Full Length Feature
A/N: based on the Expanse
“What are your thoughts on Martians?” was the first question on the list.
When Kim had read the name on his assignment, he’d expected the largest ship in the hold. He’d been on the lookout for a behemoth. But she was small, larger only than the racing crafts that carried no more than two people and some supplies at any given time. She was small and unlike anything he had ever seen in the books he’d tried to memorize from.
So much for all that self-training, he thought to himself as he noticed her boosters, her drive cone, her point defence canons. He was reminded of rocks. Of unyielding, unbreakable solid rocks that gave way to nothing and no one. She was a sturdy, rugged ship.
At least… that’s what he thought, until his vision landed on the spray-painted woman in a bikini on one of the sides. He blushed when he recognized the form and averted his eyes.
The man in front of him raised his thick brows, tapping the electronic notepad in his hand impatiently.
“U-uhh…” Kim fumbled. “I’ve never met any. Sir,” he added the word as an afterthought. He didn’t know who the guy was and why he held himself with so much authority. He didn’t know, and he didn’t dare ask.
“You’re standing in front of one right now,” the man replied, folding his arms at his chest in challenge.
Was it a rhetorical or fact? Kim couldn’t tell. He erred towards caution and took a step back, bowing low. “Welcome!” he said in a pleasant voice.
There was a laugh in response. “You’re not on Earth anymore, you can forget your customs. It’s all… too formal!” the man shook his head.
Kim straightened up again, slowly. If he wasn’t sure earlier, he was now. The military hair, the stern face with only a few smile-lines. The clipped responses, the deep voice, the clinical accuracy of his movements. A Martian! He was talking to a Martian! He felt his curiosity bubble up from his stomach, but he kept himself in check. The man may have spoken to him in a friendly manner, but it didn’t change years of history between their two planets. It didn’t change the fact that they were from different “sides”. He worried his lip apprehensively.
“Our pilot on the mission,” the other continued. “Also Martian. It won’t make you uncomfortable?”
“N-no, sir!” he shook his head insistently.
“OK,” the man finally accepted. He looked back at his list but didn’t seem to hold an interest in asking any more. “Your flight hours are. Well. Negligible. Only travelled around Earth, this says,” the other waved the notepad. “Truth?”
Kim gave a tentative nod. “I’ve… coming to the moon—this was my first trip out of the atmosphere, sir, yes.”
“And you didn’t get sick?”
“No, sir! Not at all! Not in the slightest—!”
“OK, OK!” the man chuckled at his eagerness. There seemed to be a shift in his expression. It softened. He put the list behind himself. “Junior engineer Kim,” he addressed. “My name is Lee. I’m going to be your captain. We’re traveling very far from home—yours and mine. And we’re not sure if or when we’ll return. There are a lot of unanswered questions about these kinds of missions. A lot of risk. But you’ve volunteered for your services and for that,” he held his hand out. “I am grateful.”
Kim took the hand and shook it. “Th-thank you for having me, sir,” he said sincerely.
The grip tightened for a second. “When you step aboard this ship it’s more than just a contract,” he said. “When you join us, you become family. We support each other through everything, no matter the cost. You have confidence?”
Kim blinked at the words. Family… he thought. A moment later, he stood up straighter, puffed his chest out. “Yes, sir!”
The captain gave him a genuine smile. Bright and wide. “Welcome to the team.”
When Kim was a child and the world was large and heavy in his tiny hands, he’d wanted to fly.
Lying in the garden outside their family home, as his sister blew bubbles and his mother called them in for dinner, he had looked up at the stars between the webs of his little fingers. He had looked at them and wondered about life up there. In the sky. Among the celestial. Amidst the sparkling dots and the soft blue darkness. Would the tiny lights become unimaginably massive as he got closer to them? Would there be dragons like his father had pointed out to him? Would the rabbit still be churning his potion on the moon? Would the snow princess hold her arms out to him, cradle him with love? When Kim was a child, he would constantly flip through his fairy-tale books until they turned dog-eared and worn. He would constantly run around their little garden, a cheap plastic rocket in hand, swishing and weaving around until he fell.
When Kim was a child he wanted to go to space. Jump up and touch the sun. Reach out and hug the constellations. When he was a child, he wanted the impossible.
They entered the ship through the galley, taking the ladder two rungs at a time. Lee led and Kim followed as they walked over the now-faded MCRN logo.
A naval fleet ship…! he thought with some surprise before he realized that, of course. If the captain was a Martian, and this ship was nothing like any in the thick old reference book from a hundred years ago… His astonishment bloomed with every step.
He was shown everything. The personnel deck at the rear, the machine shop across, the central ladder that ran along the ship like a spine. Kim’s excitement effervesced in his chest. He wore a smile through the tour, looked at all the controls, touched the metal hull whenever it came within reach. Sure, this ship was strange to him. But he looked forward to learning everything about her. Know all her secrets and learn all her tricks—he felt like a man who’d met his perfect match on his first blind date.
Despite her tiny size, the ship seemed to have been built to take a crew of at least twenty. He wondered how many other recruits he would get to work with; wondered if there were any more Martians or were the rest just like him? Would there be Belters on board, too? Would he finally get to hear their language and learn their customs and ask, as politely as he could, how they fared with different gravitational forces in locations so close to the sun? The anticipation of these imaginary encounters was enough to bring a smile to his face.
“Here’s your bunk,” he was pointed to a small space. A shared space. There were cubbies for storage along a partition, and bedding for comfort. “Leave your things here and you can meet the others,” Lee suggested, and Kim bowed his head obeying.
Slowly, he entered the ‘room’ and inspected everything within it. The mattress had a human-shaped indent in it—more intentional than a remnant of rough use, he reckoned as he tentatively pressed down on the soft sponge and hard foam with his fingers. Both bunks were identical, both beds were the same size. Everything was clean lines and precise measurement and perfectly spartan.
But while his own side of the bay was bare and relatively untouched, his roommate had little plants all over their space, each sitting in its own individual box and emitting bright UV light. There were ferns and succulents and herbs of all kinds in every nook and cranny. But the main feature was a thick vine growing all over the whole assembly, even over the bed. As if like a canopy; a net of protection.
Kim looked back at the captain where he stood in the doorway.
“A botanist,” Lee smiled, as if that explained everything. “Very good too, he’s got that… what do you people call it on Earth? A green hand?”
“Thumb, sir,” Kim corrected, contemplating on the scene again.
They continued with the tour until they reached the command bridge. It was a large square deck with walls sloping in upwards, like in the rest of the ship. A long ladder connected the pilot’s chair on the upper level, with seats for the rest of the crew below. Lee climbed the ladder, his magnetic boots clanging on the rungs with each footstep.
Two people idled around the place, chatting animatedly as Kim slowly approached them—a man with an average appearance, but for the tattoos covering his arms and neck. And a woman, her hair braided and pink, her eyelids shadowed black.
“How’s it looking, Tae?” the captain addressed the man, who waved back a relaxed hand.
“Why don’t we ask the queen?” he motioned to the woman instead.
She turned her chair to them with her mouth agape. “Ohhhh!” she made claws with her hands. “ Ohhhh! She’s so…!” the woman made a satisfied sound in her throat, almost close to a moan. “I could ride her all night,” she added with a wide grin.
Kim blushed at that and shrunk in his place.
“Is that supposed to be good? I can’t tell.” Lee chuckled. “Anyway, this is our newest team member,” he gestured politely. “Kim,” he introduced. “Meet our pilot, Gee. She’s a bit crazy. And this is Tae. He’s…” the captain thought for a moment. “I guess he’s the muscle of the ship. Does all the heavy-lifting, so you don’t have to break your back,” he joked.
Kim bowed deeply to both of them.
“Hmm? Another Inner?” the man named Tae mused at the action. “So boring. You Inners and your meaningless politics. Us beltalowda—”
“Yes, yes, we know, shut up,” the woman hushed him. “An Earther?” she smiled at Kim. “Not a UN supporter, I hope?” There was a dangerous glint in her eyes.
He feverishly waved his arms between them, panicking. “N-no! Not at all, ehehehe…” he scratched the back of his neck with a nervous chuckle.
“Good!” the woman named Gee instantly brightened, her face warming. “I hope we can grow close and talk about ships together!” she said, extending her hand before leaning in conspiratorially. “I really really love your ships! I wish I could’ve driven one of the ancient ones. You know—the first ones that carried people to Luna and Mars? Ahhh… I bet driving those powerful beasts was real sexy,” she finished with a hot sigh.
Kim returned the handshake falteringly. “I… think they were quite slow, though.”
“Who cares?” Gee shrugged, then grinned. “Fast or slow, I can make any ship wet.”
Tae and Lee laughed at Kim’s momentary shock. But he looked around himself with his face still burning and tried to make light of the situation. “A-actually…” he began. “Before the Epstein drive, old ships used hydrogen as a reaction mass, not water. S-so…” he checked their faces, as if for support. “So, the ship wouldn’t be wet. It’d just… pass gas.”
They blinked at him for a few moments before Tae collapsed in laughter, kneeling and beating the floor with his hand. “I—I like him!” he choked when he tried to catch his breath.
“He has weird kinks,” Gee cringed.
“He’s good,” Lee giggled and slapped Kim’s arm.
“What’s this? You’re all enjoying without m—” a voice called out to them from below. Kim turned to look at the newcomer and.
“There was an old lady once, and she had soooo many rice cakes,” Kim’s little hands used to gesture wildly whenever he talked. That night was no exception. He did it so he could keep Min’s attention on himself, and as a result the younger always listened with a rapt face. “She took all those cakes home to her children, but then! There was a tiger!” Kim remembered crouching around in a show of menace. Things like that always made Min giggle—the sound sweet, and the expression sweeter.
“He said: give me your rice cakes or I’ll eat you!” Kim had growled. “So the old lady gave him everything… but he still ate her.”
“Oh…” Min had said with astonishment. “Then?”
“Then? Then the tiger dressed like the old lady and went to her home. It knocked on the door and said: look, children, look! I have come home,” Kim remembered roaring in his still-immature voice. “The children said: no, no, our mother doesn’t sound like that! So the tiger answered,” he made a snarling face. “I—I have a cold!”
“Then what happened?” Min had sat forward with interest.
“Then? Then the children let the tiger in. It said: I’ll make you dinner, wait here! But the children saw the hairy paws and the long tail!” Kim had drawn in the air with his hands. “So they ran. They ran out of the house and climbed a tree.”
“Did the tiger find them?”
“Of course!” Kim had said. “The tiger found them and started climbing the tree too!”
“Then!” Kim had stood with his hands on his hips, smiling an imperious smile down at the younger boy. “Then a rope fell from the sky!”
“T-the sssky?” Min had asked in his lisp, his large brown eyes blinking in wonder.
Kim had nodded enthusiastically. “The children climbed up the rope and left the tiger behind. They went higher and higher and higher. Until they reached the stars. Then one became the sun, and the other became the moon.”
Min pouted thoughtfully, looking up at the night sky as he swayed a little on the grass. “Really…? They became—”
“Yah, you don’t believe me?” Kim had challenged. He didn’t like being challenged, didn’t like conflicts of any kind. His sister would always be scolded for getting into fights at school. But he’d decided then, that when he turned six and started going there with her, he would try his best to get along with everyone. Try to make as many friends as possible. Hopefully they would all be just like Min. They would listen well and be nice to him when he told them his stories. “It’s not a lie! My ma told me! So it has to be true, OK?”
“… ssso if we go to the moon, will we meet them?”
Min was taller than Kim remembered.
Of course, this should’ve been obvious. They hadn’t seen each other in twenty years, and they’d both grown ever since. But in his imagination, he’d thought Min would look different. In his mind, Kim hadn’t needed to crane his neck as much, nor take in the spindly arms and legs with concern. His skin was oddly pale, like he hadn’t seen the sun in a long time. He was soft, and his eyes were warm muddy water: like all that time ago. That was still unchanged. But this Min was not the same Min from their childhood. This was another man.
“So…?” Kim started but didn’t finish. He didn’t know how to finish.
They sat on a mezzanine, overlooking the rest of the shipyard. A large bubble of concave safety glass allowed visions of the Malapert mountain range—peaks of eternal light, as Kim had heard them be called during his training. Thin strings of sunlight glanced off their dusty pinnacles, too far out of reach and too isolated to be of any real comfort. Suddenly, for the first time in the several months since he’d started on this journey, he missed home.
Min looked like he didn’t know what to say either. His lips pursed and his hands fidgeting in his lap, he glanced up and then glanced away like he was ashamed. “I… there was a program at university,” he began. “Hydroponics. They were looking to train people who could work in the domes.”
“Domes?” Kim asked cluelessly. He had been a simple mechanic at the space station. He didn’t know much besides what he heard—or overheard—around himself. In fact, when they’d told him he was one of only twelve volunteers from the entire planet to sign up for these missions, he’d been shocked. He hadn’t understood the weight of his undertaking.
“The ones on Ganymede,” Min explained with a smile. “You know? The agricultural sector.”
“I thought… I thought Ganymede is gone,” Kim shook his head. “I thought, after all that stuff about the—”
The other’s eyes turned sad. “Yeah…” he admitted, hanging his head low. “It’s gone.”
Kim realised he had spoken tactlessly. It had been a joint loss for the entire system. A loss of lives, of resources, of all the hard work and ingenuity that had created those perfectly balanced domes. The food bowl of the Sol system, a sanctuary for expecting mothers, a frontier for new life. Perhaps Min’s home for the last few years; perhaps home to his friends, maybe even a family. Ganymede was the heart of everything humanity should’ve protected, and they had failed.
“I’m sorry,” he rushed to apologise. “I—I shouldn’t have said anything.”
Min shook his head and managed a weak smile. Their gazes met and the meeting was warm. “I survived. Now I try to use what I know to help people.”
“People like them?” Kim motioned with his chin, indicating the general direction of the ships.
The other turned his gaze to their vessel. “Captain Lee is a good man,” he said with a little smile. It was the sort of smile that spoke volumes behind the words. Unspoken stories and untold truths. “We met on Callisto, at the naval shipyards. They took some of the refugees from Ganymede,” he explained. “He’s not like other Martians. He’s… he’s different. Kind.”
Jealousy radiated from Kim’s chest to his fingertips. He was surprised by its intensity, surprised by how the sea of respect and wonder he’d felt for their captain had evaporated to no more than a small drop. “Hmm,” he grunted. “You’ve… you’ve been on the crew for a while?”
“Some months,” Min nodded. “The others have been together for years. They’re really like a family.”
There it was again. That word. Family.
It was true that Kim had never been in space before. It was true that when they took his weight and measured his height and checked his bloodwork, they’d told him he would need to train for at least six months just so he could come here, to the moon. It was true that he’d been anxious of the experience and of the people he would encounter. It was also true that “family” was not a descriptor he had considered during his trepidation.
His own parents and sister had been left behind, a long time ago. The world was no longer as it had been when Kim was a little boy. It had grown with him, beyond him. Grown bitter, grown colder, grown to a vile and unrecognizable form. It was not the bubble of protection his father’s arms provided; it was not the embrace of adoration in his mother’s eyes. It was not a home, not anymore.
At the turn of the century—a long time before Kim and Min had ever existed—the national reserve was nearly all spent and the threat of imminent war with neighbours loomed over the country. Food was scarce, water even scarcer. Parks and rivers started to disappear under makeshift concrete block homes. Schools were first amalgamated district by district, and then shut down altogether. Offices too, laid off their employees and then abandoned their buildings to save on power and space. Energy sources withered until they completely vanished—the coal was all gone, the rigs were drilling nothing but mulch. Hospitals were overcrowded and understaffed, earthquakes and tsunamis wiped out whole coastlines. Special military forces had been deployed to keep the rioting masses in control, but it happened. Still happens, even now, at the slightest provocation.
Famine, disease, disaster, chaos. It was the end times.
When things had moved far past desperate, the Republic had finally swallowed its pride and turned to the United Nations for a helping hand. A move that was called The Clamp but was more of a wave, forever building momentum, forever gathering its strength and force before it washed everything in its path away. The Republic wasn’t unique in this approach, and soon every other country that had previously been independently governed, now came under the rule of one organisation. One all-powerful panel of leaders that played king and pulled the strings for the entire planet.
Recovering had been slow, incomplete. The world was gradually repaired, but only on the outside. Clean air, clean skies, clean public buildings and civic squares. Everything that met the untrained eyes was clean and renewed. On the inside, the deep layers close to the ground and within the darker corners, Earth was still rotten. A rotten core full of injustices for the weak and the poor. The powerless.
Nuclear power was harnessed, space travel was considered, and a small but influential group of people led the exodus to Luna and Mars. Then the battle for dominance with the colonists began.
In step with escalating tensions, Kim’s family had lost their little house in Seoul. They’d been relocated to one of the many outposts in a foreign land, where no one spoke the same language and no one cared to learn. His father had left them. His mother had to take on several jobs to raise her children single-handed. His sister had to give up her education so she could register for the universal basic support. Kim was no longer a child with infinite possibilities to chase. He was a survivor. He’d come to realise that the world was not a world, it was a maze. It was big and unbearably so, and he was nothing in it. He was small, unnoticeable. He did not matter in the large scheme of things.
Their days of running on grass and dreaming of floating through stars were long gone. Min’s family was long gone, too. The warmth of their friendship disappeared; the sweetness of innocent questions dissipated. There were no more stories to be told, no more night skies to be admired, no more fairy tales to share. In a world full of far too many people, Kim grew up alone.
“I’m glad we met again. Like this,” he said now to Min, recognising the part of home that had mattered the most, the part he truly missed.
The man smiled. “Me too.”
“What…? Already?!” Min’s little face had filled with disappointment when he’d been told he couldn’t be the first person on the moon—that several people had already beat him to it, a very long time ago.
“What an idiot!” the other boys had teased him. “Why don’t you know a thing like that? Everybody knows! Stupid!” They’d nudged him and poked him and made faces at him as he stood in the middle of their circle and cried. “Min is an idiot~ Min is an idiot~ His head is so small he doesn’t even have a brain!” they’d sung with laughter.
Kim didn’t like fighting. He’d promised himself he would be better than that, and he’d kept that promise. The teachers would always praise him. Kim is a polite young boy, they would say. Kim is a well-mannered ideal student. He’d done his best to be friendly and pleasant and decorous, even at the age of eight.
But whenever he saw the others pick on Min, he would rush them. He would push them to the ground one-by-one, yell and throw his fists at them, sit on the larger boys and hit them scratch them bite them, end up with pulled hair and bloodied nose. End up in the principal’s office, even, where he’d be told off by parents and teachers.
When they’d sit on the swings in the playground, Min would show his gratitude by covering him with bandages. “Why do you do that?” he’d ask. “My brother says fighting is for un…uncle… uncultured people. Are you an uncultured people?”
“Yah!” Kim would counter. “You’re supposed to fight back! How can you let them be like that to you?! It’s—it’s wrong! That’s…! That’s un… ah, whatever that word was that you said!”
“But…” Min’s face had threated to break into tears again. “But they said I can’t be the first person on the moon anymore…” he’d whined.
Kim pouted up at him. “So what? You can still go! You can still be the first person… from our neighbourhood!” he nodded. “Yeah! I’ll come with you! We can go together!” He’d smiled in encouragement. “We’ll grow up, and then we’ll go to the moon, and then no one will be able to say anything to us!”
“On… on a big rocket? Like that one in the book?”
“Yeah! Let’s go, OK?” Kim would grin, his face full of plasters, even in places that were unhurt. “Don’t listen to those idiots. We’ll go to the moon, I promise.”
As a little boy, he tried to be on his best behaviour but to see Min hurt brought out the worst in Kim.
Luna station, a launchpad for dreams.
That was how they’d sold it to the unemployed and hopeless masses back on Earth. Not the dream itself, no. It was too dead and barren, too desolate for planting dreams into its grey surface. Arborists had tried, with their artificial monsoons and their agrariums built on volcanic ash. They had tried their best, Kim noted on the tour of the industrial sector when he first arrived. But this was no place for dreams to thrive.
As beautiful and poetic as she had looked from between his five-year-old fingers, the moon was ugly. Her only hope was to offer a foothold, a transitory stop for naval and exploratory ships before they turned their backs on her and set out for the universe.
Kim had elected to keep his head down and do what he could to survive, find what little work there was to find. He’d studied—gone to school, gone to college, gone to great lengths to train himself for whatever industry still held the assurance of a stable income, in hopes for a better life. But space had found him, weeded him out from among the many designers and technicians and planners. It had plucked him from the mechanical engineers that floated over the lake of overqualified and idle people.
For the last five years, he had worked on orbiters and cyclers and ships that were nearing the end of their lifecycles. He’d salvage the good and trash the bad, help rebuild some anew or create something else. Something more powerful durable formidable. For the last five years, this had been his life. Wading through the entrails of an ancient spaceship, plugging its parts into sleek new racers or private spaceplanes. He didn’t make much from it, but he learnt a lot. Learnt enough that they’d selected him from the list of volunteers.
Six months was a long time, but at the end of it he thought it wasn’t long enough. Right from day one, they threw him into the centrifuge, letting him stay in it for an hour until he begged for them to let him out. Then came the assembly tests in zero-G. His hands fumbled, his grip betrayed, his fingers proved too ungainly in the suit. Everything was ungainly in the suit. He couldn’t walk, he couldn’t stand or sit, and sometimes during low pressure tests he couldn’t even breathe. He trained for strength, trained for speed, trained for days upon days in the simulator. He had to learn to fasten everything before take-off or it would fly around and damage his visor. He had to learn to unfasten everything after landing or he wouldn’t be able to get to it in an emergency. He was taught how to breathe steadily in a crisis, taught how to walk in the magnetic shoes, taught how to rely on his team for support when he knew he couldn’t complete a task by himself. He was taught a lot, and in the end he appreciated how it still wasn’t enough. Nothing could prepare him for space, where the smallest mistake could cost him dearly.
“OK,” Lee gathered them all at the command deck. They stood around the display on a large screen as he pointed to objects before moving them around. “We’ve been given a slot for take-off tonight. I want us all to be as ready as possible,” he instructed.
Tonight? That was too soon, Kim thought. It had taken a lot of time and effort to get him here, he’d imagined he would be allowed a few more days or rest at least. Just to look around. He nervously studied the rest of the team, but he said nothing.
“Gee, what’s our flight path?”
“Straight to the Jovian system,” she clicked a button and initiated a hologram. A small red dot travelled along a thin silver line connecting two points on the display. Kim stepped forward with interest and followed it carefully. “That’s one week, if we go into drive immediately after we get out of lunar orbit. Depends on traffic. Refuel, resupply, whatever we want to do on Callisto,” the pilot shrugged. “Then we go to the Ring.”
“Can we use the drive?”
Tae nodded. “Yeah, definitely. But we have an expert now, why don’t we get him to look at it?” he turned to Kim and smiled.
“Y-yeah, I can take a look,” he accepted.
“Good,” Lee approved. “I want a status report in one hour. Min—” he turned to the botanist, who was drinking from a steaming cup of something. “Evaluate our supplies. Food, water, air, medicines. At least three years’ worth.”
“That much?” the tall man asked, confused. “Captain… is there a possibility we won’t find anything?” he queried, looking a little uncertain of his decision to come along. “You know. On the other side of the Ring?”
“Yes,” Lee replied simply, then clicked a few buttons on his communicator. Min’s pocket dinged. “I’ve transferred some credits to you. Use them for whatever you think we need. Gee,” he turned to the woman. “Let’s talk.”
They all went their own ways. Watching Min slink off in the direction of the galley, Kim and Tae took the ladder to the engineering and cargo hold, all the way down to the bottom.
“So, how’re you enjoying space so far?” the Belter asked conversationally. He unrolled a drawer of tools and took out the ones they would need for a standard maintenance check.
“Hmm?” Kim went over to the trap door that led further down to the engine deck. “I… I haven’t seen a lot, but it feels. Roomy.”
Tae chuckled at that, bringing the bag of tools over. They clanged at his hip with every step he took. “That’s just this station. I felt like that too, when I first came here from Ceres. We’re not a crowded colony like Earth but when you’re down in the tunnels,” he huffed out air and followed it with more laughter. “It can get cramped.”
“Were you born there?” Kim smiled as he followed the man down.
“Of course! True man of Jupiter, born and bred, that’s me.”
“And everyone has tattoos like that?”
A pair of surprised eyes looked at him as he descended. “You’re a real nosy one, aren’t you?”
“A-ahh! Sorry, sorry!” Kim rushed to apologise. “I didn’t mean to offend. I… we were never taught about your culture, and… and so I was just. Curious,” he explained awkwardly.
“As long as you don’t support the UN,” he was allowed jovially. Tae pointed at his neck. “These are an homage, to the first belters, who survived in their cheap spacesuits. These—” he held out his arms. “Family ties. This one means I’m the youngest of the tribe, this says I have an older brother, this means both my parents are still alive and well,” he indicated different symbols, all unique to look at and all seeming like they were added at different times. “This one is for my age, so I change it often.”
“How old are you?”
They stood at the base of the ladder, one man looking back up and the other looking down at the reactor hatch. “Time is different for us,” Tae explained. “We move differently, in relation to the sun. But… I guess in Earther years I’d be,” he looked at Kim and grinned. “Twenty-six?”
“You look younger,” he was told with a smile. “So… you’ve never been on a planet before?”
A shake of the head. “It… I’m scared of what could happen.”
“Because of gravity?”
“And because I might actually like it,” the other gave a sheepish chuckle. “The belt… it’s not the best place in the system. But I’ve always thought I would die there.”
“You’re brave then,” Kim nodded. “To leave this system.”
“So are you,” a shrug replied. “I mean, we picked you from the list because you have power. You’re strong like none of the rest of us. You’re fresh off the boat,” Tae poked his ribs playfully. “But stay away from Earth too long and you’ll become just as weak. You could never go back. It’d be too dangerous.”
“And yet, here I am…” Kim mumbled.
“And yet here you are,” Tae agreed, offering his fist to bump.
When Kim was a child and the world was large and heavy in his tiny hands, he’d wanted to love.
Min’s family was being sent away, like a lot of the other residents of their neighbourhood. The adults said it was because other adults were making them do it, and to a ten-year-old Kim that didn’t compute—adults made their own decisions, no one should be ordering them about like this. But he was explained that it was out of everyone’s hands and soon they would be separated. Soon, they would never see each other again.
Kim would always hold Min to himself when the younger cried, but that day he stayed away. He watched from behind the fence of their front yard and kept his distance; kept his own tears in check, holding a football under his arm as the other boy tried to reach out, tried to call out, tried so say please, please, I don’t want to go, please make them stop, I don’t want to go. What could he have done? What could he have said? What was in his control? When Kim was a child, he felt something break inside him to watch Min be piled onto a crowded bus, squeezed between his bother and the window. It left him with a scar that would never heal, a wound that would stay open forever.
When Kim was a child he didn’t know what love was. It punched his little body in the gut and he fell, hard. He wanted to understand it, wanted to hold it and tame it, wanted to feel it even with his tiny broken heart. When he was a child, he wanted the impossible.
“Here,” Min helped him into his seat, strapping his arms and legs. “For when we hit the high Gs,” he explained and patted Kim’s shoulder before going his own chair.
They were back on the command deck, waiting to take off. The engine was ready, the storage hold was brimming, and the ship hummed underneath them. Like a bee.
“Hohoho, she feels like a beauty from up here, boys,” they heard Gee say from her perch. “OK, initialising sequence. We have the green light from the station, boss. What do you say?”
“Ready when you are,” Lee called out from across Kim, clicking other keys on the display before him.
Tae sat himself down too, his lips moving in what looked like a silent prayer. When their eyes met, he grinned. “What? You thought we were barbarians? Beltalowda answer to their own gods, Earther. Sasa ke?” he said, his voice taking on a thick accent.
“Got room in your prayer for one more?” Kim called back. The other laughed.
“It won’t be too bad,” Min assured softly from beside him. “The cycler was the hardest part, and you came out of it so well. Everything else will be… a breeze,” he encouraged.
Kim looked at him a moment before smiling gratefully. They’d switched places—Min’s consolations held him in their arms now, returning the comfort of many nights on swings and many days on the playground. Perhaps this was why they’d met again. Perhaps the universe had been unbalanced without Min giving back what he’d received all those years go, and Kim receiving it happily with his arms open. Perhaps the universe would finally start to come back to its perfectly scaled self now that they were together again, perhaps it would finally start to heal itself like the pieces in Kim’s chest.