Ani stared out the window and past bouncing elm branches at the night sky, shifting her head quietly so she wouldn’t disturb the noisy floorboards and wake Laila beside her. She could see more of the stars than she was used to, outside the city in this drafty storage shed. She idly wished she knew anything about which star was which, and wondered if the Old Sun contributed a tiny gleam tonight.
She turned to her side, and advised her body to get some rest while it could, on a thin sleeping pad lent by a terraformer acquaintance who had not expected them. As her arm passed her face in the cold light of the Front Moon, she noticed the last fading signs of a pale blue dot from a permanent marker on the inside of her dirt-covered forearm.
“Hey, hey, I’m trying to draw here!” Laila had laughed that morning, on her knees on their hardwood floor. She stabbed her marker in the air to protect against Ani’s barrage of pecking kisses. Ani stopped, but Laila’s marker caught her on the arm anyway. Ani instinctively jerked her arm back from the cold sensation.
They froze, eyes wide with the same alarm they would’ve had if the poke had been with a knife instead of just a marker. After a moment of shared shock, they decompressed with a laugh. Ani gave one more quick peck to Laila’s cheek, but Laila brought the marker back up with a smirk and hinting eyes. “Don’t make me!”
Minutes later, Laila stood up, dusted off her knees, and surveyed their creations on the floor next to her bare feet. “There,” Laila said. “Goes with yours perfectly. Mine just looks… how do I say it… better.” Ani playfully scrunched and shook her face at Laila as she joined her to look at the two cardboard rectangles, cut from sides of a box Ani had used to move in last month.
Ani’s, with hasty, uneven lettering that got more compact on the right side of the sign as she had started to run out of room:
INTERSTELLAR TRAVEL? “WE GOT THIS”
RENT CONTROL? “TOO COMPLICATED”
Laila’s, drawn with an upside-down, purposely-misshapen Mission One flag and an arrow arcing from Old Earth to Lydia:
THAT’S ONE GIANT LEAP FOR A MAN
ONE SMALL STEP FOR MANKIND
“That’s awesome,” Ani said. “People are going to love that.”
Laila was quiet. She nudged her forehead into Ani’s shoulder, then looked at her. “Ani. I’m scared. I’m scared to go.”
Ani’s eyes met Laila’s, and moistened. Her heart trembled. She looked at the pair of bookmarked novels on the couch, the jumble of obscure indie rock records beside the turntable, the photos and array of Laila’s Swedish and Ani’s Lakota family heirlooms on the wall. Their tiny living shrine to all they adored of Old Earth culture and of each other. She gathered the whole room into an inhalation that filled her to the roots of her lungs, and twined her fingers together with Laila’s.
An hour later, they lifted their signs as part of a beautiful forest of humans that filled the square. Above the crowd’s bustle and the cold wind, they could intermittently hear a distant speaker denouncing the police violence and evictions of the regime. Ani noticed several eagle-sized drones buzzing above the crowd, and she held her sign a little higher for their benefit. Her spine felt as strong and tall as a redwood.
Suddenly, a new commotion emerged. Ani heard a deep hum from across the square, like the noise of a horrible machine being activated and left to run forever. Hollow thunks, like the sound of bricks falling into water, echoed off the sides of surrounding buildings. Eyes darted among each other in the crowd, and voices called out in confusion and disbelief. A chalk-white cloud swelled above the crowd, and a gust of wind brought the smell of campfire and the taste of ash. With their free hands, Ani and Laila mimicked those around them and lifted their shirt collars up over their noses and mouth. But their eyes were still exposed, and soon Ani could barely keep even just one of them open. Her mouth and nose felt inside-out, like they were rebelling against her and trying to leave her body. Heart pounding, Ani dropped her sign. Laila dropped hers and they held each other, stumbling as they joined the disarray of screams, coughs, and scuffling feet rushing from the square.
Back at home, they rushed into the shower, still with their clothes on, and blasted cold water. Laila insisted they only use only cold. “Hot opens the pores,” she wheezed. The sudden drop in temperature confused Ani’s heartbeat even further, and she felt lightheaded. She vomited on Laila’s pants.
After several minutes, they turned off the water, slopped off their layers, and crumpled to the tile floor, too shocked and contaminated to move anywhere else. They looked at each other, faces soaked with water, chemicals, sweat, and tears.
They had to assume the raids and evictions would continue, maybe even stronger after the protest now. Ani sighed and coughed, her throat still stinging and lined with mucus and bile. After a half hour of sitting on the floor, staring at their feet and clearing out snot, Ani groaned herself to her feet and dressed. “I need fresh air. I’ll be right back.”
When Luis at the corner store saw Ani’s face, he whispered, “¿Estuviste en la plaza hoy?” When she tentatively nodded, he grabbed a paper bag from behind the counter and shook it open. “Janet from 501 told me they had drones run facial recognition on people at the protest, and they’re going around arresting them now. The Franklins at 405 said just a few minutes ago their neighbors got picked up. Some people are staying with friends or leaving the city before it happens to them,” he said. He handed her the bag, pushing her outstretched money away and gesturing over everything in the store. “Considéralo.”
When Ani returned, the door was wide open, a way they never left it. She rushed in and didn’t see Laila where she’d been in the bathroom. “Laila!” she called. She dropped her bag of food and searched the apartment, with no success. “Laila!”
She heard heavy footsteps rumbling up the staircase behind her, and froze in terror. She grabbed the nearest solid thing within reach: her father’s čhaŋnúŋpa, the sacred ceremonial pipe bowl hung on the wall. It was not a weapon, she knew in her bones, but it was made of old red stone and she only had a moment to think. She had never fought with a police officer before.
Ready to defend herself, she tensed until the stomping culminated in Laila struggling to carry a large luggage trunk, the one she’d used on the Mission One voyage and now kept in the basement storage.
“Can you help me with this?” asked Laila, and Ani finally exhaled. She nodded, left the pipe bowl on the table, and pulled the luggage up onto their floor.
“We have to get out of here,” Laila said softly. “Adam, the terraformer we met at the market. I bet he’d help us.” Ani nodded, confronting the humiliating calculus of the size and weight of each piece of their shared life. She unzipped the front pocket of the luggage.
Now in the shed, Ani quietly unzipped the same pocket. Her fingers felt inside, past layers of wool and cotton, until they found the smooth, cold čhaŋnúŋpa bowl. She drew it out and held it to her chest.
She closed her eyes and envisioned her and Laila’s position in the shed. She saw the rusty tools on the wall, and potted saplings ready for planting soon. “You have to check the nursery-grown ones closely,” the terraformer had said in a momentary attempt at small talk. “The roots hit the side of the pot they grew in and get confused, and you have to untangle or clip them before you plant so they can relearn how to grow outward and stand more stable during storms.” He handed them the bed rolls to sleep on.
Her mind then wandered outside the shed, into the unnaturally straight rows of trees behind the house, and on and on until the farthest frontier of the earthplants gradually gave way to red Lydian landscape. She sought a specific tree, and she would know it once she’d found it by its warmth, sound, and smell. She tried to summon its essence from her stew of memories. The sculpted earthwood furniture inhabiting her family’s home back on Old Earth came to her, but she wanted something even deeper.
Then she smelled it, behind her. Earthy, autumnal. Needles and bark gently toasting in the sun– the Old Sun. Berries and cones, and cool, dry air. Her bare toes felt the pound of elkskin drums and the shifting of dirt with each resonant beat, and the backs of her arms felt the warmth of her home planet. She turned to see a ring of dancers around a tall red cedar tree. They held hands and stepped to their left, releasing a swirling song of vocables and Lakota lyrics above the crackle of earthfire. Some of the dancers wrapped themselves in flags of the old United States of America, held upside-down. Drawings of eagles, the Old Sun, and the Earthmoon adorned their clothing.
She saw one woman asleep inside the circle, with another standing right above her. The two women looked identical to each other, even with identical clothing. Just as Ani was processing the resemblance, the standing one looked at Ani, and their eyes met. Somehow, this woman had Ani’s face too. Only their hair, jewelry, and clothes differed.
The other dancers approached the woman on the ground, and carried her limp body to the side. They ignored the standing woman, as if they didn’t see her there at all.
Ani gently approached the standing woman, who walked towards her in mirroring steps. “Dyani,” Ani said, pointing to herself. “Brave Deer,” the other woman finished. “How does she know my name?” Ani wondered. “And what is hers?”
The woman looked at the čhaŋnúŋpa bowl Ani still held. Ani once again admired its strong red pipestone form. “It is not a weapon,” her father murmured in a memory that briefly surfaced, “but it brings you into the power. Spiritual power.” The woman smiled and nodded in recognition. She then reached out her hand, and Ani took it with hers. “Star flesh,” the woman said, her eyes focused on their fingers together. Ani wondered, “is she referring to herself, or to me?”
They turned back to the music, just as a sudden stream of hail crashed down onto the ceremony. In horror, Ani also saw the cloud of tear gas from the protest that day rise toward the dancers. She heard the terrible sound of gunshots, and closed her eyes. She reopened them when the woman squeezed her hand tighter, from which Ani understood that she was meant to witness the scene. A glowing, translucent protective power flowed from the red cedar tree’s roots, up its trunk and doming out above the dancers, guarding them against the outside chaos and pushing it ever backward until the barrage of noise and violence vanished.
The woman who had been asleep inside the dance ring started to stir. Her eyes weakly flickered open, showing only whites, then closed again. The woman holding Ani’s hand let go, and smiled at Ani before leaving her. She calmly walked back to the other woman, who began to mumble. The standing woman knelt, and before Ani could tell what was happening, the two women’s skin merged into one person. She woke up and looked in Ani’s direction, but seemed to look through her.
Ani felt a loss, and a realization that her unique conversation with this woman was over. She looked back at the rows of trees through which she’d come. When she turned back to the dancers one last time, they were gone entirely. The red cedar and earthfire smells lingered for a few more moments, but then they too faded. Ani didn’t consciously walk back to where she had left Laila asleep, but soon she found herself curled up in the same spot on the shed floor.
Ani turned her eyes out the window once again. The stars would eventually lose the battle for visibility against the governing sky’s regime when the sun rose. But there they would remain all day, even if she couldn’t see them. Each star suggested with a calm, unwavering strength that there were still worlds that all the science and all the history ever told to her could never touch; could never even name.
Ani’s eyes moistened. Her heart trembled. She gathered the whole galaxy– its past, present, and future– together into an inhalation that filled her to the roots of her lungs. In the moonlight, she found Laila’s hand, and she twined her fingers together with Laila’s.
Matt lives in San Francisco. You can often find Matt either hiking through the inspiring nature of the Bay Area, biking on his beloved sticker-covered hybrid up a steep SF hill in the easiest gear, or bundled up at one of SF’s cold beaches with a notebook and pen.