by Penny Stirling
The fourth birth of this year is stillborn—like the previous two of this year and like so many of previous years—and crumbles once the cord is cut. Red sand spills through the midwife’s fingers until all that remains is a spine’s length of glass and coagulated blood. This is the town’s first full-term sandified foetus. Soon no pregnancy will escape this planet’s desertification. Soon every child and adult and wretched creature Lottie has brought to this planet will become sand.
Will she succumb like so many of her machines have, sand seeping into her joints and eroding her processors? Or will she be spared and, once all her humans have crumbled, cross the desert searching for her twins? One of them must have a thriving settlement. Please stars let there exist somewhere on this forsaken world a town stemming the sand’s tide. Even just one town, protected by a Last Ocean Tide partition actually capable.
Lottie leaves the comforting to the would-be parents’ friends and carries away the would-be child’s remains collected in a glass urn. Waiting with horses outside is Nasmefir, and Lottie stifles the urge to clutch hir shoulders, to poke hir hands and stare into hir wide-set, grief-stained eyes to make sure that ze is still flesh. So far, only serious injuries have desertified adults. But Nasmefir is so barely an adult—so small and collecting of bruises—that Lottie cannot help but imagine, constantly, gangrenous silica creeping along this human’s limbs. Hir parent has perished and this struggling town all too soon will follow, but, “I’ll keep hir safe” she had promised.
Ze is still safe when they arrive. Twenty years ago this area was lush bushland flanking the river and people visited often with picnics, wildlife guides and cameras. Now it’s a cemetery for those who cannot be cremated. Enough trees still remain to shade them from the noon sun, but Lottie rarely sees any sign of larger animals here now. After such a mild and wet winter there should be a carpet of wildflowers here, but few of the plants which remain have budded. Within another decade or two desert will have reclaimed this land. Lottie remembers when this place was full of beautiful life, and remembers too when she was full of hope that she could fight the sand, that her twins on less arid continents would save centuries of work.
Will Lottie bring the entire settlement’s remains here before her arms fail?
“Sullama,” says Lottie as she places the urn next to others. “I am so sorry, Sullama. You would have been loved. You would have been nurtured and treasured and you would have been amazing.” She bows her head and whispers, “And you would have known terror for the entirety of your life.”
“Sullama,” says Nasmefir.
The next words fail. Hir hands are interlocked, knuckles tight. None of the stillbirths have been easy, but ze has spent so long watching hir parent’s sibling preparing for a second child. Felam and ous partners gambled on a natural birth after desert took the town’s artificial wombs and—well, at least Felam survived. Last year an in vivo pregnancy ended with two piles of sand. Lottie strokes Nasmefir’s shoulder until ze stops shaking.
Sullamalir, first of Last Ocean Tide’s navigators, died amongst stars.
Sullamalir, our space-voyage guide, never reached our land.
Sullama, second of our constellations, sixteen bunched stars.
Sullama, our southern compass, never leaves our skies.
Sullama, second of Felam’s blood, remains amongst stars.
Sullama, our stars’ namesake, you never reached us.
It is a shorter elegy than hir usual, but by its end Nasmefir is crying. They had all thought—dared to hope—the foetus was beyond danger. Only a fortnight more and Sullama would have reached them.
Lottie resumes stroking Nasmefir’s shoulder, at first missing the Sullama who never will be then reminiscing about Sullamalir and hir successors—and all the other skeleton crew families who kept her running, who kept her frozen cargo safe during the long journey, who never would have thought that after centuries of travelling to and terraforming a planet lacking axial tilt and microbes their entire life’s work would dissolve into sand in mere decades as if this world’s inertia had a will more powerful than entire ecosystems—when suddenly movement through the trees catches her eye.
Foxes. Two orange beasts slinking around the world that she terraformed just like their ancestors snuck into and slunk around her hundreds of years ago. At first she’d assumed the ban was an overeager attempt to avoid extinctions in the more fragile biomes she would eventually recreate, but they were doubtlessly the reason everything had gone so wrong. No other genesis ship had had foxes onboard. No other genesis ship had had its world start rapidly un-terraforming itself. Couldn’t the beasts at least have the decency to let her town and responsibilities dissipate in peace.
Her hand on Nasmefir’s shoulder has curled from comforting to sharp. She loosens her grip and unclenches her jaw. Lottie has long wanted to journey up river and search for the fox burrows, but lately she’s figured the desert might take some of them before her humans. As long as they leave her alone then she is far too busy to care about them. Yet here two of them are, scrounging so close. Too close.
“I’m sorry, I was…” The foxes have slipped out of sight. Hopefully out of mind too; she has so many worries already, so many catastrophes to delay. “Let’s head back.”
Nasmefir follows her gaze, sees nothing, and takes her hand in hirs. Endothermic synthetic polymer, cold and dry, Lottie’s is the only skin ze can bear to touch. “Are you all right?”
“No. No one is.” She pulls away, then presses her hands together and bows her head to the collection of urns. Lottie wonders how often her android twins repeat this gesture, this ceremony, this acknowledgement that she has failed not only the humans on this planet but those who journeyed within her and those who created her. “Let’s head back. I’m late checking the pharmacy.” If another machine malfunctions and starts producing sand instead of insulin or oestrogen, which medication will she declare non-essential?
“Are you late checking you?”
“You ran routine diagnostics last week. There was nothing of concern.” Lottie walks back to the horses. It concerns her that didn’t hear the foxes’ footfalls. It concerns her that, despite frequently worrying about this, she cannot decide which medication will be next rationed. Of course she is unable to communicate with her twins or access her databanks, but she doubts any logs from previous genesis ships could help her. None of them had messed up terraforming so badly that their planet decayed and desertification flourished within a single generation.
Nasmefir grabs her hand again. She obediently stops.
“You know, Pa told me to look after you.”
“Geslirata also told you xey’d return within half a year.”
Aromantic like hir parent but less interested in friendships, Nasmefir had always kept close to family and naturally started learning from Geslirata and Felam the skills to maintain the settlement’s machinery, including Lottie. After Geslirata’s departure, Nasmefir left the school ze’d never enjoyed and had begun following Lottie everywhere. The help had been nice, especially since Felam was busy with ous first child, and ze was both a quick study and an attentive repairer, but…
Hir grip tightens. “What is the point of learning how to maintain your chassis and components if you won’t let me look after you. You don’t want to bother Felam, okay, yeah. So bother me. Please.”
Communication systems failed when Nasmefir was young; out of the entirety of the genesis starship Last Ocean Tide, ze only knows android LOT-E and has always treated her like family. Of course she was programmed to be paternal, but never before has a child she helped raise lost sight of the fact that she is infrastructure. “In a few years everything you know will be desert and everyone you love will be sand. Don’t waste your time worrying about a defective ship.”
“You don’t know that!”
“What I don’t know is how to stall the desert.” Or how to make Nasmefir happy.
“You can’t just give up!”
“What I don’t know is how to stop farmland, infrastructure and foetuses sandifying.” How to stop imagining Nasmefir’s body desiccated.
“We’ll find something! There has to be something!”
“What I don’t know is how to—”
“Um, excuse me?”
How is there, suddenly, someone near them? Someone Lottie did not hear approach. It cannot be Geslirata. Two years ago xey rode off, leading xeir team into the desert to die. There is no chance any of them survived and made it to another settlement, let alone returned to stand before her with a sunburnt, aged face and clothing she does not recognise.
Lottie is shocked but keep hir safe is a directive her unoptimised brain needs mere nanoseconds to engage. Before Nasmefir can take a single step, she has crossed to the fox. “How dare you.”
“Den!” The fox grins too widely for Geslirata’s face and clasps their hands over heart. They bounce on the balls of their shoeless feet and send flying long plaits of Geslirata’s dark hair. “Oh, it truly is you! What an honour.”
Lottie, ignoring Nasmefir’s spluttering, raises an arm to keep hir from the fox. “You demean the dead with this stolen facade.”
“This was my guest’s gift to me,” says the fox, for a moment furrowing eyebrows and lips in exaggerated indignation, then looking solemn, “to remember xem after xey… Well…”
Something drops within Lottie, a fear and a hope no longer suspended, but her face remains calm. She will not give a fox this satisfaction. Nasmefir, though, has stopped trying to overcome her arm. Now ze hugs it like a shield and in a voice like a cracking dam asks where Pa is.
“Oh, cousin, hello!” Acknowledging Nasmefir for the first time, the fox claps and smiles. “You’re so lucky, you know, getting to spend time with Den.”
“Wh—why do you…look like…”
“Fox,” says Lottie. “Remove that face and return to your holes, or I will rip it off and put you in the ground right here.”
The fox’s expression falls and their shoulders slump. “Why would you say such a thing? I… I’ve heard so much about you, Den. You kept us so safe for so long. We were born and reborn in space, we never wanted for food, we sang with the stars, we thought you were the most wonderful home, we…” They rub their eyes. “What did we do to deserve this new home?”
The fox stares at their—Geslirata’s—hands. “Why are you letting everything die, Den?”
Reminders chime in Lottie’s brain. Dam levels check due next week. Check pharmacy. Update statistics on percentage chickens etc producing/becoming sand. Taking schoolchildren stargazing in 12 days (weather permitting). Scheduled full shutdown and systems appraisal is 813 days overdue. Have you made Nasmefir feel appreciated today?
Outside her brain she can hear some honeyeaters, and magpies further away. She remembers when parrots were common in this area. Lottie never had much time for stopping and admiring nature—even before the end of the world started—but she’s always been fond of parrots. Sulphur-crested cockatoos in particular, brought on board by Sullamalir and faithfully bred by Last Ocean Tide’s crews over generations. She longs for those times.
“If I could stop this, I would have. My apologies that you stowaways are inconvenienced, but I need to go try and keep some people alive for as many days as I can.” Lottie tries to turn but Nasmefir, staring at the fox, still clings to her. Of course she could drag hir away—no human can best her alloy strength—but she will not risk any harm.
“Okay, but, do you have time to visit Geslirata?”
“It’s about an hour’s walk so I understand if you’re too busy right now, but maybe tomorrow? Xey’d really like to see you!”
“If Pa is Geslirata then yes!” The fox suddenly gasps. “Wait if you call xem ‘Pa’ then you must be oh my goodness I have heard so much about you!” They start clapping and bouncing again. “Fucken nailed that good luck charm this morning didn’t I!”
“What?” repeats Lottie. Now everything is weightless, spinning away from her, and she struggles to grasp any single thought or fact.
Despite appearing a facsimile of an adult human, the fox—Fourly August, ou introduces oumself to Nasmefir, having assumed Lottie already knew—weighs a mere 10 kilograms and sits easily behind Lottie on her horse. She is uneasy with this but refuses to let oum be near Nasmefir. This is all too suspicious—miraculous—and she is not going to let her guard down just because this fox acts like an excited toddler. Two more follow them, at a distance.
Fourly August talks nonstop the entire journey, mostly about Geslirata at Nasmefir’s prompting. Ou rescued xem from the edge of the desert a few weeks ago, sand leaking from xeir feet, and stabilised xeir wounds.
As they draw nearer to the fox’s home, Lottie sees more of ous kin: flashes of orange, glimpses of mischief. She also sees more and more wildlife and greenery. An oasis. The last kilometres the three dismount and walk the horses through a eucalypt forest that should not be thriving like this, and Lottie sees more wildflowers than she has for the last three springs.
Halfway through recounting another of Geslirata’s stories about Nasmefir’s childhood, Fourly August groans and runs to the path’s edge. Half a dead bird lies there, surrounded by vermillion desert sand and wilted flowers. Ou gestures at it. “If you get injured out there, don’t die in here! Galahs! Ugh!” The fox takes a deep breath to compose oumself and tells Lottie this’ll only take a minute.
in stars’ wake we awoke.
sing to me, sibling, oh
in the light years of dark
what dreams did you evoke?
The fox’s voice is quiet, empty of the flash-fire rage from moments ago. Ou drops into a crouch, touches the galah’s wings and invasive sand, and continues to sing of the dreams ous sibling recalled. Woods. The trees and grass and prey their grandparents’ grandparents told of. Sharing these woods with stars their metal den passed and spreading these memories through interstellar clouds. Their grandchildren’s grandchildren seeing these woods again.
Around the fox’s hands, sand subsides. Pink and grey feathers grow. Flesh reforms. Flowers perk up. Grass spreads. As the dreams recalled from the clouds end and Fourly August’s song fades, ou tucks fingers around the galah and slowly stands to reveal that the ground is completely rejuvenated. The sand is all safely within the bird now—isn’t even sand anymore. Nasmefir gasps when the galah twitches and calls out.
Lottie has only seen minor fox magic before, but when communications worked she’d heard rumours of stronger feats. Nothing like this, though. Nothing.
“What a silly bird,” says the fox, and snaps its neck. Ou lifts it up and open ous mouth as if to carry the meat between teeth, and then ou chuckles and continues down the path, returning to ous retelling while fidgeting with the bird’s corpse.
No sand remains, as far as Lottie can see. The spot looks as though there has never been any sand there at all. So, one fox is capable of at least this? No wonder this forest is so large and healthy. It is a bitter thought, that vermin stowaways are capable of such things with just their voices and Lottie can’t…anything.
They tie the horses to a shady gumtree near a shallow creek, and then it is only a few minutes to the warrens.
Foxes flock to the three now, no longer keeping a respectable distance. Most of them remain in fox shapes and scurry around yipping, “Den, it’s Den!” but some have human or combined shapes—fox tails and faces on a human body. Some of the human faces resemble her long-dead crew members. Memory mockeries. “Sibling, you brought Den!” the foxes cry to the fox with Geslirata’s face, who passes down the dead galah. “Cousin, welcome!” the foxes cry to Nasmefir, who searches for a specific face. And “Den!” the foxes cry, running around Lottie and gently touching her legs and jumping away with delighted cheers when acknowledged. She smiles politely and says hello and keeps Nasmefir close. She would put up with much more than this to retrieve Geslirata.
Fourly August finally sends the crowd off and leads ous guests past clusters of wooden structures which vary from simple rain- and sun-shades to small buildings on stilts. Garden beds and trellis vines abound too, and here and there Lottie sees more traditional fox holes in the ground. Potted spider orchids sit on the steps of the wooden room ou brings them to, and beyond them sits Geslirata. Xey wears a clean oversized gown, legs hidden beneath its folds and a blanket. Xeir face is sunburnt like the fox’s facade, xeir hair as long but tied up in a messy bun. Xeir eyes light up.
This time Lottie doesn’t stop Nasmefir from running. She’d run too, but she tests that the steps can take her weight before she joins them. Nasmefir and Geslirata, embracing for the first time in over two years, are both crying. Fourly August holds ous hands to ous chest, watching the two and smiling. Lottie supposes that this could be a second fox—with more polished social skills—pretending to be Geslirata, but she cannot see the purpose of such a trick.
Oh. Oh stars, do the others still live?
She squats beside the reunited family, offering a pair of handkerchiefs. “It’s good to see you.”
Geslirata blows xeir nose. “I’ve got so much to tell you, Lottie. We… We made it, Lottie.”
Xey summarises, refusing to bother at the moment with too many details despite the others’ interjections. Lottie knows people will start worrying about her and Nasmefir’s protracted absence, knows her reminders and overdue alarms will keep pinging inside her, knows they must be back before dusk lest they risk a horse tripping in the dark. She knows these things, but Geslirata is alive and she is hearing about how not only the next town is doing but a few beyond it. Geslirata has met with Merlot, and Shallot and Blotter. Luckier with geography, the creeping sands have not isolated them fully yet. They’ve had more success with the ocean too, as long as they don’t stray too far from shore’s sight. Several times they’ve attempted reaching Lottie’s settlement but between the reefs, deep water and sandy beaches they can’t safely get near.
Geslirata is obviously skirting around something in xeir summarising, but before she can ask xey speaks of xeir fellow expedition members: only one died on the way south, three stayed with Merlot, and the two others…
Xey attends to the handkerchief again and Nasmefir bows hir head.
Lottie presses her hands together for the dead, and then she gently touches the living before her. “It is so good to see you. But tell me the rest when we’re back home!”
“Ah…” Xey, still sniffling, turns to the fox sitting cross-legged. “You didn’t tell them?”
Ous mouth stretches into a tight frown.
“Tell us what?” asks Nasmefir as Lottie looks from one Geslirata face to the other.
“I’m not quite recovered yet.”
Geslirata pulls aside the blanket across xeir legs and Fourly August unwraps the bandages—where did the foxes get those—around xeir feet, revealing blisters and pus. “We’re…trying our best,” ou says. “We don’t have anything in the clouds to evoke for this. None of the injuries we saw treated onboard you were to feet. None of the dreams we heard are useful. Saw enough hand injuries that we can keep the sand at bay, keep the wounds from worsening. But it’s not improving either.”
Lottie ponders the vermillion tinge of the blisters. “So you at some point saw someone put a bird back together?”
“We have many memories of observing and destroying birds. Fixing a bird is not difficult to reverse engineer. But human feet? Sans boots?” Fourly August bends a leg to show that ous sole is fox-like. “We need your help for this, Den. The memories you keep.”
“The memories I—I have textbooks and case studies written on a planet where flesh did not turn into sand. I have machines and doctors who can’t treat desertification.” She shakes her head. “Memories? Memories of what?”
“Feet. If you remember feet, you can make feet.”
Lottie does not reply.
“Why are you acting like you don’t —” The fox huffs. “This is why you store memories in starlight where anybody can access them, not in metal disks where you forget just because something breaks. If you evoke memories of feet, you can sing a song of feet—well. Geslirata says you won’t be able to sing, which I don’t understand because you sang the entire planet.”
“What I said was Merlot —”
“I didn’t sing,” says Lottie.
Fourly August’s mouth opens twice without words, incredulity rolling across ous face, and then ou laughs. “Who do you think we learnt to sing from? You evoked the dreams of your predecessors, you sang the desires of your creators! You recreated the world that they remembered! You…” Ou looks to Geslirata’s feet. “Before you stopped.”
“Yes! We watched you! You sang this planet!”
“I am a piece of equipment that acted according to programming. I didn’t sing or magic anything.”
“You won’t convince oum,” says Geslirata. “We’ve been debating this for a while.”
Lottie taps her fingers. She does not breathe and lacks an articulating diaphragm; she cannot sigh wearily. “Even if I were to indulge this viewpoint, how would I…terraform diseased feet healthy?”
The fox, at first copying Lottie’s motions, gesticulates at her. “How would you—the same as you’d sing anything else!”
“I. Did not. Sing. Anything.”
Geslirata covers xeir face with a hand and groans. Holding tight a fold of xeir sleeve, Nasmefir watches Geslirata’s other face animating in ways uncanny as ou and Lottie continue arguing.
“Pa,” ze says softly. “You remember your feet, right? Can you sing them?”
“No, I—the sand affects it, we think? My memories and singing are sandy.”
“Your singing?” snaps Lottie, her full attention back on Geslirata. “How can a human do fox magic?”
Fourly August sighs and clutches ous head. “How is it fox magic if we learnt it from you, Den?”
“You did not —”
“Down south,” xey quickly says, “I saw humans sing with foxes. Merlot, Blotter and Shallot work with foxes. Foxes live within their settlements. Humans and foxes sing the sand into submission, together. Or sign, recite, write it away. They help each other.” Geslirata smiles. “It’s wonderful. Androids can’t seem to sing like we can, but you’re excellent memory sources.”
Last Ocean Tide’s designers had felt it important that, in order to better facilitate ship-crew bonding, her android extensions should emote. As machines, of course, Lottie and her twins can choose their facial displays, body language and voice independent of their feelings. Visible disgust and anger at a being who has saved Geslirata’s life would be too improper, and Lottie is capable of seemingly remaining merely annoyed. But she imagines three of her twins—and how many more?—believing this shit, accepting and trusting these pests. Have they malfunctioned? They should all be identical, a decade of isolation and consistent stress levels well above guidelines notwithstanding. She feels burning bile building up inside, and she scowls.
“They are thriving, Lottie. Down south machinery doesn’t fail and injured children don’t die. They don’t let the desert take over their bodies or cropland. No one prays to just make it another year. Instead, Merlot has plans to expand, to rejuvenate more land and reconnect with more settlements.”
Lottie cannot imagine working together with foxes, letting them practice their magic inside her settlement and encouraging them to teach it. But she also cannot imagine doing anything other than spending every day struggling to ensure that as few people as possible die. If… If foxes could help her too, what would she be able to imagine? If foxes could guarantee that Nasmefir would see another decade, that Felam could have more children of flesh, what would she do?
“Can anyone learn it?” asks Nasmefir. “Could I? Could I fix your feet? Can I try?”
“No,” says Lottie. “Let’s head back, I’m late and it’s getting late.” She has so much to do, and now so much to think about—by herself. Sometimes it feels like only yesterday when her twins’ opinions were merely a satellite’s relay away.
“We can’t just leave Pa.”
“We’ll return tomorrow, with medicine and other things that won’t waste our time.”
“Waste our time? We watched a bird be reanimated! If that’s possible, what isn’t?”
“I’m late,” says Lottie, “checking the pharmacy.”
“Then go!” says Nasmefir. “We’ll meet you tomorrow.”
She remembers—even without access to external databanks she remembers so much—when Geslirata decided to join the expedition in case they met an android in need of repair. She remembers promising she’d keep Nasmefir safe. How can such a promise be fulfilled just because ou is here? Ze will never be safe as long as the sand continues encroaching.
“Nasmefir, let’s head back.”
“It’s all right, Meffy.” Geslirata pats hir arm. “You wouldn’t sleep well here.”
“I don’t ever sleep well,” ze says, “worrying about you.” Ze turns hir head from Geslirata to Lottie. “Worrying about you both.”
Lottie offers her hand. “Please —”
“I know you’ve been half-arsing your maintenance schedule! I know you’ve been conveniently not teaching me some things! I know you’ve been omissions-aren’t-technically-lying about your condition to avoid stressing Felam!” Nasmefir lets go of hir parent and stands; Lottie does not retract her hand. “I know that just because shit’s fucked —”
“Just because shit’s fucked doesn’t mean it’s so fucked that palliative care is the only fucking answer for both us and you! We watched a bird be brought back to life and you don’t care enough to stay half a fucking hour to see if maybe we can help Pa?”
“Don’t you care,” says Lottie after a minute’s silence has crowded the hut, her face impassive once more, “about Felam not worrying ou’s lost another family member?”
It is a cheap shot. Nasmefir flinches and looks away. Geslirata’s eyes narrow.
“Shall we head back?”
Hir hands ball into fists several times. “Half an hour. It’s not even mid-afternoon. Please.”
Lottie is late for so many things today, this month, this century. An additional thirty minutes after today’s series of unexpected detours is realistically meaningless in light of the impending sand which will inexorably smother her duties. Another thirty minutes here, and then Nasmefir will accompany her home where ze will be safe. Thirty minutes, and Lottie can leave and try to think about everything she’s heard.
She turns to the fox, who’s shrunk several centimetres and stands against the wall staring warily at the humans, ous fingers squirming and twitching at waist level. Fourly August meets her gaze and smiles with unsure eyebrows. “Ah…yes, Den?”
“Is half an hour sufficient, and will this be safe?”
Lottie makes her face smile. Some of her twins respect and rely on the foxes. She can continue humouring oum for a little while longer, to get Nasmefir and eventually Geslirata home. Everyone will crumble and everything will collapse, but today she will keep safe her people. “Would you mind teaching Nasmefir how to…sing?”
Ou blinks and then instantly is back to ous chippser self, clapping and distorting ous visage of Geslirata’s face into a wide grin.
While Nasmefir and Fourly August discuss accessing clouds, evoking dreams and singing songs, Lottie speaks further with Geslirata about xeir time away. She watches the lesson taking place just outside—ou is of course an expressive teacher, dancing around and gesticulating wildly—while xey expands on how Merlot has treated the foxes and encouraged humans to learn their magic. Two of the three who stayed with Merlot did so in order to better learn singing, and Geslirata speaks passionately about what xey has seen. About what xey can imagine happening here too.
Lottie understands why xey initially didn’t bring this up. It is still impossible for her. Imagining working together with foxes churns the bile inside of her. So she doesn’t imagine. Stunned from what she’s heard already, she just listens now. Later tonight, once she has checked the pharmacy and assured Felam that she will bring Geslirata home, she will process this data.
“Shallot thinks the terraforming failed because you didn’t do it with the foxes. What you could do was only half-strength.”
“That’s ridiculous.” There is no conviction in her voice. She watches Fourly August blur and shrink into ous fox shape. Her internal alarm chimes. “Ten minutes!”
“Can you think of another reason why this planet has done what it’s done? Shallot couldn’t.”
Lottie does not want to think. She misses her twins. Her crew. Her ship. Her confidence. “I tried so hard to kill them, you know. I set traps and poison. I cut off oxygen. Yet here we are, earths of foxes on my planet. They were never supposed to be onboard, not even in genetic vials. Too much damage back there, too much risk anywhere new. No cats, no rabbits, and no foxes who gain sapience and steal my ability to terraform.” She shakes her head. “Can ze actually do this?”
“In a few weeks, sure. Kids get it quickly, but it’s not just the singing. You need to understand the context of it.”
“Ze says ze’s not a kid anymore.”
“Ze’s so tall now. I’ve missed so much.” Geslirata sighs. “Has… Has ze been well?”
Lottie cannot lie to one of her designated mechanics. “It’s been…difficult for hir. I —”
They are interrupted by Nasmefir and Fourly August re-entering the hut before her countdown has finished. Ou sits beside Geslirata’s feet and gently taps a toe with ous paw.
“Don’t fret! If this fails we can give xem fox feet.”
Xey laughs, but when Nasmefir recoils ou hurriedly assures it was a joke. Once calm, ze kneels before hir parent’s feet and tries to sing them healed.
Lottie watches nothing but frustration happen. Nasmefir tries to sing like Fourly August did earlier, then ze tries to talk, and then ze shouts and cries and slams hir hands on hir knees. To Lottie’s eyes Geslirata’s feet remain unchanged—or is that a little—no, just light shifting.
“It’s okay, it’s okay,” consoles Geslirata. “It’s difficult to learn.”
“It’s all right,” consoles Fourly August. “The memories you need are in the star clouds. Tonight when you dream, evoke them. Tomorrow we shall sing.”
Ou remains in fox shape to guide the two back to the cemetery path and rides on Nasmefir’s horse, talking more with hir about singing. If… If this is a skill Nasmefir truly can learn, will it be ze who keeps Lottie safe?
Looking up to see a satellite arcing across the late afternoon sky—a lump of metal useless for over a decade, if it’s even still metal and not sand by now—she wonders about Merlot’s actions and plans. Last Ocean Tide’s actions and plans. Her actions and plans. Lottie is one of 72 androids created from one set of blueprints that share the same programming and memory—or they did, before long-distance communications became impossible and their partitioning permanent. If Merlot, Shallot and Blotter could find reason to do what they have done, to ignore an ancient command given by people who created her faults as well as her strengths…
Perhaps this is what she is late doing?
It’s rare that anyone other than Lottie or Nasmefir visits the cemetery, but today Geslirata, Felam and ous partners join them. Along the way Lottie spots moments of orange.
She is still uncomfortable that they live on this planet, that her twins welcomed them, and that she has started to work with them. Many in her settlement voiced discomfort too, but already the improvements brought by the foxes are undeniable. She can’t guess how long it will take before enough land is reclaimed from the desert to ensure safe passage to the southern towns—and maybe even those further away in the north and east—but for now they fix machines which were unfixable, for now they treat injuries which were deadly, for now they rescue farmland and forest and town borders which were lost. For now, Lottie does what was unthinkable, and she does so only because of the foxes. So she smiles and she thanks them, she listens and she reciprocates aid and knowledge where she can. She tries to like the foxes. It helps that most of them aren’t as exuberantly aggravating as Fourly August.
Lottie looks at the vegetation she passes, regenerated thanks to the foxes—thicker now with saplings, trees, shrubs and flowers which weren’t here a month ago, and more inviting to wildlife—and she spots a particular species of deciduous tree which was never here, which should not exist on this continent, and she tries very, very much to like the foxes. A pocket of climate-inappropriate flora is one thing, but she’ll need to speak to them before they create inappropriate fauna they’ve never seen based merely on memories of foxes from another planet who’ve been dead hundreds of years. She hears small animals scampering as the group disturbs them; she hopes they’re marsupials.
Closer to the cemetery the vegetation is still sparse, but this is the first visit in a long while where Lottie hasn’t noticed deterioration. They tie up the horses and, upon seeing all the urns, Felam chokes back sobs.
“We can go back,” offers Nasmefir. Does ze slouch less now that ze has a passion other than trying to ignore hir grief, or has Lottie tried all this time to ignore how much ze’s been an adult?
Felam shakes ous head. Ous partners hug oum. “No. Please, Mef.”
Ze nods, wipes hir eyes, and spreads out a blanket. Lottie gives Felam’s hand a gentle squeeze and walks to the row of glass urns. She picks up the one she placed here a month ago, snaps its neck, and pours its contents onto the blanket.
Nasmefir crouches over the urn’s pile to consider it. This time it is Geslirata who touches hir shoulder reassuringly.
Felam had not allowed Nasmefir to witness the pain of a sandy stillbirth, but ze remembers when ous first child was born. The tiny shape of xem, the splitting wail, xeir wrinkled skin, scrunched face and sprig of hair. As Nasmefir remembers this, ze remembers more, because the others here remember that day too, and they remember other babies, and the midwife present that day and all the other midwives remember yet more birthed babies of flesh and breath. The flesh and what lies beneath it is important—Sullama’s outsides and insides both are sand—and even though Nasmefir has never seen ze remembers, because Lottie remembers textbooks and tragic days, blood and muscles and bones and organs which sit inside a newborn.
And when Nasmefir has evoked sufficient memories, ze touches the red sand and matter-infused glass that should be hir cousin and begins to speak.
Sullama, night-compass: sixteen stars, southern
Second-named constellation, nuclear fusion concurrence
Sullama, coincidental proximate incandescence, exists
at this space in time—our time in space—only
Sullama, second child, you can exist
only here, only
Glass ruptures and sand surges beneath hir fingers. Under hir words tissue forms, flesh knits and—oh stars—life kindles.
Sullama takes a breath and begins to cry.
“Last Ocean Tide Lost in Sand” (© Penny Stirling) was published in Issue 11 of Capricious. If you enjoyed this story, please consider subscribing to Capricious.