jinki wakes up to a ping perfectly calibrated to wake humans with minimal distress, and the hiss of air as his sleep pod opens.
due to an emergency announcement, your rest has been interrupted.
we apologize for the inconvenience. tap your screen to view an urgent notice.
he taps. the air is stale yet.
your planet of citizenship has had a critical event, rendering it inhospitable for oxygen-based life. successful evacuations were conducted. your government will be in contact.
ship crew has been notified and will accommodate any extra needs at this time.
do you wish to go back to sleep?
he stabs at the ‘no’ and promptly throws up, his knuckles tight against the plastic shell, his home of 8 months.
his jaw hurts when he wakes up. nightmare scurries a hopeful thought in his head, but there’s an organic life in the room, an old-fashioned bundle of flowers. he leans over to sniff at it - even the best copies smell cold.
one of the white petals is wilting, when he gets closer, and that’s enough even before the faint smell of earth, of dust.
real flowers of condolence on a spaceship. jinki breathes in deep. the scent overtakes him as he closes his eyes, and he pictures his home - the little apartment, the slice of sky between buildings, the empty lot his parents took him to where they had their restaurant, long-demolished. the first boy he ever kissed, the tree they were under.
his grandparents’ graves.
he’s going to throw up again.
if he’s not going to go back to sleep, he has to eat some food. the room outside of his pod is spare, with one wall-covering, a mismatched stool and table. It’s his first time seeing it. all pod occupants are put under before being loaded in, like pills placed into a dispenser. at the rate he could afford, the room is an afterthought.
in some ships, the “room” part of “pod and room” was probably rented multiple times over, banking on the fact that most travelers would never bother to occupy it.
it’s a numb thought as he takes his first shaky steps, sees the imperfect, hasty cleaning that’s left marks on the table.
he can’t find it in himself to care.
all ships offering sentient passage are required to have public records. sijeol is privately owned, and intermittently operating. its records of transit tended to the lower-traffic planets and colonies, those without massive travel hubs.
it charged rates based on indicated sleep cycle, and had no flagged safety incidents in the last four record logs. jinki booked it without thinking further, the obligation of work taking him afield.
the only oddity of note was small, marked as neither an amenity nor a warning: transport carries lab for plant research .
jinki pauses before the cool blue sign, breathes in after his eye is scanned:
lee jinki, passenger manifest 765.
where do you wish to go?
“where can I eat?” he says. his voice sounds the same as it did when he left. it seems wrong.
food packets are available in the public dining area.
“how many people are there?”
18 sentient beings.
“is there anywhere else?”
certain organic foods are available for consumption in Lab S-5, if permission is acquired by research staff.
“how do I get there?”
please follow the lights .
a series of teal lights trail out down the hall, to a lift. jinki waves his dismissal.
Lab S-5 requires a handprint.
the taste of vomit is still acrid at the back of his tongue. there’s salt at the corner of his lips, and he realizes now he’s been slowly weeping ever since he left his room.
he brings the heel of his palm up to his eye, and presses it in, before moving to the next. his shirt comes up, goes down with snot and tears dotting the collar. he needs to drink some water. he needs to eat something.
his inner voice sounds like his mother. his hands feel like his father.
the teal light above him is slowly flashing as though to remind him he’s reached his destination. the ship will reaches its destination at some point, and dispose of jinki.
“are you waiting to be let in?”
the unseen speaker reaches around jinki to press a long-fingered, human hand against the door. it slides open to admit them.
“thanks,” he says out of instinct.
the other man nods, a little abrupt. he looks like crew, no uniform - not unusual for a private ship - but there’s stitched lettering into his shirt - kim kibum.
jinki supposes he already knows.
“the computer said that there’s food...that I could eat here.”
“with permission," kibum prompts. jinki nods, and kibum relaxes his shoulders. “consider it given.”
he walks over to a wall panel and punches in a series of characters instead of addressing the computer directly. a nondescript door pops open near him, and the other man reaches back and waves jinki to come forward.
“it’s all raw, but edible,” he says. “fruits mostly; we dropped off most of our vegetables in the last stop.”
“it’s fine,” he leans down and plucks at random, a hardish, electric green fruit with the allure of being unfamiliar.
“wait,” says kibum. He holds out his hand and waits for jinki to understand, to give him the fruit. once he does, he takes a tool out of his pocket and makes quick work of the skin, exposing a soft, blood-red pulp.
“thanks,” he says. its juices smear along his fingers, and he brings it up to his mouth to take his first bite.
the silence threatens to stretch out, but kibum turns to tend to the nearest plant, his fingers gently examining its purple roots. there’s faint buds of orange at the base of its leaves.
Jinki eats away. it’s sour, almost unpleasantly so, but the further into the flesh he gets, the more grateful he is. anything less overwhelming would mix in with the aftertaste of vomit, but this - this almost lets his body forget.
its core is solid black, smooth, and jinki’s teeth clack against it painfully without warning. he becomes more careful in his movements, sucking up the remainder and letting the last bit of it sit on his tongue until it’s gone numb.
he looks around for the marks of a disposal unit, but finds nothing. the other man is humming under his breath, the loose waves of his dark hair in gentle motion from the air filtration unit perched above the station. jinki licks the juice from his fingers, unwilling to interrupt.
he walks instead, the core of the fruit clutched in his hand. the row he chooses has an archway of reddish-green leaves that brush against his hair as he ducks in. it doesn’t seem to bear fruit at all. the leaves pile on top of each in thick ribbons. when he reaches out to touch in, the ribbon slithers back to avoid his touch.
its stand has small, neat lettering: frigus uitta. do not expose to warmth.
jinki moves on, ashamed.
he’s careful to read the next stand he stops at. there’s nothing but soft black dirt.
“you can touch that one,” kibum says, walking to the opposite side of the station. he looks at jinki, briefly meeting his eyes with a lightness. “if you don’t mind being touched back.”
cautious, jinki presses his fingertip against the dirt. immediately the dirt begins to tremble - little blue tendrils pop up like ripples in water, blindly seeking out jinki’s finger. he almost pulls back before it can, put off by their urgency -
“it won’t hurt you,” kibum says. he seems so utterly sure, it makes jinki hesitate long enough for the closest, a trembling thing, finds his skin. as soon as there’s contact the other tendrils withdraw back into the dirt, and the one remaining thickens, swelling up like a fat caterpillar. it vibrates against his skin, like a purr.
“it really is,” kibum says, the tenderness in his voice making jinki duck his head back down again. the caterpillar plant is shifting along the blue spectrum.
“your handprint can be added to the authorized list,” the other man says. “if you mean to remain awake.”
jinki almost says no, but it’s hard to say anything against the hard lump in his throat. the fruit core against his palm almost slips out, as he squeezes it. he shrugs, instead, and tilts his finger, wiggling it until the plant falls off. he moves along, and kibum lets him, keeping the row between them. some plants are wider, thicker than others, obscuring him from jinki’s view.
the end of the row holds an array of empty bins, waiting to be filled. jinki stops, unsure where to go when his next decision feels like the one that’ll take him further from his planet, his home.
“do you want to plant it?” kibum says. He isn’t looking at jinki when he addresses him; his dark eyes are turned towards the end of his own row, a dispenser of some kind. “the core - the simjang.”
“yeah,” he says, and at kibum’s nod he takes down the nearest bin and hands it across to the other man. the dispenser - kibum punches in a code.
a steady stream of dirt pours out, the weight change noticeable in kibum’s stance.
when he places it on the last station, there’s a slight ding as it’s latched in.
“you want to scoop it, about 5-7 inches down,” he waits as jinki digs in. some of the dirt sticks to the juice that he missed cleaning from his hand earlier. “alright, now put it in. don’t bury it yet.”
jinki follows his instructions and places the core in. as soon as his hand is withdrawn, the black shell he took to be impenetrable - it softens, it pales into a muted green.
kibum leans forward to see for himself, then nods in approval.
“cover it up now - don’t pack it, just cover.”
when he finishes, he leaves his hand palm-down on the dirt. he remembers falling down like this once, when he was very small, the rocks in his palms, the scrapes on his knees.
“i don’t know what i’m supposed to do,” he admits very suddenly. “and i’m afraid.”
kibum looks at him, silent for a moment before sighing.
“you’d be hating yourself if you did know what to do. you’d call yourself cold, you’d wonder if you ever really cared about anything. there’s no right way to respond to this. there’s only how you respond.”
jinki looks up at him, very carefully, and finds kibum pushing his fingers into the station next to them, the gray-black dirt slowly swallowing up his hand. the other man breathes out, like he’s expelling some intruder to his own body.
“they said the evacuations were successful.”
“they were. it’s been reported all over,” if jinki weren’t watching him, he’d sure he’d miss the slight pause, the hesitation. “there are messages postmarked for you.”
“i - i didn’t see them,” he says. kibum doesn’t reprimand him, though he feels he deserves it, for sinking so immediately into helplessness. instead he pulls his hand free and brushes the remnants away till it’s clean.
“they’re there,” he says simply.
jinki looks at him, then looks past him. There’s a white flower in bloom several rows over, diminished, like it had been picked over recently.
“I don’t think I can read them right now,” he says weakly.
kibum looks at him.
“you’ll have to eventually,” he says, and jinki knows, he knows. he’ll have to leave this room, eventually. he’ll have to get off this ship, eventually. he’ll have to settle on a new planet, eventually.
eventually, he’ll die too, and maybe they’ll let him go back home then.
he’s weeping again, he realizes, salt once more at the corner of his lips, but before he can reach up, press his father’s hands against his eyes, hear his mother’s voice as he makes a mess of his shirt, kibum reaches across and presses his thumb against his cheek.
“not yet,” kibum promises, a low roughness in his voice. "you can stay for a while longer.”
jinki nods, grateful. a white wilting petal falls, swimming through the air.