Luminous by A.E. Ash
Published 7/21/2015 | 8,878 Words
Entry number 3333. Vanguard Station Reckoning. All systems stable. Nothing new to report.
It’s been nine years since the war started; nine years since she has received acknowledgement or contact from anyone. Marooned alone on proto-colony planet Hestia, aging xeno-geologist Jyothi Agarwal still continues her routine transmissions in the hopes that someone, somewhere, is listening.
Then one day, out of nowhere, a brilliant light illuminates Hestia and something falls from the sky.
In the west, he wakes up in pain and alone. There is light everywhere. A new sense of weight. A broken body. Words. Knowing. And he realizes that against all odds, he is inexplicably alive.
On a planet far removed from everything, the last human and a fallen star find companionship in each other–and perhaps something more. Something beautiful, shining, lasting. Something luminous.
“Wake up. It is time.”
He hadn’t known he slept.
A presence stirred him from strange dreams. New dreams, spangled through with new thoughts, new lights. New and incomprehensible darknesses.
New voices—or, one new voice and heavy, frozen silence.
“I am waiting, child.”
The Voice, sable and subtle. Alien. It cut through the clouds of dust and ephemera filling his slumbering mind, icy-keen.
Am I not dreaming now?
“You know that you are not, bright one.”
Not dreaming. But not awake.
“Let me take you.” The Voice was music like he had never known lying over his mind like mist. “Let yourself fall. Come to me, as you must.” Deep cold sang out to him and nudged shadow-tendrils at his awareness.
“Why?” he countered. “Why must I go?” He searched the darkness beyond his sight, struggling to comprehend it.
He realized suddenly he was afraid. Terrified.
How long has it been since I have feared anything at all?
“Do not be afraid, child. It is the way of things.”
“I do not want to go,” he mused, but he was suddenly so weary. He felt cold. His thoughts and knowings were thinning, insubstantial and scattered.
“But you must.”
But I must.
“Good and faithful child. You have done your work admirably.” The voice smiled. The darkness beckoned, reached.
He let go of his hold on the moment and the light and he reached back.
“Initiating daily report, entry number—” Jyothi stopped short. She closed her eyes and tried to focus.
What day is it, now?
Time was tricky. Minutes to days to weeks to years, any one of them inextricable from the slippery tangle.
She was forgetting so much.
“Fine. I’ll look.” Jyothi gave in and checked the calendar display on her console, making note of the current entry number. “Off by eight.” She’d yet again lost the game she played with her own mind—three days in a row of losing. “I used to have a head for numbers,” she muttered to herself and restarted the log entry.
“Entry number 3333. Time is 08:14, Vanguard Station Reckoning. Reporting officer is Jyothi Agarwal, Geological Survey Unit Vanguard-12.” She paused, enjoying for a moment the uniqueness of today’s log-entry number. Four threes—that would not happen again in her lifetime.
Divide 3333 by 365, one Terran Standard year…just over nine.
Nine years. More than that, if she took into account the very slightly shorter days here at the outpost. She shook her head in frustration but continued her transmission, the same as every morning—a familiar and sentimental refrain in her low, even voice.
“Bunker systems stable. Generator output optimal. Outside surface temperature is 15 degrees Celsius, breeze from the south, skies mostly clear. Weekly supplies numbers recorded in the ledger—tally indicates supplies will last over 50 years at the current rate of consumption. I am in good health, vitals within normal ranges. Nothing further to report. Jyothi Agarwal, signing off.”
Same refrain. Same cadence. Only the fiddly details varied. Temperature and time, or the direction of the winds. She leaned back in the reporting station’s chair. It creaked, like it always did, a tiny asthmatic groan of aging hydraulics.
Everything here was aging.
“Even me,” she said and looked down at her wrinkled, brown hands. “Especially me.” She stood, slow and deliberate, and wandered to the station’s sleeping quarters. It was easier now to take her time. Nothing needed her attention, not immediately. Not the way it did when she had first arrived and all of her reports had been made before sunrise.
Oh, the invigorating bustle of those days—days only minutes shorter than a standard Earth rotation cycle. There had been so many people at the station back then. A full team of scientists—geological and biological survey crews—two dedicated medics, and a small detachment of soldiers to watch over them. The research vessel Vanguard—inelegant to look at, but ingenious in efficiency and design—bore her to this place. The planet was known simply by the coordinate designation it had received when first scanned from the colony.
She had finally given it a proper name, but only after they’d all gone. Hestia, formerly proto-colony planet…what had it been called again?
Some alpha-numeric string or other.
She’d officially noted the planet’s new name in the station logs as Hestia after the Greek goddess of home and hearth since really, it was home to her.
Such as it is.
Jyothi yawned, and stretched. Bones cracked and popped along her spine and in her joints. Sleep was not easy to come by these nights. She found herself lying awake in the cool blue near-darkness of the bunkroom until she couldn’t stand it and had to get up, putter around the station. She did her best work in the middle of the night. A month’s worth of inventory organization was this week’s sleepless-hours project. The storage rooms of Vanguard Station had never been neater. Jyothi chuckled quietly to herself—a rueful, rough little laugh.
“You’ve always been hospital-corners fussy,” Eka had said to her years ago.
“And I’m still fussy.” She looked up and down the rows of neatly-made beds. She’d long ago removed the modular walls that had divided them, providing an illusion of privacy. Her bunk, first against the north wall and in sight of both doors, was set apart by a teetering pile of pillows and the gold-framed picture sitting on the rations crate she used as a bedside table. She could have slept in any of the bunks, but this one had always been hers.
It didn’t feel right disturbing the others.
And if I did, is there a chance their dreams would become mine? Could I borrow the echoes of youth and vigor from the ones who used to sleep there?
Jyothi shivered. “Stop being morbid,” she admonished herself, and grabbed what she’d come in for. Her long-term expedition suit, neatly folded in the storage chest. She sank onto her mattress and pulled the suit over the baggy and time-softened lounge pants she’d already been wearing. She didn’t bother with constricting under-armor anymore. Beneath the regulation expedition suit she almost always wore her sleeping clothes. Warm, soft—nobody was around to see or care.
With another wide yawn she walked into the lavatory—always the women’s dorm, always the women’s washroom even now—and looked at herself. She grimaced, watching crow’s feet spread in an intricate lacework from the corners of her eyes, noting the uneven browning of her face from always wearing protective headgear in Hestia’s daylight.
How could there be that much more silver streaking her temples than there had been just days ago?
Eka had always loved her hair—like shining strands of obsidian, he’d said. She’d laughed at him and he’d replied by saying, “Obsidian is volcanic, yes, Miss Geologist? Smooth and dark, like you. But with its origins in fire. Just like you, Jyothi.”
That might have been the moment she knew she loved him.
Jyothi frowned, separating her hair into three hanks of star-streaked black. She looked away from the mirror and with fingers almost as quick as they were in those younger days, wove the strands into one plait that, let go, hung halfway down her back. Long hair was probably not very practical—no soldier ever let it go so far.
But I am not a soldier, and I never was. I am a scientist. And my hair is longer now than when I told him goodbye.
He’d not believed she was going. “You’d leave me like this?”
“For a chance to help humankind, Eka? You know I must.”
Jyothi wound the braid into a tight knot and slipped the helm of the environmental protection suit over her head, fogging its clear mask for a moment before the air filtration unit engaged.
With the practiced ease that years of routine cultivated, Jyothi inspected the weapons locker and chose a lightweight pistol for the holster at her side, then slid her scanner into the sheath strapped over her chest. The instrument bounced when she moved, bumping against her breasts, which for some reason only seemed to get heavier as she grew older.
She made her way to the bunker’s main cargo bay exit, glancing at her protection suit’s timepiece.
I’m even later than usual today. Slower.
She keyed her authorization into the door-panel. “Agarwal, time of departure, 08:42.” The doors whirred and hissed, parting to each side. White-blue sunlight poured into the cargo area, a soft breeze ruffling the fabric of her suit.
Jyothi peered from the compact, armored ATV to a smaller three-wheeled speeder. Sleeker, open to the elements, it was almost like the one that Eka had gotten when he’d first moved to the colonies.
For some reason, she couldn’t stop thinking about Eka today.
“How will you stand it, Jyothi? Being boxed in by all that metal, slogging around in hazmat suits?” Eka had leaned on the sunny yellow kitchen counter of his cluttered flat, shaking his head at her.
“I will stand it because I have to stand it. I can’t turn this down, and you know that,” she’d frowned back. “This is the only chance I’ll ever have for an off-world mission. The only chance to make a difference. I’m not young anymore, Eka. It was an honor to be included in the roster.”
Older than most of her shipmates by at least ten years, Jyothi was lucky enough to have the perfect credentials: xenogeology expertise that placed her at the top of her field, excellent psych profile and exemplary public record.
Plus, no children to leave behind.
“You’ll be gone for a long, long time,” he’d whispered.
“I know. I know this, Eka.”
But she hadn’t known. None of them had.
Jyothi brought herself back to the moment with a shrug. “You’ve still got a job to do.”
Almost every day for the last nine years she’d wrapped herself from head to toe in environmental protection suits and driven out over the gently sloping terrain, soft-packed dirt not unlike the Earth’s Alpine tundras but warmer. Treeless kilometers of grassy, shrubby terrain eventually shored up against ancient, domed mountains. Thin streams of snowmelt water veined the land, glinting in the strange sun’s diffuse light.
They’d concluded that the quiet, resource-rich planet really would have been a good place for a colony. Jyothi’s own research confirmed this.
But the Vanguard had never returned.
Two volunteers were to stay behind and mind the survey station while the rest of the team was recalled to the nearest main system. War demanded it. Soil samples were not as important as fending off a dissenter invasion.
“You might as well volunteer to stay, Grandma Jyothi. You’re too damn old to fight, anyway,” one of the other geologists had mocked, her voice thick with disgust. The other woman was afraid, and jealous that Jyothi would be one of the candidates to remain behind.
I can forgive her for that. I’d have been terrified, too.
Jyothi was even more afraid of staying but she’d volunteered anyway. It was the right thing to do. Stanis, the second oldest crewman, had reluctantly agreed to join her. Too bad he changed his mind last minute and stowed away. It had been cleverly done—his communicator transmitting from the men’s bunker washroom when the ship had taken off. In the end, Stanis had been more terrified of being alone with Jyothi than possibly being blown to bits in a firefight.
“What happened to all of you?” Jyothi whispered, scanning the quiet sky beyond the cargo bay.
She still thought about it—it would be hard not to. Those first two months of hopelessly broken, delayed transmissions had given way to years of eerie radio silence. No weeks-old messages from Eka. No news.
“What happened out there?”
I lost them to Pan-Terran military emergency draft protocol, that’s what happened.
A dull clang interrupted Jyothi’s thoughts as the cargo bay’s security protocols engaged, the big doors sliding shut. She blinked in the dimness.
“What is happening here?” she asked herself quietly.
She’d been alone for a long time, even before they’d left. Old grannies like her were invisible. Any old woman, no matter how clever and accomplished, was easily forgotten. But the silence was getting to her more than it used to.
I’ve been invisible for years. Even to myself.
She moved slowly, like in a dream. Jyothi reached up and dislodged her helmet, letting it fall to the floor with a sharp clatter. She re-opened the doors and this time, she chose the three-wheeler; gunmetal gray, one fat front tire, two wheels in back to moor the vehicle and prevent spinout.
She’d only ridden it once.
She powered it on. The motor was quiet and the seat was only a little dusty. Jyothi pulled off her gloves, stuffing them in her pocket, and strapped her rations and equipment pack to her back. As a last thought, she tugged her braid loose from its knotted bun. The heavy rope of hair thunked against her back.
Jyothi curled her her fingers over the steering controls. The wrinkles mapping the backs of her hands were even more noticeable in the morning sunlight. She looked up, took a deep breath of clean air, and maneuvered the speeder out of the cargo bay, onto the tracked dirt beyond. She watched the doors trundle shut and something in her stirred.
The few hours she had slept, she’d traveled…wandered. Walked in the Void, stars above and below. Something called her. West, it had said.
No, not said. Begged.
It was so very afraid.
In her dream she had walked westward for kilometers until she had found the source…her, him. It.
Can’t remember. But—it was bright. Hurt the backs of my eyes.
She had woken up abruptly, cheeks wet with tears, retinas streaked with brilliance, and a million tiny sparkling lights exploding away into nothing in the empty room around her.
“No wonder I’m restless today.”
Something in her quickened, blood surging faster through her veins, her hands nearly shaking from the force of it.
She knew—today would be different. It had to be. Today, she would not be boxed in.
Today, I do not want to be old and tired and forgotten.
She paused, one foot on the ground, the other on the vehicle, and reached back. Fingers working nimbly, she untwined her braid. The cool, dirt-scented wind danced strands of black and silver over her face. Jyothi smiled. She flooded the speeder with power and rocketed away from the bunker, out towards the dove-gray mountains on the western horizon.
She checked the compass and bore west. Today, it will be different.
Jyothi urged the speeder faster still, forgetting to ache, forgetting the heaviness of her limbs and mind. She lifted her face to the sky and squinted against the sun.
Today, I will be free.
He knew as he fell. He understood as he gave up and gave in.
It made sense, finally. Elegantly.
Smears of dark in the lightness of his mind, streaks of light in the darkness around him…a nova that broke his world.
He understood as he began to die…now, it will be different.
Now, I will be free.
Hestia was a quiet place. Jyothi looked around her at the gray sky, the blue-white sunlight slanting over endless kilometers of grassland.
It was peaceful.
The only other lifeforms the team had ever found were tiny insects near the water, a few rodent-like scurriers and the scrawny avian reptiles that preyed on them. Microbes were a different story, one she did not have the expertise to tell.
Jyothi leaned against the bike, sipping water from a foil packet. The air felt so gentle against her bare skin, like a soft and living thing. She had never stayed outside the bunker in the light and wind, her face bare, head uncovered, for this long.
It was beautiful.
Up to this point, every day had been the same—continue the mission like nothing had ever gone wrong. Head out in the morning on a pre-set course determined to fully survey the land around the station. Set up a base of operations at the chosen coordinates, take readings, make notes, monitor moisture and plant growth (normally that would have been the bio lab’s job), document any newly discovered plant and animal life, and observe the weather. Head back to the station.
Second verse, same as the first. And so on. So forth, until the years blurred.
“But today is different.” Jyothi dropped her pack onto the ground and plunked down beside it. Her knees only complained a little.
She didn’t even realize how much time had passed, or that she had slept. “West,” she muttered, jerking upward. Her neck was sore and lights sparked in her vision.
Jyothi didn’t have time to ponder. She looked up, blinking, the moment the sky caught fire.
This time aloud, the single word jolted her mind to full awareness. Seconds stretched into forever. A ball of searing-white fire streaked above her, devoured suddenly by the western horizon.
Hestia shook and the sky blinked.
Jyothi stood, trembling, heart beating fast, blood pumping in her ears. Everything was silent.
She darted to the bike and checked its compass. She wanted to be certain.
“Dead west,” she murmured, in awe. Before she could think too much about the situation, she was ready, pack slung over her back, vehicle powered on. She touched the sidearm in its holster like it was a lucky charm, then sped, breathing fast, towards where the light had died.
How is it so cold and hot at once? How is it so weighty, how am I so strange?
He cast his senses around him, fighting to know. Where he was. What he was…
Words. He’d known them, once. Millennia ago. Speech. Knowing that was not of the Light. Disconnected from Light, painfully sharp, confusingly specific.
They were heavy, these knowings. These expressions. One of them filled his mind, larger than the others.
That was it. He was in pain.
He blinked. He had eyes to blink, and the eyes communicated sights to this differently corporeal mind. He was a tiny speck of a thing.
Heat seeped from inside of him. Cold buffeted him from outside of his body. Wind—atmosphere, heavy and dull.
His body was new. And broken.
He’d fallen. Sent to die, as all of his kind did, to know for a moment what the infinitely tiny, yearning creatures knew as they wandered over orbiting rock, basking in the heat and life of nearby suns.
Around him, dirt—gray, his mind told him. The color gray. A wound in the land where he had fallen. His…eyes, that was the word, felt pain from light. He had never felt pain from The Light before…
He looked down at his body. It blinded him. He still radiated, a haze of brilliance pounding pain to the back of his new mind. He saw that underneath the light, over the soft and fragile stuff that he was made up of, darkness wound, sinuous and glinting. And…wet.
Blood, his mind told him. Life slipping. He barked out a strange, coarse noise. Laughter, he knew.
But why is this funny?
“Because you were born again for these few moments only just to die,” the Voice said, from faraway. “We want you to Know as they know, before the Light takes you.”
Ah, that is…funny, he thought.
He uttered the noise again, softer. It hurt his sides and made his head ache. He looked around him one more time, at the gray dirt and a lighter gray sky above him, at the faraway star’s light filtered through the planet’s atmosphere. The blood still flowed, hot for seconds before a stirring of wind chilled it to his body.
“I want to stay here longer.” He spoke the words aloud. They were heavy on his tongue and even quieter than the second laugh. “I do not want…to die.”
He slumped back. The soil beneath him was cooling, still smoking in places from his impact. The sky pitched and darkened.
A presence teased at the edge of his awareness, a scrambling of scree and the fall of shadow but it was too muddled by pain.
“I do not want to die,” he said again and closed his eyes as the light drained away from his knowing.
“Can you hear me? Sir?” Jyothi stood, hands at her sides, shaking. She’d scrambled over the side of the impact site.
The fireball had left behind a meters-wide divot in the earth, rock accretion in steaming, ragged hillocks around the lip of the crater. It was shallow, not terribly big compared to other sites she’d surveyed. The air was sharp with burnt grass and the singed-mineral scent of heated soil.
This should not be happening.
Something in her mind stopped her from questioning the plausibility of the scene before her. A naked man. A glowing, naked man, bleeding from myriad cuts, the air around him shimmering like a heat mirage.
Luminous. That was the word that appeared in her mind. He was luminous and impossible and bleeding out right in front of her, curled in fetal position, eyes closed. Gold skin, gold hair, dark red blood. The fireball had dropped here, and the dream had led her outside today—no helm and no idea what she was walking into.
“Sir?” It felt absurd to address him as an EMT would any accident victim back home.
He didn’t answer but his sides moved with labored breath. He was still alive.
Jyothi dug in her pack for a first aid kit.
Would adrenaline help it—him?
She didn’t have enough bandaging for all of those cuts. She found the hypo in its standard, red plastic packaging. Rescue, they called it. Adrenaline and painkillers, a clotting agent. Expensive. Jyothi sucked in a breath of char-filled air and hunkered over him, ignoring the twinge of pain in her lower back.
She winced when the needle sunk into his skin.
Not even a minute passed until he convulsed and sat up, sweat beading on his face, neck, and chest. His breath surged rough and loud and he opened his eyes.
They were gold, too. She had never seen anything more beautiful.
“Deva,” She whispered. Being of light, heavenly messenger. “Angel…”
He watched her, jaw tight, eyes wide. “No,” he said finally. He closed his mouth and did not speak again.
Jyothi reached for him. His light was fading. He looked almost human now, limbs splayed on the ground, skin smudged with blood and dirt. “Please…come with me. I can help you, but I have to get you back to safety. To my research station.” She smiled weakly, hair lashing wild and loose around her face in the sudden wind. He hugged his arms around himself, visibly chilling. “Please.” She again offered her hand.
His fingers curled over her own rough brown skin. Somehow, after clumsy grappling, he was upright, shuffling with her toward the sloping edge of the shallow basin. She paused, scooping a handful of dirt from where he had lain. It was still warm to the touch. She let it sift into her in her pocket then helped him make his way up the loose, blackened soil and to the bike.
He stood quietly, staring ahead of him. She remembered he was naked and cold.
Embarrassed, Jyothi dug in her kit and retrieved the sheet of reflective material inside—a shock blanket. She wrapped it over his shoulders. He seemed to understand and responded in kind, fitting the sheeting over his chest, doubling it under his arms so that he wore it like a robe.
“We have to drive to get there.” Jyothi said. “You understand me, yes?”
“Yesss.” His reply was slow but firm.
“Good. Hold on to me.” More confusion and awkward clambering, then they were heading back towards the station.
Everything was a blur. Cargo bay doors grinding closed, mismatched footsteps in the quiet halls and the scents of smoke and blood in the air. He was so heavy. Jyothi’s bones ached, her body straining to bear the weight.
Somehow he ended up on a cot in the small infirmary. She forgot to put on safety gloves at first and had to start again, the astringent tang of antiseptic crowding out the other smells while she dabbed at his wounds. One of the cuts needed sutures. She had never been good at sutures but thankfully, the infirmary had state of the art medical taping that closed, cleaned, and bound wounds all at once.
None of the injuries were life-threatening.
The rescue serum had done its work, and his heartbeat, if slow, was regular. Blood pressure also low, but holding. She wrapped him in soft, clean blankets after she’d finished all of the tests she could think to run.
He really was human.
Had there ever been any question?
Human blood, type A; human eyes with pupils dilated from the drugs. Human hands that curled into fists when she’d cleaned his wounds.
Human words spoken in a human voice.
Yes, there were questions. Big, strange questions.
“The pain…is lessened. My gratitude.”
Jyothi nodded dumbly in reply to his thanks, watching as he closed his eyes and fell into an easy sleep, his breathing steady and stronger.
She stood, at a loss.
“Report,” she murmured to herself, finally. “I should make a report.” From the infirmary console, a cramped version of the main systems in the primary lab, she narrated the events of the day in a clinical and reasonable fashion.
“Fireball spotted in the western sky at approximately 10:45. Impact site roughly, hmm, thirty meters wide, three meters deep. Soil sample collected from center of site. Human male recovered and administered first aid. He appears to be in his mid-thirties and suffered multiple lacerations, contusions, and minor shock. No clear explanation as to why he was there at the impact site,” Jyothi paused.
And he was glowing. Had I imagined that?
She resumed the report.
“Unidentified male, human or, humanoid—“ She paused, drew a breath and continued less shakily. “He appears to be in his early 30s, 182 centimeters tall according to the gurney measurements, weighs around 90 kilos. Race—um, not sure. Light-brown skinned—gold…no, blond hair, gold eyes,” Jyothi again hesitated. Impossible gold, strange gold—how did one explain such a thing? She shook her head. “He’s currently stable. I will retain him in the infirmary until further notice. Jyothi Agarwal, out.”
She sunk into the chair next to the young man’s sleeping form, folding her tired hands over the pistol on her lap. The safety was still on.
Every bone, every muscle in her body thrummed with adrenaline. A high protein ration pack and pouch of water sat at her side, unopened. Her breathing began to normalize, her heart easing back to its everyday cadence.
She fought to keep her eyes open but the painkillers she had taken slowed her mind, softened the pain. She blinked.
Devas of light, filling the sky with brilliance. White feathered wings on warrior angels. Stars, billions of them, crowding the void with their heat and light.
A voice in her mind repeated the word, soft and thoughtfully.
Star. Louder, confident. Strong.
Yes, that is the word I sought.
That is the word for what I am…or, what I used to be.
A luminous body of burning gases, brilliant, exuding radiation and light into the deep cold. Lighting planets and their moons.
I was a star.
He awoke but did not move. Something important teased at the back of his knowing. A word, but he could not remember it. He allowed his gaze to slide to his feet, stretched before him. Beyond where he lay, the other being slumped.
That word appeared to him as a lazy, slow, coolness.
Sleep, Respite. What the other one does now. What I just did.
Human, his mind told him. Female.
Old, like you, only by her own proportions. You are older than the rock on which you lay. Older than the star that warms it.
He blinked. He should not be alive.
The…human, female, had healed him. He was now like her—spongy and full of a strange, tenuous life.
She had given him these moments in time to know differently than through The Light. The Voice, from light years away, smiled at him.
Take it. Take the moments. See how they taste to your tongue and how they feel to your touch. See what it is like to walk under the light of one such as you were.
He nodded his assent, silent. The Voice faded and he was left with the silence of his strange, new surroundings.
The only sound was his breathing…and hers.
He closed his eyes and eased back into the first real sleep of his long life.
Jyothi ate carefully, hyper-aware of how loud the crunch of granola seemed in the quiet.
He ate too, slowly. Tiny nibbles, tentative bites of each thing placed in front of him. Just like he had done every other time. Dried fruit, high-calorie granola mix, a meat and chutney MRE, packets of stewed vegetables. He sampled each food, methodical, sniffing, touching, and closing his eyes as he chewed.
He did not speak.
“Do you like any of the food today?” She asked, watching him nervously. He looked out of place in slightly baggy lab scrubs, his dark gold fingers slow and careful as he placed food on his tongue, eyes focused in intense concentration. “It’s not much, but it is caloric, and has all of the nutrients you’d need in a day. For…a person of your size, that is.” She trailed off uncertainly, looking back down at her own rations.
“New flavors,” he said finally, looking at her over a pouch of fruit juice. He nodded slowly. “And good.”
She thought she saw him smile. The relief that flooded her was disproportionate to the situation—MREs at a lone mess-hall table with a strange, younger man.
She had not spoken to anyone in years. Not anyone she was sure could hear or answer. Log entries and transmissions into nothing did not count. “I’m glad,” she replied, chancing another look at him.
He was strange and beautiful. Brown-skinned, like her, but his was warmer-toned. His light eyes were a stark contrast—golden as a cat’s. His face was slow to expression but when he met her gaze, she always felt the same thing—warmth. Deep and abiding warmth.
He really is an angel.
She had asked him over the past two weeks who he was, and how he had arrived on Hestia.
He had never replied. His face bunched in confusion, once, and he’d uttered one word, “Light.” Then, seeming frustrated, he had closed his mouth and not talked again for hours.
When he next spoke to her, it was out of the blue. “Hunger. Thirst.” He’d patted his belly, and tapped his throat with one finger. She fed him. He had eaten slowly, cautious, but seemed to gain strength.
Each day, he spoke a little more. He followed her around the station, outside into the light. She never went far lately. She was afraid to leave him to take samples, and had even stopped entering daily reports into the station log. She watched him where he sat across from her, mushing a raisin between his thumb and forefinger before putting it in his mouth.
“What is your name?” She asked the question again. Other questions he had answered. ‘Will you hurt me’ had been the first, to which he had replied by holding up his hands and repeatedly begging her not to fear. He had learned her name, and sometimes murmured it quietly as he padded behind her in the station halls, or stood beside her in the light of Hestia’s gentle sun.
This time, he stopped eating and fixed her with a strange look almost like a frown. “I…do not know the word of name. Once, in sleep. Once the knowing showed me.”
“Oh,” Jyothi replied, not knowing what to say. Something stirred at the back of her memory. A dream…
“Wait…you mean, you heard the word in a dream? The word that was your name?”
He brightened slightly, nodding. “Yes. In a dream.” He paused, thoughtful. “Come,” he said finally, and stood from the table, facing the mess hall station exit.
“Outside?” Jyothi asked, confused.
He again nodded. She stood, wincing at the pain in her knees, then tucked her hair behind her ears and moved to his side.
She’d stopped braiding it these days. Just like she’d stopped wearing the exo-suit. He waited at the door, almost impatient, while she keyed in the code to open the doors to the west cargo bay.
Outside, the smallest of Hestia’s two moons gleamed faintly at the horizon, a pale and silvery gray. Above, stars crowded the sky. Glinting, white and blue and yellow and red, pinpricks in the velvet blue of the night.
He moved to her side and she heard him sigh. She watched him as he scanned the horizon, then pointed west.
He shook his head, looking up to the dome of the heavens. “Lights,” he replied.
Jyothi’s stomach lurched. Stars.
“Star…” she whispered.
“Yes.” She felt his excitement thrumming in the air around her. She looked at him, eyes wide. A haze of gold shimmered around him. He pointed, one long finger extended to the heavens. “Star,” he repeated, and looked at her and smiled.
“You’re a star.” Jyothi said, unable to look away from him.
“Yes,” he replied simply. “My light was to die, but it stays. Jyothi, I am alive. I stay.” He beamed at her for a moment and went back to studying the sky above him.
Jyothi suddenly didn’t notice her tiredness, and didn’t notice her pain. Her hair lifted in the chill night wind but where he stood, there was warmth. A man in navy blue scrubs, glowing and gazing into the star-studded with a gentle smile on his face.
You were a star.
Jyothi looked away. She didn’t notice that she was crying and smiling at the same time.
He tasted his new name. It was easy on his tongue, and quick to his mind. “West.”
Jyothi grinned at him. He observed that her face was different than his, lined but somehow softer. Her eyes were a clear warm brown like the earth of some planets he had known through The Light’s understanding. He knew also that she was aging, and tired.
That she was the only one of what she was, at least here in on the soft-hearted rock she had named Hestia.
Hestia, a light-goddess of home.
He knew that Jyothi’s heart was also soft—that she was a quiet and easeful soul, just like the planet that was now giving her quarter.
He said the name he had chosen for himself again, his voice stronger. “West, yes. It is a good name.”
West was the point of terrestrial orientation that indicated where he had fallen.
He grinned. “You are the first being that I have ever talked words to, Jyothi. Before, I only knew. I did not need to say a name, or for a name to be said.”
“Well…I’m honored, I think. I mean, yes. Very honored to be the first,” she laughed, her quick grin bright as morning sun.
He still did not have knowing or understanding to articulate what had happened, and why. To explain to human-Jyothi that stars, once fallen, did not usually live more than moments in their new forms. That the brief, new existence enabled them to understand those such as she in their next journeys, sometimes as other stars, as other sources of light.
As shards of The Light.
Alive, he had told her. That was the best word he could think of to describe the source of his own light.
“West it is, then,” she said to him, and she laughed. He liked when she laughed. It was a rich and low sound and showed her white teeth, fanned the lovely tiny lines around her brown eyes.
She had begun to take him out with her, further onto the planet’s surface. He bore heavy burdens for her. He knew lifting packs and crates pained her and she did not always say it, perhaps because the saying pained her, but she was grateful for his help.
They ate their meals together at least three times each cycle. Each day, she would say. He slept in the room where she did, though he knew he slumbered more, dreamed more than she did.
He could hear her wandering in the night, talking to herself sometimes.
Once he heard her calling out in what sounded like anger or frustration—harsh, sharp-edged words he’d never heard her use before.
He had gone to her and crouched on the floor but she hid her face, and would not speak. He did not understand her anger, but assumed it was a new human pain he did not yet know.
“West, I need to move rations from cold storage to the kitchens today. Would you…” Jyothi paused, and she turned away her face and warm brown gaze. It bothered him, just as his new name spoken in her voice pleased him.
She does not want to ask for my help, he realized.
“I will do this for you,” he said with finality. She smiled, and bowed her head in thanks.
As they worked late into the day, West watched her. Her hair hung around her face as she leaned forward, digging through a crate. Her hair was two colors—the shining black of fast-cooled rock and glass born from volcanoes, and the silver of Hestia’s moonlight. “Your hair has obsidian, and veins of silver,” he observed, watching her.
She went very still.
“Mine is gold, and another darker gold,” he said, touching his own hair absently. It had grown so long that it hung past his ears.
“Silver, and gold. They are good,” he mused, quietly.
Jyothi did not move for a long time. He only realized she was crying when he moved close and saw the saline streaking her cheeks, sliding along the two lines that framed her mouth.
“I—I did not mean—” he started, confused.
“I’m sorry,” she said quietly, and left him to stand alone, confused.
Later, she told him why she’d wept.
There had been another. Human male, Eka, a name that also meant ‘light’ and she had loved him, and that other man had said her hair was obsidian, and silver.
West had pulled the blankets around her as she lay in bed, eyes open and shadowed.
“Silver is good,” he’d said quietly, and left her to seek after dreams.
The next morning, she did not awake when he did.
She slept too hard, muttering to herself. He sat on the bed next to hers. There were many other such beds.
Other-humans, all of them gone. He remembered the night’s sky, speckled with stars. With other-lights as his had been.
She did not have other-humans as he had had other lights.
And now, him.
Something in him ached. A shock of new pain, a pain that was in no one place or other. A pain that was more a knowing than a physical touch.
Sadness, he understood.
It was a terrible and heavy pain. West folded his hands on his lap and watched her as the morning grew late. She slept, and he watched.
West waited for her to wake, and thought, and feared.
Something hot and damp pricked at the corners of his eyes and ticked over the skin of his face. Stunned, he lifted one hand to touch it, placed a drop of the moisture on his tongue to taste.
The ache in him deepened. West knew now what it meant to weep.
“Why do you measure this tiny thing? Why does knowing its space-filling matter to you?” West stared down at his hand, fascinated by the shining black beetle tickling his palm.
Jyothi couldn’t help the grin that creased her face. “We measure all new species—well, ones that are new to us. Humans are curious but methodical. We want to know about them. How they function and live, how they impact or are impacted by their environments. This kind of context tells us a lot about the world around us.”
West studied the slow-moving beetle, his brow creased in concentration. “Knowing of one thing tells you of others,” he replied thoughtfully.
A loud buzzing interrupted Jyothi’s reply. West cried out, instinctively lifting his hands and backing away as the beetle took flight. “It has altered,” he said wonderingly.
Jyothi didn’t hold back her laugh, watching West follow the beetle with his wary gaze until the insect disappeared in the tall grasses behind the station. After a moment, West turned back to her and pointed to the notes she’d been taking. He munched a protein bar absently.
“How many of those are you going to have today? I’m losing count?” Jyothi grabbed the empty wrapper from him and stuffed it in her pocket.
“I do not know—I too have lost count. Jyothi, I think that you need to add more millimeters—its change made it larger.” He nodded seriously, pointing at her tablet.
“Well, maybe not larger—but you’re right that its wingspan might be a good thing to note,” Jyothi replied, impatiently brushing aside a loose section of hair from her eyes. The wind was picking up, cool and smelling of distant rain.
“You measured me, too, didn’t you? When you first found me and helped me be not broken. It’s true, yes?” West leaned in and tucked the errant strand of hair behind Jyothi’s ear with a strong, steady hand. He trailed on finger over the ridge of her ear before backing away.
Jyothi nodded wordlessly, face heating “Yes. I did. Standard procedure.”
West patted his suit’s front pocket, rustling the foil wrapping of another protein bar. “Then I think that you need to add more millimeters in your notes for me, too—I like food but I am certain it makes me larger. Your records must show this fatter West,” he said with mock seriousness.
“West, you made a joke!” Jyothi laughed—a cascading, full-throated peal that sounded out over the plain, through the wind. She forgot that she’d been embarrassed by West’s fingers in her hair.
She forgot that she’d been dumbfounded by his touch.
“Tell me something, Jyothi. How many years have you lived?” West asked the question almost shyly.
Jyothi shook her head stubbornly. “What does it matter how old I am? I’m not young. And stress made it worse, you know. I’ve been here alone for nine years.”
“Nine years to you—that would be, by my reckoning…” West’s face fell. “Too many. You have been alone too long.”
Jyothi nodded. She didn’t want to admit to him how happy she was that he was here. She didn’t want to believe that the impossible sat next to her on a blanket spread over the grass as she warmed her bones in the Hestian sun.
She didn’t want to tell him how much she had come to need him. Most of all, she couldn’t stand the thought of ever being a burden to him.
“I’m only 63 years old. The women in my family live to be 100.” She looked away from him, self-conscious.
“You are not so old as you may feel,” he said to her, and she could hear the smile in his voice.
“I never felt so old until…” her voice trailed off.
Until you. Until I stood next to the embodied soul of a luminous star on that breezy Hestia night, an old woman, and a young man.
“What?” he asked, but she sensed that he somehow knew what she was thinking.
“Nothing. Just, nothing.”
He didn’t say anything for a while, and she busied herself watching thin wisps of cloud drifting above them, a tiny raptor soaring lazily on the breeze.
“Jyothi, I have words I must tell you,” West said finally. “Look at me.” He reached out and touched one fingertip to the top of her left hand. “Listen.”
She turned to face him, cowed by his beauty, but this time she did not look away.
“I will not leave you to be alone. I stay here, as you stay. Do not fear being alone. Do not fear time or age.”
He spoke so softly she had to strain to hear him. He moved closer, and his wide brown palm pressed to the top of her hand. She stared down at his hand—strong, the tendons tight and his skin an even deeper gold than when she had first seen him.
She bit her lip till she tasted blood, fighting away the shivers coaxed to being by the rough pad of his thumb over her skin.
“I would wish that you believe what I say. With age comes understanding. And great beauty. I know this,” he said.
She looked at him for long moments. He lightly squeezed her hand. She fought away tears. She’d cried too much lately. Too much had seemed raw and close to the surface. Alone, then not alone. She did not feel the age of her skin. Her heart beat strongly, a fiery nova of purpose and hope and yearning, just as it had when she had been a girl.
“How old are you?” she asked finally, looking at him, enjoying the warmth of his hand on hers despite herself.
“All of my hairs would be silver. No obsidian would remain,” he said and his voice was lower than she’d ever heard it. “Only shining moonlight silver. Like yours, Jyothi—precious silver.” He pressed his chin to the top of her head, his fingers warm and grip firm on her hand.
Jyothi closed her eyes and drew a long breath.
How had this happened?
She knew, just as she had known the other time so long ago— this moment was a new and radiant thing.
It was the start of love.
Not a fixed point. Not a slow orbit. He walked up and down every hallway in the station and he thought until his mind ached.
She would not take him into her heart.
Her pride stopped her. His skin was too smooth. His face too…handsome, that was the word she had used.
He looked too young and she would not let herself love such a young man. Even if he was far older by her reckoning that she would admit.
You have a reserve, child.
He stopped mid-step, eyes wide. The Voice, the one who had taken him from the heavens, had not addressed him in months.
Look within, The Voice urged.
West closed his eyes.
Light, faint. But not forgotten.
Do you know what to do? The Voice was gentler than it had ever been.
West nodded to himself. “Yes. Yes, I know. I understand.”
He walked back to the lab where he knew Jyothi was only pretending to work on data analysis. He forced himself to go slowly, to ease the pounding of his heart. How had he not seen it before?
He knew how to make the weeping go away. He knew how to create the space for love.
Jyothi had hidden from him all evening.
“I am a coward,” she hissed through her teeth and slammed her notes to the counter. Ever since she had explained to West why she remained behind, alone…ever since he had held her hand for an hour in the late afternoon.
Ever since she realized how deeply she loved him.
Her head ached tonight, and she was jittery. She had half a mind to venture out into the Hestia night but its winter had eased in, and the sunless winds were colder than were comfortable, even with an exo-suit.
Coward, she thought savagely to herself.
He is every bit as lonely as you.
Footsteps sounded behind her. He only made noise when he walked if he wanted her to know he was there.
“Please,” he interrupted. His words came easier these days, his expression more human than it had ever been. “I need for you to hear me.”
She didn’t answer, but motioned to the chair next to her.
West sat down quietly beside her, watching her carefully. “I have…I have a way. A means to ease your doubt.”
“What?” Jyothi shot back, wincing at the sharpness in her voice. “What are you talking about?” She said, her tone less acid.
“I have something within me that remains. Light. I feel it in my heartbeat. I have enough of my light that I may do one big, bright thing before I am as human.”
“I—I don’t understand.” Jyothi hated the falter in her voice. She was confused, and frightened by his intensity.
“My light. I have still a portion—a reserve of my light. Of what I was before I am now. It is…transformative. I could make it different, Jyothi. I can change you to be not weeping.”
“Oh,” Jyothi said, still not understanding. She realized her hands were shaking.
West smiled, a strangely solemn expression. “You lay alone in your bed when I could be next to you but you are proud. Old woman, young man. It is of no bother to me. But Jyothi, you mind it. You find it shaming.”
Jyothi opened and closed her mouth, shocked by his frankness. “It is—isn’t done. Men don’t like—”
“Do not tell me what I like,” West cut in, an edge to his voice. “Do not tell me how I love.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to…” Jyothi trailed off. “What are you trying to say?”
“I am an old one too, you know.” His smile was rueful. “Can you love an old man, as I am old?”
“I do not understand, West. What are you asking?” She watched him, waiting for a clue.
“Do you love me? The true me? I need to know.”
She wanted to turn away from him, to look at her feet or the console or the wall or anything but his face. But she kept her gaze on his eyes, struggling to comprehend his words, his strange and intense tone.
“How could I not?” Jyothi winced at the rough edge to her voice.
“Then old-West will love old-Jyothi until the days grow dark and they sleep with the earth,” he said quietly, wrapping one hand around hers.
He burst into light. Radiance so warm her heart nearly dissolved with the joy. Gold, pure, and so…him. Light like she had at times felt in her own mind when looking up at the sky and its billions of stars.
He shone forever, days into months into years of luminous joy but only seconds had passed. She blinked.
West looked at her. He was changed. The hair at his temples was silver, like hers. Moonlight-colored locks wove in with the gold. Laugh lines framed his lips, and his eyes were cradled by crow’s feet.
The hand that tightened over hers was not so smooth as it had once been.
“West…” she murmured his name, stunned.
He closed his eyes for a moment, then smiled, and looked at her again. “Am I still bright?” he asked, almost sheepish.
Jyothi nodded furiously, eyes streaming. “So bright.” She slipped from her chair, pulled her hand from under his and pressed herself against him, tears wetting the scrubs at his chest. “So very, very bright,” she whispered against him as his hands knotted in her hair, his own tears warm against her head.
“Entry number 29 by post-first contact reckoning. Clock reads 07:30, Vanguard Station time. Reporting officer is West.” West paused the program. “Am I doing this correctly, Jyothi?”
She smiled at him, nodding. “Perfectly.”
West grinned, pleased, and continued. “Station systems stable. Generator output optimal. Outside surface temperature is 12 degrees Celsius, breeze from the north, skies mostly cloudy. Current tally indicates supplies will last 32 years at the current rate of consumption, and we have found ways to cultivate edible plant life in and around the compound. Jyothi and I are in excellent health and spirits, our vital signs within normal ranges.” He slid his chair away so that Jyothi could move in.
She continued the report, her voice warm and rich. “Continued observation show West to further demonstrate all signs of standard human physiology, including standard metabolism, signs of normal aging, and overall health. Current research project for the week is continued analysis of the riverbed soil samplings from just south of the crater impact site. One new possible insect species noted in the xeno-bio labs. Nothing further to report.”
Jyothi smiled at West, meeting his warm gaze. “West and Jyothi signing off.”
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