Earth-Eridani Relations Program (EERP): Phase C
United Nations International Space Agency Interplanetary Diplomatic Service (UNISAIDS)
For internal use only.
Subj.:PLANETARY SURVEY BRIEF
Name: 82 Eridani F (“Eridani”)
Star: Main-sequence G6 V, 82 Eridani (HD 20794, HR 1008, e Eridani)
Distance from Earth: 20 LY
Mass: 2.27 M⊕
Orbital period: 331.41 Earth days
Aphelion: 0.875 AU
Average annual temperature: -10.21ºC
Joined Galactic Commonwealth: 10,400 BCE (by Earth reckoning).
Inhabitants: Humanoid, peaceful, technologically advanced (Class VI+). Communication modality primarily visual-manual.
As time-killing reading, the diplomatic corps précis could use some punching up. Brock lowers his datapad and stares out at the churning warp field through the window of the bridge.
He opens another item on his endless to-read list (“Soft power in the Galactic Commonwealth: Towards an interplanetary public diplomacy”), reads the first sentence five times without taking in a single word, and puts the pad down again.
Two months in transit and now they’re minutes from landing, from seeing Eridani for the first time. The planet’s not officially called Eridani; its real name is a specific pattern of mid-forehead glow and movement of the fourth joint of the fingers that’s completely irreplicable in any human language — and translates, of course, to “Earth.”
Jake speaks up from the pilot’s seat, his voice doubled over the intercom. He’s restlessly jiggling his knee under his console. “Exiting warp field in ten seconds.”
Brock realizes he’s bouncing his own leg exactly the same way and stands up to stretch it out.
He blinks. The warp field disappears — and there’s Eridani, perfectly centered in the bridge window, suspended huge and glittering in the night of space like some kind of colossal Christmas ornament, the whole planet rolled in crystals.
“She’s a cold one,” says Jake.
“Seventy-four percent Sol luminosity,” says Huggy, feet up on the orbital mechanics console, reading from the extended briefing.
“Don’t rub it in, Huggy, you know we can’t read,” says Suttsy from the comms station, and Huggy chucks a contact pen at him.
“Thank you, Lieutenant Hughes,” says Cap, batting the pen out of the air. “Comms, initiate landing protocol.”
The Eridani ground crew sends back a flight path, and Brock’s gut swoops as Jake engages the subwarp drive to glide down towards the bright planet.
They’ve been asked to dock at a hub inside the government complex in the main continental capital, where the annual gathering of planetary leaders is set to coincide with the celebration of the new year. There are plans for days of tours and meetings, all leading up to some traditional festival; Brock's fuzzy on the details, but he’s no stranger to working through a holiday.
The Earth crew is there to open a new embassy and finalize their diplomatic and trade agreements with Eridani, the first galactic power to support Earth’s bid for acceptance into the GC all those decades ago.
Brock, part of the outward-facing side of the mission, is there to get to know the planet — and to make himself known. He’ll be sending back content, reports, and contacts, but mostly, as Stech back at the ISA office put it, he’s there to be “Earth’s biggest fucking hype man.”
He won’t be able to talk to Stech again for at least another four months, probably more, not even by text until the warp relays are set up.
They’d been hockey teammates at UND, and had joined the ISA after graduation, like any college jocks hoping for a shot at a starship cockpit. Most of their buddies had washed out, but Brock had been steered towards the diplomatic track and hadn’t looked back.
The ISA had tried to form the Eridani mission crew from all over Earth, but for the most part it had ended up being Canadians, Russians, Scandinavians, and some Americans who had volunteered to travel to a planet where it’s regularly 40 below in the sun.
The landing shuttle winds down towards the blinding surface until they’re skimming the wispy clouds of the troposphere. It’s disorienting even at this altitude to be on a planet twice the size of Earth. The horizon looms, enormous, in all directions, seeming to almost curve upwards where it meets the sky. Brock has the impression that they’re flying in a giant bowl.
They landscape they’re skimming across is strangely beautiful in its hostility. The mountain range they could make out from where they’d left the ship in low orbit curls snow-capped spikes of red rock around the continental ridge, and beyond that, plains of snow and ice stretch unbroken to the north, drifts sculpted by the wind into a frozen sea. From this angle, with the white surface no longer reflecting the light directly at them, the dimmer sun becomes noticeable. It could be Earth’s sun in partial eclipse.
The shuttle dips down through long stretches of cloud to a lower altitude, and for the first time, the city comes into view. From this distance, it’s a tiny tiara, glass buildings glinting in the sun, tiers of domed complexes and skyscrapers like icicles reaching for the pink sky. There seem to be outer walkways connecting and winding around the larger buildings, creating organic, irregular forms.
They've entered the lowflyer traffic lanes now, public transports streaming all around them. As truly alien as the city seems, the solar vehicle tech is GC standard; the traffic could be the evening rush hour anywhere on Earth, for all that they’re twenty light years from home.
“Turning off the autograv,” says Huggy, to loud boos, as they close in on the government complex. A heavy weight settles onto Brock’s shoulders, and he rests his head against the back of his seat.
They draw into the translucent shell of the hub and come finally to a soft landing, at rest for the first time in over two months.
Brock ducks out of the airlock into the transport hub’s ship bay, cupped by walls like black ice, with white veins showing through the layers of resin and glass. Arrangements of flickering white glowstones spell out unreadable directions and warnings for arriving passengers.
Brock knows what the Eridani look like, has seen them endlessly on holofilm and broadcasts, but nothing compares to seeing aliens in real life. They’re a lot like humans, but slightly stretched out; just different enough that seeing them in his peripheral vision gives him a little shock.
The welcome party, a subdued group with various shades of pastel hair, wearing long stiff robes in somber colors, is speaking among themselves with their many-jointed hands, glow pulsing from the centre of their foreheads. At the head of the group, Cap is greeting the ambassador, along with a prefecture governor holding some kind of ceremonial sceptre.
Brock turns to face an Eridani who’s maybe ninety percent neck — sharp-featured, with pale white hair.
He sticks out his hand with a smile. “Brock. Nice to meet you.”
His handshake is indefinably strange. Brock adjusts. His fourth joints curl against Brock’s palm in a way that’s unfamiliar but not unpleasant.
“I’m your cultural liaison,” he says, and lights up with what must be his own name, too quickly for Brock to follow, “but you can call me Petey.”
“Petey. I like that.” Brock can’t help but look at him more closely, trying not to stare.
Petey’s politely dimmed his glow so it’s not uncomfortable to look at his face. He’s wearing long black and white robes, fastened up to the neck and falling in sharply tailored lines to the floor, a stark contrast with the blue and green of Brock’s travel-worn ISA dress uniform.
“So, it must be pretty funny for you,” Brock says, “you know, seeing us standing around here staring at all this totally normal stuff, right?”
Petey’s giving him an intense stare that could either be nervousness or annoyance. “No,” he says. “This is my first time to the capital as well.”
He has a faint accent, but he must have learned English from one of the earliest groups of humans on Eridani.
“Guess we’re in the same boat, then.”
“The same — ?”
“Oh it’s — uh, you know, it’s an Earth thing, a vessel to move people across — liquid water.”
“Oh, no, we don’t have those,” says Petey, with a wry twist to his mouth.
Brock bursts out laughing. He feels oddly at ease. “No, guess not. So, where are you from? Somewhere even fancier?”
“No, I’m from a town in the north,” says Petey, finally giving him the smallest of smiles. “Nothing like this.”
“It’s got to be even colder there.”
“Yes, a bit,” says Petey, dismissing that with a wave of his hand, “but it’s very nice. There’s always — right now it’s the new year… season, and we’re planning the —” he breaks back into a few Eridani words — “a kind of celebration — hunt, for the creature... I don’t know what you would call it. It eats lichen and has clear bone —” he sketches one hand above his head in the shape of something that might be an antler, looking almost animated. “We capture him and keep him as our guest in the town until the celebration is over.”
“Wow, I’d love to see that some time,” says Brock, and usually it would be a meaningless politeness, but he finds that he actually means it, would love to see this strange alien’s strange hometown.
The floor-to-ceiling doors of the ship bay slide open onto a reception hall, and the group starts to file in.
“The handshake… it’s very weird for me,” says Petey, as they watch Cap move down the new line of dignitaries.
“What do you mean?”
Petey looks at him sidelong. “You speak with your mouths but — you don’t greet people with them, no?”
“Are you saying we basically just kissed?” says Brock without thinking, and blames it on the double gravity compressing his entire brain. Five minutes off the ship and he’s risking an interplanetary diplomatic incident.
“Not exactly,” Petey says. “Don’t worry.” His glow is doing something funny. Brock wonders with a jolt if it’s a blush. He shoves the thought out of his mind.
Brock doesn’t know a single person in the crowd. Every single thing in the room is unfamiliar to him, down to the glass-encrusted surface of the floor. He’s absolutely in his element.
A grin here, a wave there, a backslap for the minister of culture who brings him an Earth beer, shipped in months ago at an exorbitant price. Petey stays at his side to translate for the Eridani who don’t speak any English. Brock tries his best approximations of Eridani greeting gestures, to general laughter.
He’s been trying to study names, faces, and habits, but not too hard — after a certain point it’s always best to leave room for some improvisation, keep things organic and natural, stay on your toes.
“So, tell me, are evening cocktail parties with no real food a feature on every planet?”
It’s Petey’s voice in his ear, but not his words.
“Oh, thank you,” says Brock, turning to accept a frozen drink from an Eridani dignitary — the assistant sub-governor of events and recreation for the city prefecture, he’s pretty sure. She’s unbelievably beautiful and about seven feet tall, the first Eridani he’s seen so far with bright blue hair.
He tries to hide how his arm drops a little bit as he takes the glass. It’s bizarrely shaped, ten inches tall and one inch wide, and in the double gravity it feels like an iron rod. “Yes, ma’am, seems like it. On Earth, you sometimes even have to pay for your own drinks.”
As Petey translates this, she laughs, head tipping back. Her eyes are a striking red. “Call me Issa,” she says, hooking her pinky in the air in a complex motion. “Everyone else is. What’s your role with this mission?”
It’s polite to look at the person you’re talking to instead of both looking at your translator, but Brock’s neck is already sore from the first few hours of holding up his unusually heavy head.
“Oh, I’m in interplanetary public relations,” he says, looking up at her. “You know, just out here getting to know people.”
“Well, I look forward to getting to know you,” she says, and Petey blushes again as he translates that one.
Brock lifts his glass to her as a toast as she moves on to the next group.
He looks at Petey with a laugh. “You good, bud?”
“Yes,” says Petey. “Can we take a short break?”
He pulls away, not waiting for an answer, and Brock follows him outside the crowd to the large windows looking out onto the skyline. The city’s gleaming red and gold in the sunset. Public lowflyers like segmented insects wind their way between the icy skyscrapers.
Petey reaches up to fix his hair, an almost unconscious gesture. He’s been doing it all evening.
“Hey, relax, you look nice,” says Brock. Nice? He definitely meant to say 'fine,' or something else normal. He feels a little dizzy, now that they’re out of the crowd, and also like someone’s been hitting him over the shoulders with a baseball bat for four hours.
“Yeah, thank my parents,” says Petey. Brock laughs. “It's just — my first big event here —”
“Yeah, same for me,” says Brock. “First one that’s not just humans. Good politics or whatever, putting the young people with the young people. We’ll figure it out together, hey?”
“Speak for yourself,” says Petey, shooting Brock the quickest of looks out of the corner of his eye. “You’re the one with nowhere to go but up.”
Brock bursts out laughing. “You chirping me?”
Petey’s eyes crinkle closed as he laughs. It’s extremely cute.
“Here,” says Brock, derailing that train of thought. “Take this, my hand is literally freezing off.”
Petey takes his drink and hands Brock a small marble. “The sub-governor gave me this for you.”
“What is it?” Brock holds the translucent stone up to the window. It looks vaguely familiar, like he’s seen a photo of something similar in some report.
“Her contact information.”
Right, that had been somewhere in the four hundred pages of briefings. “Is it like… a romantic thing? What does it mean?”
Petey tilts his head. “No. Not that you’re not — I think she’s married. She wants to talk to you some time. I think they want your crew all playing for the new year’s festival.”
Brock has roughly one hundred questions about that, but Bruce from the press corps comes up to them before he can open his mouth. Must be media hour already.
“Hey, Lieutenant Boeser, Liaison — ISA media crew. Do you have any comment on the official opening of Earth-Eridani relations? Have you spoken with the ambassador yet this evening? Can I get a quick holo with you two?”
Petey fixes him with a stonefaced stare.
“Hey, Bruce, nice to see you again,” says Brock. He glances over at Petey. “Sure thing, but slow it down, motormouth.”
Bruce laughs, prepping his camera. “No problem.”
Petey nods. “Thank you, and welcome.” It’s hard to tell, but he looks more and more relaxed, just a tiny bit, as they field questions together and the sunset winds into dusk.
The week after landing is an onslaught of meetings with Eridani dignitaries, sitting in on silent gatherings watching their winking forehead lights, Petey translating in his ear. Brock spends his days in an endless series of huge glass halls lined with glowstones and filled with stone and resin furniture. The floors look like ice, like moss, like scattered crystals.
It’s a frozen world, a silent world, but not a joyless world — the tunnels and streets of the city are draped everywhere with garlands of moss and white ribbon, and festive strings of green berries hang on every doorway for the coming new year. Some of the southern governors are wearing ceremonial wreaths on their heads, and Cap takes to wearing one too.
The food is delicious, mostly cold concoctions of greenhouse produce and cheese-like preserves, but there’s also meat — some familiar, and some less so, with the texture of seaweed or scallops. The accommodations in the interim embassy are impersonally efficient, but always warm and hospitable.
Brock couldn’t ask for anything more, except to be able to hear from home. He’s seventy days away by any method of communication, and that again for a reply. His family and Stech and the others won’t even get his messages until he’s halfway back.
There isn’t much time for homesickness, though, with the rush of projects being established at the interim embassy. He’s formally or informally on the task force for what feels like a dozen programs: the embassy design working group, the language and culture group, the tech cross-compatibility subgroup. Huggy and Demmer are working with him on culture and media analysis, getting up to speed for his reports.
The entire Earth contingent is also working on the diplomatic agreement, trying to get funding for a return delegation and an arrangement for ongoing contact and exchanges from the prefecture governors, which has proven to be unexpectedly thorny.
Among the Eridani, Brock feels loud and clumsy, limbs weighed down by the additional gravity, never getting enough rest to fully recover. It’s a challenge like he’s never encountered before, and he drinks it in. He falls asleep in his furry cocoon of a bed every night feeling like he’s been in the gym for hours, or like he’s back at UND with hockey practice filling his days.
Without Petey, he'd spend half his time hopelessly lost trying to get around the city. Even the government complex is a maze.
Brock’s done his best to get to know the signs he can differentiate, but the glowstone signage system is impossible to read with a human’s imprecise sense of the difference between, say, 1400 and 1405 lumens. There’s a datapad map the Eridani use, but it’s not compatible with their own datapads yet.
He bundles up in two layers of regulation gear every time he has to go outside, even just to cross the street. Petey outright laughs at the scarf he winds around his entire head.
He’s not usually the guy to complain about equipment, but the ISA regulation boots are next to useless. The Eridani have no ground vehicles, and if they aren’t able to walk, they use hoversleds, so the snow falling in the public walkways is never cleared; every new layer that falls just gets compacted into a slick of ice. There are a lot of Eridani pedestrians, but they all use little sets of spikes on their boots for traction.
He’s on his way to a meeting with the digital diplomacy working group, heading along a wide second-storey walkway between two public service buildings, when he loses his footing on a patch of sheer ice and falls face-first towards the unprotected edge. It’s only Petey’s arm grabbing him around his waist that pulls him back from a twenty-foot drop.
Brock stands very still for a second. Petey looks skinny, but he’s used to a stronger gravity. “Can’t go anywhere without you.”
Petey looks a little bit pleased with himself. “No,” he says. He stares at Brock’s boots. “You need — here.”
With a little twist, he detaches his own spikes and hands the clinking bundle of chain to Brock.
“Oh, no, I can deal with it,” says Brock. “I can't take yours — what will you do, come on.”
“I will be fine,” says Petey dismissively, still holding out the silvery chain.
“Well, thanks,” says Brock, and takes the chain. He has no idea how to attach it to his boots. His nose is absolutely freezing. He lifts his foot and tries to hook the spikes on, looking around over his shoulder.
“Here, sit down,” says Petey, with a focused look, taking the chain back from Brock’s hand.
Brock sits. The ground freezes his thighs through his pants instantly. Petey sits down in front of him and takes Brock’s foot in his hand. He links the spikes around the boot with a careful touch. Brock stares directly into the sun to avoid looking at his hands.
“Our people have arranged the start of the PR tour for tomorrow, did you see?” says Brock, trying to think about literally anything else other than Petey attentively fixing his footwear.
“Yes,” says Petey, clicking the second pair shut.
“Where should we meet?”
“I’ll come get you,” says Petey. He stands and offers Brock a hand up. Brock takes it, and Petey lifts him up easily.
“Thanks,” says Brock.
He takes an experimental step, and finally feels like he’s on solid ground.
As promised, Petey comes to pick him up in a lowflyer the following morning. It’s early as fuck, the sky barely brightening to gray in the west.
Brock meets him up on the roof of the interim embassy, icy wind whipping in his face as the lowflyer descends.
Petey opens the gull-wing door and ducks his head out, barely blinking as the snow flies into his eyes. “You have everything?” he shouts.
Brock gives him a thumbs-up and tosses his bag in.
Inside the lowflyer, it’s close and warm, soft fabric lining the seats.
“Where are we going again?” Brock mumbles. It’s way too early.
“Somewhere — ‘tropical,’ I think you would say,” says Petey with a little grin.
The lowflyer wheels up into the driving snow.
“You sure you’re licensed to fly one of these things?” says Brock, and immediately eats his words as Petey noses up through three public flight lanes into the whiteout of the airspace above the city, and turns on a dime to get them into the southbound route. He gives Brock a dry look.
“I take it back, I take it back. Is there anything you can't do? Throw me a bone.”
“Swim,” says Petey, deadpan.
“To be honest, I’m not great at that either,” says Brock.
Petey shakes his head. “And you don't have any excuses.”
“Thanks, bro,” says Brock. He punches Petey lightly in the arm and Petey laughs, his face scrunching up.
The sun comes up into the rosy sky as they fly south, the continental mountain range sliding away beneath them. The snowstorm abates slightly as they get closer to the equator.
Brock is determined not to fall back asleep, but the warm cabin is fighting him. He yawns so many times that Petey starts giving him strange looks.
“Can you stop doing that?” says Petey. He eyes Brock cautiously. “I don’t know what it is, but it’s making me want to do it.”
Brock yawns again before he can say anything, and Petey shoots him an aggrieved look. “I’m just tired, man. It’s a yawn, you know, a human thing. I feel like I’ve been carrying around a backpack full of rocks this whole week. I'm beat.”
Petey considers him. “If you’re still standing in this gravity after all the time you spent in warp, you can probably handle it for the rest of the time.”
“And you should probably get more exercise. Unless you plan to implant some different bones.”
“You think you’re funny,” says Brock. “‘Different bones.’ Not a chance. These are good homegrown American bones.”
The ice gives way to patches of gravel, and then to larger patches interspersed with moss, and then, astonishingly, they’re flying over what looks like a coral reef, as if an ocean evaporated in front of them just seconds ago.
It’s all some kind of petrification; the branching shapes below them are streaked in mineralized colors of blue, purple, and gray.
“Holy shit,” says Brock. He’d read about the warmer equatorial belt with “unique fossilized vegetation,” and he’d seen a satellite photo of the snow-free region, but he’d had no idea it would be something straight out of the Precambrian.
Petey slows down slightly. “It’s pretty cool, yeah? It’s all a nature preserve.”
They land at a small town nestled in a valley of coral, with mostly the same architecture as the city, but with only a few tall buildings and more of the traditional domed houses. Here, it’s all made of what looks like red stone, rather than the pastel glass of the north.
There are trees here, which Brock hasn’t seen anywhere else on the planet. They too look prehistoric, like baby pine trees stretched ten times taller, with smooth dark green trunks jointed where the branches exit.
It’s a balmy twenty degrees here. Compared to his week in the capital, it feels warm enough for Brock to strip off his uniform overcoat.
Petey undoes one button, very reluctantly, and frowns.
“You don't like this,” guesses Brock.
“It’s unpleasant,” says Petey. “I don’t know why people live here.”
“Very diplomatic,” says Brock. “‘Unpleasant.’ You should see Vancouver.”
Petey shrugs. “I’d like to.”
Brock pictures Petey grudgingly putting on a raincoat and grins. “Maybe in the winter.”
It’s a fun morning, but it’s still work, even in their prehistoric idyll. Brock meets with the town leaders and gets some holofilm. He has a carefully curated selection of Earth gifts to distribute everywhere he goes; fun things like Earth VR games and biologically compatible candy for the kids, and for the councillors and other local leaders, Earth media and studies in their fields of interest.
They spend the afternoon exploring the nature preserve, hiking through the forest of coral on a little stony path that winds through the valley and up one of the rolling hills. The undergrowth around the tangled coral monoliths is dense and layered, filtering the sun into a hazy wash of green. Brock sends a tiny drone up to film them moving through it all.
Petey has taken off one single layer, revealing an almost identical but slightly smaller robe, and Brock can’t stop staring — at the definition in his slim shoulders, the spare, elegant lines of his body.
He’s having some kind of extremely unprofessional crisis, or possibly a stroke. He hasn’t seen Petey wear anything not buttoned up to the neck before now. He feels very Victorian. If he sees an ankle, he might faint.
The climb up the hill threatens to do it if Petey’s ankles won’t. He labors behind Petey, breathing hard; the air is just cool enough to keep him from sweating through his shirt.
As he finally crests the hill, he disturbs a flock of leathery-winged creatures, who erupt from the fossils around him. A cacophony of calls echoes through the air as the creatures fly out over the valley below.
“This is unreal,” says Brock, as he joins Petey at the lookout. “Never seen anything like this.”
He can see the town of many domes down in the valley, tiny from this vantage point, and picturesquely blended with its surroundings.
“Don’t you have flying animals on Earth?”
Brock looks over and gets caught on Petey’s neck, the hollow of his throat. He’s never seen it before. He wants, impossibly, to touch it.
“No, I mean — no, we do, but they don’t look like that.”
He pulls up a video of Earth birds on his datapad — the tech cross-compatibility group has at least progressed far enough that he can access the local data network to play it, instead of linking through the ship in orbit.
Petey watches the eagles on the screen. “How many of them are there? How many — types?”
“Well, there definitely used to be more,” says Brock. “I don’t know, I’m not a biologist. I think there are a couple thousand different kinds, you know, all different colours and stuff.”
“Hm,” says Petey, still watching the eagles. “We have more like — furry animals.”
“Makes sense.” Brock’s heart is beating very fast for some reason. “We’re scheduled to go up to your hometown in a few weeks, right? You’ll have to show me.”
Brock sits in his quarters after they get back from the trip that evening, taking a few minutes to review his video clips before sending them to the press team.
He flips through the shots he took. An aerial view of the coral forest, some footage of his meetings with the councillors, a close-up of Petey’s fingers nimbly weaving a bark craft with a village child, Petey looking back to check on him as they walk up the hill, Petey smiling as a councillor points out a particularly cool-looking fossil, Petey… Petey.
Brock waves to shut off the screen and falls flat on his back on his rug, clapping both hands over his eyes.
They’re out on short trips for the next two weeks, following their joint PR schedule. The interim embassy is in familiar chaos every time Brock returns. They’ve finally installed antigrav in the building, and every time it comes as a blissful relief; he feels about a hundred pounds lighter as soon as he walks into the foyer, relaxing into the warm glow of the solar lamps.
In his quarters, he’s elbow-deep in holofilms, datacubes, and endless reports, preparing his upcoming presentation about Earth for the prefecture governors, writing and rewriting and trying to ignore his enormous, uncontrollable crush on his coworker and its interplanetary implications.
He videocalls Issa, and she asks him a few questions about his background and then invites him to a meeting a month away, the day before the solstice festival. She’s in and out of the embassy every few days, in closed-door meetings with Cap and other higher-ups. Cap’s still working on getting the extensions to the mission sanctioned and funded; it all seems to be up in the air.
The crew is restless, days and nights of frantic energy needing to be burned off somehow. In the evenings that they’re not working, a bunch of them usually hang out in the unfinished warehouse space at the back of the building, playing poker and sewer ball and sometimes wrestling, if the day really calls for it.
Huggy and Jake get obsessed with an Eridani video game, something approximately like a first-person shooter but with ancient Eridani weapons, that Brock can’t seem to find a free second to even try.
He brings Petey back to the embassy one evening after a day trip to a nearby glass manufacturing plant. They hadn’t thought to bring food, and hadn’t been offered any, so he takes Petey with him into the dining hall for the first time.
Conversation lulls for a second as they walk in, and then picks back up again. Petey seems a little disoriented from the antigrav; he almost spills his soup as he sits down at the table. They down their soup without talking much. Brock’s starving, and his feet are sore from the walking tour.
A bunch of the guys come over to their table with coffee as they’re finishing up.
Jake sits down with a clatter. “Hey, Suttsy, where you guys at on that translator project?”
Suttsy gives him a weary look. “It’s having trouble identifying the sounds that come out of your mouth as actual human language, bud.”
Petey snorts and then retreats into his reserved stare.
“We’re still working on how to pair the glow with different vocalizations,” says Millsy. “And the hand signs are straight-up impossible; we haven’t had any luck with gloves or anything.”
“Have you talked to the prosthetics group at the medical university?” Petey asks. “They have some advanced haptic tech. Best in the GC.”
Millsy looks over at him, raising his eyebrows. “No, that could be a good new direction, actually. Thank you.”
Demmer walks in from the rec room, tossing the soccer ball in the air. He comes over to their table. “Rematch? Best of five?” He sees Petey. “You in? No pressure.”
Brock looks at Petey, who shrugs equivocally.
Someone’s dragged some seating into the back room since Brock was last back there. Demmer tosses the ball right at Brock’s face almost as soon as he gets inside, and it’s on.
Petey picks up what’s going on after about three passes. He’s startlingly competent, controlling the ball easily through each two-touch, barely moving as he sends it exactly where he wants it to go, making it unreasonably hard for Brock to stick to professional thoughts.
Brock’s eliminated almost immediately, his pass bouncing wildly off a pipe. The rest of the boys go out one by one, Jake failing to get a bouncing ball over to Huggy, Marky accidentally using his hand as the ball ricochets off the ceiling, Demmer heroically leaping for a header to Millsy, who misses the ball — until Petey’s the last one standing.
Demmer claps Petey on the top of the head. He’s the only one who’s tall enough to do it. “Shit, you ever played this before?”
“We have a game — kind of like this,” says Petey. “Except with a metal ball, and it’s about this wide —” he holds his hands about two inches apart — “and it’s frozen to… you would say minus fifty degrees, so you can use your hands if you want, but mostly it’s not a good idea.”
Brock’s laughing; he can’t help but pat Petey on the back.
Petey looks around. “What else do you do here?”
Jake slides his eyes toward the table they’ve been using for beer pong on the weekends.
“No,” says Brock.
Jake raises his eyebrows.
“Come on, we can’t,” says Brock. “Seriously.”
“No, look,” says Pears, eyes alight. “Petey, you can tell us what the hell this is.” He reaches for one of the courtesy bottles from the bar that they haven’t touched yet, clear liquid in amber glass.
“It’s akvavit,” says Petey, looking over at the table, where Pears is already racking cups.
“I’m up, I’m up,” says Huggy, jumping up behind Pears and slapping him on both shoulders. Brock gives up.
“You first,” says Pears, and tosses Huggy the ball.
Petey looks over at Brock.
“It’s a drinking game,” says Brock.
“Looks fun,” says Petey, with a sideways smile.
“You throw the ball in the cup,” explains Huggy. “Not those cups, these cups. From behind the table. No bounces.”
“Oh, we playing no bounces?” says Pears.
“Not this again,” says Brock.
“Whatever,” says Huggy. “It’s not rocket science. You’ll get the hang of it.” He sinks a shot in the farthest cup on Brock’s side.
Brock drains the cup. “Fuck, what is this?” It tastes like black licorice, and also straight vodka.
“Do you not like it?” says Petey. He’s laughing, eyes shining at Brock.
“No, it’s — fine, just if we play with this much in each cup, we’ll probably die.”
Huggy tries for another shot, but it bounces off the table and rolls under one of the old couches. He scrambles to get it.
“Your go,” says Pears.
“Are you not going to clean it?” says Petey, holding the ball with the tips of his fingers. Pears groans.
“No, come on,” says Brock, looking at Petey’s faintly pained face. “Let’s get a water cup.”
Huggy shrugs and goes to grab one.
Petey rinses the ball and contemplates the arrangement of cups on the other side of the table. He sinks the ball in the closest one.
“Yeah, buddy!” shouts Brock, drawing it out, hands in the air. Petey gives him a little flash of a grin.
Petey gets the ball back, rinses it, sinks another. He’s very focused, tongue in the corner of his mouth.
“Oh, come on, unfair advantage,” says Huggy.
“We’ve turned half the gravity off in here,” says Brock, laughing. “If anyone’s off, it should be him.”
He tries to keep up with Petey’s pace. They’re winning by four cups, but then Huggy gets his side back within one, sinking two in a row. He chest-bumps with Pears as Brock drains another cup, trying to swallow as quickly as possible.
“Line,” says Pears before his shot, waving his finger at their cups.
Petey frowns. “Why are you rearranging them?”
“House rules,” says Brock. “Two re-racks.” He feels a bit lightheaded already.
They get the ball back, and Brock gets Huggy to line up the cups on the other side.
They miss their next shots.
“This game is harder than it looks,” says Petey.
“I think you’re getting drunk, bud,” says Brock. “Point of the game.”
Huggy misses his shot, but Pears makes his, and then they’re down to one cup each. Petey has the last shot. He tests his angle with a mock throw, and drains it.
“Rebuttal! Rebuttal, rebuttal!” Huggy fishes the ball out of their last cup.
Petey shakes his head but moves out of the way easily. “I’m starting to think you’re making up these rules as you go along.”
“No, that’s a real one, I promise,” says Brock, laughing. He’s past tipsy and heading straight for dizzyingly drunk.
Huggy’s shot misses by a hair, and Brock whoops, lifting Petey up into a hug. His blood is pounding in his ears. He can feel Petey’s hipbones under his fingers.
Petey looks right at him, giving him an incandescent grin, and he’s fucked, he’s fucked, he’s so fucked.
Petey hands him a compound bow, a span of latticed carbon fibre that looks like the skeleton of a bird.
“I don’t know how to use this,” says Brock, weighing it in his hand. “Aren’t we trying to not kill it?”
They’re in the storage shed behind Petey’s family’s house. Brock had met Petey’s family just the night before.
“It’s very nice to meet you,” Brock had said, and Petey’s mom had said, “Thank you,” in English, soft-voiced, startling Brock into a smile.
They’d come up at the perfect time, the entire town wrapped up in preparations for the ceremonial new year’s hunt.
“Yes, we don’t kill him,” says Petey, holding up a slim dart and buzzing it on stun for a second to test it. “We bring him back here to the town and release him at the new year. People feed him and hang wreaths on him.”
“Isn’t that a bit, you know, dangerous?”
Petey’s brother had shown Brock holofilm of this creature at dinner the night before. It kind of resembles a reindeer, but its antlers are transparent and shaped more like a gazelle’s horns. It has eight legs, two arranged at each shoulder joint.
“No, they are peaceful,” says Petey, neatly racking twelve darts into a shoulder holster. He buckles it on over his coat. “But they are not the only creatures out there.”
“Thanks, I’ll stick with my stunner,” says Brock. He hasn’t used it once since coming to Eridani. It’s supposed to work in the cold, in theory. “But I don’t think I’ll be shooting. I still kind of feel like I’m, you know, butting in.”
Petey turns to him with a furrowed brow. “What do you mean? We are honored for you to join us.”
Petey’s dad says the same thing as they meet up with the rest of Petey’s family at the perimeter of town, which appears to be a real, electrified perimeter to keep out — well, Brock doesn’t understand the words, but Petey’s brother’s clawing gesture is pretty clear.
“No, no, I’m all right, you shouldn’t,” says Brock, as Petey’s mom presses an extra coat onto him. She ignores him and pats it into place over his shoulders.
“Well, thank you so much,” he says, and she smiles.
The coat does feel extremely warm. It has self-regulating temperature pockets and it’s lined with some kind of organic material, probably fur. It’s identical to the coat Petey’s wearing, but in a slightly different shade of white.
It seems like the entire town is heading out. Petey’s brother and his girlfriend are sharing a hoversled, and so are his parents. Brock climbs on the back of Petey’s hoversled and puts on the safety harness while Petey straps their supplies onto the back.
Nobody moves for a few minutes — waiting for some kind of signal, Brock guesses, but it’s hard to shout over the wind to ask Petey what’s going on, and his scarf is muffling his mouth in any case, so he just waits. Sure enough, after a few minutes a horn blows, a cheer rises over the wind, and Petey takes off.
Petey’s hometown is perched at the top of a sheer escarpment, a little cluster of domes and needle-like towers. Brock turns his head to look at the town receding behind them as Petey heads for the cliff.
They plunge over the edge and glide down to the large rocks at the base of the escarpment, which are covered by a lace of red and pink lichen, and wind their way out to the open plain.
Ahead of them, a halo of light spreads across the entire sky, reflective ice crystal rays arcing between four bright points around the sun. It’s breathtaking. Equally breathtaking is the stream of ice pellets flying directly into Brock's nose and mouth. He tucks his scarf in tighter.
Petey reaches back to tap Brock’s shoulder and Brock follows his pointing finger to a herd of the creatures a few miles away on the horizon, just blobs from this distance.
He leans forward and yells in Petey’s ear. “We heading that way?”
Petey points at the other sleds peeling off in that direction and shakes his head.
A storm comes on slowly over the next hour as they speed across the snowy plain. White fog spreads across the horizon towards them until they're engulfed, and Brock loses sight of the few sleds that were still within view. It was harsh to fly into the wind earlier, but now it screams through his scarf, lashing at his face. Every breath he takes feels like it’s freezing the blood vessels in his nose.
It’s unearthly, the world a uniform white in all directions, the sky the same color as the endless plain.
“Not great conditions,” Petey yells over his shoulder, then points again, and Brock sees another herd closer, shapes looming in the fog a quarter mile away.
Petey slows the sled, and the whip of the wind lessens a fraction. He yells over his shoulder, “Can you —” and the rest disappears. He gestures at the controls.
“Yeah,” says Brock, and he stands up, holding onto his seat, and slides his feet along the running board, careful of his balance, until he can reach the controls and climb sideways into the driver’s seat.
He hears the snap of Petey’s bow behind him, and then Petey taps him on the shoulder. He slides back into his seat as Petey moves forward again.
“No luck?” Brock yells in Petey’s ear as he comes past him.
Petey shakes his head with a shrug.
The wind eases as a berm of rock and ice emerges from the fog up ahead.
As they come around the berm, Brock sees an isolated group of creatures on the other side, maybe a hundred feet away. This time, Petey turns in his seat without slowing. He draws his bow and looses a buzzing dart, faster than Brock can follow where he’s aiming.
Brock scans the group. He can’t tell in the fog if any of them are down.
“Missed him,” says Petey over his shoulder, then — “Wait, I’m not sure —”
“I couldn’t even see that,” says Brock.
Petey draws closer — the creatures scatter — and slows. “I thought my aim got thrown off by the wind, but let’s see.”
They fly over an exposed patch of gravel as they pass the berm, and the hoversled makes an ominous clunking noise.
“Did you hear that?” Brock shouts.
“Yes,” says Petey, unreadably.
Brock can see the downed creature now, lying in the snow. The clunking noise gets louder as they come up to it and then cuts out as Petey turns off the sled, jumping into the snow before it’s fully come to a stop.
Brock hops down from the sled and lands waist-deep in snow. He swishes the last few feet through the powder, barely able to lift his legs with each step.
The creature is unconscious, but breathing slowly. It’s staggeringly huge. Its horns are the length of Brock’s armspan.
“Holy shit,” says Brock. “Wow.”
Petey touches the creature’s ears softly.
“How do we load it up?” says Brock.
Petey screws up his mouth and moves it from side to side. “Let me just, first — ” He wades back to the sled and kneels down to open the side panel.
Brock gives the creature a pat on the head and walks a little bit further to try to get a look at its hooves.
A movement catches his attention a little ways away, and he sees a cute white furry creature hopping through the snow. It freezes as Brock starts towards it, staring at him with one quivering eye. It’s small and almost completely round. It looks a little bit like a snowshoe hare, but its face has an odd shape.
It doesn’t move a muscle as he approaches it.
He moves slowly, trying not to spook it, trying to see how close he can get. It lets him get almost within a foot.
Brock glances behind him; Petey’s still occupied with the hoversled.
“Petey, who’s this little guy?”
As Petey turns his head to look over, Brock takes off his glove and slowly reaches his hand out to the creature — just as it snaps open its grotesque clover-jawed mouth and lunges for his throat.
A bolt whizzes past Brock’s ear in the same second and sinks into the creature’s eye, leaving a cauterized, sizzling hole. It slumps to the ground, jaws still flopped open.
Brock’s frozen to the spot. He can count all its rows of teeth. That mouth is way bigger than it has any right to be — it opens the entire width of the creature’s head.
Brock turns around to see Petey lowering his bow. His glow is vibrating frantically. “Brock,” he shouts. “Are you — I should have — Are you hurt?”
Brock sits down and shakes his head. He takes just a second to catch his breath. “Really can’t go anywhere without you.”
Petey doesn’t laugh, just nods. “Good.” He hesitates for a second, face intense.
“What is it?” says Brock.
“One of the rotors is broken.”
“So, we can’t fly this back?” It seems very surreal to be having this conversation with a killer bunny lying dead beside him. He almost has the urge to reach for his neck to make sure he’s really still uninjured.
“No,” says Petey. He holds up his emergency beacon. “Someone will get here soon, when the signal gets through the storm. But it might be a few hours.”
Brock nods, getting to his feet.
Petey activates the emergency beacon and shoves it in his coat. He leans on the body of the sled with one hand and reaches down to pull a hyperneedle capsule out of one of the bags in the back.
“What next?” says Brock.
Petey nods at the creature. “We will have to let him free. It’s not safe for him to be out all night like this.”
“Oh,” says Brock. “Sure thing. Don’t worry, I’ll back up your story.”
That gets a smile out of Petey as he activates the capsule against the creature’s neck. He motions Brock around the far side of the sled as the creature lifts its head, snorts, and runs away through the snow to rejoin its herd.
They go over to the corpse of the hare-like creature.
“Where there’s one, there are always more,” says Petey grimly, scooping it into a sealable sack. He tosses the sack to Brock, who bundles it on the back of the hoversled.
“We need to go somewhere more out of the wind to set up the shelter. Over there, about one hundred metres, you see it?” He’s pointing at the berm.
Brock gives him a nod and grabs two of the bags. He slogs behind Petey back in the direction they came.
The snow is thigh-deep. It had been tough to walk a few feet in the stuff, and now every one of the steps to the berm is a trial.
Petey starts to shuffle in a wide circle at the base of the berm to tamp down a surface for the shelter. Brock does the same from the inside out, and tosses over the shelter bag when Petey reaches the middle.
Out of the corner of his eye, he sees something that could possibly be a strange ripple moving through the snow outside the circle, and stomps down harder.
Petey digs around in the bag and extracts a plate-sized metal disc. He holds it against the wall of snow and looks up with a frown. He takes a step on his spikes up the side, holding onto an ice protrusion with his other hand, to lift the disc up higher.
Brock comes over to spot him. “What’s this?”
“Snow compactor,” says Petey, twisting it as he holds it against the surface. “So we don’t get buried if the wind shifts.” He pulls his hand away and jumps down off the wall as the disc furls out about fifty feet into a fine net of metal wires, compressing the snow and holding the berm in place.
Petey stands there for a second, looking at the berm. He kicks up a bit of snow at his feet. “You probably won't be leaving with the best memories of this place,” he says over his shoulder.
“You kidding me?” says Brock. “Never been in a more fun life-threatening situation.”
The emergency shelter is sleekly minimalist and beautifully engineered, poles snapping together automatically to unfurl the fabric walls as they put it up.
As Brock tosses the second bag into the tent and Petey gets the last peg of the fly embedded into the compacted circle of snow, Brock sees the same movement as before, coming swiftly toward the edge of the circle. Before he can even open his mouth, another furry creature leaps up from the snow and latches its teeth into Petey’s side. There’s a sickening tearing sound.
Petey swears in Eridani, violently blinking with light as the creature clamps on its second set of jaws, spanning almost Petey’s entire waist, and shakes from side to side like a dog.
Petey reaches his hands down to pry it off. Brock grabs his stunner and aims for the creature. Nothing happens. He fumbles, trying to get a good grip with his bulky gloves. He really doesn’t want to hit Petey’s hands.
Everything is moving in slow motion; it’s like trying to run in a dream. He tries the stunner again and it’s still dead, just a useless lump of plastic in his grasp.
In a haze of adrenaline, he drops the stunner, runs in, and gets a gloved grip on two lobes of the creature’s jaw, heedless of its rows of teeth. He yanks his hands backwards and apart.
A torrent of blood spurts everywhere on Petey’s white coat and onto the snow.
The bisected creature shudders along its whole body, then twitches one final time and falls limp against Petey’s side, a row of needle-like teeth still hooked into him.
Brock can see his own heaving breaths in the air. He wipes his gloves in the snow, leaving a red smear.
Petey gets two hands on the remaining part of the creature’s jaw and pries it out of his side, his expression fixed.
Brock looks at him.
“I’m fine,” says Petey.
“Sure you are, bud. Let’s get inside.”
Petey moves to pick up the last bag and Brock grabs it before he can, putting it over his own shoulder.
“Don’t be fucking stupid,” he says, steering Petey towards the flap of the tent with a hand on the back of his neck. He’s shaking maybe a little.
Petey brushes against the fastening of the tent flap and flinches. Brock puts an arm around his back to brace him and pulls the door open all the way. Petey’s stiff against him for a second, and then leans his weight on Brock’s arm to duck inside.
As soon as he’s through the door, he sinks down to sit on the floor, looking, if possible, more pale than normal.
Brock zips up the door of the fly and the inner door, not bothering with boots for now. The tent is no warmer than outside, but at least they’re out of the wind. It’s roughly seven feet square, with not enough headroom to stand
“Turn on the heating,” says Petey, who’s slumped down very slightly, hand on his side. He points to the tiny console in the back corner, and Brock reaches over for it.
Petey closes his eyes, face wan.
“Hey bud, you're good, you're okay,” says Brock. He takes off his own gloves, wincing as blood clots come off with them.
He opens the closest bag — food and extra layers — closes it, opens the second, and finds medical gloves, antibiotic foam, and GC standard spray bandage in a capsule. He sprays his own fingers messily and puts the gloves on.
“Hey, Petey, you're good, okay?” He’s barely aware of what’s coming out of his mouth.
Petey hums something inaudible.
Brock unfastens Petey’s ruined coat, then reaches up to his neck and starts to undo his midlayer, a horrible mirror of what he had imagined in the nature preserve weeks ago.
He’s careful as he peels the second layer away, revealing Petey’s narrow ribcage, streaked with dark blood. Petey hisses as Brock uncovers the lacerations, the fabric sticking to them.
Brock works as quickly as possible. He squeezes antibiotic foam over the deep gouges, spreading it with his fingers where he has to. Petey recoils minutely as Brock touches his gloved fingers to the torn flesh, stomach muscles flinching away.
The spray bandage goes on as a liquid and solidifies to a flexible covering with local numbing. Petey’s side still looks awful, ragged slashes in such a soft and vulnerable place. Brock stares for a second, taking a deep breath.
He looks up and Petey’s looking right at him.
“You okay?” says Brock, absurdly.
“Your hands,” says Petey.
“Don’t worry about it,” says Brock. “I still have all my guts inside me, at least.”
Petey takes Brock’s left hand and gently takes off the glove. He turns Brock’s hand over and touches the palm, feather-light, for just the slightest second.
He looks up abruptly, and takes in the inside of the tent. “There is blood on everything.”
“Somehow,” Brock agrees. “Not sure how that happened.”
Petey’s laugh is barely a breath. “This is all wet. I can’t wear it. Get me something from the bag?”
“Okay,” says Brock. “Sure, okay.”
Petey takes off his own gloves and twists gingerly as he pulls his arms out of his coat. He gets up on his knees, facing the tent wall, to pull off his layers.
Brock looks over almost involuntarily at Petey’s bare back, the lean column of his spine, and forces himself to focus on something else to give him some privacy.
He starts to take off his own coat, also blood-spattered probably beyond repair. His new coat, a gift, that he’d put on just this morning.
“It was just bad luck,” Petey says, reading his mind.
“Yeah,” says Brock.
It was freezing when they came in, but now, with the heating on, it’s merely bitterly cold.
Brock digs through the first bag. “Here,” he says, tossing Petey the topmost piece of clothing without looking at it, and immediately regretting that as Petey uncurls the old UND hoodie in his careful hands. Brock catches a glimpse of his collarbones as he turns back around.
“Is this a plant fiber?” says Petey, feeling the hem of the cotton sweatshirt with a frown. “This is not good for the cold. It takes a long time to dry if it gets wet.”
“Yeah, all right,” says Brock. “I’ll keep that in mind for the next time we get stranded in the middle of nowhere and an evil bunny makes you his chew toy.”
Petey snorts silently and starts to pull the sweatshirt on. Brock stares down at his own hands, flexing his fingers to loosen up the spray bandage.
He looks back up to see Petey tying the hoodie strings into a bow.
“Oh, you don't —”
Petey looks up. “Yes?”
“Nothing, looking good,” says Brock. He breaks into a grin, overwhelmed by relief.
Petey looks back at him, a smile spreading slowly as he brings a hand up to his face and laughs into it silently, shoulders shaking.
They open the rest of the bags and turn the base of the tent into a sort of nest of inflatable ground pads, sleeping bags, and their discarded clothing, which Petey fastidiously folds inside-out to keep the blood contained.
Petey looks… comfortable, somehow more approachable-looking in Brock’s old hoodie. Brock’s going out of his mind looking at him. He eats about five dried fruit leathers just to think about something else and finally starts to warm up. Petey waves him away when Brock tries to offer him one, making a face.
The pallid light coming in through the tent fabric slips away as it gets later and later in the afternoon.
“How much longer, do you think?” says Brock, looking at the small window at the apex of the shelter, which is now completely black.
Petey shakes his head. “Could be any minute now, could be all night.”
All night. Brock’s not worried, per se, just rationally concerned. He pictures the clawed creature Petey’s brother mimed that morning, whatever it is, going for the tasty killer bunny carcass lying right outside their tent.
Brock digs for another fruit leather. It’s way too dark to see what he’s doing.
All of a sudden, there’s light on his hands. He looks up with a start, and Petey’s glowing at him.
Petey dims it slightly. “I know you’re not used to —”
“No, no, thank you, actually.” Brock laughs. “We’re just out here, wandering around at night without being able to see.” He unwraps the fruit leather. “I used to fall down all the time playing outside as a kid in my backyard. I would always leave the hockey net set up all day, or whatever else I was playing with, and I tripped over it every single time I got called back in for dinner. My mom was always after me to put my shit away. Bet that kind of thing never happened to you.”
“No,” says Petey, scratching the back of his neck, “but one time, when I was very young, I got turned around while I was walking home with my parents from a dinner party, and I thought the light from a hoversled was my mother. They were looking for me everywhere, and I was following this sled along the road and wondering why she wasn’t coming over to me.”
“You didn’t,” says Brock. Petey laughs, rubbing his eyes.
Something’s giving off a warm heat, and Brock realizes with a jolt that it’s Petey.
“Could I —?” He reaches out his hand, and instantly regrets it.
“Yes,” says Petey.
Brock touches his fingers to Petey’s forehead, just lightly. The glow is warmer than the surrounding skin.
Petey grins and flashes white-hot for a millisecond, a tiny burning spark. Brock yanks his fingers back.
Petey’s laughing at him silently. He lies back on his bundle of clothes.
“Hilarious,” says Brock. “Try that again and you’ll probably blind me. Then how will I finish all these snacks you don’t want to eat?”
He lies back, head beside Petey’s. The tent feels very small. He chews the last of his fruit leather, listening to the wind whack against the taut fabric of the fly.
He looks over to Petey. “Is it hard, working so far from home?”
Petey pushes back his hair and thinks for a long moment. “Yes and no. I miss it when I’m in the city, but I can't get enough paperwork at home.”
“But I’m just from a small town, you know, and I get to go all over the world, seeing things, fixing things, going to new places, meeting new people.” Petey looks at the ceiling of the tent. “Meeting you.”
Every one of Brock’s nerve endings shocks from head to toe. “Yeah,” he says.
“I could ask you the same thing,” says Petey.
Brock swallows. “Yeah, it can get tough. With comms on such a delay, you know… I won’t even get to talk to my family until I get back.”
Petey nods. They’re quiet for a second, listening to the wind outside. Brock can still feel Petey’s heat, shining against his side.
“It’s funny, the word ‘talk,’” says Petey. “It’s the way I’m supposed to translate our word —” he shapes something in Eridani — “but that word has nothing to do with mouths at all.”
“But you do have mouths,” says Brock. “I mean, what else do you use them for?”
“Eating,” says Petey. He pauses almost imperceptibly. “And other things.”
“Other things, huh?” says Brock.
He shifts to prop himself up on his elbow and finds Petey’s face extremely close to his. He can hear each one of his breaths all of a sudden. He feels fucking possessed.
He reaches out to Petey, feels his soft sweatshirt, traces the UND stamped across Petey’s chest. He can’t move his hand away.
Petey looks back up at him with clear eyes, sweatshirt falling open around his neck.
Brock kisses him.
Petey tenses up for a second and then relaxes completely. His hand comes up into Brock’s hair, touching just lightly. A rush of heat floods down through to Brock’s legs, like he’s been thrown into a hot bath.
Suddenly, Petey’s under him and Brock’s hand is on his hip. Brock slips his hand under Petey’s sweatshirt and traces over the liquid bandage, then his smooth skin. He sucks on Petey’s lower lip, very slowly. Petey opens his mouth.
Brock braces himself on his knee, trying not to put pressure on Petey’s injury. He strokes down Petey’s good side, across his hipbone, lower. Petey arches against him. His hand twists in Brock’s hair.
Brock’s heart is hammering. He has the sweatshirt rucked up around Petey’s ribs, one leg between Petey’s. Petey moves his hand down to Brock’s, stroking very slowly over his fingers.
Brock ducks his face into Petey’s neck. He says, “Oh, shit,” near-soundlessly.
He brings his other hand up to Petey’s neck and tilts his head back. Petey’s mouth is so soft.
Something sane in him reawakens.
“I don’t think this is a good idea,” says Brock. He’s breathing like he just ran a marathon.
Petey looks up at him. “Okay,” he says, very quietly. He opens his mouth to say something else, just as a bright searchlight casts their tent into stark relief, the whine of a hoversled cutting through the wind outside.
Petey stays at the medcentre in his hometown for a few days, with his family around him, so Brock goes back to the city alone. He throws himself back into work, finalizing his presentation for the governors’ assembly.
He doesn’t videocall Petey, doesn’t walk over to his office when he gets back in town. They don’t have any events scheduled, and also Brock can’t think of a single fucking thing to say.
He sees Petey for the first time in a week just outside the door to the hall where he’s giving his presentation, five minutes before it’s supposed to start.
Petey greets him with a cool stare.
“Petey —” says Brock, and cuts off.
“I don’t know how it is on Earth,” says Petey with no expression, “but here we consider it rude to kiss someone and then pretend they don’t exist.”
“I’m sorry,” says Brock, struck. “Petey, I’m a fucking idiot.”
Petey’s face doesn’t move.
“I just — I’m being sent home in a week, no Eridani are being allowed to come to Earth yet, it’s all a mess — it just doesn’t make sense. I was only ever here for the short term.” He hears himself sounding like some kind of policy analyst and hates it.
“So what is the problem?” Petey says. “Why is it — not enough?”
I don’t feel short term about you, Brock thinks, and says, “I have a home to go back to, and you have a home here — we just can’t. We can’t.”
Petey gives him an inscrutable stare, nods tightly, and then opens the heavy doors to take his seat.
There’s a roaring in Brock’s ears as the lights dim and holoscreens come up around the room, transforming it into a vision of Earth. He stumbles through his introduction to the prefecture governors somehow, and falls back on his memorized speech, walking them through the bits of Earth’s culture and history that he’d selected, the nature scenes from diverse biomes.
The holofilm is vivid around him, but the only thing he’s looking at is Petey’s face. He gets through the presentation like he’s speaking directly to Petey: here it is, my home, my home that I love. I have to go back.
“Quick question before we start this meeting, Lieutenants,” says Cap. “Can anyone explain why I walked in on one of the planetary governors last night playing fucking beer pong in her office with Boeser’s cultural liaison?”
They’re at the meeting Issa called, in a conference room in the new embassy building, which has finally been built but not officially opened.
“Cultural exchange?” offers Huggy.
Everyone laughs, but all Brock feels is a weight in his stomach. He hasn’t spoken to Petey since their aborted conversation the day before.
Bo shakes his head. “One more thing. The governors have finally approved our request to expand the scope of this mission, to sanction and fund a returning Eridani delegation to Earth, and to extend the mission here.”
It feels like he’s dumped a bucket of cold water over Brock’s head.
Bo goes on. “I’ll discuss your new options with you all individually after the festival. They specifically mentioned your presentation yesterday, Boeser, so good show. Really nice work.”
Brock can barely focus on Issa as she walks in with one of her members of staff, a translator Brock’s seen at other meetings.
Issa claps her hands briskly together. “All right. As some of you may know, we will be inviting you to participate in our year’s-end celebration.”
Brock’s heard at least that much, but no details.
“It’s a traditional ritual,” Issa continues, “to bring the solstice and welcome back the light. The city prefecture governor will select two teams of six from a larger group to participate in the ritual. It is essentially a game, where the winners metaphorically bring back the sun.”
“And the losers?” asks Pears.
“We eat them,” says Issa, blank-faced, and then cracks a smile at his expression.
“What is the game?” asks Marky.
“It’s played on ice,” she says, “with a disc representing the sun. The objective is to get the disc into a goal area. I understand you have a similar game on Earth.”
“Oh, so it’s... hockey?” says Huggy.
“All right,” says Cap. “I know all of you have played some hockey; that’s why you’re in this room. We’re not allowed to practice before the day of, but they've made an exception for us for today, just to learn the rules.”
“So it’s… not hockey?” says Huggy.
Issa smiles. “Best of luck.”
Cap takes their few hours of practice time very seriously. They meet in the interim embassy’s back room, clearing out the couches to empty the space.
Two of Issa’s employees bring them some practice equipment and run them through the rules. It’s not hockey, not really — but it’s more similar to hockey than to anything else.
The puck is made of a golden material that’s much less elastic than rubber, the sticks are skinnier and have almost no curve, and there’s less contact allowed, but the skill of stickhandling, moving the puck, breaking in on the rush, snapping a wrister it into the net… it all floods back for Brock, muscle memory sparking to life.
Before the reality of the situation can even sink in, Brock’s standing with part of the Earth crew and a group of Eridani outside the city, on a frozen ice oval surrounded by fucking flames.
Through the fiery ring, he can dimly see some kind of ceremonial procession, some flaming torches moving between different parts of the open field around them.
The city governor enters the ice, wearing a golden mask. She’s holding a torch burning with a bright red flame, followed by eleven other masked Eridani, all holding their own torches, half in red and half in yellow.
They stand before Brock’s group for a few seconds and then slowly disperse, handing the torches to the chosen players. An Eridani bearing a red torch comes up to him, and he takes it mindlessly, holding the flame up away from his face.
The yellow torches go to Cap, Pears, and four Eridani. The remaining red torches are handed to Huggy, Millsy, Marky, and one of the other prefecture governors, until, finally, the city governor comes face to face with Petey, and hands him the last red torch.
She makes what looks like a friendly joke, one Brock can’t interpret; probably something about being stuck with the team of mostly humans. Petey smiles. The red flame flickers over his golden shoulder caps, part of the traditional gear they’ve all been given to wear, which is constructed of scales that make it look like some kind of medieval armor.
They douse their torches and line up at centre ice. Brock is acutely aware of Petey at his side, but he’s not looking at Brock.
The golden disc is tossed in among them, and the game begins.
More than anything else, it’s like street hockey, like the road rules from back in the day when Brock was a kid. It’s sharper, faster than any game he played in college.
There are no refs on the ice, no boards, so they have to keep the puck inside the circle, and the game isn’t timed; it ends when the first team gets to three goals, and it goes on for as long as that takes.
It’s euphoric, like the last five years of Brock’s life have just melted away. He’s skating like he never has, weeks of struggling in the heavier gravity making it feel like he’s flying across the ice. They’ve barely had half a day to practice, but the boys still feel like a team.
He’s never done anything like this with Petey before, but within the first five minutes, he can see him loosen up with the sheer thrill of it.
With Petey centering him, it all just clicks. It’s an absolute joy. He can send a pass to Petey from what seems like anywhere on the ice, and know without looking that he’ll be right where he needs to be to get it.
They combine for their side’s first solid shot on goal, Brock ringing the puck off the bar, and Petey gives him a reluctant grin.
Cap opens up the scoring on a nice pass from Pears, getting up above Marky’s blocker.
“Get outta here,” Brock shouts. “You knew about this so long before we did.”
Bo laughs and taps him on the ass with his stick.
Millsy gets one back, then a second on a beauty of a stretch pass from Huggy — they all fall down cellying because there are no boards to crash into — and then one of the Eridani on the other team gets a weird bounce, the golden disc going in the net off his knee, and it’s tied at two.
Brock feels alive, racing up the ice into the o-zone, wind in his face. Petey, always in sync, drifts in just after him.
Brock reaches to intercept a pass, but the puck gets by him. Petey picks it up behind him. Brock floats to the open ice in front of the net.
Petey gets chased down by an Eridani defender, then another. The puck slides off his stick. He dances around one defender after the puck, gets tangled up with him, and falls forward, the puck bouncing loose.
On his face on the ice, two players on him, Petey fights up to his knees and slides the puck around behind his back to Brock, his pass landing perfectly, perfectly, right on his tape.
Brock snaps the puck right into the wide open net.
He feels like he’s on fire. Before the game’s even called, he rushes over to where Petey’s just getting to his feet and throws an arm around his neck.
“Holy fuck,” shouts Brock. He’s yelling complete nonsense right into Petey’s ear. Petey’s hugging him back. The rest of the team piles on.
They get breathing space for just a moment. Brock draws back, and then grips the back of Petey’s neck and kisses him.
Petey wraps his arms around him. Someone throws a glove at their heads. Brock doesn't care.
“The mission got extended,” Brock says, pulling back.
“What,” says Petey, blinking at him, breathing hard.
“I’m staying. For a while.” It’s suddenly extremely important to say all of this to Petey right now. “I can stay, and then you can come to Earth with the Eridani delegation. If you — If that’s what you want. The funding’s been approved.”
Petey stares at him.
“And if you don’t want to, I’ll come back,” says Brock, taking a deep breath. “Of course it’s enough. Of course.”
“I am coming to Earth,” says Petey. “I always wanted to.”
It’s thirty below, but Brock feels a bloom of warmth in his chest.
Petey says, “I applied yesterday. Of course I’m coming. You —”
Brock can’t stop grinning.
Petey breaks into a smile, shaking his head, and pulls Brock in again, the two of them alone at the end of the ice as the sun comes out.