voids of space, of identity. So many faces bathed in either too much or too little light, it felt like an uncomfortable dream where information was fragmented, never to be fully pieced together. Arnd turned up to see what little night sky she could behind the light pollution, she was unsure if it was just because of the various hangars dotting the surface of the station or the universe being hidden by the city's glow, but the sky looked far too dark for her tastes. Looking closer to the ground, she could see myriad commercials and shop logos pasted upon the tall walls she walked between. Between the neon, Arnd noticed elevated platforms holding aloft armored individuals; Police towers. It only made sense given the sheer density of the colony for the authorities to be wherever they needed to be at all times. But Arnd couldn't shake a sense of unea- <"Madam, could you approach the tower to you left please.
Arnd turned to see a sentry looking her dead in the face from on high. Not wanting to risk a fuss, she strode to the pillar. She watched a small platform descend along the supporting pillar and stepped upon it, as the notice upon it instructed her. Arnd reached the peak of the tower and stood facing the officer.
<"Your uniform says captain, but I need some credentials. License please.
Arnd complied, handing the man her small document. The law enforcer studied the license while checking in with his comrades.
<"Do we have a "Star Chaser" stationed here?.. Just got here today?.. Of course it's from Gell, that girl's been the best hire they've had for years... Okay, thank you...
"> The lawman turned and returned Arnd's credentials. <"Sorry about the intrusion, can't have just anybody carrying a rifle in public, especially after the attacks. If anyone else tries to pull you up, flash them this.
"> The officer pulled a permit from a pouch around his waist, Arnd saw but a sliver of passes left in the container.
Bidding the sentry farewell, Arnd continued down the crowded street. Arnd was growing more thankful for the extensive foot traffic heating the walkways, leaving the stone beneath her feet tolerable, if not warm. The smells wafting from the assorted restaurants lining the strip were a breath of fresh air compared to the sterile scents from within the Star Chaser, she smelled little else besides cleaning products for two weeks now. Arnd dipped into a small diner, she felt the warmth from within spill out onto the street before she entered. The alloy walls were lined with a pale green, and an small ornate chandelier hung from the ceiling. Small talk from the few patrons present filled the air, a hissing giggle here and there. The captain slipped into a booth, picking up a menu as she settled. The waiter was nice, if a bit too enthusiastic about his job.
<'Gods, that smells good
.'> Arnd hungrily eyed her plate of krekon steak, the smooth brown of it's perfectly grilled form only exacerbating her gnawing hunger. Each bite was almost heavenly in it's taste, it's texture, the way it almost melted in her mouth it was that tender. Worth every credit. <'It's like Lu'su made these. At least he was good for something. How long has it been? Thirty-odd years? Gods, I was an idiot back then.
As much as she enjoyed the atmosphere, Arnd couldn't stay there forever. Once her food settled, she took to the streets again, but not before jotting down the name of that restaurant.
The lights of the business district dimmed as Arnd continued her wayward voyage, independent carts selling various goods became more frequent, with equally many voices touting their wares; Food, cheap tools, bric-à-brac, insurance of all things, everything under the ever so distant sun. The stores lining the streets grew thinner and more homely, spliced between residential space and the occasional nature strip. Arnd gazed skyward again to see the faint twinkling of far-flung stars, to her faint delight. While the crowds had thinned, people still walked the thoroughfare; Businessmen, the odd couple here or there, juveniles fresh from school. <'School... Might as well do something productive while I'm here.'>
Her wandering gained new purpose as Arnd wound her way through the myriad lanes snaking between the x'errenmade monoliths to her flanks. A quaint hardware store struck her fancy; A fairly squat warehouse holding up a veritable mountain of a building. Double doors slid open to reveal shelves stretching to the far wall, stocked with technology for your every need. It was as Arnd spotted a personal jetpack that her attention was drawn to her left by a hearty cough.
<"Welcome, captain. Might I be of assistance?
"> The stout woman spoke with an unusually gruff voice.
<"Yes, actually. I'm looking for some cheap data pads with enough storage space for a basic education course. 'Better to keep it off my personal pad, don't want to pull up a text on The Rift when I'm on the job.'>
<"All too easy, this way please.
Arnd followed slowly as the employee waddled her way to an aisle whose wares comprised almost entirely of data pads. Arnd appreciated the selection, but felt uneasy at some of the options available, was that one stolen? Pushing potential minor crimes out of her mind, the captain scrutinized the various choices available; Eventually settling on a pair of relatively larger models. After also picking out a universal adapter, Arnd left the store with her items in tow. <'How did this cost that much!?'>
Making sure to notify an officer of the potential misdemeanors being perpetrated by the store, Arnd continued her journey. The building overlooking the roads below grew steadily shorter as she forged on. It wasn't until she stepped round the corner of a bank that Arnd saw her target: The local library. The building loomed from across the stone square, students flowed to and from it's doors like a never ending tide. The statues lining the library's walls painted a picture of hardship; A tale of breaking free from the world imposed upon x'erren kind to make the stars their own. Each step up to the entrance carried a weight that Arnd had not felt for decades. <"I never thought I'd ever feel like a student again. Heh.
"> The thought was humbling; That despite all she has learned and all she has experienced, the universe can still throw her for a loop.
Past the ornate doors stood a great hall, shelves of books and journals stretched from floor to ceiling, and continued on up the second and third floors. Spiraling staircases wound up sturdy stone pillars, foot traffic had stripped the top few layers of paint from the steps. Artwork framed a large glass panel opening the ceiling to the inky void above, elaborate chandeliers hung low from the frame's corners, bathing the hall's center in a soft yellow light. Subdued chatter abounded, despite the culprit's attempts at muffled speech. Tables littered the ground floor, computers and small lamps for reading stood on each. Exactly what Arnd was looking for. Occupying a vacant desk, Arnd set to work downloading basic teaching courses on language, society, history, law; Anything she deemed necessary to function in x'erren society. Finally, a basic drawing application was downloaded onto both pads thanks to the library's complimentary Flow access.
Not wanting to get suckered into spending more of her hard-earned wage on food or overpriced hardware, Arnd made for the hangar sitting above the city. The footpaths beneath her feet grew warm as she approached the city's center, much to her mild delight. Flashing her captain's pass at a sentry atop their provided tower, Arnd stood in line for the elevator. She was jostled as the lift was filled to bursting before it began to rise. The captain was stuck between an exterior wall and a ridiculously pungent individual for a good two minutes before she was provided release. Purchases in hand, Arnd strode through the hangar and the cargo bay doors of the Star Chaser. One final elevator ride to the top floor and a brisk walk through the upper halls later, Arnd found herself in her office resting her tired feet on her desk.
<"Alright Mark, time for us to go to school.
The common room was far from full, but it still held more souls now than when Mark last saw it. Chatter bounced from the sterile walls, Mark was pretty sure he'd never heard his own name be spoken this many times in his life. What is it with X'errens and their lack of subtlety?
An alien Mark had only seen briefly once before approached. Or was it a different one? 'Oh God, am I racist?'
The extraterrestrial lazily dropped their robes onto a table, breathing in apparent relief at their removal. This action resulted in a few disapproving stares. Thank God he left his pants on. Placing a hand upon it's densely furred chest, the X'erren spoke. <"F'ejen Rour.
"Fe-ejen Roar... Okay."
The x'erren punched in two codes and retrieved two meals from the machines on the wall, humming to himself as he made his way back to the table. <"Come, sit.
"> The man laid a tray down in front of Mark before rounding the table and sitting opposite the human. Hunger being the reason Mark was there in the first place, he obliged.
'It might just b the context, but I think I'm getting better at understanding these people.'
The alien began speaking. <"Okay, I know you can't understand me, but I'm sorry for being so skittish earlier.
'Nope. I am not.'
<"I guess the whole 'super strong alien just woke up' thing got to me.
"> F'ejen was deft in his handling of the thin cutlery.
Mark sliced apart and bit into the rough-surfaced meat on his tray. A taste far gamier than that of his previous meal washed over his tastebuds. 'Just like the rabbit we hunted. I miss you, Dad.'
Food seemed to just disappear into F'ejen's maw, the knife in his hands looked little more than a needle in comparison to his fangs. Licking gravy from his chops, the x'erren spoke. <"Let me just get us something to drink.
"> He returned from the wall mounted devices carrying two small metal pitchers. Before he sat down, F'ejen poured the liquid from his container into the side of his mouth. It was at this moment Mark truly recognized the fact that these things didn't have lips as humans do.
'There's no smell from it, it's clear, and these guys havent tried to kill me... I think.' Mark tentatively sipped from the metal cup. 'Yep, it's water.' F'ejen stared from across the table at this alien way of drinking, and Mark could almost feel the man taking notes in his head.
Mark, what is...
"> The alien gestured to his mouth. <"That? What is that?
Mark mimicked the signal. "Lips." F'ejen pulled out a journal from the pocket of his discarded coat and began jotting down notes. '...Yep.'
<"Fascinating; The way you use it, it's like if a x'erren's mouth was built back-to-front.
'God, I feel like a zoo animal. At least the food's good.' Mark tried to understand the alien script F'ejen was writing in to no avail, except for one portion he felt was out of place. Gesturing back and forth, Mark requested to see the book. Mark traced his fingers over the offending section. "This right here. It's lips, isn't it?"
The x'erren evidently felt an opportunity for breakthrough here and began reading from the page, taloned finger tracing the words as he read. <"Mark's species possesses an organ that appears to be similar in function to our own Advanced Maw.
Mark calls it
As the final word was spoken, the idea Mark had began to take shape. Mark brought his tray around the table to sit beside the alien. 'Time for an experiment.' Mark already had F'ejen's attention, all the easier for him. "Eye." Mark pointed to the appropriate organ. "Nose, teeth, tongue..." Mark continued to point to and name various body parts, watching the alien to his side furiously scribbling entries in his notepad. Each and every entry continued to prove Mark's hypothesis. 'It's phonetic, and the characters are meant to mimic the shapes their mouths take while speaking! That would never work with a human mouth! But knowing how it's written doesn't make understanding it much easier.' Seeing that F'ejen was clearly enjoying this impromptu lesson on human anatomy, Mark continued in as much detail as modesty, a lack of diagrams, and a language barrier permitted.
The 'conversation' stretched for what felt like an hour, and Mark found himself drawn further and further in by F'ejen's infectious curiosity. 'Agh, the meat's cold... Still good though. God damn, these things can eat.
F'ejen had lost since removed his now empty tray from the table, and was now studying Mark's slow eating; Intermittently scribbling memos in his journal. He seemed most interested in the way Mark's lips contorted to drink from his cup, stopping the act multiple times and studying the minute details of the shape they took. 'Does he have to poke them?'
After sliding his empty tray into the same slot F'ejen had deposited his own, Mark returned to the table to see the man donning his robes once again.
<"Come on, there's a lot more I want know.
"> The alien beckoned Mark to follow.
The patch of white on the wall drew Mark's eye before it opened, F'ejen bidding Mark's entrance. A small connecting room housed wall mounted boxes of thin, disposable face masks and gloves. F'ejen reached for the masks, but waved his hand before passing through the second door. Long curtains fell from the ceiling, poorly muffling moans of discomfort from what Mark could only assume to be patients. Medical staff flitted in and out of the drapes, a few shifted slightly after catching a glimpse of Mark. The next room had the most character of all the rooms Mark had seen thus far. The sheer chaos radiating from within the chamber was a breath of fresh air. 'It almost feels like home, in a way.'
Walls could barely be seen behind diagrams and papers attached by magnets. F'ejen was frantically pulling documents from the walls and neatly stacking them upon his cluttered desk. Whether those papers were organized or not, Mark couldn't tell. The doctor unfurled massive diagrams and stuck them on the wall, layering each over another. It wasn't until the final layout was placed that Mark realized it was of himself. 'So that's why I was naked.'
F'ejen turned from the wall, a stupid grin on his face. <"Shall we begin?
Mark did the best he could, but he was no medical student. By the end of it, an entire book had been filled with notes, Mark attempted to read it over and quickly found out what a x'erren laugh sounds like. <"Let me sound it out for you: Ka-e-loo-nuh
"> Small hisses escaped the doctor's mouth in anticipation.
Putting the sound together in his mind, Mark spoke. "Penis.
" Mark also found out that it wasn't always his pronunciation that triggered his teacher's laughter. 'How old is this guy?'
Regardless of his host's maturity, the hours had been productive. Mark had learned the words for some x'erren organs and figured out how to more or less pronounce the alien script, found out that they're anatomies are fairly similar, and discovered that the rest of his rations had been squirreled away for testing. The human was nibbling on a cracker, working over a passage detailing the intestines when the speakers sounded.
<"If anyone has seen
Mark, bring him to my office. Thank you.">
Arnd's commanding voice spoke from the comms.
<"That's the boss, I'd better get you to her. Come on.
"> Mark didn't need to speak the man's language to note the annoyance in his voice.
The deep green of the captain's office greeted the duo, the chair that had been in the corner of the room had been moved to sit opposite Arnd.
<"Thank you for bringing
Mark to me, doctor. But I'm still going to have to talk to you about your unprofessional conduct earlier. You know how we feel about going shirtless on deck.
<"... Yes captain. Bloody snitch.
<"What was that?
<"Nothing, captain. I will await our appointment.
"> The man's fur stood more frizzled than normal as he was dismissed.
Mark sat in the empty chair, at Arnd's beckoning. He had to stretch his arms out further than he would've liked to use the armrests.
The woman across from Mark spoke. <"Now
Mark. Given that I am the captain of the ship that rescued you from the void, I feel that you are my responsibility. To that end...">
Arnd slid a data pad across her desk to Mark. <"I will act as your teacher until we are back on Kerc-en. In turn, you will teach me.
Mark delicately picked up the device, looking to Arnd. "Is this some kind of giant tablet?"
Mark tapped the screen, a small black dot appeared beneath his finger, and it all clicked. The human quickly wrote out his name on the screen and turned it to Arnd, gesturing back and forth. "Mark Stevens."
The captain switched on her own pad and jotted her own name down. <"Arnd Kolr.
"> She said with a ghost of a smile.
The building in Percy's rear view mirror felt like a grave. A miles-tall monument to a man who gave his life for the sake of scientific progress. He knew that Mark would never get the recognition he deserved though, the most he'd get is a short news story and a plaque made by a machine. The suits couldn't afford the news to get too big.
"Can't you idiots just fucking dri-!" Percy caught himself before his voice grew too loud. Each lingering moment in this godforsaken traffic jam only made it harder to control his temper. Percy wound up his windows to block out the city's oh-so-familiar smell, too many responsibilities kept him there for him to ever move away. Not that he had ever wanted to. Now all of Merritt Island acted as a cage, with it's lock being the promise he had made to Finn: Find Mark.
'Find Mark... There is no Mark anymore; I should just tell them the search is off.' Percy's finger hovered over his car's in-built dial pad before receding into an angry fist. Traffic started moving again, and he wasn't about to endanger others because of his conflicted emotions.
He had never hated the city, not for all the good times it had given him: The cinema trips with his friends, the trouble he got himself into for lighting fireworks in the square, the dinners he had with his family... All of it was washed away in an afternoon. 'I told them it wasn't ready, but no, they had a schedule. And now an innocent man is dead.' Percy considered taking a detour to drink the memories away, but that wouldn't be fair to himself after all the effort he put into quitting. It wouldn't be fair to his family.
The buildings in his neighborhood were cleaner than they ever have been, but Percy could still see the graffiti he put on them when he was a boy. Ultimately he was glad they were cleaned up, all the better for raising a family. Percy parked his car, watching as the rich kids with cash to burn flew their personal cruisers overhead. 'Fucking brats.'
The stairs creaked ever so slightly as Percy climbed to his apartment. The shade of red on the smooth brick walls of the complex melded with the sky as the sun began to set. He had to hold his hand by his face to block the harsh light as he opened the door.
"Daddy's home!" A patter of little feet filled the air in the entrance hallway.
"Daddy is indeed home. Come here, precious!" Percy didn't have to try very hard to inject cheer into his voice as his daughter rounded the corner.
Shoulder length raven hair bobbed in time with her steps, a smile that radiated pure joy stretched between her cheeks. She was still dressed in her school uniform. The black of her uniform and hair made her round face shine like a tan beacon.The little girl wrapped herself around Percy's legs, the tiny thing didn't even come up to his waist.
Percy lifted the girl so his lips pressed into her forehead. "Hey there, kiddo!"
"And hello to you, honey." A deep, accented voice sounded down the hall.
It was as though the Greeks had carved a statue from obsidian. The man's steps were slow, but the length of his stride made up for the lacking pace. Seeing his husband stroll down the corridor, Percy no longer needed to feign happiness.
"Hey babe." Percy leant upward to receive a peck on the lips.
"How was work?" The dulcet tones almost made the idea of thinking of his workplace bearable.
"Better than yesterday?"
"... I don't know, can we talk about this later?"
"Is Daddy okay?" The girl in Percy's arms looked at him with irresistible eyes.
"I- I will be, Angavu, I will be."
The tall man chimed in. "All right you two, come along now. Dinner's almost ready."
Angavu leapt from Percy's arms and dashed to the kitchen, leaving an odd stillness in the hallway.
The couple exchanged a grave look."Percy-"
"Not now, Jaali. Later."
Dinner was tortuous. Every scrape of cutlery, every creak from the old chairs, even the lighting reminded Percy of better days. He had been so nervous to introduce his friends to Jaali, Mark was one of the handful that remained loyal. Each dinner Mark and Anne had shared with Percy's family was precious, a reminder that friendship exists and it does not care who you love. 'At least the food's good.'
The warm glow of the bedside lamp bathed the room in dim light. The concerned sideways glances Jaali made at the dinner table did not go unnoticed, Percy was just thankful that he left the questions until after Angavu was put to bed.
"Alright, what's wrong?" Jaali asked, gesturing Percy to sit with him on the bed. Percy refused.
"It's like nobody else cares. I know they're going to forget him by the end of the month."
"Don't be so bleak. I'm sure your coworkers are feeling the strain too, they just handle it differently."
"...I've noticed a handful of people are grieving, but I just don't get that same feeling from anyone else."
"Then Mark isn't forgotten just yet, is he?"
"And would he want you to let that control you?"
"... No." Percy screwed up his face in frustration. "I never should've made that promise."
"Because you're emotionally invested?"
"Yes!" Percy began to tear up. "He was my best friend, and now he's gone! What am I supposed to say to Finn?!"
"Don't be so loud." Jaali waited for Percy to catch his breath before continuing. "He's not a child anymore; he can take the news."
"Age doesn't mean shit when it's your father."
"I know." A brutal silence hung in the room. Percy felt the warmth of a fresh tear rolling down his cheek. Jaali broke the stillness. "Even if you didn't make the promise, would you stop looking?"
Percy froze, looking for a counterpoint; Anything that he could anchor himself to, to distance himself from his emotion. Percy slumped onto the bed. "No."
"I think that's sweet."
"You think everything's sweet."
"Like you." Percy reciprocated the deep kiss Jaali offered. "Do you want some help getting your mind off things?"
"... No thanks. It's too soon."
"Just know that I'm here to help if you need it."
"I know you are." A faint smile crossed Percy's lips.
Huge thanks to the people on the #writing Discord! I probably wouldn't have been able to break this bit of writer's block without you!