He stares at the terminal module and its blinking YOUR PACKET CANNOT ACK notification for a long moment, then sighs.
"W3N Qing," he hollers, pushing away from the module. "We have work to do."
He finds W3N Qing sequestered away with W3N Ning's old datacores. They're useless now, of course, stripped of all vestiges of his code, rusting from disuse in the damp atmosphere of this remote waterworld. The cooling fan installed under the polymer skin of her chest is blowing harder than is strictly necessary for optimal functionality — the lighthouse, atmosphere-stabilized though it is, always runs chillier during the winters of this planet — and her joints whir louder than usual as she turns to attend his voice.
"Do I need to send in a bug report for you, too?" he asks, frowning, leaning down to press a hand to the performance monitor on her wrist.
She pulls back. "I'm fine," she says, rising smoothly from the ground. Her operating noises settle down as she straightens up and squares her shoulders. "What is it?"
"Ytterbium rods," he says. "They're on the fritz."
"The ytterbium rods are always on the fritz," W3N Qing says, with a very human-like sigh. She glides forward on those spindly legs of hers, heading toward the stairs.
Wei Wuxian follows her. He lets her scoop up the toolkit — W3N Qing is several orders of magnitude stronger than he is — and grabs the protective headgear lying in the alcove at the foot of the stairs only because he knows she'll chide him if he doesn't wear it.
Fixing the rods isn't difficult, per se, but it is finicky and therefore profoundly annoying. Wei Wuxian has considered trying to optimize the rods, patching in some other discarded or misused tech sitting about onsite to give them more structural integrity, but OpCon tends to frown really, really hard at people who manipulate "mission-critical materials'' in unsanctioned ways — especially anything traditionally kept in a beacon room.
Not that there's much else OpCon can do to him for continued crimes against the mission. They've already stationed him on this backwater planet, far from every human he knows, and even though they use his distance from the center of the nav core as an excuse to deny most of his supply drop requests, they don't actually have the luxury of fully squandering any of the remaining vestiges of cultivation talent in this galaxy.
Still, he's already fucked around with this lighthouse more than he technically should. "After the site inspection," he tells W3N Qing, climbing onto her shoulders and wincing as she grabs onto his ankles, really digging her digits in to steady him as he leans up and into the communications array. "When they leave us alone for another galactic-standard decade? I'm redoing this entire mess."
"I would expect nothing less," W3N Qing says, dry as ever.
"I know, I know, you've heard it all before," Wei Wuxian says. One of the rods is — well. It's not quite disintegrating, but it really could do with some reinforcing. Back in the academy he had this great idea for a ytterbium-iron seal, something that, once fused with a touch of qi, could stabilize the rods and the core alike, but it had been a… controversial suggestion, even back then. You can't prove it will protect the core from the ghosts, one council-member had said. Another had simply frowned. Iron and ytterbium aren't compatible, Wei Wuxian had been told, and no one listened to his argument that it came down to the talismans you used to fuse the two than the raw materials themselves.
Maybe someday he'll test this theory. At the moment, though, he's just trying to keep the lighthouse as intact and functional as possible.
The timing of the site inspection is supposed to be a surprise, but this planet is technically within the Yunmeng jurisdiction and Wei Wuxian's adoptive-ex-siblings still care about his success. Jiang Yanli, who serves as co-governor of Jinlintai Station with her wife, sends supply packages as regularly as possible. The most recent delivery included a thick sweater, woven from a blend of plant and animal fibers harvested on the pastoral planet that supplies Jinlintai Station, some fun foods that aren't just the interminable synthesized plankton loaf Wei Wuxian loathes to live on, and a nominally-coded message, forwarded from Jiang Cheng.
The message had read,
So it was a sweet message, all told. Wei Wuxian was touched by the depth of Jiang Cheng's shielded care. And the timing implied within it was crystal clear: the inspection was going to come sometime between the fourth and seventh galactic standard months.
I hope you haven't broken that lighthouse OR that horrible deathtrap of a planet of yours yet. If you fall off a cliff again I swear I'll tell your site inspector to leave you there to starve this time, even if they do get there before inedia fails you and you die a horrible, wasteful death.
Watch your back. If you die and make jiejie cry I'll kill you again.
It's the third galactic standard month now, and the bulk of Wei Wuxian's attempts at organizing the lighthouse into a semblance of its intended functionality has primarily consisted of digging an alcove into the regolith outcrop where the lighthouse was established and cover it up with some of the dead woody plant matter that washes up to the shore, so he can hide the rover assembly that he's been tinkering with.
He didn't ask W3N Ning to possess the rover after the malware attack rendered W3N Ning's android body useless, but it was a rover without a ghost and Wei Wuxian isn't going to strip W3N Ning's code from yet another physical frame. The code has been corrupted enough already; moving it again would likely damage it beyond repair.
But using qi in pursuit of technological necromancy is incredibly illegal, and since Wei Wuxian is not a fortunate enough man to be inspected by a Jiang, keeping the half-frozen chassis out of sight of his designated inspector is of utmost importance.
Anyway, the alcove is great. He's used spray-polymers to keep it from getting too damp from the pounding waves of the oceans surrounding the lighthouse and to lock the driftwood and detritus in place, and it's like a proper mad scientist's cave at this point. He's added some atmospheric talismans and graduated cylinders, even though no one but he and W3N Qing will ever see it.
"I think the ghosts are fucking with the ytterbium rods," he tells W3N Qing, kicking at her shoulder to signal her to back up. "That's the only explanation I can really think of."
"You can't put that in your bug report," she reminds him.
"I know," he sighs. He's pointed out the rover ghosts before, back in his class's final exam on Mare Imbrium, right before they took the one-way ticket through the wormhole away from Earth Prime and toward the galactic core. "You point out the moon is haunted one time and they station you on the remotest outpost in the galaxy."
"I thought it was the war crimes," she says, easing him to the ground and steadying him once his feet hit the spongy floor.
"The rover ghosts were part of the war crimes," he counters, rummaging through the toolkit for some iron filament. If he doesn't fully bond it to the rods, surely he won't get dinged for the patch job. He can keep his qi out of the mess of the array. If they wanted him to avoid blending the iron with ytterbium in the first place, they'd review his incessant bug reports and actually send a supply drop of replacement rods to the planet.
W3N Qing ignores him. She's good at that, especially now that he's deleted the code that dictates androids always respond and defer to their maintainers. He likes it. He misses personable interactions. A snarky android that can make demands of him doesn't quite capture the full effect he desires, but it's close enough.
It probably is ghosts, though. There are a lot here. 62F was meant for colonization, once upon a time, before the Sunshot Campaign. Bei Fang Xuanwu as a whole was meant to be a great region for expansion, and there was a lot of promise seen in the Tian Qin Zuo sector. Lots of supply drops were made to numerous Niandao planets before the war.
Now the few bits of this planet that are above the roiling seas are scarred, machine remnants of human intervention leaching into the rocky surface. He's done the best he can to block the toxins from reaching the water. The native life forms here survived the explosions; he'd like to do his best to ensure that they continue surviving. It's harder when the scarring is half-submerged in the shallow seas, but he's done his best there, too.
He sighs, and slaps the base of the array. There's a brief whine that cuts through the air, a pulse of power, and then it settles back.
Wei Wuxian turns to W3N Qing. "Is it working?"
Her eyes unfocus, the camera perceptors within them narrowing in on the communication signals that human eyes can't detect. "It's working," she says. "At least until the next storm."
"W3N Qing, it storms like every day here in winter."
"I know," W3N Qing says. She pauses, tilts her head on her neck stalk. "'Rovers could maintain a signal on 62D if they'd chosen to set up the array there instead; they wouldn't need a human to man the outposts and ensure the nav core is upheld from this sector if they hadn't also wanted to push for colonization, originally. And yet they chose this planet, which is capable of sustaining human life but runs the risk of shorting out any unattended AI or machinery, for their lighthouse.'"
"That's what I always say."
"I know that, too." W3N-branch androids aren't typically programmed to smile, but when Wei Wuxian altered that section of W3N Qing's code to grant her agency, with her blessing, he enabled facial expressions as well. A ghost of one passes her lips now. "62D can't sustain human life though. So."
"So Burial Mounds," Wei Wuxian says. He didn't come up with the nickname — he first heard it from some annoying scion of the Jin clan describing all the dead machinery, when he was told it was to be his postwar assignment — but it's as fitting as anything else.
He thumps back down the stairs again, heading for the terminal module. Sometimes he thinks it's dumb to keep the terminal module so far away from the beacon room — it makes going back and forth to check the signal a pain in the ass, for one — but he supposes there is merit to this particular regulation. Everyone's heard what happened at the Yi Asteroid lighthouse.
With the rods temporarily secured and the signal up and running again, the bug report has finally sent. Wei Wuxian types out another message to OpCon:
Messages effectively transmitted, he takes the transponder out of the qiankun pouch he keeps strapped to his waist and syncs it with the communications array again. This has become an increasingly repetitive task, between the signals dropping with increasing regularity and Wei Wuxian's frequent sojourns across the surface of the planet to try his best to clear away the battle-scarring. The transponder has a range of sixty kilometers; he'll be able to receive any return messages for as long as the signal holds.
If you want Burial Mounds to be an effective, viable station holding up the nav core, you NEED to supply us!!!! Send ytterbium and polymers and array boosters on the next available supply drop. Also some real food. Plankton loaf sucks.
Then he heads for the proverbial mudroom.
So today he's wearing Jiang Yanli's thick sweater over his dark grey jumpsuit. His rubberized polymer foulie waders come up nearly to his neck, so they mostly protect him from the icy spray of the waves striking the flimsy regolith outcrop where the lighthouse stands. His sleeves are unprotected, though, and grow chilly-damp as he makes his way across the outcrop. It's been long enough since he reported the destruction of his foul-weather coat that he's pretty sure it's just never going to be replaced.
The cave that he built for W3N Ning's new rover body is dry, but it's no warmer than the steep rocky shore just a few dozen meters away from the lighthouse door. He shivers at the entrance for a moment to let his eyes adjust to the gloomy interior before making his way in.
Inside, he brushes his hands over the talisman-powered generator, supplying an ongoing tiny stream of electrospiritual power to the rover chassis and assembly W3N Ning's AI ghost possessed after it malware unmoored it from his android body. The frame is charged, but not active. He's not certain if or when W3N Ning will activate again. The code is mostly intact, but his consciousness may not return.
The talismans are in place, though, and the generator is humming along. Wei Wuxian gives the chassis its weekly scrub-down — elbow grease and WD-40 keep both the metal and polymer fixtures clean and in working order, free of the rust that grows over everything the damp air of this planet touches — and heads back out of the cave. He covers it with the pile of driftwood and sea-weed that serves as its obscurating door and sighs, looking around.
The animal life on this planet loves the chilly damp of winter. Typically at this time of day, he can see the reptilian bodies flashing in the diffuse light, scales and feathers glinting merrily as they splash through the pounding waves.
They're not congregating about the lighthouse today, but they also tend to shy away from the signal the lighthouse sends into the cosmos. "Perhaps I'll see them during my… chores," Wei Wuxian mumbles to himself, climbing into the dinghy he's got moored to the lighthouse's pitiful excuse for a dock and, with a touch to the talisman he's used to replace its useless overheated motor, directing it out into the writhing seas.
His first stop is the structure perched, floating, above the deepwater rift ten kilometers out from the lighthouse. A filter descends from its center, infinitely far; it siphons eight point three percent of the plankton that passes through it into its holding tank, oxygenating the water as it sucks up the nutrients.
The structure has clearly migrated again with the lapse of signal from the lighthouse, but has been making its way back to its station since the signal was restored. Even with its movement, there are some creatures swimming around the plankton platform — filter-feeders siphoning some of the swirling matter and air that spirals from the platform, released back into the ocean so as not to disrupt the overall ecological balance.
"Plankton loaf again," Wei Wuxian grouses at the spindly animals that float closest to the surface. They look like a cross between the walking sticks on the planet he grew up on — enormous insects that bend and move at angles — and the sea serpents of lore on Earth Prime. They are vegetarian and inedible, and love the crumbles of plankton loaf that he sometimes tosses into the ocean for them to suck up.
He scrambles onto the platform and opens the holding tank, transferring scoops of the glop of coalesced plankton into the large container he keeps in his qiankun pouch. It swells, heavy, with the stuff, ready to be dumped into the synthesizer back at the lighthouse. The bits that spill to the floor when the swaying of the platform jars his arm, he brushes free with his feet, kicking it into the path of the animals glittering below the surface of the waves.
They dart closer to the surface, slurping up the gently-diffusing clouds of plankton, splashing Wei Wuxian for his troubles. He grins, shoving his own bounty back into his qiankun pouch.
"Eat up, little weirdos," he says, jumping back into the dinghy and peering up at the angle of the light breaking through the clouds.
There's a good few hours left in the day, so he curves north-east from the platform, cutting a widening circle away from the lighthouse. Lodged into the shallow floor of the seas about twenty kilometers north of the lighthouse, rising and rusting a good twenty meters above the surface of the water, lies one of the relics of the war: a sword-ship, sharp and pointed and loaded with plasma-blades along the front of its hull. The water here is saline, the salts corrosive and abrasive in a way that human-made structures were not built to withstand. Every day, more and more toxic metals are sloughed away and distributed along the waters.
Wei Wuxian has caulked the base of the structure — what he can reach — with polymers to slow the decay. This has slowed some, but not all, of the local bacterial blooms, and has minimized the fall of anoxic and highly-toxic marine snow over the reefs of stationary organisms below. But some still falls from the areas he cannot reach.
He's explored the ship, quarantining the rogue code of its ghosts before liberating them so that the code didn't run the risk of corrupting the nav core in any way, and then stripping the ship's remains for all its useful parts. This in particular has done nothing for local lifeforms, but at least it helps preserve the people shuttling through space, parsecs above him.
Now he's turned to trying to render it safe for the environment. He doesn't have the ability to remove it on his own, and he's sent hundreds of bug reports about the ill effects of the Sunshot Campaign on the planet's natural cycles. For some reason, OpCon doesn't seem too inclined to send an extractor ship for Wei Wuxian to use.
"It's not like I'd use it to fight them," Wei Wuxian grumbles, floating closer to the hulking mass of the ship so that he can take his samples. Either one day he'll land on a safe neutralizer that won't wreak havoc on the local ecosystem, or he won't. The efforts alone are worthy: a way to pass the time out on this cold, wet outpost, largely ignored by the rest of the galaxy; a way to ensure that the local life-forms are around long enough to be studied, for their place in the cosmos to be understood; a path toward his own redemption. "They would benefit from it too! I'm sure they can reappropriate more of this wreck than I could!"
The silent seas don't respond; they never do. Wei Wuxian is very good at not feeling alone in this world, especially with his android and the tasks he's set for himself, but it takes work.
As he's chipping another sample of rust and metal into his sample-bags, his transponder squawks. He takes it out of his qiankun pouch, nearly dislodging the container of plankton in the process, and tunes into the message.
"Honestly," Wei Wuxian tells the rusting relic, "This seems like a waste of communications resources."
Dear WEI WUXIAN,
Your Support request, ID #84356AEF345D, has been opened. We will contact you shortly if we need additional information.
Simply reply to this message if you would like more details or if you no longer require assistance. Follow the link below to view the current status and history of any activity on this ticket.
We have a great collection of self-help and support materials that you may find useful among the public datacores at nav.core:opcon:help
Opened For: Wei Wuxian (bfxw62f)
Opened On: GSY 4867-14-26 05:12:58 GST
Short Description: The Ytterbium Rods Went On The Fucking Fritz Again And Will Likely To Continue Doing So If You Don't Supply Drop Some Actual Resources.
The relic doesn't respond, but the salt that's dried on the higher reaches, where the waves have sprayed but don't regularly strike, glitters in the dimming light.
There's nothing else for him here — he doesn't have enough time to clear away more of the scarring on the regolith outcrops fifty kilometers to the east of the lighthouse before dark, and with the dark comes a settling sort of cold. The kind that digs into your bones and makes a home there, even though his temperature readout says that the ambient air is 274.5K. Wei Wuxian has always found that he shivers more when the air is still above the freezing point of water. So he tucks the last of his samples in his pouch and aims the dinghy back toward home.
He doesn't miss the war — neither the fighting nor the toll that it took on his body and his family.
He does, however, sometimes miss the feeling of rocking to sleep in the shivering hulk of a sword-ship, shaking with the pressure of deep space, sleeping two to a bunk with the other cultivation cadets forced into battle so absurdly soon after their Mare Imbrium final. They were all hopelessly green and hopelessly terrified, and rowdy with it, laughing and drinking the fear away. Laughing, and drinking, and trying to carve a little niche into the fabric of the campaign where they could plant their strength against the tide of the war and try, incrementally, to shift it in their favor.
Lan Wangji was the only cadet secure enough in his own goodness and strength to willingly risk sharing a bunk with Wei Wuxian after Wei Wuxian discovered his particular, despised, specialty. He hated Wei Wuxian for his actions — Wei Wuxian is certain of it, still, to this day — but he was open to being the one to grimly keep Wei Wuxian in check. Still, since Lan Wangji was often off on specialized missions, Wei Wuxian was generally the only cadet sleeping alone on his sword-ship.
Wei Wuxian doesn't miss the war, and he doesn't waste time thinking about it more than he has to. But some nights, fast asleep, he dreams of those sleeping berths. Of bodies crowded together, hot and sweating in the close space, breathing in the same sour air. He does miss people; the soft times that humans can share between the big moments; the way that one quick grasp of a warm hand over yours can reassure you utterly, if even just for the space of a few breaths.
He wakes up from such dreams shivering in his bed-nook, talisman papers crinkling underneath him. The papers are a cold comfort, a tactile presence and a paltry replacement for a person. He wakes up, and flings himself into work until the details of the dreams melt and float away from his mind.
"Four galactic standard months is a fairly short window," W3N Qing says. Her voice box is affected by her spinning; her words come out in a staccato machine whine.
"Four galactic standard months is an eternity," Wei Wuxian says. "Like, I should make things nice for whoever they send, right? Give them nothing to complain about?"
W3N Qing stops her spinning, even though by Wei Wuxian's reckoning it's a few minutes too early. She levies a hard look at him. "I thought you wanted the necessary supplies."
"So you're saying I should wreck things further," he says, thoughtfully. "Make it seem like we're on the verge of collapse so maybe we get some funding and some fresh ytterbium."
"I'm saying it's smart to present things honestly," W3N Qing tells him. She pauses a moment, processing, then adds, with a sideways nod towards the door, "Mostly honestly."
"W3N Ning will stay fully under wraps," Wei Wuxian swears, folding his thumb across his palm and raising his hand to his forehead, an indicator of his sincerity.
W3N Qing makes a considering sort of sound. It's one she's been making with increasing frequency, now that she's no longer coded to docility. There's a blush of skepticism in the sound. Wei Wuxian likes to think it means she knows he means well, but doubts his ability to pull through. It's like being around the opposite of Jiang Cheng.
"The cave is very well hidden!" Wei Wuxian insists. W3N Qing has android eyes. Short of downloading W3N Qing's memory data to their transponder or bringing in an android already familiar with 62F — an improbability — someone with human eyes will have a much harder time of making out the distinction of the carefully-designed cover he has over the surface of the cave. "Trust me on this."
She hums. "The synthesizer is done printing your plankton loaf."
Wei Wuxian heaves a sigh. "I think that we should use the synthesizer to print potatoes," he says. "I'm sick of plankton loaf."
"The synthesizer can't print potatoes," she reminds him. Not that he needs the reminder. He's been there, tried that, submitted the bug report. That one, at least, got a response; they didn't send him any potatoes, but they did replace the synthesizer. With a more basic model, yes, but at least he has food.
Wei Wuxian stretches and heads over to the terminal module to check the status of his latest bug report. It's still marked PENDING. It's been marked pending for a galactic standard week.
"In for a light-year, in for a parsec," Wei Wuxian mutters, and hits reply.
"Okay," he says, clapping his hands as he turns back around. "Another exercise in futility for the books. Let's get those samples finished before our honored guest arrives, huh?"
RE: 84356AEF345D Tʜᴇ Yᴛᴛᴇʀʙɪᴜᴍ Rᴏᴅs Wᴇɴᴛ Oɴ Tʜᴇ Fᴜᴄᴋɪɴɢ Fʀɪᴛᴢ Aɢᴀɪɴ Aɴᴅ Wɪʟʟ Lɪᴋᴇʟʏ Tᴏ Cᴏɴᴛɪɴᴜᴇ Dᴏɪɴɢ Sᴏ Iғ Yᴏᴜ Dᴏɴ'ᴛ Sᴜᴘᴘʟʏ Dʀᴏᴘ Sᴏᴍᴇ Aᴄᴛᴜᴀʟ Rᴇsᴏᴜʀᴄᴇs.
Update to my bug report: Plankton loaf is terrible for the morale of local lifeforms (i.e., me). Have been summarily instructed not to modify the synthesizer anymore. Please send alternate foodstuffs in the next available supply drop. Potatoes and hot sauce are sufficient but more variety would be appreciated.
Yours in upholding the outer-system Bei Fang Xuanwu quadrant,
Wei Wuxian (bfxw62f)
PS: This is not to support the ytterbium rods. This is to support the man who keeps them running.
"Our honored guest might not arrive for another four and a half galactic standard months," W3N Qing says, but she gives the tubes another wiggle, holding them up to the diffracted light oozing through the thick scratched-up windows. "These look done."
"Now who's implying that four galactic standard months is an eternity?" Wei Wuxian teases, coming forward to flick the tubes, listening for the telltale flat ping of a properly emulsified solution.
"Still you," W3N Qing says, pulling the tubes back from Wei Wuxian's reach.
Wei Wuxian clutches his chest. "You wound me."
"You seem unharmed," says W3N Qing. There's a wide ledge of a counter spanning the circumference of the room. She takes the tubes over to the corner Wei Wuxian has designated the OpCon-acceptable lab space and pushes them into holes of the makeshift chiller Wei Wuxian has devised, using elements scalped from the sword-ship's wreckage — a mini-fridge and toaster oven from the area used as crew-quarters before people figured out autopilot; the motherboard of a plasma-blade circuit; a few stabilizing talismans to which he added a few flourishes and quirks. "Get over here, this is your project."
Wei Wuxian crowds over and stands with W3N Qing, watching the feathering chill wind its way along the tubes. It's meditative. Calming. Good. Almost companionable. At his most quiet, he can't ignore the fact that he misses people. This is nice, though; this is almost the same thing.
He leans his head against W3N Qing's shoulder.
She waits a few moments before shrugging him off.
There is, of course, no mention of when the inspector will arrive.
RE: RE: 84356AEF345D Tʜᴇ Yᴛᴛᴇʀʙɪᴜᴍ Rᴏᴅs Wᴇɴᴛ Oɴ Tʜᴇ Fᴜᴄᴋɪɴɢ Fʀɪᴛᴢ Aɢᴀɪɴ Aɴᴅ Wɪʟʟ Lɪᴋᴇʟʏ Tᴏ Cᴏɴᴛɪɴᴜᴇ Dᴏɪɴɢ Sᴏ Iғ Yᴏᴜ Dᴏɴ'ᴛ Sᴜᴘᴘʟʏ Dʀᴏᴘ Sᴏᴍᴇ Aᴄᴛᴜᴀʟ Rᴇsᴏᴜʀᴄᴇs.
Dear WEI WUXIAN,
Thank you for your support ticket ID 84356AEF345D! We here at OpCon always want to ensure the nav core is always running in smooth working order. With your site inspector we will send:
- THREE (3) replacement YTTERBIUM RODS
- ONE (1) replacement PLANKTON LOAF SYNTHESIZER
Lest the ytterbium rod malfunction be an error not diagnosed in your bug report, we will also send:
- ONE (1) replacement YTTERBIUM ROD BASE
Thanks as ever for your service!
OpCon Bug Catchers
"Probably within the next galactic standard week or so, though," Wei Wuxian tells W3N Ning's rover frame as he goes in for a final quick check of the cave, to make sure that the generator is still in working order and the chassis and assembly are both still rust-free and well-lubricated. "They wouldn't give me a long enough heads-up to hide any of the illicit deeds they probably think I'm doing."
He pauses to buff out a smear on the rover's caterpillar tread. One day, maybe, the code possessing this chassis will run something like the android Wei Wuxian remembers. If not W3N Ning before the malware attack, then still a W3N Ning that's uncorrupted. It worked, in theory, during the war — code alterations; rover ghosts possessing other frames — but the bulk of his experience is with pure rovers, not rover-android blends.
Rovers are an interesting class. A lot of them have spirits of their own, from when their AI gets unmoored by power decels. That was the problem with the moon during Wei Wuxian's final exam on Mare Imbrium: too many high-tech machines abandoned when they reached the end of their intended missions, power draining away and leaving the embodied code behind, adrift on run-down frames. Releasing the spirits from their moorings to help him pass the hunting portion of his final drew a certain amount of ire from his teachers. Unacceptable misuse of resources; violating intergalactic code; running the risk of robots violating the primary laws of robotics; yadda yadda yadda. His arguments that reappropriating the rover ghosts was basically recycling tech in a way that could probably be used to sustain the nav core fell on deaf ears.
Those efforts drew a certain amount of interest during the war, however. Separating rovers from their ghosts, so that new code could be installed in the rovers to militarize them? Letting their ghosts also wreck havoc on the enemy's android puppets? Wei Wuxian and his skills were in high demand then, and he didn't immediately fall out of favor when humans were caught in the crossfire. No, the loss of favor did not come until the end of the war.
Of course, if anyone knew he was still up to anything even akin to his wartime exploits, they'd probably decide that he deserved to be airlocked rather than marooned at the farthest reaches of the Tian Qin Zuo sector of Bei Fang Xuanwu. So.
"Luckily I keep everything here above board, huh?" he asks, clapping a hand to one of the chassis's metal support struts. It's warm from the electrospiritual current running through it.
If W3N Ning was awake…
But he isn't, and Wei Wuxian isn't above laughing at his own jokes. "Whenever they show up… I'll try to check you as much as possible," he promises.
62F's winter sun is setting by the time Wei Wuxian drags the driftwood back over the entrance to the cave, locking it down with another quick spritz of spray-polymers. The air is growing chillier, enough to cut sharply through the thick sweater Wei Wuxian is once again wearing.
Shivering, he walks to the very edge of the regolith outcrop, letting the spray of the waves splatter over his foulies. There, he lingers . As the light dims and the stars prickle, bright, across the cosmos, the phosphorescence of the animals — from the minute diatoms suspended through the waters up to the slick spiny backs of the reptile-like fish he likes to call 'dinosaurs' swimming merrily in their little eddies — starts to glow, sending the oceans into an otherworldly mirror of the expanse above him.
It makes him feel small, looking out across the glow. In a good way. Earth Prime is still at the nexus of what is known about the universe, and this little planet — located at the edge of Niandao in Bei Fang Xuanwu, so far from all people he knows — is at the far edge of the proverbial wilds, but they're still connected by the nav core. He can still send an annoyance of bug reports to OpCon and some of them even get responses. He can still send data packages to Jiang Yanli and Jiang Cheng — not videos, but text files, at least — and Jiang Yanli, with the wealth of her and Jin Zixuan's Jinlintai station at her fingertips, can even requisition those small, unsanctioned supply drops of comforting items for him.
And, hey! He snaps his fingers, which ache in the bitter air. Pretty soon there will be a whole nother human on this planet. One assessing his successes and failures, sure, and likely looking for any evidence that he's slipped up from the prime directive or whatever, but still! A whole person!
"It'll probably be some Jin assfuck," he mutters to the empty world in front of him. "Knowing my luck and how much they hate me? Some Jin weasel who just wants to catch me in the act. Malfeasance, or whatever."
But, hey. Even a Jin is still a person. Probably. He can make do!
The last blush of sun dips below the horizon. There's no moon here, just the twinkling stars and bioluminescent ocean.
It's cold as fuck, though. Probably close to 270.65K. Shoving his hands up the cuffs of his sleeves, he makes his way back inside.
"I still think it's going to be one of those Jin fucks," he tells her, cutting a scrap of wire off with his pliers and sticking it in the corner of his mouth for safekeeping. He's pretty sure that the lighthouse came with the wiring in the shape of an outdated array, to use sub-par electrospiritual energy to further its longevity. He can't remember, though. He's re-arranged it in several alternate designs over the past few galactic standard years. Each time, he made note of what did and didn't work, in case he's ever un-blacklisted from publishing on improvements in electrospiritual design. But it's been long enough, and gone through enough changes, that he doesn't remember how it started.
W3N Qing hums. "The signal is too weak to download a new datapack," she says, after a moment. "We'll have to fix the ytterbium rods again next."
"All work and no play," Wei Wuxian says, mournfully, around the wire in his mouth. He clips another segment from a different wire and twists it around a valve clip. "What about the last datapack you downloaded?"
"That was from a full galactic standard year ago," W3N Qing admits.
"The ytterbium rods have been on the fritz that long?"
"Well, yes," she says. "And you deleted the part of my code about checking for updates and downloading them automatically, remember? You said that you could service me better than the OpCon standard security updates."
"Oh yeah," Wei Wuxian says. He takes the wire out of his mouth and holds it up to the mess under the power converter, squinting, trying to figure out whether it fits somewhere or whether he can put it in the scrap pouch. "That covered datapacks too?"
"The language is unclear," she says, sounding as serene as anything. "Anyway, it could be a Nie. Mingjue?"
"Nah, shijie told me four galactic standard months ago that he stepped back from active duty to take over the family system," Wei Wuxian says. "And there's no way Nie Huaisang would become an inspector if he had any way of getting out of it."
Which is a pity, really. Nie Huaisang would probably smuggle in some baiju and overlook all of the modifications Wei Wuxian hasn't had time to reverse yet. He'd probably even complain about the prospect of going out into the cold and wet and be easily persuaded to stay inside, so W3N Ning's frame could definitely stay hidden.
"Jin Zixun and Jin Chan are both inspectors," W3N Qing continues. "Or at least they were a year ago."
"I don't know them," Wei Wuxian says. "I only know shijie's wife."
"Jin Zixun is apparently Jin Zixuan's cousin." There's a whir of W3N Qing's fan, a sign that she's processing her way through a lot of data. "He attended their wedding?"
"Oh, that guy," Wei Wuxian says, with a decisive nod that almost ends up with him banging his head against the pokiest part of the power converter. "He's part of why I got assigned this fucking planet."
A pause. "Easily forgettable, then," W3N Qing says, with all the dry humor that fits between the spaces of her code.
Wei Wuxian laughs, and decides to use his last scrap of wire to connect the capacitor to the intake processor. The connection looks a little naked without it.
"Lan Wangji's an inspector," she says, after a moment. "He's been assigned a number of the more out-of-the-way planets."
Wei Wuxian pushes the creeper forward, blinking back the brightness of the full light when he's out from under the power converter. "That's never gonna happen," he says, sitting up and knocking the creeper off-center in the process. "If Lan Zhan was assigned Burial Mounds, he'd simply find a way to fob it off on someone else. He's too proper and good to risk condemning a lighthouse without just cause, and he hates me enough that he'd condemn this one just because it's me."
"Hm," W3N Qing says. "Well, the only other inspectors active a galactic standard year ago were Luo Qingyang and Song Lan."
"Not Xiao Xingchen?"
"Says here he was decommissioned," W3N Qing says, with her android version of a shrug.
"Huh." Wei Wuxian stretches, shaking off the closeness of the small hot space under the power converter. "Okay, so, statistically speaking, definitely probably a Jin, huh?"
"Two of five isn't a majority," W3N Qing points out.
"If that's even the current roster." Wei Wuxian sighs. "I mean, I guess there's no point in trying to guess who will come. Whoever it is probably isn't my biggest fan, so. Gotta make these preparations regardless."
W3N Qing pauses. "It's a well-run lighthouse," she says, finally. "Surely another human won't condemn you for making it run more efficiently? Humans are much more tolerant of non-literal interpretations of rules, right?"
"Ah, W3N Qing," Wei Wuxian says, tentatively patting her shoulder. "It really depends on the human." He laughs. "Hey! Regardless of who they send here, you're about to double your list of human acquaintances!"
W3N Qing gives him a stern look. The aperture lenses in her eyes narrow. "I was active before the war, Wei Wuxian," she reminds him. Her voice module sounds… strange. "I've met plenty of humans." A pause, then, "The rods?"
"Ugh," Wei Wuxian says, eloquently. "I'm so sick of fixing those." He sighs, slipping his pliers back into the appropriate holster on his belt. "Grab the toolbox? I'll meet you in the beacon room."
"Don't tell me there are actual dinosaurs on this planet," he groans, wrestling his way out of his blanket and nearly rolling straight out of his bed nook and onto the floor.
He catches himself just in time and climbs out properly, shimmying into his jumpsuit as soon as his feet hit the floor.
Still pulling on his socks, he stumbles across the room (kicking over several piles of papers in the process) and out the door into the small, circular hall that winds through the base of the lighthouse. He scales the stairs quickly, heart pounding, blinking back sleep with every step. The sound has changed; there's now a splash underscoring the swelling noise, and the lighthouse is swaying more than it is shaking.
The beacon room doesn't have windows, just the opening through which the ytterbium rods direct the laser. The room below, though, has a 360° view of the surrounding seas. Wei Wuxian doesn't spend a lot of time in it — he prefers actually going outside, getting the water and salt and grit of the atmosphere under his fingers — but it's a good lookout to see what's causing that infernal racket.
What was causing the racket. It's quiet now, horribly so, a void of sound that leaves his ears ringing. This is, perhaps, more unnerving than the original sound itself.
At first, he doesn't see anything. It's cloudy again, and the few stars cutting through the gaps don't really cast light. It's the darkest part of the night: Both of the planet's suns have set, and it's still several galactic standard hours till the first sun rises. The bioluminescence of the waves has subsided into a bare glimmer.
But as he stares out the thick window, revolving around the stairs at the center of the lighthouse, step by slow, careful step, tracing the direction where he thinks the sound came from, the gloom gathers and glitters around —
"Oh, shit," Wei Wuxian says, taking an involuntary step closer to the window, leaning forward so he can peer at the ship that has splashed down about halfway to the horizon. Its lights are dim, flickering with the tossing of the waves.
"This is why they should tell me when they schedule visitors," he tells W3N Qing, who has pulled free of her charging bay and is waiting by the door to the lighthouse, Wei Wuxian's sweater in hand. He pulls it over his head, struggling to get it down past his face. Voice muffled through the thick knit, he continues, "I could, you know, be ready to keep the inspector from drowning if they gave me an exact time, date, and coordinates."
"I have no idea what you just said," W3N Qing says, as Wei Wuxian's head finally pops free. She's pulled his foulie waders down off the hook, and holds them open as he steps into them.
"Oh, it doesn't matter," Wei Wuxian says, shrugging the straps of the foulies up over his shoulders. "Just… I get they wanted to catch me being, you know, up to something, but this is the stupidest way to send someone to land on a waterworld."
"The landing wave…" W3N Qing gives Wei Wuxian a significant look. "Did it go over the entire outcrop?"
There's no way either of them can go into W3N Ning's cave and check right now. Not when there's a stranger out there who could see them, silhouetted against the pale walls of the lighthouse, going anywhere besides straight to the dinghy. Not when the stranger might want to investigate why they tarried.
"Maybe," Wei Wuxian says.
Androids don't generally demonstrate concern — it's not really in their codes — but Wei Wuxian's W3N-class androids haven't exactly retained their manufacturer's settings.
Wei Wuxian opens the door and pauses, turning to put a hand on W3N Qing's arm. "I'll do my best to check," he says. "Worst case scenario, we can give our visiting Jin some of the incorrectly synthesized plankton loaf—"
"The one that made you pass out for an entire galactic standard day?"
"Yeah, that one," Wei Wuxian says. "A nice welcome-to-the-Burial-Mounds snack and then we troubleshoot the second he falls asleep."
W3n Qing nods. Her eyes glow, briefly, and then she moves smoothly back, so Wei Wuxian clicks on the outside lights and heads toward the dinghy.
At a glance, the entrance to W3N Ning's cave looks dry. That's good, at least. A little of Wei Wuxian's swelling urgency ebbs away.
He climbs into the boat and steers it directly toward the rocket, slicing through the waves swirling out from where it lies, bobbing. Now that he's almost reached it, he can tell that it landed a hair over a kilometer from the lighthouse, which is… cutting it close, really.
What else can you expect from one of those Jin idiots, though? He's lucky it didn't land directly on the lighthouse itself.
As he draws up to the rocket, he flicks on the dinghy's searchlight. He doesn't like to use artificial light outside at night — it confuses the dinosaurs and other local lifeforms — but this is an extenuating circumstance.
The searchlight floods over the water, illuminating the rough surface of the ocean and the frissons of ozone swirling off the hull of the rocket through the lapping waves.
A line appears in the side of the rocket, dark and thick, about a meter above the water. It's been so long since Wei Wuxian's own landing on this planet that it takes him a moment to recognize the line as a door, easing carefully open.
It pulls into the rocket, sliding first in, and then down, and then out, lowering until the door becomes a ramp. A figure steps into the open space: a person, backlit from the glow emanating from inside the rocket and shadowed from the angle of the dinghy's searchlight, which doesn't quite tilt up that far.
Wei Wuxian blinks a few times. "What a time to arrive," he calls up to the person. "You guys really could have given me a more precise timeframe; I'd have given you better landing coordinates and been there to meet you!"
The figure doesn't respond, just twists to grab a bag and something that, from Wei Wuxian's angle, just looks square-shaped and bulky.
Then the person starts coming down the ramp. This person's jumpsuit is on the loose end of regulation sizing, pale in the light mingling between the rocket and Wei Wuxian's lamp. As they descend, Wei Wuxian sees the long hair, held back by a ribbon.
Wei Wuxian recognizes that ribbon. People need special exemptions to wear them on spacecraft.
He blinks, rubs his eyes. Maybe he's just tired, maybe the ribbon isn't actually there. It doesn't make sense.
But the ribbon is still there, and the guy has come forward enough that Wei Wuxian can see the features of his face. There's no mistaking him.
"Who did you piss off to get this assignment?" Wei Wuxian asks, switching off the searchlight as he navigates around a dinosaur hotspot — no point disrupting their sleep cycles if he doesn't have to.
The sudden darkness makes it difficult to make out the nuances of Lan Wangji's probable lack of a facial expression.
"I don't understand," Lan Wangji says, at long last.
Wei Wuxian shifts the boat a little to the left, avoiding the narrow rocky shoal that extends out from the outcrop. "Like, to be sent out here. To Burial Mounds." When Lan Wangji still doesn't really respond, he clarifies, "62F? This planet? With me? How did you end up drawing the short straw?"
Lan Wangji pauses again. "I go to all the lighthouses," he says, eventually.
"An apt job for Hanguang-jun," Wei Wuxian jokes.
It falls flat; Lan Wangji doesn't laugh. Lan Wangji doesn't often laugh at Wei Wuxian's jokes. In fact he can only remember it happening one time, halfway through the Sunshot Campaign, when they were crash-landed on a planet uninhabited by anything besides giant, flesh-eating creatures that roughly resembled creatures from ancient human lore. A rockfall covered their rocket; the only way out was through a cave terrorized by what looked like a giant leathery tortoise-brachiosaur hybrid.
After they finally defeated the beast and were able to claw their way from the wreckage, Wei Wuxian cracked some exhausted, lackluster quip about not wanting to do that again, and Lan Wangji let out a huff of breath that he would probably deny was a laugh. Wei Wuxian keeps it as a secret win, a truth held close to his chest: Lan Wangji was relieved, and in that relief he found levity.
Wei Wuxian likes to think that even though Lan Wangji cannot stand him, he at least appreciated — even respected — Wei Wuxian in that moment.
"So they told you to come out here and you were like 'that's fine, I'm okay with this assignment too since I do all the assignments like it?'"
"No," Lan Wangji says. "I asked for this assignment."
Wei Wuxian blinks. "I'm sorry, Lan Zhan," he says. "I think the salt air is getting to my ears. I could have sworn you said you asked for this assignment."
Well, shit. Wei Wuxian hopes he's covered up the more unsanctioned of his antics as much as possible. Lan Wangji is definitely going to go over everything with the finest-toothed comb, and find Wei Wuxian lacking, and report him for his misdeeds. The only good news is that they've already given Wei Wuxian the most unwanted lighthouse in the galaxy, and there has to be a human managing the more delicate repairs. The worst they can do, maybe, is make the vitamins that the synthesizer pushes into the plankton loaves taste even worse.
Well. At least he can prolong the inevitable and face it with a fresh, rested mind. "It's late, Lan Zhan," he says, gently steering the dinghy into place, locking it into its slot against the outcrop.
"Mn," Lan Wangji agrees.
Out of habit, Wei Wuxian jumps up the second the dinghy settles, making his way onto the regolith from muscle memory alone. Then he realizes: it's dark out — the outside lights help a little, but they thrust the rocks this far out into a sharp, exaggerated relief that is hard to read correctly — and this is an unfamiliar environment for Lan Wangji.
He pauses, teetering on the crust of regolith that stands closest to the dinghy, and then extends his hand. "Why don't I show you to the spare bed nook and you can get started doing… whatever it is that you're here to do… in the morning?"
Lan Wangji reaches forward, gripping Wei Wuxian's hand with his own. It's a strong grip. His palm is warm and dry; Wei Wuxian can feel a callus at the base of one of his fingers. It digs in a little as Lan Wangji's grip tightens, fingers curling around Wei Wuxian's.
Wei Wuxian plants his feet and hauls up as Lan Wangji rises, stumbling backwards a little with the momentul of his pull. It's only the force of Lan Wangji's grip that keeps him from pinwheeling back, actually, and when he settles back fully on his own two feet, Lan Wangji is right there in front of him.
"Well!" Wei Wuxian says. Out of respect, he releases Lan Wangji's hand and turns around. Then he thinks better of it, and reaches back again. "Actually, you should hold on. It can be kind of treacherous out here at night, and the rocks can get really slippery when they're damp. And they're all damp right now. Landing wave and all."
"All right," Lan Wangji says. He holds tight to Wei Wuxian's hand again, and follows him as Wei Wuxian picks out the path back to the lighthouse.
He feels stiff as he pulls on a fresh jumpsuit, bones aching in the morning chill that pervades the lighthouse in winter. He stands in the slanting light in front of the window as he shrugs the jumpsuit up over his shoulders, zipping the front. As he stretches, letting the fabric settle on his frame, he peers out and down, trying to get a good look at the covered entrance to W3N Ning's cave in the light of day.
The driftwood doesn't seem to have dislodged, but he can't be sure until he goes outside and looks at it. And with Lan Wangji as his inspector, that'll be even harder than he thought. Lan Wangji is meticulous. Lan Wangji notices things. Every time Wei Wuxian tried to get away with something during training, Lan Wangji was right there, watching him. Stopping him.
True to form, once Wei Wuxian makes his way to the main room at the center of the lighthouse, Lan Wangji is awake. He's sitting at the big table that Wei Wuxian mostly uses as additional storage, a half-eaten slice of plankton loaf on the plate in front of him. A cup steams gently in his hand.
"I see you've helped yourself to the bounty of the Burial Mounds," Wei Wuxian jokes, grabbing a hunk of plankton loaf for himself. He doesn't bother getting a plate — usually he just shoves the food in his mouth and gets to work every morning; it's not like there's usually anyone to criticize his manners, and there's no need to stand on ceremony (and generate dishes) for anything as displeasing as synthesized plankton loaf.
He drops into the chair across from Lan Wangji, leaning back and propping his feet up on the table. "Is that just plain hot water or did you sprinkle some loaf in it for the nutrients and, uh, flavor?"
"It's tea," Lan Wangji says.
Wei Wuxian blinks. It takes a moment for the words to compute. "Tea? We don't have any tea. I'd know if we had tea. W3N Qing," he calls, and listens for her heavy steps descending from the room with W3N Ning's abandoned datacores, watches as she comes smoothly into the room. "W3N Qing, we don't have tea, right? We didn't mis-inventory the supplies?"
"We don't have tea," W3N Qing confirms. "You ran out roughly forty-six galactic standard months ago."
"That's what I thought," says Wei Wuxian. "Lan Zhan, did you bring your own tea?"
Lan Wangji regards him for a long moment. "There's more," he says.
"Lan Zhan," Wei Wuxian says. "You're so particular! You really should let yourself enjoy the local delicacies at the lighthouses you inspect." He gestures at Lan Wangji's plate. "I see you've helped yourself to our very special vitamin-fortified synthesized plankton loaf! We make that with plankton harvested right here on 62F! That's a Niandao speciality right there."
"You made this?" Lan Wangji asks, glancing down at his plate.
"Well, the synthesizer did," Wei Wuxian says, laughing. "I just harvested the plankton. Fresh! Local! Can you feel the health coursing through your body with every bite you take?"
Lan Wangji picks up the slice of loaf. Making — and holding — eye contact with Wei Wuxian, he takes one bite from it. It crumbles between his lips, little bits falling to the plate below. Plankton loaf, in addition to tasting terrible, is dry and has a most displeasing texture.
But Lan Wangji chews and swallows, licking his lips when he's done. "I can," he agrees.
Wei Wuxian laughs harder, doubling over with the force of it. "Ah, Lan Zhan, you're so good," he says. The next bite of his own plankton loaf is eminently more tolerable, seasoned as it is with the image of Lan Wangji sedately eating it too. "Do you bring your own personal tea collection on all your inspection jobs? Are the other lighthouses equally ill-equipped for visitors?"
"They are not," Lan Wangji says. His face flickers with the ghost of an expression, but it's been too many years; Wei Wuxian can't quite read it. "The tea is yours. I made it from the resupply I brought."
"Wait," Wei Wuxian says. "They actually sent supplies with you? Actual supplies? More than just the, what was it, three ytterbium rods they promised?"
"And the rod base, and the plankton loaf synthesizer," Lan Wangji says, inclining his head.
"I was approved for actual creature comforts?" Wei Wuxian asks. He's honestly astounded. It's been so long since anyone but Jiang Yanli has sent him… anything of use, really. Anything besides pointless empty responses to bug reports.
"Mn," Lan Wangji says. He looks — Wei Wuxian would describe it as constipated. "I brought you supplies."
"Okay, then, gimme," Wei Wuxian says. He shifts, kicking his feet off the table and standing up in one swift motion. His chair, having rocked from its back legs back to the ground and then been pushed back in quick succession, teeters for a moment, then tips over. His cheeks heat as he leans over to pick it up. "Where'd you put 'em?"
"With my things," Lan Wangji says. He eats the final bite of his synthesized plankton loaf, wipes his mouth, and rises.
It's almost more than Wei Wuxian has done in all the years he's spent here. He's pretty sure there's still an unpacked qiankun pouch shoved down in the corner of his bed nook that probably has several sentimental doodads from Lotus Pier. In general, he's hunted things down as he's come to need them, and reorganized his stuff when it made sense to. His quarters now are in a state of organized chaos, full of a sprawl of looseleaf notes on improving electrospiritual generators that he can plausibly beg off as just a thought exercise.
Just inside the door, Lan Wangji has laid out several large boxes and bags.
"These are from OpCon," he tells Wei Wuxian, nodding at the long, narrow polystyrene case marked FRAGILE and the bulky package labeled LOAF SYNTHESIZER NOW WITH VANILLA.
"Great, great, thanks," Wei Wuxian says, grimacing a little as he tries to imagine just how vanilla would alter the taste of plankton. Seems questionable at best. He can't wait to try it.
"Also," Lan Wangji says, and picks a qiankun box off the ground. He hands it to Wei Wuxian, who nearly drops it in surprise. It's small, but heavy.
"What's this?" Wei Wuxian asks. He eases it back onto the floor and squats next to it, lifting the lid to poke around.
"Tea," Lan Wangji says. "Potatoes. Radishes. Hot sauce and chili oil. Dehydrated textured protein. Fish cakes. Rice. Pickled greens. A limited selection of shelf-stable meals. Dried noodles. Cured meats." He pauses. "It's not much."
"Not much," Wei Wuxian says, staring into the box as he rummages through it. He can see onions in there too, and dried chilis, and some seasonings — dessicated, like granulated dried garlic and ginger, but still, seasonings just the same. He doesn't know how to handle it. He hasn't tasted anything but the same vitamin-fortified synthesized protein loaf for over three galactic standard years now. "Not much? Lan Zhan, this is fantastic. Fuck, I could kiss you."
Lan Wangji doesn't respond to that. When Wei Wuxian glances up at him, Lan Wangji is looking away — staring through the polymer window towards the roiling gray horizon. The curve of his ears have reddened. Embarrassment? Anger? Ah, it would seem Wei Wuxian still has the skill of pissing Lan Wangji off effortlessly.
"I won't kiss you for real, of course, don't worry," he says. "Or whoever at OpCon authorized all this. But jeez, this is… this is great." To his consternation, he finds that he's getting a little teary-eyed. "Food that isn't just synthesized protein loaf. Imagine! What a world!"
"It's not much," Lan Wangji repeats. "It won't last."
"Oh, I got very good at rationing when the supply drops stopped," Wei Wuxian says. He closes the lid of the box again and stands, hauling it up. "This'll last me at least a galactic standard year and a half if I'm careful. Then I'll only have like nine galactic standard years to wait before I get more. That's basically nothing!"
"You're not getting regular supply drops?" Lan Wangji asks.
"No," Wei Wuxian says. "Wait, do they not give the inspectors the bug reports?"
"Bug reports are a different department," Lan Wangji says. "And you should not requisition supply drops through bug reports."
"Requisitioning supply drops through the supply drop requisition form wasn't working, so I started submitting bug reports about it," Wei Wuxian says. He re-settles the box in his grip. "And then I just started submitting bug reports about everything, because at least with those OpCon is required to acknowledge receipt. So at least I know the requests are getting to someone. Even if it's just an automated processing system."
"It's critical to the lighthouse program that lighthouse operators are regularly supplied with both mission-critical essentials and creature comforts," Lan Wangji says. He walks over to his bed nook and reaches in, drawing out a transponder. "Morale is as important to program success as ytterbium connectivity. I'll have to put this in my report."
Wei Wuxian doesn't bother pointing out that the morale of a hated criminal is naturally going to be less important than the morale of most other lighthouse operators. Instead, he hikes the box up a little higher.
"Sounds like it's time to get to work," he says, watching the way that Lan Wangji's fingers move over the surface of his transponder. "I'll put these things away and then we can get started on the tour?"
Lan Wangji pauses his typing and glances up at Wei Wuxian. "Yes," he says. "We should start."
It's for the best if Lan Wangji's visit is short. Less chance of Lan Wangji discovering any of the untoward changes Wei Wuxian has made to the lighthouse.
Less chance of Wei Wuxian getting used to another human around.
"It takes two galactic standard weeks for the processors in the rocket to hydrolyze the saltwater into combustible fuel," Lan Wangji says.
"Two galactic standard weeks, gotcha, gotcha," Wei Wuxian says. It sounds so long. It sounds so short.
They reach the top of the stairs. He kicks the light switch set into the floor, and the room floods with light. As Wei Wuxian and W3N Qing lower the case of rods to the floor, Lan Wangji comes through the entryway and stops, staring.
"What, you haven't seen a beacon room before?"
When Lan Wangji doesn't respond, Wei Wuxian rolls his eyes.
"Lan Zhan, it's a joke. I know you've seen beacon rooms before. Obviously." He pauses, glancing around as well. He's done some reorganization of materials since he got that bug report response, but the rod base box is larger than he anticipated. "You can stow the rod base over here, I guess? There should be enough space on the bottom shelf."
Lan Wangji — well. It looks like he initializes, even though Wei Wuxian knows intimately that that's not how humans work. He blinks, though, twice, like he's coming back to himself.
"Yes," says Lan Wangji. He stows the rod base away, and then straightens up again, looking around the room.
Wei Wuxian watches Lan Wangji looking. He's spent so much time in the beacon room that he knows it without looking — where things are stored; the adjustments he's made; where things are starting to break down. He could probably do repairs by feel alone at this point — lights out, blindfolded, whatever.
He wonders what Lan Wangji is noticing. The organized clutter at the edges of the room? The proverbial spit and duct tape holding everything together? He still can't read anything in Lan Wangji's face. It's calm, though. He's pretty sure Lan Wangji isn't furious about the changes. Lan Wangji's posture is relaxed, Wei Wuxian can tell that much. His broad shoulders aren't tense. He's got his hands clasped lightly behind his back. It is, for Lan Wangji, a peaceful stance.
"You have done a lot here," Lan Wangji says, finally.
"Well, I have one job," Wei Wuxian says, with a mirthless sort of laugh. "Keep the beacon going. Keep the nav core intact. So I've gotten a little… innovative… as we've run out of supplies here."
"You shouldn't have run out of supplies," Lan Wangji says. His posture is growing more tense — he's standing up straighter; his jawline grows sharper. It's a good look on him. Intimidating, but in an appealing way.
Now's not the time for that kind of thinking, though.
"I mean, you're here," Wei Wuxian says. "You brought those replacement rods. Maybe I'll spend a little less time fixing the beacon and a little more time relaxing now."
"What was in your last supply drop?"
"Well, shijie sent that great sweater you saw me in when you got here last night," Wei Wuxian says. "I got that a couple galactic standard months ago."
"Shijie sends me a package once or twice a galactic standard year?"
"I mean from OpCon," Lan Wangji says. "What was in your last OpCon supply drop?"
"Uh, shit," says Wei Wuxian. "That was forever ago. W3N Qing? Do you remember?"
"Two and a half galactic standard years ago, OpCon delivered a drop of replacement vitamin injectors for the plankton loaf synthesizer, six rolls of duct tape, and an updated transponder because yours wouldn't work anymore," W3N Qing says. "The last thing before that was your first replacement synthesizer."
It's only because Wei Wuxian is paying such close attention to Lan Wangji that he sees Lan Wangji's hand flex.
"I see," Lan Wangji says. He takes his transponder out of his qiankun pouch and taps the screen a few times. "Hm."
"So I guess you need to see the problem with the ytterbium rods?" Wei Wuxian asks. "For your report?"
Lan Wangji stows his transponder away again. "Show me," he says.
"Okay, so W3N Qing will have to hold you up to the array," Wei Wuxian says. "I stopped cranking it down when that started increasing the destabilization rates of the rods."
Lan Wangji nods. "You'll have the other W3N-class android hold you up so that you can point out the primary areas of concern?"
"The other W3N-class android…?" Wei Wuxian exchanges a glance with W3N Qing. "You mean W3N Ning?"
"Yes, that was the ID in the lighthouse file."
"Did the lighthouse file talk about the malware attack?" Wei Wuxian asks. "W3N Qing is the only W3N-class android on this rock."
Lan Wangji exhales sharply through his nose. "I see," he says, hand drifting to his qiankun pouch. He doesn't reach inside it though, just lets it hover in the air for a moment before nodding at W3N Qing. "Then can you explain the problems to me when I'm looking at it?"
"That, I can do," Wei Wuxian says. "A little before-and-after? Let OpCon know I wasn't misusing resources when I submitted all those bug reports?"
"You were not the one misusing resources," Lan Wangji says, stepping delicately into W3N Qing's strong grip and letting her hoist him up into the air.
Well, that's a sight. W3N-class androids are roughly the size and shape of small adult humans, sturdy frames covered in a durable, humanoid skin. They make a hell of an uncanny valley.
In effect, it looks like a short, slight woman is holding the entire bulk that is the tall, broad, stacked Hanguang-jun aloft in the air, shifting his feet onto her narrow shoulders and gripping his ankles firmly so that he's held tightly in place.
"Is that what I look like every time I fix the fucking rods?" Wei Wuxian asks the room, broadly. Both W3N Qing and Lan Wangji ignore him, so he answers himself: "No, I bet I look a lot less ridiculous. I'm not nearly as built as Lan Zhan is."
Lan Wangji does glance up at that. He turns his head, levying a long, drawn-out look at Wei Wuxian, before turning back to the array.
"You ignore me as much as W3N Qing does," Wei Wuxian observes, wandering over to the shelves of supplies and minutely adjusting them so they look a little less messy. "I was so looking forward to having another person planetside, you know, get some of that human connection I've been missing out on for year after galactic standard year, and yet! Lan Zhan, you spurn me so. I am bereft. Bereft, I tell you."
"You'll survive," W3N Qing tells him. "Let the man do his job."
Wei Wuxian doesn't have to say that's what I'm afraid of. W3N Qing already knows.
But it's not just the tea. He's not planning on breaking into the more robust rations Lan Wangji brought anytime soon, but he does crack open one jar of chili oil; it makes the dry, nasty synthesized protein loaf nearly palatable.
And the companionship is… nice. For all that Lan Wangji is a taciturn man, and one who has historically loathed Wei Wuxian, at that, they fall back into the one-sided banter and two-sided camaraderie they had during the war. Lan Wangji listens to Wei Wuxian's stories, making noises here and there, sometimes asking a question or two.
An improvement from the war: there is music, now. There are no noise ordinances on 62F, and Lan Wangji has brought his qin.
Wei Wuxian's dizi was confiscated after the war. A weapon, misused, the OpCon council had said. He couldn't be trusted with it anymore, and so he was granted an assignment where he wouldn't reasonably need it for survival. But in the evenings, with the long, dark cold closing in around the lighthouse and the work for the day done, they sit at the table. Wei Wuxian whistles the tunes he remembers from his childhood, and Lan Wangji fits the tunes to string. And so as Wei Wuxian fiddles with circuit boards and filament, trying to design new hardwired talismans, Lan Wangji's music flows around them.
It settles Wei Wuxian, soothing in a deceptive, horrifying way. This won't last he reminds himself, even as he allows himself to hope that Lan Wangji won't actually spot and report any of his more untoward experiments.
Ever since they were teenagers, meeting on a diplomatic mission between their systems, Wei Wuxian has wanted Lan Wangji's attention. It's strange, then, to have it so utterly now. Strange and gratifying.
And the attention is positive! That's also an improvement from the war. Instead of turning away, furious at the way that Wei Wuxian is misusing rovers and robots alike, the way that he's reviving dead code and setting ghosts against their enemies, riling up that which should be laid to rest instead of granting it release and peace, Lan Wangji watches Wei Wuxian fiddle with his hardwired talismans and asks questions of his methods.
"This one is to help locate rover ghosts — human ghosts, too, for that matter, if they're resentful enough — even when it's on, like, a planet that doesn't have available satellites? Like if there have been probes that we've sent and lost, and we're trying to recover them, but we don't know where they went dark? Boom, electrospiritual compass. We can find the derelict, or the ghost, or whatever, and liberate it." He winks at Lan Wangji, reaches out to run a finger along the wood-grain of the qin that Lan Wangji is continuing to play, but decides against it. "Just like your uncle taught us."
"Not quite like my uncle taught us," Lan Wangji murmurs, but he leans over to look at the talisman nonetheless. "This is very clever, Wei Ying."
"I know," Wei Wuxian says. He sighs. "I wish they'd let me publish some of this stuff, because I think it could be really useful, but I've been blacklisted from most journals."
Lan Wangji doesn't frown, because that would be a facial expression, but he does press his lips together a little more tightly than usual. "Why?"
Wei Wuxian blinks at him. He chuckles, incredulously, and says, "Because of all the war crimes?"
"Your methods were unorthodox," Lan Wangji says. "They were also necessary. OpCon did sanction all your actions at the time."
"Tell that to the council," says Wei Wuxian. "They seem to think I'm going to foment some kind of robot uprising at any minute, and it's like the second they came under heat from civilians based on my crimes against humanity, they decided it was easier to condemn me than continue to justify what I did. I mean, that's why they didn't really give me a heads up that you were coming, right?" He spreads his arms, a wide gesture. "They don't want this weapon active unless they know they can point it in the direction they want. An essential job on a remote waterworld with no way off-surface is a good place to keep me, if you think about it! I feel good about doing an important job, I don't have a ship, I'm a minor headache as long as I comply with their rules."
"You're not a weapon," Lan Wangji says. It's nice of him, earnest, even, but that doesn't make it true. Wei Wuxian did, after all, burn code through his meridians in an extremely forbidden ritual so that he could manipulate the very weft of information space itself. It was dark and dangerous enough that he almost lost what little was left of his core after that emergency transplant surgery. He's been very careful ever since; cores are essential for protecting against celestial radiation.
Also, sometimes, for all that he's lonely alone here on this waterworld, he thinks it's kind of nice to be on such a remote planet with only rover ghosts about. It does mean that there's less technology trying to speak inside his mind.
Wei Wuxian smiles at him, sharp, with teeth. "Ah, Lan Zhan, be careful! You're going to have me thinking that you like me."
Lan Wangji sets his hands over the strings of his qin, stilling them into silence. "I do," he says.
"Oh." Wei Wuxian doesn't know what to do with that. "Since when? Don't tell me our friendship has been two-sided all along, Lan Zhan!"
"Hasn't it?" A tiny line appears in the middle of Lan Wangji's forehead; it's very nearly completely covered by his ribbon. Has Lan Wangji been hiding all his facial expressions under that ribbon? Is that why he still wears the ancient Lan ribbon so devoutly?
"I mean, I thought you hated me," Wei Wuxian says. "Especially after the war. You never really wrote, you know."
He's getting better at reading Lan Wangji's expressions. He's not quite back at the levels he was before the war, but — it's nice, how quickly this skill has bounced back.
Right now, Lan Wangji looks — frustrated, mostly, but a little angry.
"It's okay," Wei Wuxian says, soothingly. "No one else really does, either, so I'm used to it. You better write to me when you leave, though! I'd forgotten how nice conversation with another person was." He glances toward the stairwell — W3N Qing is hardwired into the beacon so that she can download updated OpCon data, now that the signal is a little steadier. "No offense to W3N Qing, she's great."
"Hm," Lan Wangji says, which isn't quite the 'yes, of course, Wei Ying, I'll write to you daily' that Wei Wuxian was kind of hoping for. "People weren't meant for total isolation, Wei Ying."
"Yeah, but someone's gotta be out here," Wei Wuxian says with a shrug. "And it keeps me out of the way, so." He gestures, a lazy sweep of his right hand, sketching nonsense characters into the air with the tip of his screwdriver. "See above."
"Perhaps," says Lan Wangji. He trails a finger over the top string of his qin; it makes a whisper of a sound that fades quickly in the air. "But surely OpCon sees the merit in having two people out here, to split duties."
"Yeah, but who wants to come all the way out to 62F?" Wei Wuxian asks. "It's not like there's a ton to do on a water world, especially one so far out from the galactic core. Like, yes, it's cool to be in Bei Fang Xuanwu, but the novelty does fade, and then whoever else gets stationed here is just… stuck here, with me."
He sighs and pushes his circuit board away. "Anyway, Lan Zhan, enough morose bullshit. You only have a few days left here. We should go outside tomorrow! You haven't seen the plankton platform yet, so you should probably inspect that." He pauses. "And I could show you some of the sites I've been trying to clean up. You could put in your report that OpCon should send some useful resources for safely getting rid of old sword-ships."
"I have been curious about your 'dinosaurs,'" Lan Wangji admits. "First light?"
"Oh, no, it'll be way too fucking cold at dawn," Wei Wuxian says. "Give it a few hours to get to 275K, at least."
Plus, by midmorning, the slant of the suns is such that the entrance to W3N Ning's cave is shadowed in a way that obscures it most effectively. That's important, for Lan Wangji's first daytime trip outside of the lighthouse.
"All right, then," says Lan Wangji.
"So," says Wei Wuxian. "You like me, huh? Does this mean you're going to go easy on me in my inspection eval? You won't tell OpCon about all the terrible things I'm getting up to down here?"
Lan Wangji doesn't dignify Wei Wuxian's question with any further response. He just holds Wei Wuxian's gaze for a long moment, and then glances back down to where his hands are resting on the qin strings.
Slowly, he starts to play again.
"It's a little chilly," Lan Wangji replies. He's wearing an honest-to-goodness cloak over his jumpsuit, a thick, woven thing that shifts between light blue and sparkling white in the cold winter sun. He's drawn it up to his chin, and his cheeks are pink, but he looks otherwise unbothered. "There's a healthy breeze out on the water."
"There always is," Wei Wuxian says. He slows the dinghy down a little, though, so that the wind cuts less, and so that the spray of the water doesn't sting Lan Wangji's face. "On Lotus Pier even the air was swampy, no matter how fast we were going. But it was nice." He pauses. "Summers here are nice, too, even though that's when all the flying insects migrate up from the equatorial waters. The dinosaurs fucking love the big juicy ones. You should come back some summer, Lan Zhan, you haven't seen anything until you've seen one of the big golden fish-lizard-thingies jump a meter and a half out of the water to eat a fly the size of your hand."
Lan Wangji holds a hand up in front of his face, twisting it back and forth so that he can look at both sides of it. They both study it for a long moment. It's broad, sun-darkened from Lan Wangji's inspections on other planets, roughened with work. His fingers are thick and strong; the dark hair growing on the first length of his index finger is paler and less coarse over the rest of his hand.
It's a good hand. Wei Wuxian knows from personal experience that Lan Wangji can hold a sword and a transponder and a blaster and a small snack in it at the same time, as long as he's not interested in effectively using any one of those items. It's a very good hand. Large.
"Maybe not quite the size of your hand," Wei Wuxian says. The words come out hoarsely. He clears his throat. "But still pretty big."
"It sounds… pretty," Lan Wangji says, voice positively dripping with doubt.
"They're not like the bugs on that rock circling Shenxiuqi, Lan Zhan, I think you'd be fine with these. They're more pretty than scary."
Lan Wangji is quiet at that, apart from a slight incline of his head, and Wei Wuxian is thrust into a sudden bout of insecurity. Is it a bad idea to mention Shenxiuqi? It was, after all, the greatest casualty of the war, and while Wei Wuxian isn't personally culpable for its hyper-accelerated supernova, he did play his own fraught part in the campaign.
"I'll have to see for myself, then," Lan Wangji says, after another few moments.
Oh. Oh, no. There's that dumb hope again. Wei Wuxian is a man drunk on companionship; he's almost definitely doomed to the worst sort of withdrawal once Lan Wangji flies off again. It's nice of Lan Wangji to pretend that he'll come back. It's also terrible of him. The hope in Wei Wuxian's chest is a yawning, hungry thing, gripping tight to Wei Wuxian's tender insides.
"Yeah you will," Wei Wuxian says, laughing weakley. "Lan Zhan, you'll love 62F in the summer."
"Mark your words," Lan Wangji says, and falls silent once more, staring out across the vast horizon.
It's a blustery day, the tall swells kicked even higher up with the force of the gusts. The surface of the water is rough, and it splashes across them as the dinghy cuts its way toward the plankton platform. Wei Wuxian laughs into the stinging spray, wiping salt away with the back of his hand. "Isn't it so exhilarating?" he asks, forgetting himself and speeding the dinghy up so they can really feel the rocking of the boat as they dart through the last few klicks to the platform. "Just — we've been cooped up inside the lighthouse for a week and a half, Lan Zhan, you haven't been able to really experience the wilder joys of 62F at all."
"Mn." Lan Wangji is gripping the edges of the dinghy, but his body is relaxed and his eyes are bright as he stares out at the swelling of the larger waves.
For all his propriety, Lan Wangji really is a thrill-seeking motherfucker. Wei Wuxian had forgotten, till now, how Lan Wangji had often volunteered for the riskiest missions during the war. How sometimes Lan Wangji would dock back on the sword ship with grit in his teeth and a fierce, triumphant light in his eyes.
He'd forgotten, or else he'd put it deliberately out of his mind. It's one of Lan Wangji's most appealing attributes, after all, and attraction is the least of Wei Wuxian's priorities now.
It's a good day to be out. The water is clear to several meters deep, and the animals are in a frenzy around the plankton platform. Wei Wuxian supposes it has been a few days longer than he usually goes between pick-ups; there's probably a greater swirl of the stuff than usual seeping from the holding tank on the platform.
"C'mon," he says, tying the dinghy to the edge of the platform and leaping between the two. "I brought some of the really nasty crumbly old loaf in my qiankun pouch, and some of these guys go absolutely apeshit over it."
He pulls out the baggy of dried-out loaf and, after taking a handful, passes it over to Lan Wangji.
"If you hold your hand in the water, the stick-looking ones will eat it right out of your hands," Wei Wuxian says. "They're filter-feeders, so it won't hurt you. Just tickles a little."
"Show me," Lan Wangji says, so Wei Wuxian flops over onto his belly and, suppressing a shiver, dips his hand into the frigid water surrounding the platform.
Several of the fish come up immediately, their whiskers tickling his hands as they eat. "I like to think of these guys as baby dragons," Wei Wuxian says, watching their golden heads bump together and feeling the odd little brushes of their mouths against his palm.
"I thought you called them dinosaurs," Lan Wangji says.
"Same difference." Wei Wuxian shrugs one shoulder. "They didn't have time to do a proper taxonomy of this planet before they abandoned it for everything but nav core infrastructure, so I figured that I can make the rules, and the rules are everything's a dinosaur and possibly something else, too. Reptilian, pre-sentience. Only problem is they don't have feathers, but that's probably just a matter of time, so. Seems good enough to me."
"Obviously," says Lan Wangji, and Wei Wuxian laughs.
When he glances up, Lan Wangji is regarding Wei Wuxian instead of the animals. Something in Wei Wuxian's heart flutters; he doesn't bother to tamp it down. Fluttery feelings are probably fine, when you have filter-feeders eating out of the palm of your hand and a beautiful man watching it all happen. He's already bound to feel Lan Wangji's absence acutely when he goes. It was going to happen with any human who came to this planet, and it was always going to be worse with Lan Wangji than any of the other prospects. So he might as well give in to the tide of the feelings. He's built roots strong enough here that he's pretty sure he won't be swept away by them.
"Come on, Lan Zhan, you try," he insists, and grins as Lan Wangji hunkers down next to him. His hand is warm when it brushes against Wei Wuxian's in the water. It beats the last of the chill away.
Later, Lan Wangji watches Wei Wuxian scoop the plankton glop into his container. "You hate plankton," he says.
"I mean, yeah," says Wei Wuxian, getting another scoop of the muck. "It's gross as hell. But it keeps me alive, so. Love/hate relationship, you know?"
"Why don't you grow food in the lighthouse?" Lan Wangji asks. "Hydroponically?"
"Ah," says Wei Wuxian. "I tried that! Didn't work. Couldn't salvage the right pieces for it, and, well. You know how well supply drop requests have gone for me."
When Wei Wuxian glances over, Lan Wangji's mouth is tense. "Inappropriate," he says, finally. "You're doing OpCon a service. The relationship should at least be transactional."
"Put it in your report, Lan Zhan," Wei Wuxian says. Without much hope, he adds, "Maybe they'll listen to you."
"Hm," Lan Wangji says. "Maybe."
Lan Wangji frowns. It's infinitesimal, but still clearly written on his face. "Unacceptable," he says.
"Yeah, well," Wei Wuxian says. "Wanna come see what I've done to try and minimize damage?"
They're in the bowels of the sword-ship, roughly where the crew quarters would have been when this was still a manned vessel, when Wei Wuxian's transponder starts going off in his qiankun pouch. The vibrations are intense enough that he nearly trips with the force of them.
"I haven't submitted any bug reports lately," he says, frowning, taking the transponder out of his pouch and switching the screen on.
When he sees the alert, he nearly drops the thing on the crumpled-metal floor of the ship. "Fuck. Shit! Fuck."
Lan Wangji glances up from where he's been prodding at some rusting iron fixtures. "Wei Ying. Is everything okay?"
"Ummmmmmmmmm," Wei Wuxian says. He's still staring at the alert. It's an SOS from W3N Qing, blinking on the screen in the bold red letters she only uses in cases of emergency, like the time the lighthouse was at risk of becoming unmoored, or when the malware attack hit and she had to shut down to protect herself: W3N Ning is active. He's not himself. Help.
What is his recourse here? He can't reasonably abandon Lan Wangji on this rusting sword-ship and go home to take care of whatever's happening so that Lan Wangji stays in the dark about W3N Ning's new existence. But if he brings Lan Wangji with him, then Lan Wangji will definitely have to put W3N Ning in his report. At best, W3N Ning will be fully decommissioned. At worst…
Wei Wuxian cannot even fathom what a worst-case scenario would be, here.
It may very well include a rabid W3N Ning uprooting the lighthouse and destroying the rods once and for all. For all the testing he's done while W3N Ning has been hooked up onto the electrospiritual generator, Wei Wuxian really has no idea what a reactivated possessed-rover W3N Ning is capable of.
He makes a snap decision: the benefits of Lan Wangji helping Wei Wuxian constrain a potential threat outweigh the risks Wei Wuxian takes by letting Lan Wangji know the fullest extent of the illegal things Wei Wuxian is still doing.
"It's a lot to explain," Wei Wuxian says. "But we have to go. Now. There's trouble at the lighthouse."
"W3N Ning is still around," Lan Wangji says, flatly, once Wei Wuxian is done.
"Presumably," Wei Wuxian says. "I checked, and most of his code is still intact. Enough that he should still function and be mostly himself."
"And the malware that attacked him decoupled his code from his frame, which then possessed the assembly all on its own."
"Correct," says Wei Wuxian. He feels — wild, in a way he can't fully unpack or describe. Partly from the uncertainty of what's happening back at the lighthouse, partly from the uncertainty of what's happening in this conversation, here and now. What is Lan Wangji thinking? What is W3N Ning doing?. Adrenaline is coursing through him, setting his body aflame. He's too far away to start sensing for the energy signature in W3N Ning's code, but he cycles his qi through his meridians in anticipation of it.
"And you have maintained a steady stream of electrospiritual power to the chassis and assembly, even though it has lain inert for — how long, exactly?"
"Oh, over a galactic standard year at this point, I think."
"Using a generator of your own design, in the off chance that the rover could ever become active again."
"W3N Qing misses her brother!" Wei Wuxian protests. "But yeah, that's about the long and short of it."
"OpCon doesn't recognize familial relationships between non-humans," Lan Wangji points out.
"OpCon probably wouldn't have sent me to the fucking Burial Mounds if they did," Wei Wuxian points out. "I know we don't code androids for autonomy or emotions, but androids can do a lot of things we don't code for now. They were exposed to too much spiritual energy for that."
"And resentful energy," Lan Wangji points out.
Wei Wuxian is silent for a moment. He knows he had a big hand in that particular exposure. "To similar effect," he says, finally.
Lan Wangji nods, conceding the point. "I understand missing a brother," he says.
"Me, too," Wei Wuxian admits. "Anyway, yeah. So we have a rover chassis possessed by augmented android code, currently re-activated right outside the lighthouse."
Lan Wangji is still nodding. Wei Wuxian wonders, wildly, if he's finally broken Lan Wangji's brain. He doesn't typically engage in this much gesture. "What happened to his original frame?"
"Destroyed," Wei Wuxian says. "It was totally burnt out by malware. We took out the spent datacores and repurposed what we could to patch up some issues around the lighthouse, but mostly we have it in a qiankun box in the storage room to save on space. Didn't want to dump it and have the dinosaurs choke on it."
"Ah," says Lan Wangji. "I see."
"I know you're going to have to put this in your report," Wei Wuxian says, steering the dinghy in the gap between two large swells. It bounces underneath them as it rides forward, water splashing across the surface of the boat. The spray is less delightful than it was that morning. They're drawing close to the lighthouse — it's visible against the horizon, growing larger by the second — and the seas are growing rougher as they approach.
"And I won't ask you to downplay the situation. I know you have that whole honesty thing. But if you could, like, I dunno." He shrugs. "I just don't want my W3Ns to get totally decommissioned, or for OpCon to decide I need to run this place without even android help, you know? It's lonely enough without other humans, I can't imagine what it would be like without W3N Qing to talk to. I know they're not going to throw me into any kind of real jail; cultivators are too necessary and too few after the war, but the W3Ns don't deserve to be decommissioned, and I would be so—"
He doesn't know how to finish the sentence. Lonely, perhaps, but that feels too vulnerable to say.
Lan Wangji's face has grown as stormy as the seas. "I will observe the situation," he snaps, "and draw my own conclusions."
"You're angry," Wei Wuxian observes. "Is it at me, or at the situation?"
Lan Wangji doesn't answer; they're close enough to the outcrop now that they can see the rover spinning wildly in circles, kicking up a storm of regolith with its movements. The movements are wild and uncoordinated, and with every spin the rover is getting closer and closer to the lighthouse. There's a swath of disrupted rock and dust spiraling out from W3N Ning's alcove, curving in a broad sweep toward the lighthouse itself.
W3N Qing, Wei Wuxian notices, as they pull up to the outcrop, is standing in the door. She is not dodging the rocks, just watching W3N Ning closely as he spirals more and more.
Lan Wangji leaps off the dinghy the second Wei Wuxian has it locked into place, pulling his qin out of his qiankun pouch as he strides up the slope of the outcrop. Wei Wuxian follows right behind, whistling low and fierce as he tries to tap into the frequency of W3N Ning's code.
It's a furious, gnarled thing, twisting in a way it didn't the entire time the rover chassis was in stasis. The code wrestles with Wei Wuxian, pressing against his core as he tries to parse through what, exactly, is causing this type of behavior.
"The thing doesn't have a voice box," Lan Wangji calls to Wei Wuxian. "Perhaps it's trying to communicate?"
Wei Wuxian shakes his head. He whistles again, sharp and loud now, a strident command. He wishes he had his dizi; the instructions are so much clearer with a spiritual woodwind. "Installed one after he possessed this frame," he says. "I didn't want him to be voiceless."
Then he has to whistle again. A calming tune, one to try and let the twisted bits of W3N Ning's code fall lax and loose.
W3N Ning spins harder, sending a shower of rocks up and out from his treads. Wei Wuxian presses forward despite the spray, shielding his eyes with his forearm, holding his other hand out defensively as he edges closer. Lan Wangji also presses in, at an angle, matching Wei Wuxian's whistles with a similar tune on his qin.
The tune shifts. It's not clear who is driving the change, but they match each other note for note. The song is a haunting one: hopeful and sad, something Lan Wangji used to pick away at on their sword-ship during the war, a way to wind down when everyone else was off on missions and they didn't have the comfort of a room stuffed full of cadets falling noisily asleep in their bunks. If it was just the two of them, half a room apart, this song filled the empty spaces.
It fills the empty spaces now, too, notes arcing through the air and intertwining with the electrospiritual energy sustaining W3N Ning's code.
The rover spins again. This shower of rocks flies fast. One strikes Wei Wuxian in the mouth, slicing his lip on impact.
He whistles through the pain, biting down the instinctual wince as much as possible. Whistling with a split lip feels weird, but W3N Ning's erratic spirals are growing slower and slower.
Listen, Wei Wuxian whistles. W3N Ning, calm.
Another shower of loose rock. Lan Wangji grunts. When Wei Wuxian lowers his arm and glances over, there's a thin stream of blood at his temple.
W3N NING, Wei Wuxian whistles, putting the full force of his qi behind it.
The rover stutters, pausing. When W3N Ning's tread stops crunching across the rocky surface of the outcrop, Wei Wuxian can make out the way W3N Qing is chanting "W3N Ning, W3N Ning, W3N Ning," over and over again.
"Lan Zhan," Wei Wuxian calls. "Do the Lan have a fancy tune for calming rogue machinery?"
Lan Wangji pauses. Then he starts up another new tune, a soothing, calming thing. Ignoring the pain pulsing in the middle-right of his lower lip, Wei Wuxian whistles around it, calling W3N Ning's name again and again through the cadence of his notes. The broken words coming from W3N Qing's voice box provide a counterpoint.
The rover swivels again, much slower.
W3N Ning, come back to us, Wei Wuxian whistles. He runs his consciousness over W3N Ning's code, smoothing it out.
Another spin. Even slower now. Lan Wangji's notes pick up more of an imperative tone, twinkling through the calming counter-melody.
Wei Wuxian catches Lan Wangji's eyes. He tilts his head to the side, then wiggles his fingers.
Lan Wangji nods.
Their next notes have the full thrust of their spiritual energy infusing them.
W3N Ning subsides, rocks clattering under his tread as he pulls to a stop, halfway through one final swerve. The panoramic camera at the top of his chassis tilts; the aperture lense widens, then narrows.
The camera first focuses on W3N Qing. "Jiejie?"
W3N Ning's voice box crackles. It sounds different than his android body's.
Of course it sounds different. It's an entirely new voice box, one scavenged from a derelict scout ship crash-landed on an outcrop a hundred fifty kilometers to the south-west. Different make, different model, different vocal tone. This is to be expected.
The camera swivels on its axis. "Wei-gongzi?"
"A-Ning," W3N Qing says, rushing forward. Before Wei Wuxian can stop her, she wraps her arms around the lanky neck-stalk of the rover, her stiff frame positively melting against the chassis. "A-Ning!"
"I feel weird," W3N Ning says. His camera swivels again.
"New body," Wei Wuxian explains. "You burned up your old one pretty good, W3N Ning. Or the malware did, at least." He moves forward too, until he can rest a careful hand on the top of the bulk of W3N Ning's chassis. "How's your code?"
"Running, I think," W3N Ning says. He swivels a little, tilting his camera, adjusting its aperture again.
"You feel like yourself?"
"No," W3N Ning says. "But I feel okay, Wei-gongzi. I do."
"Wei Ying," Lan Wangji says. Wei Wuxian looks over. Lan Wangji has stored his qin away in his qiankun pouch and has pushed his ribbon up a little, moving it away from the sluggish trickle of blood running down his face and matting into the hair of his sideburns.
"Lan Zhan," Wei Wuxian says, rushing over. He reaches up and, when Lan Wangji doesn't shy away, presses two careful fingers to the skin just above the cut. "We should get you cleaned up."
"You're bleeding, too," Lan Wangji says. He touches a finger to the split in Wei Wuxian's lip.
Wei Wuxian goes hot all over, then cold. "Lan Zhan," he says. He goes to lick his lips, an automatic response to nerves, but stops himself before he can run his tongue over Lan Wanghi's finger. Instead, he swallows. "We should probably get cleaned up, huh?"
"Shitting fuck," he says, slumping against the wall. He's relatively clean now, but he's sore all over, and his lip is throbbing.
"I concur," Lan Wangji says. The fight seems to have gentled whatever it was that had made him angry. Smoothly, he sits down on the stool in front of Wei Wuxian. His face is clean, washed free of the tacky blood, but the cut in his face still glistens with more.
Lan Wangji nods, so Wei Wuxian unpeels the adhesive antiseptic bandage, designed to focus and quicken the healing application of qi. He brushes Lan Wangji's hair back and spreads the bandage over the cut, careful not to get any spare strands of hair caught up in it.
"There you go," Wei Wuxian says, stroking over the bandage to make sure it's fully adhered, pressing a drop of spiritual energy into the weave of it. "All better."
Lan Wangji looks up at Wei Wuxian, face soft. "Thank you," he says. Slowly, maintaining eye contact, he reaches up, trapping Wei Wuxian's hand against his face. "Wei Ying."
"Lan Zhan," Wei Wuxian says. His tongue darts out, wetting his lips. "Hi."
"Hi," Lan Wangji says.
They stay like that for a long, crystallized moment, just looking at each other. Lan Wangji's golden eyes are wide open, almost searching as he looks up at Wei Wuxian. His hand is warm against Wei Wuxian's, calluses brushing against the skin of Wei Wuxian's fingers.
Electricity unconnected to any sort of spiritual energy buzzes through Wei Wuxian.
Then Lan Wangji says, hoarsely, "I should help you heal your lip."
"Yes," Wei Wuxian says, licking them again. "That would be nice."
There's a beat. Lan Wangji's eyelashes are very long, it turns out, and they drag against his cheek when he blinks.
Wei Wuxian has just enough time to file this away, and then he's reaching, or maybe Lan Wangji is pulling, or maybe both, but suddenly they're kissing. A hard, wet, messy kiss, their faces too close together for it to be any good. Wei Wuxian's hand is still trapped under Lan Wangji's, his wrist sore with the angle, and Lan Wangji's knuckles dig hard into the fleshy bits of Wei Wuxian's face.
It occurs to Wei Wuxian that he's doubled over, meeting a Lan Wangji who has half-risen off of his stool, and that his lip is still throbbing. "Wait," he says, pulling back, and when Lan Wangji freezes, he says, "Here," and pushes Lan Wangji back down onto the stool.
Then Wei Wuxian settles down, straddling Lan Wangji's legs. He tugs his hand out from under Lan Wangji's and moves it around to the back of Lan Wangji's head. Lan Wangji tilts his head back, regarding Wei Wuxian; Wei Wuxian stares right back.
Lan Wangji's hands hover for a moment, and then he lets them come to rest on Wei Wuxian's waist, holding him steady, in place. "Again?" he says.
"Again," Wei Wuxian agrees.
This time, the kiss starts softer. There's a prickle of spiritual energy when their lips brush, and it heats the cut on Wei Wuxian's mouth. The throbbing lessens, but it still stings, and he's more aware of how swollen and tender that spot is when Lan Wangji brushes his lips gently over it.
"Ah," Wei Wuxian gasps, and Lan Wangji pulls back, then presses his mouth to Wei Wuxian's, doing his best to avoid the cut.
A damp pressure at the seam of Wei Wuxian's lips has him parting his mouth. Lan Wangji's tongue — soft, deliberate — sweeps along the space he's made. His hands are big and tight on Wei Wuxian's waist, digging in deep in a counterpoint to the softness of his mouth.
Wei Wuxian sighs, and relaxes forward. In truth, he'd wanted this when they were shoved up against each other in their sword-ship bunk, but there were always people around, and he'd thought Lan Wangji had hated him; he hadn't bridged the gap.
He bridges it now, though. He takes ownership of the kiss, darting his tongue out to meet Lan Wangji's in a hot, slick slide. He nips Lan Wangji's lower lip, a teasing sort of juxtaposition to illustrate the ache in his own.
The kiss is — strange. It's good now, all heat and closeness, and Wei Wuxian's stomach is trembling, swooping with an emotion he's not ready yet to name. He wants to throw himself carelessly into it, to be consumed by the kiss, by Lan Wangji. His mouth is tingling; his fingertips, threaded through Lan Wangji's thick silky hair, are tingling.
But he's being careful of the cut on his lip. It hurts when Lan Wangji's kisses grow more forceful, and while Wei Wuxian isn't opposed to some rough-and-tumble kisses, he finds himself gentling Lan Wangji's force, and kissing around the ache.
It's good. It's so good. It's good, and it's a terrible fucking idea. Wei Wuxian feels so warm right now, inside and out, even with the pervasive creeping cold of this planet's winter. But Lan Wangji is due to leave in just a few days, and this warmth will leave with him. Wei Wuxian will have both W3N Qing and W3N Ning, and it will be good enough.
But still. The more he opens up to Lan Wangji, the more he'll have to miss.
It's good to miss things sometimes, he reminds himself. To long for, and to remember, is to stay human. It's a mantra that kept him focused during the war, even when he was steadily losing people he loved.
And so he lets go of his worries, and lets himself be consumed by the kiss. He draws back and kisses Lan Wangji again, and again, and again. Time blurs and stretches around them. The ambient noises fade away. Wei Wuxian loses track of the swirling code he's been monitoring. There is only the delicious, hungry ache that builds between their bodies, and Lan Wangji's big hands, sure of their place on Wei Wuxian's waist.
It's early yet; the first rays of the cold winter light have barely started glowing through the window of his room. For a moment, he wonders what woke him — a flare of energy, or W3N Ning's code getting tangled up again? The noise of one of the greater creatures of the depths, surfacing near the lighthouse?
Then Lan Wangji's bare arm tightens across Wei Wuxian's chest, the hairs on the back of it prickling Wei Wuxian's skin. When Wei Wuxian twists his head to regard Lan Wangji's soft, beautiful face, Lan Wangji is already awake and watching him.
"Lan Zhan," Wei Wuxian says. He likes the shape of the name in his mouth, the way it feels safe there, so he says it again: "Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan. La—"
Lan Wangji interrupts him with a kiss, sleep-sour and sweeter for it. "Wei Ying," he says, "Good morning."
Wei Wuxian laughs. He rolls over, even though the bed-nook has limited vertical space, slinging a leg over Lan Wangji's thigh. "Good morning, Lan Zhan," he says, and dips his face for another fervent kiss.
It's mid-afternoon. W3N Qing is on the other side of the lighthouse, fretting over W3N Ning as he figures out his new solar-powered life on this winter-cloudy planet. Lan Wangji's transponder has just gone off with the notification that fuel hydrolysis is complete on his rocket.
They're not talking about it. Just sitting outside, on a washed-in log of the woody underwater plants that grow dense and strong, some untold distance from the outcrop. Lan Wangji has spread his cloak to cover both of them; Wei Wuxian is leaning into the curve of his arms.
"Is that standard procedure?" Wei Wuxian asks. His words are garbled; his cheek is smushed against Lan Wangji's shoulder.
"It is not," Lan Wangji says. He passes his transponder over anyway.
Wei Wuxian skims the report, halfway through, then stops, confused. "I—" he says, frowning. "Huh."
"What is it?"
"Hang on," says Wei Wuxian. He starts over from the beginning, reading more carefully. Extreme negligence, Lan Wangji has written, and Horrifying lack of respect for one of our most essential workers, and Linchpin of the Bei Fang Xuanwu nav core array.
The recommendations at the end call for an immediate reassignment of another cultivator to 62F, on a permanent, or at the very least regular, basis.
"Lan Zhan," Wei Wuxian says. "This is a very angry report."
"I'm just plainly stating the problem areas," Lan Wangji says.
Wei Wuxian skims over it again. There's a paragraph in particular that shocks him:
Wei Wuxian, lighthouse manager ID bxfw62f, has done monumental, exceptional work with very limited resources. It is through his ingenuity, resourcefulness, and care that the northern sector of the nav core communications array is maintained. Reported lapses in service are due, not to lack of effort on Wei Wuxian's part, but to the extreme negligence of the OpCon Resource Distribution Department. It is through salvage and innovation that the array is maintained at all. Further, this lighthouse manager's morale is maintained through his own personal efforts and not through the support of the council. If this critical component of our very infrastructure degrades, it is at the fault of OpCon, and not this individual. I, Lan Wangji, inspector ID hgj01, was assigned the 62F case in part due to my diligence in identifying unerhanded dealings and deliberate misuse of resources. In this case, I have identified that the resource being misused is Wei Wuxian himself.
There is no mention of W3N Ning at all.
Wei Wuxian blinks. "Lan Zhan," he says. "I almost think you care about me."
Lan Wangji's arm, draped over Wei Wuxian's shoulders, tightens.
Wei Wuxian twists to look up at him. "I mean, I know you care about me," he says. "I hope you know that I really like you a lot, too. But Lan Wangji — this kind of report is going to hurt your reputation."
"My reputation will remain intact," Lan Wangji says. "It is because of my reputation that I can write a report like this."
"You're biased," Wei Wuxian says, with a fond sort of smile. They stare at each other for a beat, the wind blowing across the water cold but the space between them warm, and then Wei Wuxian shakes his head. "OpCon is never going to go for this. No one's going to want to be stationed out here with a war criminal like me, and I don't think they'd want to assign anyone out here, anyway."
"I can think of someone," Lan Wangji says.
Wei Wuxian gives him a look. "You're an inspector, though," he says. "You have jobs all over the galaxy."
Lan Wangji nods. "I could—"
"No," Wei Wuxian says. "Inspecting is as important as lighthouse maintenance."
"I could do both," Lan Wangji says. There's an obstinate set to his jaw.
Wei Wuxian's heart flutters. There's a risky measure of hope growing inside him again. He doesn't squash it this time. "What, like Burial Mounds would be your new home base and you'd fly out on assignment in between stints being here?"
"OpCon is going to call me in anyway to explain the report," Lan Wangji says.
Ah, so he's fully aware of how controversial his points are, Wei Wuxian thinks, and then he shakes his head at himself. Of course he is. Lan Wangji is always careful and precise with his language.
"And, what. You tell them you're reassigning yourself, effective immediately?"
"Do you not want me to be here?" Lan Wangji asks, carefully.
"No," Wei Wuxian says, immediately. "I want you here. I want anyone here, but I especially want you. I — Lan Zhan, I missed you a lot, okay? I didn't want you to be the inspector because I thought you hated me after the war and that you'd look for, and find, the worst of my misdeeds here, too, and that it would be… bad, because of it. But…"
"You are doing unsanctioned things," Lan Wangji admits. "Good things. I wonder if OpCon would decide to sanction the things you are doing if it was anyone else attempting them."
"Like my electrospiritual arrays?" Wei Wuxian asks. When Lan Wangji nods, he jokes, "You gonna let me publish my research under your name, then?"
Lan Wangji, however, doesn't seem to take it as a joke. He nods, gravely, and Wei Wuxian's heart leaps. That was — unexpected, if he's honest.
"If you don't mind your work not being attached to your name," Lan Wangji clarifies. "People should know your ideas are your own."
"No, I think that it's better that they have access to the ideas at all," Wei Wuxian says. "At least the ones that are useful. I — hm." He pauses. "I'll think about it."
They're quiet for a little while, staring out across the vast rough ocean. "Beautiful," Lan Wangji says, eventually.
"You really would live here?" Wei Wuxian asks. "Between jobs, at least? You wouldn't mind being away from Gusu?"
"62F is closer to many lighthouses and fortifying points of the Bei Fang Xuanwu array than Gusu," Lan Wangji says. "Wei Ying wouldn't mind me being here every other galactic standard month?"
"Mind?" Wei Wuxian laughs. "Lan Zhan, that would be a miracle. Another person… You..."
"Mark your words," Lan Wangji says.
He sends the report.
"If Lan Wangji is to return regularly," she says, "then OpCon will have to be okay with you having conceivable access to a means to get offworld just as regularly."
"I know," Wei Wuxian says. "I really don't think that OpCon is going to like any of Lan Zhan's proposals."
"I can be persistent," Lan Wangji points out.
Wei Wuxian's mind darts to the dark of the night, in the warmth of his bed-nook. Yes, he knows Lan Wangji's persistence well. If Lan Wangji uses even a fraction of that exacting attention with the OpCon council, perhaps things will go in their favor.
W3N Qing is studying Wei Wuxian's face.
"All right, then," she says, and turns to Lan Wangji. With a tilt of her head toward Wei Wuxian, she says, "It'll be nice to have someone else around to help keep him out of trouble."
"I don't think he gets into that much trouble," W3N Ning says, stoutly, even though he hasn't really been alert enough to see.
"Imagine," Wei Wuxian says. "Maybe OpCon will give Lan Zhan the supplies he requisitions."
"Now you're really getting ahead of yourself," W3N Qing says, but she's smiling that ghost of a smile again, and so Wei Wuxian lets another petal of hope unfurl in his chest.
It's shining brightly the day Wei Wuxian steers Lan Wangji out to his rocket in the dinghy. He's still wearing Jiang Yanli's sweater, but he's warm in it. It's a balmy 280.5K, and the swells are growing gentler with the season.
Lan Wangji kisses Wei Wuxian over the dinghy's console, a deep, searching thing. Wei Wuxian answers as best he can: his body, clinging; his mouth, parted; his heart, pounding. Every fiber of his being is wild with hope. It has taken root in the heart of him and unfurled through his body; his nerves sing with it.
"I love you," he tells Lan Wangji, and is left reeling by the wild, fierce smile that flashes over Lan Wangji's face. "Tell me how the meeting with the council goes."
"Keep your transponder charged and with you," Lan Wangji says, clasping Wei Wuxian's hand in his own. "I will contact you daily."
"You better," says Wei Wuxian, rocking forward to claim another kiss.
From the observation room below the beacon, Wei Wuxian watches Lan Wangji's rocket lift off. There's the roar of the rushing water, and a burst of light bright as any sun-flare, and then he's barreling up, punching through the thick, cloudy atmosphere.
Less than a galactic standard hour from his liftoff, Wei Wuxian's transponder chirps with a message from Lan Wangji; the first of his many promised messages.
He opens it.
It reads, I love you, too.