"What's being a god like?"
Alex winced. "I wasn't-- Do you think I wanted to be a god?"
They were sitting at the bottom of the temple steps: Alex, who absently plucked at the fraying threads of his left sleeve, and Vella, who was eating a peach. Before them, the sands of Shellmound were as pale and as vacant as the icing on a wedding cake.
"It just sort of happened," Alex said. "Godhood, I mean. When our ship crashed, the locals just assumed certain things."
"Assumptions you never corrected," Vella said, taking another bite of fruit.
"Well," Alex said slowly. "We couldn't exactly explain things to them. I mean, we had a directive, as part of our mission. We weren't supposed to interfere or interact with any sentient life-forms we encountered."
"We weren't a vessel of war," Alex said. "We weren't-- well, I guess we were colonizers, if you want to be technical about it, but we were only supposed to colonize planets that were empty of complex life-forms. Like your people."
"How noble," Vella said, swallowing.
Alex glanced at her from the corner of his eye, but she was looking away, at the seagulls that were crying overhead.
"Even after we crashed here, we tried to follow the rules of the mission as long as possible. Well, by 'we,' I mean, my parents. They decided. I was just a kid at the time."
Even as he said it -- easily, evenly -- Alex felt a little flicker of discomfort. Had he been a kid? How old had he been? The period of the time around the crash was a dim, confusing spot in his memories. He felt like he had been small, very small -- but at the same time, he had the uneasy feeling that he had been older.
He could remember being two inches taller than his father on the spaceship, He could remember learning how to shave on the spaceship.
Of course, he could also remember a talking cello on the spaceship.
Were these delusions an after-effect of the cryo-sleep? Would his memories become clearer with time?
"Aren't you going to have any of these?" Vella said suddenly, turning back to him.
For a moment, Alex stared at her blankly. "What?"
Vella grimaced as she gestured at the brown sack that sat between them. "I brought so many of these back because I thought you would be hungry."
"Oh," Alex said, blinking. "Your fruit."
"They're good," Vella said, reaching into the sack and pulling out a fresh peach. "Come on, you haven't even tried one."
Alex regarded it narrowly. "One of our other directives was not to consume local alien flora. Or fauna. We could not risk contamination."
A jumble of memories washed over him. Standing under the pulsing light of the spaceship's decontamination chamber. Watching innumerable holo-vids about the Importance of Hygiene. His mother's voice talking about maintaining the purity of Loruna. And -- and this was definitely after the crash, the memory was sharper, the colors were crisper -- standing on the beach at the water's edge, watching as each incoming wave frothed around his feet and then pulled back into the sea.
His thoughts were interrupted by Vella pushing the peach into his limp and unresistant hands. "Come on. They're not contaminated. I just picked them this afternoon. They're fresh."
Reluctantly -- almost despite himself -- Alex felt his fingers curl around the furry skin of the fruit. "That's not what I meant," he said. "After we crashed, we didn't know if this planet might produce pathogens that were innocuous to its inhabitants but fatal to aliens. Or vice versa. We didn't want to risk causing a plague by accident. So we were supposed to eat only the nutrient paste produced by our replicator."
"Hmmm," Vella said. "What does paste produced by a 'replicator' taste like?"
Alex smiled faintly. "Chalk, mostly. Bland and a little gritty. It was safe and healthy, but it wasn't appetizing."
"So that's what you ate? For twenty years? Safe chalk?" Vella made a face. "For twenty years?"
"We didn't know we'd be here for so long. We thought we would be able to repair the ship and take off again. So we tried to abide by the directives of the mission."
"Is a life of chalk even a life worth living?"
"That is a good question," Alex said softly, hunching forward.
(The water washed across the tops of his feet. Further down the beach, a narrow dock ran into the water, and at the end of it, someone was pulling back a fishing line and shouting excitedly, because tonight there would be shark in the village stew.)
He sighed. "After a while, we relaxed some of our rules." He took a bite of the peach, a bite savage enough that it left juice dripping down the sides of his mouth and off his chin.
(There was someone standing next to him in the water, someone Alex knew, but Alex could not remember their face or name. They were a shadowy flicker in his memory, as feature-less as a stick figure.)
Vella watched him chew and swallow. "It's good, right?"
"Better than good. It's great," Alex said, biting into the peach again. He swallowed and brushed the back of his hand against his wet mouth. "But that might just be because I haven't eaten anything in three hundred years."
"Nah," she said. "They're good peaches."
"Where did you get them?" he asked, taking another bite.
"Up there," Vella said, making a gesture wide and vague enough that it could have meant "north" or "the forest over there" or even "up in the clouds."
"If Mog Chothra doesn't show up soon," she added, "I'll start baking with them. Making peach cobbler. Peach trifle. Peach turnovers."
"I don't know what any of those are," Alex said.
(I don't know what these are, he had said, and the person with him had laughed and said, they're oysters, come on, just try them, they're good with a little salt. When he bit down into its slippery surface, it was as if he was eating a slice of the ocean itself.)
Vella smiled as she leaned back on her elbows. "They're good, man. I'm pretty excellent when it comes to desserts. One of the best in my village, actually. That's probably why they rated me good enough for the Maidens Feast."
There was an undertone of venom now in Vella's voice, and Alex swallowed a mouthful of peach. "Hey," he said, his voice a little awkward and cracked, "I'm sure... I'm sure they were just doing...the best that they knew how. I'm sure it wasn't...personal."
"No," Vella said as she tilted back her head to look at the seagulls wheeling overhead. "It wasn't personal at all. That's what made it awful."
"But even after they did that, you still want to save them?"
"Of course. They're my family. I love them." Vella shrugged. "It's simple."
(You've got to be hygienic at all times, his mother had said. Wash your hands, his mother had said. Don't let them touch you. Don't get attached. They're not like us. Remember what you are.)
"Simple," Alex repeated. "I guess."
"Isn't it the same with you? If you could have saved your home, would you have?"
"Loruna? I've never seen it, you know. I was born on the ship after the mission had started. All I know about the place is what my parents told me and what I saw in the holo-vids. So I barely know the society I'm supposed to be preserving." His mouth pulled back in the mimicry of a grin. "Ha. Ha. Ha."
Vella watched him. "That must be hard," she said at last.
Alex snorted. "No, you've definitely got me beat there, Vella. Nobody asked me if I wanted to be part of a space-colonization expedition, but it's not like they were volunteering me for death." He paused. "Although, I guess...I guess we could have died? We didn't have any assurance that we'd find a good planet to settle. I guess...we could have died...?" He trailed off.
Vella raised an eyebrow. "You never realized this?"
Alex had finished the peach and was now turning the bare pit around in his hands. "I mean...my parents never really talked about it in those terms. They were sure we would find a new home. It might take a while, but it would definitely happen." He was beginning to frown. "I mean, it was hard. Nobody pretended it wasn't hard, but my parents always went on and on about what a good thing our sacrifice was. How noble. How necessary." He rolled the pit between the thumb and index finger of his right hand. "I'm not sure how much choice they had to enlist in the mission, though. Some of the things they said... I kind of got the impression the government of Loruna just sort of pointed at them and said, 'You! Into the dark abyss of space! Right away!'"
"And you didn't even get that," Vella murmured. "Nobody even pointed at you, they just pointed at your folks."
"Well, I guess I was implied," Alex said. "I think my mom was already pregnant. And, I mean, that's why they sent a married couple off into space. To procreate and populate."
"Huh," Vella said. "So what was the long-term plan for this new colony? Your parents were going to settle down and have a lot of kids, and then you and your siblings were just going to...what exactly?"
The peach pit went still in Alex's hand. "No," he said. "No, we were going to launch a beacon, and then the survivors of Loruna was going to come and settle alongside us."
"Of course," Vella said.
"None of our directives involved marrying our siblings," Alex added, a little heatedly.
"Sure," Vella said. "I'm just saying -- why only send one family on the ship? Why not a bunch?"
Alex sighed. "It's how the spaceship was designed. It's a two-hander. You need the mother-captain in the bridge almost all the time, directing the ship, and then you need the father-mate always running maintenance and keeping watch. My folks were always busy with the ship. A lot of time, I barely saw them. We just communicated through radios."
"What are radios?" Vella asked.
"Um. Little boxes that carried our voices?"
"Weird," Vella said easily. "But why only a crew of two people? Here, on this world, even a little fishing ship will have three or four sailors."
"Binary systems were part of an organizing principle of Loruna technology." Alex shrugged. "My parents tried to explain it to me, but I didn't really follow the technical details. The theory was that you'd need at least two people who were closely synced up, but each additional person threatened the ship's balance."
"But you were an extra person," Vella said.
"Yeah, but I was their kid. My place in the hierarchy was pretty clear." Alex grimaced. "Sometimes very clear. It was easier when I was little, but when I started getting older and wanted to participate in the mission..."
(a fragment of music, the strings of a cello, and a voice whispering something he could not quite make out)
He sighed. "And afterward, when we crashed here, they refused to leave the ship, even after it was clear that we needed supplies and help, even after it was clear that the ship's power would not continue to run indefinitely."
"But you went outside."
"But I went outside. They weren't very happy about it, but..." He shrugged.
"And then you discovered all of this," Vella said, sweeping an ironic arm to indicate the glories of Shellmound: the half-constructed bandstand, the abandoned nets and poles, and the seagulls fighting over rotting fish-heads.
"It looked a little different then," he said. "The people here thought I was a god, and, well, I pretty much let them, because it meant they would help me look for necessary raw material. And also I assumed we'd manage to get the ship running before too long, and then we'd leave forever, so none of it would really matter." He gave a hollow laugh. "And then it turned out to matter."
"What did you do as a god, Alex?"
"No human sacrifice or anything like that." He grimaced. "I didn't really attract a high-quality kind of worshiper, anyway. They would poke around the edges of the ship and just take things from it and demand that I do things for them and come up with these elaborate rules that they then broke all the time. And then they would beg me to forgive them for doing things that I didn't care if they did or not. It was actually pretty exasperating being their god."
But even as he said it, Alex remembered the flicker of a person, hand on Alex's shoulder, so warm and comforting--
Alex gave an involuntary shudder. "Anyway. So my parents stayed on the ship, trying to fix it, and I would venture out here and try to get materials for their repairs and...day followed day. Eventually, my parents passed away."
"That must have been hard," Vella said, and now her voice is genuinely sympathetic, without any of her earlier sarcasm.
"Yeah," Alex said shortly, closing his eyes against that particular set of memories: his father's translucent skin his mother's difficulty walking his father's fall down the ladder his mother's headaches
(Someone is standing with him in the water. Someone is saying, But why go back, Alex? There's nothing left for you inside any longer. It's not necessary. I'll tell everyone here in a way that they'll understand. It'll be fine. A hand reaching up, a familiar weight on his shoulder.)
"That's why I went into cryo-sleep," Alex said. "Because after they died, there wasn't anything left for me here."
He reached back and threw the peach pit as hard as he could. It flew high and fast and then fell, like a stone, into the sand.
The seagulls sang overhead.
"And what about now?" Vella asked.
"You found my circuit router," Alex said. "I might be able to make more progress in making repairs to my ship."
"Everyone on Loruna is probably long dead by now. So there's probably no point in continuing our mission." He ran a hand through his hair. "I don't know."
"I guess..." Vella said slowly, "I guess you can do whatever you want."
Alex smiled grimly. "In my experience, that can be pretty difficult to figure out. Does anybody really know what they want?"
"Well," Vella said as she pushed herself to her feet. "I generally know what I want to do, and then I do it." She absently squeezed the edge of her dress with her peach-sticky fingers as she turned to look up at the temple of Alex's erstwhile divinity. "I mean, first I'm going to kill Mog Chothra. And then I'm going to go past the Plague Dam and find out where the other Mogs come from. And then I'm going to kill them. So that should keep me pretty busy for a while."
Alex stared up at her.
(Don't let them touch you, his mother had said.)
(They don't appreciate you, the cello had said. Nobody understands you.)
(He had climbed into the cryo-sleep chamber and slid shut its door. He was alone, as always. He felt along the inside of the door and tapped out the sequence of chimes that would initiate the cryo-sleep procedure. He was alone, as he deserved.)
"I could come with you," he said. "I mean. If you wanted. But I might be able to help."
She shrugged, only half paying attention as she surveyed the horizon. "Sure. You can come."
"If I get my ship working again, I might be able to take you to the Plague Dam."
"Okay," Vella said. "But even if you can't get it working, I'm still going to the Plague Dam, one way or another. How are you at figuring out directions?"
"I mean, I have a compass? So..." Alex paused, "pretty good at that, I think? Not to brag, but I can definitely figure out which way is north."
"All right, you're in," Vella said. "Welcome to my quest." She looked at him with a smile. "Maybe you can do some 'god' stuff on the way."
"No," Alex said as he gazed up at her from the base of his temple's steps. "Much better to be a regular man, I think. Much better to be a member of this world."