Came All This Way for Hunger
There were peaks and valleys of despair, Hail came to realize. The horror crept up slowly, growing larger and larger in his mind. It was the remaining scraps of hope that made it grow, because if he accepted that his family was dead, then that would be it, the fear could become grief. The horror peaked at the moment he abandoned hope. He chewed his last bite of food with a mouth that felt dry no matter how much water he drank, and he almost couldn’t bring himself to swallow. But then he did, and that was it.
In a weird way, it was a relief. He no longer had to cling to that hope, to ration and stretch it out. A new feeling settled over him: a calm resignation.
“Well,” Farewell said, “are you going to eat me, now?” His mental voice in Hail’s ear was dry, but he couldn’t hide how he truly felt from Hail. The couple pounds of mostly fatty tissue that made up Farewell’s brain could keep Hail going for a few days, but he rejected the idea, and not just on principled grounds.
“No,” Hail said. He closed his eyes and pressed his hands to his face, feeling the sallow skin of his cheeks. Nearly two tendays of eating less than three hundred kcal a day had already taken a toll on him. He could tell that his thoughts were slower, his movements weaker (and not just from the persistent annoyance of zero gravity). “You’re the only thing keeping me sane in here.” If this had been a twentyday alone, Hail wasn’t sure he would have survived it. “There’s no point in making this worse just to prolong it.”
Farewell was silent for a long moment. They were both thinking the same thing: Farewell could still easily kill them both, just by jumping away into nothingness. Hail probably only had to say the word and it would be done.
“What a short and miserable life,” Farewell said.
They just sat there in silence for a while. There was nothing left to do or say. Farewell finally asked, “Do you want to keep waiting?”
“They’re not coming,” Hail said. It was the first time he had said it out loud. That admission, too, was a relief. “There’s not really a point, is there?”
There was a mental shrug from Farewell, but the feeling was itchy and uncomfortable in a way that Hail couldn’t put his finger on. He ignored it, though. If Farewell had something to say, he would say it.
“We should say a prayer for them,” Hail suggested. “I guess.”
“It’s not like we haven’t prayed enough already.”
“We could say the funeral rite.”
“You don’t know it.”
This was true, and being reminded of it made Hail scowl. “We could say something.”
“Fine. Say whatever you like.” Farewell mentally turned away.
“What’s your problem?”
There was no answer from Farewell. Not like he expected one. Hail floated over to the front of the shuttle so that he could look out the window at the field of stars. He had memorized their locations— not difficult, since the view hadn’t changed at all while he had been in the shuttle. He tried to think of some sort of funeral prayer to recite for his family, but couldn’t come up with anything in particular to say. There was a gnawing pointlessness to it, which was perhaps at the root of Farewell’s bitterness. After all, wouldn’t they both be joining them soon?
He tried to think of what it might be like to be dead, but the thought felt slippery, something he shied away from. Hail had no interest in staying here and starving to death, but his enthusiasm for a painless suicide was barely greater.
There was a part of him that was tempted to ask Farewell to do it while he was asleep, so that he wouldn’t know it was coming. But that wouldn’t be fair to him, to have to be awake and alone.
“Maybe we should just get it over with,” Hail said. There wasn’t any point in putting it off for hours or days more. Even minutes.
There was a mental shrug from Farewell.
“Look,” Hail said. “Farewell—”
“I’m sorry.” He stared out at the stars. “And thank you.”
Hail gave him a mental nudge, genuine affection in it, and Farewell responded with his own teaspoonful of warmth. It was pretty much a foregone conclusion that Farewell would end them both while annoyed at Hail, but it was still a little comforting to know that annoyance was all it was.
“Are you going to do it?” Hail asked.
“Did you want me to count down?”
Farewell was gathering determination around himself like a cloak; Hail could feel it. All of a sudden, the calmness that he had felt until now vanished, replaced with terror. He wanted to cry out, to stop him, maybe. But it was too late, he could feel Farewell—
Hail only had time to squeeze his eyes tightly shut as Farewell’s determination slammed forward.
But nothing happened except a great wave of exhaustion washing over him. Was this what dying felt like? No, that didn’t seem likely.
Hail peeled his eyes back open reluctantly. Nothing was different at all. The control panel of the shuttle still blinked out its placid, silent display. He still was jittery with hunger. He could still feel Farewell in the back of the shuttle, though the sense of him was muted with a sudden, deep tiredness.
“It didn’t work?” Hail asked.
“It worked,” Farewell replied, mental voice soft and strained.
That was when Hail noticed the starfield outside had changed. He stared at it, incredulous. “You jumped us?”
“Isn’t that what you wanted?” Even now, his mental voice was wry.
Hail was silent, unable to think of anything cogent to say.
“You fucking idiot,” Farewell said after giving Hail a chance to flounder. “Maybe consider the fact that I didn’t want to die, either.”
“Oh. I thought—”
Farewell used the power to throw Hail’s tablet at him. Hail ducked out of the way, and it lamely bounced off the shuttle wall behind him.
“There’s a reason I didn’t kill you the first time!” Farewell muttered. “Fuck.”
“But we don’t have starmaps or anything,” Hail pointed out. “It’s not like we can actually go anywhere.” The shuttle’s computers didn’t have anything like the software that the Bluebeetle used to plot faster-than-light courses through space. They didn’t even have galactic-coordinate mapping, only an ability to hone to local radio beacons, since they were only meant for short, sub-light jaunts around the ship and stations.
“We were only two days of jumping out from Carilla when we left the ship,” Farewell pointed out. “Six or seven jumps, maybe. And Carilla orbits a star. It can only maybe be fifteen, twenty light-years from here. From where we were.” Farewell’s words pulsed with the pain of an impending headache. “I figured— maybe it was the brightest star to us. And if it was, I think I could chase that star.”
Hail had thought about that concept before, very briefly, and had decided it probably wasn’t possible. He couldn’t have identified which way Carilla station was from just looking, or from any of the useless readings on the shuttle’s sensors. They were jumping blind, essentially, and there was no guarantee at all that Farewell was taking them to the right place.
Hail hadn’t even been sure that the shuttle would be able to structurally handle being jumped— it was nothing like a ship, and Farewell’s body-sense was limited. But he supposed that was a moot point now. The only question that remained was how long Farewell was going to toss them around through the darkness before giving up.
Farewell could hear his thoughts; he hadn’t been making any effort to hide them.
“It doesn’t cost us anything,” Farewell said.
“No,” Hail agreed. “It doesn’t.” But he hated the seed of hope that Farewell had planted. It was only going to make the long hours worse. A human body could last a long time without food, he knew. He wondered how long, exactly, and how long Farewell’s hope that they could chase the right star would hold out.
“I need to sleep,” Farewell said.
Carilla station didn’t orbit the first star they tried, nor the second, nor the third. Each time they reached one to jump into, that hope flared up, and then was slowly crushed as their shuttle’s radio failed to pick up any of the beacon signals that Carilla possessed, directing ships to her harbor no matter which direction they approached from. But after each disappointment, Farewell mustered his resolve again seven hours later and pulled them towards the next star, chasing it down.
Hail wanted to say that it was easy for Farewell to hope, when he wasn’t the one wasting away there in the shuttle. Farewell’s nutrient supply could last him months. But Farewell’s determination had an edge to it, and Hail knew that this was not easy for him in any way.
Most of the time, they didn’t speak. Hail, trying to conserve energy, slept as much as he could. He had long since exhausted the supply of media entertainment that had been packed onto his tablet, so there was little to do. He meditated and tried to free himself from his body. If he had been in the mood to laugh, he would have laughed at the irony of it, him and Farewell.
When they stopped at the third star, on his seventeenth day without food, Hail had the realization that if he asked Farewell to kill them on the next jump, he would have really done it that time. He didn’t ask for it.
“How many jumps until the next star?” he just mumbled.
“Fourteen, maybe.” Farewell didn’t actually know— they didn’t have a way to measure distances to the next star aside from relative brightnesses, and they didn’t even know the distances that they had traveled, except again by an estimate based on reduced or increased visibility of stars. Hail suspected that Farewell was going much further with each jump than a full sized ship would have been able to, but he couldn’t tell. “Can you make it another five days?”
Hail didn’t respond. One thing the shuttle did have was a medical reference file to accompany its paltry first-aid kit. Hail had read the entry for starvation over and over. The table detailing how many days a man or woman could last based on their starting bodymass was burned into his mind. He probably could survive. And even if he couldn’t, well. The outcome was the same.
Five days later, they made their last jump towards an unnamed yellow star, crossing light-years of distance in an instant, Farewell moving on instinct alone, creeping closer to a moving image that lagged behind the star’s actual position.
“Check for the beacons,” Farewell said, exhausted from the jump.
“There aren’t going to be any,” Hail said. Gingerly, he pulled himself towards the shuttle’s console and flipped on the radio, expecting nothing but the static star-hiss. That was what he got, but Farewell reached past him with the power and cranked the volume up as high as it would go— painfully loud. Hail covered his ears. “Stop it, Farewell—”
But then, soft but undeniable beneath the static, there was a mechanical signalling beep.
Hail suddenly had no idea how to feel. He had lost the capability for elation somewhere along the way. All he could manage was to say, “Oh.”
“You’ll live, you stupid asshole,” Farewell said, then promptly fell asleep.
Hail drifted there in the shuttle listening to the signalling beacon for the next few hours, waiting for Farewell to wake back up. He made sure the shuttle’s sensors picked up the digital location data that came along with it so that Farewell would be able to actually jump them to the station, or near enough to it that Hail could fly the shuttle in. Despite the evidence before him, that he really was saved, he didn’t really believe it.
If Farewell had been really cruel, or kind, he could have duped all these signals streaming into the shuttle’s sensors, giving Hail hope, and then killed them both on the next jump. Hail would have died happy that way, at least.
But he didn’t think that Farewell would do that. Or if he did, Hail would know. He didn’t think Farewell could really trick him, since he could feel what he was feeling.
In any event, Hail did suddenly have that spark of hope again, as exhausting as it was to haul around.
He gathered up what few valuables he had on him, which he would need to use to pay the docking fees at Carilla and buy food. He was lucky that after making his family very rich, he had gotten into the habit of wearing gold jewelry. His rings had started slipping too easily off his fingers a while ago, so he had removed them. His tight necklace of braided gold was still in the cupboard from when he had undressed the first time. He stuffed them all into a bag, along with his knife holster, which had a decorative gold wire inlay, though his knife was the same utilitarian one he had traded Cast for years ago. He’d need to exchange all of this gold for Vena— that was more easily divisible as a currency. The only jewelry he kept was his earrings, the jade ones he had bet Grace for. He fingered them and debated putting them in the bag, but decided against it.
He washed himself and his jumpsuit as best he could in the shuttle’s tiny head, and stared in the mirror at his own reflection. The past month had taken its toll on him: his skin was sallow and slack, his eyes sunk deep into his face. He could see the bones of his wrists, his ribs, his hips. He had a beard, which he hated, but he hadn’t wanted to deal with the annoyance of shaving himself with his knife, especially when his every movement felt weak and limp.
He decided there was no time like the present to get rid of the beard, since he wanted to look like a human being when he finally made it back to the world of the living. Hail lathered his face with soap, then took out his knife to try to shave. He couldn’t manage to do it right with his hands shaking, and he gasped when he accidentally cut himself, the shallow cut stinging more than it should with soap getting into it.
The momentary pain woke up Farewell, and Hail could feel his quiet attention.
“What?” Hail asked, wiping off the blood from his jaw with his thumb.
“You’re going to cut your nose off.”
Hail ignored him and went back to his task, though nicked himself again a moment later. He was tempted to give up, but having shaved off a quarter of his beard now looked even stupider than the whole thing had been, so he was going to press on. Farewell kept regarding him.
“Are we ready to jump?” Hail asked, pulling down his upper lip over his teeth so he could try to get rid of the moustache.
“You’re going to cut yourself again.”
“What’s it matter?”
“Let you do what?” He knew what Farewell was asking, but couldn’t fathom why. Hail looked at himself in the mirror, and had the disturbing sensation that he was not looking at his own reflection, but at Farewell. He looked away, then down at the knife in his hand. With the gentle touch of the power, Farewell tugged it from his grip. “Fine,” Hail said, with some reluctance.
There was no response from Farewell, except that the knife moved towards his face. Hail watched it in the mirror. With a gentleness that Hail was unfamiliar with, Farewell turned his face this way and that with the power, the knife scraping the sides of his face. Farewell lifted his head to shave his neck and chin, the wicked blade at his throat under the dim yellow light above the mirror. The sensation was tender and strange.
When it was over, Hail drifted there in front of the mirror for a moment before he touched his face. It somehow felt wrong to thank Farewell — he was silent and withdrawn— so Hail just asked again, “Are we ready to jump?”
“In a few minutes.”
They discussed the plan. Although it would have been best to wait until another ship jumped into the area and pretend to be a passenger from there come to dock, Hail was not in the mood to wait another indeterminate amount of time to do so, even for the sake of security. Farewell would just have to jump the shuttle in a few hours sub-light travel from the station, and then Hail would pilot them in to land. Once there, Hail would dock, pay the docking fees, and—
“I’m going to probably spend a few days on station,” Hail said. “I need to get out of here.”
“Fine,” Farewell said, though it obviously wasn’t fine.
“I need to have a real shower, and sleep in a bed with gravity. And we’ll want to make it look like we’re leaving with the next ship that leaves, anyway.”
Hail wasn’t about to argue with him. “You’ll be able to keep an eye on me. Carilla isn’t that big. If you need me, just, you know.” He poked Farewell with the power.
“No, you can enjoy yourself on station. I won’t pester you.”
“Enjoy isn’t the right word.” Hail suspected that he was probably going to spend the next few days miserable and violently ill: according to the medical reference book, eating after being starved was both dangerous and unpleasant.
“Give me a few days. Then we can figure out next steps.”
Farewell gave a mental nod. “You ready for me to jump?”
Hail looked around the shuttle, though he wasn’t sure what he was looking for. “Yeah. Go.”
Farewell jumped, and then Carilla station appeared even on the shuttle’s paltry sensors, still a few hours flight away.
And three hours later, Hail opened a comms channel for the first time in months and said, “Carilla Station Control, this is a docking request for one shuttle, designation Bluebeetle-two-six, with one passenger requesting station admission. Approaching from south-west quadrant at a current relative speed of three kilometers per minute, estimated arrival time twenty minutes on current course. Please acknowledge.”
“ Bluebeetle-two-six , this is Carilla Station Control. Proceed to Bay Two, follow navigational guide—”
Hail could barely listen to the rest of the message, though he followed the directions he was given. The sound of another voice, crackly and dim over the radio though it was, felt so unreal after so long, he almost wept.
The mined out asteroid of the station, all lit up and covered with instrument arrays, came into view, and Hail’s hands shook on the shuttle’s control yoke as he bumped them forward towards its bays, slowing the shuttle down until they were at a near standstill relative to the station. The great bay doors opened like a winking eye, and Hail tugged the shuttle inside, embraced by the white lights. The shuttle settled onto the wall of the bay in an empty spot with a jolt. The doors closed behind him, and the bay filled with air.
Hail couldn’t steady his breathing, but he tried. He trembled as he unfastened his seatbelt. He grabbed his bag of gold that he would need to trade away. He spared one glance at Farewell’s container in the back of the shuttle. “I’ll be back,” he said.
Farewell gave no acknowledgement except to open the shuttle door for him, and Hail drifted out.
The bay was so bright, and when Hail reached the office at the end of the hallway outside the bay, he was nearly overcome at the sight of another person, the feeling of another person. The young woman with viciously chapped lips and bored curiosity was so visceral in front of him that Hail wanted to fall onto this stranger in a tearful embrace, rather than do what he had to do, which was stand still, pay his docking fee, and ask to change his gold to Vena.
“You understand I can’t give you value for craftsmanship, or the gems,” she said as Hail handed over the bag of jewelry.
“Na, I know how it goes,” Hail said. “It is what it is.”
“How’d you get here, anyway? No ships anywhere around for days.”
“Marooned further out in the system as a punishment,” Hail said. “Been a month in my shuttle trying to get here.”
“Yeah,” she said. “Looks it. They shoulda just killed you, na?”
“Love me too much for that,” he said, and tried to smile.
“What’d you do to deserve it?”
“You wouldn’t let me on station if I told you the truth.”
She scoffed, not impressed with him in the least, and finished running his gold through the compositional analysis machine, handing him a brick of Vena of equivalent value, sealed in a plastic packet. “Don’t take it all at once.”
This amount of Vena was enough to kill probably a good few dozen people. “Thanks,” Hail said.
“How long you staying on station?”
“Couple days,” he said. “Probably I’ll hitch a ride with the next ship out.”
She waved him through onto the station proper.
As Hail came closer to the rotating rings, his head throbbed with the psychic pressure of thousands of people living in Carilla. He had forgotten how to handle this, while he was out with Farewell for so long. Or perhaps being weaker made him more vulnerable. He wanted to clutch his head and curl up in a ball, but he needed to find food, secure lodgings… He pressed onwards.
He nearly fell to the ground when he reached the station’s rings and felt the touch of gravity for the first time. They were only running at half of standard, but Hail could barely stand. He leaned against a wall, breathing heavily, watching people walk through the marketplace in front of him. No one paid him the slightest attention, except for a couple people who noticed the brick of Vena clutched tightly in his hands. Hail wished he had thought to bring some kind of bag to hide it in.
The marketplace wasn’t very crowded. Hail wasn’t sure what time it was on station, but he suspected it was probably late. And without a ship coming in with a crew that needed to be served, the station was just going about its normal business. Although the foot traffic was minimal, there were still vendors with stalls selling everything under the sun, including food. When Hail had gotten his bearings enough to walk, he stumbled down the concourse, following his nose, until he found a vendor offering bowls of stir-fried vegetables, rice, and tea. Numbly, Hail pointed at what he wanted and held out the brick of Vena. He could feel the vendor’s annoyance at having to split such a large sum in order to get paid, but at that moment, Hail wouldn’t have cared if the man had taken the whole brick, so long as he got a plate of food.
The man handed him back his Vena, along with a steaming pile of rice, green beans, tofu, and sauce, and a cup of boiling hot milky tea. Hail barely made it to one of the tables on the concourse. He burned his mouth on the first bite. He was so clumsy he accidentally bit down onto the metal fork, making his teeth ring. He didn’t care. It could have been the most disgusting thing in the world, but he shoveled it into his face, heedless of the advice in the medical reference to eat slowly.
When he had finished, his stomach cramped unpleasantly, yet somehow he still felt like he could eat that same amount of food twelve times over. He didn’t want to move, and sitting there, with the station bubbling with life all around him, the reality of his situation closed in on him in a way that it hadn’t before. So Hail just sat at the metal table on the concourse with his head on his arms, and sobbed like a baby.
He couldn’t have even said what it was he was crying about, specifically. It could have been relief; it could have been his family’s deaths finally hitting him, now that he was in the presence of strangers; it could have been how much his stomach and head hurt and how weak he felt; it could have been the horrible untethered feeling of not having a place to call home. It didn’t matter, and everyone who passed him by ignored him completely, except the food vendor, who yelled at him to return his dishes as soon as Hail lifted his head up from his arms.
Eventually, Hail had to get up and find lodgings for the night. He wandered down the marketplace until he found an area that offered rooms, paid for one, and went up to it. Although he had been intending to shower, as soon as Hail saw the bed, he collapsed onto it, and was asleep almost instantly. Had there been a fire on the station that called for an evacuation, Hail doubted he would have been roused by the alarms.