Space, as it turns out, is sometimes really boring.
Everybody but Grantaire has real jobs on the ship, but they're traveling long distances, and even if they're going over light speed, it still takes a while to get anywhere. Grantaire discovers that there are more days when everyone lounges around the common spaces than there are days when they're all hard at work. For the most part, everyone is together, but not doing the same things, reading or chatting or doing arts and crafts, which seem remarkably and thankfully similar the universe over, judging by how fast Grantaire is picking up Cosette and Courfeyrac's two-person knitting technique. Sometimes Enjolras even brings the kittens to the common room, fencing them all in, and they all wind the little creatures up until their vibrations are tooth-rattling and they eventually roll into a little pile of buzzing rocks and rest.
Tonight, Grantaire arrives in the common room after his daily allotment of staring at the viewport to find that everyone else is in the common room, draped over the furniture, with a bunch of brightly colored boxes and mysterious-looking objects strewn between them. “I think I missed something,” he says to announce himself.
“It's game night,” says Musichetta, all cheer, and huh. Some things apparently are universal. “You can teach us some new ones, if you want. We'll be at it for hours, possibly days, we're in a black hole well and that always slows progress down.”
“That sounds … really terrifying, actually, don't tell me things about black holes, when I learned about them in school I had nightmares about being ripped apart and turning into spaghetti for three weeks.”
Everyone looks faintly pitying, in their own special ways. “The only rule is no charades,” says Courfeyrac after a brief awkward silence, and Grantaire takes a moment to be amazed that charades are as universal as game night, even if it shouldn't be shocking. “The cultural contexts and body language are so difficult that it ends up unfairly skewed by planet, and Combeferre always wins.”
“Okay, no charades. I can manage that.”
“We're about to start a spatial reasoning game from our home,” says Courfeyrac, lifting up a little glowing nobbly thing. The problem with the ship's translators are that as often as not they translate things as what he describes them as in his head, instead of giving him a coherent name to call them, so it's really going to do him no good to ask what it is. He'll have to discuss it with Marius at some point, probably, but it's not exactly a priority. “The point is to pass it around the circle and open and close it on every turn, going faster every time.”
“Open and close it?”
“Here, sit to my right, we pass it around the other way, you'll have it by the time it gets back to you.”
The space next to Courfeyrac is also the space next to Enjolras, who pats the space next to them as though Grantaire didn't notice it. The bench where they're sitting is one of the hard ones, in a mishmash of furniture, and by now Grantaire knows enough to scoop a cushion off the floor before he sits down, because it's a lot more comfortable than moss or lichen. “I rely on you not to laugh at me if I fuck this up,” he tells Enjolras.
“You won't,” says Courfeyrac, and twists the little nobbly thing around until it expands out into a huge complicated web of some sort of stiff fibers. He tosses it to Marius, who catches it and tweaks something else until it collapses again into a little form that seems to be a different form from the first one.
By the time it's halfway around the circle, Grantaire has discerned something of a pattern, how people always twist or poke or prod right near the deepest dip in the shape. By the time it gets to Enjolras, who makes it smaller (which Grantaire can only assume means closing it), he's confident enough that he only fumbles it a little, shocked at how cool and smooth the material is, before he finds the right thing to press and does it, letting it expand again before he tosses it back to Courfeyrac.
The thing goes around three more times, faster each time, and Grantaire is the first to mess up, leaving the circle, with Bossuet after him and then more and more out until it's down to Cosette and Courfeyrac and Éponine, with a roll of her eyes, calls a halt to it. “They'll pass it back and forth all day if you let them, and we've got other games,” she explains.
Grantaire, over the next several hours, plays a dizzying array of games. Some of them seem hopelessly complicated, and he suspects that most of the games are actually kids' games because anything requiring a lot of skill is probably going to be pretty specific to a planet, but it's fun anyway, the whole crew laughing, or doing whatever it is they do when they're happy or amused. He teaches them playground clapping games, when they ask, and then finds some string and teaches them Cat's Cradle and Jacob's Ladder and other string games, which most of them take to with delight.
It's all interrupted, though, when there's a faint buzzing noise from the wall at the front of the room and Jehan sits bolt upright. “We're getting a signal.”
There's a sudden uproar and a flurry of movement that Grantaire can't track, but Enjolras is staying still, so Grantaire turns to them and says “A distress signal? Another ship in the area or something?”
Enjolras, he notes, looks just as pleased as everyone else, but content to stay where they are as Éponine starts rapidly hitting buttons on a previously-hidden control panel at the front of the room and everyone watches the wall with rapt attention. “No, we've got entertainment signal, and it's been ages since we got it. There will be at least three new episodes by now.”
“Episodes of what?” Grantaire asks, with a certain sense of foreboding.
Enjolras settles more comfortably onto the very uncomfortable bench. “Has anyone told you about The Great Romance of Shulia Shamia?”
“Well, unfortunately Earth doesn't get extraterrestrial broadcasts.” Grantaire hesitates, considering that. “That I know of, anyway.”
“You can't stay here and watch, then,” says Bossuet. The two of them are looking at him very earnestly while everyone else flutters around getting snacks and waiting for the episodes to sync. “You'll be completely at sea, these are broadcasts meant for space travelers, the episodes are long and there have been more than three hundred, you've missed a lot.”
“So I'm being kicked out?” Grantaire asks, a little bit amused but mostly feeling left out. “While you all watch three long episodes of something?”
“You don't have to leave,” says Enjolras, who still hasn't left his side. “I watched it all out of order, and they think I'm a heathen for it, but you're allowed to stay if you like. And everyone on the ship, myself included, would be glad to help you watch through the rest of the episodes. We have at least a month before we reach port, that's plenty of time to watch them all.”
“Port?” Nobody ever tells Grantaire anything.
“Éponine's home world, which is a trading planet for the most part—you'll like it there. Everyone is different, and the markets are incredible. We have some study to do there, and we can upload what we've found so far onto university servers.”
“And by the time I get there we'll have watched all of the show?”
“If you like.”
“Stay if you want,” Bahorel calls from the front of the room, where they and Éponine are looking at some kind of tablet that seems to control the wall, which he suspects is going to become their screen for the viewing experience. “Chatter is saying that they're starting a new plot so you won't be too behind, you'll just be missing some of the context.”
Cosette pops up to peer over them and look at the screen. “New characters? Must be because Shamia is traveling, we're getting background to wherever she's going.”
“Does anyone want to explain to me what it's actually about?”
“It's the kind of story, the kind of myth, that every planet has, I think, or most known planets anyway,” says Enjolras, accepting a bowl of something that looks both sparkly and sharp from Jehan. Mostly they don't all eat together, so it's going to be an education seeing what each of them gets out of the replicator. “The space traveler before space travel is invented. Someone who goes out to the stars in impossible ways and sees impossible things.”
“And the romance?”
“Love across time and space … you know. You must have that kind of thing.”
“We do. Plenty of television shows and things about them as well. So, it's the version of that myth from a specific place?”
“Yes—well, it's a cross-galactic effort, some people didn't believe they should cast people from different planets in the roles, but it gives a certain universal appeal.”
“The thing about spacefarer shows,” Combeferre says, “is they're different from the ones people watch on their planets, even if they're galactic broadcasts. Sure, some people on a planet might watch Shulia Shamia, but it's engineered for people like us, who travel and have days and days of nothing to do but check up on our readings occasionally. The plots are big, and slow, and sometimes we won't see Shamia herself for ten episodes at a time, while a side plot goes on.”
“I'll give it a try,” Grantaire says, and only regrets it a little, even though he remembers Éponine on that first day telling him that everyone on the ship has become addicted to it in turns.
After the first ten minutes, he wouldn't care if some kind of Lovecraftian monster came on the screen as the love interest, because he's hooked. He's pretty sure, judging by everyone else laughing and nudging each other, that he's missing three quarters of the cultural context, half the jokes, and the overarching concept that this is a soap opera and not serious art, but he's enthralled nonetheless. If living on a spaceship, traveling with aliens he could never have imagined, is surreal, watching this is like staring up at the stars with his Grandpa when he was six and realizing how fucking big the universe is. It's music like he's never heard before, dizzying scenery that sometimes looks like Earth and sometimes really doesn't, and a story so big that he's not at all surprised it's taken three hundred episodes to get there.
The others get up and move some during the three episodes, all of which are at least two hours each, getting food, checking on the ship's readouts, just stretching, but Grantaire stays right where he is even when his bladder gets to be uncomfortable.
Enjolras, who left four times through the episodes, is there when the last one is finished with the promise of Shamia herself actually appearing when the next one broadcasts, and they immediately turn to Grantaire, assessing his reaction silently for a few moments. “We can start you at the beginning tomorrow,” they finally say, and then they're in motion, off to talk to Courfeyrac about something, leaving Grantaire still sitting on the cushion on the stone bench, back sore and blinking his way back into reality.
He mostly comes to accept this because it's the middle of ship's night and Cosette pokes her head around the common room door when he finds himself shouting “Oh come on, fuck you, the dead body is never actually dead unless you check the pulse about four times.” Some plot devices, it seems, are universal.
“You haven't even reached the bad part yet,” says Cosette, all sympathy, and comes to sit down next to him for the rest of the episode.”
It shouldn't be a possible planet, all ocean with glass spires rising out of it at random intervals, Shamia talking to whoever's helping her on her quest this time while occasionally something comes flying out of the water only to be swallowed by it again, but lots of things shouldn't be possible.
“It's a location, but it's crafted, not natural—the glass, I mean,” says Musichetta. “And the whole planet isn't water, that's very rare, water planets tend to be insular for obvious reasons.”
“Right, of course.”
“Shh, she's about to start talking about the love that inspired her journey again,” says Joly, and Grantaire lets the conversation lapse.
“Oh thank God.”
He's glad it's Éponine who answers, because he can tell when she's not trying to laugh. “They saved it special for the 121st episode.”
Grantaire groans. “I have to deal with forty more episodes of waiting?”
“Don't worry,” says Feuilly with great sympathy, “they fly by, there are some good ones in there.”
“It's the greatest romance in the galaxy,” says Courfeyrac, with a dreamy sigh, and Grantaire eyes the screen and wonders vaguely about Stockholm Syndrome.
“I was warned, but I can't stop.” Grantaire rubs his temples. “I should probably take a day or so off, interact with people again.”
“It's not as though half of us haven't been watching with you whenever we aren't working,” Jehan points out. “But yes, perhaps a break, Combeferre has a movie from home he wants to watch on the big screen, I think.”
“Right, yeah, I've sort of taken over the room, you aren't doing game nights or anything right now.”
“Like people have said, it's happened to all of us. I think I've seen at least highlights of the complete run of Shulia Shamia at least four times by now.”
“I may not survive.”
Jehan tilts their head. “Come on, want to eat back in my quarters tonight? I don't have the animals like Enjolras does, but you can have some conversation and get out of that room.”
“That sounds wonderful,” Grantaire says with relief.
Her lover is saying something terribly heroic back, about nothing keeping them apart, but Grantaire is stuck on the way they're embracing. It's not the way he's used to bodies fitting together, but it makes him ache a little nonetheless, missing having someone he can hug easily, someone he can kiss. He hasn't dated anyone since long before he was abducted by aliens, but he's missing it now, from the way the two of them are clearly so happy to be touching, even if he already knows they can't stay together.
“I cried the first time I watched this part,” says Enjolras quietly from the door to the room, and Grantaire jumps. “I don't mean to interrupt you, I just woke and heard you were up and thought I would see where you are.”
“Sorry, this is embarrassing.”
“It's not.” Enjolras takes a few steps into the room. “It's … I've seen a few planets out there where romantic connection, or in rare cases emotional connection at all, is frowned on. They're usually peaceful, if a little cold. It makes sense in some ways, but then I see something like this, and ...”
“All of it, every part of it, no matter what comes next, is worth it,” says Shamia up on the screen.
“Yeah,” says Grantaire. “That.” He looks over at Enjolras again. “Do you want to keep watching with me?”
“Rewind to the start of the scene? I missed it, and it's my favorite.”
Grantaire does, and Enjolras comes to sit down next to him, on one of the most comfortable couches in the room where it seems like he's been sprawled out for days straight now. He watches the two of them come together again like they're magnetized, saying all sorts of sentimental things, and Enjolras sits close enough that their shoulders are touching for the rest of the episode.
Grantaire blinks to find everyone sitting in the common room after he's been avoiding it for several days, all caught up on Shulia Shamia and pretty sure he never wants to sit still for more than five minutes ever again. He's been more productive since he stopped than he has been since he left earth, trailing people around trying to learn there jobs and find something useful to do and beginning to learn exactly how to use the moss and lichen that functions as biological control panels in certain parts of the ship.
“I'm never going to forgive any of you,” he says to the room at large.
“Don't worry, it happens to all of us,” says Courfeyrac, all sympathy even though Grantaire is pretty sure he wants to laugh. “Just think, another episode or two should come to us soon! We're getting closer to port so they should come in a little more frequently.”
It takes him a second to consider that, because last time someone mentioned port he's pretty sure it was a matter of being almost a month out. “How long till we land?”
“Five days, and you should be on the soil of a planet you've never touched.”
“Not much soil,” Éponine contributes. “The area we'll be in is heavily urbanized, it's more buildings than soil.”
“Either way, I can't wait.” He looks around the room. “Did I miss someone calling a meeting? Don't tell me there's another show you all think I have to watch. I can't take another.”
“Not yet,” Combeferre says, which isn't a comfort at all. “And we're not having a meeting. It's game night again, that's all. My turn to choose. Do you want to learn a logic game?”
Grantaire looks around at all of them, because he can say it's like he's hardly seen them for however long it's taken him to get through The Great Romance of Shulia Shamia, but for at least three quarters of the episodes there was someone checking in on him, and he feels like he knows them, now, at least a little better. They're expecting him to join in just like he's one of the crew, and that's what makes Grantaire find a seat on a couch, between Musichetta and Feuilly tonight. “Okay, tell me how this game goes.”