Vivienne stands alone in a desert of blood-red sand as she watches the only person that has ever mattered drift even further out of reach.
“Weird, huh?” says the face in the hologram. “It’s almost identical to the sand back home, except it’s red because of trace amounts of iron.”
Red, Vivienne thinks numbly as she cradles the small metal cube projecting the hologram. Red like your hair, Fae.
It’s one of many visual logs she’s uncovered, but how long ago it was recorded, or whether those who’d recorded it have survived, she has no clue.
“Just a few more samples and we can wrap this up,” continues Fae, and the holographic filters don’t do a thing to dampen that smile, the one that lights up Vivienne’s world even now. “Gonzalez says there’s a good chance what we’re looking for is only a few solar systems over. We’re this close to proving everyone back home wrong.”
The only thing you proved, Fae, thinks Vivienne as her fingers tighten around the cube, is that I’m the most pathetic human being the cosmos has ever known.
Because if she had been better, she wouldn’t be alone on the desert planet Rubrum, rummaging through the remnants of an abandoned research base. Because if she had been better, she wouldn’t have had to do the exact same thing on eleven other planets, and come up empty-handed on each.
Because if she had been better, Fae would never have reached for the stars, only to burn her fingertips.
(“What do you want to do when you grow up, Vivi?”
They’d both been lying on their backs in make-believe grass, and the stars winking through the viewing panels above had shone like pearls.
“I want to go there,” Fae had yawned as she’d pointed to one.
“Because it’s probably better than here.” And of course Fae had been talking about saving the human race.
What could be better than this? Vivienne should’ve said into the silence. What could be better than… us?
Because Fae had always seen the stars for what they are: hope.
Vivienne had always thought they looked like the freckles on Fae’s cheeks.)
Vivienne crumples to her knees, and the five suns above Rubrum seem to watch in silent sympathy. Or perhaps amusement.
“I'm going to miss these sands,” says Fae from the inside of her palm, where she’d refused to be kept. “Seruleum, here we come."
The hologram clicks out of existence, leaving Vivienne alone once again. It’s not the first time Fae has left a log of her exploits for Vivienne to find, and it’s not the first time Vivienne’s soul is sliced in half upon learning that Fae is under an entirely different sky.
How many more planets will Vivienne have to scour from top to bottom before Fae lets her weary bones have a rest? Before Vivienne is allowed even the smallest hint that the world is still willing to forgive her?
She scoops up some sand, oddly cool to the touch, and watches it slip through her fingers like little rivulets of blood.
Like Fae has done time and time again.
Before Vivienne gives in to despair, she flicks on her radio. “Elma?”
“At your sevice.”
“Plot a course for Seruleum. Now.”
“It’s not too late to turn back, Vi.”
It’s the day before her grand journey across the cosmos, though she doesn’t know it yet. She thinks it will be a simple rescue mission to Luteus, a planet blanketed by noxious vapors that would scald anyone without a spacesuit from the inside out.
Luteus, the place where mission control last received word from the Pilgrim.
Where mission control last received word from Fae.
Vivienne watches the sprawling megacity below shrink into tiny silver cubes as the lift whisks her further and further away from the ground. At least, what passes for the ground when you live on a star base suspended millions of miles above the world your ancestors destroyed.
Her companion is Takashi, who she's known since they were both diaper-clad and drooling, and of course he came to see her off, if only to convince her not to go.
(Please never change, Takashi.)
The lift eases to a stop. When the door slides open, Vivienne will be greeted by the docking bay; she can take a single irreversible step outside, or she can stay and let the lift whisk her back down.
Takashi sighs. “I don’t want to lose both of you.”
“You won’t,” says Vivienne. “Because I’m bringing her home.”
The door slides open.
Vivienne is eleven years old when her mother takes her to meet their new neighbors, who’d just relocated from Sector 95 to avoid the riots. In truth, she’d already seen Fae throwing pebbles at a security drone with Takashi and the other kids, but had been too shy to do anything other than watch from a distance and wonder how anyone could have hair so vibrant.
Vivienne has seen red hair before, obviously. It’s just that Fae’s bursts out of her scalp like a volcano mid-eruption. And the freckles dotting her face can’t be anything other than drops of lava.
“I’m Fae! What’s your name?” the girl chirps as she sticks her hand out, which of course makes Vivienne shrink away into the folds of her mother’s dress.
Vivienne figures this scary new girl will forget she exists soon enough, and then she’ll be able to get on with Takashi as usual. But by some cruel coincidence, Fae ends up in the same class as her, and as the days flit by it becomes clear the walls Vivienne has erected to keep a certain spunky redhead out only serve to pull her closer.
Does Fae think Vivienne is hiding a secret that will only be unearthed if she shares her corned beef rations every recess? Is she amused by how much Vivienne squirms when they have to construct dinosaurs together out of papier-mâché?
(It doesn’t help that instructors like pairing them with each other, as if their mismatched souls are somehow supposed to make peace.
Which they do. Eventually.)
It’s not until Takashi and Fae begin drifting together that Vivienne’s world splinters. Who does this intruder think she is, breaking in and stealing her friend like that?
It’s the middle of recess and Vivienne is buried in a picture book about dragons when a frisbee gives her a rough smooch on the cheek. Takashi and Fae are in the field nearby, and when Fae waves her arms for Vivienne to throw it back, she instead flings it as hard as she can somewhere the girl can’t possibly reach.
Vivienne doesn’t think she’ll actually climb the pole of the PA system like the monkeys she’s read about, but that’s exactly what Fae does to pluck the disc from where it’s wedged behind a loudspeaker.
When the announcement for class to resume comes on, Fae slips. The pole isn’t that tall, but it’s still tall enough that Vivienne rushes over to see if she’s okay.
Only to find her sprawled on the ground laughing.
It’s not long before Takashi joins in, and suddenly Vivienne is laughing too.
Not at Fae, but with her.
“We must leave immediately, Vivienne.”
“Give me a minute.”
“You do not, unfortunately, have a minute.”
Elma had flown her across the entire shimmering blue sphere that is Seruleum, only to find a single island nestled in a world of water.
A single island on which Vivienne unearths yet another one of Fae’s visual logs, and finds herself shattering all over again.
“Only one planet to go,” says Fae, and she’s so pretty, god, she’s so pretty. “Niveus better be where we find humanity’s salvation.”
What about my salvation, Fae? wonders Vivienne as she lets tears of anger fall to kiss the seawater below, her mark on this godforsaken planet. When does my world get saved?
Because Luteus, their first stop, had been empty save for Fae’s message pointing the rescue team to another planet. And another. And another.
And their food reserves had waned with morale after each false hope, until everyone admitted defeat and flew the mothership back home.
Everyone except Vivienne, that is, whose world has been reduced to dwindling rations and an aching heart, and E.L.M.A., an AI navigator gifted to her out of pity.
For the millionth time, Vivienne picks herself up despite her soul screaming for a rest, and hurries onto her little space shuttle before a wave the size of a mountain washes her into oblivion.
They’re both sixteen years old when they ditch highschool for the Spacefarer program.
Vivienne thinks this is a decision they make together, when in reality it is one Fae has made a long time ago, and Vivienne is only filling Fae’s footprints with her own awkward feet because that’s what she’s good at.
After all, Fae has made the wee hours finishing assignments bearable, wiped away the tears with hands as gruff as they were gentle, taught her to use her knees and elbows in ways that would send bullies packing.
Fae has grown wings, and Vivienne has... grown.
Meanwhile, Takashi has become a brotherly figure for them both, always there for them no matter how long the silences in between might stretch.
But Fae is different.
Fae is fire and starlight and what makes waking up to an artificial sun everyday worth it.
(“Don’t you wanna see the sun, Vivi?”
“But we see it everyday.”
“I mean a real sun. In a real sky. One that’s sometimes too hot and other times too shy to come out from behind a moon.”
“That sounds scary, Fae-Fae.”
“It is scary. But it doesn’t have to be.”)
The Spacefarer program is a joke to Fae, who annihilates the entrance exams before doing the same to both practical and theoretical courses.
Not surprising when the last broadcast had been about power outages and another potential habitable zone on the fringes of the galaxy. Or when Fae has lost her father to a riot, the same one that’s left her mother with a face that’s scorched on one side and always blue with sadness.
Or when Fae has been pulverized between this cruel world’s teeth one too many times, before being spat back out with a glint in her eye and a heart that screams for something to change.
So it’s not surprising either that Vivienne trails away like a slashed ribbon left to drift aimlessly in the wind.
Because none of this had been her. Only a stupid girl that couldn’t bear giving up her friend to the cold clutches of this world. She’d stared at Fae so intently (who could blame her?) that she’d lost sight of herself.
And because of that she'll lose Fae, too.
“You can choose not to go, Fae-Fae.”
It’s the night before the Pilgrim takes off on a voyage of discovery.
The night Fae has dreamt of since forever.
The night Vivienne has dreaded.
They’re both twenty-one and neither are sure what to make of the fact that this might be the last time they get to see each other as the lift whisks them up to the docking bay.
Where Fae will leave for a real sky, with maybe a real sun.
And Vivienne watches.
Fae sighs. “I have to go. You know that.”
The door slides open. Vivienne’s vision goes blurry as they share one last hug.
“Thanks for putting up with me, Vivi. I’m off to save the world.”
And destroy mine, she almost says. But she can’t. Not when there’s a lump in her throat formed by a thousand pent-up screams and a long overdue confession.
Fae is the first to let go. She steps outside, and the door slides closed.
Leaving Vivienne to fill the silence with her echoing sobs all the way back down.
It’s been a week since news of the Pilgrim’s disappearance.
A week since Vivienne has tasted light and fresh air, because some things just don’t matter now that her world has ended.
Takashi has to beat down a security drone and break into the mildewy apartment she calls home before she does the unthinkable, but she has only needed the solitude to think. To realize.
Vivienne isn’t like Fae.
Fae, who can’t be shackled to this world. Fae, who must bask under the stars of a different sky before she fizzles out.
Vivienne’s world is smaller than that. Simpler.
And it takes the form of a round face with freckles and always-bright eyes and a smile that she wishes she could have tasted.
“I’m sorry,” she tells Takashi on the day she re-enrolls into the Spacefarer program, because she’s been there and knows how it feels to watch.
Vivienne graduates with flying colors, just like Fae, because this time she doesn’t let anyone make her choices for her. Fae may have chosen the human race, but Vivienne has never had it in her to reach for those same stars.
So she chooses Fae instead.
Fae, who is worth burning for, and always has been.
Because of course it's Vivienne's job to keep Fae’s feet planted, to keep her waxen wings from melting like Icarus' when she flies too close to the sun. To remind her that her flames can be stoked down here, too.
(Oh, the things she'd give to have realized this sooner.)
As the twenty-third rescue party leaves the docking bay for a faraway planet, praying that the crew of the Pilgrim is out there, Vivienne finds her own reason to hope.
“You must rest, Vivienne,” reminds Elma as the shuttle touches down in a bed of snow.
She nods. Maybe the best message right now is a wordless one as she cranks up the heating apparatus on her spacesuit and steps out onto Niveus.
She follows a trail of metal debris through the snow, and her heart rate surges with the realization that they’re fragments of a spacecraft.
(“For a planet to be habitable,” Fae had explained a lifetime ago, “it can’t be too hot or too cold, but just right.”
“How will we know it’s ‘just right’?”
“It has to be like Earth, Vivi. Where our ancestors came from, and would never have had to leave in the first place if they were smarter. If they were better.”)
If this wasteland is the destination, thinks Vivienne as the snow thickens around her legs, what is the point of the journey?
To never give up hope, Fae would answer without missing a beat, and Vivienne would agree because Fae is only human and so is she.
A wreck looms ahead, its huge silver bulk stark against the whiteness. The Pilgrim. Or what’s left of it, at least. Vivienne almost crumbles again when she finds the bodies, until she realizes one is unaccounted for.
She follows a trail of supplies: oxygen tanks, empty MRE packets (including a bottle of Tabasco sticking out of the snow), an aerial probe with its rotors twisted out of proportion.
Until she reaches a rocky mound with a gaping mouth on one side. She switches a flashlight on and wonders where the next hologram cube is.
Is this where it ends? she thinks as her breaths mist on her visor. Has the world finally decided to stop pointing her in the right direction?
Has Fae decided to—?
There, sprawled against the far wall of the cave, her visor foggy and her body limp but it's Fae.
Vivienne quickly attaches a spare oxygen canister to Fae’s spacesuit, and the fog dissolves like the ice inside Vivienne’s heart.
Fae, eyes shut but still breathing.
Fae, who took on the world and lost beautifully.
Fae, back in Vivienne’s arms where she belongs.
They’re a few hours from the star base they call home and Fae is on a stretcher in the sick bay, her warming fingers laced around Vivienne’s. Fae had been surprised to see her, but at the same time, not really. They’ve both let their hair grow out during the return journey and there’s a nostalgia in the air that they both cling onto like the remainder of their rations.
“I’m sorry,” says Vivienne, who's still a little angry at herself, but it's okay because they both pardon this bit of humanity.
“Me too,” says Fae, whose cheeks have had the color return to them a few days ago, and it surprises Vivienne to hear it from Fae of all people.
Fae, who leaves a burning comet trail wherever she goes, and never looks back. But then again, Fae is only human, and Vivienne wouldn't be able to love her like this otherwise.
The viewing panels slide open, which Elma may or may not have done on purpose.
The blackness overhead bursts into light.
A billion stars shining bright and raw, just like when they were kids, and had both feet planted firmly on the ground (or at least what passes for the ground.)
Fae nuzzles into Vivienne, and the air becomes filled with each other’s heartbeats that dip and soar to the same melody, and two kinds of stardust: the stuff watching from above that they can't quite reach without burning their fingertips, and the stuff dotting Fae’s cheeks.
“I’m sorry,” Vivienne says again, “that you couldn’t save everyone.”
Fae chuckles. “I was the idiot that needed saving. Thanks for putting up with me, Vivi.”
And because Fae is sick of hearing Vivienne’s apologies, she seals them in with a kiss that can be seen from the other end of the galaxy. Which of course catches Vivienne off guard because that can't possibly be what's on Fae's mind after almost freezing to death.
So that's what it tastes like, Vivienne thinks anyway.
They both decide then, under a sky filled with freckles, that there’s only one world worth saving.