Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Kevin M. Gill
The station wheeled through the void carelessly, metal carapace groaning and creaking against the sheer vacuum that surrounded it. The Jovian moon of Callisto swirled in the darkness below, framed by the gigantic sphere of gas and storms that was Jupiter. The rings glinted in sparkling sunlight, sunlight that had careened through space at such unimaginable speeds just to shine against all these tumbling, hurtling rocks. Even the other moons twinkled in the distance, hot white sparks against the deep black canvas behind.
It all looked so fake.
Niké stared hard out of the viewport, trying to convince their brain that what they saw was reality. Those huge, unimaginably strange bodies outside, so alien compared to the cool Martian sand they grew up on. So cold and barren, devoid of life or shelter. Niké squinted their eyes. Still doesn’t look right, they conceded.
“Niké!” The old caretaker bot shouted down the connector.
“Yeah,” Niké responded distractedly, eyes glued to the surreality of such an immense spectacle. The unfathomable vastness was just wrong-
“Nee-Kay.” Came the synthesized voice again, stressing the syllables. It always got their attention, and not for good reason.
“What, Tink.” Their reply was flat.
A brief pause. “There’s a communique from your family. We have a window to reply.” A longer, pregnant pause. Niké thought Tink might have disappeared. “I’m here for you, if you need me.”
The view of the moon, the rings, the enormous swirling dervish of a gas giant wavered for a moment. They were back on Callisto, staring up at the void of stars from the dark walls of that haunting gorge, hauling Orbis’ limp body over their shoulders. The station, glimmering in the sun’s light, seemed impossibly far. Even the rocket, with its fusion engines carving into the rock as it idled, ready, felt another world away. A mirage on the worst day of their life. Then it all washed away, pulled by the tide of duty and reality.
Niké flipped off the celestial bodies and made their way up the connector, floating. Falling.
“-we’ve been having some trouble keeping Artan from getting back in the lake.” The recording burbled. The image wasn’t as grainy as usual, but the sound was for shit. “He thinks he’s completely fine, despite falling over a dozen or so times a day.” Raoulo, one of Niké’s partners, sat on their reclaimed-leather couch in the glass-tiled living room of their home. Raoulo’s graying beard was now muttonchops, and Niké was trying to decide if they liked it. Artan, their short-haired mutt, looked calm but bored on the couch next to him. They longed to pet him and call him silly names. His foreleg was wrapped in a beige-black cast, and he was letting it dangle off the cushion. He barely looked different, even a year and change later.
The recording continued on. “Yela has been growing her tomatoes again, but she took your advice and spliced some ivy genes in. They’re crawling much easier now.” Raoulo looked happy, in a sad sort of way. It was all Niké could do to stop themselves from reaching out to the screen. “She misses you, Niké. She said she’s going to make you the ‘best damn tomato sammich’ you’ve ever had. Extra thyme and pepper, you big weirdo.” Raoulo sniffed and smiled again. “I miss you loads, too. We’re going to the Red Glass festival when you’re back, and we’ll all eat so much we want to burst, and go home with even more sculptures we don’t have room for.” He then gave the hand signs for “love, always”, mouthing it as he did so. Niké responded with a signed “always love”, frowning distractedly.
“Oh yeah,” Raoulo added, and Niké perked up. “Yela says her message will be included with the packet, but you’ll have to decode it. She’s excited to hear how frustrating the puzzle is.”
Niké snorted, sighing. Yela loved riddles and puzzles, and never stopped putting them around house. They’d already cracked the code, and had been pleased to find a few more books and movies from her, as well as her own musings and love.
“Stay safe, Neeks. Our love to Orbis. See you soon.” Raoulo nodded and smiled wide, then shut off his capture.
Niké just stared at the black screen from their bed in the dark, hugging their pillow tight to their chin. “How long’s the window, Tink?” They called through the open door.
“Three hours, fourteen minutes. Estimated, of course.” Tink replied cheerfully.
They chewed on that for a few minutes. Tried to avoid the other question that gnawed at them. Failed. “Orbis awake?”
Tink hesitated outside their door, its silhouette half-blocking the light from the other room. “Intermittently for the last three days. They have asked for you twice since this morning.” Niké grunted, ignoring the worry in the bot’s voice.
Tink shuffled into the doorway more, and its amorphous form dwarfed them in shadow. “It is not my place to order, Niké.” It let the sentence hang, unfinished.
No, they thought, but you can sure as hell guilt. In a huff, they pushed off their bunk. Rip the bandage off, they reminded themselves. Get it done with. “Fine, Tink. But if they end up trying to vent me, just remember you’re the one to blame.”
Tink nodded as Niké shoved them out of the doorway. “Understood, mon capitan.”
Down the corridor, Niké began to fume, raging silently in the zero-g of the connector tube. Their skin itched with fresh hair that hadn’t been cut, and they ached from inactivity. Their long face, once thin and cheerfully direct, had become thinner and haggard, their normally focused hazel eyes now buggy and bloodshot. They hadn’t bothered to exercise for the last five days since they had returned with Orbis, partially out of grief, partly because they were so exhausted from taking on two crew members’ worth of duties. They started slowing themselves on the handrail after realizing how fast they had been pushing themselves through the connector.
Just breathe, they thought. It’ll be alright.
The station’s automated helper, Tink, had been monitoring Orbis’ condition through one of its proxies, and it was one of those that met Niké at the medical wing’s door. “They are awake and cognizant. I have informed them you are here.” Tink’s proxy, a thinner version of the standard body, was fidgeting with its long, malleable fingers. “Is there anything I can do to assist?”
If Niké didn’t know better, they’d think the bot was nervous. “It’ll be fine.” They lied.
“Very well. I will be on standby should you need me, Niké.” It signed “good luck” to them and posted itself up outside the door, its empty screen staring off at the far wall.
Niké nervously palmed the door open and was greeted by the surgical smell of the med-wing: a mixture of antiseptic, fresh linen and barely-concealed injury, like caked blood after a few days in a damp room. It did not make the sight of Orbis on the operating table/bed, grey and blue blanket tucked up against their squat frame, any easier to witness. Their hair was matted from so long in bed, their face drawn but still handsome, that brutal chin under a button nose. Their green eyes were piercing, holding Niké’s gaze as they stepped closer. They looked so tired.
“H-hey, Orbis.” Niké stumbled over the greeting, like it was their first meeting.
Orbis held their gaze for a little longer before replying. “Hello, Niké.” The reply wasn’t emotionless, but it felt distant.
At that moment, Niké would rather Orbis spaced them. “Feeling…better?”
“That’s it?” Orbis said softly. “‘Feeling better?'” It wasn’t a harsh question, but Orbis’ face looked hurt. Like Niké had just punched them. “Five days out, three days up, and that’s all you’ve got, Neek?”
Rip the bandage off. “‘Bis, look, i’m-”
But Orbis interrupted them, their face softening as they looked Niké over. “You look like hell, Niké.” Orbis’ large, smooth hand reached up to Niké’s face, and they wanted to melt into the touch, let themself just fall into that sensation like a deep dream.
“You’re looking just as good, you know.” They managed, wrapping their hand over Orbis’. Tears were starting to claw at their eyes, but they held them back. “Listen, I’m…it was my fault, down there. What happened. It…” They looked past them, staring at a spot on the table. “It was my mistake.” The words were like chewing glass.
Orbis shifted upright, slowly. Niké could see the strain. Could see the bandages. The wounds beneath that scrawled like spiderwebs, eating through tattoos and skin. They looked like they were held together with glue and hope. “Neek.” They said, and opened their arms. “It’s okay, dusha moya.”
Niké’s voice caught in their throat, and they fought the tears as they moved into Orbis’ warm embrace, hands sliding gently over their beautiful skin, now marred by Niké’s mistake. It was too much. They started to shake, shuddering into Orbis’ shoulder as it all came flooding out, murmured apologies between racking sobs. Orbis nodded and nuzzled against Niké’s head, silky fingers tracing looping figures over their back.
Eventually, the tears receded, replaced with a feeling of refreshing emptiness. There had been more built up there than Niké wanted to admit.
Orbis hauled Niké onto the table with surprising strength and rested against them, their bulky form a well-loved coat around Niké. “So. Tink won’t tell me what happened.” Orbis spoke quietly, then fell silent as Niké tensed against them. “I know it’s not easy, Neek, but I need to know what happened down there. We need to do a report.”
Niké wanted to run. Felt the gentle weight of Orbis behind them, like an anchor, holding them fast. The memories started to bubble up into a boil.
“We-” Niké choked. “we were running samples. Sectors 9e-gamma and -epsilon, remember?” Orbis nodded. “And the buggy, it started- oh, fuck, ‘Bis, it just started rolling.” Niké was shaking again, hands pressed hard against their legs. “And you’d wanted to take the s-same route back, but I wanted to show you t-the way I liked, w-with Jupiter up in the sky-” The cascade of a story couldn’t be stopped. The bandage was torn off now, and all the bile and nastiness it had kept in tumbled out of their mouth. “-w-we, we ended up in the canyon. That big f-fuck-off one by Omicron. You were-”
They were in the canyon again. Niké, pinned to the seat by their harness, head ringing, arms grasping at the controls as though they were a lifeboat in the ocean. Orbis’ body next to them. Not moving. Their suit was punctured by the right axle, like someone had just shotput it into their chest. It looked like some fused art project from the glass festival. Not real. Not jutting out of their body like some grotesque prop.
“I had to- to cut you free. Your breathing wasn’t right, like you had-” Niké fought the nausea, fought through it. “Like you had fluid in your lungs. I’ve never…I don’t think I’ve ever been so angry at a plasma torch before.” Their laugh was wet and harsh, with a few coughs. They heard Orbis chuckling softly behind them, their thumb fondly stroking Niké’s thigh. Never let those hands go again, Niké thought, uncurling their fists to lay them over Orbis’. They sat for a moment in silence. Blessed, soft silence.
“And after that? I assume the ‘bug’s still down the canyon?” There was no judgement in the question, though Niké still winced at the realization.
“Yeah, it’s…totalled. Like, scrap metal for haulage, wrecked.”
“Good.” Orbis smirked and let out a belly laugh. Niké turned to face them, bewildered. “I always hated that fucking buggy.”
Nike suddenly couldn’t stop smiling, fighting back another wave of happier tears as the two of them started laughing, uncontrollable. Letting go. Once they managed to calm down, and Orbis put their focused face back on, Niké continued. “Then I called Tink. Got it to send the shuttle to the canyon for evac. Closest touchdown was…fuck, at least two klicks.” Orbis’ eyes went wide. “Yeah. I had you stuffed with bio-gel and a new seal connected to my suit so we could share oxygen. Yours was shredded. Then, I just…walked.”
It had been the longest spacewalk they had ever made. Orbis on their shoulders, the stars and bodies overhead sitting in silent witness. The steady depletion of their O2, the lightheadedness. The sheer freezing depth of the vacuum outside their suits, trying to rip them open and spread everything out, nice and even. The ground beneath their feet, uneven, millennia old. Ancient, even by ancient standards. The feeling of blood pooling at the base of their spine from multiple open wounds. They’d healed up quick, thanks to Tink, but Niké could still feel the itch of them. A reminder of a worse time.
“That’s…I’m so sorry, Neek. That’s awful.” Orbis, sitting there with their scarred chest, their incredible tattoos punctured and gouged by the harsh lines of regrown tissue. It made it all worse, as though the fight to walk back was for nothing. All that beauty, destroyed, thoughtlessly.
“I’m sorry, ‘Bis.” Niké’s hands wandered over Orbis’ chest mindlessly, tracing the tattoos up to their termination, eyes fixed on the damage. “I’m so, so sorry.” It took Orbis’ lovely, stable hands and subtle voice to draw their eyes away. Up into that face that smiled when problems happened. The one that grimaced playfully when Niké would try to dance. Those cheeks that stretched so wonderfully when they laughed. Orbis was singing, softly; some old tune their grandparents had sung. They used to sing it to Niké when times were hard on the station.
It felt like coming home to a warm fire and a wool blanket on the couch.
Niké wiped away the tears that had been trailing new lines down their face, unbidden, and squeezed Orbis’ hands, enraptured by the song. Once they had finished, they nodded to Niké, smiling in that incredible, effortless way they had. “It’s done, now. We’re both here, safe.”
Niké nodded back. “I’m glad you’re okay.”
“Me too.” They patted Niké’s hand. “But next time, come sooner. You’re the best medicine.”
There was a slight blush creeping up Niké’s jaw and cheeks. “That’s- you’re the worst.”
Orbis’ smile was even wider now, and Niké scrunched their face up at them. “Oh, please, docteur~” Orbis cooed, crawling forward. “Give me your medicine. I Need it~” They were making kissy-lips at Niké now, trying not to laugh.
Niké cupped their face in both hands and delivered a large smooch on their nose, smiling back. “There we go. Good as new, no?”
Orbis’ lips curled up into a twisted version of their smile, eyes alight with mock scorn. “That’s cruel.”
“Tough love cures all.” They fought off the playful blows Orbis threw their way.
Outside the med-wing, somewhere in the station proper, Tink gave a happy sigh.
“-so we’ll be shuttling back in…six days, looks like. Titan-2 just waved us to say they’re starting their deceleration, and that they’ll take better care of the buggy once they raise it.” Niké beamed at the camera, one knee held against their chest on the synth-thread chesterfield. “We’re just tidying up the hab and making sure we didn’t leave any nasty surprises – Orbis found a few pea pods that had to be put down, they were so old.” They winced, and looked back at the lens. “Sorry, Artan. Poor choice of words.” Orbis chuckled from the other room. “Get in here, ‘Bis.” Niké patted at the worn cushion next to them.
Orbis finished packing up a crate and trundled in, settling their weight next to Niké and cocking a lopsided grin.
“Orbis is excited to meet you all, and I’m excited to take them to the beach. I hope there’s no hail this year; last year sucked.” They elbowed Orbis gently, laying their head on their shoulder. Orbis winced and smiled a little more naturally.
“Oh, and Yela, I loved the gift, but your puzzle was too easy. You gotta make it at least a level five, hon. I’m workin’ with my space-brain up here.” Niké mugged at the camera, and even Tink gave a little giggle. They waved Tink over into the picture and it gave a friendly thumbs-up. Orbis had taught it that.
“I hope you take good care of Niké and Orbis, Yela, Raoulo and Artan. I have enjoyed their company immensely, and will miss them.” It intoned, then returned to its cleaning.
“Aw, Tinkerbelle, you’re gonna miss me?” Orbis teased over the back of the couch, and Tink did a ballerina’s twirl in response.
“Anyway, we’ll see you soon. Travel time is less than three months, but for us, it’ll be like a rough night’s sleep. I promise it’ll feel like three months when I see you all again.” They forced a smile, their lips trembling a little. “It’ll be good to be home. Longest mission ever.”
Niké signed “much love” to the camera, then winked. Then they shut off the capture and sighed, leaning back into the chesterfield. There was still a lot to do before Titan-2 showed up.
The three of them cleaned the station top to bottom, side to side, getting into every crevice and bolthole. The amount of dust that had collected over the year-and-some mission was enough to build a 1/6th size replica of Earth’s Space Elevator, if they’d had the room for it. Orbis was tempted to hide it all in a locker or cupboard as a surprise, but Tink wasn’t having any of it. It made for a beautiful compressed cube of waste when it was all said and done. Niké wrote “All Our Hard Work” on it and set it on the console.
Tink was very friendly over the last day they were there, even preparing them a special dessert it had been taught from the previous crew. It wasn’t Orbis’ baklava, but it made a damn fine going-away present. Niké felt a little sad to leave the bot there. “Don’t worry, Niké.” Tink said, its synthesized voice glowing. “I am accustomed to crew changeovers. This will be my one-hundred-and-thirty-second changeover. I am always happy to see new people, and share with them what the previous crews taught me.”
Orbis patted the bot on the shoulder. “That’s too precious, Tink.”
They all stood by the airlock under the giant CAL-1 station logo and took a picture. Tink placed it in the picture reel that scrolled endlessly next to the kitchen, full of all the memories they had made. They’d upload them to the shuttle once it arrived.
Titan-2’s crew docked soon after, and there was so much hugging and conversation that Niké couldn’t help but be overwhelmed by the love they all shared. The new engineers were excited to see how badly the buggy had been damaged, and Orbis was all too keen to show off how much damage the axle had done. Tink was beyond excited to see the new faces, and had been taking pictures and sharing stories for hours. Eventually, the tired crew took to finding their new bunks and setting up their homes. It was no longer Niké and Orbis’ place – they said their farewells to those that were still up, heading towards the airlock. They gave Tink one final hug goodbye, and Orbis gave it a pressed flower in resin, telling it to take special care of it for them. Tink’s screen shone with warmth, and it embraced them both again with its supple maintenance form. “I will.” It finally said. “Please give my love to your family, Niké. And Orbis, don’t overexert yourself. You’re still in the healing period.”
They finally said goodbye after trading a few more stories, entering the ship Titan-2’s crew had flown in on. It was set to take off towards the inner colonies in a half hour, sling-shotting around Jupiter’s gravity well for fuel efficiency. They held each other for what felt like a day before they entered the cryo-pods.
“I love you, solnyshko moyo.” Orbis called through the thick steel.
Niké shouted back, “I love you too, mein liebling!”
And then the cold descended on them, seeping into their pores like so many droplets of ice, sinking them into a freezing slumber that felt something like drowning.
The shuttle touched down at the hulking silica spaceport without a hitch, and within an hour, Niké and Orbis were thawed and groggy, sipping on the recovery juice boxes the med-techs provided. They were concerned about Orbis’ wounds, which had healed up somewhat but were still quite inflamed. The medics gave them a booster shot and some medication to take, then gave them some time to recuperate. After a few more hours, they were finally cleared to depart. The Mars air filtered in through the spaceport HVAC had never smelled so much like home. Niké thought the roachgrass must be blooming early this year, given the heady scent that filled the vast halls and walkways in the artful glass architecture of the ‘port.
Niké’s ear buzzed, and they keyed it on. “Hello?” It felt so strange to be in signal range again. They’d been getting pings since they were thawed.
“I’ll show you a level five puzzle, you lanky space-brain!” Came a familiar voice through the line, and Niké’s face burst into a smile so wide it hurt. They started to spin on the spot as they looked around, and Orbis looked perplexed.
Then they saw her, barrelling full-tilt at the two of them with the look of a mad coral shrimp, thin hands outstretched like claws. Her wild dusty-yellow eyes were full of a charming fury, and her surprisingly symmetrical face was framed by a mass of brown and greying dreadlocks and braids, wound into a loose ponytail, all set against a sun-beaten complexion that hosted a broad nose and thin lips.
The dreads are new, Niké thought as they braced for the impact, neatly toppling over with Yela as she tickled at them mercilessly. “I worked for weeks on that puzzle, you brat! Weeks!” Her voice was all play and cheer. Orbis relaxed slightly, awkwardly laughing to themselves.
Raoulo came striding up in Yela’s wake, a man of moderate stature and build, but his confident walk belied a haste, and his cheeks were hot with exercise. “She’s got eyes like a damned eagle, and legs like an impala. I couldn’t keep up!” He declared as he reached the group and breathed lightly, his dark muttonchops shifting with each movement. They angled along a sharp jaw, terminating into a well-rounded chin that settled under an angular but soft countenance. His oil-black hair was slicked up into some Martian style Orbis had never seen before, and it made them smile reflexively at him – something they did when confronted by the new and strange.
Niké giggled under Yela and pushed her off lightly, accepting Raoulo’s offered hand. Niké pulled him into a hug, kissing his cheek and beckoning Yela in as well. They stood there for a few moments, exchanging quiet greetings and touch, before Niké pulled away towards Orbis.
“Yela, Raoulo, this is Orbis.” Niké smiled comfortingly at Orbis, who returned the gesture. “‘Bis, this is Yela and Raoulo.”
Raoulo went in for a hug, and Orbis hesitated for a second before squeezing back. “It’s wonderful to finally meet you, Orbis.” Raoulo said in his deep, comforting way. “I’m happy our Neeks had you to keep them company up there. Their last partner was an absolute bore.”
Yela then snuck in under Raoulo’s arm and hugged Orbis as well, though they were more ready for it this time. “I’m so excited to get to know you, hon.” She said, rubbing Orbis’ back as fondly as if she had known them for years. Orbis grunted at the sensation, and Niké patted Yela on the arm to get her attention, then motioned to Orbis’ back. Yela’s hands shot away from Orbis, landing back on their shoulders. “I’m so sorry! I completely forgot!”
Orbis just smiled and nodded. “It’s okay. It’s been a night for us, and three months for you!”
The group continued with light conversation as they made their way to the baggage claim, then out into the cool Martian spring air. It was just past the midday meal, and Niké realized how hungry they were. They could hear Orbis’ stomach growling too as they all piled into a driver-less shuttle. Cryo was never fun to come out of – it just left you starving and exhausted. They were looking forward to sleeping in a crowded bed tonight with a full stomach.
Raoulo punched in their address and the shuttle warned them to mind their extremities in that weird, familiar voice Niké had forgotten. Yela grinned at Niké and Orbis across the small aisle between the four of them. Orbis, who had been uncomfortable at first, seemed more relaxed now, confident in themselves. Niké was grinning back like an idiot, patting Orbis’ leg reassuringly.
The drive home was long, and after the conversations had petered out, Niké and Orbis stole some sleep, free of the frigid confines of their pods. Once the car began to slow, going over recognizable bumps in the road, Niké stirred, smiling dully in their seat. They were almost home. The car eventually pulled up to a long, squat house on the edge of a large swath of roachgrass. Its glass-and-wood frame were damp from the recent rains, and the lawn had been growing healthily this year. Several garden beds burst with life, including the mutant tomatoes Raoulo had mentioned, which were nearly clawing at the drain pipes of the roof with their greedy vines. The new two-headed sunflowers were happy and healthy, sheltering some fogberries and yellow snappers. In the distance, a soft wind rippled a deep lake, surrounded by tall, thin coniferous trees and rolling hills of berry bushes and knee-high plains-willows. It was a welcome change of scenery from the sterile station, even if there was no gas giant to stare up at in the dim blue sky.
Yela and Raoulo piled out of the car in the early evening light, the sun’s rays still pouring down warmth through the dense Martian atmosphere into the interior. The smell of Finnish daisies and fresh loam washed inside, only growing stronger and more pungent as Niké clambered out, legs still a little unsure in the lighter gravity. They had been born here, but a year or more away and every few steps felt like their first. Yela was handling the luggage out of the vehicle as Raoulo went to open the doors. He chided Artan as he bolted out of the house, then simply laughed as the dog tore along the grass to leap and paw at Niké.
“Oh, my boy! Lookit you, you big butt!” Niké laughed and swept the dog off his feet, cradling him against their chest. “Lookit you! You’re so big and dumb, you tried to swim with a broken paw! Yeah! That was you!” They nuzzled into the dog’s coat and tickled at his stomach, scoring them some yelps and barks of excitement. They then set him down and pointed up at Orbis. “That’s Orbis, buddy. Go say hi, mm? Go on!”
The dog sniffed at Orbis carefully, and they dutifully knelt and stayed still, one hand extended for Artan’s inspection. After nearly a full minute, he finally licked at Orbis’ hand, and Niké’s face lit up like a sunset. “Ha! You’re in. That’s the family seal of approval, right there.”
Orbis stroked Artan’s head, smiling back crookedly. “I feel so blessed.”
“Hey, you two!” Raoulo chimed from the back of the car. “Come help us carry your junk inside, we’re starving!” His teasing tones were accompanied by a cheeky grin plastered on his face, shining through from the hatch of the car.
“I’m sorry, junk?” Niké said in feigned offence, “Junk? That’s genuine Jupiter Sector Memorabilia, I’ll have you know.” They stood and moved towards the hatch, taking a large and bulging bag from Raoulo.
“Is it rocks?” Yela inquired as she walked back from the house, barely concealing a laugh.
Niké paused and looked at Orbis for backup.
“Oh, Neek, it’s Definitely just rocks.” Orbis called back, gaining a chorus of laughter from all but Niké, who began to rattle off why the rocks were so important, and why it was so, so rude that they were laughing at them. That, of course, only garnered more laughs, and the four of them moved inside out of the sun, settling the rest of their luggage away from the door. “But they’re your rocks, so that’s what counts.” Orbis whispered, and kissed Niké’s fuzzy head.
Dinner prep was a flurry of motion and aromas, the kitchen a hive of activity. Veggie scraps went to the dog, bits of spiced bread were fried for Niké and Orbis while the main loaf baked, and the simmering sounds of so many of Yela’s herbs and faux-meats that Raoulo mixed set the mood perfectly. The meal took nearly an hour to prepare, and almost three more to consume. There were tales of Orbis’ murals on the station walls (with photo evidence), Niké’s many foul-mouthed exclamations at how impressive the scenery was, Tink’s hilarious antics as the weeks turned into months. And through it all, a sense of welcome, of slow but sure acceptance from the base family to the newly-added.
Orbis offered to help clean up the kitchen with Raoulo while Niké had Yela shave them down to the quick. After a good long salt-shower, Niké went to source a good movie for them all. They all spent even longer talking in the Martian dusk, well after the film had ended. The subtle shades of night poured unseen through the windows, lending an air of safety and anonymity to the group’s conversations, replete with physical contact long-absent over the many months and year.
As the evening threatened to roll into early morning, Raoulo yawned for what must have been the two- or three-hundredth time. “I think I may turn in, my dears.”
Yela mimicked the yawn in her husky tones, voice worn raw by so much talking. “I think I will, too. You two?” She said softly.
Niké nodded, then realized how dark it had become. “Yeah. Just give us a few?” They felt Yela’s comforting hand on their arm, a soft squeeze and murmured assent. Yela and Raoulo trailed off to the bedroom, soft light dancing out to fill the dark maw of the house, leaving Niké and Orbis bathed in a gentle haze. “You okay, ‘Bis?” Niké said softly, cradled in Orbis’ wide frame. They felt another reassuring squeeze.
“Yeah. Just a lot, I think.”
“Sure you’re okay to sleep with us? We can stay in the spare if you want.” There was silence for nearly a minute, and Niké turned around in Orbis’ arms. “It’s okay, I understand. I’ll let them know, yeah?”
They could just see Orbis nodding in the dim shadows, and found their way to their lips. “Spare is down two doors, other side of the hall.”
“I won’t be long, mm?” Niké wanted to stay there on that couch with them forever, just as much as they wanted to bound off to see Yela and Raoulo.
Niké slid up over the back of the couch, padding towards the main bedroom. Then they stopped, turning slowly on the spot. “I love you, ‘Bis.” They said softly.
“Hmm?” Orbis said, peering up over the couch with a squint.
“I said, ‘I love you, ‘Bis.'” They said, a little louder.
Niké could see Orbis’ smile, that twinkle in their eyes. “Oh, you shit. You heard me.” They stuck their tongue out and slapped their butt as they walked away, smiling at Orbis’ chuckling behind them. They stopped in the bedroom doorway, looking in on Yela and Raoulo. Yela was reading over some paper with her specs on, perched on her nose in that way Niké loved. Raoulo, sprawled out on the bed in the cutest position, was humming faintly, his voice like a warm oil that soothed all pains. It wasn’t going to be easy, integrating Orbis into all this. So much love, so many people in one house, there were bound to be problems. What if they didn’t get along? Would they be jealous? The new, firey love versus the old, established flame? Who would get first dibs? What about the sex? Fuck, they hadn’t even thought about the sex.
But then Yela looked up at them from her papers, and they felt some of that doubt slip away, like fresh Polos tree bark in the fall rains. Yela set her papers on the bedside table along with her specs and beckoned to Niké. Raoulo stopped humming and looked up too, and the worries started to melt off, winter’s snows bleeding into the lakes in spring. Niké fell onto the bed and sprawled over them both, all arms and legs and reassuring hands.
“We’re going to sleep in the spare tonight. That okay?” Niké murmured into the bed, and had to repeat it without the muffling power of the heavy duvet. So much easier to say it to the bed.
Raoulo nodded sleepily, firm, hot hands closing over theirs. “‘Course, love.”
Yela nodded as well. “Take all the time you two need, mm?” She poked at Niké’s nose. “But don’t think we’ll let you forget us, either. Lots of stuff to talk about.”
Niké flushed and kissed Raoulo’s hands, then Yela’s legs and knees. “I know.” They wrinkled their nose up. “Lots. But we’ll make it through.”
“Together.” Intoned Raoulo happily, curling up around Niké and into Yela’s side. Niké fell in among them then, cradled in-between the two, feeling so secure and alive. They stayed that way for a while, limbs draped and caressing each other, until they heard Orbis pad to the door. They had changed into their pajamas, a matching set of deep-blue fleece, to keep them warm in the cool station air. It was a gift from the last Yule shipment; Niké’s Nana had sewn it especially for them. It really suited them, Niké thought happily.
“Hey, sweetling.” Niké said from Raoulo’s chest, Yela cozied up behind them in a half-doze.
Orbis waved tiredly and smiled, leaning on the door frame. “Looks cozy, little mole.”
Niké blushed. Raoulo giggled, smiling back at Orbis. “That’s a good name.” He stroked Niké’s head softly.
“Do they burrow in under the covers with you guys, too?”
Yela cackled low into Niké’s back, nodding. “That’s such a good name.” Raoulo giggled even harder, kissing at Niké as they rose from his chest.
“Well, since you’re all so rude, I’ll be going.” There was a weak clamour of sleepy apologies and grins, and the three of them embraced and kissed goodnight.
“Sleep well, Orbis. And thank you for being so open with us.” Yela called as Niké joined them.
“You’re welcome here, Orbis. We’re all in this together, like little moons circling Niké.” Raoulo drowsily traced orbits in the air with his fingers, with Yela adding more.
Orbis smiled sheepishly and rubbed at their arm. “Thank you. I know it’s…weird, but I know it’ll get better over time.”
The two nodded and waved them off, and as Niké and Orbis adjourned to the spare bedroom, Niké gave them a kiss on the cheek. “That was pretty brave.”
“You think so?”
“Oh, I know so.”
“Well, if I’m so brave, maybe I should carry you off to bed, lest a space-dragon snatch you up!”
Niké started to laugh, then yelped as Orbis picked them up and slung Niké over their shoulder, pushing into the spare bedroom.
“You’re not supposed to overexert yourself, you butt!” Niké yelled quietly.
And somewhere in the house, Artan happily snoozed away the night, pleased to have so many people to love him in one house.
This might be my favourite story I’ve written this year, right after “Those Who Follow The Star-Prophet”. I recently played Tacoma, and the influence is clear here. It’s been a hot minute since I’ve felt taken by a story, and I know it’s good if a scene makes me tear up both writing and editing it.
For those wondering, the gender identities of Orbis and Niké are ambiguous for a reason, and I did my best to leave out signifying physical markers because I wanted something that reflected their personalities, not stereotypes. As well, I tried to examine and explore a poly relationship, despite never having been in one. I think there’s definitely room for improvement in the portrayal of these, but i’m really very happy with how it turned out. I identify most closely with the genderqueer/genderfluid label, if at all, so it was refreshing and scary and altogether heartwarming to show a queer story that had those kinds of characters, and had them being in positions of science and knowledge.
As I’ve been reading more novels lately, i’m starting to get more comfortable with describing my characters, as well as the hard-and-fast writing style I tried here. Still not sure if i’m sold on it, but it does make the story much easier to write and feel out.
Today did not start out well, even remotely. But it ended on a high note, and I made it so. I’m incredibly happy, and I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. Goodnight!