Posted on June 9th, 2022 by Jack Leirone
Nûolsis IV, aka Bûnott
August 7, 2403
She awoke in the frigid sapphire dawn. Beside her his bedroll lay flat, dark, empty, retaining none of his body heat. The zenith of the burrow-tent glistened with their condensation. Their camouflage tarpaulin blocked the tent’s microporous ventilation. Fair trade-up for security.
She peeled off her sleepwear—which she only wore on these long desert outings because no bedroll on Bûnott was warm enough for anyone with less body hair than a Catian—and got dressed for the brutal heat of the impending day. Her lucky green shemagh felt twice as diaphanous as it did yesterday, but her new sweat-wicking shemagh just wouldn’t stay knotted. The old one would last one more excursion; she would just have to get a replacement as soon as she got back.
Lastly she unspooled the bandage from her left hand. The laceration across her lifeline was still an angry shade of red, but the antiseptic in the dermal adhesive had kept it from infection. She peeled the adhesive away in one solid strip, then wiped away its oleaginous residue. Her wound seeped a small amount of blood from the pressure, but did not come close to gushing the way it had when the edge of that rent hull sliced her open. She applied a new strip of adhesive, glad of the analgesic that came with a fresh application. Once it dried, on went the gauze and bandage.
Thank god it’s my offhand, she thought.
From her shoulder bag she retrieved her ans inhaler and squeezed a sharp dose into her lungs. Funny how compulsory this had become: taking medicine every morning to ward off what the natives called f’nurigan se f’durai: ‘the spirit of the desert’.
She found the zipper and opened the tent flap. Still gray in the pre-light, the dunes of the Rith-durai rolled away to all horizons, waiting to turn gold in the rising sun. This patch of the durai had a scattered few techath spires, and their sharp craggy summits were just beginning to catch the sun as it peeked over the eastern arm of the Rith-berin. No techaths this morning, but this was late for them; the great lumbering things were strict with their nocturnal schedules.
The sky was cloudless. Would it kill his fucking planet to send a little overcast their way?
She yawned as she climbed out of the burrow-tent, zipped it close behind her. She didn’t see him, but that didn’t mean anything. He liked to get started early, was probably deep in the derelict’s guts rooting around the cargo manifest. Luckiest find in months, their little plot. Wreckage this far out into the durai was almost always from Bûnott’s pre-warp era, and anything once valuable had long since gone to seed. And here they were, rooting around a small atmospheric cargo freighter that went down just fourteen years ago. Running theory was that the nav system went loopy in a storm. Or else, why would anyone fly anything over the Rith-durai?
She rounded the burrow-tent and moved to the larger of their sand-colored tarpaulins, which billowed in welcome with a tiny morning zephyr. Disengaging a grav-anchor on one corner of the tarp, she pulled it aside to run a routine check on their skimmer’s engine. Thing was clunking yesterday: the kind of polite clunk that could either mean a simple thirst for lubricant, or a deteriorating fuel injection system. One of those was much, much worse than the other. The engine cover creaked open, where she did find the lubricant reservoir below the minimum line. She fetched the can, poured enough in to satisfy the old beast, and hoped for the best. Afterwards she performed a point-check: ski struts, stabilizers, exhaust, trailer hitch, the trailer’s ski struts, the securement of the gathered scrap. Everything looked alright.
When she returned to the front of the burrow-tent, she found him waiting for her.
Holding a cupcake.
‘Morning!’ he said.
She choked back every last drop of giddiness she felt. ‘You just been hiding out here naked since 0400?’
‘0430; gimme some credit.’
‘Your…’ She pointed. ‘Your thing is out. Your everything is out.’
He posed. ‘Perks of being in the middle of fuckin nowhere.’ He held out the cupcake. ‘Happy birthday.’
She tried not to smile, but smiled. ‘Where’d you get that?’
‘Lykis helped me bake it before we left. She dehydrated a couple nutritional wafers and mixed that in with the usual bread-fungus so it actually came out more cakey. Then some of that sweet moss they’ve been finding on the lake shore to give it kind of a chocolatey, coffee-y flavor; then we sweetened the whole thing with homemade ellolas sugar that Labonahs has been messing around with. I saved the frosting in a little pouch at the bottom of the nitro bag.’
‘Where the fuck would I get a candle?’
She held her hands out and took the cupcake. ‘Thanks, love. You’re the only one who remembers my birthday anymore.’
‘I wouldn’t be a very good boyfriend if I didn’t.’
‘I barely remember my birthday anymore. Only reason I remember yours is because it’s the same month as me.’
She took a bite. The cake was a bit on the chewy side thanks to that brathgu fungus, but it was actually really good. Who knew that you could derive workable sugar from ellolas fruit? The frosting had a faint memory of a dream of a whisper of vague sweet flavor to it, but it added a very cupcakey texture to the whole experience.
‘So?’ he said.
‘Good, but I meant… So?’
He struck another pose.
‘Yes, very nice.’
‘I’m seducing you.’
‘Are you, now?’
‘Yes. Look. When I do this, it accentuates by butt.’
‘You’re definitely not unattractive.’
‘Come on, babe! It’s your Dirty Thirty; we should ring it in right!’
She couldn’t play coy anymore. He was being cute, and he was at his sexiest when he was being cute. ‘Okay, yes, you’re right. Help me eat this, then I’ll throw you back into the tent.’
‘Oh, I wanna do it out here.’
‘Out here? Where all the sand is?’
‘We have a blanket.’
‘Maybe on your birthday. For my birthday, we’re doing it in a sand-free environment.’
Before he helped her eat the cupcake, he kissed her deeply, then licked a spot of frosting off the tip of her nose. ‘Mm,’ he said. ‘Air-flavored frosting. My favorite.’
‘I wasn’t gonna say anything.’
‘Nah, it’s great. Tastes good because of what it means.’
They did not have a wealth of time to waste on their excursion, but they wasted what they could in each other’s arms. When their breaths settled they held each other in the last of the morning’s cool, taking in the silence and emptiness of the desert—out in the vast gold nothing, where they could shed everything that had come before, and just be themselves. Just my love and my love, just mi ciela and Larim amar, just she and he.
The guts of the old ship provided a bit of respite from the cruel heat of the desert. They were able to pull down their shemaghs and shade-goggles and see each other’s faces as they worked. He pawed through a cargo container halfway through the hold that contained a mass-manufactured metal joint-looking thing: some mechanical component intended for a factory somewhere. It was good metal that Ronsas and his crew could melt down, but there was a lot of excess packing material that was no good to anyone anymore.
‘What were you dreamin about last night, amar?’ he asked.
She jutted her bottom lip in thought. ‘I don’t remember. Why?’
‘You were twitchin, breathin all heavy. You weren’t sleep-talking, but you were sleep-humming a little bit.’
‘What, like a song?’
‘No, like…like nonverbal responses. Like you were really thinking about what someone was saying to you.’
‘Huh. Yeah, I don’t remember.’ She busied herself with inventorying the things a heavy-skimmer would have to return for: hull dimensions, large fixtures, things of this nature. After she thumbed in one set of measurements she said, ‘Did you have any dreams?’
‘Yeah.’ He shrugged his old it’s-not-a-big-deal shrug that meant in no uncertain terms that it was a big deal. ‘One of those dreams.’
Those dreams were dreams of rescue. There was an unspoken law among the Tyrna refugees barring discussion of such dreams, at the risk of decreasing morale. She still got them, probably once a week, if not more. You could see the dream on people the next morning, in their slumped postures, slow gaits, fallen faces. Last one she had, she was back on Earth with family and friends, and they were all meeting her partner for the first time. Mom cried; Dad thanked him for looking out for her while they had to be apart; her brother hugged him.
Christ, that one had stung. The chances that her family were still alive were…
‘I’m sorry, amar,’ she said.
‘Wasn’t that bad,’ he said with another shrug that meant in no uncertain terms that it was that bad. ‘I was just on a starship. I was an officer, so it wasn’t right after rescue. We were just going somewhere. Exploring. Everyone was…happy. They were all really happy, just to be out there, doing what humanity was supposed to be doing before…’ He staved off the trauma and pushed on with the dream: ‘You know, I actually remember the captain saying something. “Come, let us sail the boundless sea.”’
‘Wouldn’t be a proper captain without comparing space to the ocean.’
‘I dunno,’ he said. ‘I kinda liked it.’
‘Yeah, that actually tracks, for you.’
‘I’m a sappy man.’
She moved on to assessing the power systems, shifting panels aside, popping consoles out of their holds. The derelict was fully sealed when they found it yesterday, so the sand hadn’t gotten to anything. Heavy picking crews were going to find a lot of good shit, granted they could get the door to seal up again—at least, as serviceably as they could, without power.
‘Hey,’ she said. ‘We should draft something.’
‘Sure. What should we draft?’
‘You know what it’s wild that we haven’t drafted?’
‘Old video games.’
‘The only form of Earth-based entertainment we’ve had in five years, and we haven’t drafted it. We’re dumb.’
She set down her tablet, held her fist on her opposite palm. ‘Ready?’
He mimicked her pose.
‘Rock, paper, scissors, shoot!’
‘Fuck,’ he said.
‘Welp. I know what you’re gonna pick first. God damn it.’
She picked up her tablet and started assessing again. ‘Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.’
‘Yep. I knew it.’
‘Well if you’re taking that, I’m taking Ocarina of Time.’
‘I do love that game. But I was thinking about it last time I was playing Breath of the Wild. Ocarina’s fucking great, but I think I defaulted to loving it the most because it was the first Zelda game I played. So I have that sentimental attachment. But Breath of the Wild is just… I dunno. Maybe it resonates with me these days. We kind of are post-Calamity.’
He shifted the joint-and-bracket crate aside, and flipped the lid on another one. ‘Yeah, I guess you have a point,’ he said. ‘Just wish we could leave the Gerudo fucking desert.’
‘Alright, back to me?’
‘Super Mario 64.’
‘What do you mean, really?’
‘I just didn’t think that one would make your top five.’
‘Dude, the music alone…’
‘Well, then my next pick is gonna piss you off.’
The second word had barely started to leave her novio’s lips when she spat, ‘Fuck!’
‘You took Mario 64 before Stardew? Really?’
‘Hey. The record will show that I have never claimed to be smart.’
For the next half hour they carted consolidated crates to the skimmer, Tetrising them for optimal weight distribution and bungeeing them down. Midday roiled above, shining that insidious white light through the top entrance hatch of the old cargo liner. The temperature inside the derelict rose just enough that they shed some of their outerwear, gladly trading bare skin for the pain of wrapping back up before going back outside. As they drafted their top five old-world video games, she stopped and watched him work. He always got so laser-focused on repetitive tasks that she could get away with a good, long stare. She loved this man so fiercely, and every day it baffled her even more. In any other circumstance, he would have just been another handsome fella in the deluge: the kind she’d accept a drink from at a bar, only to knock back the whole thing, smirk, say, ‘Thanks,’ and walk away. But here, now…
Time. What a bitch.
‘Alright, so that wraps up the Old Video Games draft,’ he said. ‘You went first and you picked The Legend of Zelda: The Breath of the Wild, Mario 64—which was taken, for the record, when Stardew Valley was still on the board—’
‘—Star Fox 64, Donkey Kong Country, and Jackal. I went second and I picked The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Stardew Valley—which, I cannot stress enough, was graciously left on the board by—’
‘Ughh, give it a rest.’
‘Okay, okay. Then I took Portal, Kirby’s Adventure, and Perfect Dark. Lots left on the board.’
‘I’m surprised you didn’t pick some kind of, like, ur-game. Like Pong or something. Or Tic-Tac-Toe as played on the first computer.’
‘I won’t lie; I thought about it.’
‘Fucking Perfect Dark, though?’
‘Fucking Jackal, though?’
‘Hey, Jackal’s great.’
‘Perfect Dark is great.’
This is when she felt it. Yes, she felt it before she heard it: a deep susurration in the air, a broad thrum on the edge of perception. She listed to the column of sunlight falling through the top hatch into the cargo hold and watched the smooth eastern face of the dune that loomed above the derelict. Rivulets of shifting sand ran down it like sweat.
‘No,’ she said.
Without wrapping herself back up she lunged up the ladder, out into the blistering air of the Rith-durai. He called after her, but his voice fell muffled and distant. The susurration was audible now, but only just, twitching in her tympanic membranes. Then her pinnae caught it, locating the source to the south. The far south. A second dune blocked the view, so she scrambled up the nearer one.
No, no, no. No, no.
‘What is that?’
Fuck. Oh fuck, fuck. Oh fuck no.
‘Hey! What do you see?’
Please. Please no.
She reached the top of the dune and peered south. Her blood flash-froze solid.
‘Hannah, for fuck’s sake, what do you see?’
She pivoted, and, clambering back down the dune, cried out, ‘The Fall!’
They had only a minute to spare. With that minute they dropped the burrow-tent, kicked haphazard streams of sand over it, and dragged the smaller tarp over to the derelict’s hatch. The susurration was now a deep moan on the wind, blooming more and more into a terrific noise of engines so enormous as to move that impossible monstrosity through the hot air. She mag-anchored the tarp to the hull of the derelict and pulled it across the hatch opening as they climbed inside. All went dark as the sound of the Fall ship’s engines grew to a deafening cacophony. They clapped their hands over their ears, clamped their eyes shut, huddled together, waiting for it to pass. It blocked the sun, enveloping the shaded innards of the cargo liner in unnatural darkness.
And then it passed. After several minutes the noise began to fade and the sun was allowed again to shine. They opened their eyes, then slowly climbed out of the hatch and out from under the tarp. To the northwest the hulking black terror was lifting into the blue beyond.
‘Is it…is it leaving?’ he said.
‘That was one of the big ones. The city-crushers. You think that was the one from Sycryn?’
‘We should get back to Tyrna.’
‘Yeah. Let’s get the fuck outta here.’
His face wore lines of terror. ‘I’m scared.’
‘I don’t think I’ve actually seen a Fall ship since… god, the first year? I forgot how…’ His breathing quickened; his eyes searched through the nothing around him; his hand went to his heart.
‘Hey.’ She stepped closer and put her hands on his shoulders. ‘Hey. Connor. Hey. We’ll be okay. Alright?’
The terror had him still. His lips trembled with wordless thought.
‘We’ve made it this far. They won’t get us.’ She pulled him close. ‘Hey. They won’t.’
He nodded, sniffed. ‘Thank you, Hannah.’
‘I love you.’
‘I love you.’
‘If we leave now, we can make it back before dark.’
‘Yeah. Let’s do it.’
They turned toward the source of the voice. It stood near the rear of the skimmer, leaning on it like a mob gangster on his day off, dressed in a white Hawaiian shirt emblazoned with bright red hibiscus flowers, blue shorts, and yellow flip flops. It wore Jason’s face and body, as it always did for her. With Jason’s hand it flipped its sunglasses up to Jason’s forehead, winked one of Jason’s eyes, and cranked one side of Jason’s mouth into a smirk.
‘You see him, Connor?’
‘Yeah, I see him.’
‘Come on, kiddos, I’m not a ghost. Of course you both see me, and of course you both see me as the same thing. No matter what Merreid and his band of doubters say, I’m real as the day is long.’
‘I’ll get the ans spray,’ Connor said.
‘Won’t help. Never does. Come on, Davis. You’ve been in this desert long enough.’
Hannah said, ‘What do you want?’
‘Same answer as before, Hannah: I just want everybody to come and live with me, out here, forever. Everything and anything, unfurled into infinity.’ It sniffed in several lungfuls of the arid desert air. ‘It’s the ultimate holodeck, sis. Anything you could ever ask for, including a new body, a new mind, a new anything. Immortality. Space and time. And all you have to do is just…stay.’ Breaking into a goofy falsetto, it snapped its fingers and swayed as it sang, ‘Oh won’t you stay-y-y just a little bit longer-r-r-r.’
‘Not now, not ever.’
It soured Jason’s face into a scowl. ‘You have no choice.’
‘Then why can we leave, every time? Why are we able to refuse your temptation?’
‘That’s the million-dollar question, sis,’ it said, returning to its smirk. ‘Why are you able to refuse my temptation?’
Connor broke in: ‘You’re not as powerful as you think you are.’
‘I actually did want something: to let you in on a little secret. That Fall ship you just saw take off? Yeah, they took off all over the planet—all over the system. Probably, all over the galaxy. Wanna know why?’
‘This is bullshit.’
‘Wrong, novio; it’s not bullshit. I heard it from their own fetid craws: they’re done.’
Hannah knitted her brow. ‘Done?’
‘Done. Finito. Th-th-th-th-th-that’s all, folks. They ravaged and pilaged all they could from this galaxy. Now all that’s left is a million ruined worlds and yottagrams of picked-clean junk. It’s all dark and cold out there, baby.’
It was Hannah’s turn to smirk: ‘There it is. There’s nothing out there for us anymore; there’s no more hope; we should all just give into you and live out here in your hallucinogenic paradise. No thanks.’
‘I won’t dissemble; I would love it if that was the end result. I’m not lying about the Fall, though. But why trust me? Trot on back to Tyrna, and get the news from your boss.’ It gestured to the west. ‘Be my guest. I won’t get in your way.’
Hannah and Connor didn’t turn their backs on the nurigan until the skimmer was speeding westward. They barely spoke until sundown, when the walls of the ruined city of Tyrna rose from the horizon, where they donned their names again, and entered once more into their last known sanctuary.