Willis had expected to starve. During the first weeks they were stranded on the planet, it had been a constant, nagging fear – well, along with a fear of the Drac killing him in his sleep. And they had gone hungry in the beginning, after the last of Jeriba's salvaged rations finally ran out (green, gelatinous and with a taste like fermented fish, but Willis still missed them when they were gone). It soon became obvious that the lack of food was a lot harder on Willis than it was on Jeriba. Dracs apparently had a considerably lower metabolism than humans; Jeriba only ate half of what Willis did, and still didn't seem to suffer hunger pangs and headaches.
But to Willis' relief they didn't go hungry for long. Soon they learned that the planet, named Fyrine IV by humans, was not the dry, dead desert landscape that the Starbase's initial probes had shown.
For a time they depended mostly on fish and shellfish that Jeriba caught for them. Many of the crevasses and big crater holes on the rocky planet surface had deep, freshwater pools at the bottom. On the list of things humans didn't know about Dracs: they were partly water-dwellers. Jeriba was a natural aquatic hunter. The Draconian race were slightly bigger than humans, tall and limber. Jeriba's long-limbed, sexless body was covered in brown, scaly skin, broken only by bony protrusions on the chest and shoulders, and the ridge of horned plates snaking down its back and ending in a vestigial tail a couple of inches long. Its naked body slid soundlessly through the water, barely disturbing the surface. Willis sat back on his haunches on the flat rocks above the pool and watched it hunt, fascinated and more than a little creeped out. The trust between them was still new and fragile. Out of its pilot's uniform the Drac reminded him of a crocodile lurking in the water; it looked much more like a primitive killer than an intelligent form of life.
Jeriba, on the other hand, couldn't operate the bow that Willis eventually figured out to build. It lacked the necessary dexterity and sensibility in its three taloned fingers. It gave Willis some satisfaction to see that it always eyed him with a wary eye when he carried the bow. Not that he himself could do a lot with it in the beginning. He hadn't used a bow since he'd been a boy playing at his grandpa's farm, and it took him a while to get the hang of it. But after a few frustrated weeks, he finally managed to kill one of the weird pig-turtle creatures that he had discovered scuttling along the undergrowth. Triumphant, he brought it home and skinned it, cut out fat slabs of meat to roast over the fire. He finally felt like he was pulling his own weight.
"God, this is good," he groaned around his last mouthful of meat, that evening. "All this needs is a little bit of garlic and butter and it would be perfect." He wiped the juice from his beginning beard, feeling full and satisfied with himself. Jerry cocked its head, and wordlessly pushed the remains of its portion towards him. Will accepted it without asking.
While they had been surviving on Jeriba's catch alone, the Drac had been pretty good about Will's constant hunger, although it had watched with poorly concealed disbelief when Willis ladled out seconds and thirds. In the beginning it had brought home one fish for the two of them, or a few crab-like creatures, but after it watched Willis eat up everything he was offered and eye whatever remained, it had begun bringing home more food without comment. "Shizza," it had said, brushing him off, when he awkwardly tried to apologize for eating more than half of the cooked food one evening. And Jerry never brought it up again, not even on the bad days when they fought over small things and mean little details.
After a while, Willis stopped sleeping with one eye open. If the Drac was willing to feed him, he reasoned, it probably wasn't going to kill him in the night.
They slept crammed together in a hollow tree trunk to protect themselves from another meteor shower like the one that had destroyed Jeriba's escape pod. Willis tried to construct a hut from rocks and branches but the construction collapsed under its own weight - much to Jerry's amusement. Finally, they had the idea of using shells from the pig-turtle creatures to build a new shelter. Willis, who was the more handy of the two, constructed a sturdy frame of the branches of the Bunyan trees. They collected shells and fitted them over the frame like shingles, tying them together with the ropey vines that hung from the trees. Willis even fit in an opening for a fireplace in the igloo-shaped shelter, and put a deep bed of stones in the center of the hut, right below it. He finished the construction by digging a narrow trench around the shelter with a bent plate of metal they'd salvaged from Jerry's escape pod; it rarely rained, but when it did, the rain fell hard and drained slowly from the rocky ground.
When he was halfway done with the trench he paused to rest. His back was prickling with sweat. Jeriba had walked off and was now squatting on the ground with its little holy book open on a rock in front of it, singing in that weird purring voice which always reminded Willis of the bamboo instruments they'd goofed around with in music class in elementary school. It seemed to be in an almost trance-like state. Willis guessed that it was praying.
Well, praying wasn't going to save them from a meteor shower, he thought, wiping his brow. He let the metal plate fall to the ground and rolled his sore shoulders, irritated. "Hey Professor, do you think you could give Shizumaat a break and help me out here."
Jerry turned its head briefly with a disdainful expression, barely acknowledging him, and then returned to its book.
"Whatever," Willis muttered to himself, returning to his work. After they'd almost come to blows about the values of the Earth prophet Mickey Mouse and the great Draconian teacher Shizumaat, he mostly tried to avoid the subject. They really didn't need to add the subject of religion to the mess that was them trying not to step on each other's toes all the damn time.
Their new shelter was much more comfortable than the crammed tree trunk had been. They collected the junk they'd gathered from the wrecked escape pod, the stone axes, the bow and the pig-turtle skins that Willis was trying to cure and tan, and stored all of it along the walls of the hut. Jerry built two narrow sleeping pads from branches and moss on either side of the fireplace. When Willis was lying on his back at night he could see the light from the four moons through the small gaps between the turtle shells.
He wasn't sure if it was just the wind whistling through the cracks of their new home, but after they had moved, he began waking at night, convinced that he had heard the high-pitched hissing of a shuttle entering through the atmosphere. A rush of adrenaline brought him into full consciousness. He pushed out of the shelter, eyes already trained toward the sky. But every time, the sky was empty. Sometimes, when he crawled back inside, he was greeted by Jerry's eyes glittering in the faint light, watching him in silence. They didn't really talk about it. But after one of those nights Willis spent a couple of days fashioning a large 'X' out of rocks and large branches in a clearing close to their home.
By now they had food, they had shelter, and they had marked out their position as well as they could. It made sense for them to stay as close as they safely could to the crash sites of their ships. It left nothing for them to do but wait.
Waiting had never been Willis' strongest point. His mind kept returning to his ship. It had been many weeks since he left the still-smoldering rubble and the low mount of Joe Wooster's grave behind to go hunting for the Drac in blind fury. Now he couldn't help wondering if he'd really searched the wreck as thoroughly as he should have before leaving it. Maybe some parts of the communication system might be salvageable. He remembered looking through the wreckage and finding nothing, but he'd been concussed from the crash, he'd been in shock. There had to be something left, something that might help them get off this godforsaken planet.
He thought about this at night before falling asleep and he thought about in the day when he went out foraging. He thought about it in the quiet hours that Jeriba spent reading and praying. It didn't take him long to convince himself that he had to go back.
On the day of his departure the sun climbed reluctantly into the sky and became a brooding glow behind a gray and yellow cloud cover. Willis wrapped dried slices of mushroom and meat in a bundle and tied it across his chest. He slid the bow over his shoulder along with the quiver containing the precious arrows. "Well, I'm off."
"Wait." Jerry had not protested when Willis had told it about his intention to go back to the wreck of his ship. Now it stood up from where it had been sitting and reading. It picked up a turtle shell by the wall of the hut and handed it to Willis. Inspecting it, Willis saw that Jeriba had drilled holes in each side and tied on a rope made from vines, to make it easier to carry. "To protect you from zeerki," it said, miming holding the shield over its head. Zeerki meant meteors, Willis knew. They were slowly picking up each other's languages.
"Thanks," he said, gripping it awkwardly. He was a little surprised.
Jerry let out one of those forceful, grating sounds that Willis didn't always know how to interpret. "Don't be killed," it said.
Willis arched an eyebrow at that. Not too long ago, they'd been trying to kill each other.
Jerry gave him a long steady look in response. "I need to look at another face, even as ugly as yours," it explained in heavily accented English. Then it walked back over to its cot and returned to its book.
Willis shook his head, turning away to hide his grin.
After he and Joe Wooster had gone down with their ship, Willis had hiked for two days from the crash site to get to Jerry's escape pod. From there, he and Jerry had walked another three days around the low mountain range to get to the cover of the stone tree forest. Well-rested and unburdened, it only took Will two days to get to the place where Jerry's pod had gone down. The rest of the hike back brought him out into open country and he kept a watchful eye on the sky, grateful for Jerry's foresight. The temperature rose steadily as he got closer to the range of volcanoes where his ship had crashed. The air grew hot and sulfurous, and Willis had to stop often to rest, dizzy and short of breath.
Finally he found the site, and what remained of the ship; first the wings, torn off and mangled, and then the cabin broken into three parts and covered in soot and red dust. He stood for a while by Joe Wooster's grave. The broken helmet had fallen from the pile of rocks and Willis picked it up to put it back. The helmet was badly dented and the glass was broken, but Willis could still make out the initials of their base, and the name of their fighter craft, The Shrike. He wiped it off with the sleeve of his shirt and then placed in gently back on the grave.
He stood for a long time in silence, flooded by memories of the base and his friends there. He thought about his home on the base: his cot, his two blankets, the picture of his parents and his half-sister, the box containing all of his personal belongings, the meals served out on metal trays, the mess, laughing with the other pilots. He'd been out for two and a half years when they'd gotten the alarm of incoming enemy ships in the middle of lunch. He'd had leave coming after three, a ride already booked on a long-distance shuttle to bring him back to Earth.
Eventually he moved away from the grave to search the area surrounding the wreck. First he rooted through the black rubble inside the cabin, and then he searched the area around it, going out in a wide circle. About thirty yards from the crash he found a seat that been thrown from the ship and hadn't burned up completely. He found shards of glass, pieces of metal and wire, engine parts that were too heavy for him to lift – and that was it. Evening fell. He watched the sun set with a heavy heart.
That night, he slept inside the hollow shell of the cabin. The next day he packed his findings up in a piece of cloth and set off, back towards the shelter and Jeriba Shigan. The air slowly grew clearer as he moved back into the barren lands. Willis breathed in deeply. Except for the low rumble of the volcano in the valley behind him, the world was quiet. When the sun set again, he lay down on the hard ground, making sure to keep the pig-turtle shell close. That night, all the moons were thin crescents in the sky and Willis looked up through the atmosphere to see a myriad stars.
It had been seven days since he'd left Jeriba, and he was starting to go a little crazy from the silence. He walked through an area strewn with gnawed pig-turtle shells and the sight raised the small hairs at the nape of his neck: the shells were evidence that some large predator existed on the planet, although neither he nor Jeriba had ever seen one. He swore and startled himself with the loudness of his own voice. When he finally made it to the foot of the mountain range, he was beginning to get really antsy. He looked up at the low, red mountain. If he tried to cross over that way, it would probably save him a day – plus it would give him something to do, except walking and thinking. He took a deep breath and started walking up the mountainside.
The climb was good, hard work. The view from the peak, when he reached it, didn't offer any new information about Fyrine IV: the planet was covered with the same red rock as far as he could see. But he was satisfied to see that the 'x' marked out in the clearing was clearly visible on the ground below, along with the shelter and the smattering of rocks, shells, firewood and engine parts they had collected around it.
Making his way down the other side, he crawled down into a wide gully and suddenly spotted a dark cavity beneath a low overhang. He stood for a long time looking and listening. Then he approached warily with the bow ready, still thinking of the teeth marks on those shells. The opening was small and well hidden, but inside, the walls of rock opened up into a larger, dim lit space. The cave looked unused. Eventually, Willis lowered the bow.
The large space narrowed into three separate tunnels. One of them ended blind - pitch black at the end - but one ended in a small circular opening to the outside, blowing fresh air into the deep parts of the cave, and the last led down to a clear, still fresh-water pool which was lit by a wide shaft of light from some hidden opening above. He could hear the rush of running water from somewhere beneath the rock. Willis carefully smelled and then tasted the water to make sure it was fresh, and then he lay down and drank greedily from the surface.
Once he was satisfied that he had explored the entire cave he went back outside. The walls of the gully around the cave loomed in on either side, he noticed, sheltering the cave from both the weather and the deadly meteor storms. He resumed his descent, rushing a little, feeling giddy like a kid with his discovery. It made him smile to himself when he realized that he was already narrating his findings to Jeriba in his head, his mind spilling over with words.
As he came out of the gully he could see the shelter again, quite close now. He stopped for a moment, a little surprised by the strong feeling of relief at seeing Jeriba down there, a tiny moving figure, after days and days of nothing but dry, dead landscapes. For better or for worse, he realized, the shelter had in some way become home. Jeriba spotted him and raised its hand in greeting. He waved back and started off down the slope.
When he came down, Jeriba had boiled a shell of moss noodles for his return. It handed him a steaming bowl fashioned out of an old engine part. "Thank you," Willis said, accepting the bowl with both hands, oddly moved by the simple gesture. His voice came out raw, and he realized how little he had spoken in the past week.
"Atch. I am glad you are back." Jerry said, and Willis imagined he recognized some of that same emotion in its alien features.
They sat down on either side of the fire to eat. "Did you find anything?" Jerry asked after a moment.
Willis hesitated, casting a glance up at the twisting boulders and hidden gullies on the mountainside. His spirit sank suddenly. What good was the cave, really? If they went up into the rocks they would never be seen from the air. But what if Jerry wanted to go up there? Jerry seemed more preoccupied with their safety than being rescued. It might decide to leave the shelter. Willis took a long slow drink of the noodle soup. "Just scraps." he said finally. He wasn't that skilled at reading Drac body language yet, but for some reason the way Jeriba's shoulder fell looked a lot like relief.
That night Will sewed the pig-turtle skins together with the vinyl thread that he'd pulled from the burned seat cover. The skins had dried out completely while he was away, and now they were a little stiff, but otherwise not far from the leather that Willis knew from Earth. They'd need blankets and more clothes if the weather kept getting colder. Jerry felt the cold more than Willis did. While Will sometimes got chilly in the evenings, he wasn't shivering with cold like Jerry, who now sat with its arms wrapped around its knees. "Soon we'll be picked up," Jerry said, breaking the silence. Its voice was quivering with cold. "One side or other side."
Willis looked up from his work, surprised that Jerry had finally given voice to what they had both been thinking. This was the unspoken reason they'd avoided the subject before: they both knew that they would be found by either humans or by Dracs. Willis had only heard third hand stories of the few soldiers who actually made it back from Draconian captivity. None of them returned to society to tell it for themselves. He pressed his lips together and returned to his work, remaining silent.
"You should not look so worried, irkmann," Jerry said, face unreadable. "You have a base ship just outside this solar system." It looked out of the opening in the shelter as if it could make out the light from the base in the sky, and hugged itself a little more tightly. "The nearest Draconian base is light years away."
Willis blinked. Of course – the four attacking Drac ships had arrived through a worm hole. He hadn't thought about it that way before. He felt suddenly a little ashamed for being so focused on his own rescue. On earth, Draconian POWs were handed over to private mining companies, so-called scavenger ships. It was slave labor, basically - work that not even the most desperate humans were willing to do for money – and that was saying a lot. The government ignored it, since nobody really cared about what happened to the Dracs.
Willis shook his head. Whatever the future might bring, he realized, the reality was that right now they were stuck here together, human and Drac. Dependent on each other for both life and sanity.
"What, you think they're going to be looking for us, with the war going on?" he said after a moment, snorting in an attempt to make light of it, "We've got more chance of catching a Greyhound bus."
He bit off the end of the thread, then stood and shook out the finished blanket. "You can have this," he said casually. He could probably kill enough pig-turtles to make another blanket for himself before it got really cold.
"Willis, you made it, it is yours," the Drac protested.
"Look, I want you to take it, okay," he said, holding it out. "Shizza," he added a little helplessly.
Jerry fell silent. "Thank you, Davidge," it said finally, taking the blanket and wrapping itself in it.
Shizza was a concept that neither Jerry or Willis had found a good word for in English. They had finally settled on "it is good" or "it is right" after spending the most of an evening debating it. It was only recently that Willis had realized that the correct translation was simply "the way", and that Shiz-u-maat literally meant 'the one who shows the way'.
Most days they did pretty good, keeping their spirits up. With winter coming they had things they needed to do – they needed to insulate the shelter better, figure out how to best dry fish and meat, sew more blankets and clothing. It kept them busy, helped them focus on something other than their situation.
Sometimes, though, all the frustration and anxiety that built up inside each of them came bubbling to the surface. Some days, Willis kept getting caught up in memories. He thought about the little greasy-spoon diner on the corner of his street back home, the waitress who always used to smile at him. He thought about his half-sister's garden in the summer; lying on the grass with the smell of green plants and water surrounding him, listening to his sister's family talking and moving somewhere close. He thought about people, humans - with human faces - with languages and facial expressions and emotions he understood.
He knew Jerry got it too, sometimes. But while Willis resorted to crawling onto rocks and bellowing out Credence Clearwater Revival to drown out his own thoughts, Jerry turned it inwards. Jerry would sit for hours on end in its habitual crouching position, singing in the Draconian Old Tongue, deep and mournful. Willis left Jerry alone at times like this. He had learned enough about Draconian culture to know that the Old Tongue was a language reserved for religion and ancestry, both of these things he knew that the Drac considered highly personal.
He'd always been told that it was better to let that kind of stuff out than to keep it in, though, so it was a surprise to him when he was the first one to crack.
He woke up one night, from a pleasant dream where he'd been poring over the cheese section in Wal-Mart, to the sound of the same high-pitched hissing that had woken him many times before. But this time it was closer. He lay still for a tense moment. That had to be the sound of shuttle shields breaking the atmosphere. He pushed up into a sitting position. He saw that Jerry was already awake on its sleeping pad, watching him warily.
"Do you hear that?" Willis asked breathlessly.
Jerry nodded slowly, making no move to get up. "Zeerki," it said.
"No," Willis pushed up on his hands and knees, frantic, grabbing a log from the fire. They needed to make themselves seen. The noise was growing deeper – louder - the rumble of a ship meeting air resistance. His heart was thumping hard. He blew shakily on the embers to make flames.
"Zeerki," Jerry repeated, voice quiet, but Willis ignored it.
He crawled out of the shelter, scraping his palm in his hurry. The noise became overpowering. He took a few running steps into the night, holding out the burning log as if it could light up the sky. But in the end he didn't need the light, neither to see or to be seen. The sky blazed in a series of white flashes and the night crackled with a sonic boom as the meteor passed overhead, then exploded and burned on the horizon in front of his eyes.
Willis stopped. His heart was hammering. He threw the burning torch on the ground. "Fuck!"
"Big zeerki, they come at night. Sometimes at day," Jerry said from behind him, "you must have heard them before."
Willis clenched his fists. "Shut up!" He shouted. He couldn't breathe. The flames of the torch died out on the dead ground. Willis turned around to see Jerry standing like a shadow just outside their shelter. He pointed accusingly at its silent form. "You don't want to get out of here, do you!? You don't get lonely, do you? You freaking neutered lizard! Fuck!" He turned away when his voice cracked. A few hysterical sobs escaped his throat. He covered his mouth and breathed in deep through his nose until the cramp-like contractions in his chest ceased.
After a while, he saw Jerry moving in closer in his peripheral vision. "No," he said, furious and humiliated, "stay away from me." The dark plume of smoke from the meteor was still hanging in the sky. In the quiet night he could hear Jerry moving its feet uncertainly.
"Water from eyes means deep sorrow for Irkmaane, too?" it asked after a long moment, voice low.
"Tears," Willis supplied. He took a deep, shaky breath. "Sometimes." He felt suddenly exhausted.
"Do you - ? is it custom to - ?" Jerry started, and then, clucking clucking with frustration, it gave up trying to explain and moved in to put a dry, clawed hand on the back of Will's neck, drawing him in towards its body in a half hug.
Willis didn't resist. Embarrassed and grateful, he leaned in against Jerry's body. The Drac was warm and solid against his side, a comforting touch. Willis could feel the air moving through its neck and chest in a slow, rippling wave. It smelled dry and sweet and musky all at once, a strange scent that he had gotten used to over the last months. Finally he stepped back, coughing a little. "Okay," he said not meeting Jerry's eyes, "let's go back inside."
The next day they were seated outside the shelter at the beginning of the day. Willis was experimenting with soaking the leather in hot water to make it tougher. Jerry was whetting a piece of shrapnel for a blade.
"On Dracon, we have a weapon called Kizlode," it said, testing the blade against the thick skin on the back of its hand, "which you can program to inflict any kind of injury when you shoot it."
"What?" It took Willis a moment to catch on. "Oh." They had invented a game of cross-cultural true or false, to entertain themselves. "What kind of injuries?"
Jerry ran the metal splint forcefully over the whetting stone. "Atch, coughing, limping, pains in the head," it said after a moment, without looking up from its work.
Willis smiled. The Drac was a terrible liar. "False," he said with determination. "Too easy."
"Aae," Jerry acknowledged.
"Okay, my turn," Willis said. "On earth we have only one moon. It's called Endor and it's inhabited by a primitive civilization. They're fierce warriors, but small. They stand about this tall," Willis held out a dripping hand to approximate the size, "and they are covered all over with hair."
"What do you call this peoples?" Jerry asked.
"Ewoks," Willis answered, trying to keep a straight face.
Jerry cocked its head, considering it for a long moment, while Willis stared firmly into the shell of hot water and skins. "False," it finally said.
"Yeah," Willis smiled to himself. It would be pointless to explain the reference.
"My turn," the Drac said, turning speculative. "On Dracon, when someone makes tears it is custom to touch them to bring reassurance," it said, all its attention turned on Willis.
Oh, mother. "True," he muttered.
The Drac nodded - a human gesture it had picked up. "Why are you ashamed?"
Willis shrugged, He poked the skins. "Usually only our young allow others to see them crying like that," he finally said.
Jerry chrk'ed. "Ah, I have been wondering if maybe you are a young," it said, voice unreadable.
Willis looked up, surprised.
"Your skin hasn't hardened yet," Jerry explained, "and you act like a young a lot of the time, too." It purred contemplatively. "But then you are very big, it is confusing to me." Jerry's expression was inscrutable.
Willis stared at it for a long moment, then he could feel the corners of his mouth twisting up. "Wait, are you making fun of me?" he asked, to be sure.
"Yes," Jerry answered, cocking its head. The inflection of its voice made it sound like a question.
Willis laughed. "You bastard."
"Yes," Jerry agreed happily, letting out one of those loud raspy sounds that constituted a Draconian snigger.
The next time Jerry retreated with the Talman, its movements slow and heavy with sorrow, Willis approached it. He squatted down next to it, tentatively touching its shoulder. "Shigan," he asked in careful Draconian, "will you teach me the Old Tongue?"
Jerry turned to look at him, startled. "You want to learn the teachings of Shizumaat?"
Willis swallowed. "Yeah. I want to."
With an obvious sense of ceremony Jerry lifted the small book from its chest and placed the necklace around Willis' neck, instead.
"Jerry, what are you doing?"
Jerry leaned back on its haunches. "This book must be given to the pupil. I then become the teacher. I am not worthy, but..." the Drac looked around them and then back at Willis with a small smile. "There is no one else here."
It slowly got colder. Willis had lost track of how long they'd been stranded, but from what he remembered from their briefings on the planet back on the starbase, a Fyrine IV season lasted close to one earth year. He estimated that they had arrived in late summer, and that winter was still just approaching.
The Draconians were more sensitive to cold than humans - Willis had figured that one out already - but every day it became even clearer. With the temperature dropping, Jeriba felt the cold more, moved more slowly, ate more. The days were okay, but it grew cold as soon as the sun set, big and red, beneath the mountain ranges in the far distance. They retreated to the hut earlier and earlier.
On those long evenings, they were always listening to the skies. No one ever mentioned it in words, but each time the wind howled, or the earth rumbled, they still both cocked their heads, listening for engines. And every time they were proven wrong they returned to whatever they were doing, without looking at each other - without acknowledging the moment.
Inside the warm cocoon of the shelter, they invented things to do, to pass the time. In the beginning most of their conversations had been shaped by necessity: learning each others' languages, explaining the meaning of facial expressions and physical gestures. Now, they turned to games and tales. Every day they read from the Talman - the little holy book that Willis now carried around his neck, and which contained some of the same universal truths that Willis realized would probably be found in holy books across not only nations, but even galaxies.
Willis tried not to think about the fact that if he ever got the chance to return to human society, what they were doing would be considered high treason. He wondered if Jerry ever thought about it.
He taught Jerry how to play kalah and chess. In return, Jerry taught him to play a logical mind game that required neither board nor pieces. Jerry told him Draconian sagas, and insisted that Willis told him about the teachings of earth prophet Mickey Mooze (Willis hadn't figured out how the Draconians had gotten that one wrong, but he blamed some of the early opportunistic traders from before the wars). Jerry liked constructive tales best, and clearly considered it bad form to laugh at other's expense. Dirty jokes were entirely wasted on it. Willis privately wondered if this was truly a cultural difference, or if maybe other Dracs had found Jerry to be a bit of a miss-goody-two-shoes, too.
"Tell me the story about Mickey Mooze and the wizzzahd again." Jerry said, moving one of its pawns on their makeshift chess board.
"Nah, not tonight, I don't feel like telling stories." Willis, not a patient chess player, made his move. "Tell me something about the Draconian lineage, instead. I want to hear more about the Drac family system."
"Okay," Jerry said placidly, "I will answer."
"So some Dracs have more than one child?"
"Yes." Jerry answered.
This had surprised Willis. He had been told in military briefings that Dracs only had one child. "But then what happens with the family line?" he asked, curious.
"Then a new lineage is started." Jerry touched its fingers to one chess piece, hesitating, before finally reaching over and moving another one.
"So the second child doesn't get their parent's name? They don't get to be part of the family - of the parent-child, I mean?"
"No, they are not direct lineage. They are usually reared by a childless elderly, last links of other line."
Willis frowned. "That's... That doesn't seem fair."
Jerry shrugged uncomfortably, it seemed that it didn't like to admit to anything like inequality in its society. "It is a great honor to be the founder of a new lineage."
Willis huffed. "I think it sounds lonely."
"There is often great love between a last and a first link, even though they do not share a name," Jerry protested, "and sometimes a young Drac extend their parent-love to the sibling. If they lose the parent early, or if they have much love to give."
"But you don't have any children or siblings?" Willis asked, studying the Drac's face. He focused his attention back on the board when Jerry tapped it with the tip of one talon to indicate that it was his turn.
"No I have only Gothig. Dzo-ee-dinae," Jerry said, its voice turning warm and wistful at the mention of its parent. It gazed into the fire with a small smile. The only Draconian word for relative literally translated into 'the one I love'. It shook its head after a moment, as if to clear away memories. "Did you have a pair-bond on your earth?" it asked, changing the subject.
"No." Willis scratched his beard. "I had some when I was younger. Jess. Zhenya. Those were the long ones. I had a few short ones, too." He moved his one surviving rook across the board.
Jerry cocked its head. "Do humans have many pairbonds?"
"Most people do. Not all, though. And some have bonds with more than one person at a time." Willis thought about it for a minute. "I think most people have at least a couple of strong pairbonds throughout their life, usually with one person at a time."
"And when you are in the bond you exchange genetic material to make new life," Jerry said, only half focused on the conversation for the moment, eyes on the board.
"Well, some do. But not always. It's not really about..." Willis stopped, searching for the right way to explain it. "Not all bonds are between humans of different sexes, and some people in bonds have no wish to exchange genetic material with one another."
Jerry looked up, obviously not understanding. "Then what do you do?"
Willis looked at the Drac. "We just... try to make each other feel good. Support each other and keep each other safe. You know, do good towards the other," he explained, feeling a little awkward. He stopped to look down at the board, needing to look away from Jerry's inquisitive stare. The Drac was becoming very adept at reading human emotion.
Opposite him, Jerry let out a contemplative sound. "Ah, gavey," it said after a moment, "like Shizuumaat teaches, like parent-child is." It turned towards the board again, satisfied that it had understood.
"Yeah. Kind of," Willis acquiesced. But it wasn't really the same, he thought to himself. He felt a little sad for no reason. Of course Jerry wasn't going to understand human relationships.
They played on.
"Did you exchange genetic material with Jessss, Zhenya?" Jerry asked after a long period of silence.
Willis shook his head. "Not to make children."
"So you have no young, either?"
"We were lucky. If we had been separated from young in this way, we would have gone mad with it," Jerry said, its arms moving up to wrap unselfconsciously around its ribcage.
Willis knew he probably couldn't fully grasp the bond between the links of a Draconian line. Still, he remembered some of his crew mates staring longingly at pictures of their kids whenever they received data bundles from earth." Yeah, you're probably right," he said, then explained his line of thought.
"Pictures," Jerry said. "I have seen some pictures of other humans. It is very hard for me to tell the difference between the different kinds."
Willis snorted. "You mean you can't tell the difference between men and women?"
"Can you tell the difference between a Drac from the Diruvedah and one from the Irrvedah tribe?" Jerry countered pointedly.
Willis shut his mouth. To be honest, he hadn't even known about the Four Regional Tribes before Jerry had told him about them. "Well, I guess that there aren't that many differences left between men and women anymore," he conceded. "But it hasn't always been like that. In the old days, people had different cultural roles, you know, you were expected to act and look a certain way according to your gender."
Jerry chrk'ed. "That sounds complicated."
Willis sighed. "Yeah, I guess that's why we got rid of most of that stuff," he added after a moment.
Jerry's attention was elsewhere, focusing on the board in front of them. It slid its bishop neatly in between a gap in Will's defenses. "Checkmate," it said, clearly enunciating.
Willis looked down with surprise. "Jerry, you sly son of a gun," he finally said, impressed.
Now that they were no longer constantly wary of offending or provoking each other, Willis noticed that Jeriba had begun looking at him a lot. It seemed deeply fascinated by his - what must seem to the Drac - alien physiology, and it was completely unashamed about it. Willis reckoned that without sex, the body probably lost most of its taboos. He tried to take it in stride, but it did make for some pretty weird conversations, sometimes.
"Why do you have nose?" Jerry asked one day, in the middle of breakfast.
"Well," Willis said, dumbfounded. "Uhm... It heats and cleans the air before it goes into my lungs." He was wracking his brain to remember his college biology. "And I don't have air sacs, like you. We don't store oxygen, so I need to exchange my air all the time, even when I chew or speak... Also, I smell through my nose."
"Atch, I know all that," Jerry said, a little impatiently, "but why that shape?"
Willis frowned, trying to look down the length of his own nose. "Why? Something wrong with the shape of my nose?"
Jerry looked at him intently - gauging his reaction, Willis guessed - and then away. "No. I was just... wondering if it was practical or ornamental... " It trailed off, and Willis got the distinct impression that it was tactfully refraining from saying something.
Another time it grabbed his hand and studied it for a long time by the light of the fire. It turned his hand this way and that, ran one talon lightly over the lines which cut across his palm. "Five fingers," it said finally, "very good design."
"Uh, thanks." Willis said, pulling his hand back, feeling a little flustered.
The slug-like creature that Jerry had made him eat one of the first days on the planet when Willis had still been its prisoner was actually more like a jumbo prawn (arrjida, Jerry called them), and they were delicious when rubbed with fat and salt and roasted over the fire. Even Jerry acquired a taste for them after a while. When it rained heavily, the stupid things got confused about up and down and jumped onto the shores of the crater pools, lying there flapping like caught fish. Every time the rain started beating down on their shelter, Jerry and Willis threw on their cloaks and rushed down to the pools to collect them.
One day, the cold rain stopped almost immediately, and the sun broke out again while they were still down by the pool.
In most ways Dracs were not like reptiles or amphibians at all, despite the derogatory nicknames like 'toadface' and 'lizard' that humans used for them. But in one respect, Jerry was a little lizard-like: it obviously luxuriated in lounging on heated rocks and soaking up the sun... But to be fair, Willis thought, so did he. They were sitting side by side on the rapidly drying rock, a stick with six speared jumbo prawns for their dinner in front of them, soaking up the last rays of sun. They had found a sheltered crag where the sun still carried some warmth, and had spread their cloaks out to dry on rocks nearby.
Willis' head was tipped towards the setting sun and his eyes were closed. He could still sense the moment when Jerry shifted its attention to him.
The Drac took a deep breath. "Willis, may I touch hair?"
"'Your hair'," Willis corrected automatically, "and no," he added mildly. He turned his head to look at the Drac, "personal boundaries, remember."
They'd had a 'talk' by now. It had been a complicated conversation ("shoulder to shoulder is okay, chest to chest is too close, back to back is okay, but unusual," and "you also have to think about the length of the touch, in relation to place," etc. etc.). In the end, Jerry had actually made Willis draw a circle in the sand around him to demonstrate where the line was. For Dracs it was easier - there was only one body taboo, Jerry explained: don't touch another person's head without permission.
Hence the formality of the question, Willis guessed. He ran a hand through his hair. "Anyway it's greasy and gross right now," he added, feeling self-conscious and a little silly.
"Okay, okay," Jerry said, holding up it's hands in a decidedly human gesture. "Gavey. Grease on arrjida is good, but on hair it is bad," it muttered, with a sullen inflection which was also entirely human.
Willis swallowed a grin.
He forgot about the conversation. But a few days later, Jerry resolutely walked across the hut to Willis' sleeping pad and sat down opposite him, folding its legs in front of itself. "Willis, I am sorry. I expected to be granted an honor that I had not extended, myself," it said solemnly, "you may touch my head." It leaned its upper body forward towards him with a serene expression.
"Er," Willis stalled. He realized that he had probably underestimated the importance of their earlier conversation. "Thank you?" he tried.
Jerry nodded slightly and closed its eyes expectantly.
Willis sighed and reached out. He ran a fingertip over the Dracs bony brows, the rim of the pulsating air sack on the side of its head where a human ear would have been. Curious, checking Jerry's reaction, he touched the thin skin of the air sack, feeling the air moving beneath his fingers. Then he moved to the double-ridged fleshy protrusion in the middle of its face, which had earned the Dracs the 'toadface' slur. The skin there was dry and warm and very soft. "What's this?" he asked, fascinated.
"Errga," Jerry supplied, sounding a little dazed. "Sensory organ. Like lips, very sensitive. Like human fingertips, maybe more."
Willis had more than once been puzzled by seeing Jerry touch different objects to its lips and face. "Aha," he said, suddenly getting it.
"Always when you hold something in both your hands, it itches," Jerry said lightly.
Willis laughed. "I know that feeling." On impulse, he scratched very lightly across the soft skin.
Jerry made a small sound at the back of its throat. A slight tremor ran through its body.
Willis withdrew at first, but when Jerry remained sitting with closed eyes, he reached out again. He cleared his throat. "Is it nice, the touching? I mean, do you like it?"
Jerry leaned into his touch. "Parent and young greet each other always by touching face to face." It opened its eyes. "When trust is there, it is nice," it said simply. "Is it the same with hair?"
Willis swallowed. He let his hand drop. "Kind of."
"Willis, may I touch your hair?"
Willis bent his head down, looking at his hands lying open in his lap. "Yeah," he said, a little hoarsely, "knock yourself out."
As the winter got colder and colder, Jerry's behavior changed even more. It strained to complete physical tasks that it had earlier performed with ease. It fell asleep early every evening and slept until well after sunrise. At first Willis was puzzled; then he was irritated, and then he started getting anxious.
One day they were out foraging. Willis watched Jerry waddle slowly up the slope where they were collecting noodle moss. He noticed that he had collected almost twice as much food as Jerry, and was about to comment on it, when something caught his eye – a sparkling like fireworks in the sky above. Then came the crackle and hiss as the meteors started crashing into the stratosphere. "Oh shit."
"Jerry!" he called, "Zeerki!"
Jerry looked up, alarmed.
Willis immediately turned around and started running for shelter, but when he reached the bottom of the hill and looked back up, Jerry was still struggling, only half-way down the rocky slope. Willis ran back up and grabbed its arm. "Come on!"
The first meteors struck the ground around them as they ran towards the cover of the trees. Soon, it felt like they were running through an artillery attack – the air whistled with incoming meteors, the ground around them exploded with each impact – and they ran the gauntlet of it all, Willis tugging roughly at the Jerry's arm to make it move faster, shouting over the noise. "Come on, Jerry, move! What the hell's the matter with you?"
Finally they made it to the forest edge. The trees groaned and cracked with the barrage, and the dry dust on the ground popped with hitting splinters and shards of rock, but the large branches overhead still offered some shelter as they ran back to the hut. Once they were there, Willis practically threw Jerry through the opening to the shelter and then quickly crawled in after. Both of them lay gasping on the ground. Inside, the walls of the shelter shook and rattled. It sounded like someone was trying to take it apart with a heavy machine gun.
Finally, Willis rolled over to face Jerry. "What's the hell's the matter with you?" he demanded. "You have to tell me what is going on!" He pushed Jerry angrily when it didn't immediately respond. "Say something! Are you sick? What is going on?"
"I am not sick," Jerry responded, still wheezing.
Frustrated, Willis pushed it again. "Then what?" he pressed, voice raised. "You are cold all of the time. You are moving slower. You are eating more." You look bloated and weird, he didn't say. "You seem tired every day. What is it?"
Jerry rolled onto its back and looked at up at the ceiling of the shelter. Willis realized that the noise had stopped. The world was quiet except for their strained breathing.
"Jerry," he said, lowering his voice, "are you okay?"
Jerry breathed and swallowed, breathed and swallowed - and then finally turned to look at him. "I don't know. I don't know if I should allow myself to feel okay about this." It tilted its head towards him with an odd expression, scared and joyful at the same time.
Willis froze. "About what?"
"Here," Jerry said and grabbed his right hand. It drew aside its layers of clothes with its other hand, and then pressed Willis' palm against the skin right below the curve of its ribcage.
"Jerry, what the hell -" Willis started, a little creeped out, but he was stopped short by the sensation of something not Jerry moving beneath his palm.
"Holy shit!" he exclaimed, scooting back and away. Jerry started and let go of his hand.
Willis stared blankly at the Drac, then suddenly realized what he had just felt. He could feel the blood drain from his face in shock. He'd known of course, how - Jerry had told him how – but. "Holy shit, are you pregnant?" He barked out a shrill, disbelieving laugh. "You're pregnant!"
Jerry frowned at his reaction, and Willis schooled his features, trying to suppress the hysterical laughter that was threatening to burst out of him. "Holy shit."
"Zammis is coming." Jerry said quietly, sad and tender. It placed a protective hand over its bared skin.
Now that he knew the reason for Jerry's behavior, it was suddenly obvious to Willis how much the Drac's body had changed. Jerry carried its offspring higher on the stomach than a pregnant woman would. Zammis was curled up in some kind of pouch, tucked halfway under Jerry's ribcage. Willis asked to see one evening when his curiosity got the better of him. He was a little worried about overstepping boundaries, but Jerry drew its clothing aside without a word. Willis could see its skin stretch and move as Zammis made itself comfortable inside its pouch.
"Jerry, when is Zammis coming?" Willis asked in Draconian.
"Soon," Jerri answered in English, and stroked over its own skin, careful and tender.
Jerry sometimes still walked down to the pools to collect water, but otherwise, Willis insisted that he take over most of the heavy work.
And then the snow came - suddenly, fierce, surprising them both. It wasn't pure water precipitation; the snow was salty - it stung their faces and tasted foul again their lips when they ventured out into it. The blizzards sometimes lasted for days. It didn't correspond to any kind of climate that either of them knew from their home planets.
They had found another one of those pig-turtle burial sites on one of their earlier foraging trips - and they had brought home a score of slightly-gnawed shells to repair and reinforce the hut. Still, listening to the storm raging outside, Willis sometimes got a little nervous.
After a particularly heavy blow, Jerry insisted that Willis learn the Jeriba line. "It is Zammis' heritage," it said. "I would like you to know it, in case something happens to me."
"Don't say that, nothing's going to happen to you." Willis protested.
"Please, allow me to do you this honor."
So Willis set out to learn the Jeriba line. There were always just five names in a Drac lineage: The Jeriba line had Zammis, then Ty, then Haesni, then Gothig, then Shigan, then back to Zammis; over and over and over again. Jerry could recite the deeds of each bearer of each name counting back over hundreds of lives. Willis was a little humbled to realize that while he was the son of a factory worker and a waitress - a nobody who'd been blessed with the right physiology to qualify as a military pilot (who didn't faint or chuck up his lunch as soon as he hit deep space) - Jerry was a person of importance in Draconian society; born from a line of scientists, teachers and entrepreneurs, with the ability to count back its heritage in an unbroken line for more than two thousand years.
"Gothig of the seventh cycle was a teacher of music," Willis recited sleepily. They had gone to bed. The fire had burned down to a bed of embers. "A musician of high merit, the students of Gothig include Datzizh of the Nem line, Perravane of the Tuscor line, and many lesser musicians..." Willis yawned. He just wanted to get the seventh cycle right before he went to sleep. "Trained in music at the Shimuram, Gothig stood before --" He opened his eyes."Wait, do you hear that?" Putting his head on down on his sleeping pad, he thought he heard a weird scratching sound that seemed to come from somewhere below them. "Jerry, do you hear that?"
But Jerry was already asleep, and Willis soon followed.
Willis turned over in his sleep, close to the surface of consciousness. He was aware that Jerry was moving around restlessly on the other side of the fireplace, and that that was had woken him. "Shh, Jerry," he mumbled, burrowing down into his blankets. Usually Jerry was a heavy sleeper, but tonight it was doing a lot of moving about. "Jerry, go back to sleep," Willis sighed, drawing his blankets closer around himself. He lay half awake listening to the Drac squirming about for little while longer, but then a sudden loud clatter made him instantly awake. He sat up straight, blinking in the darkness. "Jerry?"
Jerry had kicked down some of the things that they had hung from the wall of the hut. It was thrashing wildly, body arched like a bow. Its eyes were bulging, its mouth open in a soundless scream. Its hands were at its neck, clawing at something pink and thick wrapped around its throat.
It was some kind of tentacle, Willis realized, and it was pulling Jerry towards a newly formed pit at one end of the hut. For a few seconds Willis sat paralyzed. The pit grew deeper and wider, and as the sand fell away, he saw a giant pair of predator jaws, pink and hairless, emerge from the sand, opening up to engulf the helpless Drac.
Pushed out of his stupor, Willis grabbed one of their machete-like blades and flung himself across the hut to start hacking at the creature's tongue. The creature roared. A blue fluid spurted from the wounds. The whole head came into sight, large jaws and small, blind eyes. The ground moved and shook as the animal writhed in its tunnel beneath them.
Willis delivered one final blow - cutting through the flesh of the tongue - then grabbed the limp Drac and pulled away frantically until they were both outside of the shelter. Once outside, Willis pulled the rest of the still twitching tongue from Jerry's throat and flung it as far as he could.
"Jerry!" The Drac was unconscious. Willis shook it. "Jerry!"
Inside the hut the predator was thrashing wildly, sending sparks and smoke out through the cracks in the walls as the frame groaned and shook at the onslaught. Willis prayed that the hut wouldn't burn.
He dragged Jerry further away from the shelter. "Jerry!"
Finally, Jerry opened its eyes. They both sat in the snow and watched as the mole-like monster wrecked their home. In the end, it retreated, but they didn't dare approach the hut for some time despite the freezing cold. Finally they dared come close to what was left, to assess the damage. One side was completely wrecked, the shells knocked loose, the branches broken. Snow blew in through the holes in the construction, killing the last smoking embers.
"We can't stay here," Willis said, surveying the wreckage. He felt numb with shock. The floor of the hut opened up into a dark void where the predator had entered.
"We have to," Jerry chattered, its voice raw and weak, "Where else would we go?"
Willis looked up towards the mountain, looming like a dark shadow above. "I know where we can go."
It took them most of the night to make their way up the mountainside. Outside the forest, the wind blew hard. Sleet clogged their eyes and mouths. Jerry, wrapped in blankets, stumbled and fell several times. Every time Willis picked it up and pushed it to move forward.
Thankfully it didn't take long for Willis to locate the cave once they were inside the gullies. A snow drift covered most of the opening, but it was easy enough to dig through so they could get inside. The cave was cool, but dry and sheltered, and as soon as they had made sure that the cave was still empty, they lay down and slept fitfully for a few hours.
When dawn broke, Willis left Jerry huddled up in most of their blankets and hiked down to their shelter to gather more of their things. By day, the state of the hut seemed even worse than it had during the night. Willis dug through the snow to find their most important belongings. Most of their stored food was salvageable, fortunately; he wrapped it up in a blanket and weighed it down with shells. He could collect it later. For now he grabbed some dried meat, their lighter and a bundle of firewood and tinder and set off back towards the cave.
As soon as he made his way into the cave, he became aware of Jerry moaning steadily from somewhere inside. He dropped the load of firewood he was carrying and rushed to where it was lying. Jerry had moved to the back of the cave and lay huddled up against the wall. Crouching down next to it, Willis saw that it was perspiring heavily. Willis felt a cold lick of fear down the nape of his neck. He knew from experience that perspiration was never a good sign. In Dracs it meant illness, food poisoning, fever. "Jerry?"
Jerry turned to look up at him. Its eyes were narrowed with pain. "Zammis wants to come into the world now," it gasped.
Willis looked down at its chest and belly. Even through several layers of clothing he could see Jerry's stomach stretch and distend as Zammis moved restlessly beneath its skin. It looked painful. "But you said – a few more weeks, you said," Willis insisted lamely.
Jerry moaned. "Zammis is impatient." It sounded afraid.
The rest of the day, Jerry slipped in and out of consciousness. Willis could not make it open its eyes and look at him again. Several times it moaned the name of its parent, delirious. Willis tried to keep himself busy to stave off the panic. He built a fire to keep it warm. He brought water from the back of the cave and urged Jerry to drink a couple of mouthfuls. The whites of its yellow eyes showed when it finally looked at him. "Something is wrong," it whispered.
"No, you are going to be fine," Willis said, trying to sound reassuring even though he was scared shitless himself. "Pregnant people get nervous, it's okay." Willis put his hand on the Drac's forehead, the only other thing he knew to do.
"No. Something is wrong," Jerry insisted. Then it closed its eyes and drifted away again. A couple of minutes later, it stopped breathing.
"Jerry!" Willis screamed, and shook the Drac violently. He could feel dark despair closing in on him.
But then he saw Jerry's eyelids twitch, and the air sacs on each side of it's face started shallowly contracting and expanding again. It opened its eyes, and its face was no longer contorted with pain, even though its skin was still glistening with perspiration. "Willis," it said softly, sounding like it was enjoying a good shot of dopamine, or some kind of Drac equivalent, "it is now. I can feel it."
Willis helped it unlace and pull away its clothing. He saw now that the unborn infant was pushing against a diamond shaped patch of thin, translucent skin that had appeared just below Jerry's sternum. As Willis watched, a tiny talon broke through the filmy, stretched patch from the inside. The surrounding skin folded back like four petals of an opening flower.
"Oh lord." Will whispered. He felt nauseous. Privately he cursed his teenage fascination with old sci-fi movies and Sigourney Weaver.
But when Jerry weakly tried to pull the emerging baby out, and it was clear it couldn't manage alone, Will reached over and helped the baby Drac out of the pouch and onto Jerry's chest. He helped Jerry dry the infant off and cover it up with blankets. And when he had helped Jerry get comfortable (it was high as a kite, smiling goofily up at him and hugging the baby to its chest), he sat for a long time by their side, watching over them in the silence.
Zammis was dark in color, soft-skinned, hollow-chested and potbellied. It had longer arms and shorter legs than a human baby, and it was blind like a newborn kitten. It was born with three tiny beak-like teeth already grown out, and made unhappy little mewling sounds whenever it was hungry. Jerry fed it moss noodles and pre-chewed food.
The rest of the time, Zammis hung from its parents back, clinging to the bony ridges along Jerry's shoulders. It was half-hidden in its parent's clothing, with just its head peeking over its parent's shoulder like a baby koala. It investigated everything by pressing its face against it. If it got scared or angry it emitted a loud rattling sound, shaking all over like it was having an apoplectic fit.
Willis watched Jerry and the baby, but kept his distance, unsure of his place. Jerry seemed totally engrossed in its newborn. It made Willis feel a little lonely, although it was kind of funny to see Jerry go absolutely nuts over the little beast.
The day after the baby was born, Willis had gone back down to their shelter. He picked through the debris and snow, finally finding a large, flat piece of metal from which he fashioned a sled that he could drag behind him across the snow. Using that, he managed to bring all their remaining belongings up to the cave over the course of a few trips. He and Jerry stored their food in the tunnel which ended blind. They sorted out a waste disposal system. Willis found a nice, even crook in the main room and rebuilt their sleeping pads. He walled up part of the cave's opening with loose stones he found in the surrounding gullies.
A week after Zammis was born, Willis woke up in the half-dark. He cast a glance at the fire, but it was still going, so he wondered what had woken him. He glanced over at Jerry's sleeping pad, and oh, maybe that was it: Zammis had somehow managed to wriggle out of its parent's arms and was now halfway off the dried moss and the skins they used for blankets.
Drac infants were a lot more coordinated than human babies, but Zammis still looked a little lost, moving forward with a slow rocking crawl and turning its little face this way and that, trying to find its way back to warmth and safety.
Jerry was fast asleep – probably for the first time since the birth -- so when Zammis began making small unhappy sounds, Willis quickly pushed himself out of bed. He picked the baby up. Zammis was shivering, and beneath his hands Willis could feel the onset of the full body tremor that usually preceded those loud rattling squeaks that made Jerry worry and fuss. Willis resolutely opened his shirt and pressed the baby against his skin. It instantly grabbed onto his neck and nestled closer with a small creaking sound, pressing its soft face against his neck. "Shh," Willis whispered, "don't wake your parent."
The baby creaked again, breathing softly against his neck.
"Hush now," Willis mumbled, cupping the back of its head with one hand, and its small bottom in the other. "Are you cold? We'll get you warm." He walked over to the fire, and sat down. Zammis moved a little restlessly, and Willis started rocking mindlessly back and forth to calm the baby. Soon, Zammis was sleeping soundly.
Willis stayed seated. He hadn't actually held Zammis before now. Jerry had been very protective of it from the beginning, and Willis hadn't wanted to intrude on the special bond that he knew existed between a Drac and its offspring.
Zammis weighed less than he had imagined, and it's skin was much softer than a grown Drac's. Willis' half-sister had just had her second child the last time he'd been on leave on earth. He'd visited her shortly after she had given birth, and she had unceremoniously dumped the baby girl in his arms, freaking him out a little. Zammis wasn't quite as small, and it didn't seem quite as fragile, but Willis was surprised to find that it had that same smell that Willis remembered from Baby Emma: that sweet and warm and vulnerable smell. Willis bent his head down further, trying to catch more of that scent.
He didn't realize that Jerry had woken before it called out "Zammis?" with a tinge of panic in its voice.
Willis quickly stood up. "Right here, it's fine, we're fine." He walked over to Jerry, who was sitting on its bed. "It just got lost and cold, it's fine now."
He crouched down next to Jerry's sleeping pad and tried to hand the baby over. But Zammis woke and instinctively clung to Willis' chest. "Ow, ow, I'm not a Drac, okay," Willis whispered --the baby was digging the talons on its feet and hands into Willis' skin, trying to hang onto him. Finally he managed to loosen all of its grabbing hands and feet and maneuver the baby into Jerry's outstretched arms. Zammis instantly huddled close to its parent and then fell asleep. Willis watched it, smiling. He looked up to see Jerry watching him.
"Cute kid," he said, trying to lighten the mood, and moved to pull away.
Jerry kept looking at him intently, pupils wide in the dim light. "Willis, may I touch your head?"
Willis had been about to stand up. "Uh sure," he said, a little awkwardly, and sat back down. To his surprise, instead of placing its fingers on his face, Jerry drew him in with a hand at the back of his head, to touch their faces together.
Willis resisted first, out of instinct, but then he went willingly. Jerry leaned its forehead against Willis'. They sat like that for a long moment, breathing together. Jerry's hand was warm against the nape of his neck.
"Dzo-ee-dinae," it mumbled sleepily, "sleep here with us."
"Okay," Willis replied quietly, stunned and moved.
The winter passed slowly but comfortably in the cave. They slept a lot - whenever Zammis slept – warm and comfortable and close. In their waking hours they repaired the things that had been broken in the predator attack, or entertained themselves by telling stories.
By the time the frost broke, Willis could sing the entire Jeriba line.
Jerry had insisted that Willis teach it his own line, too ("..here before you stands Willis E. Davidge, son of Mom the waitress and Dad the computer manufacturer..."), and tactfully refrained from commenting when Willis couldn't remember further back than his grandparents.
They made plans for the coming spring. They could rebuild the shelter in the forest, and spend the warm seasons there. If they walled up the blind tunnel and put in some kind of door, it would make a cool dry place where they could safely stockpile supplies for the next winter.
They took turns sitting up with Zammis when the baby went through a growth spurt and wouldn't sleep for more than five minute intervals at a time.
They stopped listening to the sky.
In the end, they never heard the engines of a craft, or the hiss of shuttle shields breaking against the atmosphere. Instead, sometime after the snow melted, Willis crawled to the peak of the mountain in the early morning and saw a glittering of electrical lights far away in the distance. He stood for a long time, hands by his sides, and watched the tiny lights moving, before he turned around and made his way back down to the cave.
"By my estimation we have been here for at least one and a half earth years," Willis said, after he'd told Jerry what he'd seen. He shifted his grip on a sleeping Zammis to accept the food that Jerry was holding out to him. "Who knows, maybe the war is over, maybe it's terraformers."
Jerry purred. "It could be settlers," it suggested. It ladled out a portion of food for itself and for a moment the ate in silence.
Maybe it was scavengers, or miners, or soldiers from one side of the war. Willis knew that they were both thinking it. They both sat staring into the fire that cracked and hissed in the silence. Then Zammis woke in Willis lap, and clumsily made its way over to Jeriba and crawled onto it, making small content noises.
"We have to look, though," Willis finally said.
Jerry hoisted the baby further up on its chest. "You are right."
"We''ll be careful," Willis said, suddenly excited again. "If it's scavengers or soldiers, we'll go back. We'll hide. They won't find us here. Whatever we'll do, we do it together."
Jerry nodded. "Shizza," it said, hugging Zammis close.
Two days later, Jerry and Will stood at the top of the mountain together. Their backs were to the cave and their old shelter, and they were looking at the lights. Everything in the cave had been neatly packed into the deep tunnel. Every sign of their presence had been hidden away.
Zammis was sleeping in the papoose resting against Willis' back. Its breathing was a gentle, hissing susurrus in the quiet.
"Davidge, do you remember the deeds of Zammis of the second cycle?" Jerry asked, eyes still fixed on the lights ahead.
Willis thought for a moment, then recited in the Old Tongue: "Jeriba Zammis of the second cycle extended great love to its sibling Vagan Gerrekh, the first of the Vagan line. Both were skilled politicians and diplomats of high esteem. Together they traveled to the northern border of the Irrvedah region and made peace with the Kuvedahs who lived by the edges of the Great Cut, and so opened up to trade and exchanges of friendship between the two tribes."
Jerry nodded, obviously pleased with Will's recital. "When I tell Zammis its lineage I should like to say: 'Jeriba Shigan of the eighth cycle was the first of the Draconian people to ever extend love to a human. It made Willis of the Davidge line a sibling, and together they made peace between humans and Draconians, and so opened up to trade and exchanges of friendship between the two tribes."
Will stood speechless. He realized the great honor he had just been granted. Jeriba was giving him a place in a thousand year old history; it wanted him to be part of its most proud and vivid memories.
"Aae," he said finally. "Chiirke aae shizzaht na-u-zhorr," he added, a Drac invocation: 'will-be that the stream-of-future runs down this path.'
And with that, they set out, slowly making their way down the mountain side, towards the small group of lights flickering in the distance.