Sefynne wanted to believe his time in prison stemmed from his belief in justice, but he preferred not to lie. Fear brought him there, and luck released him. Finally stepping out from under the hot metal roof and the glares of guards lifted some of the weight in his chest, but now the sun shone too bright and the sky stretched too wide. In the distance, shrubs looked like static playing on the hillside, the landscape painted in under-saturated shades. A breeze touched his feathers for the first time in months, startling him.
“Sefynne!” Rycosa jumped out of her car and waved.
Sefynne jogged down the steps and across the parking lot to set a hand on her shoulder, the ghost of a smile near his lips. “It’s good to see you.”
“You too, I’ve missed you.” Her shoulders relaxed at his voice as if she’d worried he would lose it.
Vantarians are the closest extraterrestrial species to humans and have the same body and facial structure, though they’re generally taller and significantly stronger. Their scales are fine enough on their hands and face to be mistaken for skin but grow to a centimeter at their widest point along their shoulders and back. All vantarians have deep brown scales and feather-covered scalps, but whereas females are entirely brown, males’ feathers are a delft blue that flashes green in direct light. The same vibrant blue colors their eyelids and lips and scatters across their clavicles.
Sefynne had a square face with a sharp jaw, a contrast to his softer features. His dark, upturned eyes were deep and often unreadable, but nonjudgmental, much like those of a cow. Spending most of his life working on a farm made him muscular, filling out his tall frame. Rycosa was leaner in general, her face a diamond and her features angular – she and Sefynne didn’t have the resemblance of most siblings.
“Get in, let’s go home. There’s food and gloves on your seat.” Rycosa nodded toward her car.
With a sigh of relief, Sefynne got into the passenger seat. He set the gloves on his lap and unwrapped the foil from a plate of grilled fish and vegetables as Rycosa sped onto the dirt road. He savored the taste of fish through his fingertips before he raised it to his mouth. “Thank you, Cosa, so much.”
“Of course.” She scanned his expression – he hoped she didn’t notice the slight tremble of his hands. “I figured you haven’t eaten real food in a while.”
Sefynne nodded, trying not to eat too quickly. “I haven’t.”
He noticed her glancing away from the road to examine the deep bruises under his eyes and the cut across his nose. Turning his face from her, he stared at the Cardon cactuses reaching up between thorn bushes and boulders.
“Are –” Rycosa cleared her throat, and Sefynne turned back to her. Her lips scrunched and her feathers pressed back. “Are you going to be okay?”
A group of birds glided past, and Sefynne kept his eyes on them as they drifted out of view.
“Yes.” Saying the word felt like too much and too little.
He could still feel her eyes on him; she wanted him to say more, but he didn’t know what. Rycosa turned onto a new road.
“The road closed?” Sefynne asked.
“Yes. Guess why.” Her feathers twitched.
“A new colony?”
“Mm-hm. Have you heard about the border protests?”
“Some, from vantarians who were arrested during the demonstrations. It sounds like the protests have become increasingly violent.” The colony wall didn’t yet feature graffiti, creating an ugly expanse of grey as it wound close to the road.
“Our area remains peaceful, but those closer to Zahard have experienced several casualties. Most recently, a journalist and a medic.”
Sefynne swallowed a bite of zucchini and shook his head. “That’s not surprising. Have you been to any of the protests?”
“No. Nemrotha has.” The corners of Rycosa’s mouth pressed into a frown.
“She needs to be careful. Is the VL one of the primary organizers?”
“Not as far as she knows.”
The conflict on Earth began a few generations ago; vantarians first arrived on Earth after the climate apocalypse left it barren. The only humans who survived were those who could afford to flee on spacecraft, taking with them as many samples of Earth life as they could. A variety of corporations came to take advantage of remaining natural elements, but at the time vantarians had enough interstellar power to monopolize the planet.
The workers, however, soon became discontent with the conditions of the planet and rose up against their employers, vying to restore Earth rather than further exploit it. Their success surpassed what anyone dared to hope, and the planet once again teemed with life.
The return of humanity wasn’t an issue at first. The population of the planet was a fraction of what it had once been, after all, and resources were abundant. But humans had a view for their planet of origin that didn’t include new inhabitants, and when they failed to expel vantarians through economic measures, they turned to violence. After years of war between the two species, dozens of hastily formed treaties negotiated by the United Star Systems, and astoundingly blatant breaches of said treaties on humanity’s part, Earth became a mix of distinctly human and vantarian territories. Some regions were nearly peaceful, others nearly warzones. Sefynne and Rycosa’s region sat somewhere in the middle of this spectrum and was separated into the Jarda Vantaric State and the Jarda Human State.
It didn’t take long for Sefynne to finish his food. He set the plate by his feet and pulled on the elbow-length gloves, shielding his hand and forearm from the taste of artificial plastic as he rested them against the window.
“Nemrotha and Stihar are at my house right now, but I can call and have them leave if you don’t want to see people so soon.”
Sefynne shook his head. “It will be good to see them.”
If it had been anyone else, he would have declined; navigating social events was tiresome enough without being sleep deprived and sore. However, he did crave some kind of positive contact, and Rycosa knew who could provide that.
They spoke a few more times over the rest of the drive. Sefynne didn’t like the stiffness of the conversation – it should have felt more natural, but he didn’t know how to change it. They arrived at the farm as the light began turning gold. Sefynne rolled down the window as they drove up the hill – it had finally rained after a long, dry winter, and the butterscotch-vanilla scent of the baliqa vines stained the air. Sefynne stepped out of the car on top of the hill and stood still for a breath.
Nemrotha and Stihar emerged from the house. Stihar waved from the porch while Nemrotha sprinted to Sefynne. Nem stood shorter than most vantarians but managed to stand out in a crowd regardless.
“Sefynne!” She clapped him on the shoulder. “Thank fortune you’re out. Does that hurt?” She gestured to his face.
“This is nothing.” He waved a hand.
“It’s good to have you back. I brought pastries, come inside.” Stihar leaned on the porch railing.
Rycosa and Nemrotha filed in. Sefynne bent down and absent-mindedly moved a snail off the path as he followed.
“I,” Stihar cleared his throat before Sefynne stepped inside, “I hope you know we all appreciate it. What you did.”
Sefynne froze. His feathers pressed flat against his scalp, but he nodded. “Thank you for saying that.”
“You – you weren’t convicted, were you?” Stihar’s eyes bore into his, black irises making the metallic rings around his pupils stand out.
“No. Don’t worry, I was released because they couldn’t prove anything. You know I wouldn’t make a deal with the Force.” At least, he hoped Stihar knew that.
“I didn’t think you would, but I also know what they do to vantarians in those places.” Stihar glanced down.
“Ahzims,” Nemrotha called, signaling them to hurry, “I got you a present.”
“You didn’t have to do that,” Sefynne responded as he stepped inside.
The warm, dusty smell of the house struck Sefynne immediately. The living room and kitchen made up the main space, a counter dividing them. Windows and skylights eliminated the need for electric lighting during the day and provided ample sun for the plants that lined every sill and sat in the center of every surface.
Nemrotha tossed a book at Sefynne. He caught it and flipped it over in his hands – a new release from his favorite author. The corners of his mouth pulled up.
“I meant to read it so we could discuss it, but I have trouble reading romance,” Nemrotha said.
“I appreciate the effort. Thank you, Nem.” The tension in his shoulders finally started to give way.
“Come have a pastry.” Stihar gestured to a tray of assorted sweets, and Sefynne’s smile widened.
“They look excellent, thank you.”
Rycosa appeared by his side with a glass of baladon, holding out the fizzing golden liquid to him.
“I’m overwhelmed now.” Sefynne accepted the glass. “It’s … better than you can imagine, being back.” Relief and gratitude burned in his chest, almost making him dizzy.
He sat at one of the mats around the low table in the living room, taking off his gloves and reaching for a date pastry. The others followed suit. Nemrotha put on a new album, which launched her into an explanation of everything Sefynne had missed in music and cinema, insisting Vantaric culture on Earth was creating more nuanced music than traditional Vantaric culture. Stihar and Rycosa agreed media moved too fast for anyone to keep up – Nemrotha vehemently disagreed. Sefynne absorbed their company without needing to weigh in. He sipped baladon and played with pastries, pulling them into strips before eating them.
During a lull in the conversation, Nemrotha’s eyes landed on Sefynne. She hesitated, spinning her glass in her hand.
“Any news from inside?”
Sefynne’s jaw clenched and he cleared his throat. “Not much worth reporting … though I heard rumors, I suppose.”
“Such as?” Nem pressed.
“Nothing feasible. Someone said Prasics is alive, there’s word the Istrin monarchy is going to take a stance on the conflict soon, and a few people claimed the Muzama has created a weapons production facility in the heights.”
Stihar’s feathers shot down and Sefynne raised an eyebrow. Nemrotha leaned forward while Rycosa leaned back and crossed her arms.
“There is a facility?” Nemrotha asked.
“It’s better if I don’t say anything.” Stihar sipped his baladon, his eyes fixed on his lap.
Nemrotha leaned back, but her eyes remained fixed on Stihar.
They stayed up long after the sun set and the food disappeared. Sefynne ached with exhaustion by the time Stihar and Nemrotha headed back to the city. He helped Rycosa clean the dishes and wipe down the table before he left.
A short path ran along the vineyard between Rycosa’s house and Sefynne’s. Stone steps descended to the door. The rooms were carved into pale rock – Sefynne walked through each of them, opening the shades on the skylights and dusting. One of the shades stuck halfway. Anger flooded his body; he closed his eyes as if he could hold it back, the fabric of his gloves bunching as his hands clenched. He exhaled sharply and shook his head, gently wiggling the shade until it moved again.
He continued tidying his house, then spent nearly half an hour straightening his feathers and running a peening comb along his scalp to coat the feathers with oil until they flashed exceptionally bright under the light. Everything was in perfect order before he lay down in his bed, a one-foot deep hole dug into the ground filled with pillows and blankets. He stared at the patterns in the rock ceiling for some time before he could give in to sleep.
Alder tossed the cap of their Force uniform onto the coffee table and swept a hand through their hair, unknotting dark curls with their fingers. They unstrapped their rifle, leaned it against the wall, and fell onto the couch with a huff.
“I’m dropping out, defecting, faking my death, and moving to a cave near the tide pools,” they stated.
Even in uniform, Alder didn’t look much like a soldier; there was nothing stern or controlled about their appearance, and their expressions were easy to read even though most of them featured a smile. They had a heart-shaped face with a convex nose and bow-shaped lips, long-lashed almond eyes giving them a gentle appearance they’d never quite been able to distract from. Scars littered their cedar-toned skin, but none of them had particularly interesting stories – they were mostly from climbing, or hiking thorny trails, or trying to befriend unfriendly cats, or being generally unaware of their surroundings.
“Okay, good luck. Pay rent before you go.” Julia sat in the armchair perpendicular to them. “I’d come with you, but I need my student stipend too badly.”
Julia had spent the morning in the house, something rare for any of the three roommates given their dual enrollment in university and their mandatory service, but especially rare for her – she was the only one of them who didn’t consider school and work a satisfactory social life. She wore shorts and a yellow tank top that complemented her dark skin, her coily hair tucked into a bun.
The house barely accommodated three people; they suspected Alder’s room used to be a walk-in closet. Different styles of furniture and artwork meshed into a nearly cohesive setting in the living room, string lights and tapestries attempting to mask the brutalist architecture.
“If you’re going to drop out, you should just move to a different planet. Become a psychic on Rottah, change your name, forget about your past, etcetera.” Olive walked in from the kitchen with a bowl of cereal.
Olive had returned from her morning class a few minutes prior. Eyeliner smudged across her eyelid, making her bright black eyes stand out even further. She wore her usual, practical ensemble of a tee shirt and leggings, curtains of hair draping past her ribs.
“I’m supposed to be part of a tactical team tomorrow night. Harris is having a broken bone mended or something, and technically I have the training. I don’t wanna go.” Alder leaned their head back.
“Guess you’re moving up in the world,” Julia said.
“I don’t want to move up in the Force. I want to remain as low in the ranks as possible until I finish my service.” Alder gestured sharply as they spoke.
“What’s the mission? Can you say?” Olive asked.
“Have you heard about that weapons factory in the heights?” Olive and Julia nodded. “I’m part of the team that’s searching it. Lieutenant Pan says the Muzama knows we know about it, though, so they’ve probably already cleared it out. So it’s not that big of a deal, but still, what if something happens?”
“Something could happen at the checkpoints too,” Olive pointed out.
“Yeah, but, the probability … you know?”
“Mm. Yeah,” Julia said.
“Sorry for complaining.” Alder looked down at their hands.
“You don’t have to apologize.” Julia reached into Olive’s bowl and took a piece of cereal.
“Rude.” Olive leaned away from her.
“That’s my cereal, actually, so I have a right to it,” Julia said.
“No,” Alder protested, “I definitely bought that. You can have it, but for the record, it is mine.”
“If we can have it, why does it matter?” Julia asked.
“Because …,” Alder floundered, “factual accuracy matters.”
“Whatever.” Julia shrugged.
“Seriously though, Alder, I think you’ll be fine,” Olive repeated.
Alder nodded, not quite believing her. “Well, I’ve gotta get changed and go to my Grandma’s.”
“Tell Rose I said hi,” Julia called as Alder went to their room.
Rose lived outside of the main city, in a small adobe house surrounded by carefully cultivated native plants. Alder paused on the walk to her door, gasping as they noticed the tortoises above ground. They crouched by the wire enclosure with a smile.
“Happy spring, buddies,” they cooed.
“I know, they’re out of hibernation!” Rose called from her door.
“So exciting!” Alder stood and went to greet her with a hug.
“It’s been a while.”
“I know, sorry grandma. I’ve had a lot going on.”
Rose broke away and gestured for them to come inside. “Oh no worries, I know.”
Art, candles, plants, and assorted knick-knacks lined every surface of Rose’s home. Bookshelves covered every wall, and afghans draped over every piece of furniture, all dusted with cat hair. Two distinctive thumps sounded from the other room, followed by the pap pap pap of paws across the wood floor.
“Hello, gentlemen.” Alder squatted to greet the cats. “How have you two been?”
“They’ve been pests,” Rose tutted.
Alder scooped the larger, grey cat into their arms and stood. “Aw, don’t insult them.”
“They’re fat bastards, and they know it.” Rose reached out to scratch Jasper’s ears. “The reason I needed your help, though, is with the honey hawks.”
Alder grimaced. “Oh?”
“Don’t worry, I just need help moving the hive. Their queen died, so they won’t be aggressive for a few weeks.”
“Are you trying to baptize me?” Alder asked. Rose allowed Alder more lenience than most Orchidist pastors would give a grandchild, but she had still pressed them on baptism nearly every month since they’d become old enough for the ceremony.
“I would do no such thing. Come on, you’re a soldier and you’re afraid of bugs?”
“These bugs should be feared.” Alder set Jasper down on the couch.
“Well, not for now. Come on.” Rose waved for Alder to follow her out the back door.
They sighed but complied. “Why do you have to move them?”
“Those roekas have been running through here a lot and they almost knocked the hive over the other day. It’s not like I was going to go out there to shoo them away and end up getting gored.” Rose walked up to the box containing the wasps. “I’m worried it’s going to happen again. I just need you to help me move it into the tortoise enclosure. Look, they don’t sting at all right now.” Rose scooped one of the metallic blue-black insects onto her hand and held it out, its bright orange wings twitching in the breeze.
“Yeah, okay. You’re sure they won’t get mad once we move their hive?” Alder narrowed their eyes at the box.
“I’m sure, it’s fine, come on.”
Alder walked to the other side of the box and helped Rose lift it and carry it around to the front of the house, hoisting it over the tortoise fence and into safety. A few of the honey hawks landed on Alder’s arms, almost bringing them to a halt, but the insects didn’t sting.
“What did I tell you?” Rose asked.
“You know best, as usual,” Alder admitted.
“Naturally. Now come in and get some tea.” She waved for them to follow her back to the house.
Inside, Alder leaned against the kitchen counter while Rose boiled water.
“So, since you did bring it up earlier …,” she began.
Alder bit their lip. “You know how I feel about Orchidist baptism.”
“Alder, some of the most important things in life are painful.” Rose opened a cabinet and rummaged through boxes of tea.
“And religion is supposed to be one of them?”
“I’m not doing it. I’m sorry.” Alder winced.
“If you say so.”
Rose didn’t bring it up again during the visit. They drank tea and pet the cats while Alder told Rose about school, and she told them about church and how her garden was coming along. Alder told her about the tactical mission right before they had to leave. She disapproved as strongly as they expected but she understood Alder didn’t have much choice in the matter, and ultimately Alder left feeling better than when they’d arrived.
Sefynne arrived downtown that afternoon, parking his motorcycle just outside the market. Riding his bike and wearing one of his favorite outfits – a sequins gold blazer over black slacks – helped him feel slightly more like himself. Vantarians flooded the streets between the carbon-concrete buildings. Side streets and alleyways cut off from the main road and gradually became narrower as they continued to split off from each other to form the maze of downtown Sochlori. Bright signs and tapestries covered the dull buildings, creating a nearly overwhelming display of color and patterns. The air smelled like seafood and brine, subtle hints of spice drifting from different vendors. Cars honked as they rolled through the streets, forcing people onto the sidewalks.
Sefynne distributed baliqa leaves to a few of the balaqain servers in the market on his way to Stihar’s bakery. Inside, Stihar stood at the counter, looking up from a pile of receipts at the sound of the door opening.
“You’re back to work quickly,” he commented.
“It’s better than doing nothing. Can I get a loaf of cinnamon bread?” Sefynne walked up to the counter and rested his fingers against its edge.
“Of course.” Stihar pulled a loaf from the shelf behind him. “I actually have something I need to talk to you about.”
“There’s … something we need help with.” Stihar glanced around the shop as if worried someone had entered without him noticing.
“We?” Sefynne raised an eyebrow.
“Yes.” Stihar’s lips pulled taught.
Sefynne knew he referred to the Muzama and frowned.
“I just got out of prison.”
“I’m aware. You were there because you did something you believed in despite knowing what the cost may be.” Stihar switched to Vantaric signing, keeping his hands low.
Sefynne shook his head and briefly pinched the bridge of his nose before signing back. “What is it?”
“Remember the weapons production I told you about last night?”
“We’ve heard the human government has been informed. The operation is currently being moved, and we need help clearing everything out as quickly as possible.”
Sefynne crossed his arms, switching back to spoken language. “Where would the products go?”
“They’d be distributed among vantarians seeking a means to defend themselves.”
“That’s quite vague.”
“You know I can’t give you as many details as you’d like.”
Sefynne sighed, his eyebrows drawing together. “I don’t think so, Stihar.”
“We’re only asking for a few hours of your time tomorrow. It’s low risk, we doubt the Force will be there until next week.”
“I …,” Sefynne ran his tongue across the back of his teeth. “I’ll think about it.”
“Alright. Let me know before tomorrow.”
Sefynne tucked the loaf of bread under his arm with a nod. “I will. Thanks for the bread.”
“Of course. Nim’dral.”
“Nim’dral,” Sefynne replied as he exited the shop.
Sefynne wove through the streets back to his bike, almost running into people as he walked, distracted by Stihar’s request. Once he got back to the farm, he walked to a broad, flat boulder near the top of the hill. He climbed onto it and sat cross-legged. Bats began to come out, wings flitting frantically as they propelled themselves across the sky. He watched their flight paths as he continued to consider the weapons facility.
He didn’t want to risk arrest again. However, he believed in arming vantarians, and Stihar certainly helped Sefynne when asked. Sefynne leaned his chin onto his knees and stretched a hand toward a lizard near him. It scampered away. Pulling off his gloves, he ran his fingertips over the stone, tasting dirt and pollen.
He couldn’t bear the thought of going back to prison, but this wasn’t about him – he had to do what was right. Groaning, he bunched up his scarf and set it beneath his head as he leaned back, looking up at the first few stars of the evening. He called Stihar.