They say there is a new man in the Silo, a human man of the classic build. This isn’t unusual, not unusual at all. Refugees pour in at an astonishing rate here, at an average of nearly two dozen a gastrooc. They used to, she should say. The rate has decreased much in recent years.
Musing as she walks, she thinks this but has never said it, never expressed it aloud in terms of gastroocs. It’s difficult to explain a Mamooth’s concept of time in relation to fungus to those who have never seen the cycle of the now long-dead fuzz.
But this new man, this new man is a learned man and it’s all she can do not to click her mandibles in glee, in hope. They call him by a title, have given him a workspace that has been long empty.
She wants to see.
Pausing outside the door, she takes a moment to clean her hands, anxious for a good first impression. A learned man is inside, a learned man unlike any here. She quivers internally and inspects her digits, picks away specs of dirt from her knuckles.
Tapping on the door, she immediately brushes off her knuckles again, already feeling embarrassment swell up beneath her liver. There’s no reply and so she calls, "Chan . . . I am looking for a human of Yana, tho?"
"Come in!" cries a human voice and for the first time since the collapse of the Conglomeration, she doesn’t shudder inside at the rudeness. Even through the thick metal door, something of his voice carries, something refined and intelligent and authoritative in the way of a finely tuned instrument.
She pulls the door open, steps inside the previously abandoned laboratory. Since the last engineer died of radiation overflow, none have dared risk the luck of returning save for trips to remove the lighter equipment to a better place. There is dust in the air and her throat snaps shut for a moment of consideration. Deeming it safe to breathe, she does so.
There’s a man at a burnt-out shell of metal. He pokes at it with tools of metal and doesn’t turn around when she clicks from her diaphragm politely. Has he already forgotten her?
"Chan, are you the professor, tho?"
The man jumps, nearly dropping one of his metal devices. "Ah, yes, the door!" he exclaims. "Your pardon, I . . ." He looks from her to the equipment, looks around for something else. Perhaps a cloth of some sort; there is dust and oil on both his hands and face. "Quite frankly, I’m a little busy."
She stands very still and holds her mandibles the proper distance from her lips. "Chan, I am here to help, tho," she tells him, raising her voice ever so slightly as he returns to his work with her still there.
At this, he turns around, interest lighting beneath his pale eyes. "And who might you be?" he asks her, wiping the black oily substance from his face with the back of his hand and leaving a smear covered by a light layer of dust.
"Chan, Chantho, tho," she replies, shaken by his appearance to the point of forgetting nearly all of her manners. It is the name given to her by the members of the Silo, by those who are the same basic shape as her species and yet unable to understand the clicks and vibrations of true speech. She feels strange, presumptuous, and yet he does not seem to mind.
"A pleasure to meet you Chanchan-thotho," he replies, picking up his tools to resume his work. "There’s a broom in the corner — this place could do with a good sweep."
She isn’t an expert on humans, only an expert on curiosity and disdain, on the way people look at her for her antique manners and the rarity of her shade. He isn’t dismissive, merely perfunctory. She thinks he is.
"Chan, I am Chantho, tho," she tries to correct, already moving towards the broom, already starting upon her directed task. A man of learning, she reminds herself. A man unlike any other.
"Ah, yes, sorry," the man replies, a slight strain in his voice to match the strain in his arm. The equipment seems not to agree with him. And then he looks at her and moves his mouth in a way she recognizes. "Chanthotho it is."
"Chan, you are teasing me, tho!" she accuses, pointing at him for respect, going so far as to turn her hand to be palm up. Wondering if he notices the care in her appearance or not.
He moves his mouth that way again and her mandibles nearly touch her lips as a sound deeper and richer than any clicking rumbles gently inside of him. "Yes," he says, "I suppose I am. Do forgive me: it’s been a long journey and I’ve been low on any amusement for quite some time."
"Chan, yes," she agrees instantly, taking the broom, "and you are the professor from Yana, tho?" She waits to start her task, giving him the priority of her attention. Perhaps he shall even tell her of his name.
But there’s something behind his eyes now, something unlike light and more like the sky. "My name is Yana," he corrects somewhat sternly and something in him makes her wonder if he is old. The fine, white fibers of his head giver her only the most basic indication of his age.
When he says no more, she asks, "Chan, may I know the rest of your name, tho?"
The soft skin of his face hardens and she knows she has said something wrong and quite possibly rude.
"Chan, I overstep, tho," she apologizes hurriedly. "Chan, I will sweep, tho."
She sweeps, sets to her task with her head down.
He turns a pocket watch over in his hands for a time and after, she thinks he might forgive her.
They are a hive of two; she will follow him. She is honoured to.
"There’s no shame in getting your hands dirty, Chantho," he chastises her one day as she balks at cleaning out the masterboard with him, hesitates to touch the delicate and immensely dust-encrusted plates of circuitry.
"Chan, I find none in it, Professor Yana, tho," she replies, clicking her mandibles in negation of his words. "Chan, I simply . . ." She trails off and he waits for her to finish. Realizing her rudeness, she whispers "tho" and does her best to return to her task.
She doesn’t look at his face through the masterboard, his soft, square face which lines and unlines so fluidly that she usually loves to watch. Instead, she tries to move down to the other end, tries to keep him from seeing her in anything else than a carefully groomed state.
Not all of the components are functional and not one of them can be replaced. The longer they work at their task, the more her antenna droop. She straightens them immediately when the professor suggests that they take a quick break.
Clicking her agreement for the professor’s sake — she was right about her original assessment and he is within his elderly stage of life. Three hundred and twenty-seven gastrooc! Far older than any Malmooth could hope to become. Could have hoped.
It should not be surprising that he is so wise, and yet he astonishes her every day.
He sits down heavily in their small alcove in the side of the laboratory, makes a remark about the joints of his internal skeleton stiffening and seems to expect her to reply. Cleaning her hands behind the masterboard, she misses the cue.
She feels the vibrations of his movements as he approaches and her mandibles stick straight out as he takes her hand in his, his skin soft and pliant and almost imperceptibly lined and ridged. "Chan, Professor Yana, tho!"
"You don’t have to keep doing this, Chantho," he tells her kindly. "All this compulsive cleaning of yours. I’m hardly diseased!"
She twitches in shock and shame. "Chan, I never meant to suggest, tho!"
"That was a joke," he clarifies and then does the most extraordinary thing. He pats her hand with his, palm touching her knuckles. "I make them sometimes."
"Chan, I have noticed, tho," she admits softly, looking down at their points of contact. "Chan, it was a custom of my people, tho."
"A way of being polite?" he asks, turning his head slightly and keeping his eyes on her. His body faces her and yet he gazes at her from the corners of his eyes. "Or a way of being formal?"
She doesn’t understand. "Chan, it is the same thing, tho!"
"Keep your ‘chan’ and your ‘tho’," he tells her, "but don’t be so formal with me."
She still doesn’t understand, only knows this to be good. "Chan, yes, tho!"
He smiles back at her, shows teeth in a way that somehow fails to be threatening, in a way that brings joy into her body. He turns back to their work, evidently forgetting that he was going to take a break.
One last time, she shall ask. "Chan, you truly don’t mind, tho?"
"What?" he blinks at her. "No, of course not. Why should I? Look at mine!" He holds his hands up and yes, they are dirty too. As always, the sight jars her, but she can adjust.
For him, she can do anything.
"Besides," he adds, as if it is but an idle afterthought, "you have lovely hands."
One night cycle, she imagines what he might look like with mandibles and giggles until it hurts.
She’s noticed his appearance before — it’s hard not to — but for some reason, it’s making her stare today. There’s something off, something different about his small, square head and large, protruding ears. Whatever it is, it seems to be putting the professor in a bad mood. It can’t be that he is finally able to remove the bandage, the left over from their small lab fire. He was so pleased to learn that he could take it off at last.
"Something the matter, Chantho?" he inquires and she doesn’t wish to ask. "Oh, come on. You can ridicule me a little. It won’t hurt and it’s not like I’m not braced for it."
"Chan, Professor, tho," she starts to say, because it seems as if he wants her to.
He faces her like he’s almost pleased and it makes her wonder, makes her think he’s not. "Yes?"
She takes a guess. "Chan, are you ill, tho?"
There’s something different about his expression today, something that should be there and yet isn’t. "And why do you ask that?"
"Chan, I have heard that hair loss can occur with illness, tho," she explains. "Chan, is that not the case, tho?"
He nods, seeming weary. "Sometimes, yes, but I assure you, I’m the picture of health."
"Chan . . . I do not know, tho," she admits.
She might imagine it, but his eyes may light up in the way that implies happiness. "Really?"
Putting her mind to it, she recalls his mishap from the previous week, thought that with the removal of the bandage across the front of his head everything had returned to a state of normalcy. "Chan . . . is this about your injury, tho?" She feels a surge of panic. Is his eyesight diminishing? He was burned by the equipment, but . . .
He sighs, straightening his garments. "Yes. It is."
"Chan, what is the matter, tho?"
He looks at her, considers her in a way she doesn’t think he’s considered her before. "My eyebrows are gone," he tells her. At her blank look, he points to the space between his flat and oddly lined forehead and his eyes. As she has noticed, there is less hair there then there was previously.
And still, she doesn’t understand. "Chan, is this an embarrassment, tho?"
His already soft face softens in a different way and, after a short pause, he shakes his head. "Not with you, my dear."
"What does your own language sound like?" he asks her one day as they work, attempting to invent wires out of useless scrap. "You do an extraordinary job with ours, and yet I’ve never heard you speak yours."
"Chan, I do not have much opportunity to speak so, tho," she replies, turning her body so as to not face him directly. She feels something fill her up, something fill her up inside so completely that she can’t imagine not feeling this way.
"If it’s too difficult for you," he says and there’s a moment where she’s nearly hurt before she realizes he speaks of emotional difficulty, before she realizes that he’s taking care of her in a new way.
"Chan, no, tho! Chan, I- I would be honoured, tho."
He smiles at her then, all three colours of his eyes shining brightly, the white and the black and his human blue.
She says the only words she can say to him, the only words she can think whenever she’s near him.
"That’s very pretty," he says politely and, thankfully, gets distracted before he can ask for a translation.
She chirps loudly in pain, arms wheeling for balance. To her horror and shame, she strikes him by accident, hits his shoulder.
"Hold still!" he commands and moves within her shell of personal space, his arms closing around her.
"Chan, but I will fall, tho!" she protests, staggers into him, against him. His body is strange and soft beneath cloth, has a give to it with a firmness beneath. Suddenly, the fear of falling is replaced by the fear of harming him, of tearing through the flimsy shell he calls skin and paining him.
"Relax!" he yells, orders her with equal parts concern and impatience, his voice rumbling into her oddly. "Calm down and then we can try to stop the bleeding."
She does as best as she can, gives over control of her body to him and tries not to panic. "Chan, my antenna is gone, tho!" She cannot balance, cannot taste nor touch the world as she should; thus, she is terrified.
With no small effort, he maneuvers her over to their cubby in the corner, helps her sit and holds her steady until she’s ready for him to let go. He doesn’t seem to be taking any chances and after her previous behavior, she cannot fault him for it. "Can you grow another?" he asks.
"Chan, yes, tho," she replies and he does that remarkable thing, pats her hand.
"Stay here," he tells her firmly. "I’m going to fetch a bandage and antiseptic — what do you use?"
Species difference, she thinks belatedly, isn’t certain how she’d forgotten. "Ch-chan, delta three, tho," she answers as the world wavers.
He returns quickly, shoos Atillo away from following him in. "My, this has caused quite the excitement," the professor remarks. "You’ve certainly given the lieutenant a fright."
"Chan, I apologize, tho."
The professor doesn’t interrupt, knows the rudeness of it, but he begins to shake his head as soon as she speaks. "Chantho, if I had paid attention to the heating in the relays, the wires never would have come remotely in danger of snapping like that. You’re lucky it only took out a part of you that’s replaceable. The vast majority of you isn’t."
She silences, holds still as the professor tends to the stub of her right antenna, holds still as cloth and skin and bandage touch where none has ever before touched. It was not something that was done, the touching of antenna. The disruption of balance it brings, the alteration of perception; it is most confusing.
The bandage is set in place and a strange pressure occurs, the professor standing over her and bending over her. She thinks she knows what she felt, but she is unsure and clicks her confusion.
"It’s a human thing, I’ve been told," he replies, "kissing an injury to make it better. I can’t say I’ve ever understood it as a custom."
Gladness touches her, warms her deeply despite her continuing pain and dizziness. "Chan, humans are most curious, tho," she compliments.
"Yes they are," he agrees wryly.
"Chan, Professor Yana, tho?"
He doesn’t move, merely sits there with his hands upon his face, his elbows upon his knees.
"Chan . . . Yana, tho?"
He breathes slowly and she watches for it, the rise and fall of his shoulders. Something in him is aching and she fears for him, this small human man with his too large ears and his too small head and his too fragile skin. Anything could pierce him, harm him, and that makes her afraid.
Hesitantly, she places her hand upon his shoulder, feels the vibrations of his body. There is a thrum inside of him, a rhythm inside his breathing, his so slight shaking. He is old, she reminds herself. A man of learning, and of age.
She looks at the readings, at the complicated diagrams he has pieced together. She can hardly believe her eyes.
The plans are finished.
Every equation she reads is perfectly balanced, every piece of it precise — she knows it is because she knows him. She regains her modesty, removes her hand. Going to the diagrams, she flips through the sheets of plans, marvels in the completed brilliance of their making. "Chan, this will work, tho!" she exclaims, turning to him, absolutely giddy.
He looks up slowly, sighs. "Yes," he says, sounds so tired as he does. "If we can build it."
"Chan, yes! We can, tho!"
"We’re running out of materials, practically out of supplies," he contradicts, rubbing at his face with his palm. "The rocket needs repair and if no more ships arrive in time for us to gather the parts from . . . . This won’t end well."
"Chan, no, tho!" She lowers herself, drops to her knees to look him in the eyes. "Chan, Professor, there will be a way. I know it, tho!"
He closes his eyes, squeezes them shut in something far too close to pain for her to stand. "Stop. For one minute, would you stop."
She shakes inside. "Ch-chan, Professor . . . tho?"
"This infernal headache. These damn drums," he clarifies, irritability breaking forth. "I can’t do this anymore."
"Chan, Professor, tho!"
"Don’t interrupt me," he orders her, head bent, voice sharp. "Don’t you start. This isn’t what I do, can you understand that? I don’t save people, Chantho! It’s not who I am, don’t you realize that?"
"Chan, yes it is, tho."
He looks up at her and she has the most terrifying feeling that she’s just saved him from something dark and horrific and unknowable. Something that hovers like the Futurekind outside the thin fence, something that threatens to break through and kill them all.
She mistakes that something for despair.
They’re stalling for time. They’ve been stalling for time for too long now.
It’s only going to get worse.
One day as they poke at what they have assembled, all half-broken parts and disconnected circuitry, he asks her about life before, asks her about the Conglomeration. And for the first time in years, she talks about it.
He listens to her, a quiet audience. His eyes are old and he makes her wonder as she speaks, makes her wonder what he sees. He’s been in such moods lately, short tempered in a way that terrifies. It’s his pain, she knows, the pain in his head and his mind. He is a man of learning; perhaps in his years, he has learned too much.
When he asks questions, it’s after the strangest of things. He talks of the dark, of the universe and expects her to do the same. Turning his watch over in his hands, the habit which soothes him, he asks her how her people had found light in the dark, had tracked time. He asks this as if he knows the two are connected.
And so she tells him of units of measurements which none but her use any longer. She tells him of the life cycles of fungus and its glow as it decayed. She talks of simple timekeeping and he listens to her as if she is important.
He likes his watches, the professor.
But no, that isn’t all, that isn’t all of it, not as she had supposed. Slowly, he withdraws into himself and she falls into silence. She hesitates, wondering if she ought to continue and forgive his lapse of attention when, suddenly, he cries out and leaps to his feet.
"That’s it!" he exclaims. "Don’t you see? We can do the same thing! Oh, oh my! Chantho, that’s it! That’s it exactly!"
She beams back at him through her surprise, standing to join him in his sudden enthusiasm, in one of his bursts of life that she does so adore. "Chan, what have you discovered, tho?"
"Organic compounds, my dear! Nothing more complex than that!" He takes her hand and spins her about and they both laugh at the way he dances, at the way she can’t. "Oh, this is brilliance: I know how to make it work!"
She titters with joy and he explains himself gleefully and finally, finally, progress resumes.
She has no idea where he discovered an extra lab coat for her, only knows her joy at the unexpected gift.
"Chan, you are much too kind, tho!" she praises. The scarcity of any such materials makes such a present nigh unheard of, makes her fill with warmth and joy.
"It has been fifteen years, Chantho," he tells her kindly, sounding as if he would rather she not compliment him so loudly. "Utopia knows you deserve something for putting up with me that long."
"Chan, has it been truly, tho?" she asks and then he does one of his strange human things, the one that she has always been fascinated by.
The colour of his face shifts, changes and he coughs. "Well, er. Fifteen years and two months or so."
She only smiles, because he wouldn’t be her professor if he were ever on time.
For a long time, she has known that something relating to the rocket design has bothered her. This disquieting sensation has never been one she could clearly identify.
Besides, of course, the fact that they can’t get it to work.
It bothers her the way the professor’s headaches frighten her. He is a man of learning and she is his assistant; together, they should be able to find a way to cure him. And yet, like with the rocket, there is nothing to be done.
When she discovers the problem behind the design, their inability to make it work almost brings her relief.
"Chan, Professor, tho!" she protests. "Chan, you said the initiation sequence had been rerouted onto the rocket, tho!"
He takes her outburst and sets it aside, accepts her rudeness without pause or hesitation. "That was a lie," he replies calmly, adjusting something that does not require adjustment. "I do that sometimes — all the time, if you happen to be the lieutenant and asking after the Footprint results."
Her mandibles flex inwards. "Chan, you are mocking me, tho!"
Eyes of three colours watch her wearily and an old man sighs, his unwelcome humour vanishing back to where it had come. "No, my dear. I am merely stating facts."
She shakes her head to make herself clear, uses a denial she has learned from him. "Chan, but you will be left behind, tho!"
"And the rest of you will go," he concludes, utterly calm, completely serene. "It’s hardly a bad bargain, as these things go. Provided, of course," he adds, "that this damn rocket ever flies."
Her hands are in fists, clenched as his have been at times. How can she not be clear to him? Why does he not understand? She attempts his calmness, tries to establish communication with him on this level. "Chan, why have you not rerouted the systems, tho?"
"I’ve tried, Chantho," he tells her. "I’ve tried and I’ve tried and moving the launch control onto the rocket would make any sort of initiation sequence impossible."
He waits for her to protest once more. She realizes this, believes she understands it. Her man of learning expects her to play the part of the child and perhaps she is, still. Perhaps she will always be, with no adults of her own kind alive to claim her into the ranks of the fully-grown.
And so she decides, makes the only choice worth making.
"Chan, Yana, the sequence will take more hands than yours, tho," she says, and it feels right to say it.
He shakes his head immediately. "I’ll have made alterations by the time we’re ready — if we ever are, at that. It’s a moot point, my dear. There’s no sense in arguing over it."
"Chan, you are wrong, tho."
He blinks at her and she shakes at her own audacity. He says nothing and she fears to continue. This is the first time she has gone against him, the first time in so many years.
"Chantho, this is my life," he tells her softly. "These machines, this room — this work. Once it is complete, once it is finished . . . so am I." His eyes grow distant, but they do not grow cold. "And I . . . yes. There’s a peace in this. At least, I’d like to think so." He speaks as if he believes this sacrifice will bring the drums into silence, as if the absence of all others might mute the pounding within his mind. She knows it not to be true, knows he needs her to pull him out of his thoughts when they grow too loud.
"Chan, it is my life as well," she replies, "and I will stay with it . . . tho."
And you, she had almost added.
He might have heard her anyway.
"Utopia, my dear," he stresses. "Come now, you must wish to see Utopia. To go there." When she fails to be moved, he pushes her in a cruel manner that he must see as kind. "There might be more of your species out there, waiting."
"Chan, this is my planet, and I will not leave it, tho." Her planet and her hive.
She says it with utter finality, lets him know that she will not be swayed.
". . . It’s only a theoretical argument anyway," he concludes, turning away, allowing it to rest for now. Perhaps he believes she will reconsider with time; perhaps he already knows she won’t.
There is no such thing as a Utopia if he is not in it.