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The Awning of the Stars

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Fighting Lessons

I’m on Turundrlar. I came over with Jos, of course, and Ryan – his sometime student - who claimed he was ready for strit fighting. Jos didn’t look convinced, nor did Ryan really, so of course I pushed for it so they couldn’t back down and here I am.

Everything about this place is non-human, despite its symp captain. The barrel of the ship is hollowed out with wide vents down the side and handholds for winged aliens to leap up and down. For all the SEND shit that goes out about strits to scare us, I never knew they could basically levitate but here they all are swooping around going about their business. The levs are designed to be transparent, acting as access pods for the symps. Everything about Turundrlar seems wide open. Nowhere to hide. I puff on my cigret to ease the anxiety that sparks.

Strits are tall though, the SEND got that right. They would probably have to fold in half to hold a conversation with me. Not that we would be able to communicate much without Jos interpreting. Normally I’d say, language isn’t everything, there are other ways of communicating after all, ways I’m probably better at then talking. But their colourful alien faces throw me off. Mostly it’s the white of the assassin priests round here but then occasional cases of bright red or deep blue skin. All with dark, staring eyes. So little blinking. I don’t know how to read them and that freaks me.

I take another deep drag, crouch down to sit on my heels, against the wall. Got to stop getting panicked about being on a strit boat. Striv. Jos likes striv not strit (and I live to be accommodating to Jos). I close my eyes for a minute and listen to the hum of aliens chattering around me instead. I can’t help but love the music of the Ki’hade language. You really have to breathe well to speak it properly and, for someone whose breathing can get pretty messed up, it could be nice to have a language that helped regulate it. It’s strange for me to think strivs get angry in that language, but I guess they don’t interpret the sounds the way I do.

This afternoon’s entertainment distracts me from my thoughts. Jos is training Ryan on some kind of long sword (ha) - no innuendo intended, not for Jos. Beginners begin with these old school type rapiers that no one would ever consider fighting with nowadays. Why would you? I mean, guns exist. But Jos says this is how he learnt so it’s the way he knows how to teach.

He has a bad student though, terrible in fact, the rich kid is not a fighter - not this kind of fighting anyway. Ryan’s not giving up though despite some really poor hand-eye coordination. He keeps trying to best Jos with idiotic lunges. Jos doesn’t give him an inch. It looks more like it’s taking everything Jos has not to stab him in the eye with the silly sword.

I stop watching Ryan – the one it’s safe to watch – and let myself pay attention to Jos. Some days you just need to indulge. His dark hair is clumped up a little with sweat, making it look jet black, which I know it’s not quite. His eyes are focused on the fight but still, I think he’ll notice my eyes on him. Even the tiniest of invasions registers with him. Sometimes I look at him and he looks like he wants to rip off his skin, like it is crawling with lice. I have too much sympathy with that feeling, it makes me hate that I do that to him.

I still watch him though. He moves with care and stealth. I’ve not had much experience with real life animals but the power in his legs reminds me of some of the vids you get of huge beautiful cats prowling. I have a moment of wild dissonance: a small kid hanging heavily off my arm, running after me when I shook him off. I remember feeling cross with him because Shane was around and I wanted to seem older, not like I hung around with a smaller kid. I remember feeling bad afterwards, thinking, had I made Jos unhappy? Instead, here in front of me is this strong, foreign creature, Jos-like, and not-Jos, fighting and teaching. I didn’t have a clue back then what it was for Jos to be unhappy, or me.

I light a new cig. Darkness lies in those sorts of thoughts. Jos throws me a look. I worry that he’s caught the scent of my thoughts. But no, he’s just disapproving because I am a guest here, smoking, stinking out Turundrlar. Niko’s ship. I keep smoking. Niko doesn’t own me. And nor does Jos, mostly. Jos rolls his eyes.

There’s a presence at my shoulder and I choke up a cough. It’s the Captain. I shouldn’t be surprised that a master assassin is silent but it fucks with me anyway. He nods at me but barely looks away from Jos to do it. He’s allowed to look as much as he wants. I offer him a cigret, because I want to distract him a little. No, thank you, he tells me, his words stilted.

Eventually he moves off towards the sparring mats.

“Jos-na,” he says, in his strange, sing-song style.

“Wait with Evan,” Jos tells Ryan, dismissing him from the mat. He turns to Niko, offering him a long sword. When Niko shakes his head, Jos goes and gets two shorter swords, almost knives, from the drawer. He hands one to Niko.

Ryan comes to sit by me, he sinks down the wall, a puddle of sweaty exhaustion. Together we watch Niko and Jos. Here’s the real lesson I think.

They stand facing each other for what seems like an eternity. The knives they’re holding look far too sharp and they make me antsy. Not for me but for the injuries they could cause Jos. Then they’re fighting. The weapons slash through the air, crashing together with garish, scraping sounds, then flashing away. There is an economy of movement, nothing showy. They stay on the balls of their feet, their balance in constant flux, bending and lunging as the knives demand. It goes on and on. It seems like they’re not trying to fell each other, just unbalance or force a mistimed thrust; so there’s no death blow. It lulls me, eventually, and my anxiety diminishes. It’s a beautiful dance. They’re in-tune, following each other’s movements, each tiny clue from the other’s body. I remember that kind of dancing, so rarely danced for its own sake though. It makes me ache watching them like this. It makes me want. I can’t imagine ever dancing that way with Jos, ever being in-tune with him like Niko is. These are the feelings that hollow me out inside.

I can hardly tell how it finishes. Suddenly Jos is on the floor, under Niko, and an instant later they are on their feet, a metre apart, bowing to each other, talking quietly in Ki’hade.

Every so often I get these phantom thoughts, that go ‘when peace comes, I’ll...’, and then something ridiculous. Something stupidly hopeful, like I’ll visit EarthHub, or be a news host on the SEND and tell people the fucking truth for once. Ridiculous nonsense - as silly as the idea of this peace thing working out.

This time I catch myself thinking, when peace comes, I’ll dance with Jos, I’ll dance and I’ll learn Ki’hade.

Language Lessons

I was Mukadori-born. I used to boast about it because Shane was born on-station but not me. I was born amongst the stars (that’s how my Mama talked). Ships are all I know. The hum of the drives is the most familiar thing in the world to me. Wherever I was, whatever was happening to me, if I needed to I could close my eyes and concentrate just on that steady vibration pouring through the ship, through me. It wasn’t much but if that’s all you’ve got, it counts. Mukadori, Genghis Khan, Shiva, Macedon. My life story can be told just using those names. I don’t ever feel like I need to do any more explaining than that. Just say the word Shiva and watch people recoil.

I’ve moved over to Turundrlar full time for now. Apparently to assist in facilitating alien-human relationships and communications (so Azarcon Sr claims). I have a striv counterpart and everything, a blue-face called Nida. Turundrlar, for all of its alien design and the presence of actual bonefide aliens, has that same baseline - the only things I’ve always been sure of – a ship’s drive engine and the stars. It’s as close as I think I’ll ever get to home.

Before I left Macedon, I met this drive technician, Piotr, a pirate that Falcone’s protégé brought with him when he defected. Except Piotr wasn’t a pirate, not really, the same way I’m not a pirate. Anyway I hung around him a bit because he was lonely and lost-seeming, and that’s kind of my job, and we spent time down in the engine rooms. I was his unofficial chaperone I think, trusted in a way to report back if he did anything piratical. They trusted that I knew who I needed to be loyal to anyway, if I wanted to stay on Macedon. Not that the presence of the protégé really made me want to stay put very much. I kept waiting for the attempted coup. But Piotr had a calm, methodical way of working and watching him was nice. He never seemed to be able to teach me anything though. I’d ask him how something worked or why he was doing something and he’d just shrug like he didn’t really know himself. “That’s just what needs to happen,” he’d say.

Mukadori, Genghis Khan, Shiva, Macedon, Turundrlar.

I listen to the Turundrlar drives as I lie in my bunk. I wonder if it’s similar, if the technology developed in a similar way. I think so, because it’s a sympathiser ship, but I can’t tell just from listening.

Even on this ship, I’m still sharing with Jos. I was relieved not to be alone here, even if he’s rarely actually here. He sleeps here, that’s the main thing. Sharing space with him helps stop me dwelling on other things, it stops my head spinning, probably because thinking about Jos is a whole three-shift job on its own.

He will be with S’tlian again. Niko. The interpreting gig is mostly finished and both sides are focussing on trying to get their own people on board with the deal. If that ever happens from the EarthHub side I’d be surprised, but Jos says the Striviirc-na are just as divided. Peacemaking is threatening to take as long as the war.

Jos comes in just as I’m having my last smoke of the evening. I’m in bed, covers pulled up modestly (for his benefit).

He comes over and sits delicately on the very rim of the mattress. I hold my breath; this is a rare breach of personal space. He’s anxious about something. I can tell because he is looking at my cigret like he actually wants a puff.

“What is it?” I ask, whispering because reminding him I’m here can sometimes shut him down before he even says anything.

“Niko,” Jos says, stalling. Then, “He has to go to Aaian-na.”

He doesn’t say “home”. I don’t know how Jos feels about the striv planet now. Confused, I’d guess.

“And you?” I ask, whispering now because I’m scared of the question, let alone the answer.

“I want to go,” he says, “as me, after all this. I want to be there again.”

And there it is. I lie still and stare at him. Jos, my starling. I think about how I was dragged out of the Khan’s brig and saw him left there curled up all alone. I think about how I had to leave him on this ship after Falcone, after he had exposed himself to save me. Perhaps that was the worst feeling I ever had in my life. Jos looks straight forward, doesn’t blink. I don’t know what he’s thinking, but then he turns his head to look over his shoulder at me,

“Will you come?”

I gape at him and he gives me a faint, apologetic smile. I did not know that was an option. Even though already my mind had been drifting to how I would stow away. I give him a look to say ‘of course’, like he didn’t need to ask, even though I still needed him to.

“I don’t know the language,” I say, grudgingly, because he doesn’t want to hear how I would beg him and S’Tlian and Azarcon and offer anything to come on this ship with him. The relief of not having to has me shaking underneath my bedding.

Jos smiles, “I can teach you a bit,” he offers. “Your name, you know, sounds like something in Ki’hade.”

“It does?”

“Ev’enh-na,” he says, a lilt to his voice, like the strum of a guitar chord. I try to copy it and it makes him laugh.

He repeats it, “Ev’enh-na.” I like how it sounds.

“What does it mean?”

“It’s used like we would say, ‘of course’ or ‘sure’, like agreeing to something. But more literally it translates to ‘in the natural place’.

“The natural place?”

“Yes, maybe I’m not explaining it right, I don’t know. Enh means yes. Evra’a is natural or sustaining and na denotes place, home, that kind of thing. ” He trails off.

“I like it,” I tell him.

I like that my name already has some meaning out there on that foreign world. It feels like a bridge that I might need. Splitting the sounds of my name up, how it sounds when he hum-sings, ev’enh-na, reminds me of the vibrations of a ship’s engine.

“So you’ll come?” Jos asks me again. I wonder that he wants me and then again, I don’t wonder. I’m part of him, after all, like he’s part of me.

“Ask me in Ki’hade,” I say.

He does.

“Ev’enh-na,” I answer. Of course, it’s natural that I would.

Swimming Lessons

The world – this planet Aaian-na – is vast. It was tiny as we approached in Turundrlar, just another station, a speck hanging among the stars. But now I am on it, it feels incomprehensible. Space was vast, of course, but it was mostly emptiness, opaque holes between hubs and stars. This world is so full. Aaian-na. There is no thrum of the drives to calm me, panic set in almost as soon as I arrived and its difficult keeping it controlled.

What was I thinking? Why did I come? Everything about me must scream ‘enemy’ to these Striviirc-na. And it’s not just the aliens I’m worried about – it’s the whole wildness of it. The animals, the bugs, the trees. All this non-simulated, verifiable, nature.

Jos laughs at me, “I felt the same,” he says, “When I first came, I could hardly look out the window, let alone open it.”

I nod. Windows are not supposed to open. Perversely, he throws open this one, like he’s teasing me. The air blasts in, leaves rustle a little, some birds I think. I’m not sure about it.

Jos holds out his hand to me. I stare at it, confused.

“Come on,” he says, “there’s something great I want you to see.”

I take his hand. This is a strange world. There is ‘outside’ and aliens and a Jos that holds his hand out to me. I look at him. We’ve been here 3 days but already he seems taller and larger than before. His skin already a shade darker. He breathes deeper here. I don’t know how to cope with it. This world is like a gift, out here waiting for us. I’m so jealous of Jos growing up here, all that time while I was in hell on Shiva. I’m so jealous it makes me shake and tears fill up my eyes. My lungs forget their job.

Jos stands still, waits silently while I get myself back under control. It’s okay; I’m here now. I copy Jos’s breathing until my body remembers what it’s doing. I’m not even 20 years old; life is ahead. That’s my new mantra. One day I’m going to get Nida or one of the others to tattoo it in white Ki’hade lettering over my eyebrow, like a proper striviirc-na. I look up at Jos, “life is ahead,” I tell him. He nods. He’s heard me say it before.

He leads me out across a wide lawn and down to where the grass gets longer and less neatly maintained. He leads me to a body of silver water. It shivers in the sunlight. I’ve never seen anything like it.

“We can go in,” Jos says. I’m stunned again. Maybe this is his way to shut me up. Finally he might have found something effective.

“Jos,” I say, eventually, “We have no idea what’s in there.” Because I do, after all, have a reputation as a pathetic wimp.

“I’ve been in before,” he tells me. I think he’s enjoying showing me Aaian-na, explaining it to me. Like he liked teaching me Ki’hade; like he liked teaching Ryan to fight. He’s good at it. I wonder when he’ll realise that.

“Come on,” he says, he walks backwards slowly, facing me the entire time, smiling his small, reserved smile which I rarely see. It hurts me because I am maybe the one person left who remembers how he was once. His smile was blistering and came accompanied by giggles, first shyly and then in a waterfall. I’d like a cigret but none seem to have made it off the ship.

“Come on,” Jos says again, and he lets himself fall backwards into the water, gently floating over the surface. I watch the sunlight bounce over him.

I wade in a bit deeper, drawn in. I stand upright in the water beside him. I’ve never even had a bath. Showers only, my whole life, and now this.

“Teach me how?” I ask him.

“Go weightless,” he says, “and keep your hips up.”

I lean back like he did, do as he says. I float.

We stay like that, floating gently round each other. It’s like space. It has that empty density and when I put my head back, subsuming my ears, I hear the sound of the water’s engine rushing through me. I love it.

“I love it,” I tell Jos. I turn my head to look at him and immediately lose balance and start to sink. I flail a little and he reaches out to steady me. I watch his hands withdraw again, hovering just out of reach. I know not to push, not to ask, even though I have to swallow down a rush of bitterness.

“You love it?” He confirms.

“Yes,” I assure him. We were born amongst the stars, but I could live on the water, I think.

He sighs, audibly, satisfied. I think about dunking him. The Evan I was on Mukadori would have dunked him for sure. He’s mostly long gone though. I’d dunk Jos now just to touch him, probably. But I’m waiting, I’m being good, because even though I keep forgetting, we’re in the long process of making peace and that takes time.