“Eighteen months without women,” one of the miners says, rolling his eyes back in his head as if he’s dying. “I’ll be lucky if my dick doesn’t drop off.”
Some of the others add their agreement. I keep quiet, lifting my datapad a little higher and pretending to be engrossed in a news blast. Personally, the biggest reason I care about the lack of women on Omega is because of the civilizing effect they tend to have on people like, well, those guys. Shit they wouldn’t say in front of a woman just comes tumbling out of their mouths. Eighteen months of that? I shudder, and try to make it look like I’m stretching.
Plus, I like women. Women are great. I just don’t like going to bed with them.
Then again, I probably won’t be going to bed with any of these guys, either. The Colony will be made up almost entirely of miners, with a small team of scientific research staff. Mostly geologists, with a few biologists tossed into the mix. Which is where I come in—I’m a xenolinguist for the most part but I’ve got enough lab hours and field work under my belt to pass for a xenobiologist if you squint.
And, like everyone else here, I’m running away from something. Eighteen months on a barely-charted alien world on the outer rim? Sounds good to me.
(If you’re wondering what I’m running away from, his name is Erik and the less said about him the better.)
Which is how come I’m sitting here in the passenger lounge of a deep-space freighter, waiting for the shuttle that’s going to take us to the surface of Omega IV.
The Omega system is a bit of a backwater, off the main shipping routes and two jumps from the nearest Consortium outpost. None of the planets have been cleared for colonization, but IV is at least habitable. We think. Initial surveys suggest as much, anyway. More importantly, IV is practically overflowing with lyrokanium, so it’s been cleared for resource gathering and research but not permanent colonization. Thus, the lack of women.
And thus the miners. I don’t want to get into stereotypes, because they’re shitty and pointless, but these guys clearly haven’t got the databurst on that one. They’re mostly of a type, grittily masculine, hard-bitten, full of gruff observations and nasty jokes. There’s a lot of plaid flannel going on over that side of the lounge, I’m just saying.
‘Lounge’ is something of an overstatement. It’s the same military-gray industrial waiting area I’ve sat in dozens of times before, with bolted-down molded-plastic chairs and a general stink of sweat and rotten feet. There’s a vendor in the corner but it’s busted. The coffee machine produces a burnt sludge that’s slightly better than what you get in grad school. And there’s a viewscreen but instead of showing the usual panorama of stars it’s switched to a news service, only the sound is all the way down and no-one can find the remote for it. It would be depressing if it wasn’t all so familiar. Or maybe the fact that it is so familiar is the really depressing part.
“Back in the old days they used to ship prostitutes out to mining crews, to keep the men happy.”
The guy who says this is a great big bear of a guy, with a thick black beard and huge hairy hands. He sounds like he walked right out of a Assholes Anonymous meeting. I go back to ignoring them, thumbing through articles, but I’m not really reading them. I’m too amped up. New colonies get to me like that. It’s better when there are locals, of course, because then I get to actually use those xenolinguistics skills I worked so hard for, but even if it’s just classifying and naming bugs it’s pretty cool. I mean, you get to name bugs. You get to argue about whether or not they actually qualify as bugs, and then you get to name them things like Erikisa Dumbassus, and then send pics of them to your stupid ex. I mean, you could. If you wanted to.
“You know what happens when there aren’t any women around,” the guy is saying, and I wish he’d shut up. No-one else is really listening to him but that’s not gonna stop this guy from talking. “That’s when kids like you start looking awful pretty.”
What? Is he talking to me? I look up, horrified, but he isn’t. Instead he’s leering at one of the younger guys, a kid who can’t be more than twenty. The kid is all cheekbones and ash-blond curls, with bright blue eyes too big for his face. He looks uncomfortable, but he laughs. I catch his eye and try to make a supportive face. I have no idea if it works.
Maybe it does, though, because a few minutes later a shadow falls over my datapad. “Hey. Um. Hi.”
The kid is even more doe-eyed up close. He’s standing awkwardly near the empty seat next to me, hands shoved in his pockets. For a second I just gape at him. Then I pull myself together.
“Hi,” I say. That’s all I’ve got.
“Uh, my pad’s busted. Is it okay if I…I was gonna look up the hockey scores.”
He has a ‘please rescue me’ look on his face so I figure this is just an excuse. “Sure. Take a seat. What am I searching for?”
He names a provincial team I’ve never heard of and I pull up the stats for him. I don’t follow hockey so I can’t tell if they’re good or bad, but he seems happy about it.
“I’m Jason,” he says, offering a hand. “Jason Lahey.” It goes up at the end like a question, and I have to fight the urge to grin.
“Cameron Grant. I know, I know, I have two first names,” I tell him, because it’s what I always tell people to stop them saying it to me. “But I make up for it in other ways.”
He blinks at me. “Like how?”
Gosh, he’s so young. And really unfortunately pretty. “Well, I’m a great cook,” I tell him, and then I bite my tongue because that’s just flirty, and the last thing I need is to get shot down by someone I’m going to be stuck in a prefab hut with for eighteen months.
But the kid just grins. “Really? I’m terrible. I grew up on premades.”
“That’s a crime,” I tell him. And then, because apparently my mouth belongs to an idiot, I say, “If you get bored some time in the next eighteen months, then maybe I could give you some pointers.”
Either he doesn’t hear it the way it really really sounds, or he’s good at hiding it. “Yeah, that sounds good. Hey, I was wondering—”
I never get to find out what exactly he was wondering because the intercom pings for our attention. “Shuttle Bravo is ready for departure. All science research personnel departing for planet surface please make your way to Shuttle Bay Two.”
“That’s me,” I say, standing up. “It was nice meeting you, but I’ve got a shuttle to catch.”
“You’re with the science team?” he says, sounding startled. He gives me an obvious once-over. I wonder what he sees. White shirt, blue jeans, heavy boots, and a lab-tan. Do I look like one of the miners?
“Yeah.” I resist the urge to do something as completely uncool as fingerguns. “See you planetside, Lahey.”
I walk out, nervous and excited about seeing a new alien world. I never get tired of that, to be honest, I don’t see how anyone could.
I’m so excited about it that it isn’t until I’m strapped in for the descent that I realize the kid still has my datapad. Shit! Well, I guess I’ll have to look him up when we hit the ground.
Omega IV is beautiful. We don’t get much of a look at her on the way down, but once I’m out of decon all I can think is, Holy shit, I love her.
I’d seen pictures, of course, but they didn’t do her justice. She’s blue and pink. The mine site is in the hills, and the colony has been set up at the foot of them in amongst dense jungle. The jungle foliage…well, it’s blue. Or at least tinted blue, because really it’s a wild range of colors. When the wind gusts down through the tree-tops the canopy ripples like a storm-tossed sea. Meanwhile, the sky overhead is basically pink, clouds shimmering in the upper atmosphere. It’s gorgeous, like the inside of a box of candy.
And it smells good, too. I can’t tell you how important that is for first impressions of a planet. Sometimes they smell like someone farted into a dirty sock, but this place? I can’t help sucking in huge lungfuls of it, trying to work out what it smells like. It’s so familiar, and yet…
“Toffee,” I say out loud. “No. Caramel apples? No. Damn.”
One of the geologists gives me side-eye. “What are you doing?”
“What does this place smell like to you?”
He sniffs, and makes a face. “It smells like a funfair.”
“Cotton candy!” Yeah, that’s it. I take a good sniff just to be sure. “Definitely cotton candy.”
“It’s pretty rank,” he says, but I ignore him because he’s totally wrong.
I help him carry equipment boxes into the lab, though, because I’m not an asshole.
His name is Mike, and he’s one of those ultra-smart but terrible-at-social kind of scientists, who offend people basically by talking to them. Apparently rocks are easier than people, and I listen to him rabbit on about, well, rocks, until the next load of equipment and personnel comes down and it’s time to help with that too.
It’s a hard slog for the rest of the day, but at the end of it the skeleton staff who have been setting the place up for us throw a party in the refectory, and everyone gets very slightly buzzed on fruit cup and some brown spirits no-one asks too many questions about.
Already there’s invisible lines drawn across the camp. The miners seem to view the science team with suspicion, or maybe just disdain. And within the science team the geologists and biologists are banding into cliques based on their respective disciplines. It makes sense. I hate it, of course, because while on paper I’m a biologist, in reality I’m just the only xenolinguist in the whole colony. Thus, I’m in my own clique. Of one.
I’ve taken a cup of punch outside to watch the sun set and breathe in the cooling air when someone calls my name.
“Hey! Mr Grant!” It’s Jason Lahey, and he’s holding my datapad. “Or…Dr Grant?”
“Sure, but you could just call me Cam,” I say, and he grins.
“I was looking for you. Um, I think I kinda stole this.”
He holds it out and I take it from him. Our fingers don’t brush or anything like that, and he doesn’t blush or smile up at me shyly from beneath those long ashy lashes. He just smiles, in a friendly-but-not-too-friendly sort of way.
“Thanks. How’s your bunk?” Augh! That sounded way too much like a come-on, but either I’m just bad at it or Jason really is oblivious.
“It’s okay. I have to share a room with a couple of guys, but you know. The pay’s good.”
The pay, from what I hear, is stupendous. A lot more than we get, anyway, because scientific research for the sake of it doesn’t make money. No, we have to find something lucrative to claim the discovery bonus. Like a new wonder drug. Or just a new drug, really.
If you’re wondering, xenolinguistics pays even worse. Translating known alien languages? Yeah, there’s money in that. But puzzling them out in the first place? Not a hell of a lot. Still, it’s the fun bit, and I regret nothing. Well. Not much of it, anyway.
“Beautiful, isn’t she?” I ask, cocking my head at the pink-and-purple sunset spilling over the blue-washed trees.
Jason opens his mouth but hesitates. I wonder what he’d been going to say. He goes with, “Sure smells good, anyway.”
“Better than any other alien planet I’ve been to,” I tell him.
“How many’s that?”
Good question. I count them up in my head, and it’s more than I was expecting. “Five? Six, counting Omega.”
His eyes go wide. “This is my second. Wow, you’ve been a lot of places.”
“Yeah. Goes with the job.”
“You’re a scientist.”
It’s such a vague term. “And you’re a miner. Never any shortage of work for a miner willing to spend months at a time on a dig.”
He sighs, looking out at the jungle. “Willing. Right.” He catches my questioning look and scrunches up his nose in embarrassment. “I’m just here because of my brother. It was his idea.”
“And what was your idea? The one you left behind.”
He tips his chin up, blowing out a sigh. “I dunno. I was thinking maybe…maybe apply for a permanent colony? Like, maybe work on a farm. But, you know.”
But there’s no money in that, and a lot of hard work, and I’ve got a feeling I know what happened. “You’re sending money home for your parents, right?”
“Well, that’s a pretty good thing to do.”
“Thanks,” he says, smiling again. “Hey, listen, I—”
“J.B.!” someone yells across the plaza. “Where you at?”
Jason flinches. “Ah! Gotta go. See you round!”
He jogs off toward the residential huts. A man with a familiar beard yanks him into the kind of friendly-but-annoying headlock that has ‘brothers’ written all over it. Oh. That guy is Jason’s brother? Poor kid. How’d he ever turn out decent?
And then I chide myself. Maybe his brother’s not so bad. Maybe he’s just an asshole some of the time.
The party’s winding up. Everyone’s heading to their bunks, ready for the morning. I finish my cup and take one last look at the deepening purple sky, before heading in to help clean up.
Today, the fun’s over. Tomorrow, the hard work begins. I really can’t wait.
The strangers gather together in their huts, reveling into the dusk. I can hear the sounds of their merriment from my hiding place. They do not venture forth from the clearing in which they have made their village and so I take a risk, climbing down to the lower branches and finding a new vantage point from which to watch them.
They are small and skinny, and they wear many drab coverings. Are they cold? It is a cool night, but I do not understand why they cover themselves so completely. Perhaps it is a taboo for them, as for those of the Highover, but it seems strange for ones who must have come from the hot Lowlands. They must have come that way. I know no other way for them to have come here.
They have come recently. They were not here when last we passed through these hunting grounds, three seasons past. And they are many but I see no young amongst them. Unless they keep their young hidden in their huts. It would be strange but not impossible.
I creep closer, wary of being seen, but I must gather as much information about them as I can, to report back to my village. They may be dangerous. They do not look dangerous, and none of them carry weapons that I can see, but they are many, healthy and vigorous for all they are small. They have many huts, many lanterns. They are wealthy, then. I wonder if they have things to trade, things of value to my people. We have some trade items of our own, crafts and tools and foodstuffs. Perhaps we will become friends. Perhaps there will be opportunities for mating.
And perhaps they are enemies. I do not know them and so I must learn more before I can be certain they are not a threat, even if they seem weak and small to me. They have come up to the edge of our hunting grounds, and sent no word, no tribute, no offer of friendship. Perhaps they do not know. I will check the clan-markers, hang more signs that they will know how close they come to encroaching on us. Then I will watch what they do, and know whether they are to be traded with, or warned against.
One of them stands on the edge of their village, sipping from a vessel. He observes the surrounding kyenetza with intent, and for a moment I fear he has found my hiding place. But then he turns away and goes back into the circle of their huts.
I breathe out, relieved. I have not been seen. Slowly, I creep back into the upper canopy, and make myself a nest. I will wait until morning to watch them some more, and see what kind of men they are.
I settle into my hammock, safe in the lower canopy, and there is a little space in the branches through which I can see the ancestors, shining in the sky. It comforts me to think that they are watching over me, and my people further up. I hum a greeting to them, and settle in to sleep.
Perhaps the strangers will be friendly. And if so, perhaps…
A mate. I have longed for one, and found none among my clan. I have wondered if I must seek further afield, perhaps find my mate amongst the Highover, or the Sea-dwellers, or in the many bands of the Vastness. But they are all strange to me, and I am wary of a mate who may want to stay with their people instead of joining with mine. I cannot leave my people. I will be First amongst them, when I am mated. But should my mate wish to remain with their own kind, then I will have no choice but to go with them.
Perhaps my mate is below, with the Newcomers. Perhaps my mate will come with me, and be Last by my side. Perhaps there will be young of my own to care for and raise in our ways. Perhaps none of this will come to pass.
I will sleep on it, and wish for sweet dreams. And in the morning? I will discover what path the Ancestors have seen for me.