The landscape was awash in tones of red and burnished gold, rays of light stretching from the horizon across a vast rocky plain until they touched the research station’s meter-thick, leaded glass barrier. Outside the barrier, perhaps two thousand meters across the plain, the great maw of a vast canyon remained in shadow, a black stain on the ravaged surface of the planet.
Ru’man Kreylur blinked twin eyelids against the glare of the ruddy sun and, feeling a touch of whimsy, imagined its radiation seeping through the glass barrier into his body. There was warmth and there was pain as his body changed, molded, mutated, into the smaller and softer body of a human.
There was a huff of annoyance behind him. “You can go blind that way, you know. Parents used to warn their children all the time about staring into the sun.”
Ru’man smiled but did not turn. The image of himself as human faded and he was once again looking out over the rocky plain beyond. His reply was light-hearted, playful. “Is that what happened to you, Dr. Brennan? Did you stare too long at the sun? I can hardly imagine you as a disobedient child.”
A chair scraped. He heard the soft footsteps of his companion cross the room and stop next to him. Ru’man turned to face Dr. Elizabeth Brennan, took in the filmy blue color of her pupils; the pupils that used to be brown. He saw the burn scars covering one side of her head, glossing over the small audio implant where her ear ought to be, then down the column of her neck until it disappeared into the neckline of her shapeless tunic.
She did not look at him, her eyes gazing sightless out the same barrier he had been peering from moments earlier. The ruddy light of the earth’s sun gave her a youthful, flushed glow.
“You know better than to ask such ridiculous questions, Ru’man.” She chided. “Now are you going to tell me what’s got you preoccupied? Or must I resign myself to getting no work done today?”
Ru’man’s smile broadened and he touched his colleague’s shorn head, his sensitive finger pads delighting in the light fuzz of new growth. Dr. Brennan pursed her lips and removed his hand. “You know I dislike it when you do that.”
Chastised, Ru’man turned back towards the barrier and folded his hands behind his back. “I was thinking about when my people first arrived here. How different it all looked before the Wars. I was imagining I had been created as one of you…that I looked like you, thought like you. It’s one of my favorite distractions.”
Dr. Brennan did not answer but reached out to touch the barrier with one hand, her five digits splayed across the reflective surface. Ru’man noted that she had kept her small nails clear today. It was foolish perhaps, but fact that Dr. Brennan had left them clear and uncolored pleased him.
Over their years of working together, Ru’man had come to take pleasure in a great many things Dr. Brennan did or did not do. Unlike his own people, humans were infinite in their idiosyncrasies. They never ceased to amuse him.
“The barrier feels warm today, but not as warm as yesterday.” She frowned, withdrawing her hand. “Is it evening already?”
“It is. I thought we could work during the earth’s nocturnal cycle instead of the day for the remainder of our stay here. In this manner, we can conserve energy otherwise lost while the dampeners are in place.”
“That would be advantageous,” Dr. Brennan agreed. “We could stay at the station longer before the others retrieved us. Maybe even another week.”
“Precisely…though it wasn’t the only factor I considered.”
He refrained from touching her head despite his overwhelming desire to do so. Instead, he returned to his workstation and sat down, clearing his breathing passages as he went. He did not wish for her to become angry with him again.
From his place across the room, he watched as the sun’s red tones bled from his colleague’s face, returning it to its usual, mournful pallor. She spent too much time within the Conservatory, too little time outside the walls and too little with her own people.
“We were unable to use the dampeners because of a minor systems failure yesterday. Your species is more vulnerable to gamma radiation than mine, and it was only when I noticed how unwell you became that I remembered. It disturbed me and I wanted to ensure it did not happen again. ”
“That was thoughtful of you.” Dr. Brennan said after a moment’s pause. “Thank you.”
“I will always try to be thoughtful of you, even when my superiors do not,” Ru’man said, fighting the urge to clear his passages again. The environmental controls weren’t to his preferences, the air within the workspace too moist. To take his mind off the discomfort, he moved data pads about, shuffling them into a more efficient order. “Courtesy and manners, you know.”
Following him, Dr. Brennan sat down at her own workstation, picked up the case of tiny, pin-like audio chips, selected one, and slipped it expertly into her audio implant. Instead of getting back to work, she paused and looked over towards him. Her glazed eyes seemed to consider him.
“You know, Ru’man, it’s quite interesting. Manners are a product of culture. What’s seen as rude in one culture might be nothing more than polite discourse in another. In the same way, if you remember the Histories, an act of peace to my people was seen as an act of war to yours two hundred years ago.”
“Yes, quite an unfortunate misunderstanding,” Ru’man said, looking away from her. The Histories were something he didn’t like to discuss. He enjoyed working with Dr. Brennan; she was intelligent, practical, and endlessly fascinating. Yet, whenever the Histories were brought up between them, there was always a sense of tension in the air, one he found far more uncomfortable than the too-moist air.
“It would have been quite beneficial to both of our species had things gone differently, Dr. Brennon. Don’t you agree?”
He chanced a glance upward. Dr. Brennan was running her hand over her shorn head and looking away from him, back towards the leaded barrier and the glowing red sun beyond it.
“My people are in the minority now, Ru’man. It is only necessary, I suppose, that the manners and morals we once held as ideal are supplanted by those in the majority. That is certainly the opinion of many a historian, but that doesn’t mean I must agree with them. Or with you for that matter. I hope that won’t be misunderstood.”
It was Ru’man’s turn to be silent. He blinked his twin eyelids and tried once more to slid into his fantasy of molding, mutating into a human, but it seemed hollow somehow. False and vulgar.
He looked towards the landscape outside, with its blazing sun and shadowed canyon, at the planet which, having birthed the human species from the soup of creations eons ago, now held them in a decaying repose.
“It may be necessary, Dr. Brennan, but I find it regrettable. I am Su’ulian, not human as you are, and I often fail in understanding much of what there is to know about your people. However, I would give you every courtesy I could manage as I find you infinitely worthy of courtesy.”
For the briefest moment, Dr. Brennan’s face was flushed with red, as though the dying sun outside the barrier had not fled beneath the horizon. The slender column of her throat moved as though she needed to clear her breathing passages as well, but the moment passed, her usual expression returned, and Ru’man was left wondering if their conversation was over.
Uncertain, he picked up a data pad of atmospheric readings and tried to return to his work, but Dr. Brennan broke the silence once more, surprising him.
“No thanks are necessary,” Ru’man replied quickly and scrolled through the data pad. A different sort of discomfort was pulsing inside his chest cavity.
“No, it is quite necessary.” Dr. Brennan argued. “You are my dearest friend and I want you to know that.”
Ru’man Kreylur felt a rush of warmth flow through him so strong that he almost glanced up and gave himself away. His twin eyelids blinked and blinked again as he bent over his workstation. It was inconceivable that Dr. Brennan’s words have such an effect on him, but they did.
To be Su’ulian was to be polite, impartial, indifferent…but in that moment, Ru’man had never struggled so hard to remain that way. Against his strongest instinct, he met Dr. Brennan’s cloudy gaze and gave her his best imitation of a human smile.
“I believe I feel the same.”
Copyright © J.S. White
Image property of Lewis Moorcroft