"No! No way!"
Harvey blasted a grin at him, broadcast as clear as any signal the radio picked up, from the shine in his eyes to the relaxed leaning of his body against the ship's railing. "We're travelling with a girl in the prime of her youth, Corporal. What do you expect, she's going to listen to your scratchy, screaming music all the time?"
"Pop! Bubblegum pop!" If he'd had a daughter (hell, lots of daughters, and throw in a couple of sons, why not?) they might have listened to this kind of thing. "It's such crap!" He grumbled deep in the buzzing wave of the static as Kieli adjusted the radio knob, and the sugary words came through clearer.
"Grumble louder, then Kieli won't be able to find the station. Or are you too soft-hearted? I think I'm on to something with that idea."
"Hey, hey, don't act like I'm a doting grandfather, here." That was why he was staying relatively low on the static. "Dead or not, I'm not that old!"
Harvey snorted. Noticing the way the smoke from his cigarette moved with the exhalation, he puffed out a couple of clouds and watched the way they drifted and lost their shape in all kinds of slow twists. Never seen the man in quite that good a mood, the Corporal decided, and wished Kieli would look up at Harvey. That would seem about right. She kept her hands absently on his radio settings instead, and her eyes on the stark shoreline.
"You're well over eighty," Harvey said, done with playing with the smoke but still smiling. "That damn well counts as old."
"Eh, you know what it's like for ghosts. Time passes all at once or not at all, whenever it feels like it. I'm young at heart!"
"Then you should like that music Kieli's got you making."
"It's why I enjoy rock!"
"Isn't it funny?" Kieli finally contributed to the conversation, breaking out of something like a reverie, and they both turned their attention to her. "It would be so easy to figure out there's something weird going on with us, but nobody seems to notice that a radio talks as much as the two people carrying it. In all the time we've been travelling, people only seemed to notice when one of us were too obvious about it."
"Yeah," Harvey said, sighing and smiling, "these three whole weeks; all this time."
"It feels like longer," she said. "In a good way."
There was a lot of smiling going around these days, whether they looked at each other or were looking around at the environment. Corporal idly looked forward to making a crack that neither Harvey's face nor the surroundings warranted that much smiling from Kieli, so it was a good thing she was going to get to see more of the world. There actually was something compelling about the land-and-seascape of the Sand Ocean, though. Two kinds of desert smacked straight into each other, sand dunes stacked right beside green-deep saltwater for kilometres - apparently the geologists and so forth still couldn't quite figure out how that worked - and it was boring and hypnotic and beautiful all at once. Kieli just plain liked it. It was due to her that they spent most of their time hanging out by the ship's railings.
"Anyway." She patted the radio apologetically. "Sorry about the music. I just think it's a good idea not to play so much of the illegal stations on this one small ship. You don't know who might hear and report us."
"How long are you going to stay this paranoid?" Harvey asked.
"It's not paranoid if it makes sense. This is just a precaution."
"And that whole thing about never wearing dresses again?"
Kieli just grinned at him. She felt surer about this particular topic - the hand on the radio went heavy and relaxed. "That doesn't even matter all that much, in the long run. And you get so bothered by it!" Kieli was still a kid, and that night when she'd had such trouble climbing all over that train to save Harvey had made a huge impression on her. During those two weeks afterwards, when they'd waited for Harvey to come back, she'd people-watched avidly at the station and had told him all her new thoughts about the way women were supposed to dress. It was a pity they wouldn't be able to get her into a college or something, one that wasn't too much under the Church's control.
"It's important that we be prepared," Kieli continued. "They did stop looking after a while, like I told you—" (Seriously smart! She didn't even specify 'the Church soldiers', a phrase that could easily attract attention even in the middle of a conversation. Kieli played a pretty good spy.) "—but there's no point in bringing trouble on ourselves."
She eyed Harvey sideways. He let her for a while, and then eyed her back. The Corporal felt the currents of it, plucking pleasantly at whatever weird as hell energy made him up as if he were in a guitar, echoing a little within the sound of the radio. It was sort of like every move made or word said between the three of them amounted to a game. This was the honeymoon period, probably. Well, all right - he was also spending his time smiling, even if it didn't show.
"Speaking of those kinds of considerations," said Kieli. "It's almost a good thing, that arm." She nodded at Harvey's stump, neatly tucked into a rolled-up and pinned sleeve. "People will find it a little harder to believe what kind of guy you are, like that."
A blown-off arm really would distract most people from thinking 'unstoppable immortal soldier'. But... "Jeez, Kieli!" the Corporal said. "Just when it looks like you've stopped being morbid, you bring out a line like that! That's about the weirdest way to tell somebody that it's not so bad that I've ever heard of."
"Ha, what was morbid was when she didn't even look all that worried, seeing me show up one-armed after being gone for weeks," said Harvey. "How's that for compassionate?" He came around to her other side to put a hand on her shoulder, softening the teasing even as she winced with a pang of guilt.
"Well, it's sort of hard to worry about a guy like you. You're the type who just keeps going." Kieli ducked her head, grinning a little at how obvious the secret behind the words actually was, and also embarrassed. "If I knew you'd come find us, no matter what ... you see how it's difficult to worry, in a way?"
Harvey ruffled her hair. "Sure, Miss Morbid."
For a while they were quiet aside from the sound of camouflage pop music. Kieli still kept her eyes on the ups and downs of the shore, maybe counting the ghost camel trains, and maybe even more interested in the empty stretches where not one ghost was rooted, and the only thing to catch the eye were the few bright plants that survived the desert and the highly salty sea. Harvey turned around and watched the people on the deck, and the Corporal sat in the energies of the attention that they both exuded. He wasn't going to climb out of the radio and peep over Kieli's shoulder to look at the other travellers, and he wasn't one for deserts, but it was easy to fall into alignment with the buzz of their interest.
And now, while it was so quiet - no rock screaming through him like blood through veins - he wondered why he wasn't dead.
Well, sure, he definitely was. He'd seen his own grave; it had pulled him over the earth and through time. He'd gone to it and through it - he'd been somewhere else. Kieli had asked about it after Harvey returned from his two-week absence - apparently the few minutes she spent running towards the guy had given her a bit of religion, though the Church had failed in fourteen years of trying - but he hadn't been able to tell her anything. He just knew he was supposed to be there, in that other place. Now that he was back in the radio - what was there for a ghost who'd been laid to rest, and turned around and gave it up?
The grave, he told himself, doesn't go anywhere. That's the thing about it.
He let the various points of awareness and energy from Harvey and Kieli flow into him and let out a crackle-sigh into the airwaves. Hell, it was like he'd hardly left his grave, anyway. Harvey was standing right here, after all, and he remembered the young undying coming after him as clear as anything. So really - for a ghost - it was no wonder that, right here, he felt so at home.
"Damn it, Kieli, now you've got me being morbid!"
She started at his grumbling, then smiled. "I could turn this song up. It sounds pretty cheerful!"
"Please do," said Harvey.
They talked, bickered, teased - God forefend, since they'd decided that he existed, but at one point Harvey sang along - they watched and marvelled, they hoped and prepared. The Corporal was pretty sure that he wasn't the only one to imagine that they'd do the same thing after Kieli and Harvey (one way or another) were dead; that there would be yet more ghosts populating this melancholy, beautiful world.
He wanted to be able to help when it came to that. He'd been on that way before, and he might lead them to where they needed to be. For now, he couldn't have more of a home, anywhere at all, than with these other two wanderers.