The natives had concepts the Builder understood. She looks at them, silent. Sometimes come back to see that she brought in one of the smaller natives. Not full-grown yet. Sometimes they are grown, but too stiff with injuries to flee.
Learned what you can eat on this planet (anything, almost) and what you can’t. Learned how long it takes until the animals crawl out, hungry.
Never learned to speak to the natives. They don’t learn either.
She learns to talk to them. Sounds soothing when she does it, like the hum of an engine. It will be a dead language soon. She isn’t stopped by that, though.
Ask if she knows any other languages.
She says she does. Talks about stars the wanderers snuffed out. What she knew about the places they shone on.
You never found out what they spoke like. She remembers the place of her birth. You ask if she misses it. Silence.
Ask if the native language is similar, besides the sound. She says yes, and then no. Hums.
Ask where the no is. She twists her hands. You watch the concept half-form and then disperse. Watch the way her eyes glint. Almost like she’s building something.
“Marriage.” The natives have a concept like that. She says it is important to them. Says that they all know other natives who are married.
Ask what it means.
She starts from the beginning. They don’t have Birthers, like they don’t have Builders. But they build and birth anyways.
And wander. You think about the stragglers you met. Ones you put down when they lit up with fear. Wonder what it’s like.
She says that they birth by finding each other. They stay with each other and then form small groups. Raise their young that way. Promise to stay together. Don’t always.
Compare marriage to a squad. She shakes her head. It isn’t an assignment. Isn’t usually an assignment? And there’s only two.
You don’t say anything. Neither does she. Eyes drift to her hands. Look at the hut around them.
There’s only two in it.
You ask if it’s… alliance-patriotism-group knowledge-treasuring. Hands work through the signs.
She says it has nothing to do with patriotism.
This planet is all life and death. Make your own meaning. Make your own success and failure.
Ask if the natives are born married.
She says they aren’t. Can’t bind something so small.
Think of molts. Ask if they change, when they’re married.
She says it’s not physical. Just change that happens because what you want changed. What you’re going to fix changed. Old and young, natives can marry. Even marry again, once the old spouse died.
Think about how their lives must have worked, before conquest reached this planet. Think about who’s in front of you.
Tell the Builder that you’re going to check the traps.
The Builder’s body has weakened with time. She worries when you leave. Clutches her locket to her throat.
Feel guilty, leaving her here without a guard. Know what she’d say if you said so.
But you want to live, and she wants you to live. Staying is just a slower form of dying. Means that when the planet dies, you’ll die with it. She’ll die with it. Rather die wandering, like you lived. Rather live, and lift off into space. Has to be a pod around here somewhere.
Slide down to the floor, next to the wood stockpile, and the fire. Eat in more than calculated nibbles to slow off starvation, gorging meat down your throat. Ask if she needs anything. Wonder if it’s long enough that the edge of death has faded from her body where it struck down yours.
Says she needs company. Think about stories you can tell, but you haven’t met other wanderers. Don’t share the blood that you washed off before you returned. Ask her about marriage again. Can you tell who’s married?
There’s a ring, she says. If you see a ring on their finger, they’re married.
Just one ring?
Just one for marriage, on this finger on this arm.
Want to ask which arm, since they only have two. Remember that means left versus right. Don’t ask about it.
Is it a metal ring, like trophies?
It can be any ring, but they prefer metal.
Ask if she likes any of them better.
She talks about smoothed wood. About rings only half as dark as the sky.
Her face strikes you when she says it. Remembering takes no effort at all.
When you leave, you promise to come back. She says she’ll hold you to that. Waves.
Finding the spaceship is hard. Remembering old stomping grounds is much simpler. You trace your way back to the iron mines.
The work takes a long time, but soon there’s enough to work with. Work to shape it with your fingers, but can’t do it well. The ring looks like a lump.
You don’t bother trying to think the iron into a ring. That’s hopeless.
You stick closer as the moon rises and falls, changing your goal. It helps soothe the wanderlust.
So much talking makes your neglected throat ache as it fills with words.
She has been too tired to build. In your presence you see her fires stoke again. You always bring back food, supplies, hoarding for a community of two, and now you see her use it once more.
The world feels more civilized, with the Builder here to make civilization.
Even the hut, crude as it is, gets more intricate. The rough hewn door, made to keep out the cold, smooths. Symbols trail up and down it, and what little color you can get from stone and metal and wood. The furs once simply languished, a warm pile, but now they’re strung up along the walls, along the ceiling. Some are sewn together, until they rival the larger skins you’ve brought back.
It’s nothing like home.
Yet you return, and it is home.
Lay down on the furs. She watches you, eyes bright. Doesn’t chide you for being overfamiliar.
Ask how she made the wheels. They wear down, but before that they’re always perfectly even, perfectly smooth. You envy it, on your new quest.
She shows you, wood spinning as she holds it in two of her hands and shapes it with two others.
So fast. Hands trail along the edge of what is now a replacement wheel for the cart.
You have a long way to go.
She asks what it’s like, being a wanderer.
It’s a state of being. You never left it, but sometimes what you are is a little less similar to what you are supposed to be than you’ve always imagined. It means you ache to find something new. Means that blood caked into your joints doesn’t bother you. Means that even when you’re sick, laying down for too long makes you feel sicker.
This planet drives you crazy at turns, but there’s so much that you hadn’t seen before you were stranded here. It whets your need for it.
You eye her. Think about it.
Joke that you feel part Guarder, because sometimes you don’t even want to wander. Want to stay right here.
You ask what a Builder feels like.
She explains how beautiful it is, to see something made under your hands. Talks about how sick she feels watching it destroyed. Talks about how some things should last forever.
Doesn’t talk about how nowadays, seeing things she didn’t make destroyed tires her as much as anything, too.
You wonder if what you feel repairing the spaceship is anything like that.
Today you press a stone into the ring of alien alloy, like the natives do. It’s grey and white and smooth. Careful work makes it fit in. Weld the metal around it a little tighter, so it won’t fall out.
When you go to the Builder today, you stand at first. Duck your head. Wish your throat could make the same sounds as marriage, and not your poor imitations of her.
You tell her you want both of you to leave. She knows that.
Tell her that you mean both of you. And if she won’t leave, you won’t either. You’re not ready to.
Leaving her behind feels like dying, but a locket can’t save you from this.
Her voice is hesitant. You’re slow to look up. Does this worry her more or less?
She takes your hand. You can see the glow, sense it in your skin.
She wants to marry you, too.
Moons come and moons leave, and for a time you wonder if that’s all it is, and all it will be. If you will be held to your vow.
Your blood calms at that. You’re not willing to fight it. Once you’re up, it will be harder to stay together.
The planet wanes, slowly.
She asks where the spaceship is now, rolling her ring between her fingers.
Too many landmarks to explain, so you show it. Walk slowly with her as you leave your home behind.
Wonder if she wants to destroy it.
When you stand at the ship, she inspects your handiwork carefully. It’s very distinguishable from Builders, from a new-born ship, but you are proud of it.
She tells you she’s ready to leave.
When you get in the ship, you pull her up with you. Clasp your hands together with hers.
It feels like home is near.