Space Opera Challenge
I’ve got a friend who writes. Actually, I have a lot of friends who write, which is great because there’s always someone to understand my latest word block or to share a cup of coffee with when the words just won’t stop coming. But this friend of mine needed a little companionship in his writing this week. While writing is something one must do alone, it is also easier to do when you know someone, somewhere is writing too. So to better procrastinate my own writing, I volunteered to share a word-for-word challenge with him. He picked the genre and the word count target and we both wrote.
It was a good dare for me. Space Opera isn’t really my setting — I tend to avoid topics that require any understanding of physics beyond the most basic — but I was able to shrink the stage of the scene down to my usual comfort zone. And I was able to invent a character that I’m sure I’ll transplant into something else.
I’m sharing the result here with you so that this quick piece doesn’t linger in my word trunk unread. It isn’t in anyway related to QUEEN OF HUNGER. But it was fun. Enjoy.
I’d come to hate the chemical shower. It brought nothing of the hot satisfaction of water and steam, and while it left me nominally free of the crust of preservatives that the long sleep required, it never left me feeling clean. At least this time, I was closer to clean than I’d been in the past. This time I was quickly falling inward towards my final destination – home.
I stepped out of the private stall into the locker room. I was half dressed when Zevi came in.
“You’re fast!” he said with his usual grin. His talent for stating the obvious grated my nerves.
“Not the kind of place I linger in,” I responded.
“It takes me a while to re-orient,” he said, “the shower helps, so I take my time.”
“I noticed. We’ve only been out and back under a dozen times together, Zev.”
“Only nine times.”
“Fine. So this is the whatever-th time we’ve come out of sleep and the whatever-th time you’ve told me that that horrible smelling, searing, caustic stew pouring out of the ceiling helps you ‘re-orient’ but you’ve never told me why or how.”
“Do you want to know?”
I rolled my eyes at him. I was fully dressed while he stood with his locker open, naked.
“I mean,” he continued, “you’ve never asked. Do you want to know?”
“I want you to get dressed,” I say finally. I turned back to my locker, slipped your favor inside my undershirt, and walked out of the locker room.
The ship was small, designed purely for personnel transport and not many personnel at that. To the left out of the locker room was the door to the engine compartments, taking up the majority of the ship. Across the hall were the crew quarters. They were so cramped they sent the message that no-one was supposed to be awake on the ship for longer than a fortnight – even a life-long space-bound would find themselves going over the edge in such tight conditions. To the right was the longest hallway on the ship, leading to the common room, galley, and one more step beyond that, the helm. I headed that way.
“Ah ,Yve! You up first?” Diri the pilot asked with a glance over her shoulder.
“Zevi’s taking his time.”
“‘Re-orienting’?” Diri said with a laugh.
“Or something.” I took my usual spot just out of reach of any of the panels or controls. I could see the view screens that simulated our location in space, but wouldn’t get in the way of anything Diri needed to do. “Where are we?”
“Standard wake-up distance: three days out.”
“Any contact with home station yet?”
“Not yet. Infostream tells me they’re in eclipse right now. No unnecessary communications until sunlight returns.”
“There’s a message in the buffer for you,” Diri said, pointing towards an empty screen to one side of the helm. “I didn’t watch it.”
“Thanks.” I debated delaying watching it, as if the self-denial would help me prove something to myself. That self-denial lasted all of three seconds.
“Is it on? I’m recording? Oh! Oh alright! Hi Yve, hi!” It’s you. The fat black curls of your short hair frame your face. You’re wearing something low cut, I can see the skin of your throat and shoulders. You shiver and pull your arms around yourself. You’re cold. “I’ll be quick. I was going to wait until you were in system, but we’re going to eclipse, so I didn’t want you to land and think I’d forgotten about you.” You smile, like you’re telling yourself a secret. “I couldn’t ever forget you.” You remember you’re on camera and erase the smile, try to look more respectable. “I’d like to meet you when you clear quarantine, unless you’ve got family to do that. I wouldn’t, wouldn’t want, I’m sure you’ll want to see them.” You make an excuse for me, as if there’s anyone else I’d rather see than you. “And you can stay with me when you get here. I have the space, what with all the gigs I’m pulling, I got a larger apartment. Three whole rooms!” You laugh to yourself. You’re not space-bound, so the constraints of living on station still confound you. You don’t understand that square footage matters. “I’ve been thinking and…” you take a deep breath and I hold mine. “And I’d like to talk to you when you get home.” That smile again, slowly growing until it is a grin. You raise your hand to the screen. I can see the callouses along the sides of your fingers from the stringed instruments you play for a living. “Ring me when your ship lands and I’ll be waiting. Looking forward to it.” I freeze the last frame, your one hand flat on the screen, the other wrapped around your chest. You’re leaned slightly forward, your lips parted and I have a momentary feeling that I’m kissing you right then, that we’re finally lovers.
“So is that her? The musician?” Zevi says from behind me.
“She’s pretty…for a planet-side girl.” Diri says. She’s turned her seat around to eavesdrop on my message. I drop my head and wonder how I’m going to manage to not kill one of them in the next three days of waiting.
“Fi, that’s her name, Diri.” Zevi fills in, “Her name’s Fi.”
“Yes, yes it is. I didn’t realize this wasn’t a private chat.” I said. Both of them laughed at me, justifiably.
“Yve my friend, I know how many grunts it takes for Zevi to fart. There are no private chats on this skiff.” Diri turned to Zevi and said aside, “four, by the way. Four grunts.”
Zevi shrugged at Diri’s revelation and turned his attention back to me. “When are you going to marry her?”
“Marry her! Zev, by the light of a thousand stars, we’re not like that.”
“Not yet,” offered Diri helpfully.
“Look,” I started to say, both of them laughed at my protest before it could leave my mouth.
“Save it for someone who buys stories for a living, not the two of us who see through them,” said Zevi. “We’ve been awake on this boat a total of about thirty days over the last I don’t even know how many years. Not one of those days has passed that you haven’t mentioned her. Not one.”
“And not one assignment has ended without you picking something up for her,” Diri added. “And there’s that bit of her hair in your shirt. You’d think it was made of stardust has precious as you treat it.”
“It isn’t her hair,” I said, feeling defensive.
“What is it then?” Diri had turned her chair all the way around, leaned towards me with her elbows on her knees. Zevi stepped into the galley, all of two steps, and sat on the edge of the table there.
“Where she comes from, they have a tradition where you write your name and address on a piece of cloth, along with a map of how to find the place. You give it to a person who is leaving. It is supposed to help them find their way home.”
“Really? That’s all it is?” Zevi said. “That’s a really boring tradition.”
“Yeah, but you owe me. I told you it wasn’t a bit of her underclothes.” Diri made a hand-it-over gesture to Zevi, who waved her off.
“Ok, but it wasn’t hair either. How predictable would that have been?”
“You two took bets on what it was?”
“What else do we have to do when we’re sitting around?” Zevi said with a look of complete innocence. I had to drop my head.
“Zevi, Diri, I really appreciate your concern for me, but I’d also appreciate it if you stayed out of this one last corner of my life. Please.”
“Because it burns,” Zevi said. Both Diri and I looked at him like he was acting even more oddly than usual.
“What?” I asked.
“The reason I linger in the chemical shower after wake up. It reminds me of my wife.”
“Your what?” Diri sat straight up now. We were both completely shocked. “You’re married?”
Zevi nodded. “Twenty revs around the sun married, by the station calendar. I’ve only lived with her about twelve of those years.”
“You never mention her,” I said.
“Nah. Don’t have to. She lives in my heart. I don’t have to keep talking about her to make that so.”
“So, the chemical shower reminds you of your wife because it burns? You going to explain that?” I asked, suddenly aware that I might not know everything about this man I’d been traveling with for so long.
“Just that. It burns just a little bit, which reminds me that I have skin. Skin that’s for a lot more than just holding my insides where they are. Skin that’s made for touching and holding and sensing everything that comes and goes. And most of all, skin that’s made to go against hers. So the burning reminds me that while I’m out here, I’m headed back there. And when I get there, I’m not going to take all this skin for granted. I’m not going to put off one chance to touch her or be touched.” Zevi’s usual grin was understated, even thoughtful. “That’s why I asked you when you were going to marry your Fi. Because she wants to marry you.”
I leaned back, shocked. “Marry me? We’re not even together!”
Zevi shrugged at my disbelief. “But the way she reached her hand to the screen, she knows what her skin is for. And she’s done missing chances.”
I sat there, stunned. Partly because Zevi had never before sounded so right. Partly because I desperately wanted him to be.
“Maybe you should have brought her an engagement present instead of that horn thing,” Diri said with a laugh, trying to break the tension.
I looked up at Zevi, “do you think so? I mean, she wants to tell me something, but…married?”
“If I’m wrong, you don’t have to name your first child after me,” he said, the grin returning. “But I’m not wrong.” He turned away in to the galley. “Anyone else want something to eat?”
So that’s why I want to name the baby Zevi. Because I’m here now and so are you. And he wasn’t wrong.