Faith

“Have you ever met a Lyrician, Ms. Ulbrecht?”

“I can’t say that I have, sir,” Cynthia replied.

“They’re detestable. An utter failure from Aldyne Genomics. I can’t believe the project was allowed to begin, let alone continue. I had no say in it. Gennaro was told to abandon it before he fled the planet with those…filthy embryonic aberrations. My grandfather had assurances that the program was disposed of. We let them run around and the gods-damned United Nations even gave them territory. We’ve employed them, Ms. Ulbrecht.”

Cynthia took a sip of her whiskey. “I feel a bit far removed from this, Mr. Aldy–”

“How did we let this mess get so out of hand? How Dr. Gennaro was allowed to continue his abominable experiments is beyond me, but I’m not entirely convinced they’re not still ongoing.”

“Sir, M-mr. Aldyne, Alyx Gennaro has been dead for at least a hundred years. They’re…if you…I mean, we can’t. They’re a part of society now.”

“Do you know the population? Do you know there are only a few thousand Lyricians? A handful. Barely enough to register on a system-wide census. An afterthought. Pathetic creatures.” David Aldyne frowned, pushing back his chair, standing up, stretching his arms behind his head. “The project was to find ways to enhance extra-solar colonists, not to create a race of filthy gods-damned halfbreed two-legged animals,” he spat, the derision in his words as toxic as the poison in his infusion rig.

“I can’t say that I’m following your reasoning, Mr. Aldyne.”

“Project Lyric’s brood exist as an abomination, Ms. Ulbrecht. Nothing more. It is a stain on the Aldyne name, and it is a stain on Federated society. We know where they’re holed up, right?” he hissed. A chirping from his waist, followed by a little pressurized ping, sounded the delivery of the incandescent blue plasma needed to keep that Aldyne name alive. Another Aldyne First.

“Sir, we can’t send AlDef after the Lyricians on Old Terra. Doing so would be brand suicide, it would be in violation of several United Nations protectorate agreements. It could lead to a legacy of damage to the Aldyne name. I would advise against it at all possible costs.”

“Aldyne funds the United Nations practically single-handedly. I want you to do what you’re paid to do and put our boot on their necks. The McMurdo Concordat should be nullified and the Lyricians need to be rounded up and destroyed. This Project needs terminated with alacrity, Ms. Ulbrecht. Speak with our envoy at the UN and see that it’s done. Our five year plan does not include these vermin. Have I made Aldyne’s position clear?”

“Of course, Mr. Aldyne. What about SKHI’s position? Guldsommar’s?”

“What of them? I am not troubled by ditch-diggers and gas-dredgers. This is an Aldyne problem, and AlDef will take care of it. Frame it as a rescue and recovery effort. The other corporations on the council will see it as janitorial and the UN will simply oblige us to do as we wish.”

“Sounds reasonable to me, Mr. Aldyne. I’ll draft the resolution right away. General Assembly meets in a week, we–”

“A week? I meant now, Ms. Ulbrecht. Do what you have to do.”

Cynthia stifled a sigh. “I understand, Mr. Aldyne. I’ll act accordingly.”

“Cynthia?” David whispered, crackling through the com-link.

“Yes, Mr. Aldyne?”

“I trust you. Get it done.” His visage faded, and the terminal shifted from full opacity to transparent once again, [Commlink Closed] flashing across the center of the screen in bold yellow letters.

Cynthia Ulbrecht stood and stretched, reaching behind her head to pull out the pins holding her bun together, letting her black hair cascade down past the shoulders of her forest green blazer, exhaling the breath she’d half-held the entire conversation with The Aldyne Group’s President, Executive Director, Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer Dr. David Nolan Aldyne. Talking to him always consumed a majority of her spoons.

She gestured at her terminal towards the address book, flicking through her contacts until she’d located Rowan Murphy, United Nations Security Council President, and hit the record button on the messaging modal.

“Ro, it’s Cynthia. We need to have a conversation about the rat problem in Antarctica.” She affected a bit of lust in her voice, just enough to fool any mood analysis software. “It’s been so long since Antwerp. Give me a call when you have a moment. Please? she barely more-than-whispered before closing the connection.

She slugged the rest of her whiskey. Gods have mercy on her.

Now THAT would be an Aldyne First, she chuckled to herself.

Escape

Vision blurred, breathing ragged, blood chilled, and adrenaline pumping, Gideon managed to swing his head into a position where he could see his captor.

“Tsk tsk tsk,” the angular figure seemed to say, opening their lighter with a metallic snik, flame sparking and drawing closer to their…mouth? beak…? before disappearing completely. “Gideon, buddy, look, you’re lucky we found you!”

A deep inhale, then a huge exhale. Mentholated secondhand stung Gideon’s nostrils. He coughed.

“Cold out there on the ice, Gid. You realize if we hadn’t found you that the Peacekeepers would have, right?”

“Who…who’s we,” the lemur spit, the taste of copper in his mouth. Was that…blood?

“Right now, bud, the only important identity is yours,” suggested his captor, whose black-gray visage got closer, coming into focus as they approached him, squatting down to meet Gideon eye to eye. Their tone was critical, harsh, unwelcoming. “It’s also important that you’re out of the cold. Antarctica is no place for an Aldyne dick trying to track us down, okay?” Another exhale.

Gideon couldn’t help but inhale this time, ragged and painful. Something was very wrong in his chest.

“What’s Aldyne doing out in this region, anyway? We’re not hurting anyone. We’re minding our business.”

“If you’re minding your business,” Gideon spat, licking his chops, tasting his own blood, “we wouldn’t–”

Whatever he had left to say was cut off by what felt like an electrical circuit in his ribcage. His whole body felt like he just ate an exploded battery. The fellow in whose possession he now found himself had stuck him with a shock rod in his open wound. Gideon screamed.

“We were minding our business. Now you’re minding our business. Our mutual acquaintance here didn’t want to peg you with a railgun from a few kilometers out but we don’t have a lot of options here at McMurdo. Your company decided to send your hired guns and you are the only one left from your team.”

His captor pulled the device out of his chest wound and Gideon took his first breath in what felt like an hour. “Honestly, my guy, I was not expecting Franklin to haul back any survivors, but since you had the good fortune not to keel over, you need to answer some questions, or I’m going to introduce you to a whole host of experiences I guarantee you corporate security hasn’t prepared you for! I’m not gonna ask you again! Why are you here!”

“I’m…” Gideon started, vision blurring again. The realization that his team of four was…where were they? Were there four? “Aldyne sent my team because we’d received reports of a Lyrician Liberation Cell out near McMurdo.”

Flake paused. Why would Aldyne Defense be trying to apprehend Lyricians? Why would they send a Lyrician security team to arrest others of their kind? This land belonged to them. These two were practically brothers.

None of this made any sense.

“AlDef is working with the UN now? Why?”

“They just sent me out here for recon, I don’t know what they were planning on doing beyond that! I’m just following orders!”

“Who cleared this operation? Who gave you those orders?”

Gideon spat, a mixture of fuchsia blood and hot saliva, in his captor’s face. That much he could see clearly. It didn’t take long for him to regret it when he felt the business end of the shock rod in his chest again, and his body seized like he was chewing on jumper cables.

“You were not invited here, blood traitor,” his captor sneered. The lemur could feel the air choke in his windpipe. “You took the side of the oppressor. You took their guns and you came to hunt us down after we’d been ceded this land in the McMurdo Concordat. You have the gall to literally spit in my face?”

A series of alarms, sharp and piercing, came from somewhere nearby. Gideon wasn’t able to make out where.

“Hey, Flake, he’s hurtin’ I think.”

“Frank, I think if there’s something wrong with our guest it isn’t my problem, right?” Flake removed the rod from Gideon’s wound. Gideon’s vision started to clear. He took a deep, ragged breath, choking on the air.

“Get this son of a bitch some respimix and medgel for his wounds. Where’s their skimmer?” the bird hissed, tossing the rod on a nearby utility cart, flexing their hand to loosen the joints.

“No skimmer. Big lander though, bear-loaded. Plenty weapons. Cal and Kethri said it had a small nuke. Looked mean. On their way out now to bring it in.”

“A lander? You said you only took out three AlDef guys plus” — the bird stopped, glaring at his captive coughing up hot pink phlegm on the floor — “this dipshit. What kind of lander was it?”

Franklin, a giant panda with more muscle than brains, frowned in deep thought, big black eye circles furrowing, wrinkling the scar across his forehead. “Uh…real big. Show me cards.”

The jay pulled out a deck of ship identification flexes from their back pocket and spread them across a table. Gideon was still catching his breath. “Which one of these.”

A beat passed. The klaxons from the medical equipment strapped to Gideon’s wrist started hollering again. Franklin laid a huge pawfinger on top of a Holland Aerodynamics atmospheric transport. “This one,” he said, proudly. “Cal say we can leave orbit if we take.”

Flake’s eyes went wide. “Yeah. Yeah. We definitely can leave if we take.” They paused again in thought. “Make sure he’s healthy enough to travel. We’ll need his biometric imprint to get the thing started, and it’ll only work if he’s alive. I need to go out on the frost and make sure they’re not planning on sending anyone else down here.”

“I worry?”

“Yeah, big worry. If AlDef is sending expedition teams that means the UN has no interest in honoring the treaty they signed handing this land over and we need to get the hell out of here.” Flake made a few talontaps on their wrist-worn datapad.

“Folks, uh, I hoped I’d never have to say this,” Flake’s voice came echoing throughout the McMurdo Station’s PA system. “I guessed correctly. The UN is about to clear us out. They left us a carrier. We’re on our way to secure it. Pack only what you can carry and be prepared for departure in twenty minutes.”

Franklin frowned. “We go?”

“Not without him,” Flake grimaced, brow furrowing, as he gestured at Gideon’s exhausted frame bleeding pink on the concrete floor. “Once he’s got a rebreather and he’s bandaged, get him in a thermal jacket and put him in a brace. We need to move.”

[next: https://steller.space/2021/02/14/departure/]

Chill

“Gentlemen,” I’ve said, “I’ve studied the maps,
and if what I am thinking is right,
There’s another new world at the top of the world
for whoever can break through the ice.”

[Aboard the TCV Frozen Alchemist]
[Gemini Scopuli, Mars]

Wiping the sweat and grease from her goggles, Meredith Abendroth stared out beyond the working deck’s safety rail, braced against the control panel for the deployment cranes. She took a deep breath, cold air stinging her nostrils through the respirator, exhaled into her mask. She rubbed her hands together for warmth, then raised them above her head, practically touching the electric heater hanging above her workstation to release the numbness in her fingers. The heater offered her nothing in return for her praise. She grabbed the console again and frowned.

The vastness of the Martian ice shelf was not lost on her. Thousands of kilometers of frozen ice, ready to be turned into an ocean now that a greenhouse-grade atmosphere had finally taken hold after decades of trying. An Aldyne First, she thought to herself, locking eyes on a nitrogen dioxide pump on the horizon. Lot of those going around lately.

In her reverie, the slowly pulsing yellow light on the release switch had changed to a steady red. A klaxon roared across the working deck. The ship began to shudder, bucking back and forth, control thrusters attempting to compensate. She magnetized her boots reflexively as the smooth mechanical whirring of the crane became a violent kick, metal groaning even louder than the warning siren. Just as quickly as it had started, it stopped.

“MARY! The godsdamned drill crane’s stalled again!” came a voice over the headset. She checked the control panel.

///IMMEDIATE ATTENTION REQUIRED - CYCLE HALTED
///Hydraulic Fluid Pressure Tolerance (High) Reached @ CT+14m:42s 
   Fault Signal Detected: Hydraulic Line 3 (WARN)
   Fault Signal Detected: Hydraulic Line 5 (WARN)
   Fault Signal Detected: Hydraulic Line 6 (WARN)
   Fault Signal Detected: Stabilizer 1 (ERR)
   Fault Signal Detected: Stabilizer 3 (ERR)

///Travel Speed Tolerance (High) Reached @ CT+14m:42s
   MASTER ALARM - OVERTRAVEL - Stabilizer 1 (CRIT)
   MASTER ALARM - OVERTRAVEL - Stabilizer 3 (CRIT)

///Crane Travel Cycle @ 73% Of Destination
///MANUAL POSITION CONFIRMATION REQUIRED BEFORE CYCLE RESTART PERMITTED

“SONOFABITCH!” she bellowed across the deck, punching the ALRM ACK button on her console and heading for the manlift. She pushed the all-call button on her datapad and growled into her headset. “I warned you to keep the hydraulic pumps warm! We had this problem in the goddamn simulations! Now we’re losing time, fluid, and we have to reset the position sensor on account of the shuddering ratfucking halt your incompetence brought this thing to. God dammit, Hawkins!”

As she pressed the button to carry her up to the crane, Dwayne Hawkins’ reply came over the radio. “Sorry mum, we’re on it. We had a heat pump stall out and couldn’t correct ‘er in time. Malcolm’s purgin”er lines now.”

She tapped back. “You’d better hope to God we didn’t blow any teeth on the crane gears or your team’s back to pumping dome sulfur!”

The lift gates opened and Meredith stomped over to the crane’s drive assembly, several workers already having removed part of the outer housing to inspect the gears.

“How’s my crane,” she blustered.

“Oh, looks fine,” her assistant Harriet replied. Her rosettes were clearly not in any sort of twist; sweet as she always was, in contrast to Mary’s sour. “A little fluid-poor, but the temperature at the gearhead is okay, it’s just slowing things down. We won’t need to flush it but, before we restart, we might want to circulate the fluid a bit. How’s Dwayne’s team handling it?” Harriet said, cooler than the winds whipping about the upper deck of the Alchemist.

“Changing hoses,” Mary barked, voice thick with congestion and canyon-deep. “What about the drillhead position?”

“Given the bucking I figured you’d ask about that, Dr. Abendroth. Drone surveys appear to confirm we’re only a few meters out of position, nothing that a minor cautionary offset won’t fix. We can probably bypass the resurvey. All we need is 90% accuracy to pop the cork, ma’am!” Harriet replied, gray-flecked tail whipping back and forth.

A drill tech yelped as metal clanged loud on the deckplate, some tool or another skittering across the ground and causing a ruckus. Mary’s fur stiffened, then relaxed, locking eyes with her assistant, letting the snow leopard’s smile wash across her like a warm summer breeze.

“Harriet…” she began, almost complimentarily, “please keep me posted. And thank you.”

“No problem, ma’am!” Harriet cheerily responded.

Consideration

[previously: https://steller.space/2020/12/09/registration/]

The door to the hotel room slid open and Trellis took a moment to remove his work jacket.

Never one much for appearances, the coat he’d worn after spending a decade in the Sun-a-do mountains — planting trees, cultivating the soil, arranging shipments of dirt and dead leaves and fill and logs and waste, carefully raising the right kind of mushrooms to form a bond with what had been a long-obliterated winter wasteland — was probably his closest link to home this far away. It smelled like soil and hydraulic fluid and sweat, contained memories of a victory against all odds, a sort of nylon suit of armor against the uncaring world beyond the treeline, a feeling of warmth beyond the insulation it provided.

It was as much him as his own body was. He hung it gently on the hangar, taking a moment to run his fingers through the fur lining the hood. Remembering long nights camped in the wilderness, staring up at the stars, wondering if the firs would ever grow, watching the lights of the aurora borealis dance across the sky like a ribbon on fire.

“They’re right,” he said aloud, shutting the closet, throwing himself across the bed, sighing through his nose. “Christ.”

He rolled over on his back, stared at the ceiling, raised his arm to see his datapad wrapped around his wrist. Accessing the room key application with a few taps, he dimmed the lights and closed the shutters, blacking the room out. A few more taps and the ceiling began to twinkle with the light of a thousand thousand stars a million million miles away.

He started to lose himself in his thoughts.

# # #

“Trellis, have you ever given any thought to, y’know, leaving?”

“Wh…what?”

The spaceport was busier than usual. The sunlight, as always, cut across the living room like blades in Flake’s apartment. The viewscreen was on low volume, a science program about New Mawsynram’s unique weather climate. Some Aldyne Terraforming Corps Meteorologist was explaining the theories behind the rain.

“Leaving,” the bird asked, pulsing the coffee grinder. “You know. Those,” they said, nodding towards the picture windows as another stellarliner began its takeoff roll with the high-pitched whine of sublight engines.

“N-no. Why would I do that?”

Carefully unfolding a coffee filter and placing it on the scale, Flake tapped the grounds into the paper basket until their scale chirped satisfactorily. The bird set the filter in the glass brewer and thumbed the toggle on the electric kettle. “You finished your project, you’ve got cache now. You got a United Nations Egalitarian Cross for god’s sakes! The Sun-a-do…in five years it’ll be teeming with life again! You did that, Trel. What are you gonna do next?”

Trellis shrugged. “I figured I’d go back to Newhalem. Maybe start a farm–“

“A farm of what, bud?”

“I d-don’t know, a t-tree farm–“

“A tree farm! Wow! What kind of trees?” the jay crowed.

“Don’t patronize me,” the deer frowned.

“You know nothing grows out here that doesn’t glow in the dark, Trellis, yourself included.” Flake’s tone seemed to shift from sardonic to caustic. “Your potential here is tapped out. Do you not have higher ambitions? What about joining the terraforming corps on Venus? They could use someone to help expand the domes. Think about it. An entire forest named after you.”

“I don’t want to do that.”

Flake’s fist hit the counter with a thud enough to faze Trellis slightly. “You’re wasting your god damn skills fumbling around in some potting shed!”

The kettle clicked off, and Flake snatched it from its base, thumbing the Water key on his scale until it made a little melodic chime indicating the right weight had been reached.

The bird’s silence permeated the apartment almost as deeply as the smell of coffee grounds. Tension filled the air, thick enough to be cut with a chainsaw.

# # #

“Call Flake,” Trellis muttered into his wrist.

The datapad chirped eagerly, attempting to set up the connection. Trellis rolled over on his side, reached behind his head, pulled out his hair tie, let his long silver hair fan out. After a beat, it chirped again to notify him the connection was established.

“Hello hey,” came the familiar voice, with a backing track of running water and clanking dishes in a washbasin.

“Flake,” Trellis sighed.

“Oh, hey bud,” the jay replied. The water stopped. “What’s up?”

“Why did you refer an application in my name to ASA?”

“Ah, okay. Not a social call,” Flake said, and Trellis swore he heard their eyes roll.

“No,” Trellis sighed, “not a social call.”

“Trellis–”

“Look, don’t think I’m not grateful. I just don’t get it. Why do you want me off the planet so bad?”

“What makes you think I want you off the planet?”

“Why are you answering my question with a question?”

Flake sighed. “You realize that there are thousands of opportunities out there, right? Millions? You could be the driving force that spreads our kind out past the Compact. We’re talking Neptune. You could be among the first folks to terraform Io. Io! They’re already working on it. Ring colonies. Drum colonies. New stations. You could be building oxygen forests! The work you’re doing is too important! You can’t just do one thing and give up!”

The line went silent on both ends. A sniff came through, crystal clear. Flake’s voice started to waver.

“I love you but I can’t have you hanging around here and wasting yourself. I have work to do, too, Trellis. I have to do what I’m good at, and you have to do what you’re good at. It’s bigger than money or love or anything else. We’re still new here, relatively, our kind, you know? Having a Lyrician like you or me doing something like heading up a big multi-generational project…that could open doors. It could change lives, handlebars.”

After a pause to digest the words, including the emotion behind them, Trellis spoke. “You wouldn’t be saying it like this unless you’re planning something.”

“I’m not. Even if–”

“Yeah.”

A moment of silence. Hands held, released across tens of millions of miles. Trellis swore he could feel fingers intertwine. Their fights always ended like this.

“I knew this wasn’t a social call,” Flake said. Was that a smile?

“What are you doing?”

“Cleaning up. What are you doing?”

The deer sighed. Loudly. “I don’t know, Flake.”

“Marge told you about the Ivory Hermitage, didn’t she? It’s a huge initiative, you know. They’re just building it in Mars orbit and they’re going to tow it out past the Rim. You’d get to see the whole system, eventually. A Lyrician working for Aldyne, building a colony ship.”

“She…said it was a seed vault.”

“I mean, you looked at the diagram, right? Nobody needs all that space for plants, Trel. Come on.”

Another moment passed. Then another. Gears in the deer’s head began to grind away, chewing at this new information.

“I don’t want to leave the system.”

“I know, dear.”

“I don’t want to leave you.”

“I know, dear.”

“And…I’ll never get another opportunity like this again, will I.”

It was Flake’s turn to sigh. “Not in this lifetime, dear.”

Trellis hated when Flake called him “dear.” It was a blatantly transparent play on words. The jay just could not stop themselves. Even in times of duress, ever the joker. It was one of their most endearing qualities.

“I need to sleep,” Trellis yawned.

“You’ve had a big day. I bet you do, handlebars. Get some rest, think about things. Take a train around the planet, go see your parents or something. You can probably get a mass driver to New Vail somewhere out of Gusev, right?”

“I…I don’t…maybe?”

“I’ll look it up for you and fire it to your pad. Get some sleep. I love you and I’m hanging up for your own good okay? Okay. Mwah. Goodnight.”

“Goodnight,” Trellis said, the connection closing before he had a chance to return the romantic sentiment.

Two weeks on Mars wouldn’t be so bad, he figured.

 

Outside

The smooth greased-metal sound of sealbolts whirring into place as the inner airlock door clenched itself into a solid seal between the cabin and what was about to be hard vacuum, the metal thud barely audible in his helmet assuring the deer that depressurization was a guarantee. Trellis grabbed the cuff around his suit glove and wiggled it just to be sure it was snug and locked into place.

[Inner seal confirmed. Pressure equalization in progress.]

“Nervous” was maybe close to the right word. After all, hard vacuum is pretty much the end of it, really. You can tell yourself this is routine, I’ve done this a hundred times all you want, but nothing is stopping metal fatigue or a loose suit seal from resetting your expectations.

The heads-up display in his suit helmet lit up, orange and yellow and subtle, meters showing available power, available respimix, vital signs, a compass, a clock sparking to life. “Everything a growing spacer needs to feel secure,” his trainer had told him.

He took a deep breath. A gauge on the wall counted down the time to cycle. The breath was reflexive — the suit was perfectly capable of generating the necessary breathable atmosphere to ensure he was comfortable — but it never stopped Trellis from doing it every single time.

In that moment, as the timer ticked down, the deer reached for the maglock toggle on the suit’s thigh. The button gave without a second thought, and the suit’s HUD confirmed the disengagement with a pop-up notification. Trellis applied the gentlest little push angling off the deck plate and began to rise, his gloved hands brushing against the top of the airlock.

He was floating.

[Magboot disengage not recommended]

He keyed the ACK button on his wristpad. He knew.

[Pressure equalized. Outer door seal disengaged.]

The timer exhausted itself, the yellow triangle light winking out, turning to a green circle. The outer airlock door clunked apart, the metallic whirring of the sealbolts unbinding themselves and retracting as the door slid open to reveal the vacuum of space.

Thumbing the toggle again to remagnetize himself, Trellis stepped out onto the catwalk and began making his way to the tidally locked front of the seed vault station.

“I love the color,” he would say to the other caretakers when they’d ask what his spacewalks were for. They didn’t know he’d been in contact with the Lyricians at Phobos Lab to help rebuild some of the agridomes there, smuggling seed packets in their returned supply canisters. They didn’t know it was to look at the verdant patches on the Martian surface near New Orion or Holyoke Green.

He gripped the railing and stared at the red planet’s surface. The station would be passing Syromyatnikov Plateau soon, the bringer of war’s largest boreal reserve, and their fruit forests were coming into season.

Trellis reveled in its verdant reaches.

Morning

It felt like every bump in the gravel on the way out of Trellis’ driveway telegraphed itself directly into the seats of Flake’s little runabout, the sounds of creaking plastic and shuddering frame filling the cabin.

“Just a little farther,” Flake muttered.

“It’s my driveway! I know how far it is,” Trellis replied.

“That was more for the car than for you,” the jay crowed, clearing the final pothole and emerging onto the forest service access road leading to the freeway. “Good lord! When are you gonna pave that thing?”

Silence from the passenger’s seat. Trellis was gazing back at his home, furrowing his brow and narrowing his eyes to see its lights through the thick haze of the morning fog. “Why would I pave a driveway I barely ever use?” he muttered.

“Oh, come on now, soursticks. You go to the nursery like twice a week. Besides, that little truck of yours has gotta be about thirty years old by now! You’re gonna shake that thing apart. You can’t just neglect your access road, y’know.”

More silence. Not a word. Their friend’s focus was clearly elsewhere, and attempting to jar it loose would take more than snide commentary about property upkeep.

Moments passed as quickly as the roadway signs and turn-outs. Flake thumbed the radio presets, not really to listen as much as to fidget. The deer slouched against the window, watching the sun cut knives through the mist in the trees.

He sighed. The mood in the cabin changed. The bird flinched at the noise, unexpected.

“You miss him, don’t you,” Trellis asked, quietly.

Flake stiffened, sat taller in the seat, and the vehicle swerved slightly when their grip on the wheel tightened with the motion. The seat belt’s limiter ratcheted. “I don’t want to talk about this. Not with you, Trel.”

“We’re going to have to, you know.”

“We’re not.”

“It’s been six years.”

I’m aware.”

“You know he still calls, right? He’s been asking about you. Wants to get together with the two of us for dinner.”

Slowing to a stop at an intersection, the steller’s jay palmed the right hand blinker and checked their corners. They sighed, touching their forehead to the wheel as another vehicle blasted through the stop sign in the opposite direction. “Trellis. He wanted to tear ass around the country, see the sights. I wanted to stay right where I was. It was an addiction. Marder was never going to be a good fit. I don’t miss him any more than I miss smoking.” They raised their head, turned to look at the deer, only saw silver mane furtively shifting towards the passenger window. Flake frowned. “Can we please change the subj–”

“Fine, fine. Sorry to bring it up,” Trellis replied, cracking the window. “I just…I wonder. I wonder what things would be like if you and I–”

“Never would have happened,” Flake interrupted.

“It almost did.”

“It didn’t almost did. We fooled around. We knew better. You, you, you and I were never…Trel, we were never that way.”

The blinker shut off as the runabout rounded the corner, swinging on to the exit ramp in the dawn’s early light, the sun starting to burn the fog off the freeway. The drive was mostly silent, save for the static crackling over the light jazz and occasional chatter on the radio. Trellis was focused on the trees as they flashed past the window, taking little notes in his journal, doing little sketches of the evergreens and the leafy trees giving up their protective garnishing in anticipation of the coming snow.

Flake, of course, was focused on the road. But they allowed themselves a stolen glance at their lifelong friend, college roommate, confidante, aloe source, sometimes rescuer of the wayward houseplant here or there.

And the jay smiled.

We probably could have been that way, though, Flake thought to themselves. Maybe. Just not then, and not there. The love Flake felt was more friendly than fiery, but it was there all the same. Trellis had to know that, somehow, the jay figured.

“Coffee sound good?” Flake asked. “Then the farmer’s market?”

“Coffee sounds great,” Trellis replied, wistful.

Summer

God, it was hot. The kind of hot that makes you wish winter still existed. What was left of the day’s sunlight bored through the slats in the vertical blinds, cutting across the apartment’s carpet like fiery blades. Spaceplanes took off and landed, seemingly infinitely, at the spaceport visible from the small apartment’s windows, the loud roars of afterburners drowning out the less-loud drone of the box fans stuck in the window, trying desperately to force hot air out of the western-exposed hotbox of a living quarters.

Flake splayed out on the couch, ice-sweaty water bottle clenched tight in their left hand, television remote in the right, flipping through channels and only pausing long enough to press the damp plastic vessel against their forehead. It wasn’t enough to ease the bird’s hangover, but then again, neither was the twelve-hour nap they started at seven o’clock in the morning.

Keys jingled in the door lock, the jay only acutely aware of it thanks to their temporarily heightened sensitivity to…well, everything. The door handle turned, the slick grinding of metal-on-metal mechanisms clunking into place thundering in the bird’s ears like the march of a thousand New Terran soldiers marching across the plains.

“When did you get in?” came the voice from the foyer, deep and northern, thick and grave like the ash of a forest fire sifting through a smoky breeze.

“When I felt like it,” moaned the bird.

“Jesus,” Trellis frowned. “Are you staying hydrated at least?”

An arm thrust weakly upwards from behind the back of the couch, rattling a water bottle full of ice cubes.

“Well, at least you have that going for you,” the deer mused. “Are you okay?”

The arm fell back to its place. Flake opened their beak, sprayed some water in it, choked it down. “As okay as I can be, given that I’m out of work, I’ve got no place to go, I’ve turned to my only friend within five hundred klicks, and I’m not aboard some godforsaken jobs transport to the new frontier,” Flake said, affecting those last few words as if delivering a marketing pitch. “Thanks for not changing the locks.”

The deer chuckled. “Thanks for not changing anything.”

Spring

“I’m tired of work, you know? It feels like nothing I do ever leads to anything getting done,” his friend moaned.

Trellis sat patiently, stirring his coffee and listening to his old college roommate talk about his work, his love life (christ, he thought), his hobby, whatever streamed from his consciousness. Mostly he sat stirring his coffee, cold after so many minutes of waiting to get a word in edgewise, and thinking about his plants.

“Anyway, you know how it is. Chicken one day…hey, uh, are you there?” Flake asked, talon tapping on the table.

The deer, shaken from his navel gazing, let the stirring stick go, briefly watching it spin around listlessly in the coffee. “S-sorry.”

“Nah, nah, don’t worry about it. What’s on your plate these days? How’s the flower shop?”

“Spring’s around the corner. The plants aren’t used to it being so nice so early. Global warming…”

“Yeah,” said his friend, gazing out the window at the rain. “Terrifying.”

Trellis tapped his stick against the side of his coffee cup and gently laid it down on the table, as if that would somehow improve the quality of the already dead beverage. He took a pull from the cup, sucking down the grounds. “This coffee…detestable.”

Flake laughed. “What, you don’t like pour-over? Got any plans?”

“You know I don’t like pour-over and you know I don’t have plans.”

“Want to get together for drinks tonight? The Shady Pine has some really out-there new wave jazz trio doing a downtempo set.” He waved his hands in the air when he said “out there” as if to emphasize the oddity.

“No, Flake.”

“Five dollar cover,” the bird sing-songed. He waggled his eyebrows some. “Eh? Ehhh?”

“No, no. Evening in. Sorry. Maybe another time?” Trellis frowned.

A sigh. “Sure thing, man. I understand.”

“Thanks.”

– – –

Trellis McCormick boarded the bus home, took out his little black book, and started doodling.  Little tiny sketches of trees, plants, grassy patches the bus passed by. He wrote the names in the margins.

Scotch broom.

Douglas fir.

Weeping willow.

The rain picked up. What was simply background noise and streaks on the windows had turn into full blown wipers-on-high interrupting-idle-conversation rain. It beat against the leaves of the trees and the blades of grass in his neighborhood. The bus slowed down to cope with the weather and Trellis perked up.

He took a pull from his water bottle, then offered an empty toast to the windows and the plants beyond them as the bus rattled down the forest road. “Spring,” he whispered to no one in particular. “It’s here,” he smiled.

Hazel

She’d been here before, she realized, taking a long drag from her cigarette. It was a long time ago, but she definitely remembered this place. Fargo’s been here, too, she mused. Still is. I can smell him on the wind. God, what a shithole.

The Shellbox was a shithole. A three-story converted munitions depot from the wars of last century, the base that used to surround it having been demolished for hundreds of kilometers in every direction, leaving nothing but this dingy hangout for Europa’s lowest lives.

“You’re gonna need to spit that out, ma’am,” said the bouncer, sneering and leering. Six foot eleven and probably about 400 pounds of steel cable, the black bear watching the door looked like he enjoyed popping arms out of sockets on his off time.

Hazel didn’t flinch, took a long drag off the cigarette in her muzzle, and blew the smoke out her nostrils. She was nowhere near as tall at 5’2, or as bulky at a waifish 111. “This a no smoking facility?” she grumbled.

“No.”

She placed a hand on the push-plate. He placed his arm across the doorway. “You’re not on the list.”

“There isn’t a list.”

The bouncer leaned down to match her, eye to eye. The red wolf could feel his hot breath on her muzzle, nearly choking on how moist it was. “Listen, ma’am. You’re not coming in.”

“Why’s that, lunchmeat?”

“Because I don’t like you,” he growled. “You look like trouble.”

She took her hand off the door. “Tough,” she said. “I’m supposed to meet a client here.”

“Cancel.”

“Get out of my way,” she hissed.

He started to show incisors, a half-formed grin on his face. The smallest chunk of an “oh, yeah?” escaped his maw before her left hand was on his collar. A mechanical whirring came from underneath her shirtsleeve, and before he knew what hit him, she’d thrown him to the ground. In the same motion, her pistol came out and pressed itself directly behind his round ear.

“I do not have time for this shit,” she said, clicking off the safety. The little coil derringer began to charge itself, blue lights flickering to life. She leaned in, snarling. “I’m not here to cause trouble but I absolutely will! Now are you gonna cooperate or am I going to spray your thinkmeats on the goddamn pavement?” she sneered, pushing warm steel even harder into his temple.

The wind had been knocked out of him. He struggled to exhale a breathless “okay.”

She spit her cigarette out at the back of his head and threw open the door. By the time he had realized he could get up, she was already gone.

Late

It’s 4:18.

Meyer rested with his arms behind his back, propping himself up, lit cigarette haphazardly nocked between his fingers. He brought it to bear against his lips, falling backwards and spilling himself across the crabgrass-laden median in the parking lot. He laughed at himself, a slurring, miserable laugh.

He was waiting for the ride back to his apartment.

He’d been drinking.

He was alone.

– – –

The alarm, more shrill than usual, cracked across his ears like the sound of a thousand blaring war horns. The mid-morning sunlight, strips of overwhite light cutting through the vertical blinds, hit him right square in the eye.

His left ear twitched. He swiped lazily at his cellphone, doing nothing to quiet it but knocking it to the floor instead. It clattered across the hardwood and into the laundry.

Meyer rolled over onto his back with a heaving groan, cowering in the crook of his elbow as the light bounced across his body. He stayed that way for a moment, mind slowly adjusting to the fact that he needed to be awake despite the overwhelming signals coming from his body to call in sick. He’d screwed up, again. Too hard on a Thursday, he whined internally.

The phone’s alarm did not shut off. He didn’t care. He stumbled to the bathroom anyway, cranking the shower as high as it could go. He left the fan off and sank to the bottom of the stall, sitting there in the nude, letting the hissing of the shower drown out the alarm and the hangover and the light from the bedroom window and the awful smell of vomit in the back of his sinus.

– – –

He pulled a dirty sports t-shirt over his head. Rifled through his underwear drawer and found a pair of boxer briefs he hadn’t worn yet. Pulled a pair of jeans out of his laundry hamper and tugged them on. Shoved his feet into a pair of slip-on skate shoes; he didn’t have any clean socks and it was mid-summer so it wouldn’t have mattered.

He leaned down at the laundry pile and grabbed his phone. He turned off the alarm and checked the time, and if his fur could have gone any whiter, he would have turned invisible.

He was very late.

“Shit, shit, shit,” he grumbled, thrusting the device in his back pocket. “She’s gonna kick my ass this time, no doubt about it.” He shoved his wallet haphazardly into his pocket with a handful of change and wadded-up bills.

Palming the keys off his side table, Meyer was halfway out the door before he remembered his glasses.

He nearly forgot to lock the door.

He was on the bus towards the music store within five minutes, barely keeping himself from being one of those people that catches a mouthful of exhaust fumes.

– – –

“You know what time it is, Brad?

It took exactly one second after the door chime finished its job before Meryl bellowed in the general direction of the front of the store.

Meyer winced, partly from the hangover and partly from the shame. “Y-yeah, s-sorry.”

“Whatever.” She rounded the counter, scratching under her ears, yawning a bit. Her mottles shifted like specks of red wine vinegar in bread oil. “I need you on the phone with the repair center. They’re slacking. I got parents blowing up my phone because I haven’t had anyone to answer calls or man the counter for the last two hours, Brad.

“Meryl, I’m sorry, I know, I didn’t get up unt–”

“Get coffee, get to work, and when I’m done catching up from the two hours of balancing the books I missed covering your shift, we can talk about how passing out in an Applebee’s parking lot off mozzarella sticks and rum punch made you late.”

Meyer froze. “H-how did y-”

She looked at him, eyes wide, brow bent in frustration, drawing a circle in the air around her own muzzle. He clasped his hands over his own.

“And next time when you clean yourself up, wash your face,” she scowled as she pivoted back to the office.