Tonal, n. humans known to possess pigmentation or tone; of color
The library’s empty. We’re in the middle of a battle, all the anti-grav chairs keep jolting loose, and my brain’s flooding with memories of the day we met. I’m by myself when you decide to show up.
“If you’re looking for something to read, it’ll take a minute!” I bark, mad as a pissed-off hornet. “That last blast—”
There’s another, buffeting some other corner of the Frigate. You grasp hold of the anti-grav chair you’re seated in, which remains stationary this time, while I latch onto the service counter. My fingers are already aching as my feet fly out from under me.
“Primary engine dying,” Ship informs us, her voice immaculate and cold. “Primary engine dying. Prepare to evacuate. Prepare to evacuate.”
Our eyes meet, first time in months. The hatred I can’t seem to digest claws at my belly, yearning to burst free and drain every ounce of blood from your body. A concurrent interruption shortens our little reunion.
“This is Captain Pantea speaking. All personnel must remain on board for the duration of the fight. I repeat: all personnel must remain on board for the duration of the fight.”
He means us. You know this as well as I do; you also know that if you reach your hand across the expanse separating us, I’ll follow you anywhere. There’s no need for words where ritual honesty stands present.
I take your hand. We wait for the next explosion to soften before taking off. Mid-run, I thank the illegal gods for the sweaty bandage wrapping your middle finger, the one you used most often to heat things up back when we first explored each other’s pleasures. We’re in the escape shuttle, the pinkish glow of the ill-illumined cockpit blinding us in the stark swarming darkness, before I recall my superiority in all our engineering classes.
As per her job, Ship informs us we’ve no clearance to leave.
An explosion sets Docking Bay Ninety-Four ablaze, freeing the few escape shuttles clear of the blast point.
Ship obeys me, then, firing up the engines without pause.
We’re creeping across uncharted stars, unrecognizable even by Ship’s vast knowledge, and none of the books downloaded to my dex seem capable of steering us home. No space station, no friendly planetary systems, not even a passing Frigate. We’re lost and all we’ve got is each other.
And you’re asleep, confident in the one request you’ve made since we first embarked.
“You don’t like breakfast food,” I reminded you last night. You were still wearing clothes then, your begging eyes much less of a distraction than the rest of you.
“If you make me some, I’ll eat it.”
A statement of fact framed as a dare. I spared no time between breaths.
“Fine, I’ll make you breakfast.” Somehow I managed to offer you a smile. It was an accident, too.
You smiled back, well-intentioned. “It’s a date,” you said, tossing back the rest of the juice in your glass.
I didn’t communicate with you what I thought then: Sharing with you bears incalculable consequences, so I’d rather limit what I can.
I kept silent. I removed the smile from my face.
You added a giggle to what-shoulda-been a passing convo. “We’re cheap dates. Can’t even leave the shuttle,” you said, matching my withdrawn thoughts to a T.
So here we are, seconds away from our cheap date. I decide to scramble the eggs. Frankly because I prefer them that way. Because I’m not convinced you’ll even eat them (or the bacon or the injera). and because familiarity goes a helluva long way toward calming shock levels—mine and yours, I suspect. It’s fucked-up enough that I’m here, aboard this tiny ass escape shuttle rather than the Frigate from which we each made our narrow escape. Nevermind the fact that I’m here with you.
The bacon sizzles to my delight. Over our last shared meal you apologized for leaving it all fatty. I had let you coax a warmhearted smile from me, even though your apologies held much less weight back then.
I sneak shy glances toward your sprawled, slumbering body in hopes of spying something I’ve lived too long without. No success yet. I oughta scold myself but I refuse. Truth is: I miss you. Despite your Atonal blood, your hairy legs and torso unblanketed, you’re probably cold.
I flip all four pieces of bacon, slowly, and check the pores puckering to life on the injera before leaving the stove to tend to you. Not done just yet, I tell myself, careful not to mutter, my fingers trembling as I seize hold of the blanket and slide it down to your ankles.
Such familiarity calms me.
The eggs are done, the injera perfectly porous, and the bacon burnt the way we Tonals like it, or at least that’s what you used to say. I pour your coffee first, fix your plate before mine; I shake your shoulder twice to rouse you before calling it quits.
I can’t even get through three bites and a paragraph of reading before jumping back up (using a refill of coffee as my excuse) to make sure you know your breakfast, the one you requested, is adapting the temperature of the rest of the shuttle.
At last, you wake. By then, I’m nearly through. Three forkfuls more and I’m off to visit Ship, who I’m certain requires our attention.
“You even made me coffee,” you mutter sleepily, a touch of surprise mingled with your drowsiness. I hear the words “How sweet,” although you never speak them.
Fuck, I scold myself, tossing my now-empty disposable plate.
I exit the room, my nose in my dex, without announcement.
His parents were book people, after the ancient way, so that young Bass understood the flip of the page before setting foot inside his first classroom. Day in, day out Bass sat amidst open texts in the center of the raggedy-carpeted living room floor, chicken legs always crossed, ashy knees always bare, fingers always tapping along to the music Momma or Daddy blasted through the speakers in the walls.
Already promised to the Academy, Bass felt he should understand the mechanics of the Frigates and shuttles and Fighters he’d be expected to pilot . He moved on from the random reading of his youth to more focused topics. By his ninth birthday, Momma’s and Daddy’s ears worn-out by his incessant prattle on Imperial protocol, Bass unwrapped Brown’s Encyclopedia for the Young Cadet: Fourth Edition.
It was, unbeknownst to them all, Momma’s and Daddy’s parting gift.
A singular image struck Bass upon opening the book, a haunt-in-the-making. The image didn’t move or shimmer as it might’ve done were this a dex-screen. But the proximity of those coiling black wires latched to the dark, flesh of the woman standing in a polished, white room spooked him deeper because of its stillness. The caption read simply: 6A Ship.
Never, he promised himself, both in that moment and as he lay awake that night attempting to shake loose the imprint, I’m never getting near one of those things.
I’m not ready.
You’d think with the hundreds of times each Cadet got forced through their paces as engineers, I’da shook my first-ever haint by now. Something tells me to run back to the kitchen, force you to suit up and share this horror with me.
Your mom’s voice erupts out of long ago memory, “You and Freddy are just alike,” she says. “You’re both stubborn as hell!” Of course, she giggles. To her, our inevitable relationship, the slipshod way we manage each other’s feelings, was hilarious.
Whenever I miss you, I miss her too.
Focus, I tell myself, zipping up the front of my Atonal biosuit. (Why these things always white? I wonder absentmindedly.)
I bite the bit, tying the stirrups behind my ears with practiced ease, the familiarity flooding my bloodstream with necessary serotonin. I press my covered palm against the reader, listen for the affirming beep, watch the door part from the seamless wall in front of me.
In I go.
Every guy started out as “buddy.” This was the best means by which to separate the Serious from the Not-So-Serious for Frederick.
High up, the naked sun glared down on him as he made his way across the parking lot. Free at last, he thought.
And then he shouted it, “FREE AT LAST!”
Most planetary restaurants were shit-stirring, shit-serving dumps anyway. Momma’d tried to warn him. Didn’t matter no more anyway. Starting tomorrow, his role at Academy would be to learn how to please the sundry Captain Panteas the galaxies wide, each cuisine specific to the assigned Frigate. Such a task required the sort of stalwart solemnity Frederick only felt after a good night’s rest beside another man.
He’d not been touched in months.
According to the app on his watch, the closest man to him was just the sorta man he liked. Lean body, Tonal skin, eyes that afforded ease to the effort.
Frederick smiled. Simple, non-threatening, small expectations. His reply must echo that, he decided.
Nothing much. Up to anything?
The real test was upon them. Who, Frederick wondered, would strike first? Lounging back in the driver’s seat of his aircar, his shoeless foot kicked up on the dashboard, he lit his cigarette and waited. One puff, five seconds later, his watch pinged.
I live next to an ice cream place. Wanna join?
Frederick blew smoke through his grinning lips, proud to accept the invitation. If things kept up this good, Academy would prove a stroll in the park.
“Ignite,” he commanded his aircar.
Bass loved Frederick fifteen minutes into their first-ever conversation. He’d clapped eyes on plenty a pretty boy, so much so that he thought little of real-life Frederick’s diminutive frame when he saw him. All-too-soon he earned that swift out-from-under-himself kick from his own feelings and walked the long, slow road toward adoring every part of Frederick’s body.
…his creek-green eyes that he swore, that first day, were bluer than the afternoon sky…
…the small flecks of ginger hair painted into his otherwise very brown beard, very brown head-hair, very brown mustache…
…his penis so small and unassuming when unaroused…
As their weeks together passed, Bass fell for Frederick quicker than a scurrying breeze, deeper than the whole of space. He often wished he could rescind it all, take back every ounce of romance he’d permitted Frederick to drain from him the way one squeezes a sopping towel. If only Frederick had fallen too
This time I brought you with me.
“You’re the cook,” I quip, as soon as we’re standing inside Ship’s headquarters. “Feed her.”
“Pipe it through here, right?”
It’s not like either of us has spent the last six months attached to Ship’s every need. Your responsibility aboard the Frigate was filling the crew’s stomachs;, mine was feeding their minds. Ordinarily, we left Ship to the engineers.
“Knew we took those engineering classes for something,” you joke, careful not to tip the bottle attached to Ship’s belly button too far.
I refuse to point out that such classes were mandated. Otherwise, I’d’ve stopped taking them long before completion.
You’re giggling again, and I can’t figure out whether you’re tryna woo or annoy me.
One song loops, over and over again, echoing off the walls and beginning to wear on my nerves. Trading one bottle for another, you mumble through the bit between your teeth, your mechanized voice more soothing than I’ll admit beyond this moment.
“Signed, sealed, delivered—I’m yours!”
You ask me to dance. I meet your smile with a smile of my own, a mask fashioned from everything I’ve ever felt for you since the moment I found you sitting in your aircar and smoking a cigarette, hunched over the dex in your lap. All the passion, all my disbelief, every ounce of speculation (egregious and wild), the weeks of outrage and disillusion and fear of permanent loss--these chord together and I am somehow drawn to my feet for you, towards you.
You take my hand and I let you seize my hip. We dance long enough for our ears to meet; our stirrups cling to each other, as if hooked, so that the only comfort left is to rest my chin upon your shoulder. You’re always softer than I recall.
“Your heart’s beating so fast,” you whisper.
The air in the room alters too swiftly to have been adjusted by you. We make poorer dancers than engineers, my love.
Yet in your arms, I grow infinite.
Frederick waited. Each of their first three nights aboard the escape shuttle, he made certain he followed the exact same routine. Otherwise doof-boy might catch on, which Frederick could not have—despite how unreadable, how untouchable beyond his concealment Bass thought himself.
Frederick knew better. He knew how to slip through thick prison walls. All he had to do was become invisible.
Ship caught on pretty quick, once he explained everything. Broth might’ve pacified Captain Pantea’s rancorous belly those long stretches between negotiation and all-out war but oil remained Ship’s sole sustenance.
Doof-boy had a lot in common with Ship. For one thing, neither knew how to bite the feeding hand.
Breakfast that one morning, though, felt nice. Frederick hadn’t really known how nice until later that evening.
“I’m cold,” Bass muttered, shivering beneath the thin sheet they’d found in the escape shuttle’s emergency supply closet.
Frederick opened his cotton blanket to him, the one his own momma’d handspun, as she’d done for all her children. His was her last.
Frederick opened Bass’s underwear with his fingers; he opened his legs with sure, gentle strokes; he opened his lips with his own.
The next day, Frederick spent all morning opening Bass with his body, reaching inside him deeper and deeper until he’d culled from doof-boy more sweat and tears and ecstasy and grief than Bass knew lay hidden within.
Frederick saw everything. He even saw the way doof-boy might stare back at him, those goddamn puppy eyes bright and warm and innocent-looking, should he ever learn what Ship told him their final morning together.
“Oil, please.” Her constant refrain dangled from trembling lips—still cold, still immaculate. “I am at 13%”
Atonal, n. humans known to lack pigmentation or tone; colorless
Not missing, simply not present.
You’re still holding me against you when my eyes first notice the change. What I cannot fathom is why I’m still hearing Stevie Wonder amid this displacement. The room we’re in reminds me of your windowless bedroom, an underground chamber, the cellar where we first became youplusme.
There’s a man standing none-too-distant from us, facing your back. His eyes speak a readiness shared by his lips.
“Welcome aboard Ib15, gentlemen. We’ve been expecting you.”
Your fingers dig into my side, your chin bites my shoulder. I request vital information, using the standard Academy questionnaire, embracing your heartbeat with my own.
“We are Death,” Death answers, “and we are here to receive you.”
It isn’t until I close my eyes, the surest way to dispel any nightmare, that I notice first the astounding warmth in the air as well as the whimper caught in your throat. You never cry, I think, wrapping your back with both of my arms at full strength.
“I’m here,” I assure you aloud, so that you know there’s nowhere else I’d rather be.
Has it taken all this for me to admit it? I ask myself, not for the first time nor likely the last.
“I’m here,” I repeat.
You've been part of the work so far, and you can be part of so much more in the coming year. So, let's build.