Welcome back to Earthrise! We are now on our regular schedule, free on Tuesdays, with Thursday and Saturday available if donations or subscriptions that week go over $15 per episode. You can catch up on existing episodes, donate, or set up a subscription here! And now, on to the story:
Her Instruments, Book 1
It was easier to fit into life on the Earthrise than Hirianthial expected. The crew quarters comprised a tiny fraction of the ship’s actual volume and everyone seemed to have perfected methods for keeping out of each other’s way. How they did it with such ease the Eldritch couldn’t imagine, given that none of them had his ability to sense where each of them was at a given moment. Certain areas had been designated communal spaces according to a set of rules Hirianthial had not yet guessed; while the mess was a communal space, the galley wasn’t, and interrupting whomever was cooking was the fastest way to earn a cold retort. The bathroom was private despite it being shared among everyone but Reese. The bridge, a workspace, was communal but the cargo holds and the engineering decks weren’t. Hirianthial avoided several faux pas by reading the auras off the people in a compartment, but he wondered how well others had integrated in the past.
His small room had become more comfortable with the addition of his luggage, which he’d found in his quarters a few days previously. The swords he slid beneath his bed as was customary; the sheath in his boot he’d filled on the starbase with a dagger of good quality but less lineage than the one beneath his bunk. While he misliked the feel of a foreign weapon at his knee, he would not carry the House blades again unless he returned home. They were not weapons to be casually worn, not with the memories that attended them.
The remainder of his luggage consisted of several changes of clothing, both Alliance standard and relics from his Jisiensire wardrobe; toiletries he’d missed but could have replaced; and the items that he usually ended up setting on a shelf in an altar-like display of his past. The incense holder could have come from anywhere, though had anyone analyzed the wood they would not have found it in the Alliance specimen library. The Woman’s Book of Hours, however, was written in Eldritch, splendidly illuminated with hand-ground pigments, some of them toxic. His mother had given it to his wife, for this particular version of the Book of Hours covered only three seasons of the year and terminated with prayers appropriate to a woman holding her first child in her arms.
It was hard still not to grieve.
The wooden box incised with its relief trim of horses running he set last on the table. Opening it revealed the ring he’d put off to attend to Liolesa’s mission. It was no longer his ring to wear but the habit of it had proved difficult to break. Running his thumb over the cloisonné hippogriff, Hirianthial thought about leaving it in the box, but the spaces alongside the ring cushion seemed too empty with the ring there to mark them. He pulled it from the box and slid it back onto the finger where his mother had set it decades ago.
The book, the incense holder, the jewelry box: they’d always served as a focus for meditation, a frame to lend meaning to solitude. Before he’d left Jisiensire, he’d cherished solitude and the time it gave him to center himself. It was only after his loss that he’d begun to need the distraction of people, and so badly it had driven him to the out-world with its gaudy streams of alien life. Even the Earthrise‘s narrow confines gave him too much time to himself, and while it did not upset him he recognized the growth of his melancholy and did what he could to contain it.
Still he had duties, and the air that had made him into someone’s confidant at so many of his workplaces followed him to the Earthrise. He found Sascha in the mess alone several days into their cruise, aura a flattened blue-gray with spikes of black depression.
“Leaves for the doctor, huh?” the Harat-Shar said, glancing at Hirianthial’s salad and summoning up a passable cheer. It appeared in his halo as a flicker of gold that drowned moments later.
“For dinner at least,” Hirianthial said. “I find eating lightly before bed makes for easier sleep.”
“Maybe I should try that,” Sascha said, poking his dinner across the plate half-heartedly. It looked like some kind of small bird in a sauce that smelled fragrantly of orange and cinnamon. No one on the Earthrise ate foods Hirianthial found offensive but some of them were better cooks than others; Sascha’s cooking won over everyone else’s.
“So do you want to tell me why you hate the idea of going home so much?” Hirianthial said, spearing a fork-full of lacy greens.
“How did you—” Sascha stopped. “I guess I’m not the only one who has the right to make cutting observations, ah?”
Hirianthial only smiled.
“It’ll sound stupid.”
“I doubt that,” Hirianthial said.
Sascha prodded his meal a few more times, then put his fork down. “I hate the land.”
“Do you mean that literally?” Hirianthial asked.
The tigraine’s brow furrowed. “That’s not what you were supposed to say.”
“You were supposed to say, ‘but you’re Harat-Shar! How could you hate your own culture?’ or ‘But it’s your homeworld!’ or ‘But you seem pretty typical Harat-Shariin.’ You know, missing the point.”
“Which is that you hate the land itself, not the culture or the people?” Hirianthial said. “It seems sensical to me.”
Sascha growled. “Yeah, well, you’re the first to say so. I’ve never been able to explain it. It’s not just the land underneath the house of my family. It’s not just the city. It’s not the band of climate next to my place of living. It’s the whole planet. When I try to explain that, the whippy-tails will always say, ‘But oh, Sascha, you know a planet doesn’t have a planetary climate. If you don’t like the land where you live, just move!’ As if a planet can’t have a feel to it, you know?”
The observation was strangely astute of him, but Hirianthial didn’t say so. The theoreticians of his world would have complimented Sascha on his sensitivity to the land’s aura… if they would have been willing to talk to a Harat-Shar at all. And capable of understanding that worlds, too, gave off an energy all their own, and not just kingdoms on them. The first time he’d felt the aura of an alien world singing through his nerves he’d gotten chills. “I think it’s perfectly reasonable,” Hirianthial said.
“It’s almost as if the place repels me,” Sascha mumbled. Louder, then, “As if it hates me. Well, I don’t like it all that much either, and explaining that to my family and friends… Angels, not a memory I want to relive.” He sighed. “At least we’re not going back to stay. Though the moment we touch down my parents will be at me about it. Do you know how hard it is to fend off seven people?”
“Not in that capacity,” Hirianthial said. “I don’t envy you the duty.”
“Yeah. Me neither,” Sascha said. He began tracing lines through the sauce on the rim of the plate.
“Have you ever found a place you liked?” Hirianthial asked. “A place that called you?”
“I found a few I liked and a lot more than that I would be content to settle on,” Sascha said. “One of the nice parts of being a pilot was just how many worlds I got to visit. I’m not looking for perfection, you understand? Just a place that doesn’t hate me. That doesn’t seem too much to ask.”
“Not at all,” Hirianthial said. “I wouldn’t settle in a place that hated me either.”
“It’s not fair, either, that the place where so many people I care about live isn’t the place I feel comfortable living,” Sascha said. “It’s one of the few things Irine and I used to fight about—she wants to have babies on Harat-Sharii where the train can help raise them. I want to go somewhere else. Now that we’re going back we’ve started arguing about it again.”
“Parting from her would be too painful,” Hirianthial guessed.
“I couldn’t do it,” Sascha said. “She’s my twin. It would be like cutting out one of my lungs. I could survive, but for the rest of my life I’d feel crippled.” He shook his head. “No, I just couldn’t. I love her too much. But I’m all for her choosing a mate or two and starting her family somewhere else. If we get enough good people around it won’t matter as much that our blood train is on Harat-Sharii. It’s one of the unadulterated good things about being brought up homeworld Harat-Shar. We can choose family and it’s just as real to us as blood.”
“Is it?” Hirianthial asked.
“Yes,” Sascha said. “That kind of attitude happens when you have multiple adults acting as your parents, most of whom had no genetic material to contribute to your birth.”
“How soon do you think your sister will want a family? And what about you? Do you want a mate of your own?”
“Only one?” Sascha asked with a chuckle. “Having spouses of my own’s not as important to me as Irine having her own kidlets. I’m guessing she’ll want a few more years before she settles. She finds this whole ‘flying around the Alliance’ thing exciting, but her excitement will wear off and when it does she’ll want to find a nest. I never feel the depth of excitement she does, but once I’m committed I focus a lot more easily than she does. We make a good team that way. She keeps me enthused and I keep her determined.”
“No wonder you feel her like a part of yourself,” Hirianthial said. “I wish there was some way I could relieve some of your burden.”
“You have,” Sascha said after a moment. “Funny, you’re the first person I’ve ever mentioned this to who understood what I was talking about without me having to explain it. That makes me feel worlds away better about it.”
“Then I’m glad to have helped,” Hirianthial said.
“Well, don’t get too comfortable on your laurels there,” Sascha said. “Once we get to Harat-Sharii I won’t be the only wreck you’ll have to deal with. I bet even Bryer and Kis’eh’t will leave problems for you to clean up… if they reject too many people, you might have kitties crying on your lap.”
“I hope not!” Hirianthial said with a laugh. “I’ll hardly be much comfort to them if they’re seeking balm for forlorn hearts.”
Sascha eyed him. “It really doesn’t bother you? The notion of being on Harat-Sharii. I would have assumed that your strictures against touching would make the prospect of staying with us uncomfortable.”
“Many things bother me,” Hirianthial said. “People who offer inadvertent discomfort out of a desire to be friendly are far from that list.”
“So what’s on the list?” Sascha asked.
Hirianthial touched the lip of his cup of tea. “Slavery. Suffering. Unnatural death. Cruelty.” He picked up the cup and drank, feeling the wash of Sascha’s brown sobriety, so quick a transition it felt almost embarrassed. He looked up but did not speak.
“I guess it seems like a silly question now,” Sascha said.
“Perspective,” Hirianthial said. “All the matter wants is perspective.”
Sascha stared at his plate for several moments, then said, “I think I’m done with this. Do you want the rest?”
“I’m fine,” Hirianthial said. “But save it for Kis’eh’t. She hasn’t eaten yet and she often waxes poetic about your cooking.”
Sascha laughed. “I’ll do that.” He stood. “I’d thank you, but I won’t. You did what you had to for me. I’ll do the same for you when we get home.”
“Thank you,” Hirianthial said, and wondered.
Did I mention we’re going to Harat-Sharii? Altogether now: uh oh