Chapter 1:

Chapter 1

Sweetening the Tea

The freshness of unfiltered air is a fraying memory; shore leave could not have come at a better time. Ayaan taps his tablet computer and the screen lights up: 42 Celsius, but what did he expect at mid-morning in Azehi? “If only the time taken for engineering maintenance got shorter on holidays,” he thinks, peeling off his protective suit and slipping his tablet into its sleeve. At least they are only working with a skeleton crew in shifts.

A once-over: earphones, check. Downloaded audiobooks, check. Fully armed. Yet something niggles at him.

On his way to the hangar bay, he tries to remember if he forgot anything, and is still rifling through his brain when a hand grabs his shoulder. “Not joining us in the game room?” says Onkar, with a knowing smile. “I thought you liked pool.”

Despite being Ayaan’s oldest – and possibly only – friend, Onkar is always taken aback when Ayaan wants to go out by himself. It is another of Ayaan’s oddities that Onkar has been unable to iron out.

Ayaan accepts this; it is a small price to pay to be able to seek Onkar out, to talk about the mundane annoyances of their day, to share a cup of chai.

“Just need to stretch my legs,” says Ayaan. And he wants to see trees again; Azehi is not known for its flora, but he can hope.

“Make the most of it; tell me if you meet any amoebas.” He had taken to calling the Farishi that since college (out of earshot from the professors) the moment he learned that they reproduced asexually.

Ayaan makes a vague sound of affirmation and continues on his way.

“Don’t get lost in a ditch somewhere,” Onkar calls after him. “If we have to send out a search party for you again, I’m not going to be the one carrying you to the rover.”

“It was one time .”

“My back still hurts thinking about it.”

Ayaan laughs quietly to himself.

At the edge of the hangar, he steps onto the ramp and immediately gets a faceful of dust from the feverish wind.

He takes off his glasses and polishes them with the edge of his T-shirt before sliding them back on and looking around at the Inter-Planetary League base. Sharp, austere lines. Uniform, grey blocks. Beyond the stretch of the landing area lies the discoloured main building, its windows clouded over, like a cataract. Out of its six visible entrances, only one appears to be open, with a lone figure, probably a guard, slouched by the doors on a chair.

The IPL had constructed the base as a gesture of goodwill and friendship back in 2014, just a decade after first contact with the Farishi, but Farishitaal had made few efforts to strengthen ties with them. Hence, few IPL visits. Hence, few upgrades to the base. The Farishi had never been overly interested in inter-planetary ties.

Ayaan strips off his faded IPL-issue jacket and ties it around his waist, heading towards the guard to ask where the exit is. Starship bases are vast and yawning things; he always feels like he could open every door, scour every landing pad, walk till his feet bled, and not reach any exit points.

His footsteps sound unimaginably small. Often, Ayaan enjoys silence, but there are different types of silences. There is a silence that makes you feel like curling up with a sugary drink and a book you’ve read so many times you’ve memorised half the passages. Then there is a silence like this one – alive, with many spindly limbs. And perhaps it does not bear you ill will but it would be apathetic if something came out of the hills and chased you.

The guard looks up from their tablet when Ayaan approaches. Ayaan has never met a Farish before, though he has read briefly about them and seen pictures and videos in textbooks and training courses. He tries to study the guard discreetly, search for any surface-level identifying markers that would separate them from a human, but there is nothing, nothing at all. It disquiets him more than he imagined it would: he cannot reconcile the idea of this utterly different being looking so much like he does.

The guard glances at Ayaan’s ID and gives directions in accented Standard, with an unwaveringly faraway, glazed look in their eyes, as if they are bored but determined to not change that.

In ten minutes Ayaan is passing through tall metal gates that groan open when a shadowed figure spots him from the watch house.

He steps out onto a rubble road rolling into the town. In the distance rise squat bare slopes, and at their feet lie baked brick-red plains, with a handful of stubborn shrubs that break their stretch into the blurred horizon. There is a still, unfriendly watchfulness to those hills. Ayaan pries his eyes away and begins his saunter through the streets.

The heat and the drone of the narrator’s voice make him nod, and he squints against the sunlight, wishing he’d brought a hat. In the back of his mind he registers that his surroundings are not so dissimilar to some Terran towns: low buildings of mudbrick, clay, pale stone. Archways and stairs. Matte paint: red accents. Hardy, shrubby vines climbing over the walls and trailing over railings. Few people are out in the streets. Outside the window of a vegetable store, a Farish lounges in a wicker chair, cooling themselves with a paper fan.

He stops walking when a chapter in his audiobook ends and he finds himself at an intersection at a road. Dust sleeps on the electric vehicles and broken sidewalks. He plucks out his earphones and checks the time on his tablet, and is surprised to find that it has been an hour and a half. Cursing, he looks around. The rusted signboards are in a language he does not understand, and his tablet’s translator does not have it registered. He is going to have words with the communications team when he gets back.

Ayaan rummages for his communicator, patting at his trouser pockets. “No,” he whispers, beginning to sink into dread. He pats himself down again.

That’s what he had forgotten.