Kyeo held down the low harmony to the Anthem of the Bright Way by himself during passing period. The other two boys who knew the harmony and had the range for it, Saro and Irabe, were paired, and staying back at the teacher's request to clarify the answers they'd given on part of the test. Or that one of them had, anyway; there was no way for Kyeo to tell which one. Though he could guess. Saro couldn't stop asking for comparisons to other planets' philosophies, when other planets didn't have real philosophies, they were just soulless disorganized pits hardly anyone could afford to live well in. Still, maybe Irabe had written something dumb on his exam.
Everyone else in Merit Class 1 jogged to lunch, singing, most on the melody, Mar and Soh on high harmony. When he'd first been assigned to Soh, Kyeo had taught him the third part to that and a few other songs, though he'd had to demonstrate the tenor parts an octave down. Soh had gotten only a little music in primary school, not enough to pick up harmony parts but enough to learn them when taught.
They didn't study music any more in secondary school. They'd just come from Philosophy, studied much more intensively now that they were teenagers and could absorb difficult concepts a little boy would struggle with. After lunch would be military prep, Kyeo's favorite in the absence of a music slot.
The bread at lunch was only a day old, if Kyeo was any judge, probably baked the evening before. His mother used to make fresh bread, when she could get yeast, and they'd eat it still hot, but of course it was not efficient for the kitchens to make enough bread for hundreds of students in time for lunch every morning, particularly not when many of the workers in the kitchen were students themselves and needed to attend classes in the morning and afternoon and were only available after supper. The vegetables served alongside the bread were floating in a thin soup.
Kyeo saw a lot of sorrel in his bowl. When he'd been a child, still going home from school every day to his mother's cooking and more spoiled, he'd traded away his sorrel for cabbage whenever possible. But he wasn't going to ask Soh about that. Soh was already having enough trouble growing into the mature equanimity that Ibyabek expected of its men. Though he did well enough in school to be part of Merit Class 1, he complained, muttering to himself or even to Kyeo and their other friends about landscaping duty or cleaning duty or kitchen duty. Sometimes he complained about other things, too. If he couldn't rein it in he wasn't going to go on to a good career, and then he'd have a lot more to complain about and a lot less leeway to write it off as youthful silliness.
Kyeo ate his sorrel. He was getting used to it, just like his father always said he would whenever he stopped avoiding it.
"They've been serving us this same soup for a week," said Soh.
The vegetables had come in soup form for a week, but that wasn't uncommon. "The soup is good," said Kyeo firmly when he'd swallowed his mouthful of sorrel. "If the vegetables were very plentiful a week ago of course it will take some time to eat them all, but they make the soup fresh." Kyeo hadn't had kitchen duty in a month, but it hardly mattered either way.
"I keep finding broccoli in it," said Soh. "There's never broccoli except the one time, there's no way they got more broccoli every day for a week. It's the same, they made a very big batch. They don't want to make new soup on our last days."
"If there's broccoli that means there's plenty of broccoli. Don't talk nonsense," said Kyeo.
Soh shut up and ate his soup, mostly by soaking it up with his bread. The rest of the lunch conversation was about how Garhan needed to stop elbowing people while playing ball. Garhan sheepishly agreed he would try harder. Saro and Irabe caught up and had to bolt down their lunches in just four minutes.
They went to Military Prep after they were all finished with their meals, and when three steps had passed without anyone starting up a song, Kyeo sang the opening line of Sunrise on Ibyabek. "Our Ibyabek, which cares for every one of its children in our brightest way..." Everyone's gait fell into the beat as the other boys joined in.
Since it was the last day of term, all the classes were exams. Philosophy had the hardest tests, but Military Prep was grueling even with the physical exercise portion separated into gym; it had an extra long block in the day to accommodate the gigantic paper test, and time for some students to take their test orally in much less time with the teacher or teaching assistant one at a time. "It's a problem with the printer," Kyeo said to Chavyuo on their way out of the classroom. Chavyuo had been one of the unlucky boys who hadn't gotten a paper copy and was trembling a little, like he always did when afraid he'd performed poorly on an exam.
"I know that," said Chavyuo. "Last term we had those electronic tablets. Those worked well as long as the teachers remembered to charge them while the power was on. Where did they go?"
Kyeo shrugged. Soh opined, "Teacher Salgun sold them on the black market."
"Don't say that," said Kyeo. Teacher Salgun had all the hallmarks of a black marketeer, from the smell of coffee wafting from his thermos to the suspicious shine of his shoes, but accusing him of stealing from the school was too far for Soh to get away with. "It isn't true." It could have been something else. Maybe all the tablets broke, or they were needed for another school, though since Bright City was the most important city on Ibyabek and their school Academy of Merit was the best secondary school in Bright City Kyeo wasn't sure who else would be better recipients of the tablets.
They had two more exams before supper. The foreign language test on Kularan Creole was proctored by the teaching assistant. Kyeo wasn't sure what had happened to the teacher, a real citizen of United Kular who had been brought to Ibyabek to instruct the students in her mother tongue. She was the only female teacher Kyeo had ever had, although he understood it to be common in Kular for women to have careers of their own, if they were unable to find husbands due to the general dissolution of the male population. There was nothing else they could do, since nothing in Kular was distributed freely and they had no choice but to work to support themselves. Kyeo wasn't clear if Teacher Sujan was being paid by the Ibyabekan government to teach her language or not. It seemed like it would be vulgar for them to do so, and she got to sleep in the teacher dormitories like the Ibyabekan teachers did, and eat with everyone else in the cafeteria, so maybe she was here for that reason.
At any rate, he felt that he had done well on his Kularan test. He wasn't as good as Soh was at remembering what all the grammatical complications were called (Kularan was a really terribly elaborate language, and Kyeo had heard that Ibyabekan was gaining popularity there because it was so logical and easy to pick up, not to mention beautifully pronounced). But he was good at actually speaking it fluently, and the teaching assistant had apparently used limited printer access to get one vocabulary section printed for everyone and then rendered the rest of the test as conversation in Kularan.
Maybe Teacher Sujan had done something wrong and was in trouble. But there was no point in guessing.
Gym ended the day, to work up their appetites for dinner. The exam resembled a normal class, except they didn't get to play ball and there was less shouted encouragement from the teacher when they fell behind their goals at running laps and lifting weights and clambering through the obstacle course that was supposed to be similar to the inside of a military spaceship that had taken damage.
They showered. The water was cold this time, which Kyeo didn't really object to amid cries of disappointment from the others. To his mind it was less awkward for everyone to equally be the target of giggles about shrunken genitals from the chill than for all the mockery to disproportionately fall on whoever had a badly timed erection for no reason, often him.
They didn't linger, not in cold water. Five minutes to get the sweat off and apply and remove some desultory soap and they could get into their day clothes and go eat.
The bread was a little staler at dinner than lunch. The soup was the same. There was a piece of broccoli in Kyeo's bowl, floating in the middle. Soh gave him a sidelong look. Kyeo kicked him in the ankle, just lightly, and concentrated on making himself eat his sorrel.
After dinner Kyeo brought Soh with him to Teacher Salgun's office. Soh whined and dragged his feet - he was exhausted from gym class and wanted to lie down for a bit - but sometimes Teacher Salgun would share a bit of chocolate, which didn't grow on Ibyabek and was probably disloyal to like but was certainly very compelling to a certain sort of person. Kyeo didn't want to go anywhere alone. It looked suspicious, and furthermore neglected his duty to keep an eye on Soh. So he hauled Soh along with him and went to Teacher Salgun and asked, "May I borrow your phone and call my father?"
There was a free phone line that any student could use on campus, which he could have walked over to the minders' office hallway to use, but it usually didn't work when Kyeo tried it, and he'd stopped bothering to check as long as Teacher Salgun with his cell phone was around. Teacher Salgun's cellphone was only three years old and worked nearly every time, though it was still possible that Kyeo's father wouldn't be available to answer it on his own cell phone. Kyeo had a very important father, Suor Sebe Luk, who was often in meetings with other very important people, sometimes even people who knew and personally relayed the will of the Glorious Leader Lut Naar Am. Kyeo's mother did not have a phone, and neither did his sister, but Suor could relay messages, when there were any - once he had even been able to put Kyeo's mother on the phone when he'd happened to be home sick during the call. Kyeo's older sister Aipen had married several years before and if her husband had a phone number Kyeo didn't know it, so he hadn't heard from her since the wedding, but he had a photo of her smiling with her hair pinned up the day she'd married.
This time, when Teacher Salgun handed over his phone and took Kyeo's two kal bill, and Kyeo dialed, Suor picked up. "This is Coordinator Suor Sebe Luk," he said.
"Father, it's me," said Kyeo.
"Kyeo! Why are you calling? I'll be seeing you tomorrow!"
Kyeo blinked. "Really?"
"They haven't told you yet, I see. Yes, tomorrow you're coming home, I requested you and the Distributor agreed. I have some work for you to do with me in my office."
Kyeo had been expecting to spend the school break working - well, apparently he would be working, but he'd been expecting to make bricks or get placed on a farm, to repay Ibyabek for his care and education all given him for free. "That's wonderful, Father! Thank you so much."
"I'll tell you all about it when I pick you up tomorrow."
"You're coming to pick me up yourself?"
"Yes, be out waiting by the gate right after your breakfast, I'll expect you. It's very delicate work, you'll need to be sharp."
"Yes Father," said Kyeo, "of course, Father."
"I have to hang up now, things are busy here. I'll see you tomorrow."
"Yes Father," Kyeo repeated, and he ended the call and handed the phone back to Teacher Salgun. "Thank you, Teacher."
"Anytime, Kyeo," the teacher replied, waving him and Soh out of the office.
Soh, sour about not having received a chocolate, grumbled on their way back to the dorm. "You get a work detail at home with your family! I'm on paving."
"You like paving," Kyeo said.
"I like it more than I like landscaping. If they have me driving the machine. I'd rather be doing science, though."
"You'll get to do science if science is where you can do the best work for Ibyabek," recited Kyeo.
Soh visibly repressed a grumble. "I do well in science!"
"We aren't out of school yet. Strong young bodies are what we have to offer while we work on developing our minds." Kyeo wasn't paying much attention to the conversation; when talking to Soh he frequently fell back on directly quoting their philosophy teacher.
"Easy for you to say, working with your father," Soh said.
"I said it last break too."
Soh didn't answer. Since it was the last day, there was no homework, only packing. Kyeo folded all his uniforms into the string bag he used for luggage, left his textbooks out in the hallway where they'd be collected for the next people to enter his class level while he was issued new ones, and went to bed early so he could be ready for his father.
It was a beautiful day, sunny with only a few wisps of cloud unspooled across the sky. Kyeo received his work assignment formally with his breakfast (porridge, served cold today for some reason) - the worker who put it in front of him, a student from a junior class, recited it for him. He looked tired; he must have been up late memorizing which assignments went to which students. This might have worried Kyeo if he'd been told he was supposed to go work in a water treatment plant but he got the news he expected.
As soon as he'd eaten his porridge, Kyeo said goodbye to all his friends and collected his bag from his room, checking in the crack-edged mirror in the communal bathroom that his hair was combed so Suor wouldn't scold him. He tucked a strand back into place and hurried out.
He waited inside the gate but in clear view of it; the boys guarding the gate looked at his name tag and nodded to each other, expecting him.
There wasn't a bench, or even a retaining wall to sit on, so Kyeo stood, trying not to look like he was imitating the guards lest it seem mocking or suspicious. He'd been on guard duty before, but the posture didn't come naturally to him, so he wasn't likely to accidentally line up with them if he paid any attention.
Father arrived in the back of a black car when it would have almost been lunchtime, had Kyeo been staying on campus during the school break for a work rotation. The guards let Kyeo out when they looked at the paperwork the driver showed them through the bars, and Kyeo slipped into the near seat and beamed at his father, who clapped him on the back.
"Your grades are good," Suor commented.
There was no correct response there - Suor didn't like to be thanked for stating facts like that - so Kyeo ducked his head and smiled. "It's good to see you," he said.
"You'll be home for the entire break - possibly longer. The new ambassador from United Kular has brought his family, and his son is your age. I need you to serve as a minder for him. A little like a school pairmate."
Kyeo was silent for a second. This was an intimidating job, one where not just a team he was on, but he alone, might wind up responsible for things of importance to Ibyabek. An ambassador's son could know nothing, could say nothing, he might just want to play sports all day. But he might say things that Kyeo would have to report, and be discreet about collecting for those reports lest the other boy clam up. Or he could have ideas of sabotaging Ibyabek and its institutions, the way foreign entrants were sometimes caught doing. Kyeo's job could either be a guard duty assignment - waiting for nothing to happen - or a critical intelligence mission.
"Yes Father," Kyeo said when he'd had a moment to digest this.
The car bumped over a pothole and Kyeo grabbed the handle sewn to the roof of the car to stabilize himself on the ragged section of pavement.
"You'll be introduced tonight," said Suor. "I couldn't put it off any longer but fortunately did not have to pull you out of school early. They have been on the planet for two days now, but have spent the time confined to their residence apart from the ambassador's meetings. Now that you are available to keep an eye on the boy the wife's minder will be able to escort her out of the house occasionally too. I want you to stick close to the boy's mother and her minder at first, but you will be able to take him on some tours alone later."
"You haven't been to any parties like tonight's. Very important people will be there. Not the Glorious Leader, but a lot of people close to him, several foreigners apart from the ambassador and his wife and child, many people with good connections and good families. You will need to be on your absolute best behavior, and get to know the Kularan boy at the same time."
"What is his name?"
"Sarham Peng." Kyeo waited for a third name before remembering that Kularans didn't use clan names to subdivide surnames, the way his family was Sebe Luk but there were also Tohek Luk and Redae Luk and Suwang Luk and other Luk families. "The ambassador is Wulaar Peng, and his wife is Umi Peng. Do you have that memorized?"
"Sarham Peng is my pairmate, his parents are Wulaar and Umi Peng," repeated Kyeo.
"Good," said Suor.
"How is Mother?" asked Kyeo. He wanted to ask about Aipen too, but his father might not have any news of her, and it was probably better not to draw attention to questions that couldn't be answered. If Suor knew how his daughter was doing he'd probably volunteer that on his own and Kyeo wouldn't need to ask.
"Your mother's recovering from that problem she had with her foot quite well," Suor replied. "She can walk without crutches for a few minutes every day, so those will be returned to the hospital soon. The garden's thriving, she can do most of that sitting down."
"Oh, good," Kyeo said. "It will be good to see her."
"You'll see her, but you need to stick to the Peng boy like glue," cautioned Suor. "You might have to be up early and home late. If he invites you to stay the night in the house they're being provided, you accept."
"Most likely he will not make such an invitation right after meeting you, but try to make a good impression at the party."
The party was opulent. Kyeo had trouble at first taking in the details of the food and decor, as though really it were all a smear that a dreaming mind had labeled "rich, elaborate, luxurious". But after a moment to breathe, trailing his father up the carpeted stairs, the colors on the upper floor started to resolve themselves into plates of stuffed mushrooms and deviled eggs carried by silently gliding waiters. The statuary, at intervals around the railing that prevented people from pitching off the huge balcony to the ground floor, was clarified as marble abstracts here, larger-than-life sculptures of the Glorious Leader there, wire trees with stone leaves and fruits across the room. Plaques labeled them as gifts to the Glorious Leader from celebrated offplanet artists, in some cases, or the magnum opus of one of the great creative minds on Ibyabek. Kyeo smoothed the long heavy sleeves of the outfit his father had lent him, but couldn't keep all the wrinkles from coming back across the dark blue and burgundy whenever he bent his arm.
The atmosphere was smoky, where it wasn't perfumed; it was more conspicuous the deeper they waded into the party. Clusters of men stood with their feet sinking deep into the carpet, puffing cigarettes and making small talk; others sat at chairs that at least looked like blue-upholstered solid gold. Women stood out, wearing paler colors than the dark masculine ones (sky blue instead of navy, pink rather than deep red, and so on). The women were mostly around Kyeo's age or a little older - Morale Corps girls, all in the same cut of dress though the fabrics differed. They leaned towards men they were chatting with, trailing their fingers along their arms. Kyeo didn't have to deal with any of those, he expected - he wasn't important enough for them to approach him. There were also a couple of older women; most people didn't bring their wives to these parties, so Kyeo scanned for pastels, looking for a foreign face that might indicate the Ambassador's wife and, presumably, their son nearby.
There she was; and there he was, if Kyeo didn't miss his guess. Umi Peng, wearing canary yellow, was darker-skinned than the Ibyabekans in the room. Not dark enough that she couldn't simply have come straight off a farming rotation, but of course no one at the party had been on a farming rotation in years if that. Sarham (Kyeo presumed) was standing at her elbow. Just a couple inches taller than she was, Sarham wasn't much lighter than his mother, though he looked it since he was wearing black. Kyeo didn't see anyone who was obviously the Ambassador.
"I think I see him," Kyeo murmured to Suor.
"Good. Do you need to be introduced?"
"It would help."
So Suor went toward the ambassadorial wife and child with Kyeo. The two were whispering to each other and didn't notice they were being approached until Kyeo had come to a stop within arm's length of Sarham. "Mrs. Peng," said Suor, "and son, I'm Suor Sebe Luk, we spoke on the phone this morning."
"Yes, I remember," confirmed Umi cordially. "And this is?"
"My son Kyeo Sebe Luk," said Suor, patting Kyeo firmly on the shoulder. Kyeo smiled - at Umi first, since she was the person Suor was ostensibly talking to, but then at Sarham. Sarham blinked back at him, nonplussed. "He's a student, but he's just begun his break from school and I brought him with me to this gathering. I thought young Sarham might like to have someone his own age showing him around the beauty of Ibyabek."
"Hello," said Kyeo, unsure exactly how cheerful he was meant to sound and concerned he landed somewhere north of manic. "It's a pleasure to meet you both. Welcome to Ibyabek."
"It's been lovely so far," said Sarham. "Though we haven't seen much yet."
"I'll be happy to show you the sights!" Kyeo said. Still too chirpy by far. There was no reason to be this excited about toting a foreigner through museums and architectural projects and escorting him to concerts and theater. How could he tone it down without making it even more conspicuous by the transition? "You'll have to tell me what interests you most, of course, and I don't know what other schedule of appointments you might have yet."
"Of course," agreed Sarham. "But I'm excited to see whatever's locally a must-see, of course, I wouldn't want to insist on one thing and find out later it wasn't what was most worth my time."
Kyeo smiled at him and said, "That makes sense!", but wasn't quite sure what to make of the statement. It occurred to him that he didn't know how Sarham was conceptualizing his role during his time on Ibyabek. He might be what amounted to a tourist - a nonessential attachment to his father's presence - or he might be a spy, but even if he was a spy, how did Kularans handle spying? What about his plan here was generating phrases like "worth my time" and "insist on one thing"? It was a little like he was a fairytale character of some kind. Kyeo didn't have the slightest idea in that moment what it was like to be Sarham, the way he'd always been able to figure out more or less what it was like to be Soh or his other previous pairmates.
Someone who Kyeo assumed had to be Sarham's father, Ambassador Peng, sidled up to Umi and put his arm around her. "Hello there," he said to Suor. "Is this your son who you mentioned?"
"Yes. Kyeo, this is the ambassador, Wulaar Peng."
"Welcome to Ibyabek!" Kyeo said again, managing a more level tone this time. "I'm delighted to make your acquaintance."
"Thank you," said Ambassador Peng. "It's always interesting to meet more Ibyabekans. You're about Sarham's age?"
"In Earth years I'm seventeen," said Kyeo. He usually thought of his age in Ibyabekan years, which were longer and marked him as currently thirteen, but offplanet (he had learned in school) they mostly used Earth years even when their own planets differed. As a child Kyeo had always wondered why other people didn't use Ibyabekan years, which seemed to him to divide time into the most useful units. But of course no one was willing to so overtly acknowledge Ibyabek's centrality to human life in general, not when they had their own egos to prop up and a pathological fascination with Earth - as though civilization hadn't progressed since the species was trapped there. Maybe he'd teach Sarham to use Ibyabekan years. His command of the language was all right, but it might or might not have covered how to use time the way Ibyabekans did.
"So is Sarham!" said Wulaar. "I'm glad they dug up somebody his own age so he's not stuck in the house or following around adults all day long."
"I would have been fine following adults around," opined Sarham.
"You would have had to wait outside a lot of conference rooms," Wulaar replied. "Some things might be sensitive, and I'd have to leave you out of things that weren't too, for cover about the exact quantity and frequency of the sensitive stuff!" He grinned and clapped Sarham on the back. "You'll find the museums - interesting, I'm sure. And whatever else is the current tourist stuff."
"All right," said Sarham. "Uh, will I see you tomorrow morning then?"
"Yes," said Kyeo, after a quick glance at his father, "I'll pick you up at your house." He was only guessing he'd be able to get a car for the purpose; if he couldn't he might have a long walk ahead, but he was fit enough to manage if necessary. "I can figure out an itinerary for us and we can adjust it if anything special comes to your mind."
Wulaar apparently considered the situation well enough under control to move on to another area of the party. Umi was still nearby, but she was distracted by speaking in a low voice to one of the Morale Corps girls who was smiling fixedly at her and shifting her weight like she wanted to escape. Suor didn't go far, but stepped into the circle of another conversation some five feet away, and was quickly absorbed in discussing what sounded like some fine point of philosophy or possibly economics with the other important men who'd been invited to the party. Kyeo and Sarham were as alone as they were going to get while they were still at the party, and Kyeo, who had never done anything this potentially high-stakes in his life, found his heartbeat agitated with the stress of it.
"A lot of people smoke here," Sarham remarked after a few beats of silence.
"Most people don't. This is just that kind of party," Kyeo assured him. Mostly, cigarettes of any kind - local tobacco that was supposed to be diverted for use by select individuals, or smuggled offplanet herbs and alien leaves and fancier tobacco - were contraband, traded covertly between people who wanted other contraband or money or favors, sourced from an increasingly dubious chain of lawbreakers eventually terminating in a foreign drug-runner who brought intoxicants both smokeable and otherwise from decadent worlds where they were as abundant as air. Some local tobacco was allowed, and even imported cigarettes were permitted on special occasions for people presumed to be above suspicion of any worse infraction. This was a special occasion and the people at the party were presumably all of impeccable reputation, and so could waive requirements that they be quite perfectly straitlaced in terms of what they inhaled. A worrying lapse a low-merit laborer might have to hide if he could afford it at all was practically a badge of status for those who'd achieved higher levels of recognition for their rarer contribution to Ibyabek.
Kyeo'd never personally had a cigarette, though he knew some students in his year who smelled of it now and then, having traded this and that for their forbidden luxuries with other students, the staff at the school, or even the teachers.
"What kind of party?" asked Sarham.
"The kind where people smoke."
"Do you go to a lot of parties?"
"Not usually ones like this with my father," said Kyeo. "But student parties, sure, all the time." Were any of the times Kyeo and his classmates hung out really parties? No, probably not, on reflection, it was just meals in the cafeteria, classes, work assignments. Sometimes they amused themselves by planning things like that - "next week we can go to the restaurant on First Street, and order snails and grapefruit ices and whatever else they have, and sing along to whatever's on the radio" - but then the next week would come and of course they'd all be on campus as they always were, with no idea whether the restaurant even allowed students or had a radio. They'd never been inside restaurants except for a couple who'd gone with their especially important fathers; Kyeo's father was important but this had never happened to lead him to bring his family out to eat.
"Student parties, right. Any of those going on any time soon?"
"Well, school is on a break now, so we're not convenient to our classmates," Kyeo explained. "I don't know if you will be here that long, and I will stay with you if you are, anyway."
"Won't you fall behind?" Sarham asked.
"I can catch up," said Kyeo. "Don't worry about it." Kyeo was not exactly unconcerned about that, but his father and the school would work something out, even if it wasn't maximally convenient, and it would be embarrassingly immature to complain about having to do extra studying or falling back half a year.
"If you say so," said Sarham. "What are you studying in school?"
"The same things as everyone else," said Kyeo. "I'm going to go into the military."
Sarham seemed to repress a wince. He said nothing for a long, uncomfortable moment, and then Kyeo said, "I suppose you go to school too."
"Yes," Sarham said, "sometimes. Other times I have tutors, if we're moving too much or if I'm trying to learn something very fast."
"Something like what?"
"I had to learn So- I had to learn Ibyabekan to come here," said Sarham. Kyeo knew he'd been about to say "Sohaibekan", since they still spoke the same language on Outer Sohaibek, with which Ibyabek had once been unified until they'd rebelled against the modern order. Reportedly, lots of people called Ibyabek "Inner Sohaibek", even though it was disrespectful to call their planet anything other than what their first Glorious Leader had named it.
Kyeo shrugged it off; Sarham had caught himself before fully delivering the insult. "Your accent is pretty good."
"Thanks. My tutor -" Sarham stopped, mouth partly open, then gracelessly didn't finish whatever he'd been going to say about his tutor. Even if it were sensitive information somehow, couldn't he have made something up? This left an odd hole in the conversation.
Attempting to fill the hole, Kyeo said, "Do you want to go sit down?"
"Can we sit on the floor? I think it might be less smoky."
Kyeo... wasn't sure if they could sit on the floor. No one else was doing it, but allowances were made for young people, sometimes. Was this one of those times? He had no idea, and he would look ridiculous asking his father, and worse if he said it was fine and it wasn't after all. "No," he said confidently, "but we can go downstairs and find some benches there to sit on instead, that will be even better." He took the end of Sarham's sleeve in his hand, noted Sarham's noise of unprotesting surprise, and wove between Morale Corps girls and ranking political movers and shakers to the staircase.
There were benches down there; Kyeo picked one and released Sarham's sleeve to sit down on it. "Better?"
"Lots. People don't smoke on United Kular planets, or hardly at all."
"Do you go to parties like this there?" wondered Kyeo, because people hardly smoked at all on Ibyabek either, and you'd miss most of it if you lived on a farm or something.
"Once or twice. Not often. I wasn't old enough for Dad to start taking me along to functions till recently."
The word "Dad" must have been something they said on Outer Sohaibek; Kyeo could figure out what it meant from context and its relation to the word babies called their fathers, but was otherwise unfamiliar with it. Kyeo had called his father "pada" until he'd been old enough to pronounce the fully formalized version. "Me either," said Kyeo.
"What does your dad do exactly?"
Kyeo was on a need to know basis about that, and didn't need to know, so he invented. "He's Glorious Leader's subordinate - a couple levels down, you understand, not direct, but I haven't met his immediate boss - in the department of foreign relations and trade."
"Wow," said Sarham. "My father didn't use to be an ambassador. I can remember when he was an interpreter in somebody else's office handling visa stuff and -" Sarham hesitated. "- and passport stuff," he concluded, which seemed lame enough to not have likely been what he'd tripped over. "Just as much travel and we didn't stay in nearly as nice hotels."
Kyeo almost asked if the Ibyabekan house Sarham was staying in was as nice as foreign hotels. But framing it that way made it sound like he expected it to be worse, when of course Ibyabek could pamper an ambassador better than anybody except insofar as Ibyabek wasn't going to let people starve or die of untreated injuries or anything to spare extra cash for pointless luxuries, and maybe Sarham would have preferred the pointless luxuries version of the house even if a peasant somewhere missed out on government services they needed as a result of the misappropriation of funds.
Kyeo followed this train of thought long enough to pause noticeably and Sarham said of his own accord, "The house we have here is nice. It's roomy."
"I'm used to cities."
"This is a city."
"I mean I'm used to apartments," said Sarham. He said it a bit haltingly, like he'd suddenly lost some of his fluency in Ibyabekan. Or maybe, somehow, there was some sort of secret related to Sarham's history of living in apartments that he was supposed to keep a secret for some reason, but Kyeo couldn't imagine what it might be. Kyeo let it go. He wasn't supposed to be a particularly aggressive spy, was his understanding, just an opportunistic one if he happened to have an opportunity to get Sarham drunk or piece together non-drunk careless remarks.
"Most everyone in Ibyabek lives in a house," Kyeo said, "because we're a rich planet -"
Sarham made a cough-like noise.
"Are you okay?" Kyeo asked.
"I'm fine. Go on."
"- but some people have apartments too if they need an extra residence because they travel a lot for work," Kyeo finished, knitting his brow. Were all his conversations with Sarham going to be like this? "A pairmate I had in school sometimes lived in one, in Peninsula City, when his father brought his family along for longer business trips there. I went once," he added, so it wouldn't seem like hearsay; he was quite confident the apartment existed, but it didn't sound very convincing if he were just repeating a classmate's assertion.
"Oh, what was it like?" asked Sarham.
This seemed pretty rude to Kyeo, like Sarham was trying to make it really obvious that Kyeo hadn't been there at all, but maybe people were rude as a matter of habit on United Kular planets. Kyeo took a breath and replied, "Oh, it was lovely, but you probably got a look at it yourself on your shuttle flight down."
"We flew by the peninsula, yeah." There was a pause. "I bet the view of the night sky is incredible on Ibyabek."
"It is!" said Kyeo. "If we let my father know we can probably go out and have a look, it should be dark now."
"Sure," said Sarham, grinning broadly, and Kyeo was relieved that he'd found a conversation topic that got a smile instead of odd pauses.
Kyeo jogged up the stairs, glancing down every few steps to see if Sarham was trying to wander off unsupervised but finding him every time sitting patiently on the bench, and found Suor in the social tangle talking to a film director and a general. Kyeo had to wait, trying not to rock back and forth between his heels and his toes, for a few minutes before there was enough of a break in the discussion of an incipient hurricane for his father to acknowledge him.
"What is it?" Suor asked. "Where's the ambassador's boy?"
"Downstairs." Kyeo didn't elaborate that he hadn't cared for the smoke; all three men had cigarettes lit at the moment. "He's not going anywhere. Can we go outside to look at the stars? They don't have a good view on his planet."
"Fine," said Suor. "Don't go too far. The pier, at most."
"The pier," nodded Kyeo. "Thank you, Father."
Suor nodded and turned his attention back to his companions. Kyeo trotted back downstairs. "Father says it's all right. We should be able to see all right from the pier."
"There's a pier?" asked Sarham.
"Sure there's a pier. Why wouldn't there be a pier?" Kyeo asked, leading the way to the door.
"I didn't think there were a lot of... boats," said Sarham vaguely.
"I'm not sure if there will be any boats, but we don't need any boats, just to go out on the water far enough that the buildings aren't in the way of the sky," replied Kyeo. They had a six-block walk to the water, and Kyeo cut through the park instead of past the cannery; it was more scenic. "I know how to find Stella Kular and Caeruleus Kular, but they're in our winter stars, it won't be out tonight. I can show you Xeren's star and Olach's though, they're in the same constellation as each other."
"What's the constellation called?"
"Glorious Leader's Eye," said Kyeo.
Sarham didn't say anything else for the rest of the walk. It was a nice night, almost cloudless, warm in the moments between breezes and cool when they blew. There was a streetlight on every corner, and they were on tonight, so their eyes couldn't adjust very much until they got to the shore.
They walked out to the end of the pier. Kyeo sat, and Sarham followed suit only to flop backwards onto the wood. Kyeo was concerned about the state of his borrowed clothes and refrained, though he was tempted. Slowly, more and more stars faded into view; the closest streetlamp was blocked from view by a sign on a building and of the other two nearby lamps one was burned out and the other smashed. There was no moon. Nobody in their houses had lights on, and there were no boats tied to the dock with their own lights either. The Glorious Leader's Eye became visible, and then the Five Virtues, the Dancing Woman, the Scallion - Kyeo only knew the most famous constellations, because though he hoped to fly ships one day constellations were not actually of much use in navigating space. They were too relative, too deceptive.
He pointed. "There's the Glorious Leader's Eye. Xeren is the almost reddish star at the top eyelid, with one star very close to it on the left and the next one on the right farther away."
"I see it," said Sarham.
"Olach is the one near the pupil of the eye on the upper right."
"The kind of little one?"
"Is it just a coincidence they're both in the Eye?"
"Do they not teach you astronomy? It's only sort of a coincidence; they're both very far from Ibyabek but in about the same direction. I guess one or the other of them could be in a different constellation if we'd named them differently, but that one really looks like an eye."
"Yeah, I can see where that came from. The stars are lovely here."
"Your planet must be too polluted," guessed Kyeo.
"- yeah," said Sarham. "There's places you can go to see our stars but it's a whole production, you can't just walk down the block. It's. Too polluted."
"Is it nice not to wear a particle mask all the time?"
"...yes. I prefer not to wear a particle mask all the time," agreed Sarham.
"I wonder how long your family is staying."
"Even if my father works here for a long time I might not stay that long. I'll need to go back to school."
"We have school here."
"I know, but... I'm expected back at a school in Kular."
"Hmph," said Kyeo. It didn't seem quite right that someone like Sarham could get so close to a real education and not be able to get one. "When?"
"I can stay six months, if that makes sense, but I can also leave early and stay with my aunt and uncle if my parents stay behind."
"Why'd they bring you in the first place?" wondered Kyeo. If Sarham wouldn't be going to school here, couldn't stay very long, had an uncle who'd take him in, what was the point?
"...uh," said Sarham, "so they would get to see me and so I could travel?"
Kyeo didn't see his father more than once most years since he'd started high school, and sometimes saw only his father and not his mother, depending on where they managed to see one another. "But you're my age."
"Yes, but they're still my parents... is that not normal here?"
"Most people our age are in school, or even have regular work already," said Kyeo. "Some of them are even already engaged. They don't have time to be visiting their parents all the time." Maybe some people wound up on the same work projects as their parents, or had parents who were teachers, but otherwise it would be unbearably babyish to rush home to visit for no reason.
"Engaged? This young?" said Sarham. "I don't know anybody our age back home who's engaged already."
"Well, if you wait too long you won't be able to have many children," said Kyeo. "Since women get less fertile over time. I only have one sister, no other siblings, and this is a little embarrassing for my parents, though they married when they were -" He did the arithmetic. "Twenty."
"Oh. You want children?"
"Everyone wants children," said Kyeo. "No one would want to be a dead end. When I'm in university I'll probably get introduced to my friends' sisters and things like that till I find someone to marry." He had vague hopes that his classmate Imyu's little sister would be a lot like Imyu; he thought he'd get along with someone just like him and be happy living in a house with another Imyu for a long time.
"I don't think I want children," said Sarham. "I guess I might change my mind."
"Why would you even think you wouldn't want them?" asked Kyeo. "What else are you going to do?"
"I might want to have a really demanding career?" said Sarham. He said it like a question even though it wasn't; Kyeo chalked it up to his accent.
"But you'd have a wife," said Kyeo.
"Maybe my... wife would also have a really demanding career," said Sarham. "Anyway, if I were going to have kids I'd want to be able to spend a lot of time with them even if somebody else had all the time they strictly needed."
"Why would you want to spend a lot of time with them?" wondered Kyeo. "Raising kids is the mother's job, and you're a man."
"I... just don't see the point of having them if you're not going to enjoy them," said Sarham. "I guess if you marry some girl who likes them a lot and don't mind having kids you barely see that's... fine if the kids don't mind never seeing you."
"It wouldn't be never, but I'd have a job and she wouldn't. It's not like I don't know who my father is."
"If that works for you. You have a sister, you said?"
"Just one. Older sister," said Kyeo. "She's married, I haven't seen her in a while."
"She doesn't - write or anything?"
"I don't get mail at school. Maybe she writes to Mother, I'm not sure."
It was hard to see Sarham's face in the dark, but the quality of the silence was such that Kyeo felt it was important to make out that invisible expression, to divine what Sarham was thinking. What weird planet did Sarham live on that sucked men's attention into babies and tried to squeeze women into jobs? No wonder they were weak. He couldn't see much by the starlight. Sarham's eyes might have been envious or only confused.
Kyeo went on, "So does it usually work the other way in United Kular? The men watch the children and the women have jobs?"
"It's more complicated than that," said Sarham. "I don't really know quite how I'm supposed to explain it."
"- I don't want to make a diplomatic faux pas. We're here as diplomats, and even though Father's the one who has the actual training and job title I don't want to do anything to sabotage that."
"I'm not a diplomat."
"I know. I just don't know all the things you know about how it's all right to talk around here."
"If you say so."
They relaxed on the dock without further words for a few long minutes. In the distance a bird called. At length, Sarham said, "I want to go see if the party's wrapped up enough that we can go to bed now."
"All right. I can show you back," said Kyeo, rolling up to his feet. "I think sometimes these go late, but I don't know if they'll make you and your mother stay for the whole thing."
"That makes sense," Sarham said, following down the pier and onto the street. "- Do people bike around here? I haven't seen a lot of cars, just a handful."
"Bikes are obsolete since the car was invented," blinks Kyeo. "I don't think I've ever seen one."
"I have a bike," said Sarham.
"Oh, dear," said Kyeo. Poor Sarham. Wasn't a diplomat's son important enough to get picked up and dropped off where he needed to go?
"I like it," Sarham added. "Biking, I mean. A lot of people have bikes in Kular."
"That's good then."
"Can you drive?" Sarham asked.
There was something Kyeo wasn't sure he liked about the question, like Sarham thought he already knew the answer and thought it proved something. It was uncomfortable.
Kyeo lied. "Of course. I drove down here from school. I take a school elective on how to drive a bus, since that's different, but soon I'll be able to do that too."
"You're going to be a bus driver?" asked Sarham, sounding surprised.
"No, no, it might come up when I join the military," said Kyeo. "Buses to transport other soldiers and equipment and stuff."
"Oh," said Sarham, softly.
They reached the party venue. They went up the stairs and sifted through the crowd for whichever father turned up first. They found Umi, who was sitting at the border of the party, sipping a drink and having somehow convinced a Morale Corps girl to sit with her even though she wasn't part of their target audience, and she was able to direct them to her husband. He was having a light, inconsequential conversation about the quality of the hors d'oeuvres which he was happy to suspend to give his son a hug - Kyeo was embarrassed for Sarham - and agree that they could go back to their guest house in fifteen minutes, giving them time to circulate and make their goodbyes politely enough.
"I'll see you in the morning," Kyeo smiled at Sarham.
"Yeah," Sarham smiled back. "See you in the morning."
Kyeo stayed at the party until his father left it, at well after midnight, he didn't know exactly how late. He managed to get out of his borrowed clothes, once he'd staggered up to his childhood room after the festivities, but that was all. He tipped over into bed and slept like the dead until the sun poured through the holes in the curtains and he couldn't close his eyes hard enough to fend off the spots of warmth it made on his bare skin.
He allowed himself five breaths - no one was demanding that he be up yet - then rolled to his feet and stretched, arms and legs and back, and padded to the bathroom for a shower. The water was warm; he stayed in the spray till he heard his mother Yuin's knock, and then got out of her way, wrapped in a towel.
Assuming his father would tell him if he had to wear something in particular, Kyeo put on one of his school uniforms; everything in the closet, if his mother hadn't already given it to friends with younger sons, was from years back and would no longer fit. He didn't even have his work clothes from the time he'd made bricks, those had been returned to the foreman when he went back to school.
At breakfast, which Yuin had laid out before soliciting the shower, there was real butter for the bread and two poached eggs, one each for Kyeo and Suor on the plates at each of their places at the table. Maybe she'd eaten hers already, maybe there'd only been two in the house; whichever it was, Kyeo ate his egg on his bread happily. The butter and the yolk soaked into the crumb all bright and yellow, rendering the texture less stale and more puddingy. There wasn't a vegetable in sight, but there was a dish of dried apples, not portioned out, in the middle of the kitchen table; Kyeo munched to fill up, not knowing when to expect lunch.
Suor appeared, nodded to Kyeo, and ate his egg and bread and butter but declined the apples. Probably Yuin had gotten a thirty pound sack of dried apples at the market months ago and Suor was sick of them now. Kyeo smoothed out a wrinkle in his sleeve only to immediately see it reappear when he bent his elbow again, but even drawing attention to his uniform didn't prompt a command to wear something else, so that was probably all right. Suor drained a cup of water.
Kyeo glanced at the place where Aipen used to sit on the fourth side of the table. "Have you heard from her?" he asked. He didn't have to specify.
"I saw her husband last month when I was in Rukei Valley," Suor replied. "He mentioned she was well. Aipen doesn't need her baby brother fretting about her, Kyeo. She has a husband now."
"We'll meet her children when she has them," Kyeo decided. He didn't know if they'd actually have a chance to do that. He was not sure, off the top of his head, if he'd met every uncle he had on his father's side, let alone his mother's. But it would have sounded pathetic to bid for reassurance that he'd know his nieces and nephews at least to the minimal degree of photos and names. Better to announce confidently that what he wanted was already so, and then save face with silence if it didn't turn out that way, as though the prediction were never made.
Suor didn't undermine the statement. He did say, "Are you going to track down your fifth cousins next? Glorious Leader and the People are there if you need anything, you don't need to rely on Stone Age kinship bonds for your needs now that we have civilization and a real philosophy of interdependence. They aren't teaching you well at school."
"I -" Kyeo was about to say something self-deprecating, blame himself and not his teachers; of course they'd talked about primitive social safety nets and how they'd been supplanted. Suor interrupted him.
"You're going to go with Sarham to the Museum of Fine Art. The parents will not be accompanying you; they have a meeting elsewhere on the planet. You may take him somewhere else appropriate if he becomes bored with the museum, but your judgment will need to be at its best, of course."
"Yes sir," said Kyeo.
"I will have you driven to the house, and you will also be driven to the museum, where you will also be collected. If you leave the museum, circle back to it around sundown so you and Sarham will be able to join us for dinner."
Kyeo got into the car when it arrived - it might have been the same one, with the same driver, that had taken him home from school, though he hadn't gotten a good look at the chauffeur's face last time so couldn't confirm it now without asking and wasn't curious enough to make such an inane remark.
Pedestrians parted when they heard the car coming and they were soon out of the neighborhood where the Sebe Luk household stood and venturing away from the city. There were shabbier houses, and a bridge over the river, and then farms, and then, between an orchard and a stretch of land that didn't seem to be planted with anything except wild scrub and little trees, there was a miniature village. The houses were full-sized, but there were only eight of them, each in a charmingly distinct shape and color and each with a garden in front. A gardener, some middle-aged man with sun-browned skin and a wide straw hat, was pruning a hedge. On the porch of a different house, a woman was sitting on a porch swing with a book open, swaying back and forth. A third house's front walkway was being doodled densely in chalk by a pigtailed girl about eleven years old. The houses stood in a semicircle, and in the center of the semicircle there was a store; Kyeo couldn't see its interior through the tinted windows of the limo, but the baskets out front had fresh fruit and what looked like spices and candy on the left, and a display of various electronics on the right.
The car stopped at the fifth house in the row. Kyeo got out. The car idled in the road.
Presently the door swung open and there was Sarham, smiling at him. "Hi, Kyeo!"
"Hi!" Kyeo replied.
"This is where they have us staying," said Sarham, gesturing not at the house behind him but at the microvillage around it. "What do you think?"
What a weird question. What did he think? Of the village? "It's pretty," Kyeo replied. "Do you buy groceries in the store or are they providing those separately?"
"They have us getting them in the store. Without paying for them. It's not what we're used to," said Sarham. "Come in -"
Kyeo stepped in. "I mean, necessities are free on Ibyabek," he said. "And food's a necessity."
"So you don't pay for food?"
"Of course not," Kyeo said. This was even true, considering Kyeo alone - at school and on work assignments meals were provided, at home his mother did the shopping. She probably sometimes picked up government sack of flour, but things like the dried apples, let alone the eggs, he assumed she paid for with real money in the marketplace. Then again, the Sebe Luks were rich. It was hardly impossible to live on free groceries and lots of people did it at least some of the time.
"Huh," said Sarham, thoughtful. He showed Kyeo to a couch against the living room window and plopped onto it. He patted the seat beside him.
Kyeo almost went to join him but then his sense of responsibility intervened. "I've got a car waiting outside," it sounded better if he said it like that, like he commanded the presence of the car, "to take us to the Museum of Fine Art today, if you're amenable, Sarham."
"Oh. Yes, I'm amenable," Sarham said, hopping up again. "Am I dressed right for it?"
"You're fine," said Kyeo, looking him up and down. Sarham was wearing his own Kularan clothes, layered to Ibyabekan standards of modesty. They looked expensive and well-maintained and that was all Kyeo could discern about the formality level, so he expected nobody else would be very likely to take issue. The summery fabric followed Sarham's outline closely enough that Kyeo could tell he didn't do a lot of physical labor; any muscle there was deliberately placed with exercise, not a practical necessity. Offplanet idleness translated into a sort of exotic softness that some Morale Corps girls and almost no boys displayed within Ibyabek. "You look nice," Kyeo added.
"Thanks," said Sarham. "- are you wearing a uniform?"
"My school uniform," acknowledged Kyeo.
"Isn't school out of session?"
"My other clothes don't fit any more."
"You don't have downtime during school where you can wear other things?"
Kyeo blinked. "Why? - Let's go out to the car."
Sarham let Kyeo lead him into the back of the limo, and they drove the rest of the way around the circle of street that formed the village. The gardener had moved to another section of the garden, but the girl with the chalk was doggedly scrubbing her designs away, and the lady on the porch was still rocking, still intent on her book. "Why what?" asked Sarham, once they were sitting in the backseat.
"Why would I change clothes in the middle of the day for no reason? We change for gym, but otherwise uniforms are fine for everything."
"To..." Sarham trailed off, like he'd never really thought about it before. "I've just never worn a uniform all day long before and don't think I'd like it. Is it more comfortable than it looks?"
"It's fine," said Kyeo. "It isn't like we can go around naked."
Sarham went inexplicably pink in the cheeks. "I suppose not, but some clothes are comfier - or just more you."
"What do you mean, more me?"
"In - do you watch movies -"
"In movies the actors wear all different clothes so you can tell who they are, right?"
"Sure, but I don't need to always be sure to wear a white and crimson color palette so I can be recognized easily in crowd scenes," laughed Kyeo.
Sarham giggled. "No, but like, if somebody's always wearing a hat, or their socks don't match, or their clothes are a little too small on them, that tells you something about them - or if they're dressed like some profession -"
"I'm dressed like a student. I am one," Kyeo pointed out.
"Yeah. I guess so. Maybe we're the weird ones," said Sarham.
"What weird Kularan things do you do with clothes?"
"A lot of schools don't even have uniforms, kids just go in whatever they want as long as it's not... printed with swear words or something," Sarham answered.
"...printed with swear words?"
"Yeah, we have to save those for after school," Sarham said, winking.
"You're making this up," Kyeo said.
"I'm honestly not! I don't have any profane clothing personally but I have friends who do. I'm usually in, like, long shirts with color gradients, and this kind of pants that clings to your legs that's popular lately and way more comfortable than they look - I left all that stuff home, my father didn't think we'd have a lot of chances to wear informal outfits, so this is the sort of thing I'd usually wear to a dance or the theater or something."
"I had school uniforms and gym clothes, and I used to have a couple event outfits but I've outgrown it. I was borrowing what I was wearing last night from my father, I might get new things if there's more parties like that we go to. There are... popular pants?"
"Yeah, there are. Doesn't anyone here get to like... wear pants that are in fashion?"
"Some people don't wear uniforms, but I think they just wear whatever's practical." Whatever was cheap, whatever was given away, whatever would stand up to their work assignments. "I wouldn't have the first idea how to pick my clothes - maybe the sorts of things my father wears to parties are like you're thinking but he's never talked to me about it."
"Huh," said Sarham. "Does the art museum have textiles at all?"
Kyeo had never been. "I've only looked at the paintings before," he said, confident there would be enough paintings to while away a hypothetical visit he might have made in the past. "We can look at any departments you like once we're there."
When they arrived it transpired they'd been assigned a tour guide, a girl who might be Morale Corps but wasn't admitting to it at the moment. She touched Sarham's arm whenever she spoke. They followed her through halls of sculpture, walking slowly so she could talk about each one.
"There aren't any plaques," Sarham remarked, when they moved from the first room to the second.
"In museums I've seen before they write down all the stuff she's saying, so you don't need a tour guide."
"That must put a lot of tour guides out of jobs," said Kyeo.
"I think that's not how jobs work," says Sarham. "It frees up people who would have been tour guides to go do something else, is maybe how my mother would put it. Or it frees up the money the museum would pay them but maybe museums here don't work that way."
"How your mother would put it?"
"She knows about jobs and things like that - there's a word for the subject but I don't know the Ibyabekan for it. She's the one I'd ask, I don't know that my father would have anything interesting to say about tour guides."
"I'd tell you the word if it came to mind," said Kyeo, who had no idea what Sarham was talking about or why anyone considered tour guide employment to be an important subject to teach the women of United Kular.
"Thanks. I like this one," Sarham added of a painting showing some farmland from high altitude, turning his attention back to their neglected tour guide who did not appear herself to know the word for the topic of her trade, or at least didn't consider it within the scope of her duties to supply it. "Did the artist sketch it out from a helicopter or something?"
"Yes, of course," beamed the tour guide. Kyeo had never seen a helicopter and if he'd had to guess he would have guessed the artist was working from a map, but maybe it had been a helicopter. If Sarham preferred to imagine a giant government vehicle being used for something that frivolous there was no harm done in letting him think it. The tour guide went on about the painter and his supposed helicopter ride and pointed out another painting in the room by the same man.
Sarham was quiet for the next several rooms of art. "Do you like these?" Kyeo asked him, when they came to a set of metal sculptures, abstractly twisted around themselves, titled things like "Historic Settling of Ibyabek" and "Right Philosophy" and "Glorious Leader Salutes the People".
"They're -" began Sarham, and after a delay he concluded, "nice."
"Art must be very different on Kular," said Kyeo.
"It is. - how are you thinking it'd be different, specifically?"
"Well, everyone has to pay for everything they need to live, so probably you don't have very many artists," Kyeo replied. "Because who will pay for art when they need their money just not to starve, or to be seen in the hospital if they're sick? And the artists can't do it without being paid, because they need food and medicine too, so probably there is almost no art."
"Huh," said Sarham, almost more of a breath than a response. "Well, there are art museums anyway."
"Maybe they fill them up with Ibyabekan art, since our artists don't have to worry they're going to starve," speculated Kyeo. "I think sometimes we give other planets art objects as diplomatic gifts, do you know if Kular has any?"
"I don't know," said Sarham. "I suppose Father might know. I haven't been to every art museum in Kular."
"You don't travel much?"
"- well, not enough to have been to every art museum in Kular, at any rate." The tour guide kept touching Sarham's arm. Sarham kept taking steps away from her whenever this wouldn't take him directly backwards on their route through the halls.
They'd seen several wings of the museum after a few hours, and then the limousine took them to lunch. The restaurant had two other occupied tables, one with a couple and their nine-year-old daughter, one a group of older men. The waitress (was she also Morale Corps? Kyeo had never run into so many probable Morale Corps members in a row before) seated them by the window, not close to the other diners.
Sarham was frowning at his menu.
"Do you not like this kind of food?" Kyeo asked. He wasn't sure he'd be able to gracefully pull off a relocation to another restaurant, they probably weren't all prepared for diplomatic visits even insofar as this qualified. Maybe the chauffeur would have an idea if Kyeo ducked out to ask him.
"I'm not a picky eater," Sarham said, "I'm just not as good at reading Ibyabekan as I am at speaking. There isn't a lot to read in Ibyabekan when you're studying the language in Kular."
"Why not?" wondered Kyeo. "We write plenty of books and share them with everyone so they can pick up some right philosophy and so on."
"Well - yes," said Sarham. "I'm sure it would take a really long time to read all the books published on Ibyabek. I guess what I mean is - I don't know the word I'm missing. Do you have a word for a particular kind of book, or kind of music, or kind of anything really, where people have tastes between the different kinds?"
"Not off the top of my head."
"Then I guess the easiest way to put it is that I didn't happen to run across Ibyabekan books I liked very much and wasn't sure how to find ones I'd like more," said Sarham. "They all seemed sort of... alike. The movies were more fun, but didn't teach me to read. So I'm having to sound out everything on the menu."
"If you're not picky I could just choose something for you," Kyeo offered.
"Oh - yes, if you don't mind, that would be easier, though I should probably read through this for practice anyway," said Sarham.
"Of course," said Kyeo. He skimmed the menu and flagged down the waitress and ordered Sarham a rack of lamb with rice, and himself pigs' trotters and potatoes. "I hope you're hungry," he mentioned, when he gestured that the girl shouldn't take Sarham's menu, "the desserts look good too."
"I'll probably have managed to read that far by the time we're meant to order some," said Sarham.
"Who'd you learn to speak Ibyabekan from?" Kyeo asked.
"Oh, I had a tutor. The tutor was from - Outer Sohaibek, but the language hasn't diverged that much, so a few conversation partners who had - been to Ibyabek before got me the important differences in dialect even without full time tutoring."
Kyeo wondered at the pauses, but probably Sarham was just fumbling for words, and if they didn't seem to Kyeo that they were the sort of words that would be hard to remember at Sarham's fluency that was probably just his ignorance from never having had to operate in a second language. Probably Kyeo would be forgetting the words for bread and the sky and so on, now and then.
Their food arrived very quickly, and while Sarham looked a little puzzled at his first bite of rice, it was Kyeo's most appealing meal in recent memory; the meat was rich and the potatoes were smooth and none of it was dried or pickled. "Is your food to your liking?" Kyeo asked, when he couldn't resist asking any more.
"Oh, it's - good." Surely "good" was not a very advanced vocabulary word but maybe Sarham was reaching for shades of meaning he didn't know how to express in Ibyabekan. "Do you want to trade half of mine for half of yours? I'm not used to this style of rice, I think."
They exchanged meal-halves and Sarham seemed better pleased with the potatoes; Kyeo, indifferent, let him have it all and took the rest of the rice. It seemed fine to him. "How do they do rice on Kular?"
"It comes out softer," said Sarham. "There aren't many people eating here, are there?"
"Probably it's work hours for most people in the area."
"Then why is the restaurant open at this time at all?"
"Maybe they were asked to stay open an extra hour," guessed Kyeo, "specifically for us - you're an important guest, of course. Or maybe it's not work hours, it's that people are hanging back to avoid crowding you."
"I suppose that's why the museum was so empty, too."
"Was it? I don't know how full museums should be."
"It seemed like it to me but it's harder to tell, when there aren't tables and chairs standing empty," Sarham replied. "Slow day."
"Yes," Kyeo agreed.
They ordered dessert - Sarham had indeed read through the entire menu by then and wanted pumpkin custard, and Kyeo got flan, and they tasted but didn't outright trade from each other's plates. Kyeo had to attend to himself very carefully to keep from wolfing down his entire flan in a wretchedly inappropriate manner. Sarham didn't seem to be having that problem, which Kyeo imagined had to do with diplomatic training. Perhaps he'd been drilled on behaving with desserts after fasting all day long or something outlandish like that.
Kyeo toyed with asking, but didn't, and instead let Sarham ask him questions about his school - did they play thus and such sports, did they cover thus and such math? - and replied as properly as he knew how, with some exaggeration of his personal skill at both math and sports but an accurate rendition of what they covered in gym lest he be called upon to prove it. If he were prevailed upon to play ball with Sarham he could hardly object to the requirement and had better not turn up ignorant of a claimed curriculum. Kyeo considered it less likely that he was about to be quizzed on calculus.
Sarham did not whip out any such test. They finished their desserts - Kyeo timed things so his last bite began just a moment after Sarham's did. They climbed back into the limousine to return to the museum for the rest of their tour. The same guide met them and conducted them through the remaining sections of the tour.
"Are you all right?" Kyeo asked them, as they passed through a room with a water feature clad in elaborate tiles. Sarham had barely said a word, seemed to be all out of questions.
"I'm fine," said Sarham. "Just - I'm fine."
"All right," said Kyeo, but he didn't miss Sarham's glance at their beaming guide.
The limousine carried them to the same restaurant again after their museum tour was over. As he'd implied, Suor was there, with Yuin along at his elbow smiling at her son and at Sarham, and Mr. and Mrs. Peng were along too, the former clapping his son on the shoulder in greeting when they walked in. It was still quiet in the restaurant. There was a couple at another table toward the back, and an older man dining alone in a corner, but that was all.
Sarham didn't comment. He smiled back at Kyeo's parents and they all sat down; they weren't given menus, just a series of small plates brought in batches, removed as they emptied, for the six of them to share. Kyeo noticed that Sarham and his parents both helped themselves to pickles and bread even though there was meat and fruit and eggs and even fish to be had. They kept doing it even when it turned out that vegetables were replaced with more vegetables and rolls with more rolls. Maybe even those things were hard to come by in Kular for some reason; Kyeo knew that Ibyabek was fortunate in having particularly good growing conditions over most of the planet. He tried not to think about poor Sarham eating synthetic protein cubes or something awful like that back home.
Suor took charge of the conversation, keeping it light without straying into gratuitously insubstantial topics like the weather. He wanted to know what the boys thought of the art museum, whether the elder Pengs had had pleasant flights to and from their appointment, whether everyone had heard the Glorious Leader's latest public address. Everyone answered his questions in turn. Kyeo found himself with very little to say. While he was consistently able to manifest interest in what Sarham was inscrutably thinking, and didn't mind telling Sarham what was on his mind to the extent it was reasonable conversational material, Kyeo's father kept the conversation too firmly on his rails for it to be engaging. Fortunately with half a dozen people at the table he didn't have to say much to be doing his share of the talking, and if Sarham was quiet too, his diplomat father filled in for him just fine.
The limousine took all six of them back to the Pengs' guest house after they'd had dessert (a rich lemony cake that Kyeo was glad his mother had portioned for him, because he would have had serious trouble being restrained about it if he'd been serving). Suor and Wulaar were talking about the climate on the peninsula by the time they stepped out of the car.
"Kyeo?" said Sarham, hesitating to approach the house.
"Yes?" said Kyeo.
"Do you want to go for - a walk, out into the fields, is that okay?"
"It's fine," said Kyeo. He loped after Sarham, who ducked between two of the miniature village houses and struck out in a random direction over some relatively traversible native plants with that characteristic purplish blush to them. "Do you like taking walks?"
"I actually don't at home," said Sarham. "At home I have a bike, remember?"
"Right. Isn't it hard to ride? With only two wheels?"
"It took some getting used to but it's not hard any more. - I think my mother's not happy here. She might want to leave soon and take me."
"Will your father let her?" wondered Kyeo, bewildered.
Sarham looked over his shoulder at Kyeo. "Let her take me or let her leave at all?"
"Yeah. He'll let her," said Sarham. "I guess he might try to convince her to stay if it's important but I'm not sure it is."
"But -" said Kyeo, maneuvering over a trickily uneven piece of ground, "- don't you want to stay?" Sarham didn't answer. The polite thing to do would be for Kyeo to pretend that he'd never asked the question, but it sat in the air, heavy between them. "Don't you like it here?" Sarham wasn't just overwhelmed by things being more beautiful and comfortable than he was used to, right, he'd seemed more even-keeled about it than that.
"I like some things about it," Sarham said eventually. "I like the - but there's - I think I'm having a better time than Mom."
"You keep stopping in the middle of talking," Kyeo said, which was unspeakably rude, but if Sarham was going to leave anyway -
"Yeah. I know." Kyeo hadn't been expecting Sarham to acknowledge it. Not only did he do that, he went on: "I got a lot of instructions about how to be polite here, and it's often really hard to think of anything polite to say. Especially since I don't like lying."
"You don't like lying?" Kyeo wasn't sure he'd heard right. It was like someone asserting they didn't like the sound of their own heartbeat.
"Well, I usually don't have to do it!" said Sarham, pressing his hands against the sides of his head. "I've been on eight planets and twenty continents and this is the first one where I have to lie all the time so I don't offend anyone! I'm not even actually supposed to tell you I've been that many places!"
"You're not going to offend me," said Kyeo, and he didn't even know if that was a lie, but he was suddenly, desperately, searingly curious to know what had been going through Sarham's mind in all those pauses, what Sarham wasn't saying in all those silences.
"Even if I'm not you're probably reporting on me to your father or somebody on anything I say," Sarham said, stopping in the middle of the field.
"No I'm not," replied Kyeo automatically, and Sarham answered him with a look so withering that Kyeo suddenly felt like no one had ever actually looked at him, ever before in his life, and this first occasion of being looked at was like plummeting off a cliff, surrounded only by air on all sides, nothing solid but himself and himself worryingly liquefied by Sarham's eyes.
Sarham's expression softened at something he saw in Kyeo's face. Kyeo swallowed what might have been an embarrassing gurgle.
With a sigh, Sarham reached out and - brushed his thumb over Kyeo's cheekbone. Kyeo experienced a sudden sympathy for anyone who didn't like the sound of their heartbeat. His was oppressively loud at the moment. "Wh-" he said.
"You had a bug on your face," said Sarham, coloring slightly.
"Oh," said Kyeo stupidly.
"It's not your fault," said Sarham.
"Having a bug on my -"
"You didn't have a bug on your face. Sorry. Getting too used to lying."
"- not having a bug on -"
"It's not your fault that you're reporting to your father or that you're lying about it," said Sarham. "It's not your fault that I don't like it here. I like you, it's just - it isn't your fault."
Kyeo was no longer entirely clear on what this conversation was about. He put his hand on his cheek where Sarham had touched it as though to feel for a bug bite.
"Sorry," Sarham said again. "I shouldn't have."
"I don't mind," said Kyeo.
"I'd still appreciate it if you didn't mention it to your father. - I mean, if that won't get you in trouble. I don't want to get you in trouble."
"I can tell him I had a bug on my face. If he was looking out the window with binoculars, which he wasn't," said Kyeo rashly.
Sarham glanced back at the village. He tromped out farther across the field, and Kyeo followed him.
They walked for another ten minutes in silence.
When they'd gotten to an area with more trees, Kyeo spoke up. "Why doesn't your mother like it here?"
"She... well, she's not getting quite the same kind of hospitality I am, right, because she's a woman," said Sarham slowly. He found a fallen log and sat on it.
"...what, does she want to be a man?" Kyeo sat beside him after far too long dithering about how much space to leave between them.
"No. Uh, she wants - I don't know how to explain it."
"Is this about you thinking I'll tell my father?"
"Yes. But I also don't know how to explain it. Things are so different off Ibyabek in so many ways that it'd be hard to know where to start even if I could just trust you and not worry about it."
Kyeo wanted to tell Sarham he could trust him. But if he just said that Sarham would probably look at him again. And he couldn't say it would never get back to Suor, that it was safe, that it would never be a bad idea to tell Kyeo everything that went on in his head in all his quiet moments. It would be a lie. And Sarham would know better, and probably he wouldn't pretend it was true even if Kyeo really really wanted him to.
"Sorry," said Sarham, when it had been too long with neither of them talking.
"It's -" What had Sarham said before. It had been a nice thing to say, like he might have looked at Kyeo but that didn't have to mean everything was ruined forever. "It's not your fault."
"Thanks," said Sarham.
They sat, watching the trees move in the wind, Kyeo wasn't sure how long. He tried to think of something to say that would be light and easy to talk about. His father was good at that when he was at work. His father would just chain from topic to topic, one minute finding metaphors in flower arrangements and in another meditating on the implications of the exact word choice in a philosophical maxim and the next learning his conversational partner's entire family tree even though none of those people would ever matter to him at all, filling the air, developing rapport, never offending and never giving away too much and never getting looked at.
"Do you mind if I sing?" Kyeo asked finally.
"You sing?" asked Sarham, sounding oddly delighted. "Go ahead - please -"
Kyeo was now somewhat concerned that Sarham was going to listen the same way he looked, but he'd gone and suggested it, so he followed through. The melody line to Anthem of the Bright Way was simple but had room for flourishes, if you were singing alone and wouldn't disrupt the group, so he added little figures in the middles of lines, showing off.
When he came to the end of the last verse Sarham was smiling at him. Kyeo smiled back, a reflex that belied how he felt about the matter - or maybe it didn't belie it, Kyeo didn't know because he couldn't identify the feeling. The nice thing about not caring much about lying was not needing to aggressively identify the truth. "You like it?" he asked, sounding too quiet, but there weren't many other sounds out in the woods, probably Sarham could hear him.
"If I sort of - pretend I don't speak Ibyabekan and let the lyrics just be sounds - I love it," says Sarham.
"What's wr- should I not ask what's wrong with the lyrics -"
"You shouldn't ask what's wrong with the lyrics. Sorry," said Sarham. "Would you sing another one?"
Kyeo sang another one, and another one, and another, and he was running out of songs he knew all the words to but Sarham was still smiling at him. Kyeo broke out a song he'd made up himself when he was thirteen, stumbled through it quickly, hoped Sarham wasn't trying to interpret the lyrics to discover that they were about getting a plum for his birthday. It was a stupid thing to write a song about, it had just been a very good plum. Then he remembered how to begin Stars of Ibyabek and sang that, and then he noticed that Sarham had scooted closer along the log. Their hands were almost touching.
Kyeo observed that, and then kept observing it, and then stared some more, as though written explanations would appear across their knuckles any moment, or -
"Sorry," said Sarham, standing up suddenly.
"- what for -" said Kyeo, lost.
"You're - I shouldn't - you didn't exactly decide to be here, right, you have an assignment, and also I think here it might actually be - never mind the details, just, I'm sorry, I'll get ahold of myself."
"I like this assignment," said Kyeo defensively.
"That's -" Sarham struggled with something privately for a moment; Kyeo watched it happen on his face, but like the lyrics of the anthem it didn't resolve into meaning. "I'm glad," he said finally. "That you don't mind hanging out with me."
"I like you," Kyeo told him.
"I'm glad," Sarham murmured.
"It's not just that I'm comparing to last summer making bricks -"
"- well, someone has to, that's what I did last school break."
It occurred belatedly to Kyeo that this was not one of the things he was supposed to say, it didn't have the right tone to it - even if he'd never been given a list of things he was forbidden to mention, he usually had a sense for it, and the sense had failed him. He wouldn't have forgotten about that if Sarham had just asked him what he'd been doing last summer. If Sarham had asked him what he'd been doing last summer, he would have said he hung out with his friends and went to the movies a lot and threw a holiday party. But scrambling to clarify that Sarham had more than lackluster competition in his favor had silenced the alarm that told him what things were and were not showing off Ibyabek to best advantage.
Sarham was looking at him again, with a sort of urgent sadness, and Kyeo's gaze flinched down at his own knees, not sure how to bear it.
It was growing dark. "We might trip if we wait too much longer to walk back," Sarham said, looking up through the leaves of the trees.
"All right," said Kyeo.
They stood up and started toward the village, both watching their feet as though very concerned about stepping in burrows or stumbling over stones. "What's making bricks like?" asked Sarham softly.
"It's fine, and now whenever I see a brick building I wonder if I helped. You get clay all over yourself though," said Kyeo. And he'd seen someone break a toe dropping a brick on it, but he was paying attention to what came out of his mouth, now, so he didn't say that.
"Huh," breathed Sarham.
They entered the guest house, wiped their feet at the door. Suor glanced at them, then over the next minute steered the conversation among the adults from something about native Ibyabekan birds to the late hour, and motioned for Kyeo to come with him, when they'd been excused for the evening. Suor put his hand on Kyeo's shoulder to steer him out.
In the car, there was silence. Kyeo couldn't think of anything to say, and Suor apparently didn't care to - Kyeo wouldn't believe that he couldn't; if nothing else he could have summarized whatever Kyeo had missed about native birds.
The chauffeur let them out at the Sebe Luk home. When Kyeo tried the lightswitch on the way in it didn't work; Suor fetched a candle. "Son," he said, as Kyeo was about to slip up the stairs rather than sit up by candlelight, "stay a minute."
"On philosophically troubled planets," Suor said after a hesitation, "there's a common malady, one you probably haven't heard of - Ibyabekan doctors know how to manage it and it so seldom appears when children are raised right. But your new pairmate hasn't had those advantages."
"- I haven't noticed him being sickly," said Kyeo. Slender, but just like he didn't do physical work much, not like he was wasting away. Dark, a little, but not so much so that Kyeo would have completely missed it if he were flushed with fever or wan with fatigue.
"Not physically. It's a philosophical issue, not a physical one," said his father. "Of course, I'm not a doctor myself. I may be mistaking something else for the condition. But if I'm not, then it represents a unique opportunity for you."
"If Sarham is sick, shouldn't we take him to a hospital?"
"His parents wouldn't allow it," said Suor. "They're suspicious of anything they haven't paid for, foreigners, they'd make an incident of it. It's not likely to kill him, you needn't be too worried."
"Father, what do you think he has?"
"I suspect," replied Suor, "that he's interested in -" he waved a hand with a vague gesture Kyeo had never seen him make, "the simulation of a sort of mock marital relationship with boys, insofar as that's possible, and he's gotten confused by the pairmate arrangement. It'll rattle his judgment if you encourage that a bit, and he may tell you things as though in confidence."
Kyeo took an embarrassingly long time to decipher what that meant. "En...courage... him?" he asked haltlingly. Encourage him how - encourage him to do what, and how much of it, and -
"I didn't promise you an easy assignment," said Suor sharply. "Intelligence from United Kular could be essential to the continued survival of Ibyabek. Not everything done to protect our home planet is comfortable, you may as well learn that now and not in military training later on."
"I - I'm sorry, Father, I didn't mean to complain," said Kyeo, abashed, cheeks burning, "I just -" He did not want, he realized, to ask his father in exactly what way he was meant to encourage Sarham to conduct a mock marital relationship. "I think I follow you," he lied, he'd figure it out later, "is there anything specific that Ibyabek hopes to learn -"
"Outer Sohaibekan monitoring of their trojan asteroids," replied Suor. "What equipment and personnel they have on that. Whether United Kular is supplying or could be persuaded to supply Outer Sohaibek with weapons and materiel, ships and troops, or any other aid in the event of a shooting war. Developments in technology as relevant to the balance of power in our system. United Kular's alliance status with Outer Sohaibek, Xeren, Olach, anyone else he knows about. Any movements at the base on Riakebek - that's their big moon, not the little one."
Kyeo nodded at this list, nod nod nod over and over again like acknowledging an item would make it be the last one, but Suor went on; there was a great deal, it turned out, that Ibyabek wanted to know.
"And son," Suor said, finally, "this philosophical problem the Peng boy has. It may be catching. Keep an eye on yourself, but you can always go see a doctor about it later. As I said it isn't life-threatening."
"Yes, Father," said Kyeo.
"That's all. Good night," Suor told him, and Kyeo fled up the stairs.
Later, he lay awake in bed, turning over this terrifying conversation in his mind. Kyeo determined that it was apparently within his power to generate ideas of how to encourage Sarham. Once he'd managed to fall asleep, his brain continued to produce suggestions, each less plausible than the last, and when he woke up he was glad the water in the shower ran cold.
Kyeo and Sarham were sitting in the woods again. Kyeo had suggested it because he'd had, the previous night, a mortifying dream in which he'd fumbled an attempt at encouragement and a Morale Corps shopgirl had come over to show him how it was done. Mercifully, he'd forgotten the rest of the dream, but he was pretty sure none of it had taken place in the woods.
"How old is the terraforming around here?" Sarham asked, touching the bark of one of the larger trees.
"This part of the planet? A hundred years," said Kyeo. It was probably more than eighty, anyway. "There are younger parts where you wouldn't find trees this big but Bright City's the oldest settlement."
"Someday I want to go to Earth," said Sarham. "There's stuff that's thousands of years old there. Trees. Buildings."
None of Kyeo's ideas had begun with segueing from a conversation about how old things were on Earth of all places. In retrospect, he was probably going to have to work with something more like this than like finding a pond to fall in and having Sarham rescue him and finding it necessary afterwards to get out of their wet clothes "to dry off".
"You seem preoccupied," Sarham said, which was worse.
"I heard," said Kyeo, "that -" He could not finish this sentence with "that you have a philosophical problem". "That on Kular sometimes -" He'd meant to go on "boys kiss each other" but his father had not exactly said that, and lying about what he'd heard was fine but having some totally laughable misconception about what philosophically troubled boys got up to was not. Perhaps he had invented that in his own philosophically troubled brain and really boys on United Kular just did - he had no idea.
"Lots of things happen on Kular sometimes." Sarham tilted his head. Kyeo was staring at his mouth. Kyeo was trying to make up an alternative hearsay. On Kular they drink raindrops when their plumbing breaks rather than have it fixed out of public money. On Kular they translate all their imported movies so that there's Kularan propaganda added in. On Kular...
"Never mind," said Kyeo.
"On Kular," Sarham said after a pause, "we can get on the skylace and see all of it, whenever we want."
"I've seen the skylace," said Kyeo. They covered computer and skylace use in school. Kyeo had learned to get reading and listening material in Kularan Creole for his language class off a couple of sites, and for one term they'd had a system for submitting classwork that way but they went back to hard copy after that. He could look up pictures of wild mushrooms and native grasses and see if whatever he was looking at was all right to eat it. There was some way to get music off it that Imyu had figured out but Kyeo hadn't gotten the hang of it, there were too many bypasses and things that if you clicked on them took you to the wrong place and logged an alert into the system. "What do you mean whenever you want?"
Sarham reached into his pocket and pulled out a glassy rectangle with ribbons of color on its back surface. "My parents brought backup lenses," he said. "In case theirs broke and they couldn't get, uh, Kularan-style replacement parts that would fit them, here. Since they need to be in touch with home sometimes."
Kyeo was too fascinated by the object to ask what was wrong with Ibyabekan electronics. Ibaybekan ones were plasticky and had more buttons and they were usually gray. This one looked like a white glass marble from a museum, rolled out flat and stretching its candy-pink streaks into pressed twists, and it wasn't even lit up yet. "So that isn't yours?"
"No, it's one of Mom's. I - wasn't supposed to bring my own lens. I thought it'd be fine, a lot of people miss the skylace awfully but I don't all that much, but - I took this one to show you."
"It's interesting," said Kyeo, instead of It's beautiful.
"I mean, the idea is you turn it on, not just look at it. I'm not sure I'll be able to get on the skylace from here," admitted Sarham. "It might want access codes or something." He tapped the surface of the rectangle with two fingers and the beribboned pattern was hidden by milk-white and a slowly turning image of a planet.
"Is that Kular?"
The image changed, a geometric pattern of colors Kyeo couldn't interpret at all, and Sarham poked one, and it changed again, and Sarham said "Yep, it wants an Ibyabekan ID... sorry."
"I have an Ibyabekan ID."
"You don't think it'd get you in trouble?" Sarham asked, shying away a little, pulling back the lens.
"No," said Kyeo, already halfway through extemporizing an explanation for his father about how this was somehow "encouraging", and Sarham gave him the lens.
Kyeo's ID unlocked the skylace bobbin in orbit above them, and it spun them onto what must be the default Kularan site, a startlingly boring text box.
"What do you wanna see?" Sarham asked softly.
"I - don't know," said Kyeo. "What is there? What did you want to show me?"
Sarham looked at the empty text box. He put the lens down on his knee and looked up at the treetops. "I guess I was imagining there'd be a hundred things you already knew you wanted. Maybe there aren't. I watch movies, at home - and write messages to my friends - I order food sometimes, which will not work at all here -"
"Messages to your friends? About what?"
"Uh," said Sarham, and he picked up the lens again, went back to the geometrical display, poked a triangle, logged in to something. "I don't remember what I last talked to people about, but I can get my history..." Names in Kularan skated past under Sarham's fingertips. He chose one.
Kyeo could read the Kularan all right, though it was harder with a lot of the formal markers and particles they had in class material, and some of the words he didn't know at all, maybe derived from different pidgin source languages instead of the ones his textbooks marked as standard. He picked his way through it. Someone was asking Sarham are you almost home and Sarham replied yes and he says he isn't - there Kyeo didn't know the word - so thank you very so extremely much my friendfriendfriendthing except that last part was written with sarcastic-looking diacritics connecting all the different emphasis particles and various synonyms for "friend", to what was presumably some sort of rhetorical effect.
"What does the word mean there -" Kyeo began, but Sarham had swept the messages away, nearly dropping the lens in the process.
"Whoops," said Sarham in a high voice. "Uh you were asking what my friends and I talk about - I guess we talk about, uh, movies, and where we're going to meet, and how we're doing -"
"There was a word I didn't know," Kyeo said.
"Just one, uh, wow, your Kularan must be great," said Sarham, "do you want to switch to Kularan, we could practice -"
Kyeo looked at him. He wanted to back off, all his social instincts were telling him not to push on it, to let the deflection stand, but the substance of this snatch of organic Kularan conversation was eluding him without the word. He said neither yes nor no.
"My friend set me up with his cousin," said Sarham, collapsing a little under the silence. "The cousin wasn't interested, my friend made a mistake."
"Oh," said Kyeo, and then, "I see," and, "I have heard that on United Kular boys are sometimes that way but did not know the word."
"- is there an Ibyabekan word? I don't know one," murmured Sarham.
Kyeo shook his head, and then, as though falling, succumbing to some shift in gravity, he leaned forward, and he kissed Sarham.
Sarham made a little noise, a wonderful little noise Kyeo wanted foolishly to set to music, and kissed him back.
Apparently it was true that sometimes on Kular boys kissed other boys after all. Apparently also Kularan boys would sometimes put their hands on those other boys and pull them in closer, with their fingers interleaved with hair, clenching in fabric. Apparently boys from Kular were very rewarding to kiss.
Kyeo didn't know how long he had been experiencing this fascinating truth when Sarham pulled away, retracted his arms back into his lap. Kyeo leaned after him, caught himself, sat up straight. Sarham had his eyes clenched shut and his lips a little apart, like he was about to say something, but he didn't, for a long moment.
"Sarham?" said Kyeo, quietly. Sarham, are you okay - Sarham, what's wrong - Sarham, kiss me more -
"We can't," said Sarham.
"We just did," said Kyeo, almost indignant.
"We mustn't," clarified Sarham, "I, I, your dad told you to be here, you don't - you don't have -"
"I wanted to," Kyeo insisted. His father wasn't some kind of perfect anti-compass who would never tell him to do anything that he wanted to do. Later his father would send him to a hospital to be cured of his philosophical malady and Kyeo would probably want that too because by then Sarham would not be around to be encouraged any more.
"Maybe," said Sarham, whose eyes were still closed.
"Why won't you look at me?"
"If I look at you I'll kiss you again."
"You could just kiss me again," said Kyeo reasonably.
Sarham shook his head. "I - it's a bad idea - do you want to see anything on the skylace, I can't be sure I'll be able to swipe it again -"
Kyeo took the offered lens from Sarham, didn't check himself when he wanted to let his hand linger a moment in contact, but didn't escalate either. He looked, blankly, at the geometrical screen. Poked a circle inside a rectangle inside a square, and found a gallery of photographs. There were menu items, at the bottom of the screen, but Kyeo saw the first photograph and pushed it aside for the next and he never paid the buttons any mind.
Sarham and a dozen other people on some kind of open-topped car, descending a hill, arms flung up while water splashed around them and their mouths all opened in shrieks of delight. Sarham and a friend taking a picture of themselves on a bridge over a river, full of boats, reflecting a thousand lights from twin rows of buildings down each side. Sarham with some little child on his shoulders, both cackling. Sarham and his parents in a botanical garden, surrounded by flowers. Sarham floating in a zero-g room full of colorful padded objects while strangers flew behind him in the background. Sarham in a restaurant with a bunch of friends, food heaped in front of them, tables and tables and tables behind them packed with families and couples and groups, so packed some of them were standing by the bar. Sarham on another planet shown with rings behind him - Sarham in a fancy coat at some sort of holiday party - Sarham receiving an award on stage with classmates all around applauding - Sarham in dozens of outfits, dozens of places, with dozens of people, smiling, smiling, smiling.
Had all this happened?
This many things?
"Are they real?" he heard himself ask.
"They're real," said Sarham, in a soft broken voice. "They're all real. There's more. Those are just the highlights the app uses as wallpaper when I open it. Do - do you believe me, that they're real, and not - like the village -"
"The village?" asked Kyeo, feeling empty. Small. Overwhelmed. Poor.
"They have us in a village that they want us to think is normal, like everyone on Ibyabek lives that way all the time, and they put people in it, and pretend they live there," said Sarham. "The village... exists. You can go knock on the walls. But we can tell - it's different. It's like - look at this." He tickled the lens and it popped up a photo of a shelf of packages. "That's the tofu section," Sarham went on. "Of the grocery store where my family shops. I went out for a few things and they didn't have my mother's favorite kind. I took this to send her so she'd see what was in stock so she could point me to what her second choice was. I had to take two pictures," he skipped to the next one, clearly taken just to the left of the first, there was overlap, "because it didn't all fit in one shot easily."
Kyeo skipped to the next picture. It was Sarham in some deliriously crowded building with high swooping ceilings, art glass dangling from the ceiling to make an air-bordered mosaic in the shape of a swan, trees growing indoors. The depicted Sarham had a backpack on, and a suitcase with wheels, and out the window behind him was a space shuttle.
"That's from when we left for here. I posted it where my friends could see as a goodbye," Sarham said.
"Why did you come here?" Kyeo asked in an airless whisper. He looked up at Sarham's face, his real face, not the rueful smile he'd made for the camera in the shuttleport, and - Sarham was crying. Not sobbing, but there were tear tracks down his cheeks.
"To be with my parents." Sarham took a deep breath. "To - learn. About what it's like here. To meet - I didn't know about you specifically, but - you."
"To meet me and show me pictures -"
"I didn't have that in mind at first. I -"
"BOYS," called Suor's voice, from the edge of the trees.
Sarham swore - or so Kyeo surmised, since he did it in Kularan. He jabbed the lens till it went blank again. Stuffed it in his pocket.
"BOYS," came the call again. "COME BACK NOW."
Sarham swore again, dropping his face into his hands.
"They caught you?"
"I think so. That or something's on fire. I'll be in trouble - they might send me home -"
"Kiss me goodbye," said Kyeo.
Sarham looked up.
"He doesn't know how far we walked, how long it'll take us to come, he won't know - if you're going to have to leave it doesn't matter anyway what he said - I wanted to - kiss me goodbye."
Sarham didn't have to be told a third time. He took Kyeo's face between his hands and kissed him, hard and fast, and then -
- squared his shoulders, let him go, and obeyed the voice.
Kyeo looked at his hand, wondering what it would be like to hold, but that he didn't ask. They were going out of the trees and back into the glorious civilization of Ibyabek, now. No more skylace, no more kisses, no more time.
Kyeo returned to school, thinner and quieter. He was in a lower merit class with boys he'd never met before, but it was at least the same school, which was very generous of the People after all his mistakes. Sometimes he saw Soh and Imyu and other boys he'd once had classes with across the cafeteria but he didn't try to talk to them. Having ultimately admitted to the philosophical educators that in retrospect he had had the problem since well before meeting the offworlder, Kyeo could acknowledge that it would be a shameful lack of discipline to try to speak to any boy he had ever looked at in that way before. Better to start fresh with his new and better tested commitment to right philosophy, with new classmates he had formed no habits with.
He ate his bread as though it was baked fresh and dripping with honey butter. He drank his soup down to the last drop. He was far too well trained to ask for anyone else's leftovers. It would be unworthy of a grateful son of Ibyabek.
The first time the water came cold out of the shower, he wept, but he did it silently, and without flinching away, so no one could tell. Or if they could they said nothing.
Kyeo studied, ferociously, to catch up. He could not be promoted into Merit Class 1 again before his old friends graduated, but they were a year ahead of him now and he could work his way back up. He could with enough work lose only that year and not the entire shape of his life. Five years on he'd be like anyone else in Ibyabek's military service, cured and readjusted and trained and ready, and he'd be past all his troubles and all the hard work of overcoming his weakness, and he would be contributing and happy and married and settled into his place in the world.
By the time the term was out he had turned in six of his classmates for various contraband and curfew violations.
They weren't even on complicated missions to suborn offworld visitors. They were committing petty vandalism against the glorious edifice of Ibyabek for chocolate and to deprive themselves of sleep. Kyeo had let things slide, sometimes, before, had considered these little flexibilities no real assault on the power and integrity of his planet, but if he had transgressed -
If he had gone without bread to better shape himself into an upright man of the kind his people expected - if he had stood, awake, in light that never flickered, battered by recitations that never faltered -
- then these stupid children could take their demerits, and if the Academy of Merit was not the flawless jewel it said it was, at least it would present a flawless facet to Kyeo, as everyone he might lay eyes on buttoned up their uniforms more perfectly and kept their conversations free of allusions to what teachers they bribed and what tests they cheated on and what pornography they were hacking the skylace connection to deliver.
The stupid children could support Kyeo in his desperate quest to never need a second course of treatment. They could be set dressing to his burning need to fall back into a world where Ibyabek was the storied treasure of the Glorious Leader, envy of the galaxy.
He tried not to remember the pictures, which were probably all painted fever dreams anyway. He tried not to remember Sarham's name.
Kyeo graduated and put in six months' work in a planetside shipyard, one of the best possible assignments to receive going into a military career because he'd be able to observe details of how the ships were put together. He fetched and carried for the welders, learned to clip wires into place and calibrate sensors, spray-stenciled the name of the vessel onto panel after panel of plastic and metal. When the assignnment was over he went directly to basic training with no stop at home. There was nothing he had to say to his parents and nothing they had to say to him. It wasn't the Stone Age. He didn't need his family, he had the People, and his family had made it perfectly clear they were willing to yield him up thereunto, so that was that.
In his cohort in training he was not the only person who had been through some kind of supplementary education. Kyeo told himself it was beneath him to wonder what the others had done, when they, as he, had clearly been deemed rehabilitated by the experts. But most of the class were new to the sleepless nights, the short rations, and did not acquit themselves well at first. It was good to take on these challenges and become accustomed in a safe environment, their sergeant explained. The enemies of Ibyabek would not wait for them to rest. The enemies of Ibyabek would not take pity on their empty bellies when disrupting supply lines that brought meals to the supply stations or cutting off their vessels' access to their pickup.
Kyeo and his fellow veterans waited for the rest to catch up until they could all function on three days of water fast with six non-consecutive hours of sleep. The enemies of Ibyabek didn't push their recruits this hard, the sergeant told them. They were soft and weak and decadent. By becoming hard and dangerous and disciplined the Ibyabekans would defeat them. Even if they found themselves in a battle where - despite Ibyabek's overwhelming technological and strategic superiority - they were locally outnumbered and ill-positioned, their training would allow them to carry the day.
Ibyabek was not at war with any of those enemies at the moment. Most of the military held the border of Ibyabekan space in routine beats, making sure they were close at hand in case anything broke out, and otherwise chasing after fleeing criminals and traitors, or beating back smugglers and agitators looking to land on Ibyabekan soil and infect it from the inside. But there was always the possibility that diplomacy would fail, that greed-blinded foreign powers would want what Ibyabek had -
(Kyeo's vision swam, for a moment, as he fought against remembering a picture of a city on a river, lit up -)
- greed-blinded foreign powers would want what Ibyabek had and make a move, and then the sons of Ibyabek would be called upon to give their lives to defend it. Were they ready? They'd better get that way, because their enemies wouldn't give any warning.
Kyeo looked at another recruit the wrong way in a moment of inattention. He turned the water in the shower cold, cold, cold, even though the heater was working fine. He had to be ready. Everything Ibyabek had was his to defend and if he wasn't a soldier he had nothing left.
Kyeo was assigned to the Five Virtues and hummed rather than sang when the rest of his unit raised their voices to celebrate their departure from spacedock. His voice had a gravelly quality to it that didn't yield to coughing or water, like it was trying to prove to a long-gone listener that he had repeated what he was meant to repeat enough times.
But he knew the tune to the Anthem of the Bright Way, because of course he did, and he hummed it, almost smiling. Everything had turned out all right, and he was in uniform, aboard a ship, headed for the Middle Sohaibek demilitarized zone's edge to make sure the Outer Sohaibekans didn't send any ships through without going through proper channels and inspections. They might have to perform those inspections themselves at some point, but they didn't have any scheduled. It was expected to be a routine posting. They'd sleep, they'd eat, they'd maintain the ship and watch the sensors and perform their drills.
For six months they did this.
Kyeo, greener than most of the crew, had mostly menial duties, but also - he thought because of the Sebe Luk part of his name, not that anyone said this to him - he was receiving on-tour training in the military communications protocols. He sat with Officer Tahn for part of each day while he decrypted messages from Ibyabek and the station outposts and the other ships. Kyeo watched over Tahn's shoulder as he converted a transmission sent from People's Law and ran it through all the steps to render it as plaintext.
When it'd gone from gibberish in the code alphabet to legible Ibyabekan characters, the screen background turned red.
"Shit," said Tahn.
Kyeo didn't ask what the red meant, though he had no idea. It had probably been covered, asking would be a distraction, he couldn't improve matters with the digression. "Sir?" he said instead, flicking his eyes over the message to try to pick out key words in the message jargon. He recognized some but Tahn replied before he'd deciphered the paragraph.
"People's Law has been damaged, badly. Outer Sohaibekan incursion into the buffer zone," Tahn replied, clipped, not really for Kyeo's ears but for the captain across the bridge. "They're requesting backup and we're closest. Sixty degrees seven minutes by -" Tahn rattled off the coordinates, all relative to the ellipse in which Ibyabek circled the sun, Ibyatok.
"Arrest our movement," the captain told the pilot. "Prepare to come about. Tahn, alert Glorious Leader's Hand that they're going to have to cover our swath, and tell People's Law - nothing, the enemy might have boarded them, could intercept."
"Sir," replied the pilot and Tahn both in acknowledgment. The ship's systems creaked and the bulk of the vessel heaved as it fired up the engines to counter its inertia. Kyeo gripped the armrest of Tahn's chair to keep his feet. Tahn rocked back a little with the motion but was focused intently on alerting Glorious Leader's Hand. Kyeo watched Tahn pare down the message to proper terminology. Once that was encrypted and sent on its way, he started composing another one, asking the captain as he typed, "Sir, permission to alert stations and planet."
"Denied," said the captain.
Tahn went a little pale. "Sir?" he dared.
"Officer Tahn, one Ibyabekan ship has run into a suicidally foolish contingent of Outer Sohaibekans who seem to be under the impression they're wandering into the backyard of some outlying Xeren protectorate that will send them strongly worded letters," said the captain. "That, or it's a distraction. If it's the former, the Five Virtues, with five times the tonnage of the People's Law, will be able to make short work of them. If it's the latter, I am not about to be a pawn of the enemy's tactics by scrambling up the entire fleet to the distraction's coordinates. I do not fancy ending up in the military handbooks as a cautionary tale about letting a dozen ships approach from the north while calling defenders to intercept one at the south."
"Permission to alert stations and planet about possible main attack for which this is a distraction, sir!" said Tahn. Kyeo joined Tahn in looking imploringly at their commander.
"Denied!" said the captain. "We'll assess the situation from closer up and report in when we know more."
Tahn deleted his draft of an alert message. Fidgeted with his keyboard, began, "Permission -"
"Shut your mouth until we next have incoming communications, Tahn," growled the captain.
Tahn shut his mouth. Kyeo watched the screen as Tahn backed out to his main dashboard display. The confirmation from Glorious Leader's Hand bounced into place, agreeing to cover the path Five Virtues had been bound for and requesting a status report.
"Glorious Leader's Hand acknowledges and asks for an update on our status, sir," Tahn said tightly.
"Tell them we're taking a detour to deal with some hazardous debris," said the captain. He smiled. "Let's go turn some Outer Sohaibek vermin into hazardous debris."
The ship rattled up to high gear and pushed for the site of People's Law's last message.
Kyeo suspected he had a concussion.
He slipped out of consciousness.
Kyeo woke. He suspected he had a concussion.
Kyeo woke up again, dimly remembered breakfast a week ago, felt a wave of nausea in response to the thought, came to the conclusion that he had a concussion, and lapsed again into the dark.
There was shouting. Kyeo's head ached as though he'd knotted all his shoulder muscles into macramé with stress positions. A boot struck the floor an inch from his nose, ran out of view.
The air was thin. Kyeo struggled to breathe. His head pounded, and feet pounded, and he moved his arm, not knowing what aim he had in mind with the gesture. He succeeded only in being identified as a survivor. A fist seized the back of his uniform and hauled him from the floor. He fell unconscious again.
Kyeo was in a brig cell. It had a circular static field generator between him and the brig hallway. Looking at the shimmer worsened his headache. He shut his eyes tight. He fell, not unconscious, but asleep.
Kyeo's head hurt. Was he permitted to drop his arms yet? How many more recitations until he could put them down? Oh, no, he was lying down already, the room was sideways around him, he had fallen, he would have to do it over - twenty times through the thesis to empty his mind of deviance and twenty more to fill it with the will of Ibyabek, and then he would be allowed to rest - he just had to get all the words straight, somehow -
He blinked. This was a brig, not a treatment center.
That was worse.
Ibyabekan soldiers were supposed to carry suicide capsules, but they had all been recalled two months into Kyeo's tour of duty for some reason. (The rumor, which Kyeo tried not to put much stock in, was that several had burst prematurely due to a manufacturing defect, causing necrotic tissue damage where they soaked through uniforms to touch skin. However, some people also thought that the recall was because soldiers were just using them to commit unprompted suicide for reasons of their own.)
Since then, he had not been issued a new one. Even if he had, he'd been blacked out for long enough that a captor paying any attention would have found and taken it. Kyeo was not in fact wearing his uniform any more, he discovered, but some kind of hospital gown. With the uniform was the pocket that did not even contain a suicide capsule in the first place. Kyeo was dwelling on his current inability to kill himself far more than seemed useful, but he was in a brig and couldn't do anything useful, so it didn't seem worth the effort to do something else instead. The Outer Sohaibekans had overpowered his ship, he didn't remember how, and they'd captured him and who knew how many of his crewmates, and presently they'd have buttoned up whatever was occupying them and they'd start torturing him for information and then he'd really wish he'd had a suicide capsule.
He didn't even know much. They were going to expect him to know a lot, because it would cost them nothing to hit him a few more times in case a few more facts fell out, and he'd be an empty and increasingly ragged sack. He would try to tell them only his name and rank and serial number, like he was supposed to. It sounded difficult and no one had even kicked him yet. No one was even there in the hallway. He just found that somehow he could really vividly imagine being tortured and suspected he might be in the habit of becoming very compliant about it - he'd have to watch for that.
Kyeo Sebe Luk, star cadet, 01992350.
Maybe he could make something up to waste their time. No, if that were a good strategy they'd recommend it and instead they recommended name, rank, serial number.
He kept his eyes closed. He didn't want to see it coming. It would hurt less if he braced himself but bracing himself would hurt too.
No one came for a long time. His head hurt, and he lay there curled up in a ball, and he ran through song lyrics in his head. Song lyrics were safe. Song lyrics didn't make his old deficiency flare up, or float anything sensitive that the Outer Sohaibekans mustn't know to the top of his thoughts. He imagined to himself all the verses of anthems and odes and dirges. He ran out of ones he had memorized, and started over.
He was beginning to compose a second bridge to The Glorious Leader Lives On In Our Hearts - the required rhyme scheme was tricky, and he kept losing his train of thought - when he heard footsteps.
Kyeo wanted very badly to open his eyes and know the face of whoever had come, know which direction to flinch. He kept them resolutely shut instead. Let them think he was still unconscious with his head injury, waste a little more of their time. Protect the jewel of Ibyabek.
"Your name badge said Kyeo Sebe Luk. Is that correct?" said a voice in a thick tuneless Outer Sohaibekan accent. A woman's. If they were trying to use their sickening enlistment practices to seduce intelligence out of him they would be so disappointed.
"Kyeo Sebe Luk," echoed Kyeo. "Star cadet. 01992350."
"Think you'd be a big ticket item in a prisoner exchange?" she asked.
This information was not his name, rank, or serial number. Kyeo said nothing. He thought about it, though, unwillingly. Imagined his father ordering the return of some Outer Sohaibekan pig who'd been chased down, hoping to get him back. How could they be sure the Outer Sohaibekans would honor a deal like that? Probably it was impossible and he would never go back. He had surprisingly few opinions on that. He didn't want to be here, in this brig with its eye-stabbing static field across the circle door. But he didn't especially want to be on Ibyabek either, or back on the Five Virtues, or reassigned to a new ship or station.
It would have been more useful to have this realization with a suicide capsule on hand.
His interrogator evinced no surprise about his reticence. "What was the People's Law doing in the demilitarized zone?"
Being viciously lied about by Outer Sohaibekans, apparently. Kyeo didn't say that. He lay there, eyes shut, trying not to tense up while he waited for pain.
"How many crew was the Five Virtues carrying?" she asked. They must have blown it half to smithereens, lost the bodies in the wreckage, and not be sure of their count - no, it wasn't necessarily that, there were a handful of escape pods, maybe they wanted to know how many had gotten away - he didn't answer.
"The things they name their ships," said a man's voice, derisively.
"Those aren't even the worst ones," the woman muttered back.
This wasn't even a question, let alone an escalation of the interrogation. How were they expecting to learn anything? They were really bad at their jobs, Kyeo decided. This was probably fortunate for him, at least until being bad at their jobs led them to forget to bring him water for enough consecutive days. Though he had recently observed that he could really use a suicide capsule about now and dehydration would serve the same end. It was just that thinking about it made his head hurt and it was already doing more than enough of that.
"Cadet Sebe Luk," said the woman's voice, after a silence, "we're going to be docking with a station soon and transferring you over."
So they didn't have their expert interrogators on board. Kyeo kept his eyes closed. He didn't speak.
They walked off.
The ship barely hummed in motion, and Kyeo didn't feel it when they touched the station. The bench-thing he was lying on deployed arches over his body, buzzed its own coffin-sized static field into existence, and detached of its own accord from the wall to travel through the circle door, that field temporarily deactivated. While he didn't open his eyes, he thought he was being floated past warm bodies, Outer Sohaibekan soldiers, on guard in case he leapt up through the field somehow and tried to kill them. He didn't feel especially capable of leaping. He would have taken his capsule a dozen times over if he'd had it; instead, he pretended he was already dead.
"Is he all right? Didn't he go through the infirmary?" someone muttered. "He's just lying there."
"His head's probably killing him," someone replied, "even if he's not about to get a brain bleed."
Kyeo registered this as though it were badly workshopped stage dialogue. It might be. Anything they said in front of him was most likely put on. What were they expecting him to do besides lie there, anyway? Cringe? Beg? Entertain them with a musical number?
The second cell that his bench released him into was a lot like the first. Complete with shimmery static that Kyeo turned away from when he eventually couldn't squeeze his eyes shut any longer. But it also had a window. He looked at the stars as the station spun through space.
Sometimes someone came and asked him a question. Where had the Five Virtues been going, what was the People's Law's mission. He didn't answer them and they didn't hurt him. Maybe they'd captured hundreds of people in the battle he couldn't remember and some of those were talking and they addressed him just for completeness. It was unworthy of him to believe something like that about his crewmates, or the crew of the People's Law either, but it seemed the most conservative explanation. Contact with foreigners could corrupt a person's philosophy, Kyeo knew. Maybe they weren't trying very hard with him because in some other cell some other soldier was spilling secrets in between kisses.
He flinched away from the budding fantasy, re-focused himself on song lyrics, and when that didn't work he ran through the theses he'd recited in treatment, which worked much better: now he felt almost as though instead of in this foreign prison he was in the hospital on Ibyabek, cold, trembling, exhausted, but not at risk of betraying anything but himself.
After he'd slept again, and woken again, the view out the window had changed with the turn of the station. Now it showed a planet, glowing with lava, with a large moon coming up behind its curve. It wasn't Outer Sohaibek - Outer Sohaibek he'd seen through military telescopes during training, it sparkled and the continents hugged a great bowl of a crater ocean on one side and on the other there was a tremendous mountain range, funneling the clouds, bisecting the landscape. He squinted. He couldn't have gone out of the system entirely. The Outer Sohaibekans couldn't have a station around the uninhabitable innermost planet, that was Ibyabekan territory and even if they'd grown bold and sneaky enough to try it building a station took time. The rest of the system was gas giants, Outer Sohaibek's own planet of the same name, and -
That was Old Sohaibek, he realized. It was still hot.
Maybe the other side that he couldn't see now was where the refugees fleeing Outer Sohaibekan oppression came from. Or maybe until they were able to get to Ibyabek they lived on the moon, which looked like it might be able to hold atmosphere. He'd never met anyone from Old Sohaibek and didn't know a lot about the situation, he'd just seen the announcements now and then about Ibyabek welcoming another shipful of lost brothers and sisters who had determinedly escaped Outer Sohaibek-controlled space and made it into Ibyabek's arms.
The planet turned. More of it came into the light of Ibyatok. It didn't have much ocean any more but he could make out some detail, where the lava flowed from a thousand points across the weapon's impact site, cooling and re-erupting over and over. His head was pounding, still, and he was tired even though he had done nothing but lie there and look and think, but he stayed awake, watching for some sea with an island spaceport, or for the moon to swing closer and show off arcology domes.
The station swiveled away to face the empty sky before he found either. He let himself fall asleep.
Kyeo was awakened by a constricting sensation around his wrists and ankles. Every muscle in his body was in instant competition to be the one that extricated him from the restraints, from his legs to his clenching jaw, but they held fast. "Relax," said a voice behind him, another woman, what was with the Outer Sohaibekans, why hadn't they all died out if they kept putting women in space instead of keeping them home to bring up the children. Kyeo didn't relax, couldn't relax, all his stoicism in the expectation of torture was gone now, he couldn't breathe -
"Relax!" she repeated, and "It's just so you don't hurt me or the doctor. You had a concussion and I know it's been a while since you were last seen, she's going to make sure you're okay. I'm going to have to sedate you if you can't calm down."
They called them doctors, did they. Kyeo struggled a few seconds more, made no progress. Craned his head to get a look at the speaker. She was in Outer Sohaibekan uniform, of course, and the "doctor" in a modified version of it, holding some instrument with a light on the end that she shined into his eye - he flinched, lurched his head away, it was six in the morning again on his third night with no sleep and he was staring at the sunrise, begging it to see him to the end of the ordeal so he wouldn't have to do it over again -
"Hold him still," said the doctor. Hands clamped over his ears and turned his head. Kyeo made a desperate choking noise and the doctor's fingers pried his eyelid open. "I'm trying to see if you're recovering from the injury, I'm not trying to murder you," she said.
"He'd be more likely to believe you if they let us tell the Inner Sohaibekan prisoners anything," muttered her assistant. "They always think we're going to torture them!"
"Sure, we could tell them we're not going to, and they wouldn't believe us, until we didn't torture them, which they'll notice anyway. And we swap them back later and, what, they lead a popular revolution? They defend our reputations to their fellows?" said the doctor. "They see the light and refuse to be exchanged back home and we leave our own to rot? No, we keep our mouths shut, he doesn't learn anything, we save a lot of money on therapists and diplomats, and, get this, he also doesn't get tortured, isn't it funny how we can do that for free. This side looks okay..." She switched eyes.
Kyeo was not entertained by the vermin's psychological games where people tortured him while talking about how they weren't torturing him. He drowned in light too bright too bright too bright, it was high noon and he was holding position in the ice bath and the day was hot and he was freezing under the slicing rays of the sun. She held his eye open and looked into it.
"Congratulations, I expect you to make a full recovery," said the doctor. "Assuming you eat and drink. They got something into you last time you were seen but that was a while ago and you haven't touched anything and by now it'd stay down."
If Kyeo had been offered food or water he hadn't noticed. "Pigs," he muttered.
"If eating four meals every day makes us pigs," said the assistant, "sure."
"What do you think he's going to do with that information?" asked the doctor, checking Kyeo's pulse. "Go home and tell everyone that we get enough to eat, he knows because we said so, declare a holiday and beg to be annexed?"
Kyeo shuddered when she touched his wrist. He hated them. Willed their words to turn into so much birdsong, so he would stop trying to imagine meaning into it.
"Sorry, doctor," said the assistant.
The doctor finished inspecting him. She left. The assistant hung back a minute.
"Do you not know how to work the water dispenser?" she asked. "Sometimes Inner Sohaibekans don't."
He hated her. Ibyabek was not Outer Sohaibek's province, differentiated by proximity to their star, it was a separate, noble world that had its own name, were there any other polities they held in enough contempt to refuse to name -
"I'll show you," she said when he didn't reply, and she went to a wall alcove Kyeo had ignored before, waved her hand in it. A squirt of water descended from the ceiling. "Doubles as a shower if you want one. The floor there is static, see, you can stand right on it, and it drains fluids, so it's the toilet too. I'll get you some food and then let you go. All right?"
He was not going to claim to this woman dressed up as a soldier that anything was all right. He glowered at her, feeling ridiculous in his hospital gown with his wrists and ankles pinned to the hard bench. A proper interrogation would have him cinematically tied to a chair, still wearing his uniform, bleeding from the face, while a real enemy soldier shouted at him. This was no more pleasant and a hundred times less dignified.
She let herself out through the static circle that barred the door and came back with a tray. Noodles, meatloaf, green beans, gravy over all of it. They were trying to soften him up with fancy food now? Like he'd sell out his planet for meatloaf and gravy. Like anyone, however hungry, would be overcome by temptation with lingering nausea from a head injury. Like they weren't vacillating between tactics so fast he could barely keep track of them. Whatever.
The soldier-girl didn't make him answer any questions to get the food, just set the tray on the floor and stepped back out through the static field and left. His restraints vanished.
The gravy smelled good.
Kyeo fell on the food, which he was obliged to eat with his hands, but they had already decided not to allow him his pride, so that wasn't unexpected. He drank from the ceiling.
He watched the stars spin, outside the window.
Kyeo was bored, and he was lonely.
They brought him food, four times a day, like they really did hope he'd go home and tell stories about how even prisoners in Outer Sohaibek ate like kings. He wondered idly if they were going to try to bill him for it after he was exchanged. He wondered how long it would be, till he was traded home.
In treatment the doctors had sometimes explained to him that his malady was dividing him into parts, and he needed to give Citizen Kyeo control over his character and his actions rather than letting Deviant Kyeo take over, even if, like a dormant infection, the troubled part of him could try to flare up now and then.
This had worked fine on Ibyabek - in school, in military training, on ship duty - because Citizen Kyeo had had a lot to do. Citizen Kyeo had to study. Had to practice. Had to keep presentable, show up on time, smile at the right jokes and complete all his assignments. Citizen Kyeo had very clear instructions on what sort of character and actions were the right ones.
But the Outer Sohaibekans weren't asking him anything, so he had no questions to evade. They weren't even beating him up. Apart from the business with the light there had been nothing.
They weren't keeping him completely without human contact. The meals were brought and the old trays taken by people, and they greeted him and might have said more if he'd had anything to say about it. But Citizen Kyeo didn't want to engage them in conversation. Neither, for that matter, did Deviant Kyeo.
Deviant Kyeo wanted to stare at the stars and try to find Kular and imagine himself into those paintings that he'd seen, like just by flying a ship in the right direction he could land right in the fantasy. Drop into place in a dream of a Kularan city, full of glittering towers, right next to -
He tried not to remember his name.
He knew his name anyway.
The water that came out of the ceiling was lukewarm, an unhappy medium between drinking and showering temperatures, and not chilly enough to punish Deviant Kyeo for existing. So -
- he existed.
Sarham had probably forgotten about him. It had been years. Brief. Probably the Kularans had their own opinions about boys of theirs who - even if it was permissible to kiss other boys, probably Ibyabekans were another matter. Maybe Sarham had gone to his own hospital on his own planet and - neither Kyeo wanted to complete the thought, but he had less and less control over his thoughts - been treated. Had had his own Kularan litanies to repeat until only Citizen Sarham was left, patriotic and ready to kiss appropriately domestic boys.
Spinning fantasies, Kyeo did not imagine Sarham into a prison cell in order to undo that probable cure. It would have been a poor fantasy. He just imagined that Sarham had been unable to afford the doctors and they'd left him untreated and he was there, circling that spot in the sky, remembering and wishing.
He didn't want to be traded back and go in for another course of treatment. Maybe he'd be able to hide it very well, which was really the same thing as being cured, practically speaking. Kyeo thought that would be doable. It wasn't like Sarham was around.
There was a maintenance robot in the hallway, sometimes, softly whirring as it opened panels and fiddled with the things inside, and swept the floor, and turned a camera on Kyeo to make sure he was breathing. When he'd been in the prison station for a week, it stalled in place a few paces from the static field. Someone came along to fix it a few minutes later, flipping it onto its back like a turtle and popping it open to unjam it, swearing under his breath. Someone else came at the same time for the second meal. (If Kyeo's food deliveries were patterned after theirs, which he wasn't sure about, they liked big breakfasts and two lighter snackier meals in the middle of the day and heavy ridiculous dinners.)
"Hi, Cadet," said the one with the tray, slipping it through the field and setting it on the floor. Kyeo never replied, though sometimes he reflexively nodded at them. Today he got a persimmon and a bowl of nuts. He pulled the tray over to him with his foot and grabbed the fruit.
"Do any of them say hi back?" wondered the maintenance worker.
"I got one who tells me to fuck myself," said the one with the tray. "But you don't wanna flirt with solitary, that gets your whole chain of command written up. Having an ambassador on board can only make it worse."
"Since when have we got an ambassador on board?"
"Since 0200. I ran into him in the dining hall."
"Ambassador to where?"
"Inner Sohaibek! But not from us, from Kular -"
Kyeo assumed they had cameras on him and that didn't keep him from being glued to this conversation with his persimmon bitten once and chewed zero times, juice oozing onto his tongue.
"What's he doing here then?"
"Visiting. His kid goes to university onplanet. Here's just a supply stop for his shuttle."
Kyeo forced himself to chew his bite of persimmon. Wrenched his eyes away from the conversation.
"Should we be talking in front of, uh, him?"
"- you know what, probably not - I'll see you at supper -"
Kyeo did not look at them when they looked at him. He stared resolutely out the window at molten Old Sohaibek.
Sarham wasn't circling the Kularan star at all. Sarham was in the next orbital over.
Kyeo knew he should do nothing. Not react at all. Let them think he was eavesdropping for juicy intelligence on the whereabouts of ambassadors, fruitlessly enough, and wait in his cell, until they set up a prisoner exchange. If he had any discipline left that would be what he'd do.
He didn't have very much discipline left. He imagined speaking to one of the Outer Sohaibekans who delivered him food. "I want to see Ambassador Peng," he'd say, or, "Please tell Ambassador Peng that I am here". Or he could skip it altogether and just say "I decline to be exchanged". The doctor had said prisoners could refuse - except what if they didn't care if he wanted to go home and that had been a trap, planted there in the semblance of banter, so that he'd have more to confess to the authorities on Ibyabek on his return - so they'd keep their hands clean and punish him for offending them all the same -
For all he knew it might not be Ambassador Peng at all. There could be a new ambassador. It had been a few years.
That decided him. He'd ask if it was Ambassador Peng. If it was, they might mention Kyeo to him and he might - drop by? Tell Sarham? Were civilians even allowed in random prisoner of war station-segments? The connection would be established, at any rate. If it was not, they might not tell him either way, might suddenly remember that they preferred to tell him very little, but precisely because it was the sort of thing a prisoner fishing for intel might ask they wouldn't read into it very deeply.
He finished his snack. When his next snack arrived - two strips of bacon, a little bowl of congee with cream and sugar, the showoffs - he cleared his throat. The Outer Sohaibekan looked startled, jerked his hands back through the static.
"Is the ambassador on board Wulaar Peng?" Kyeo asked.
"...I don't know his name," came the confused reply, which had to be the least helpful possible answer, and now what, did Kyeo ask him to go check - he wasn't sure he'd keep his snack down if he had to beg favors off his captors for them to grant or refuse.
"Oh," said Kyeo blankly, instead, and he took up his tray, started nibbling on the bacon while it was still warm.
"Why do you ask?" wondered the stationer after a silence.
Answering this did not constitute asking for a favor. Peng could tell them himself if he liked any time, it wasn't a secret - "We've met."
Kyeo stuffed his mouth full. The guard took the hint and moved off.
The bacon was delicious.
When Kyeo woke up at the next windowful of dawn, Ibyatok pouring its rays into the room - he slept with his back to the window, so it wouldn't get him in the eye - he found Ambassador Peng sitting on a folding chair in the hallway.
Kyeo didn't really know what to do with that - with him being there at all, with him regarding Kyeo levelly and sadly, with the traces of his son visible in his face. So he waited. Probably Wulaar had some sort of plan if he'd come.
"Small world," was what Wulaar said.
"What?" said Kyeo, sitting up.
"It's an expression. It means - it's such a coincidence to run into each other." Wulaar's expression was unreadable.
"Yes," Kyeo said.
"I heard you asked after me. Was there something you wanted?"
Silence. "I -" Kyeo looked away. "I only asked if it was you, or someone else. I didn't know."
"I kept the job."
Was Sarham okay, had Sarham been in terrible trouble, he went to university on Outer Sohaibek now but Kyeo had in the same amount of time gotten through an entire course of philosophical treatment and joined the military, a lot could happen in a few years, what had happened over those pretty lies full of colors and smiles - "Oh."
Wulaar looked at him a bit more. Seemed to weigh something in his mind. "My shuttle moves on in a couple of hours," he said. "I can't stay long. Are they treating you all right here? Food and medical attention and all?"
"Yes," said Kyeo, though he did note that the ambassador had not asked whether he had wanted to receive any of the medical attention.
"They don't usually have civilian visitors in here," Wulaar said. "I can open some doors, but this is because I have a title to wave around. If you wanted to go anywhere else, see anyone else, you'd need to get processed for a transfer into a planetside facility. It's much harder to get back to Ibyabek from there."
Kyeo didn't answer. He wondered what facial expression he was making; it would probably be mortifying if he could look in a mirror. But at least Wulaar called it Ibyabek.
"Do you know how you'd ask for the transfer," said Wulaar, "if you wanted to?"
Kyeo shook his head.
"You can tell any of the guards that you don't consent to participate in the next prisoner exchange," Wulaar said. "They'll have some questions for you. You - don't necessarily have to answer all of them, but if you won't answer most of them, they figure you're just angling to get out and commit sabotage. They'll be very concerned about that. They'll want to festoon you with all sorts of things meant for detecting lies. If they're convinced you don't want to - blow things up or what have you - they can move you to a dirtside lockup. There's integration programs, they don't keep Ibyabekan refugees forever."
Ibyabekan refugees. The phrase was a stumbling block for Kyeo's mind - people didn't flee Ibyabek as refugees, not and fetch up in Outer Sohaibek - he wasn't - he didn't - it wasn't like that -
Wulaar looked at him, expression layered with complications. "And then they'd let you go, eventually - in a few months, maybe a year if you didn't adjust very well. You wouldn't have to stay on Outer Sohaibek if you didn't like it, that's just the easiest place for most people because the language is mutually intelligible."
It wasn't like that, Kyeo thought. Wherever they were getting people who were claiming to be Ibyabekan refugees, he wasn't like them. But he didn't know what it was like, so he didn't say anything.
"Sarham," there was his name, in someone's voice, spoken out loud, Kyeo - wanted to die of it, actually, but maybe just because he didn't have a better idea right now - "goes to the University of Starport." He hadn't made Kyeo ask. So many small mercies. Being a diplomat suited him. "And he can't come here, but I think he'd come to the planetside lockup."
Kyeo did not say will he touch me or does he miss me or did they hurt him or is he still that word I don't know how to pronounce. He said: "Thank you, sir."
Wulaar nodded, murmured "you're welcome". He stood, and collected his folding chair, and left.
Outer Sohaibek had heavier gravity than the station or Ibyabek. It was hot and humid, at least the region where he landed, and the sky was the wrong color, and the building they put him in was all right angles and static fences and ostentatiously abundant food.
The places where they'd stuck contacts for their half a dozen lie detectors itched - they'd thought he was lying, when he wasn't, over and over, and finally when they had circled back to trying to confirm his name, they'd hauled a doctor in and the doctor had attached still more things to him until she'd determined he was "having a panic attack", apparently Outer Sohaibekan terminology for the cold bright crushing feeling. She'd tucked something under his tongue and the world had gone warmer and dimmer and gentler and then he could get through the questions without anything beeping at him.
Kyeo was installed in a new cell. They called it a "room", not a "cell", and during the day he could come and go between the cell and the cafeteria and the gymnasium and the library, but the static field went up at night. It had a window, but so had his cell on the station.
There were a few other people living there. Ibyabekans. Kyeo didn't want to call them refugees, but they called themselves that. There was an old woman and her grownup daughter and two grandkids, fourteen and twelve, and a sick toddler who had a doctor in to check on it every afternoon. There was an old couple who got visits from another old couple who held their hands and showed them photographs and once brought them their twenty-year-old grandson to meet. There was a man a few years older than Kyeo who didn't get visits but did get a lot of letters. There was a girl a few years younger than Kyeo who got extra therapy appointments.
Everybody got therapy appointments. Kyeo's were three times a week. The therapist, Dr. Dae, wanted to know what the panic attacks were about, and why he'd chosen to come to Sohaibek, and how he felt about "Inner Sohaibek", and what his plans were for the future. Kyeo didn't have a lot to say to him. Dr. Dae had an awful lot of fancy diplomas up on the wall in his office but if all they qualified him to do was ask questions that didn't have any answers they were probably as good as fake.
Sarham didn't come, and didn't come, and didn't come.
Eventually Kyeo decided the therapist would certainly notice if Sarham turned up to visit, and so he might as well notice that he hadn't. "I thought someone might - come by," he mentioned the next time Dr. Dae asked if there was anything on his mind.
"Did you get on the library computers? Talk to someone on the skylace?"
Kyeo's heart squeezed to a point in his chest. "No."
"Who were you expecting?"
Kyeo was silent. The therapist was silent. When he was asking questions he left long, long emptinesses after them to leave lots of room for all the answers there weren't. This time there was an answer, though, it was just hard to say.
"The ambassador from United Kular brought his family," Kyeo said. "When he was first posted to Ibyabek. I heard - his son goes to school in Starport."
There was a terrific amount of silence after that, even though Dr. Dae had the answer he'd asked for and this was therefore extremely unfair of him.
"Oh dear," said the therapist eventually.
"...what," said Kyeo.
"You're Stargazer. - pardon me. Ah, I don't know the young man's name -"
"Sarham Peng." It was the first time he'd said it out loud in so long. It came automatically, while he wondered what in the world Dr. Dae meant calling him a stargazer.
"I see. Sarham pseudonymously published a - memoir of his time on Inner Sohaibek," why did they call it that, "which - mentioned you, under the identifier 'Stargazer'. It had a lot of details scrambled to protect both identities but between that and your file I - suspect - yes. Well. I think it's possible he isn't sure how to break it to you that he wrote a widely read journal about you. I've read it myself, it's gotten a lot of uptake in people with Inner Sohaibek as an interest... You're welcome to use the skylace to look him up at his school, most students have public accounts, and ask after him. The librarian will help you if you need it."
"He hasn't come because - he doesn't know how to tell me?" Why couldn't he come and just not mention it, then, Kyeo wouldn't have known the difference.
"I'm speculating," Dr. Dae cautioned. "I haven't spoken to him. I didn't even know you were Stargazer until a moment ago. But it could be that he doesn't know how to bring up the topic and would find it awkward to avoid. Or he could be busy at school, or he could not know you're on the planet, or he could be unaware you'd like to see him. I'd encourage you to send him a message - friends and family on-planet are a strong predictor for success in refugees."
Kyeo looked at the carpet. It was green with brown swirls and beige dots. Sarham had written a journal - and changed their names, and published it -
"What'd he change his name to?" he asked the carpet.
"Seeker," replied Dr. Dae. "I believe it was a pre-existing handle - it's common to go by a made-up name on skylace. Kyeo - you knew him for a few days, years ago. It seems he made an outsized impression. What -" He checked himself. "Can you tell me about that?"
Oh, that was easier. The therapist was now prepared to settle for any old thing that Kyeo had in mind. Also, since Sarham had already written some sort of publication about it, Dr. Dae would notice if Kyeo just made something up, and therefore he didn't have to consider whether that would be a good idea at all.
"He showed me some pictures," Kyeo said, ambiguous between photos and paintings. "On a lens he'd snuck from his mother. He -"
Kyeo stopped. On United Kular sometimes boys kissed other boys. At the moment, however, he and Sarham were both on Outer Sohaibek. Sarham might or might not have had to edit certain details out of his account.
"He looked at me," he said instead, softly.
The facility librarian, who came in for a couple of hours most days but spent most of her time at an ordinary prison up the road with a larger population, helped him find the messaging address. There was a directory of all the students of the University of Starport just there on the skylace, in case anyone wanted it, whoever they were. It was more than a little baffling that someone had done this - that someone had, since this was not Ibyabek, paid someone to do this, had prioritized this directory's existence over food or heat or the option to go to the hospital when sick, and then just let everyone look at it for free. But there was Sarham -
- there he was, crisply done up for his official student photo, a little older than Kyeo remembered him, standing out in a mostly Outer Sohaibekan sea of faces -
- with an address.
The librarian arranged Kyeo an address too, these were apparently also free, Kyeo was beginning to be very dubious of Outer Sohaibek's claim to be a capitalist planet. Kyeo did at least know how to type, he'd done it in school enough that he wasn't lost there. He wrote in a name for himself. Not his real one, he didn't feel right using his father's clan and his father's surname here. He wrote kyeo, and, when that was predictably unavailable because there had to be a few hundred thousand Kyeos on Outer Sohaibek, added stargazer.
And then in the next box he wrote I am at Crane Mountain, because that was the name of the facility and the mountain it sat by. And the librarian was still sitting there, so - that would have to do.
He sent it.
Sarham was there the afternoon of the next day, at the visitor's entrance. Kyeo could spot him from the window of his room, shuffling in from where he'd docked his bicycle. He really did have a bicycle. He had a bicycle and Kyeo could see it, it wasn't hidden away as the embarrassing backside of a tapestry meant to depict wealth and abundance.
Kyeo could leave his cell and go meet him. Usually the other people saw their visitors in the dining hall.
By the time Kyeo had located some of the nerve necessary to do this, Sarham had been shown by a facility staffperson to the room.
"Kyeo," said Sarham. His eyes were so wide open. He looked like he might tip forward, was having to rebalance himself against some pull that wanted to send him tumbling into Kyeo's lap.
Kyeo stared at him without blinking, memorizing him, updating his frozen mental image of Sarham at seventeen with this one, because Sarham was here now but might never come back, might turn around and leave at any time, if for example Kyeo just sat there like an idiot and didn't say hello - "Hello."
"I -" began Sarham. And then, "You put 'Stargazer' in your address."
"Yes," Kyeo said, eyes locked as though by tidal forces to Sarham's now. "I haven't - read the thing - but someone told me about it. And that you gave my name as Stargazer. I liked that."
"Oh - good," said Sarham. "- can I sit down -"
"Yes," said Kyeo, and then realized with some alarm that there was not a chair in his room and now Sarham was going to sit right next to him on the bed and he was going to have to think of something to do with his hands, because willing them to fall off of his wrists was not going to work. He held very still. Sarham gave him a bit of room, which was terrible, but not in a way that successfully caused Kyeo to take any actions about it.
"I didn't think I'd ever see you again," Sarham said. "It was a way to kind of - straighten everything out in my head, after I got home. And then I translated it all to Sohaibekan when I needed to translate something for a school project, and then one of my classmates thought I should publish it - there's not a lot of information that escapes Ibyabek. There are people who are really curious about what it's like there, anything anyone can tell them, because there's not many people getting out - how are you here, Kyeo?"
"Your father didn't tell you?" Kyeo asked blankly.
"- my father?"
"I was a prisoner of war -"
"Kyeo!" exclaimed Sarham, raising his arms like he wanted to give him a hug, but then letting them fall.
Kyeo, dying slightly, ducked his head and went on. "They got me after some clash I don't remember in the demilitarized zone, where I must have hit my head. They had me on a station. He came through, I heard someone mention him - I asked about him and he got into the prison area - I thought he'd tell you."
"He didn't tell me anything!" said Sarham indignantly. "I didn't find out till I got your message, that you were here, already, and knew all about what I'd been posting. Even if you haven't read it."
"I can read it if you want me to," said Kyeo.
"Augh," said Sarham. "Um. I can't stop you but can you - wait on that - it gets kind of -"
Kind of what, Kyeo wondered, but he didn't want to ask and find that the answer was a long yawn of silence. "All right," he said.
"My dad's not even on the planet any more now so I can't ask him what he was thinking," said Sarham. "He comes by some weekends but you missed him, I guess."
"What's a weekend?"
Sarham blinked at him. Shook his head and smiled. "Most people don't work every day, they take a couple of days off every week. Sometimes different ones, so the essential stuff is covered, but most people take the same two days and those are the weekend. Dad's not on a schedule like that but I am. He comes when I don't have class."
That explained why the librarian had been out without looking like she'd been sick. "Is today a weekend?"
"Tomorrow," said Sarham. "I got on the shuttle after my last class let out."
Kyeo had a thousand questions but none of them would hold still. He pinned one down at random. "What do you study?"
"Economics!" said Sarham. "Like Mom. That's my specialization, I mean, I also take a ceramics class and a literature class and History of the Sohaitok System -"
"- oh, of course. They don't call the class that, though, because they're Outer Sohaibekans."
Sarham was six inches away from him and wore an earnest, hopeful smile and wasn't touching him and wasn't kissing him and wasn't whisking him away to a world of shopping malls and glimmering cities, and Kyeo was the most reprehensibly idiotic person in the galaxy, he decided, because even if Sarham had missed him, and hadn't outgrown being that word Kyeo didn't know how to pronounce, Kyeo had been to the hospital, and the dormant philosophical infection might have flared up but it wasn't like it had never been treated in the first place, he wasn't the same as he'd been at seventeen, and he shouldn't have sent the message, and he shouldn't have told him to sit on the bed. Even if Sarham embraced him like a long-lost lover now (and it didn't look like he was going to) Kyeo wouldn't know what to do, and even if Sarham swept him away to a flowery garden or a fancy party (and he was not legally allowed, how had Kyeo forgotten for even a second he was still a prisoner?) Kyeo wouldn't know how to act there. He should have gotten traded back to Ibyabek where he belonged.
"I'm so glad you're here," said Sarham, which was, Kyeo supposed, a substantial consideration for the opposite position.
"I don't - know what happens next," said Kyeo, halting, not sure if he'd come across usefully, not sure what would happen if he did.
"I don't know either," admitted Sarham. "I assume they have you in some kind of integration program here, screening you for the odds that you're going to - run amok, try to damage Outer Sohaibek from inside? I don't know how they do it, are you in classes where they teach you to make transactions and use the subway?"
"I think some people are. So far they just have me in therapy. The doctor told me about the thing you wrote. People read it?"
"Not that many people. There are a lot of things to read, people filter pretty hard. But - people who are curious about what it's like on Ibyabek, those often turn out to have read it."
"We make movies," said Kyeo. "We have books."
"Y-es," said Sarham. "Some people read and watch those too but they're - kind of hard to learn from. They tell us what the government of Ibyabek wants to tell us. Which is sort of interesting, sometimes, but it's not the same as someone telling them what they saw, instead of what an Ibyabekan director put on the screen, or an Ibyabekan censor allowed on the page."
Kyeo mulled that over.
"Like the village you stayed in," he offered after a moment.
"Yes," said Sarham, nodding, "just like that, the books and the movies are like the village, except just the moments of the village where it looks most realistic and doesn't have the same little girl drawing in chalk on the sidewalk till she ran out of chalk and then still kneeling there moving her hand around thinking we wouldn't notice. And I wrote about - the dark city letting us see the stars, and the art museum with nobody in it but us and the tour guide, and the restaurants and the party with those poor girls -"
"The Morale Corps?"
"I wasn't actually sure if you'd have a term for them instead of just not talking about them. Yes, those."
There was a silence. "I think one of the people here was in the Morale Corps," Kyeo offered. "I don't know how she got here. I don't know how any of them got here. They weren't prisoners of war."
"Mostly it's smugglers," said Sarham, "sometimes taking passengers - people die that way, or get caught alive, every year, but some get through, with a few people who have relatives or who just can't stand it on Ibyabek another day and risk it. I think - most of the soldiers go back. I'm so glad you're here." And again he didn't quite hug him.
"You're," began Kyeo, but he didn't know how to put it. Sarham didn't have to hug him. Sarham wasn't in the Morale Corps. If Sarham was so glad Kyeo was here and also wasn't hugging him presumably he was glad about some other aspect of the situation. Though Kyeo couldn't imagine he was hard up for people to talk to about his classes or that it was all that interesting to explain to Kyeo why Ibyabekan media was not popular off-planet.
"All the way over there," said Kyeo.
Sarham flinched a little, like he'd been pricked with a pin. "I think that - while you're still locked up, I mean -"
"- you think that what?" asked Kyeo, bewildered, when Sarham didn't finish the sentence.
"That it would be - irresponsible to - pick up where we left off?"
"Because you can't leave. They'll hold on to you for months, probably, it's happened before that Ibyabek's planted people here and then they blew things up or snuck back to Ibyabek with information or whatever. They're going to screen you, probably lie-detect you till you're covered in electrical adhesive head to toe. So while you can't leave I shouldn't be - doing any things you might need to be able to leave for."
Kyeo was pretty sure Sarham was a fluent speaker of Ibyabekan but this didn't make any sense so maybe he had picked up some weird Outer Sohaibek dialect thing. "What?" he said.
"Oh dear," said Sarham.
"What?" asked Kyeo helplessly, suddenly concerned he was about to cry. "Is it - no, you don't even know about that -"
"- what don't I know about," said Sarham.
"After you left I went to the hospital about being philosophically troubled - but I still have arms -"
"What is it you don't have?!" cried Sarham in alarm.
"- they didn't hurt me, Father told them not to leave any marks," Kyeo clarified hastily, "just, I was treated, I'm not how I was - but that doesn't mean you couldn't hug me -"
"He told them not to leave any marks," said Sarham slowly.
"I think that made it take longer, before I was better," Kyeo confessed.
Sarham shook his head slowly, as though to clear it. Was, slightly, hugging himself, which Kyeo considered ridiculous of him, since Kyeo was right there and had crossed the gulf of space and even produced actual human language on several occasions in order to see him and, as he'd explained, had arms. "How are you better? What'd they do?"
"Lots of things," said Kyeo. He did not want to have a panic attack - what a useful word the Outer Sohaibekans had invented - right here for no good reason when it wouldn't even get Sarham to touch him. "So - if I'd stayed, I mean - so I could get married like a normal person, have kids, keep my eyes off my classmates."
"So what you mean is," said Sarham, "they did something - that did not leave any marks - uh, did they drug you -"
"Something that did not involve any marks or any drugs, to try to turn you into a heterosexual person who could get married and have kids Ibyabek-style and not have crushes on boys... and you believe that this worked... but you still want to hug me, and you left Ibyabek and came here and asked for me, and you're apologetic about not being able to - what."
"...I don't know," Kyeo said, confused, "we didn't get that far! You were there!"
Sarham plopped his face into his hands. "But whatever it is you think you might not be able to do it because of whatever they did to you."
"Yes. I'm - sorry -"
"No, no, Kyeo, it's okay. I'm - not worried about that."
"So hug me," said Kyeo.
"I am worried about something else completely different," Sarham clarified.
Sarham burst out laughing. Bit his lip a little, laughed some more. Kyeo leaned a little to get a better view of his face like that, enchanted.
"Sorry," Sarham said, eventually. "Um, there's this concept where if you're going to be - in a relationship with someone that is of the kind that involves kissing, even though you were talking about hugs - you have to be sure the other person's other options are okay? And you don't have a lot of options! You're locked up and they're not going to listen to me if I tell them to let you go ahead of schedule. I could just not come back if you didn't want to see me, but you don't know anyone else on the planet, it'd be reasonable to be scared you'd come out and be all alone. It'd be reasonable to worry that if you found out actually you didn't like me that much or that way after all, and broke up with me, I wouldn't come back -"
Kyeo made a little involuntary noise.
"Yes, see - and being stuck in a relationship like that's no good. So I think I'll just - visit you a lot, till you're out, but. Be all the way over here. It's not that I don't want to," he added, almost plaintive.
Kyeo was not sure what to do with this. It was self-evidently stupid, but apparently Sarham didn't think so, so presumably saying "that is self-evidently stupid" would not be a winning argument.
"I could make friends on the skylace," he suggested eventually. "To know more people on the planet. But I don't know if you'd like my idea for how."
"...is it 'find my site and tell all the people there you're Stargazer'," said Sarham tiredly.
"I can't stop you."
"But you'd want to."
"I didn't think you'd ever - I thought you were stuck there, forever. I didn't write it imagining you reading it," sighed Sarham. "I'd want to show you eventually! Just not - right now."
"I won't do it if you don't want me to," said Kyeo. "But I wish you weren't all the way over there."
"...maybe if it's just hugging," said Sarham uncertainly. "I don't think I've ever read about a scandalous consent violation where they were only hugging."
Kyeo tipped right over and plastered himself to Sarham's side, arms around his middle, cheek pressed to his shoulder. Sarham made a humming noise and draped his arm over Kyeo's shoulder, put his hand in Kyeo's hair.
"If I kiss you," Kyeo said, "does that mean you stop letting me hug you, or does it mean you explain to me how that's very unwise on my part and you will not encourage me?"
"Um," said Sarham.
"I will try to come up with other ways to make skylace friends," Kyeo assured him, and he pressed his lips to Sarham's neck. He was rewarded with a breathy laugh, so he tried more spots. If he kissed Sarham's ear Sarham would not think that he had made some kind of mistake and had accidentally kissed back, with his ear, somehow. Presumably. This happy presumption was true of most of Sarham's face, come to think of it.
"I missed you," Sarham said, as Kyeo went from leaning on to him to pretty much sitting on him and Sarham went from slightly petting Kyeo's hair to squeezing him firmly against his chest. "This is very unwise of you, you know."
"Mm-hm," said Kyeo into Sarham's throat.
"All our clothes stay on," Sarham cautioned. "I will take your word for it about not having any marks and you don't wanna see mine -"
Kyeo tried to sit up, but this didn't work very well because Sarham's arms were pretty strong and also he bumped his head on Sarham's chin. "Hm?"
"- not important."
"Somebody hurt you?" Kyeo said.
"I kind of doubt I had it worse than you."
"They didn't hurt me."
"Sometimes on this planet we use the word 'hurt' even if it doesn't scar!"
"But you have scars," Kyeo said, clinging very hard to Sarham's shirt in a futile defense against the possibility that Sarham was going to get fed up and push him away onto the mattress.
Sarham didn't shove him. He looked at the wall. "My dad warned me, before I came along to Ibyabek with him in the first place," he said, "that if I couldn't stay in line he could probably keep them from actually putting me to death or detaining me for very long but that would be about as far as it'd go. He told me I should stay home if I couldn't cope with that, and I came. Unauthorized skylace use isn't legal on Ibyabek. I don't know if they give everybody who does it the same -"
Kyeo's hand went to Sarham's back.
"Yeah," Sarham muttered.
"You didn't tell me what happened to you."
"It was years ago now."
Kyeo couldn't actually feel the lines through the shirt but he ran his hand up and down where they'd be anyway.
Sarham sighed. "Then they put me on a shuttle back to Kular and I stayed with my aunt and then I got into the University of Starport and I'm okay."
"Could you afford a doctor? Sometimes there are infections -"
"Yes. I saw a doctor. I'm okay," Sarham said, resting his forehead on Kyeo's shoulder while Kyeo went on rubbing his back. "It doesn't hurt any more. - that feels nice."
There was a comfortable quiet. Kyeo soaked up Sarham's warmth and planted kisses and tried in vain to detect scars through fabric, and Sarham breathed and held him.
Someone came to the door of the cell to apologetically tell them that visiting hours were over for the day. Kyeo flung himself off Sarham like a startled animal - he'd realized he didn't know how they felt about boys kissing boys on Outer Sohaibek but hadn't remembered that they weren't really alone -
Sarham looked at him, bewildered. "Okay, I'll - come back tomorrow - I, uh, should have asked, is - physical affection with the residents against the rules -"
"No, no," said the staffer, "though these rooms don't have real doors, just static, so if you need privacy there's a -"
"Got it," said Sarham, blushing, and he caught Kyeo up in his arms again, squeezed him. Kissed his forehead. "I can come back tomorrow."
"Okay," said Kyeo, heart still beating too fast.
Sarham stepped out. The static field went up for the night. Kyeo was used to it but Sarham made a face.
"Tomorrow," Sarham promised, and he followed the woman in the Crane Mountain uniform away.
Kyeo watched out the window as he got on his bicycle and rode away against the sunset.
Crane Mountain was in the broader metropolitan area of Starport, but that meant it was six miles away from Sarham's apartment. He didn't bike the whole trip; there was a bus he could put the bicycle on that covered most of the distance. But it was far enough out of the way that he didn't expect to be able to make it most weekdays, just weekends, especially since he had classwork to contend with and other social obligations. When the weekend was over, Kyeo was unsnuggled in Crane Mountain with his therapist and his fellow Ibyabekans.
He told Dr. Dae that Sarham had come and that this was very good. (Dr. Dae had tried to put it in emotional terms, was he happy about it, was he excited, was he anxious impatient optimistic determined relaxed - it was good, Kyeo insisted.)
He tried sitting by each of the other residents and asking them where they were from. Why they'd left. The family, with the grandma and the mother and the three children including the sick baby, had left because of the sick baby. The twelve-year-old had been running chocolate to a fence, from a smuggler who'd snuck onto Ibyabek in a shuttle too well-cloaked to catch easily, and mentioned the baby, and the smuggler had offered to get them out, and they'd left the children's father and the grandfather, not trusting they'd come along instead of reporting.
Kyeo asked why they hadn't taken the baby to an Ibyabekan doctor. They said they'd tried that the last three times and those babies were all dead.
The old couple were related to the other old couple who visited them; the women were sisters, old enough to remember the war. The Ibyabekan man had had a comfortable job in legacy technology maintenance, good enough that he could even pass letters between his wife and his sister-in-law, till he'd gotten on the bad side of someone well-placed in the government. The last letter had told their Outer Sohaibekan relatives where to send a coyote to pick them up. They told Kyeo they hadn't minded much the chance they'd be shot down; they were very old. But this way they could see their loved ones again. They had left all their children behind. They couldn't risk it. Their children didn't remember being Inner Sohaibekans, they said.
The man a little older than Kyeo had been an asteroid miner. His whole operation had blown up due to an engine defect in their ship; he was the only person suited up and clear of it, and the first person to answer his distress call had been an Outer Sohaibekan science vessel which hadn't dared go farther sunward to drop him off with his countrymen. The crew wrote him messages all the time, and wanted him on board once he was acclimated to Outer Sohaibek.
The girl was named Dalun and had, she confirmed in a mousy voice, been Morale Corps. She'd convinced - that was the word she used - a cousin of the Glorious Leader to get her onto Outer Sohaibek. She had told him she was going to do some of that sabotage everyone was so worried about, but really she wanted to go to school and maybe one day marry someone her own age. She'd been pulled out of school when she was fourteen, she said, too fetching to do the last two years usual for girls on Ibyabek. She looked like sometimes she felt cold-bright-crushed like Kyeo did. The third time he sat with Dalun at a meal he asked her about that. She said, "Very like, yes. But not cold, for me. Hot and clammy. Like a day so humid I could drown in it."
Kyeo hadn't known they varied. Dalun shrugged and told him he could ask Dr. Dae, if he wanted. Then she had asked him if he only liked boys.
"I... haven't really thought about that," said Kyeo.
"Your boyfriend who comes over," she said. "You like him, right?"
"Yes." The word "boyfriend" was sort of funny, but he could figure out what she meant.
"If he was a girl would you like her?"
"...does it matter? I don't think he's going to turn into one."
"I will have panic attacks less often around you if you only like boys," she said matter of factly. "Dr. Dae thinks it will be good for me to expand my comfort zone but that I should do it slowly."
"Oh. I... think I only like boys," said Kyeo slowly.
"You have to be careful with boys, you know," she said.
She was silent for a bit, then said, "You have an important clan name. Have you ever been to one of those parties where there's fancy food and gold all over the room and a lot of old men and a lot of girls like me?"
"Sometimes," said Dalun, "boys are trying to grow up into men like the ones at those parties."
In spite of the fact that Kyeo had met Sarham at the one party of this kind he'd attended, he didn't think he had anything to fear. But he thanked Dalun anyway.
"I wonder what happened," Kyeo told Sarham, the second weekend, "in the combat I was captured in. I don't remember much."
"You must have gotten hit really hard," Sarham said. He had Kyeo's head in his lap and kept petting him. Kyeo felt ridiculous about this but not nearly enough to move. "You could search the skylace for it."
Kyeo blinked at him.
"...and you'd get results, from various news organizations that get information from the Outer Sohaibekan military and call them out on it if it doesn't sound sensible and have other ways to learn things if they don't talk enough," Sarham clarified. "And have professional norms against lying. So that doing this might cause you to actually know what happened. And not just to read a propaganda piece."
"Oh. - what would I search for -"
"Uh, name of your ship, maybe? It'd be written on the side, they'd know it if there was an altercation -" Sarham pulled out his lens, handed it over. Kyeo found the right symbol to touch, searched Five Virtues.
"What are the five virtues, nobody ever told me," Sarham said, while Kyeo looked at the results and picked the top one, Ibyabekan Vessels "Five Virtues" and "People's Law" Engaged In Demilitarized Zone.
"Unity, selflessness, commitment, equanimity, and restraint. The first Glorious Leader looked at the history of the galaxy and determined those were what his people needed to cultivate to thrive."
"...you might want to get used to calling him something other than Glorious Leader."
"That's his title," said Kyeo, frowning at the article as he scrolled through it. "I know a lot of people don't want to call Ibyabek by name, but you do, so why wouldn't you call him by his title?"
"Well, I don't call most politicians by their title, because it'd be unclear which planet I was talking about," Sarham said. "If I say 'the president' nobody'll know if I mean the president of Kular or of Outer Sohaibek, considering. Mostly people here just call Ibyabek's leader Lut Naar Am."
"Do other planets call their leaders Glorious Leader?"
"Admittedly, no," said Sarham. "But it's... very weird... to go around talking about Ibyabek's leader as glorious." He was searching Kyeo's face for comprehension and when he didn't find it he gingerly went on, "It's got a value judgment in the title, unlike 'president' or 'prime minister' or anything, and - it's basically unheard of outside Ibyabek for anyone to think that Lut Naar Am or his government are doing a good job, or are - of good character or anything."
Kyeo considered this statement. Perhaps it was not true that Ibyabek was widely admired and that the line of Glorious Leaders was credited with its broadly recognized development and accomplishment. And yet.
"That doesn't mean I shouldn't call him that."
"I can tell you're evading something."
"You haven't been out very long and - and all you've seen is the inside of this prison dressed up to look like a hotel," said Sarham. "I don't want to overwhelm you, or - start a fight or anything. Uh, I talked to one of my professors whose mother came from Ibyabek - decades ago, when it was more newly established - and he said to go slowly and let you work stuff out on your own..."
"You don't have to tell me," said Kyeo, "if you don't want to, but I think I will call him Glorious Leader."
"Yeah, that's fair," said Sarham. "What'd the article say?"
"It said that to read further I should buy a subscription to something called Peanut Microtransactions. Were you making a joke? It was kind of funny -"
"I have Peanut, it must have logged me out -" Sarham took the lens back, returned it after a moment. "There. It costs, like, half a deci, to read an article? Don't worry about it. - a deci is one tenth of a credit and a credit isn't much."
Kyeo was about to object that Sarham probably needed his money, to disclaim his need to know what had happened to his crewmates, but Sarham had already loaded the article and it was displaying the paragraph Kyeo hadn't been able to reach. Kyeo figured he might as well read it.
"This isn't true," he said after a few sentences.
"It says People's Law entered the demilitarized zone first."
"How do you know they didn't?"
"They called us for help when they engaged the..." The article had the Outer Sohaibekan ship's name. "The Swift Dart, what kind of name is that, which had violated the zone."
"The People's Law could have been lying. Or even just mistaken, if their instruments weren't very good and they were off by a few hundred miles and confused," said Sarham. "The news could also be wrong, but... I think lying's pretty common among Ibyabekans. And that Ibyabekan ship sensors are less reliable."
"Why do you think the ship sensors are less reliable?"
Sarham drummed his fingers thoughtfully. This happened to take place on Kyeo's chest, which made him laugh, which made Sarham laugh, and then Sarham shook his head and said, "Most, uh, things, on Ibyabek aren't as advanced and precisely made as ones here or on many other planets. The reasons why are complicated but it's enough of a pattern that I wouldn't want to count on Ibyabekan sensor readings."
"It has to do with a lot of stuff about - how you can get people to do good work, and how that's not just difficult but counterintuitive sometimes, not straightforward at all, and Ibyabek does a lot of straightforward things and not enough of the less obvious ones. I can try explaining some of it but the first bunch of what I'd have to cover wouldn't be that obviously related and you'd be taking my word for - or paying Peanut for - a lot of the supporting evidence because you haven't been many places and seen many things."
"Have you?" asked Kyeo. "Been many places - here, and Kular -"
"And Xeren and Dorasa and Kymaber, and also United Kular has several planets and moons, I've been to all of them."
Kyeo had finished skimming the article. The Five Virtues had been permanently incapacitated but the surviving crew had mostly squeezed onto the People's Law and been allowed to limp away, if one believed the news. Several prisoners - his name wasn't given and neither were the others - had been collected off the Five Virtues from where they'd been left, presumed dead, by their crewmates. These, the article told him, had been treated by Swift Dart's doctors, and were being held until an exchange could be set up. He handed the lens back to Sarham. "Show me?" he asked in a soft voice.
"- yeah," said Sarham. "Of course I'll show you."
Sarham went through his picture gallery, swiping through a raft of slightly different shots of himself smiling in front of a picturesque fountain - "I wanted to update my student profile picture" - and a picture of a cat and a picture of a cloud and a picture of a bakery -
"What happened to the thing that picked out the best ones?" Kyeo asked.
"They stopped supporting the feature, it was doing a thing where it'd keep shoving pictures at you even if the people in them were, like, dead, or if there'd been a bad breakup or something, and they said they'd get a new version of it in the next release that would let you dismiss those pictures and de-curate them but they haven't yet, it's annoying." Picture of a table with a plate of pancakes. Picture of Sarham and friends at a pool, dripping wet. "There's a decent one. I can find the albums for all the planet-hopping trips specifically though."
And he showed Kyeo a host of Dorasan plants and Kymaber seaside towns and one Kularan planet, half sun-bright and half aglow with lights, rising in the background of an image taken from its inhabited satellite. Sarham sitting on some kind of Xeren hexaped, which was craning its neck to lick his hair. Sarham and his mother in the sky, maybe a helicopter, taking a picture together of Outer Sohaibek's biggest chain of waterfalls. Sarham and his father in twenty places around Starport, pausing for photographs while they drank tea or prepared to enter theaters or posed with public art. Sarham taking pictures of himself in the mirror, trying on clothes. He was holding the lens in his hand in those, though most of the shots didn't make it clear how they were done. "How do you hold this most of the time?" Kyeo asked.
"There's a little thing you can stick your lens in," Sarham said, "that can fly -"
"You're making that up."
"I'll bring it tomorrow, if you like. And you can set it in the air and it'll hover there and you can let it try to find a good angle and pick a good moment, or you can tell it to hold still and do it on a timer."
"You'll bring it tomorrow?" Kyeo asked.
"Do you just want pictures of us? I don't mind taking some, but -"
"We don't have that," Kyeo said. "We don't have - lens helicopters."
"Well... no," agreed Sarham. "Ibyabek doesn't. And you don't have one yet. But you can get one."
"I don't have any money."
"A lens drone costs like... thirty credits. It won't take you that long to have thirty credits."
"But I'll need it for other things. Once I'm out of here I will need to pay for a place to live," said Kyeo, queasy, "and food, and a lens - I have been told I can't not get a lens - and all the services I will need to make the lens do anything, and clothes, and heating because I know Outer Sohaibek gets terribly cold much of the year -"
"Kyeo," said Sarham. "Even if you just - forget about me and pretend I'm not going to help you with that, which, to be clear, would be reasonable since you'll be in Crane Mountain for months and shouldn't count on much at that time horizon, but to be also clear about a different thing, I am going to help you with that - even then. You will be able to afford all that. Even if you don't get a job for years you'll be able to afford all those things and also sometimes spend thirty credits on something you don't absolutely need, though admittedly not every thirty credit thing you don't absolutely need. There's refugee funds set up specifically to help you start out, government ones and private ones, I bet the Crane Mountain people can apply for you even."
"Why are there refugee funds?" Kyeo wondered.
"Because sometimes - because frequently, because multiple times a week - people can afford to drop thirty credits on something they don't absolutely need," Sarham said. "And sometimes that's lens drones and sometimes that's nice dinners and sometimes that's fancy socks and, sometimes, it's the warm fuzzy feeling of helping out an Ibyabekan who got out and needs support before they can fend for themselves in Outer Sohaibek. Kyeo, Outer Sohaibek is rich. There are poorer people and richer people but the poorest person on the planet can get it fixed if their electricity goes out. They might have to lean on other people - almost like the ideal on Ibyabek, sometimes - but there's enough, there's plenty."
Kyeo was silent for a while. He caught Sarham's hand in place where it rested, brought it to his lips to kiss the backs of his fingers.
"That's why you can't see the stars at night," Kyeo said. "That's why the planets sparkle, on the night-side."
"Yeah," Sarham murmured. "That's why. Light pollution. You said at the time 'pollution' - but it's not air pollution. It's just everyone having their lights on."
There was something so poetic about it, Kyeo wanted to say - that Ibyabek couldn't keep the lights on, but it could see the stars -
But Sarham could see the stars too, as the suns they were. He could go to them, and he could put his lens in a flying device and make it take his picture against a planet so wealthy it looked like it was turned half to gold, and then he could do it again and again, and while he was traveling between the planets he could also look at constellations, if he wanted.
The name Stargazer was -
Kyeo still liked it, he thought, but it seemed sadder.
"Are you crying?" Sarham asked, voice low and apologetic.
"No," Kyeo lied, and he released Sarham's hand to let him brush the tears away.
Crane Mountain allowed occasional, closely supervised field trips. Everyone got a vote - except the toddler, who was too young, but including the toddler's siblings - on where to go, but they all had to go to the same place or stay behind, lest their minders be spread too thin. There were sports matches, theater showings, museums, concerts, a botanical garden, a re-enactment village trying to mimic the way the Old Sohaibekans had lived before the war.
Kyeo's first thought was they'll rig the vote, and we'll all think everyone else chose whichever of these is easiest to put together.
And his second thought was of the face Sarham would make if Kyeo expressed that to him.
He looked up everything on the list on the skylace, and found each one with its own promotional materials and video clips of past similar events and a virtual tour of most of the museums and the garden, and he felt slightly dizzy at the reality of the whole pile of them, and voted for the concert Dalun wanted to see.
The art museum won, though, vote carried by the three oldest residents. Dr. Dae told Kyeo he could inform Sarham when they'd be there, in case he wanted to accompany them.
"I think he has class," Kyeo said.
"Sometimes university students have flexible schedules," said Dr. Dae. "Of course if he says he has class, that means no."
Sarham said he could watch the lecture recording later and attend a different discussion section for the week, though, and when the busful of Ibyabekan refugees discharged its passengers at the art museum, there he was, sitting under the roof overhang in the light drizzle, coaxing one of the planet's native bird-like things close enough to nibble a piece of his sandwich out of his hand. He leapt up, spooking the bird-thing into the air, and jogged over to hug Kyeo and take his hand.
"We have to all stay together," said one of the Crane Mountain chaperones, a man called Hoon. "We'll be head-counting every room. Talk to me if you need to go slower or want to see something specific but do not wander off. You need a chaperone to come along if you need the bathroom." He'd already said that about five times on the bus but apparently that wasn't enough. "Your local companions -" The old couple's counterparts were here, too, and a skylace acquaintance of Dalun's - "are permitted to split off and rejoin, but do not count as chaperones for you."
Sarham sighed, squeezed Kyeo's hand. "We can come back sometime if this is a really unsatisfying museum trip," he said.
The chaperone bought all the Ibyabekans tickets. Sarham had one already.
The museum's front atrium was - something. Kyeo wasn't sure how to describe it. There was architecture this impressive on Ibyabek, it wasn't so much nicer than the art museum he and Sarham had visited there. It wasn't that it was crowded. The difference remained if Kyeo imagined the Ibyabekan museum full of this many people - many of them not even of the Ibyatok system's dominant ethnicity, he noticed, there were people who looked more like Sarham or even more exotic still. He frowned around at everything. It was - the stacks of maps and the racks of headphones at the visitor's desk. The signage, not just the intimidating list of exhibits but also the exit signs and the bathroom signs. The elevators, right next to the stairs. The rugs for wiping off their feet as they came in, and the coat check where people were giving up their umbrellas, and the stroller rentals. There was a mural right over by the front window, with children's handprints all over it, messy and colorful, and he couldn't stray from the group to go look at the caption but he could see that there was one -
"What is it?" Sarham asked.
"Just - noticing things," said Kyeo. "They - make it so you don't need a tour guide."
"Yeah," said Sarham. "They don't just put a bunch of art in a building - they think a lot about how crowds flow, and how not everyone will want to climb stairs, and how to make it so everyone can get something out of it all."
Kyeo nodded mutely and flowed with the crowd, holding tight to Sarham's hand, following Dalun as she followed Hoon, into the first section.
Their group swung through a section with some things from Ibyabek, but it was a tiny percentage of the museum as a whole and the things in there had captions like Diplomatic gift, claimed to be the work of Lut Naar Am's nephew Phol Naar Am, real artist unknown or Only surviving print of the painter's work after his failed attempt to extract his wife and children from Inner Sohaibek.
Everything else they saw was from Outer Sohaibek itself or something that had managed not to be on Old Sohaibek when it melted, or from farther-off worlds. It was in a hundred styles, in media Kyeo'd never heard of sometimes. Much of it aimed at familiar aesthetic targets - there was portraiture, there were landscapes, there were graceful sculptures of people and also of smooth-lined abstractions titled things like "glory" and "the future". But the rest of it was weird. There was a gallery full of random objects turned into vaguely-shaped piles and given names. There was a room dominated by enormous rhinestones hanging from the ceiling. There was a glass-doored freezer with a cake in it. There were abstract paintings, which Kyeo did actually like - it was a simple enough leap from abstract sculpture. But the rest of it he didn't see the point of. If he wanted to look at a cake in a freezer - well, he couldn't have actually done anything about that himself back at Crane Mountain, but he suspected the typical visitor to the museum could put a cake in a freezer themselves.
It only occurred to him after they'd moved into a section full of quilts that he could have asked to stay back and read the placard next to the freezer, but he felt shy at the idea, like at least one of wanting to know why it was there or not already understanding was sure to be shameful.
He'd come back with just Sarham one day. The cake might or might not still be there - the signage indicated some exhibits were temporary and he wasn't sure if that was one of them - but something weird would be there, probably, and he could read it then.
Sarham didn't say "see, there's lots of art over here, even though artists need to buy food". He didn't have to.
They'd all eaten packed lunches in the museum food court - Hoon's fellow chaperone Cheong explained that he didn't want to lose them while they all scattered to the different tiny restaurants and had to wait different amounts of time in line, so everyone got stuffed buns and applesauce and honey cookies - but they hadn't brought dinner. When the museum closed there was an announcement over a public address system with remarkably good sound quality and they, with the museum's other stragglers, made their way to the front exit.
"Oh for the love of -" began the chaperone leading the group, when they got within view of the front window. "Everybody hold up - how do these loons keep finding us -"
"Who?" Dalun asked. Her skylace friend had gone home hours ago; she hugged herself.
"Is it the protesters again?" croaked the old man.
"Protesters?" Kyeo asked blankly. The construction made sense - a protester would be a person with an objection to something - but -
"There are some elements on this planet," said Hoon, rolling his eyes, "who feel that we shouldn't be accepting Inner Sohaibekan refugees here on Outer Sohaibek, for various reasons, and they've somehow found out we have a tour group here - eegh, there's a lot of them -"
"Should I go ask the museum staff if we can go out a side door?" Sarham asked.
"We have to get in the bus," Hoon said. "It's probably already wondering where we are and if we don't show up in the next five minutes it could drop us for another fare. I might be able to update its destination here, if we can get out the back and have it meet us around the block..." He fiddled with his lens.
"Are they dangerous?" asked the twelve-year-old, tremulous.
"They mostly just like to carry signs and yell," Cheong soothed, "don't worry about it," which wasn't a no, and it not being a no felt very telling to Kyeo, who knew that around here people sometimes didn't like to lie.
He peered around the edge of his group. There were at least forty people in a mass on the steps; they were letting other museum visitors go by, though they did seem to be trying to engage them in brief conversation on the way.
Kyeo wasn't sure how they expected to tell who the Ibyabekans were, since they weren't demanding family trees from every passerby. The Crane Mountain staff didn't wear uniforms; the residents had facility-provided clothes, but those were just plain, not remarkably so, and he'd seen other people wearing similar things in the museum. Would they be going off the size of the group? Did they know the chaperones' faces already? Were they guessing solely off who seemed intimidated by the prospect of an angry crowd carrying messages like Out Of Outer Sohaibek or Trade Them All For My Grandfather or Our Planet Our Values -
Kyeo, admittedly, was intimidated by this prospect.
"I'll ask about going out the back," said Sarham, and he scurried off to catch a docent by the elbow. Kyeo felt very alone, suddenly, though he was still standing close to the rest of his group.
"I really need to sit down," said one of the old women. "If we aren't getting in the bus now."
"I should have rented a wheelchair," agreed the other.
Cheong took all the old people over to a bench at the edge of the room. Kyeo stood with everyone who could still be on their feet, waiting for Sarham, who presently jogged back. "A back entrance exists, but it's just a loading dock, it's high off the ground for trucks to back up into," he said. "She doesn't think we can get on the bus that way without opening the emergency exit."
"They're not going to let us open the bus's emergency exit from the outside," said Hoon disgustedly. "Don't any of the museum emergency exits open to the other side of the block? I'd call this an emergency."
"I'll ask," said Sarham, and he went to bother the docent again, but she'd gotten far enough into the recesses of the museum by now that this took him out of sight.
"We could just try going past them," said Dalun. "They'll probably only shout."
"Our party includes a baby," said Hoon. "Probably's not good enough."
"Cheong said I didn't have to worry!" cried the twelve year old. Her older brother started trying to reassure her.
"How high off the ground is a loading dock?" Kyeo asked. "We could maybe have some jump, hand down the elderly and the children..."
"I don't know how high off the ground it is," said Hoon. "Shush, I'm going to get the bus dispatch on voice - yes, hello -"
"We could -" Kyeo began, but Hoon waved a hand sharply at him, and he subsided. Where was Sarham? When he came back Kyeo would ask him to find the museum security guards - he'd heard everywhere on Outer Sohaibek had to have those to deter thieves, since everyone was desperate for money. And then he'd either have someone to ask for an escort out to the waiting bus, or he'd learn that the crime rate on Outer Sohaibek was happily lower than he expected, one or the other.
"They're getting closer," said Dalun, and everyone, even Hoon, looked.
The protesters were advancing up the stairs, and they could obviously see the group through the windows.
"The doors won't open from the outside anymore," said Hoon, uncertainly. "- no, I don't mean the bus doors, sorry - listen -"
Sarham came back. "The docent had to leave," he said. "She uses the elevator down to the subway, by the food court..."
"I can't take unintegrated Inner Sohaibekans on the subway!" said Hoon. "- yes I know the bus is not a subway, I'm trying to have a lot of conversations at once -"
"Sarham, is there a security detail here?" Kyeo asked in a low voice.
"Probably not human security," Sarham murmured back. "Robots maybe. Cameras. It'd be able to call the police, I guess. Why?"
"I was going to ask about an escort past the protesters but I don't know if robots can do that."
Sarham shook his head.
The protest was close enough now that Kyeo could hear them all chanting in unison, through the thick glass doors, over the hum of the museum fans, drowning out Hoon's attempt to explain the problem to the bus dispatcher. "No defectors!" they were shouting. "Get them gone! Poison planet, poison people! No defectors, get them gone! Old Sohaibek still burns!" They repeated. There was a jaunty rhyming poetry to the furious mantra.
"Do they think we hit Old Sohaibek?" Kyeo asked Sarham in bewilderment.
There was a slightly suspicious pause before Sarham nodded.
The baby went from fussy to wailing. The dispatcher and Hoon gave up on trying to have a voice conversation over the din and returned to text.
"I have a stupid idea for how to get an escort without calling the cops on ourselves for being here after hours," said Sarham, putting his arm over Kyeo's shoulders and holding up his lens in front of his face. "You wanted to make friends with all the readers anyway, right, Stargazer?"
"Yes," said Kyeo.
Sarham pressed their heads close together, and thumbed his lens, and said, "Smile," and snapped a picture. A minute later he had it posted somewhere on the skylace with a few sentences underneath.
"What did you do?" asked Dalun.
"There's a, uh, cult following," said Sarham, "many of whose lenses just screamed at them that there's a photo of Kyeo on the starlace for the first time, and I stuck the picture to a call for help. There's maybe enough people just in walking distance - the university alone, my friends from school will have seen it too - it probably won't actually get us an escort, really, but maybe someone'll have a clever idea we're not thinking of."
Nothing materialized immediately, though. Hoon's lens decided to update some of its software, leaving him swearing at it that if the bus left while they were still trapped he would switch to its competitor and short all its manufacturer's stock. Dalun tried to distract the kids by tossing the baby short distances between herself and the older siblings.
When Hoon had the dispatcher's attention again, some of the rubbernecking on the sidewalk had turned into a more purposeful gathering - a couple people came to the foot of the stairs, barely visible between protesters, and stopped there, looking around, unsure how to identify each other. Kyeo saw, under a fist-pumping elbow, one of the distant newcomers raise her hand and shout something, though he couldn't hear her over the chant; some others flocked in her direction, and soon a little clump of them, half hidden by angry bodies, was growing. Some of them had umbrellas, some raincoats, a few who were all wearing festive garlands of plastic baubles around their necks had apparently walked directly out from the dry indoors and were getting wet.
The counter-protest took a few minutes to form. By that time Hoon had convinced the dispatcher to make the bus stay and accept new pickup location updates from him, but had not convinced them that the party's exit from the museum to the street was the bus company's problem. Hoon looked about ready to provoke a security robot to fetch the police when it became clear to everyone that there was a second group outside.
The big knot of sign-waving anger left some margin on both sides. Kyeo had thought it was to entice the Ibyabekans to make a break for it in one direction or the other, but it left space for the counter-protesters to slip in along one edge of the steps. There, they formed a line, and joined hands, all facing the protest. The protesters didn't seem to know how to react.
The line took a step forward, crowding protesters farther toward the center of the stairs, and another.
The chant sputtered, slowed, dwindled to four really insistent voices and finally just one screaming "POISON" over and over. Sarham's cavalry started calling, "Seeker! Stargazer!", and when they didn't move right away, they repeated it like a chant of their own: "Seeker, Stargazer, Seeker, Stargazer -"
They'd gotten right up to the wall of glass doors in front of the museum, and secured a whole door, with their escort shielding a path down the stairs.
"What the," Hoon said, shaking his head, but he called the bus around and waved over Cheong with the old people and went for the free door.
There were only twelve people in the little counter-protest, holding hands, but that was enough to cover the stairs and the broad sidewalk up to the door of the bus.
They had lens drones, some of them, hovering over their heads and surveying the action.
"Kiss me goodbye," Kyeo said, while everyone else, half an eye on the confused protest, hurried onto the bus.
"I will see you in three days," said Sarham, a little breathless, but he kissed him and then shoved him onto the bus after Hoon so the door could shut and the lot of them trundle away. Kyeo waved out the window, and left Sarham to contend with his devoted fanbase, more of whom were still straggling into view.
Kyeo still didn't read the memoir - Sarham would get around to showing him sooner or later - but he could read the commentary on the non-memoir posts on the site, such as the one with the photo of him and Sarham. There were several photographic angles on the kiss and a lot of text-based screaming about how Seeker and Stargazer were together at last, accompanied by compliments to both of their appearances, interspersed with skepticism about whether the event had really happened. Occasional advertisements exhorting Kyeo to download THOUSANDS of augmented reality stencils and stickers for decoration and physical art aid!!! or BANISH circadian rhythm maladjustment with ONE pill each solar day!!! were swept away by the moderation system as he scrolled, but kept coming back. Kyeo had been given lessons in skylace navigation which made it very clear these were to be ignored, and even if he wanted THOUSANDS of augmented reality stencils and stickers he had no money for them.
Some of the people who'd been there had written up their own perspectives, accompanied or not by their own photography. Nearly half of them had been friends of Sarham's, not members of the "cult following", who had been on their way to dinner, and had jogged over from the university a couple of blocks away. The ones with the bauble-garlands had been much of the birthday party attendance of a particularly passionate reader, who'd roped them in while leaving the other guests behind to eat ice cream by themselves. Someone had told their haircut robot they needed the bathroom, stepped out, and gone back afterwards to get the rest of their haircut. Someone had been sitting down to lunch at the restaurant across the square from the museum. People had shown up late from all the way across town, some of them, hoping Sarham would still be there. He'd made his escape after only a few minutes, though, shy of attention.
Sarham had posted pictures of himself before. With some investigation Kyeo found a category for those and went through it. (Dalun walked behind him in the library and looked over his shoulder and snickered, but he ignored that.) Some of the pictures he'd seen before. Apparently he liked to update his audience whenever he went to a new planet with a handful of photos.
Kyeo did not open the section Ibyabek Memoir, even though the entire design of the site seemed to want him to, like the font itself had an opinion and that opinion was that anyone on Sarham's journal page wanted to see his posts about Ibyabek specifically.
Three days. He could wait three days and pester Sarham about it then.
Dr. Dae told Kyeo that he didn't think they were making very much progress. Kyeo, who had no idea how much progress was considered normal or what they were progressing toward or how anything therapy contained could possibly be construed as trending toward any goal whatsoever, didn't say anything. Dr. Dae went on to explain that he thought they could get past this if Kyeo would say things more frequently, but (he went on), it was also possible to get another therapist in if Dr. Dae in particular was a bad fit.
"Do you think you'd have an easier time opening up to someone else with a different style?" pressed Dr. Dae.
"I don't know what styles there are," said Kyeo.
"Do you think you'd be more comfortable with a different therapist," clarified Dr. Dae.
"I'm not uncomfortable," said Kyeo.
"...I see," said Dr. Dae. "Do you think you'd be more talkative with someone else?"
That would really depend on the someone else, Kyeo suspected. He shrugged.
"I'm going to book you with a colleague of mine for tomorrow," Dr. Dae sighed, "and see if you get anywhere with her. Assuming it's all right with you that she's a woman, some Inner Sohaibekans have a lot of cultural barrier to get over there."
Kyeo still didn't know where any children on this planet came from but it hadn't escaped him that women popped up in the oddest places on Outer Sohaibek and seemed to think they belonged there. However ridiculous it was to put one through medical school, probably the ones who graduated had done so by learning material and passing tests (and paying tuition). He might have been nervous if someone had been suggesting a woman scalpel him open, nevertheless, but all Dr. Dae ever did was talk. "That's fine."
So the following morning after a class about Outer Sohaibek's free speech law, Kyeo met with Dr. Suji. She said hello, introduced herself, sat him down, and said, "Your file says you have panic attacks, is that right?"
"That's what they called it."
"The soldiers on the station."
"Mm-hm. When did this come up?"
"They were interrogating me to see if I could be transferred here. It set off the lie detectors."
"Dae has you on those Quick-Calm tabs that go under the tongue?"
"Yes." He'd wanted to know if Kyeo had experienced any side effects when they'd given him one on the station, and he hadn't, so he'd gotten a pack of them for him and they lived in Kyeo's pocket.
"How often are you going for them?"
"Every couple of days."
"When was the last time?"
"First thing in the morning today."
"Mm-hm. Before that?"
"When the thunderstorm the other day started while we were having class in the courtyard."
"Hnh. When else, list as many as you can but don't worry if you forget some -"
So Kyeo did - the crushing acceleration of the little shuttle that had taken him from station to Starport. The lights shone in his eyes to check on him after his concussion. The crew on the Five Virtues reciting things, not songs but pledges and philosophical theses, while Kyeo mouthed along without air.
"Songs don't do this?" Dr. Suji said.
"Hrm. Sing me a song."
Kyeo was surprised, but, he supposed, he didn't know enough about what this was supposed to be like to assume that wasn't it. "I can't. My voice isn't right any more."
"Since my gap year." That was what the other boys at school had called it to be polite. A gap year sounded like a leisurely, elevated sort of thing to do.
"What did you do during your gap year?"
"I was in the hospital."
"For philosophical troubles."
"Dr. Dae has written that you have a boyfriend - Kularan, goes to U. Starport -"
"...that doesn't cause problems at all?"
"No?" said Kyeo, confused. He had panic attacks for stupid reasons but they did not generally strike when he was being snuggled.
"Huh. Are you two having sex?"
Kyeo considered this question. It implied that there existed some thing which was referred to in the Outer Sohaibekan dialect as "sex" that two boys could do, but it wasn't otherwise specific. "I don't know."
"...you d- huh. Have you ever been in the conjugal visit room."
"Okay." She took a deep breath. "What was the philosophical trouble?"
"The one that makes me want to kiss Sarham. I have had a relapse," said Kyeo.
"...I see," said Dr. Suji. "Kyeo, can you tell me in what way you were treated at the hospital?"
Could he? Kyeo spent a while being unsure of that.
She looked like she was about to rephrase her question, but held back while he tore off a Quick-Calm tab. Stuck it under his tongue. "My father told them not to leave any marks," he said after it had dissolved. "They didn't hurt me."
"What did they do?" asked Dr. Suji.
"They -" His throat was closing up, somehow, he sounded hoarse. "Tried to -"
"Can you write it down?" she suggested.
He took the pad of paper she was offering. Tapped the pen on it once, twice, elected to abandon sentence structure. Water, cold. Electric shock. Holding positions. Recitations. Emptying my mind to fill it with the will of the People. Didn't sleep didn't eat. Watched me for slips.
She took the paper and scanned it. "Slips?"
"Signs of deviant sexuality," Kyeo croaked.
"May I guess?" she asked.
Dr. Suji said, "There weren't any girls there, right?"
Kyeo nodded again.
"So my guess is they assumed any time you became aroused at all, you were exhibiting signs, and punished you."
"I am," she said, tapping the pen on the paper just like he had, "not at all sure how you avoided having a trauma reaction to your boyfriend, considering, but I suppose he wasn't in fact there -"
"No." He'd been given thirty lashes and kicked off the planet, taking - Kyeo didn't know how long - to heal.
"And they weren't having you kiss people so they could punish that -"
"Well. Do you miss singing, Kyeo?"
That was... a topic change. "Very much."
"This has been a little intense for an introductory session," she said. "So I don't want to keep digging into this right now. But we do have fifteen minutes left, so I'm going to screen you for a spasmodic dysphonia type condition, odd though your presentation might be - maybe no one's noticed because you're so terse, come to think of it. We have treatments for that."
"For a bad singing voice?"
"Yes, if I'm right about why," said Dr. Suji. "Not perfect, not instant, not without some re-training work on your part, but yes."
Kyeo swallowed. He nodded again.
Sarham came on the weekend, and Kyeo had a bandage on his neck.
"Yikes! What happened to you?" Sarham exclaimed, touching the sticky edge where it was starting to peel up.
"They're try," Kyeo started, and he coughed. "They're trying something to fix how I can't sing any more."
"You can't -" Sarham's eyes were wide. "Why can't you sing any more?"
"My new therapist says she thinks it's spasmodic dysphonia."
"Spasmodic dysphonia. Okay. I'll... look that up later. You have a new therapist?"
"Dr. Dae didn't think we were making enough progress."
"Dalun has also tried both and says she prefers Dr. Dae, but Dr. Suji makes more sense to me," Kyeo said. "Apparently it is the sort of thing which has styles."
"Yeah, I went to a couple different people for a few months when I first went back to Kular, after I left Ibyabek," Sarham said. "They're all over the place."
"I felt - mostly okay as it turned out, after everything," said Sarham. "But it's the kind of thing that seemed smart to check? I mean, I'd gotten deported from a planet I'd been excited to visit after just a few days for committing crimes and on my way out they'd - you know -" Kyeo stroked Sarham's back. "So I thought I'd set something up, talk to some people, make sure I wasn't going to turn up with some kind of stupid problem in my thirties clearly traceable back to letting an issue from all that fester. Uh, I guess I might not have been fine if I'd know about your - hospital stay - but at the time I mostly just thought, well, if I hadn't swiped the lens, I might have been around you longer and my back wouldn't hurt, but I never would have gotten to see your face when you saw all those snapshots of the universe..."
"Why wouldn't you have been fine if you knew?"
"I would've felt like it was my fault? I kind of do now."
"The issue wasn't that I kissed you. My father pretty much ordered me to," Kyeo said. "The issue was that I wanted it. I might have eventually noticed I wanted to anyway."
"- what, and turned yourself in?"
"Yes," said Kyeo, slowly. "Just like I actually did."
"You deliberately -" Sarham stopped, shook his head. "I guess - okay, I don't really get it, but - something along the lines of, uh, it's not that weird if a medical procedure hurts, and they were calling it a medical procedure -"
Sarham sighed. "I hope it's okay with you that nobody is going to try to treat you for being a jujube on Outer Sohaibek."
"A jujube. The fruit? The kind people smuggle into Ibyabek packed in white wine?"
"I know, it's a stupid word - Kularan we just say 'gay', which is a little less ridiculous, it used to mean 'happy' in one of the creole source languages," said Sarham.
"Oh, is that how you pronounce it."
"Have you been wondering - based on my text conversation with my friend about his attempt to set me up on a blind date - this whole time -"
"You remember the conversation too," Kyeo pointed out.
"I re-read my memoirs occasionally. I did it yesterday afternoon, to - think through whether I was ready."
Kyeo looked at him expectantly.
"I'm going to feel weird about it the entire time," said Sarham.
"You don't have to watch me read it, you could just say I can."
"That would be weird too, just not in the same way. I guess I might find I'd rather not be there after the first paragraph and ask you to wait till I'm gone, but - you can start now. If you want. Do you have a lens, or just the library?"
"I have a lens now." He'd passed his skylace use test and they'd had him pick a design, which had to be different from everyone else's so they wouldn't be mixed up if one was left lying around. They had a lot of choices, but eventually he'd settled on a starscape. It had seemed appropriate. When the lens was turned off it looked like a slice of galaxy, black and spangled.
Sarham squeezed Kyeo's knee, when he saw, and watched restlessly while Kyeo found the site and finally let it funnel him to the main attraction.
There was an introduction, first, about how it hadn't been written in chronological order but was being posted that way after some editing, and how all the names had been replaced with pseudonyms for everyone's privacy, and how this was only one person's brief and privileged window into Ibyabek, and a terminology note about how he referred to it as Ibyabek since that was what the locals called it.
"Everyone else here calls it Inner Sohaibek," said Kyeo, pausing on that paragraph. "It's very rude."
"I think so too, honestly, most of the differences in opinion aren't going anywhere but if anyone else changed their planet's name people would get with the program - but most of the time it isn't worth fighting with people over what they call it, and sometimes if I say 'Ibyabek' in some random context I have to clarify."
"I don't fight with people about it."
Sarham nuzzled his shoulder a little. Kyeo went on to the next page.
The memoir opened with the trip, on Ambassador Peng's government-issued diplomatic vessel, which apparently also carried a bunch of staff who hadn't been invited to the party or visible to Kyeo at other moments either. A mid-chapter subsection looked back on Sarham's decision to accompany his parents in the first place.
If I'd stayed home, my parents would have visited, but the trip takes eight days. The ship was comfortable, but not that comfortable; the work has gaps, but not that many. And he might work there for decades. I didn't plan to live out my whole life on Ibyabek, but I was only seventeen Earth-standard, not ready to pare down my relationship with my parents to "most New Years' festivals and probably my wedding".
"Your wedding?" said Kyeo.
"- I wasn't engaged, I wasn't even seeing anybody at the time or that would have factored in -"
"Why would a jujube who hasn't even been treated for it get married?"
"...to, uh, another jujube?" said Sarham. "Not to a girl -"
Kyeo interrupted him with a kiss because this seemed like a revelation that demanded kissing. Sarham kissed him back in surprise, then started laughing too hard and just wrapped his arms around Kyeo. "I love you," Sarham giggled.
Kyeo leaned, very still, against Sarham, contemplating this additional interesting discovery. It felt too large to hold. A lot of things he learned these days felt too large to hold, like he was floating on a raft and constantly bombarded with falling trees, which he had to use to build more raft to keep afloat as trees continued to plummet toward him.
Sarham was still laughing. Kyeo decided he had a little time to incorporate that particular tree into his boat. He snuggled up and said nothing and looked at the lens again.
The station we docked at was old. I think it dates back to before the war. I'm not sure if Ibyabek can't build stations any more and this is all they have, or just sent us to this one for some reason. It didn't depressurize while we were on it, and it was very clean, but it was the most unpleasant station I've ever been on. We had to follow someone all the way to our surface shuttle, and that was the first Ibyabekan I ever met in person. Dad had coached me to be far more polite than I would normally think I had to be, because I wouldn't know the local cues for joking and casualness, and not to challenge the Ibyabek worldview. If that was going to happen at all, he said, it'd have to be slow and careful and professional, not YA-protagonist style. I told him I understood that I wasn't going to singlehandedly lead an Ibyabekan revolution and was just there to be with my family and to observe.
"He was very confident you would want to challenge the Ibyabek worldview," said Kyeo.
"Well," said Sarham, "uh, yes."
"Because -" Sarham would just say something very kind, if Kyeo tried to get him to elaborate, and he thought he could puzzle it out himself. "You see our movies and our books, you know what our philosophy is, but you can tell that Ibyabek doesn't sparkle - and -" What else would be obvious from Sarham's angle at the time. "And that everyone who leaves the planet needs a therapist."
"Yeah," Sarham murmured, twirling some of Kyeo's hair around his fingers. "I can see how it would - seem to hold together, when everyone's telling you the same thing. But on freer planets we hear a hundred different things, instead, and the Ibyabekan story of itself doesn't rate."
"That sounds hard. Hearing a hundred different things - not knowing which ones are -" Kyeo didn't know what word he wanted. Safe, true, reasonable, respectable, sane, useful -
"Sometimes. I think that's part of what your integration classes are supposed to cover," Sarham said. "Picking an opinion out of a hundred choices. Or making one up if they're all wrong for you. I don't know how they go about teaching it, it seems like it'd be hard."
"I think they're sort of trying to get at it sidelong," said Kyeo. "I asked Hoon why the protesters didn't want Ibyabekans here and he gave me five skylace sites to look at for different summaries, and I said why five, and he said because they have different perspectives."
"Yeah, the skylace is like that. Did you read them?"
"I... read one of them," said Kyeo. "Possibly I should read the other four."
"Huh. What'd the one you read say?"
"The author seems to think that Ibyabekans hate women," Kyeo said. "She was very upset about it. She was also angry about the saboteurs, that part seemed more reasonable."
"I guess you don't feel like you hate women."
"Why would I hate women?"
"That's a good question. I think - being dismissive of a group or wanting to limit their role in society gets condensed into 'hatred' even though that doesn't have entirely correct implications, and the author wouldn't be very impressed and change her mind about Ibyabekans if you told her that you're friends with Dalun, or respect your female therapist."
"She's a good therapist. I don't know why Outer Sohaibek hasn't eradicated itself with all this female careerism by now but the article did not seem to be complaining that I should be more eager to see Outer Sohaibek's population age and die."
"Uh... huh," said Sarham.
"Only women can bear and bring up children!" said Kyeo. "I think Ibyabekan scientists are trying to make machinery that can do it instead and I don't know what Glorious Leader will see as the right next move for women after that's perfected but in the meantime if only some people can do an essential job they had better do it. - did someone on another planet already invent the -"
"No," laughed Sarham. "Women still have children the same way everywhere. They just - also have jobs, too, sometimes at the same time, sometimes in between breaks to look after their kids - and the kids' dads do, uh, any childrearing."
"That doesn't sound very efficient."
"I... guess," said Sarham. "The Ibyabek birth rate might actually be higher..." He took out his own lens, did a search, found a graph. "Yeah, apparently Ibyabek has twice Outer Sohaibek's birth rate, wow, but the mortality nearly makes up for it, babies like the three middle siblings of that family in here and then more deaths at other ages too. And... there's other concerns in play."
"The women want to have jobs? And the men want to enjoy their kids?"
Kyeo remembered the last time he'd seen his father. It had been when he'd been admitted to the hospital. Suor had told them not to leave any marks - he'd known enough to specify -
He must have trusted the hospital staff, because he'd never checked.
"Mm," he said.
"Missing your family?" wondered Sarham.
"I never saw them anymore," Kyeo murmured. "This doesn't change much. I suppose now they think I'm dead. Maybe Aipen doesn't, if they didn't bother to tell her."
"Aipen is -"
"Older sister. She was already married and moved out by the time I met you. I haven't seen her since I was," he did the calculation into Earth-standard, "thirteen."
Sarham squeezed him.
After a silence, Kyeo read on.
Sarham did not make it clear, in his excerpts, that he was the ambassador's son. Kyeo asked about that and learned that apparently anyone who wanted the name of the Kularan ambassador to Ibyabek had only to look it up, so Sarham was protecting his own identity that way, making himself plausibly the offspring of a random attaché or even a trader or journalist unrelated to the diplomatic arm. Still, he covered his father's rules for coping on Ibyabek - they seemed to Kyeo to lack a lot of nuance, but perhaps just because they were so compact and meant for a foreigner's use. He mentioned the party. And -
They assigned me a "pairmate". Apparently this is a practice in Ibyabekan schools and some other institutions, sort of like a buddy system but with much more of an implication that if one of the pairmates breaks rules or falls behind, the other is responsible for reporting them or getting them to shape up. I wasn't sure how they were expecting that to work here, but Mom told me that my pairmate was probably effectively a spy. He was the kid of somebody in the government, not an exact counterpart to Dad but someone who at any rate had a son my age. They'd be having him listen to me to see if I said anything stupid or revealing. I didn't actually know anything, but they pulled him from his school break anyway. If the part about the school break wasn't a lie.
"It really was a school break," Kyeo said.
"I figured it probably was," said Sarham. "There's a lot of stuff like that, where there wasn't an obvious reason to lie and it was completely plausible and I couldn't see any reason to think it was false, except for everybody lying constantly all the time about everything, but that's really a sticking point when I was trying to... learn."
Kyeo already knew most of the events of Sarham's visit, of course, but he liked reading how Sarham described it. How Sarham described him, even, it was the looked-at feeling all spread out on a page:
Let's call him "Stargazer". He didn't act like a spy, except I guess I wouldn't know how spies act. He acted like one of those kids who's been assigned to be the new student's provisional best friend in school and really liked that assignment. He was terribly earnest about it, and listening to him I got a sort of doublethink going, where on the one hand I knew Ibyabek has a repressive totalitarian state and also awful metrics on nearly every measure of human flourishing to show for it, but also it had this cheerful kid my age, who looked okay and sounded okay and wanted to be friends.
We met at a party full of smoke and half-dressed girls barely older than we were who hung all over the exclusively male politicians, serving them snacks and flirting like their lives depended on it. Mom told me later that it's worse than it looked, they start younger and routinely go home with the Party members afterwards and can't quit until one of their "clients" marries them and pulls them out of the pool or they age out single and wind up in some kind of state sweatshop.
"What's a sweatshop?" asked Kyeo.
"A factory where the workers' conditions are bad," said Sarham. "Mom thought the girls tended to wind up in textile mills."
"Well, they have to do something, don't they?" Kyeo asked, hesitantly. "If no one wants to marry them. And someone has to make textiles."
"I... guess it's true that on most planets if someone is dismissed from one... job... they tend to get another job," acknowledged Sarham. "And that most planets do in fact have textile production. The Morale Corps has girls without other options, though - I guess I don't know how much education and spousal choice they usually get if they're not in the Morale Corps. How did your sister meet her husband? If you'd - decided to get married - what would you have done?"
"Her husband's father knew ours, I think. I'd been going to - ask after one of my classmates' little sisters, originally, before..."
"What would have happend to your classmate's little sister if nobody had 'asked after' her -"
"I remember Aipen spent school breaks working at a cannery one year. I guess if she hadn't gotten married she might have kept doing that. So probably something like that, just like a Morale Corps girl nobody marries."
"I'm not going to tell you that everyone on other planets who wants to get married manages to do it," said Sarham. "Or that everyone who produces textiles or cans food loves their job. But I do think - it's better, that they get paid for the work, and can quit if they get a different job offer, and go wherever they like and meet people on their own when they're trying to pick someone to marry. Also that it's illegal to pull girls out of school and make them do sex work instead pretty much everywhere. It being illegal doesn't mean it never happens, all kinds of things happen, but..."
"Dalun wants to get married," said Kyeo.
"To a boy her own age, she said. When she can be calmer around men at all."
"When she gets out of Crane Mountain she can meet all the boys her own age she wants."
Kyeo nodded, and kept reading.
Ibyabek has one thing to say for itself: unparalleled urban views of the night sky. Stargazer took me to a pier and showed me the constellations. They're not far off from the ones you can see from Outer Sohaibek, so here's a picture of the sky from Outer Sohaibek, with the Ibyabekan constellations Stargazer showed me drawn on:
"You got the Scallion wrong," Kyeo said.
"Whoops - tell me how and I'll fix it -"
Sarham repaired the Scallion representation, published an update informing his readership of the correction, settled back against Kyeo.
The memoirs described the village the Pengs were allowed to stay in by reference to some other sort of village called a "potemkin" that Kyeo had to look up and read an entire article about. Sarham had noticed the fresh paint, the imported plumbing fixtures, the strange activities of the occupants of the surrounding houses down to the little girl with the chalk.
I had seen Ibyabekan movies before, and they do have actors who know what they're doing, at least on screen, but setting up a convincing miniature town was beyond them. The place was nice enough, but it wasn't convenient to anything, it was basically just one cul-de-sac in the middle of nowhere. The "store" that they encouraged us to take stuff from for free got visited by four specific people from three of the houses in the neighborhood, on a schedule, and they took some fruit and eggs and bread and fish, but were very careful not to upset the symmetry of the displays. I didn't know what the people in the other houses were eating at all. Nothing had packing or expiration dates on it and my mother insisted on only taking stuff she could determine by visual inspection was safe, so we didn't have any meat and she float-tested the eggs and threw half of those out. Just cheese that was in its original round so no mold could have been cut off, fruits, vegetables, dried rice and beans and noodles and nuts - and she overcooked everything in case pests had been at it and it had just been repackaged. By the time I left the planet she still hadn't decided whether she was going to trust the cooking oil.
I was surprised the eggs weren't good - we'd obviously have smelled a really bad egg if we'd opened one. Dad said they just don't have the logistics in place to know when an egg was laid, at the relevant level of government, and they were probably trying, but the eggs all looked the same, and if they couldn't find enough fresh ones on time, they'd gamble.
They didn't carry spices or sauces apart from salt and vinegar. Whoever stocked it thought we'd be impressed with calories.
"The food here is very tasty," Kyeo mentioned.
"You've... been in prison," Sarham said. "Prison food isn't known for being good. I mean, I'm glad you like it, but..."
"I thought they were showing off, at first," Kyeo confided. "Four meals a day and meat at half of them and none of it's ever turned."
"But your dad's important - Ibyabek doesn't have great food but I thought you at least would have plenty of it and it'd be okay -" said Sarham. "Like, those restaurants we went to weren't galactic-class but they were fine..."
"Everyone on Ibyabek gets food from the same places, apart from the parties and special occasions like the restaurants, though," said Kyeo. "I guess Glorious Leader probably eats very well every day, and his family, but my mother went to the normal market in Bright City and got bread and dried fruit like everyone else."
"Do you know for a fact, or -"
What would constitute knowing for a fact - "I've done work rotations with people who were farmers," he offered, "and spending the winter making bricks and so on. And the work crews all got served bread and vegetables not much different from what we got at school."
Sarham squeezed him. "When you get out I'll take you to a really nice restaurant. I should ask if I'm allowed to bring you snacks..."
Kyeo leaned against Sarham's shoulder. "I might not finish all this today."
"That's fine. I'll be back tomorrow."
Imagine a young Deoun Hei Tuan and you're most of the way there. They could use him for propaganda posters. For all I know they do. But I didn't meet Stargazer as a poster, I met him as a person, and there's something fascinating about seeing the entire force of a human personality compressed into this shape, nearly escaping at the edges. It's awful, I don't mean to minimize that here. It's like those fourteen year olds from Olach who win gold at the Olympics because they've been genetically engineered so aggressively they'll live to be thirty and their coaches abused them but they can sure do beautifully on the zero gravity quintathalon. If I got to interview one of those medalists, I think it'd feel the same way. I'd be thinking: you've been squeezed, so hard, and so here you are. Everything and everyone around you has pushed you this one way; you have a rocket strapped to you and you're fixed to the railroad tracks and there's a strong tailwind, yes, so I can see you're going in that direction.
But what if you weren't?
You're not a crash test dummy, you're a person - this is happening to a person - so what if it wasn't? What would you want to do? Where would you want to go?
I don't claim I knew based on somehow-reliable documentation that Stargazer was not being coerced into some kind of men's auxiliary of the system they put those girls through. I suspect he was. I expect to get a lot of respondents yelling at me that he was in no state to produce good consent, and that it's just as well that I got kicked off the planet before it could escalate. These forthcoming commenters have a point. In my defense I will just tell you that the events I will next relate convinced me absolutely that I got a glimpse of the person behind the propaganda poster and that he liked me back.
"I did like you back," Kyeo confirmed when he read this part.
"I suspected," Sarham said, ruffling his hair. It was growing out a bit. Kyeo hadn't decided if he was going to try to figure out how to get a haircut. The whiny electric device they'd given him to shave with would probably work on his scalp if he were ever eager to be bald outright, but perhaps a solution would present itself before his options were that or his bangs falling into his eyes.
"They did not use me for posters."
"One of their many tragic inefficiencies," Sarham nodded.
Kyeo laughed. "I don't think I felt very squeezed. Or attached to a rocket."
"You said 'when I join the military'. Most kids that age don't even know what they're going to study in college. I think I remember you saying you'd keep following me around even when school was back in session if I was still on-planet then. There's - so much stuff that was chosen for you that didn't come up in conversation, because it was so obviously out of your hands," Sarham said. "You didn't pick your clothes."
"My father did suspect you were philosophically troubled in the jujube manner," said Kyeo, provoking a sporfle, "and did tell me that you might let slip useful facts if encouraged in this but he didn't know there was anything the matter with me at the time, I just noticed when I thought about it. Also, I completely failed to get you to produce any useful facts."
"I didn't actually know anything much or I don't think I'd have been allowed to go."
"That makes sense. Kiss me."
"You are still not in a state to produce good consent."
"The angry people on the skylace can't see you."
Sarham kissed him.
I was fully aware that unauthorized use of the skylace was illegal. Even if I failed to connect, and my attempt at doing so went undetected, just taking the lens from my mother would have been enough to get my parents sending me packing if she noticed it missing. I was clear on my vulnerability to the justice system, if you want to call it that, on Ibyabek. It was really dumb.
It just didn't seem fair that Stargazer didn't get to see it.
You can get Ibyabekan school texts if you want. They send them out as free skylace downloads; you can get them off the official site or the better-designed mirror by the People for Sohaibekan Reunity. They're doing it for propaganda, like they think their ideals will catch on - which isn't impossible; Ibyabek used to be a fairly normal colony world until the war started in part over the ideals that later developed into the modern form. But you can read them just to get an idea of what kids like Stargazer get taught in school. They have acceptable math, usable engineering that hints at frustrating constraints in supplies and logistics, and completely tragic galactic studies. Some of their tidbits about other planets are based on real events and just blown up into disproportionate caricature (yes, Xeren has a debtor's prison, if you want to call it that) and some are completely fictitious (the president of Outer Sohaibek does not personally own all the spaceships manufactured in Outer Sohaibekan space, especially not with term limits being what they are, and if she did, she'd have something better to do with the profits than build a palace out of solid gold) and some are... disputed (an Ibyabekan would tell you it was definitely the Outer Sohaibek side of the war that melted Old Sohaibek).
So I had a general idea what his view on the outside world looked like. Those were his textbooks; that, plus any rumor that filtered in from the thin and few channels of free information, were what he had to go on. And it wasn't fair.
I didn't have a curriculum planned. I think that was part of the point, that I could show up with a lens and that if we could get it hooked up I wouldn't need a curriculum because I could find anything. If Stargazer had heard a story about narwhals once and wanted to know if they were real, I'd be ready; if he wanted to read about the Holahsiak genocide, well, that wouldn't be the most flattering thing he could pick, but I'd be able to find stuff about that too, and in its own way being able to criticize Kularan history would be just as demonstrative as showing off its good points.
He was able to use his student credentials, which I guess he usually only enters on devices with software watchdogs but which still worked on Mom's lens. But as for what to do with it, "anything" turned out to be too much. He didn't know what he wanted, he didn't know what there was to want, and everything in my head at that moment seemed suddenly trivial or like it couldn't prove anything. Then he opened my photo highlights.
You should have seen his face. I wish I had a picture of how he looked, like he was trying to figure out an optical illusion I'd solidified and put in his hands, like I'd just tripped and spilled a pile of emeralds in his lap, like he'd never seen the stars and I'd taken him on a shuttle tour.
He asked me if they were real.
Kyeo knew the part that happened next. There had been the photos of the tofu shelf - and then Suor's shout, one of the last things he'd ever heard his father say - Sarham, crying, had said he'd come to Ibyabek to meet Kyeo, or someone like him, that he'd come out of that rich smiling universe of unimaginable luxury and set down all his conveniences and comforts to learn more about someone like Kyeo - and then the kiss goodbye. He set the lens aside; he would read it eventually. He didn't want to think about being kissed goodbye, not right now. They had thought they would never see each other again and they could easily have been right and it was awful. And after the kiss goodbye -
Kyeo rubbed his eye with his sleeve. "I don't want to read about the part where they hurt you."
"You don't have to," said Sarham. "I can scroll past that when you're up to it, if you want, or you can stop here, it's just the epilogue after... after."
"I might stop here." He cuddled up. He clung. He rubbed his hand up and down and up and down the length of Sarham's back. "For a while anyway."
"I don't exactly want to hear about how they hurt you," Sarham said. "But if it's ever something you want to talk about I'll listen. If your therapist isn't cutting it."
"I'm still not sure exactly what a therapist's job is. She called in a separate doctor to inject the voice-fixing thing," Kyeo said, touching his throat; the bandage had come off yesterday and there was just a fading puncture mark. "So her job isn't fixing my voice, and that is the most useful thing that she's done, and she's more useful than Dr. Dae was."
"They didn't tell you what a therapist's job is?" asked Sarham.
"I don't think so."
"Huh. Uh, your therapist is supposed to - listen to your feelings, and help you process them, and figure out how to address problems in your life and adjust to your circumstances and also sometimes they can identify specific conditions that cause those problems - like the spasmodic dysphonia, not like being a jujube - and then they can treat that or refer you to someone who can. Like those things you put under your tongue, plus the - whatever that was." Sarham tapped the puncture.
"Oh, Dr. Dae did tell me that he was there to listen to anything I had to say about my feelings," reflected Kyeo. "That just didn't sound like a job."
"I guess I can see why it might not."
"I believe he expected me to have more to say."
"You've got a kind of... odd way of looking at things, and things includes you, I guess. New one's better though, right?"
"I sang in the shower this morning," said Kyeo. "It wasn't - good, but I didn't run out of air in the middle of a phrase, or sound like I swallowed a truckload of sand."
"Can I -"
"Not yet. Not till I've learned how again." Kyeo kissed him. "Dr. Suji said maybe three weeks, if practice a lot."
Sarham nodded, and smiled a sweet, soft smile, and dug out his lens to send Kyeo's lens a pile of links to music sites.
Kyeo's skylace use class had included, "Don't read the comments," followed by, "That's advice, not a rule. Not only are you allowed to read the comments, we don't have a way to tell if you do short of looking over your shoulders. However, usually comments on skylace are full of advertisements and scams and clutter, either because the adware happen to be winning against the moderation bots, or because there's no moderation at all. There are systems to try to make the best comments float to the top, but even with those, it's usually a waste of time."
Kyeo was not sure if the discussion forum on Sarham's site counted as "comments". But, while he didn't truly believe that the Crane Mountain staff had no way to monitor his lens, he did believe that they wouldn't make an issue about it unless something became egregious. They could have set a better trap if they wanted a trap, Kyeo could think of ten off the top of his head, and they could also have made not reading the comments an actual requirement and punished people occasionally for it.
So he meandered over to the discussion forum, which was marked with the credits for the people who wrote the basic structure and the creator of the maintenance bot and the designer of the color palette. Kyeo had resigned himself to figuring out how to live in a world where money was everywhere, but the tacky insistence everyone had on taking credit for everything they did, by name, in case one day they'd get money for it, was aesthetically objectionable. He scrolled past the acknowledgments and looked at the topic structures. Apparently "Stargazer" was its own section, which was sort of funny. There was no corresponding "Seeker" topic, but maybe that was dispersed more generally because Sarham had written the thing. There was "Ibyabek (Inner Sohaibek)", with subsections. Kyeo'd been going to read vainly about himself but instead he touched the politics subsection.
This is a quarantine section, warned a note under the header. If the moderation bot, Seeker, or an admin send your topic here, don't let it leak out. When starting new topics here you are, as a test of the idea, encouraged to use a nonce screenname to help keep all the politics from turning into sitewide drama. Feedback on that experiment goes here. This section bridges to the Kularan-language version.
The term filter accepts "Ibyabek", "IS", "Inner Sohaibek", and their typos as interchangeable and you can set your output term here or see the original (default).
The term filter accepts "Ibyabek", "IS", "Inner Sohaibek", and their typos as interchangeable and you can set your output term here or see the original (default).
Kyeo looked up "nonce screenname", and figured out how to set his on this kind of forum, but didn't pick anything right away, anticipating that he wouldn't necessarily have anything to say here. Back to the forum.
demil zone outside inspection [part 3 of when will we ever shut up]
IS sexism SUMMARY ROUNDUP
econ 101, fuckers
quarantine for your low effort image edits
ritually scream at the Naar Am family here
ritually scream at the president to prove you can!!!
politics jokes go here, SOME of us like to have serious conversations, xenobird231
the teacher exchange is UNCONSCIONABLE
stop accepting defectors into OS!
someone explain the status/nepotism thing to me. how does that fit in??
IS sexism SUMMARY ROUNDUP
econ 101, fuckers
quarantine for your low effort image edits
ritually scream at the Naar Am family here
ritually scream at the president to prove you can!!!
politics jokes go here, SOME of us like to have serious conversations, xenobird231
the teacher exchange is UNCONSCIONABLE
stop accepting defectors into OS!
someone explain the status/nepotism thing to me. how does that fit in??
Kyeo wondered if reading the comments was a waste of time because he would need five more years of skylace use classes to make sense of them and that wasn't considered part of Crane Mountain's mandate. He stared blankly at the lens, then tapped the topic about defectors, supposing he'd have the context to follow any of it since he was one. Though he didn't care for the term.
stop accepting defectors into OS! [posted by nonce112] Look, it's all well and good to daydream about taking Stargazer to a casino and turning him capitalist for the price of a stack of chips, or whatever you people are into this week,
(Kyeo blinked and looked up what a casino was and shook his head and went back.)
but the war started because normal people like you and me were seduced by the idea of re-making society via violent revolution. You think everybody from IS has realized that their result sucked? Yeah? 1) you're deluded 2) the ideal, not the result, is the dangerous part! The result is... Inner Sohaibek, an impotent planet crawling by on dying legacy tech that can't manufacture a passenger aircraft or even a roll of plastic wrap to save its life. It's not hiding under the bed and it might have another melter hididng somewhere but it's more likely to accidentally melt itself than us. But the idea that if you somehow did it perfectly, if you put someone better than a Naar Am in charge and if everyone tried a little harder, then it'd be worth doing, worth killing people over, that's the thing that melted Old Sohaibek.
Daydream all you want. Inner Sohaibekans aren't happy here. They're traumatized disasters with no skills or friends or prospects and they don't like it here or anywhere, you can't fix them, and when they notice they're not actually satisfied and content, they'll wonder why, and some of them are going to think: ah, it's because I need to start a revolution.
Inner Sohaibek was settled by completely normal people like you and me. You can't be too careful.
Kyeo debated, at this point, the wisdom of reading the rest of the ensuing conversation. But he debated while he scrolled further.
re: stop accepting... [posted by nonce9090] I think it's irresponsible to have ANY conversation about whether to accept defectors without mentioning the sabotage at White Creek Park OR the Nebula Dragon documents OR the Southlanding reactor.
re: stop accepting... [posted by nonce222222222] It's completely possible for Inner Sohaibek defectors to be bad immigrants even if they don't start revolutions OR commit espionage/sabotage. Like, just read any randomly selected post on see:thisISbad.
re: stop accepting... [posted by nonce58] your source is a see:?
re: stop accepting... [posted by nonce222222222] see: is popular because it's a great interface and community. I'm sick of people dismissing see: citations out of hand just because millions of people use it - ANYTHING millions of people use will have its high profile embarrassments. It's not actually a worse source for being popular. For example, I believe everything your little sister tells me.
modBOT says This incident has been logged to the nonce nicks experiment tracker.
Kyeo put his lens down. He could go look up all those things. Or he could read the rest of the thread. Or he could go read a different thread. Or he could go follow up on what Hoon had told him to read to learn about the anti-defector sentiment, which might have been selected to make... any sense.
What he actually did was tap see:thisISbad.
This landed him on a captioned image which was labeled "Most see:n Today", though the ones below he wasn't looking directly at were shifting in place as new entries appeared and received votes. The picture was of a man - ethnically local to the system, but Kyeo couldn't be sure by looking that he was actually Ibyabekan - scolding a child. It wasn't clear if the child was his or not. The caption said This guy was yelling at my niece for breaking her catbot and for having a catbot to begin with in the same breath. Poison people hate fun and hate kids. Vote to tell my brother in law NOT to leave niecelet with his Inner better-not-be-best-"friend" again! The top rated subordinate remarks were make him apologize to that baby and replace her catbot! and stock photo alert and put down the camera and hug your niece, what the fuck.
Kyeo was certainly receiving a lot of information but he didn't know what to do with any of it. All the skylace use classes in the world couldn't explain this. Maybe if he moved to Xeren and learned the language from scratch and insisted on practicing his literacy on random skylace content every day he could learn it. It wasn't clear there was any other way.
He could, he observed, follow one of Sarham's links to a music site and learn a new song and practice. Or he could open the Outer Sohaibekan trivia game he had been assigned as homework and try to remember how taxes worked. Or he could go eat second-snack, which would only be served for another fifteen minutes. Or he could -
- scroll down the see: about how much people hated Ibyabekans, apparently.
This lady actually DEFENDED the Paeuk abduction. Vote to tell her BRING HIM HOME.
Poison came to my daughter's dental practice and won't pay the bill. What do you think: sexist or just thinks dentists should work for free? Vote to knock his teeth out again.
Vote to protest the New Orbit push to present to VULNERABLE CHILDREN
My son was taught in a West Gorge school (!) that the IS are victims because their elections are fake. Vote to remind him that they revolutionized themselves into this and they can revolutionize themselves out any time they feel like it.
vote if you hate her face
Vote to reverse the Second Virtual Circuit decision requiring ordinary people to let poison into ordinary groups. Don't want to have to listen to all the accents in my granddaughter's Wilderness Explorers troop.
Vote to remind pro-defectors that those defectors are just ASKING for IS to TORTURE their FAMILIES. The more merciful option is to send them all home until they learn to stay put!
Poison came to my daughter's dental practice and won't pay the bill. What do you think: sexist or just thinks dentists should work for free? Vote to knock his teeth out again.
Vote to protest the New Orbit push to present to VULNERABLE CHILDREN
My son was taught in a West Gorge school (!) that the IS are victims because their elections are fake. Vote to remind him that they revolutionized themselves into this and they can revolutionize themselves out any time they feel like it.
vote if you hate her face
Vote to reverse the Second Virtual Circuit decision requiring ordinary people to let poison into ordinary groups. Don't want to have to listen to all the accents in my granddaughter's Wilderness Explorers troop.
Vote to remind pro-defectors that those defectors are just ASKING for IS to TORTURE their FAMILIES. The more merciful option is to send them all home until they learn to stay put!
The Crane Mountain classes had mentioned that last rumor, early on. Nobody on Ibyabek believed it, it would be not only out of step with their experience of people vanishing from Ibaybek but also philosophically incoherent. But they were being instructed in believing a lot of things they hadn't before, and apparently before they'd added to the curriculum, some people had run into people saying such things on the skylace and panicked. Cheong had told everyone that as far as they could tell, Ibaybek ("Inner Sohaibek") actually didn't practice punishing people's families. Sometimes they were under extra surveillance, lest people send coyotes back for their relatives, but they didn't vanish into camps or mass graves over someone hopping a ship.
Everything else on the screen he had no context for at all.
Kyeo had a pad of paper Dr. Suji had given him in case he had any moments of awkward speech while he adjusted to the new tension in his throat. He started making a list on it, not so much because he knew what he'd then do with the list as to see if it would turn his aimless scrolling into a a tedious research project he could stop at will. It helped. Mostly because he started backing up to jot down terms from the previous pages till he was back on Sarham's memoir, staring at like he was trying to figure out an optical illusion I'd solidified and put in his hands.
Kyeo preferred the optical-illusion phenomenon, that sense that the world beyond his grasp was mostly tiled with wonders too incredible to comprehend. He had had enough of the feeling that he'd just been cranked through a pasta machine and overcooked. He set the list aside. With some effort he also set the lens aside. He made it, just barely, to the last minute of the second snack, and felt a little better afterwards.
But he kept going back, over the course of the week, to the skylace, and adding terms to the list. On his pad, longhand, so he didn't have to navigate away from those strangely compelling walls of information he didn't know how to understand yet in order to look things up. Maybe he'd look them up later. Maybe he'd decide it didn't matter. Maybe a protester from see:thisISbad would melt Crane Mountain into slag, and then it really wouldn't matter.
The fate of the list was still undecided when Sarham came the next weekend. It sat on the nightstand, turned to page three, while he watched Sarham arrive on his bicycle and lock it in place. Kyeo met him at the entrance with a kiss and they spent four minutes in the courtyard talking about a student performance of a play Sarham had seen before they got too cold and went back in to Kyeo's room.
"Things I found on the skylace," said Kyeo.
Sarham flipped through it. "New Orbit... catbots... Paeuk abduction, what have you been reading..."
"A lot of things. I don't understand most of it."
"Do you want me to explain any of this?"
"I don't know how much of it is actually important."
"Catbots admittedly aren't very important. New Orbit's a defector's organization, they'll be useful for you to get to know once you're out of Crane Mountain. The Paeuk abduction was a... kidnapping... where did you find this?"
"A 'see'. ...I don't know how to pronounce the punctuation mark."
"You skip it. There are lots of see:s."
"I think that one I found on one that is entirely about hating Ibyabekans."
"...Kyeo, why were you reading a see: about hating Ibyabekans?"
Kyeo's reasons for doing this had been somewhat lost in the shuffle, but he tried to reconstruct it. "I think I found a link on your forum. I was looking in the politics section."
"Oh no," said Sarham.
"I'm sorry. I have to have a politics section or people will talk about it everywhere but I don't like having it and I don't think it's a good use of your time."
"I don't have very much else to do."
"No? Aren't you still in classes and stuff?" Sarham asked. "Plus your vocal practice."
"Yes, but the classes aren't all day, and I can't overtrain, I have to build back up my stamina gradually. So I have a lot of empty time."
"If I'd known you were bored and supposed to take it slowly on the singing I would have sent you more links. Better ones. Ones that aren't see:s."
"Like - I don't know, photography portfolios. Linguistics blogs. The economics cartoons my school friends all have tacked to their bedposts. Stories and movies and games. If you asked me 'hey Sarham, what's more of a waste of time, spending all afternoon reading see: or spending all afternoon playing Best In Show: Greyhound, I wouldn't know what to tell you, but if you're specifically winding up on see:s that are about people who hate your background -"
"I have also found one about giraffes."
Sarham pushed his hair back from his forehead, laughing ruefully, and hugged Kyeo. "The one about giraffes is probably fine. I know you have a lot to orient to and - sometimes politics stuff feels really important to be oriented to, more than it actually is, even to people who are used to it, and you aren't, I get that, but - you don't have to read see:s about politics, or the politics section on my forum. Not while you're still taking classes on how to - what is it most recently -"
"Ordering food from restaurants. They say most people do that if they aren't going out to the restaurant."
"Usually, yeah. You barely save money cooking for yourself and most people can't do better than a chef and a kitchenful of sousbots. I've been assuming you don't cook -"
"No. My mother cooked, and taught Aipen, but not me."
"Because you're a guy."
Sarham shook his head. "Well, you can learn if you ever want to but you'll have lots of company if you just get noodle soup dropped off on your windowsill every day. What else is up?"
"The family is leaving soon," Kyeo said. "Next week. And so is Dalun. They passed their test." He reached into his pocket for a Quick Calm.
"- what's wrong -"
Kyeo put the tab under his tongue. "Sometimes I need one of those to not have a panic attack," he said.
"Yes, I know - what were you going to have one about, though?"
"I'm not sure."
"You're going to miss Dalun?" guessed Sarham.
"She said she would visit." Kyeo wasn't looking quite at him. "I will probably see her a lot. She does not plan to try to get a job or enroll in a school right away, besides talking to someone who is writing a book."
"Yyyyes," said Sarham. "That all sounds perfectly reasonable and exactly what I'd expect to happen, which is why it's weird that you're lying."
"That's really what Dalun told me."
"Do you think she's lying," said Sarham, "and that you're helping her prop up some face-saving illusion of integrating happily into Outer Sohaibekan society while actually you expect something awful to happen to her - are you expecting to make up excuses for why she doesn't visit, week after week, till nobody asks any more -"
"No," said Kyeo, and his tab was fully dissolved under his tongue, and he had a papery taste instead of the shakes, but that didn't make the word less bleak and pathetic sounding.
Sarham tugged Kyeo over into a hug. "I don't know how often she'll come over and say hi," he said. "If I were cooped up somewhere like this for months I'd want to get some space from it. But you have her address, right? You can write her. And you'll get out too and you can chase her down if you want then - you don't think you'll disappear, do you, Kyeo? - do you?"
"I don't know," Kyeo murmured into the space behind Sarham's ear.
"I won't let you," Sarham promised. "I will turn up the day they let you out if I have to retake an exam to do it, with a trailer on my bike for you to sit in, and tote you downtown myself. I will take you out to dinner and then bring you to your apartment at the New Orbit transitional housing building and dump housewarming presents in your lap and so help me if you don't stop me I will literally tuck you into bed and kiss you goodnight and come make sure you're still there in the morning. You won't disappear."
Kyeo clung and didn't say anything.
"If people who came through Crane Mountain disappeared," Sarham said, "the protesters wouldn't bother. It would be a huge waste of time."
Kyeo guessed that was true, but the idea that the protests were not a huge waste of time wasn't that much better. "They aren't?"
"- I mean, they'd be a really obvious waste of time, if no Ibyabekans were ever released into the general population," said Sarham. "I don't think they're actually making a big impact on policy, they just think they might get somewhere or want to register their disapproval symbolically or something."
"Are there," Kyeo said, after another silence, "actually Old Sohaibekans, around somewhere, seeking refuge on Ibyabek -"
"- no. Uh, I guess something like that might have happened in the first few months or years after the war if they happened to be on ships then..."
"In my lifetime."
"I had heard there were."
Sarham didn't answer right away. "I... think I'm getting the picture," said Sarham, "though tell me if I've unfolded the puzzlebox wrong, all right? You were told there were Old Sohaibekan refugees on Ibyabek, and there aren't; so maybe the protesters have been told there were Ibyabekan refugees out and about on Outer Sohaibek, even if that isn't true. Yeah?"
"But think about how many different things people say on the skylace. You've been bopping around all over it reading ill-advised politics threads. If someone made up a story about there being Ibyabekans around, then all the talk about that would trace back to that one person saying it. But it isn't the case that every commenter links to some press release about the President saying 'we have some defectors around'. Instead they have sources all over the place, they're noticing accents and New Orbit activity and book publications and stuff like that. Also, even when you're still stuck in Crane Mountain you have some exposure to the planet. You have unmetered skylace access and field trips and visitation - Dalun has that friend who went to the museum with us and you have me and whatnot. Your chaperone didn't try to get me not to upload your picture. Someone would notice if nobody ever actually popped up again after they passed their exit test!"
"What could you do about it, though," Kyeo said, "if you rode up with the bike trailer and they said - that they put me on a bus first thing in the morning and I was already gone, perhaps."
"I mean, I'd send you a message."
"If you didn't answer? I mean, I know where New Orbit will put you - and - and if I went there and they told me you didn't want to see me - maybe I'd ask Dalun if you were okay, she'll have been out for a while by then. If I couldn't get ahold of her either I'd probably tell my dad."
Wulaar might be important enough to get attention, if not to personally make demands of the leadership of a planet he didn't work for or with. Kyeo clung harder anyway, though, not quite shaking the sense of unease.
"You'll be okay," murmured Sarham. "You'll see. Please don't be scared, you'll see."
Dalun sent back photographs of her apartment. A New Orbit volunteer had taken her on a shopping trip and she'd covered the wall with butterfly stickers, clothed the bed in purple plaid, and stocked the kitchenette with peanut butter and six flavors of instant congee and microwaveable stew and a variety pack of tea. She sent a picture of a drone leaving breakfast at her window, and of herself sitting on the edge of a fountain in the neighborhood square, and of herself and her friend trying on outfits. She said she was getting used to doing math problems to fit things into her stipend.
Kyeo no longer expected to disappear, but that meant he would instead keep existing, and he didn't know what he was supposed to do about that.
He eventually decided to see if Dr. Suji knew. She said, "Imagine it's a year from now."
Kyeo obediently incremented his mental calendar.
"You wake up in the morning in your New Orbit apartment," she said. "What does it look like?"
"I guess like Dalun's," he said. "They're probably all the same."
"The floorplan can be like Dalun's," agreed Dr. Suji. "What else?"
"I don't think I would put butterflies on the wall."
"What would you put on the wall?"
Kyeo imagined a wall. Imagined as many kinds of stickers to choose from as there had been lens designs. "Stars."
"What are you going to have for breakfast?"
He was going to have to decide that too, wasn't he. "Isn't there a way to just get whatever some place happens to have?"
"You can order a 'surprise' from some restaurants, yes, but for the purposes of this exercise pick something."
"Eggs," he said at random.
Dr. Suji made him invent more details about his future day in his future transitional apartment with stars on the wall, and places he'd go from there, and things he'd do in them, and he filled it in somewhat indiscriminately, picking and choosing out of things he'd seen on the skylace or heard about from Sarham or just wondered if they existed only to find that they did. He would go to that art museum again and read the placards this time and figure out why the frozen cake - he would learn to ride a bicycle, since Sarham liked it so much - he would sing, properly, because he'd be able to do that by then -
"Did that help?" Dr. Suji asked, when he'd filled the day.
"Maybe," said Kyeo.
"What parts didn't it help with so much?"
"...In one year I will still have my New Orbit stipend. But not in ten, or maybe even five - I am not sure how they decide."
"So you're worried about needing to get a job."
"I'd like to tell you that singing is a job - it is, in fact, but most people who like to sing can't make a good income doing it and you shouldn't pin your hopes on it. On Inner Sohaibek you were in the military, did you like that?"
"It was fine," said Kyeo.
"Outer Sohaibek has a military too, and though there'll be a waiting period before you can enlist in it, your New Orbit stipend won't run out before that time. There's a market for interviews about life on Inner Sohaibek, though that's also something it's hard to make a living at. You could learn to do something completely different, though. You could work on television shows or train dogs or supervise construction robots or fix plumbing or distribute parking permits or repair drones or do landscaping or level-design lens games. You have time to learn to do something. And you can pick what something it is, the same way you picked eggs for breakfast, even if the decision takes more time and research."
"Why can't most people who like to sing make a good income singing?" Kyeo asked.
"A lot of people really like it, and it scales very well - one person singing can be recorded and listened to by millions or billions of people," Dr. Suji said. "Unlike, say, walking dogs, which is not an especially popular job and requires a separate dog walker for each neighborhood's worth of dogs, or teaching children, which is popular but - at least for a high-feedback in-person education, which most people want for their kids if they can get it - requires a separate teacher for each class of kids. It's normal for this to be hard to think clearly about," she added. "Even for people who grew up with it. And I'm not going to tell you that you shouldn't try to sell some music; you absolutely can. But you should have other ideas in case that one doesn't work well."
Kyeo nodded. He wondered what Dalun would do, when she got a job. What Sarham would do, out of school, with his degree in economics.
What he would do, with his singing voice and no job skills whatsoever.
Kyeo decided mid-week that his voice was better by enough that he could be heard by other parties. He got Hoon to show him how to record sound on his lens, and sang through the Anthem of the Bright Way, and listened to it, and decided it would be all right to send to Sarham.
Sarham replied two hours later: !!!! <3
Kyeo asked Hoon what the symbols meant and Hoon told him his boyfriend was being a sap. Kyeo blinked at him. Hoon elaborated that it was supposed to be shaped like a heart and represented affection. Kyeo said that wasn't what a heart was shaped like. Hoon said this was one of those things Kyeo was going to have to pick up through exposure.
Kyeo figured out how to type one back at Sarham, and then he went through all the other songs he knew, and some of the ones from the skylace that he had to practice a lot before he could sing them straight through correctly.
When he sent those to Sarham before he went to bed, Sarham said - the following morning - I should show you how to set up a site.
That was a sort of intimidating prospect, but maybe in a good way.
On the weekend Sarham did most of the work of getting the songs up. "Do you want a picture of you up? A lot of music sites have pictures of the musician."
"If you think I should."
"It's sort of a balance of, is it a big deal if people recognize you if this gets popular, is it a big deal if people swipe the picture and edit it to - make nasty posts on see: or something, versus do you want people who actually like the music to know what you look like, do you want it to have an easy visual handle for when it's flying around the skylace and a plain audio snippet would be harder to identify without putting in enough time to listen."
Kyeo looked at him.
"How much would it bother you if the picture turned up on see: in a month with something nasty written on it?" Sarham said.
"I stopped reading see: when you said it wasn't a good idea."
"Does that mean not very much?"
"Then I'll take a picture. I brought the camera drone, let's go out in the courtyard."
Sarham took a bunch of pictures, posing Kyeo this way and that, which was sort of fun. Kyeo had tried to make specific facial expressions before, of course, but that was communicative, not artistic. He imitated various other singers Sarham looked up to show him till he had a hybrid posture Sarham said was good and the drone took a good shot.
"If my father sees this he'll know I'm alive," Kyeo noted, while Sarham added text and filters to the picture. "I look different - fatter mostly - and it's been a few years since we spoke but he'd recognize me -"
"Is that bad?"
"I think he'd rather I was dead honorably."
"Would he see it?"
"He has skylace access. I don't know why he'd look at a music site and it'll say 'Stargazer', not 'Kyeo Sebe Luk' though."
"He probably won't see it but I can put stronger filters on, make you less recognizable."
So Kyeo's picture got softer, bluer, more indistinct, till he was sure that with the intervening years and meals his father would assume he was some similar-looking Outer Sohaibekan. Sarham slapped it on all the music files and set the background a few shades closer to indigo to match. "Ironically," Sarham said, "one of the best ways to popularize music is on see:. But, like, nice well moderated music ones, not the ones bigots hang out on."
"Should I do that?"
"I can, I already have an account. - you didn't make an account, did you -"
"I almost did."
"Someone wanted to know why Outer Sohaibek spends so much money on integrating Ibyabekans and I wanted to say that I was confused about that too, but that wouldn't have been a very substantive comment and there wasn't anything else I wanted to say."
Sarham giggled. "I love you."
"I love you too," Kyeo replied, just like in the romance film Cheong had shown the Crane Mountain residents on movie night.
Sarham beamed at him, and kissed him, and that was just like the movie, too, satisfying and beautiful and full of music.
Kyeo met the new people coming in, when coyotes got out another family or asteroid miner or defecting soldier, and he studied and he read and he attended all his appointments. And he made plans, hundreds of them, flimsy things that would tear like tissue paper at the slightest counterpressure but were enough to hold up to his mind's eye and read off if he needed a map.
He recorded music, and he assembled a wishlist of decor, and he perused scandalizing articles about what exactly he and Sarham might theoretically do in the conjugal visit room (or, later, in one or the other apartment), and he went on his field trips. It occurred to him one day that he might just be able to search "frozen cake art" and find out what that was about and there it was, on the skylace, as though it mattered, as though it was worth someone's time to make available to him an explanation of the frozen cake. It was a terrible explanation and he didn't understand it at all but somehow that didn't make it any less delightful that it existed.
He got a bank account for his New Orbit stipend to go in, and signed up for all the obligatory subscriptions and services. He looked at job training advertisements for work in translation and security and boating, considered applying to any of hundreds of factories and offices, wryly imagined himself supervising robots making bricks. He had time, though. He didn't have to line up a start date immediately.
He passed his integration test and made arrangements to see Dr. Suji as an outpatient on a less intense schedule and received his Outer Sohaibek citizen credentials. Sarham put him in his bicycle trailer and crooned along, badly, while Kyeo sang them all the way into Starport.
They stuck stars on his wall. Sarham took him out for chicken noodle stirfry and caramel ice cream, and tucked him in.
And in the morning, he checked, and Kyeo was still there.