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/]

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 northwestern 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 cascades…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. The silence became uncomfortable.


“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 care about 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.”

A pause. The water stopped. Silverware clanking around loudly in a drawer.

“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 sentiment.

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

 

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, light and alpen, soft 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 asking.”

The deer chuckled. “Thanks for not changing the locks.”

“Thanks for not changing anything,” Flake replied.

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.