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What humans want from the Silver Planet is water. What they find is a race of humanoids who are sentient, but as emotionless and serene as the plants and placid lakes they tend.
B, captain of the mission, doesn’t believe that the “Silvers” are intelligent, and lets his crew experiment on them. But then he bonds with Imms, who seems different from the others—interested in learning, intrigued by human feelings. And B realizes that capturing, studying, and killing this planet’s natives has done incalculable damage.
When a fire aboard B’s ship kills most of the crew and endangers Imms, B decides to take him back to Earth. But the simplicity of the Silver Planet doesn’t follow them. Imms learns the full spectrum of human emotions, including a love B is frightened to return, and a mistrust of the bureaucracy that wants to treat Imms like a test subject, even if they have to eliminate B to do it.
(Note: This is a revised second edition, originally published elsewhere.)
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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They bleed the same as humans, but they are more satisfying to cut, thinks B. Something about the way the silver skin tears, like cloth, like the fat ribbon his mother used to wind around the Christmas tree back home.
This place is called the Silver Planet because of them, and because the lakes are like soldering metal and colors look accidental, like stains on the land. And they are called Silvers, though they aren’t shiny, aren’t metallic. The hue of their skin is an all-over bruise that hasn’t yet settled into those deep, wounded colors—blacks, purples, yellows.
They are bruised only on the surface, a cold, smoky gray.
They are called Silvers because of that surface bruise and because of their quick, gleaming tongues. Because their eyes look like glass, the irises not round, but thin, jagged fissures around the pupils.
B hates them, can’t say why. They are much like humans. They think, reason, laugh. Their language is complex, mathematical. They speak like an equation, factors on both sides. They derive each other’s meanings instantly, but the humans who have attempted to learn the Silver language struggle to find x.
B thinks he hates the Silvers in part because they are indistinct. There are no warriors, no politicians, no professionals or criminals. Just efficient regulators of an uneventful society. Males and females are nearly indistinguishable. Females lack prominent breasts, and the male organs descend only when they breed, which one pair is selected to do each month to produce a single offspring. B knows all this. He reads the reports.
Silvers don’t get angry. They feel affection, joy, even desire, but they don’t have that red spectrum of anger, hatred, jealousy. They don’t display it. They don’t outwardly grieve when something’s lost, but you can see the emptiness fill them, collapse them. They may wander into a lake and never resurface. They have no word for revenge, no concept of it. They want things like food, water, each other, but necessity, never greed, is what drives them to pursuit.
They do not fight. They do not kill. They are faster than humans and can go into the lakes and hold their breaths for a long time. B and his team have tried provoking them, taking things from them, turning them against each other. The Silvers simply run away or hide in the ground. They can do that. They press themselves to the earth and become part of it. B has ordered his team not to harm any more of them until the next project begins, but it happens anyway.
B rubs a hand across his chin. He stares across the pale plain but sees nothing unusual. The sky is always black and starless. The planet’s atmosphere is a shroud that blocks the rest of the universe from view. Light here comes from within the ground, and different sections of the planet are illuminated at different times of day. The plain he looks at is all bright earth. It’s cold.
He hears a sound, like a clock ticking half seconds, quarter seconds. Grena finds him moments later. He starts to ask her if she knows what’s making the sound, if she hears it, but she interrupts to tell him the tranq guns are loaded. He asks her if the lab is ready. She says yes. He asks if Gumm has stopped puking. She says mostly. Gumm has trouble with the atmosphere. Grena and Joele can go outside without first dosing themselves with Atmoclere, a drug that helps them all breathe. Vir did all right too, back when she used to go out.
“Then prepare for Project HN,” he says, wishing he had the theatricality to imitate one of those barking commanders from old TV shows and movies. His order just comes out sounding tired. B is a captain in title only. He handles paperwork while the others explore.
They’ve told NRCSE that HN stands for Humanoid Neurogenics. But to the team, it stands for Hard Nipples. It’s so cold on the Silver Planet that their chests chafe raw against their shirts; Joele heats stones over the stove and puts them in her bra. Having this private joke lends color to their exile.
They’ve spent three months observing the Silvers, interacting with them. Cataloging the terrain of the planet, the few and scattered life forms. It’s not so much an ecosystem here as it is a barren garden tended by the Silvers. One species of flower is a blue, bulbous thing that looks like dead, swollen lips. The Silvers pollinate the flowers, pinching pollen from the centers and depositing the grains in the carpels of others to produce a flat, gray fruit called quilopea, the only thing Silvers eat. Moon chips, Joele calls it. The rest of the plants are menacing, brittle weeds. The only other creatures look like snakes, but they are blind and harmless.
The team has dug into the cold, gleaming earth and filtered the liquid-star lakes. The Silvers have let Grena and Vir study their clans, but they have fared better learning English than Grena and Vir have trying to master the Silver language.
Now the team wants answers the Silvers can’t give. Why the empty space where blazing emotions should be? Why don’t they fight? They are certainly intelligent enough to see that if you hit hard enough, you get what you want. Project HN involves tranquilizing three Silvers and bringing them into the ship’s lab. The team will study three things: the ability to rouse Silvers’ emotions through physical stimuli, solidarity among the captives, and the Silver brain itself. They are targeting three Silvers Vir and Grena don’t know. Vir’s request.
Grena boards the Byzantine to collect materials. After a moment—still that damned ticking noise—B follows her. He goes to the kitchen for a soda. Joele is there, and she’s got blood on her suit.
B nods at the spatters. “What happened?”
He knows she’s lying. He pops open a soda. Hal’s AstroFizz in Lunar Lemon-Lime. Joele started calling it AstroGlide, and now B always feels a little funny drinking it. “We’ll collect them tonight.”
“You still say ‘tonight.’”
“Force of habit.” B tells his team “good morning” too. The sky never changes. Sometimes B could swear time isn’t passing at all. Yet he wears a watch. He lives his life by the hours of his old existence.
“You seen my flashlight?” he asks. “I wanna check something out.”
“What are you, ninety? You asked me last week if I’d seen your reading glasses, and you were wearing them. You sure it’s not tucked down your pants?”
“A lot on my mind.”
“Worried about Hard Nipples?”
I want to go home. I’m worried about the things I left. I’m worried about what this place is taking from me.
Aloud, he says, “You ought to be too.”
“Yeah, yeah. This fails, it’s back to Earth for Team Fuckup. Think we’ll spend the rest of our lives behind desks.”
“That doesn’t bother you?”
She shrugs, stands. She towers over him. She towers over everybody on the team. “I’d like to make a name for myself, sure. But I wouldn’t say no to getting the hell off this planet.” She unclips her flashlight, hands it to him. “Don’t lose it.” She leaves.
B finishes his soda and crumples the can. They’ve tried to bring Silvers on board the ship before, but the creatures died within the first hour. B assumed they were unable to tolerate the ship’s circulating supply of Atmoclere. Now Gumm has found a way to shut off the flow of Atmoclere to the lab. They’ve picked and stored enough quilopea to feed three Silvers for a week. They have drilled holes in the steel table, looping belts and rope through.
Three. One will be Joele’s. She is going to test her Silver’s reactions to physical stimuli. One is Grena’s. She will offer her Silver the chance to influence and abate the suffering of the first. The third Silver belongs to Vir. She will perform a vivisection. She will examine the creature’s brain and try to learn something about its heart.
A Silver’s heart drifts through its body, bumping softly against walls and other organs. Sometimes it’s illuminated, and you can see it beneath the bruised skin, floating along like a lantern underwater. In the past, when they’ve had access to dead Silvers, the team has cut the bodies open and examined the hearts, but they’ve learned very little. When a Silver dies, the light of the heart dies too, and the heart no longer drifts. It returns to the center left of the body and rests there like a cold stone. What they want to do now is study the heart while the Silver is still alive.
Privately, B worries Vir will have a hard time. She has always hated to kill Silvers or cut them still alive to watch how that delicate skin tears and the blood sneaks out. The Silvers stay away from humans now.
They look like sea creatures, and in a way they are. Now that they know what the crew members are capable of, they flee to the lakes when they hear humans approaching. They can hide in the liquid metal of the water, grabbing a breath every ten minutes or so. B has watched them. They are fast but not terribly graceful. They have lumps on the backs of their ankles, like pasterns on horses.
He leaves the kitchen and goes to the lab to make sure everything’s in order. They’ve dragged the kitchen table down there and fixed restraints to it, so they’ll have more than one workspace. The third Silver can be kept in the narrow closet Joele has cleared out. There is no danger of the Silvers becoming violent, but they may try to run.
Vir is in the corner of the lab, writing in a notebook.
“Hey,” B says.
She doesn’t answer.
“You all right?”
She snaps her pen down, rubs her eyes. The lab is dark, except for a ring of light from the lamp next to her notebook. “I lived with them,” she says.
“They’re smart. Smarter than us, probably.”
“All the more reason we should—”
“It’s okay to hurt them because they don’t fight back? Because they won’t get angry? It’s like chopping up a fucking manatee.”
“Vir, they’re not us. They don’t think like us. They don’t feel betrayal. They may not even feel fear.”
“They understand danger.”
“They may understand it, but they don’t feel it.”
Vir draws a shaky breath. “You remember the one Joele—”
“Joele was out of line.”
“It didn’t make a sound.”
“Precisely. Can we even be sure they feel pain?”
“Of course they can.” Vir rarely raises her voice. It’s a horrible sound, Vir amplified. “I’ve asked them.”
“We’re not going to kill them.”
“Mine will die,” says Vir. “We’ll be lucky to get a few minutes looking at the heart. We don’t have the right space, the right equipment. We were supposed to come here for water.”
The uncrewed mission sent to the Silver Planet last year picked up only the most basic life forms—the flowers, the fruit, the snakes. The Silvers must have used their ability to become part of the planet’s surface when the rover came through. It didn’t pick up a single one.
Why hadn’t the Silvers hidden from humans when they’d arrived? The creatures had been as dumb and trusting as dodos. They’d approached the Byzantine, babbling in that strange tongue. One had tried to put its arms around Joele, and she’d shoved it so hard it fell.
“What we found is much better,” B says. “When we’re gone, they’ll send other teams better equipped to study these creatures. But we’re the first. People will remember us.”
Vir shakes her head. “I’m doing this. But I want you to know that I have lived with them. They’ve told me stories. Many of them picked up our language very quickly. They are not robots. They’re not insects. They’re people.”
B feels a little sick. “They’re not us,” he repeats.
“Grena read to them. I don’t know how she can—”
“Vir,” he says, “pull it together.”
Outside, B listens again for the ticking sound and doesn’t hear it at first. He switches on the flashlight and walks to where he stood earlier, about a hundred yards from the main port. Just when he starts to think it was his imagination, he hears it again—a rattle now, like dice. He follows the sound to a pile of low, flat rocks and is startled when one of the rocks moves at his approach. It is not a rock at all. It’s a Silver.
Dark hair, slight build. It drags itself on its belly, using its elbows. Its back bleeds from a dozen lacerations. Blood steams on the cold, bruised flesh. Its heart is lit up. B can see the pale gold fist of it ghosting along the creature’s spine. The Silver stops and lies perfectly still on the ground, and as B gets closer, he realizes that the noise is the thing’s teeth chattering. B looks again at the blood. It’s red, like human blood, but this is a race adapted for extreme cold. Their bodies are naked, hairless. That blood is all that keeps them warm. And losing so much of it . . .
The creature whispers something.
“What’s that?” B asks.
“S-h-h-it,” the Silver says. It curls into itself, shaking so hard the ground beneath it seems to move. B can see part of its face. Its lip is split, a clump of dried blood under its nose.
B nudges it with the toe of his boot. The creature goes so still, B could swear it’s died. Then it shivers again.
B crouches. “What’s your name?”
He starts at the unexpected response. It must be one of Grena’s, if it knows English. “I am.”
“I d-don’t have to t-tell you a b-blasted thing.”
B wonders where the creature learned to talk like this.
He remembers that Grena once read her clan a novel, some awful paperback Western.
“What’re you doing here?”
The Silver stares at him. The look in the creature’s eyes doesn’t match its brazen tone, and the tone doesn’t fit with what B knows about Silvers. The Silver’s rebellion is stagy, as though the creature is imitating audacity. B knows that Grena is a good storyteller and wonders if the Silver is mimicking her reading of lines from the novel.
“You speak good English,” he says.
The Silver closes its eyes. Its heart bumps the bottom of its ribs, drifts down its leg. B watches, fascinated.
“You know Grena?” he asks.
“You b-better h-h-hightail it outta here, m-mister.”
“Who did this to you?”
The Silver doesn’t answer. It rolls its eyes up to the black sky.
B runs a hand over his mouth. He needs to make a decision. He can leave the creature to die out here, or he can bring it aboard the ship as another test subject for Project HN. It’s half-dead anyway. Maybe Vir can put it under and cut it up without feeling too bad. “Look,” he says, “we’ve got some medical supplies on the ship. Let’s get you inside. You’re not gonna make it out here.” He reaches out, and the creature instantly sinks partway into the ground.
It doesn’t go any farther. It gasps, slapping the ground with its palm. “Shit,” it whispers. “Shit, shit, shit.”
“Come on,” B says. “I’m trying to help you.”
The creature gazes at him for another moment. B can’t read those cracked eyes. “Pardners?” it asks finally.
“Yeah, if you want.” B reaches out again and just brushes the chilly skin. The Silver draws back and sinks the rest of the way into the ground. B can see it just below the surface, as if it’s encased in ice. Blossoms of red adorn the tightly curled body.
B sighs, stands. “All right. Have it your way.”
He starts toward the ship. He turns back once and swears he can see the gentle glow of the creature’s heart rising from the ground.
B’s room on the ship looks nothing like his room back home, for which B is grateful. The floor in his room on the Byzantine is hardwood, the rug nailed down, the bed stapled neatly to the wall. Beside it is a standing lamp, painted to look like a flower and stem. As captain, he gets the room with the largest bath, though “large” is relative. B showers every three days in water brought from home. The water will run out soon. Not just on the ship, but on Earth.
That’s why they’re on the Silver Planet, to determine the silver water’s suitability for human use. He sets an extra quilt on the bed. Finds his own flashlight in the desk drawer.
His room back home has thin, soft carpet, something expensive and cream-colored that Matty picked out. Living with the same man for seven years, and B never had the courage to say he didn’t like the carpet. He could’ve replaced it when Matty left, but he and the thin pile were grudging friends by then. He even toasted it, on his first night as a divorced man. He set one open beer on it and raised another. “Here’s to you, you ugly rug.” A year later, he still found himself whispering to it sometimes. “You ugly rug.”
He tells Grena he won’t be going with them to collect the Silvers. Between Joele and Gumm, they’ll manage. He asks her what story she read to the clan she’d stayed with. She asks why he’s asking, and he says he’s just curious. She says the book is called Tin Star and Thunder Sam.
B gives Joele her flashlight back. Looks again at the blood on her jacket. He wouldn’t be surprised to learn she’s responsible for the injured Silver. But why wouldn’t she say anything? He told the team to leave all Silvers alone until Project HN starts, but Joele is never shy about flouting rules, especially B’s rules. Vir looks composed, inscrutable. Gumm still smells like vomit. He decided last week to find out if a human could survive strictly on quilopea. B sees them off as they drive west in a Planeterrain vehicle, toward a stain of rusty trees near a lake where Grena has observed a small clan feeding by night.
B finds a shovel and a sweatjack. The sweatjacks are uncomfortable, like wearing a rubber shell, but they help. They have little heat pustules inside that burst every few seconds, then fill and burst again. Joele is the only one on the team who can go any significant length of time outside without one.
He goes to where he last saw the Silver. It is still in the ground, but its heart isn’t visible and its eyes are closed. It doesn’t move. It’s not quite the same color as the earth, but its limbs have a liquid way of mimicking the bumps and spills of the terrain. B sticks the shovel into the ground near the creature’s side. The Silver doesn’t wake. He digs until he exposes a shoulder, then traces the legs with the thin ravine he’s making. The Silver is dead, he thinks. No new blood is flowing, just old, dark drool on the gray flesh. But as he continues to dig, the creature wakes. B doesn’t realize it is awake at first, but when he stops to wipe cold sweat from his forehead, he sees the creature’s eyes flutter. A second later, the Silver seems sucked from the earth by the air. The ground knits together beneath it, and it lies on the surface. It meets B’s eyes, and its soft brows lean toward one another.
Then it screams.
The scream doesn’t work well. It is ragged and unemotional, unpracticed and ugly. B drops his shovel and claps a hand over the creature’s mouth. It lashes out, and B is so startled he lets go. The Silver tries to roll onto its belly, to get its legs underneath it, but it’s too weak.
“Stop, just stop,” B orders. The creature goes still, sides pumping with each shallow breath. This is like watching a bug die, a spider that still waves its legs no matter how you grind it into the carpet. B unclips the flashlight from his belt and shines it over the thing’s body. The wounds are deep. Dark patches, almost black, mar the Silver’s ribs. “You’ll die out here,” B says. “Will you let me take you inside?”
It doesn’t answer. It is not shivering anymore, a bad sign. B extends a hand.
The Silver moans, but it doesn’t pull away or go into the ground. B touches its shoulder and the cold pricks his hand. He feels like he’s grabbed a cactus. But once his flesh gets used to the cold, transfers some of its own warmth, B is aware that the Silver’s skin is smooth as water.
B grabs the creature under its arms. It draws a quick breath and goes limp. Its heart is on again, but the organ’s path is shaky. Instead of drifting in straight lines, it shudders in a circle, like a fish missing a fin. Its light is fainter too.
B lifts the creature and carries it toward the ship.
B tells himself the Silver has to be taken to the lab. He can clean it up, strap it to a table, and donate it to Project HN, for however long it has left. But B doesn’t go to the lab. He goes to the main deck and hurries down a narrow hall. He takes the Silver into his room, sets it on the floor, and throws a quilt over it. It doesn’t stir.
The atmosphere will kill it, B thinks. And that will be a relief—will absolve him of further decision making. Still, he heads to the lower deck. The storage room across from the lab has tents and bedrolls. He grabs a sleeping bag and a first aid kit along with a basin for water collection. He enters the lab and takes a bag of dried quilopea. He pauses for a moment, looking at the tables and restraints. Hurries back upstairs.
The Silver’s heart flickers on and off like a dying bulb. B unzips the sleeping bag, spreads it out, and rolls the Silver on top of it. He goes to the bathroom and fills the basin with warm water. The Silver remains unconscious as B cleans the worst of the mess. Its skin seems to shy away involuntarily from B’s touch. B tries to be gentle, wondering why he bothers. Most likely the creature won’t wake again.
B talks to it, asks it questions, liking the way silence hangs between each one. He changes the water in the basin three times. When he is done, he opens the first aid kit, disinfects the wounds, applies salve. Lifts the creature and winds a bandage around its ribs. It has started to shiver again, and B feels unexpected relief at the movement. He zips the bedroll and repacks the first aid kit. B thinks that he should do something to restrain the Silver in case it wakes. Gag it, at least, in case it screams again. But B decides this is either going to be a disaster or it isn’t. Either the Silver will recover, or it will die. And if the others on the team discover what B has done, well, so what? He is the captain.
B places a hand on the side of the Silver’s neck. Feeling for what, a pulse? Fever? The flesh is cool but not frozen. A bit of dark hair is stuck in a slick of ointment on its forehead. According to Grena, Silvers’ hair never grows past their ears. It’s black when they’re young, white when they’re old. Something about this Silver’s body, about the timbre of its voice when it spoke, makes B think it’s male, but he’ll have to get a second opinion. From whom? How is B going to explain bringing this creature into his quarters?
But B brushes the lock of hair back, his thumb sliding through the ointment. The Silver stirs. B watches as it moves its hand, places it on B’s. Something comes to him from one of Grena’s reports. Something he’s tried not to remember. That Silvers often sleep holding hands.
B pulls away, takes the basin to the bathroom and empties it. When he comes back into the room, he notices a paperback on his desk. It is Tin Star and Thunder Sam. Grena must have left it for him. Grena is like that. You ask her a question, and she’ll answer it as best she can, then come find you later with additional resources. He picks up the book. He needs to find a way to let the others know that his quarters are off-limits.
He reads silently for the next hour, while the Silver breathes softly on his floor. It is still alive, asleep, when the others return. B goes to meet them. They have captured two Silvers. The third escaped. Both captives are drugged, unconscious. Project HN begins.
He opens his eyes, counts four walls, a ceiling, a floor, a door. Thick air. Blood smells, sweat smells, wood smells. Smells he didn’t know before humans. He swims against a torrent of pain, gasps in it. Holds his breath. Something squeezes him, he tears at it. A strip of clothes—no, the word is cloth. He pulls himself further into the warm cave and tries to go into the ground, to become part of this softness. He can’t. Stuck here, warm, alive, nothing to do but wait. The floor is a puzzle with thirty-seven pieces that he can see. No plants. He can crawl out of the cave, but he’ll be cold. He’s lost what keeps him warm. The large female took his blood.
Nineteen places he feels his skin torn. Three places he’s crushed inside. His heart stutters, afraid of the dark spots.
Why would the female damage him? It is counterproductive, a word he loves. Grena was nice. She read them the book. She tried to learn their language. That’s why he crawled toward the ship after the large female finally left him. He thought maybe he could find Grena. He could have gone to his clan, but they would not accept him, smelling like humans. They would have gone into the lake, hidden from him as if he were a human himself.
His throat is pebbled from his scream. He doesn’t know why he tried it, only that humans in the book did it when they were hurt or when they didn’t want somebody near them. Grena had demonstrated the sound when she’d read aloud, and he had been tempted to try it too. But he hadn’t wanted to miss any of the story.
He remembers the thick-muscled man who tore him from the ground. The man with 7,618 hairs in his beard. Rough estimate.
He sees four walls, a closed door. This means he is in prison, like Tin Star in the book. This means he should dig with a spoon and spit on the guard when the guard orders him to talk. But if the guard here is like the guard in the book, he won’t like the spit and will take more blood. If the guard is the large female, he won’t spit, he decides, but if it is the man with the short beard, he will.
What’s strange is that he hurts in his mind, too many places to count. He has always known what it is to want, but now he knows what it is to not want. He does not want to be hit. He does not want to be trapped. He does not want the man with the beard to come back. The man hasn’t taken any blood yet, but his voice scrapes like rocks.
He tries to count threads in the soft cave, but pain batters the numbers. He tries another sound, one he hasn’t made before. Sounds that are not words have always seemed pointless. But now he lets this sound rest in his throat, then pushes it slowly out. It is high and wavering. He does not want to make it anymore. Stops.
He is caught somewhere between sleep and waking when the man with the beard comes in. He almost opens his eyes, stops himself. He goes perfectly still and holds his breath. He listens as the man sets four items on the desk, then takes three steps toward the soft cave’s entrance and crouches down.
He opens his eyes and spits.
The spit hits the man’s beard.
He’s done it wrong. In the book, Tin Star spits after the guard speaks.
He watches the man comb the spit from the short gold hairs and holds his breath again.
“I thought you guys couldn’t get pissed,” the rough voice says.
He calls the man an improper pollinator in the Silver language, because that is what humans do in the book when they would like to modify another human’s behavior—they announce the other person’s deficiencies. They do it very loudly, and a feeling called anger is behind it, which moves humans as strongly as love.
The man splits the cave open, and now he can think about nothing else except the light, sweeping his eyes, and the cold, leaping into the rips in his skin.
“How much English do you speak?” the man asks.
A lot. Grena said I was the fastest learner in the group. She said I speak better than most humans. I’m the only one she taught to read.
He thinks of all he wants—food, water, to leave this place—and is surprised when none of these matter as much as what he does not want. He does not want the man to take more blood.
“Can’t believe you’re still kicking. I’m gonna call you Roach. Back on Earth we’ve got these bugs, they’ll crawl around with half their guts hanging out. Ugly sons of bitches you can’t kill. That’s what you remind me of.”
Strange, these critical words, when he isn’t doing anything wrong.
“Unless you want to tell me your real name,” the man says.
A thrashing clarity tells him to keep his real name from the man. Because humans take, and they do not share. Once you let them take something from you, you won’t get it back.
“I like Roach,” he says. He and the man can share this new name. The man will call him Roach, and he will respond, but he will not have to give the man anything that truly belongs to him.
The man laughs, but he doesn’t sound happy. “Roach it is, then. How do you feel?”
Roach hesitates. He has no reason not to tell the truth. Except that the large female asked him this question. When he answered, she hit him, and when he didn’t answer, she hit him too.
“Hungry,” he says finally.
The man goes to the corner of the room and reaches into a bag.
“What’s your name?” Roach asks.
“Call me B.” B returns to the cave—not a cave now, razed and torn open. He opens a small package, sets it down beside Roach. “There. Quilopea.”
Roach shakes his head. “That’s not quilopea.”
“Sure it is. It’s just dehydrated, so it’ll last longer.”
“It’s not right,” Roach says. For just a second, something lunges forward inside of him, a crazy need to make B understand. Then the feeling is gone.
B shrugs. “Eat it or starve. Up to you.”
Roach takes one of the dried fruits from the package, sniffs it. B isn’t lying; it is quilopea. He takes a tentative bite. It is sour and chewy. Soon it is gone, and he takes another from the package.
“What happened to you?” B asks. He sits at the desk.
Roach doesn’t answer. Four dried fruits. He chews two hundred and forty-three times. The package is empty.
“No predators here, I know that,” B says. “And Silvers don’t fight each other. Which means someone from my team did this to you.”
Roach licks the fruit from between his teeth. He wishes he had more.
“I ain’t obliged to answer you, Sheriff,” Roach says.
B shakes his head. “You hungry or not?”
B gets another package of dried fruit. Holds it just out of Roach’s reach. “Who did this?”
“Large female.” Roach’s eyes are on the food.
B stares for a minute, then snorts. “Dark braid, taller than I am?”
B sits on the floor beside Roach. Still doesn’t give him the fruit. “Why?”
Roach is suddenly not that hungry anymore. B’s voice is softer now, and Roach remembers that same soft voice from the female, the questions she asked, right next to his ear. What he wants is B farther away. He can smell the outside on B, the cold, the white dust. He is aware of his own heart gliding into his throat, a place it rarely goes. He swallows, and it drifts back into his chest.
“Shit,” he whispers. This is his favorite human word. It’s the best word to whisper.
“What’s shit?” B asks.
“Is she your friend?”
“She works with me.”
Roach closes his eyes briefly and tries to remember how Grena’s voice sounded when she read the part where Tin Star is brought before the Rough Rider Committee. “You try any funny business, you’ll be eatin’ fist through a hole in your skull,” he informs B.
B throws back his head and laughs. “You’re all right.”
Roach doesn’t feel all right. His whole body is trying to get into the floor without him even thinking about it. The dried quilopea doesn’t want to stay inside him. B hands him the second package, but he doesn’t take it. He mumbles a question B doesn’t hear.
“Say it again?” B says.
“Am I in prison?”
B shakes his head. “You’re on my ship. You’re in my room. You can stay here until you’re better. I won’t try any funny business.”
Twenty-one words. The voice isn’t as rough as it’s pretending to be.
“I have to ask you something, though,” B says. “As long as you’re here, you can’t make noise, and you can’t leave this room. Understand? The woman who hurt you, she lives here too. She can’t know you’re here. Got it?”
“Good.” B reaches over and pulls the two halves of the cave together, attaching them with a tab that seals together the six hundred and ninety-four teeth Roach counts before darkness covers him. Roach goes still, and B says, “I meant what I said. No funny business. Rest.”
He leaves the open package of food on the floor, along with a cup of water. It’s not real water. It has no color, no beauty. Just like humans, Roach thinks. They have dark skin or light skin, but no color. Their hearts are hidden. He is surprised then, because the fierceness with which he does not want humans makes him wonder, for just a moment, how it would feel to take blood.
B could give Roach painkillers, but he doesn’t want to take the chance they’ll do more harm than good, so he asks Vir about natural remedies without mentioning why he’s interested. Surely the Silvers have something on the planet that heals, something that will be familiar to Roach’s system. If they do, Vir doesn’t know about it. She is getting harder to talk to. Her mind is always somewhere else.
Project HN is two days in. Joele has recorded the involuntary noises her Silver makes in response to stimuli, has videotaped it writhing and struggling as she hits it, jabs it, pinches, scratches, and kicks it. She has seen no indication, though, of anger or resentment on the creature’s part. Now Joele is starving it. Sometimes Joele lets Grena’s Silver, a female, stand unrestrained and encourages it to try to stop her from hurting the other. The female Silver runs or tries to disappear into the floor.
Neither creature seems to have any trouble breathing. This is supposed to be a plus, but B almost wishes the creatures would suffocate quickly.
Vir works with the planet’s water, filtering, mixing, using it to hydrate seeds brought from home. She used to swim in it occasionally, in the lake closest to the Byzantine, where Silvers don’t come anymore because of its proximity to the humans. She says that she will dissect Grena’s Silver next week, but B doesn’t think she is interested any longer in floating hearts or absent emotions.
When he’s not busy, B is in his room, keeping an eye on Roach, who mostly sleeps. B’s had to change sleeping bags twice, because the damn creature pisses whenever it feels like it and doesn’t seem to notice. B finishes Tin Star and Thunder Sam. It’s a terrible book, trash from a century ago, but he pauses whenever he gets to lines Roach has used on him and smiles in spite of himself.
The story is about a young wannabe cowpoke called Tin Star who weasels his way into riding with Thunder Sam, the most famed cowpoke in the West. Tin Star is arrested following a false accusation of horse thievin’, thrown in prison, then busted out by a gang of outlaws called the Rough Rider Committee, who force him to help rustle cattle, kidnap women, and rob banks. Through it all, little Tin Star displays generic pipsqueak bravery, finding ways to thwart the outlaws’ plans while making it look like he’s one of them, until finally he’s rescued by Thunder Sam. The two of them shoot all the outlaws and ride off into the sunset.
Roach is awake when B enters the room that night. The sleeping bag is zipped up to his neck. His eyes—which B has just started to think aren’t so terrible—are glazed, and the cut in his lip has opened again.
“S’up?” B asks. It’s a phrase Roach likes. Earth slang.
“I can’t sleep.”
“I need water.”
“I’ll get you some.”
“I want to go into the lake.”
“You’re not in any condition for swimming.”
“Look.” Roach pulls his arm out of the sleeping bag. His skin has become scaly. “I’m drying out. And I’m not clean.”
“I don’t know where the others are. I wouldn’t feel comfortable taking you through the ship.”
Roach says nothing. Tucks his arm back in the sleeping bag.
“You can shower.”
“Huh?” Roach says it just like Grena.
“You can go into the bathroom and use my shower to clean up. You know what a shower is? Like rain—” He stops. No rain on the Silver Planet. Water comes from the ground, like the light. “Maybe you don’t know.”
“Rain is in the book,” Roach says. “But I don’t want to use human water.”
“That’s the best I can do right now.”
“Okay.” Roach unzips the sleeping bag and struggles to his feet. B puts out an arm, and Roach steadies himself on it. His back is scabbed and dark, but it’s healing.
B guides him into the bathroom, into the shower stall. “Better not try to stand,” B says, easing him down onto the smooth tile. He turns on the shower. Roach gasps as a spray of cold water hits him. “Sorry. It’ll warm up in a minute.”
Something Matty once said comes back to B. “If you had kids, you’d end up stepping on them.” He’s a good enough captain. He can organize, mobilize, instruct. As long as nobody on his crew needs to be spoon-fed or tucked in.
“I’ll give you some privacy.” B steps away. He’s surprised by how beautiful the silver skin looks as the water hits it. Droplets seem to thicken, harden as they find flesh. They glint like crystal. The creature shines.
“Stay?” Roach hugs his knees as the water runs pink into the drain.
“You want soap?”
Roach shakes his head, but he scrubs his arms absently with his palms, as though to satisfy B. “Can I see it?” he asks.
B shows him the bar.
He’s not ugly, B thinks, and the thought swims beside him as he kicks toward something to say. Something lovely and mournful about that face. The sleek planes of the body, long legs smooth and curved. Even the bulbed ankles don’t bother B right now.
“It’s pretty.” Roach hands the bar of soap back to B.
B places it on the shelf. His sister used to love new bars of soap right out of the package, the carved letters of the brand still deep and dry. Once the name on a bar became unreadable, she opened a new one. It drove their mother crazy.
Roach closes his eyes. “Why are you here?” he asks. “On my planet? Grena said you’re studying the water.”
“Our planet is running out.”
“Your water’s not as good as ours.”
B senses no judgment in the statement, no sense of pride or disdain.
“Why not?” B asks.
“It doesn’t feel the same. My skin can’t hold it. It’s flat, and there’s no color.”
“You almost done?”
“Is Grena here?”
B reaches over and turns off the water. “She’s on the ship, yes.”
“Why’d she stop living with us?” Roach casts an odd look at the towel B offers. “No, thanks.”
“Don’t you want to dry off?”
“I got in the shower because I was dry.”
“Right.” B helps Roach to his feet. “Water is supposed to be our main concern. Not studying your . . . people.”
They’re not people, but it seems rude to say this to Roach.
“And you started killing my people, so we stopped wanting you.”
“Yes,” B admits.
Roach sits on the sleeping bag but doesn’t crawl in.
“How do you feel about that?” B asks. “Us killing your people?”
“They weren’t my clan. The ones you killed. But I miss them.”
“Do you ever wish you could kill us? To make things fair?”
Roach cocks his head. “You sound like Grena. No. That wouldn’t help anything. That would just make more death.”
“You should get covered up.”
Roach is shivering again. “Your water makes me cold. I don’t get cold when I come out of the lakes.”
B sighs. “If you’re feeling better tomorrow, you can go back to your clan. Family. Whatever.”
Roach crawls into the sleeping bag. He says, “They’ll run from me. I smell like this place.”
Someone knocks on the door. B sits up in the darkness.
“The fucking reaper,” Joele replies.
“Hold on.” B slips out of bed. Roach is sitting up. B puts a hand on his shoulder as he passes, and Roach jumps.
“Get in the bed,” B whispers to him. “Don’t move.”
Roach obeys, hiding himself under the heap of covers. B kicks the sleeping bag under the bed. He opens the door. Joele looks at him with tiger-sharp eyes.
“What the hell?” he mutters.
“One of them died.”
“So, the other one killed it.”
“Can we talk about it in the morning?”
“Maybe you didn’t hear me. One Silver killed another. Put my equipment bag over its face and smothered it.”
“Strange? It’s unheard of.”
“Write up a report. We’ll talk in the morning.”
She stares at him. “What the fuck is wrong with you?”
“I’m tired. And I don’t know that it’s any great accomplishment to torture a creature to insanity. Good night.” He shuts the door.
“Fuck you too.” Her voice is muffled. Her footsteps retreat.
The mound of covers doesn’t move. B sits on the edge of the bed. “She’s gone.”
He hears no answer. B lifts the blankets and catches the faint glow of Roach’s heart. The Silver’s head is tucked against his chest. He draws a sudden breath.
Because he’s wanted to since he saw the blue-gray skin glittering under the shower stream, B touches Roach’s shoulder. “It’s all right.”
When Roach doesn’t respond or move, B gets annoyed. “Come on. Back to bed.” He shakes the covers.
A low sound starts under the quilts, rising in pitch. “Shhhh,” B warns.
The sound gets louder. B drops the quilts, holds them down to muffle the noise. Roach struggles. Finally, B slips under the covers and wraps himself around Roach, pinning him.
“Would you shhh, would you just shhh.”
Roach says something in his language. Says it again.
“I don’t understand,” B snaps.
“Who died?” Roach asks.
“A Silver. We brought two into the lab. We’ve brought others before, but they couldn’t breathe the air. So we fixed the air pressure, and now—”
Roach shakes his head. “They shut off,” he says.
“Some of us, when we hurt too much, we stop breathing on purpose. It’s not the air.” He struggles, and B eases off him a little. “Not my clan,” Roach continues. “We don’t. Even if we hurt. Even if we’re almost dead. But we can shut others off, if they want us to.”
“You’re saying it was a mercy killing?”
“Like in Tin Star, when they shoot the snakebit horse.”
Roach’s eyes widen. The jagged loops of his irises seem for a moment to go smooth. He nods. “Did she hurt them bad?”
“I don’t know. I think she hurt one pretty bad. But the other was well enough to shut it off.”
“I miss them,” Roach whispers.
“Did you know them?”
“Maybe.” He rolls out from under B and settles against the wall.
B adjusts his position on the narrow mattress, trying not to touch Roach. “I’m sorry,” he says finally.
“We’re hurting you because we know you won’t stop us.”
“Do you like doing it?” A question, but not an accusation.
“We want to know how you can be so much like us in so many ways, but not feel anger, or jealousy, or hate.”
“Why should we?”
“Because that’s how we get what we want on Earth. We fight. We decide we need what others have, and we take it. Not just humans, all animals.” B is suddenly irritated at having to explain. “There are billions of species on our planet. It’s not some scraggly garden we can pollinate ourselves.”
“Is that funny?”
Roach shakes his head, still laughing.
“What’s the matter with you? That might be your family we’ve got in the lab.”
Roach neither cowers from nor flares at the words. He watches B with interest, his heart sailing back and forth across his chest.
“Fucking cowards is what you are, all of you.” B turns away, adjusts his pillow, and thrusts his shoulder up like a wall between them. He waits for Roach to move or speak, but the Silver doesn’t. It takes B a long time to fall asleep. Sometime in the night, Roach bridges the cold space between them. B rolls over and fits the silver body to his, tucks the dark head under his chin, winds his arms around the slender shoulders.
They asked the same questions, B and the female: What’s wrong with you? Why don’t you fight back?
The female asked more questions. She asked, “Which feels worse?” And kicked him in the side, then in the head. She asked, “How many do you think you can take before you die?” as she hit him with her belt.
But B doesn’t hit Roach, just turns away when he’s done yelling. He breathes three hundred and forty regular breaths before he moves to sleep breaths. One hundred and twenty-three of those before Roach moves nearer and lets B’s warmth become his. They take thirty-four breaths together, then B puts his arms around him, and Roach feels, for the first time in days, a pause in the ache of his wounds, an end to his fear of four walls.
Morning comes and B rolls away. Roach is colder now than when he was losing blood.
“If you’re well enough today, I’ll get you out of here,” B says.
“Why don’t you study me?”
B pulls on his—Roach can’t think of what it’s called—the floppy shell Grena used to wear that blasted her with heat. “What do you mean?”
“In the lab.”
“That what you want?”
“Well, then. That’s why.”
Humans’ lies float through them, glowing like Silvers’ hearts.
“The others don’t want it either.”
Roach can tell B doesn’t like this comment by the way B yanks on the zipper of his shell. “You’re smarter than them,” B says. “That’s why I like you. When I let you go, stay away from the ship. Joele’s a loose cannon.”
“She’s a nutcase. Like one of the Rough Riders.”
“I know that.”
“So don’t let her find you again.”
“Doesn’t she have to listen to what you say?”
“She ought to. But she doesn’t.”
“That’s like me,” Roach says. “I was a king in my clan. Everyone had to listen to me.” He tries not to grin as he watches B’s face.
“Silvers don’t have social hierarchies. You’re all equal.”
“Not my clan. I’m in charge. Someday, I’ll be in charge of the whole planet.”
It is very easy to lie to someone who thinks you’re stupid.
B only says, “I’m sure the planet will be happy to get its king back.” He grabs some papers from his desk. “I’m going to work for a while. Rest, eat, shower, whatever. I’ll be back when the coast is clear, and I’ll take you outside.”
“Can I see Grena?”
B leaves, and Roach counts his footsteps until he can’t hear any more.
He eats a package of dried quilopea, thinks how good it will be to eat it fresh again. He wonders if he should try to find his clan. When humans started harming Silvers, his clan made a decision that any Silver who aided the humans, spoke to them, or touched them would be forgotten by the rest of the clan. Roach has done everything he shouldn’t. When he saw the large female, he went to her. He spoke to her. She touched him. She took his blood. Then he allowed himself to be taken onto the human ship. He spoke to B. They touched.
He tries being angry. He looks at the empty package of quilopea. “You’re a damned coward,” he says to it. “What’s wrong with you?”
For a second, he feels his blood jump. Maybe B is right. If you want something enough, you can make others listen to you. He stands. He’s still sore when he moves, and he has a sense that important pieces of his body are jangling inside him, like coins in the money bags Tin Star and the Rough Riders take from the bank. But he does not feel weak.
He’d like to go to the lab, find the captured Silver, see if he can help. After all, Thunder Sam rescues Tin Star from the Rough Rider Committee. Rescuing somebody is heroic. Most times, if a Silver swims too far out in a lake and can’t get back to shore, or accidentally loses blood, nobody comes to the rescue. That’s because death is just something that happens, like the light in the ground, like a flower growing from a seed. But in the human world, people are always being captured, rescued, murdered, and loved.
J.A. Rock's writing is breath-taking, ranging from powerfully stark to dream like. . . . [E]xtremely rewarding. Highly recommended.
By turns funny, bittersweet, and poignant . . . above all, human.
This entertaining and thought-provoking book is a welcome addition to the futuristic romance genre.