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The lumbering wheeze of air compressors. The merciless bright lights causing halos in his vision. The heaviness in his arms and legs, limbs trapped by excess gravity.

Alex slowly stretched his fingers and toes, clenching and releasing to increase circulation. He recognised the sluggishness of hypersleep, the convenience of several lightyears’ travel complete with foggy head and aching muscles. His mouth felt coated with dust.

He hated going off-planet.

He hated space travel. He hated artificial gravity. He hated the stale taste of recirculated air, constantly cycling through filters and other people’s lungs. He hated the hydroponically grown vegetables, full of colour and vitamins and lacking in taste.

“You have completed the first twenty percent of your journey,” announced the pre-recorded voice. “Please refresh yourself and make use of the amenities on board.”

He also hated pre-recorded messages from obnoxiously cheerful people.

***

The amenities, such as they were, were hardly luxurious. It was an old freighter ship turned passenger ferry. They’d pulled out the old hauling docks and replaced them with hypersleep chambers; turned the remaining space into walkways, kitchen, and sitting area, only leaving a few crew quarters for the poor unfortunates who’d be awake throughout the journey.

It wasn’t one of the more expensive cruisers, kitted out with carpets and plastic-coated walls, staircase rails polished until they gleamed. The light was starkly fluorescent, forming dark, unknowable shadows at the edge of each circle of light. The ship’s history showed in the metal walkways: dull steel, dented in places, made for affordable practicality and expected to last as long as the ship’s hull. It had been made for a purpose and it showed. It was an honest ship.

Alex liked that idea of honesty. Being fit for purpose. No graceful rhetoric, no justifications, simply a job to do and the ability to do it.

The metal walkways clanked beneath his feet and the air felt greasy on his tongue. There was a hint of oil from the engines and the blank staleness of artificially recycled oxygen. In the years since his last off-planet journey, Alex had become accustomed to the smells of organic life around him. The mugginess of a storm about to break, the tang of salt from the coast and the warmth of sunlight. The scent of violets in the air, the way Pam would grow them along the windowsills, small boxes of plants that bloomed in spring and overpowered all other scents.

Alex shook his head to banish the thought. He forced his fingers to unclench from the railing and started walking again. He followed the noise toward the kitchen.

The older hypersleep chambers had always had pressurisation issues. For ten times the price, Alex could have been on a better ship with a new stasis system; he could have closed his eyes on Earth and not opened them until they arrived on S0N-A104-5709. But no one with that sort of money ran away to a settlement planet. Alex had sold every possession to scrape together enough for an off-world plot and stores to survive the first few years. He’d found the cheapest fare going, and if that meant waking up five times so the hypersleep chambers could be recalibrated, so be it.

Settlement planets were all the same, full of cheap land and hard work. It wouldn’t be like Earth: cramped into concrete anthills, scurrying from one day to the next, buying and owing and never quite earning enough to see a future. The work would be harder and longer, but it would be his. His land, his food, and his slow death of starvation if he failed.

A lot of settlers failed. There would always be room out at the edges where isolated settlers died of starvation and infection. Everyone knew the statistics; everyone assumed it wouldn’t happen to them.

At least the sleeping schedules were staggered. A ship this size carried a few hundred people, but there were only twenty awake at a time. Enough to fill the kitchen with a low murmur of conversation, cutlery scraping against plates as everyone ate. It was a small number of people, not even a crowd, but still more than Alex wanted to see. He served himself and took his meal out to the hallway to eat.

Alex did his best to ignore the voices in the kitchen. He didn’t want to overhear hushed reassurances and hopeful plans for the future.

A chime echoed down the hallway. The first batch of hypersleep chambers had been recalibrated, and Alex watched his fellow travellers shuffle out the door, back towards the empty bliss of sleep. He could follow them and wait in line, but it would be at least another two hours before all of them were ready. There was no rush.

Alex headed back into the kitchen and got a second serving of the bright, colourful, and tasteless vegetable mix. He forced himself to chew and swallow, and did his best to think of nothing at all.

He was drawn out of his contemplation of the divots running up the steel wall by the scrape of a chair behind him. “You know the bell’s gone for the recalibration,” his unwanted companion offered.

Alex looked over his shoulder. He still had a soldier’s instincts, couldn’t help looking for the possible threat and weighing up his options, tightening his fingers around his metal fork. The guy might have been thirty, but he had the kind of face that could pass for a decade younger if you didn’t look at the eyes. The eyes were sharp and focused, like a stray mutt eyeing the last scrap of meat, dangerously hungry but cautious. Alex remembered that look from the eastern slums; remembered the way desperation forced boys to grow into men. Alex glanced down at the guy’s hand, and the logo tattooed across the back of his wrist that confirmed he’d grown up there.

Alex resisted the urge to reach up, to cover the thick white line across his neck. Everyone wore the scars of their past.

“There’s no rush,” the guy added. “It’s three weeks before the next shift wakes up.”

The idea of a few weeks spent away from people sounded great, but Alex was only a few months into a three year voyage. He reluctantly stood up and walked back to the hypersleep chamber.

***

Alex woke with the sound of gunfire in his head. He took a moment -- a breath, no more -- to listen. There was nothing but the low, distant hum of engines echoing through the empty spaces. No gunfire. No explosions. No danger.

He stayed in his chamber, this tiny coffin-like box that would hold him for years he wouldn't feel. It was nothing more than dreams. Small glimpses of memory forged into something familiar but wrong. The hammering gunfire from automatic weapons, the endless dust from guarding the lunar oil-wells; the falling concrete walls and homemade explosives from the uprising in the eastern slums. A new pistol in his hand and militia uniform he hadn't worn in years.

Alex didn't regret his time in the Service. Despite the occasional nightmare, he'd been proud of it while he was there. He'd grown up struggling to be anything other than dirt-poor and starving. Out of a narrow list of options, it had been honest work that paid enough. If he was fifteen years younger, he would have signed up for another tour.

But the Service had age limits, so Alex had made the next best choice. Off-world settlement, complete with low life expectancy, hard work, and no chance of sympathy or help. It would be good to have a purpose again, even if that purpose was as simple as keeping himself alive.

Pam would have hated it, Alex thought, stabbing at the console button to open his chamber.

He climbed out into a mostly dark room. There was a soft green glow from the edges of the chambers around him, but there was a good reason they’d been nicknamed coffins. Seven feet long by two feet wide, squared angles of dull metal and flat metal lids sealed tightly. There was the slightest green glow around the edge of the lids, the barometric seal in place, but they still looked like storage crates.

The joke went that they’d be just as useful for transporting the dead, hence the nickname. It wasn’t true. No one paid for a dead body to be shipped back. Alex had seen the devastation of an oil well swallowed by the lunar desert, and the bodies of soldiers and workers alike buried where no loved ones would ever visit.

***

The corridors were empty. He must have woken up between shifts of settlers. Without the constant noise of people, Alex listened to the hum of engines, the harmless groans of the layers of the hull shifting and a soft, steady sound he couldn’t identify. He followed it, watching the markings over the doorways to map his way back. He walked past the cafeteria, and a kitchen beyond it, and stepped into a brightly lit greenhouse.

From elevated beds, vegetables grew tall and thick, genetically modified for maximum production. The soil was dark and Alex reached out to rub it between his fingers, to smell the lush promise of it. The ventilation system wheezed around him as he walked around the tables, staring up at the yellow stalks of corn. It looked too healthy to be real.

He stayed in the greenhouse, walking from plant to plant, recognising what he could from the half-grown vegetables and fruits. By a bunch of short green shoots that looked like grass, Alex could feel the vibrations from the engines through his feet. They must have sacrificed space from the crew’s quarters to extend the greenhouse so far.

He should have returned to his hypersleep chamber, continued his journey as planned. Instead, Alex went back to the corn and laid down on the floor. Hands folded beneath his head, he watched the stalks sway in the recycled air-flow.

***

Alex woke up to a shuffle of feet, a brush of fabric, and a huffed sigh: the gentle sounds of someone trying to be quiet. Muscles locking in preparation, he opened his eyes. There were green plants above him. Bright lights high above that, the raised ceiling hidden in the glare. The straight edge of a table blocked the view to his left and the sounds stopped.

“Scofield,” said a man’s voice. A voice he’d heard before.

It took Alex a moment to place it. To remember the face that went with that voice. To remember where he was and get to his feet.

“I’m one of the crew,” the man said, soft and gentle as if Alex had just woken and might be confused. “I’m Scofield.”

Alex nodded.

“Do you understand?” Scofield said, still measured and careful. He stayed where he was, not stepping any closer.

Alex narrowed his eyes in annoyance. He wasn’t a threat. He wasn’t a victim of air-seal leak from hypersleep. He was saved from having to explain it when Scofield’s eyes tracked to the scar across Alex’s throat.

“You don’t speak,” he said, pausing as Alex nodded in confirmation, “but you’re aware of where you are?”

Alex nodded.

“Do you want to return to hypersleep?”

Alex shrugged. He didn’t want to climb back into that box but being unconscious would be a lot less awkward than this conversation. There was a reason he avoided people now.

“It’s your choice,” Scofield said, watching Alex closely. “There are spare crew quarters if you’d prefer to stay awake. We’ve got enough rations.”

The idea of sharing meals with one other person, over and over… It made a Pam-shaped hole ache inside Alex. He shook his head.

Scofield didn’t look disappointed. He didn’t look much of anything. Perhaps he preferred his solitude too. “Then I’ll see you at the next recalibration. You need any help getting back?”

This time, Alex rolled his eyes.

***

“You have completed the first forty percent of your journey. Please refresh yourself and make use of the amenities on board.”

Alex tried to ignore the cheery voice. He rubbed his hands over his face, and stayed where he was. He could hear clunking footsteps, people groaning as they woke and stumbled to their feet. The shuffled steps and mumbled voices echoed around him.

He waited until the noise faded into the ever-present hum of the engines before opening his chamber. The space was bleakly lit by open chambers, throwing sharp rectangles of light against the low metal ceilings. If he was the last man alive, this was what it would be like. Empty spaces and dark shadows, places where people used to be and the soft relief of silence. He could manage it, he thought. Survive it, knowing that survival was the only option. It might even be easier. There was a certain freedom that came from the absence of hope.

The cargo hold had been converted for this journey, the wide open space now sliced into layers of low-ceilings and metal beams, floors covered with rows of hypersleep chambers. Mass production of mass transit: efficient, effective, and aesthetics be damned.

It made him strangely nostalgic for the Service.

If he were a different person, he might be tempted by the lack of witnesses to pry open the console cover of his chamber and adjust the settings. It was an older model, the oxygen mix set by a few simple switches and the pressure calibrated by a few simple commands. It would be the work of moments to decrease the pressure, reduce the oxygen and never wake up at all.

He ran his fingers across the switches and let himself imagine it. The ease of it. The simplicity.

Remembered Pam’s face caught between amusement and resignation, saying, “It wouldn’t kill you to do something the easy way for once,” and “Being stubborn is not a virtue, Alex. Refusing to change your mind doesn’t make a bad decision any better.”

Alex snapped the console cover shut and walked out to the kitchen.

***

The chk-chk-chk of automatic gunfire sharpened into the metallic rattle of a knock against the chamber surface. Alex blinked in the almost darkness, lunar dunes fading from the inside of his eyelids.

The chamber lid slid open, revealing Scofield’s sharp eyes and tight jaw. He waited for Alex to sit up before saying, “You’re familiar with these hypersleep chambers, aren’t you?”

Alex shrugged. These were old enough that he remembered them from lunar trips almost two decades ago.

“I saw you looking behind the console,” Scofield said, and Alex wondered if he’d checked the settings again while Alex was in the kitchen. If Alex had changed the settings, would Scofield have corrected it or let it happen? It was probably best not to know.

“There’s a pressurisation leak on the fourth level. I could use another pair of hands.”

It explained Scofield’s tense expression. The atmospheric sensors on-board would be enough to identify the leak, the high levels of oxygen and hydrogen escaping into the ship, but they couldn’t identify the chamber. The only way to do that was manual inspection. In the Service, they would have woken the whole area, ordered every soldier to inspect their own chamber or risk not waking up again.

Given what he’d overheard in the kitchen, the naïve optimism of his fellow passengers, most of them lacked the technical skill to be any help.

Nodding, Alex got up and followed Scofield across the eerily quiet room. Scofield didn’t talk as they walked up two flights of metal stairs. The noises were all artificial, ventilation and engines, and Alex wondered what sort of person took a job like this. Weeks alone with machinery, then a few hours of people crushed into the kitchen, chattering and taking up so much space.

“Do you know what to check for?” Scofield asked, and Alex nodded. He knew the signs. “We’ll start at each end and signal if we find it.”

Another nod, and then Alex got to work.

***

The fourth level was laid out the same as all the others. Rows of chambers laid next to each other, walking space between the grids of boxes. Overhead lighting set low to conserve fuel and the pale green outlines of chambers stretching out to the far off walls. For one person to check every console and match the output to the pressurisation would take days. For two people, it would probably still take too long to make a difference to whoever was inside it.

But that wasn’t the real threat of a pressurisation leak. The real danger came from the build-up of flammable gases in a supposedly breathable atmosphere. One spark, one loose wire, and the fire could burn through the ship in minutes, if the explosion didn’t tear through the hull. Alex remembered the horror stories of his youth, ships destroyed and hypersleep chambers floating out in space. The idea had terrified him as a kid, the thought of lying there trapped and out of reach, waiting for power levels to decrease until he suffocated.

He’d been relieved to discover that hypersleep chambers had failsafes triggered by a lack of external gravity, that if he was jettisoned he’d never wake up to know it.

***

The work was monotonous and easy. Alex didn't have to think about it. He just opened a console cover, checked the pressurisation stats and the seal integrity, closed the cover and moved to the next chamber. He didn't activate the internal monitors or see who was lying in there. He didn't look at the names. He just opened the cover, read the numbers and moved to the next.

It reminded him of the factory work he'd done after leaving the Service. Simple, repetitive tasks that could be done by a half-decent machine but human labour was cheaper. He'd always told Pam it was relaxing in its own way, but she had shrugged and never really agreed. She found the factories boring, but necessary. The only good thing about their jobs, she had said once, was that they could take the same train to work.

Alex pulled his attention back to the here and now. It wouldn't do him any good to think of Pam or remember those mornings crammed into crowded carriages, forced to stand so close that he used to wrap his arms around her, both of them swaying with movement, her sleepy head resting against his shoulder.

He crossed his arms, rubbing warmth back into chilled skin. The storage bays were too large to heat efficiently and when all the passengers were sealed away in hypersleep, it was a waste of resources. And this would be a waste of time if he didn't focus on his task.

Alex took a breath and opened the next console cover.

***

It was impossible to judge time. The artificial lights were a murky constant above his head but Alex's back ached from leaning over console readings, so it must have been hours. There was a long stretch of quiet boxes that he'd checked, but to his right, there were even more to go.

He was starting to think about food and missed meals when he glanced down at the next console and saw the dangerously low stats. Oxygen saturation down to twelve percent, seal integrity at eighty-seven. With those readings, it must have been a slow, steady leak for the last few weeks.

Alex looked around for Scofield. He wanted to wave at him, get his attention quietly, but Scofield was lost in the dark shadows at the other end of this level. He considered tapping against the metal wall, but one more metallic clang would be lost in the background rumble of engines and the old man wheeze of the air compressors.

"Scofield!" Alex yelled out, voice flat and robotic through the artificial larynx in his throat. He hated the sound of it, like one of those mindless automatons following their programming. He knew he should be grateful -- if not for his time in the Service, they wouldn't have replaced his voice box at all. The accident would have left him dumb, voice completely lost. Instead it only took away Pam and hope and any desire to talk.

Settling an isolated plot on a distant planet would suit him. No need to talk, no need to hear the new sound of his voice and remember everything lost.

At least Scofield didn't comment on it. He came running over, steady jog of steps, asking, "Is that the leak?"

Alex nodded.

"The passenger?"

This time, Alex shook his head. Oxygen deprived for so long meant brain death. The body wouldn't even have the ability to breathe on its own.

Scofield glanced away for a second, dismayed but practical enough not to fight it. "We'll shut it down," he said, glancing over Alex's shoulder at the readings. "See which components can be kept for parts."

Alex stepped aside and watched Scofield's deft fingers skate across the console, exporting diagnostic reports and methodically ceasing each process until the chamber lay dark and dead, truly a coffin.

Scofield opened the lid and there was a girl inside, sun-darkened skin and honey-gold hair. She couldn't have been older than twenty-five. At least she'd be easy enough to carry out of there; Alex told himself to be grateful for that.

Scofield leaned down and wrapped his hand around hers. His fingers curled around her wrist, feeling her slow pulse. After a few hushed minutes, he stood up and Alex assumed her heartbeat had stopped.

Scofield looked over at him and there was something heavy and apologetic in his eyes. "I can take care of this," he offered.

Alex shrugged. He'd seen his fair share of dead bodies. There were worse ways to die than slipping away gently as you dreamed.

***

Alex had expected the body to be liquefied with the other organic waste and diverted through the greenhouse. On a trip this long, survival didn't afford burial ceremonies or sentimental objections. Resources were resources.

But Scofield bent his head and led them to the incinerator.

"We can't open the airlocks," Scofield said and it almost sounded like an apology.

Opening the airlocks in the vacuum of space would cost a fifth of their oxygen. It would put strain on the air-compressors and reduce the efficiencies of the engines; they'd have to use more fuel to maintain life support, either slowing their speed and extending the journey beyond their planned food supplies or run the risk of not having enough fuel left to land safely when they arrived.

The idea of jettisoning a body, abandoning it to float in space like old tales of sailors at sea was poetic, not realistic. If the Service had taught him anything, it was that dead bodies shouldn't cost more dead bodies.

There was always a cost.

But here they were, standing before the walk-in incinerator, designed to melt metals down for scraps and reduce broken plastics to ash. This was where Scofield had them leave the body, and close the door behind them.

Scofield adjusted the settings and paused before turning it on. "I was eleven when the Eastern Flu broke out." He held up his hand, as if Alex hadn't noticed the dark tattoo there. There were fine straight lines behind a thick dark curl, curving around the fine bones of his wrist and halfway down his forearm. The ink was still sharp against his skin, the black barely faded after almost two decades.

Alex nodded. He'd been twenty-two when the contagion was identified as a threat. He'd been in the Service nearly six years and he'd been sent to the eastern slums along with all the other young soldiers considered expendable by their superiors. He oversaw the walls constructed around the sprawling mass of towns; seen the citizens tattooed to stop anyone escaping quarantine. In the Service, three out of five died in the four years it took them to come up with a vaccine. The death rates were higher amongst the general populace.

The riots and general lawlessness should have been foreseen. Lock a city down, let the people die and send in soldiers to hold peace at gunpoint and you had to expect the uprisings and panic as everyone buried family members and rations kept shrinking.

It had been a war zone and an endless funeral procession, constantly burning pyres of the dead, too dangerous to bury, too many to cremate out of sight.

After those years, it had seemed easy to guard the lunar oil-wells. They might be manned by indentured bankrupts and other prisoners, might include long days with few luxuries, but he couldn't smell the dead burning. He didn't have to stand at those huge concrete walls and open fire on desperate men, women, and children.

"At least we can burn the body," Scofield said, and there were too many ghosts hiding behind his dark eyes. It was strange to see someone more haunted than Alex’s own reflection. "We'll give the ashes to whoever she was traveling with."

***

Scofield said he had to go prepare food for the next group of settlers. He didn't ask Alex to help but he also didn't suggest that Alex return to hypersleep. Given a choice, Alex preferred to postpone dreams of funeral pyres and long-dead faces.

The kitchen was large and empty, scratched metal surfaces that had been meticulously cleaned. They worked side by side, ignoring the vast unused space around them. Alex found himself wondering if it felt even bigger when Scofield was the only one awake.

"If you tell me the model," Scofield said as he stopped dicing a towering mound of carrots, and gestured towards the scar across Alex's neck, "I could look into it."

Alex was peeling a never-ending bucket of potatoes. He shrugged but didn't stop.

"I'm good with machines," Scofield offered. Alex said nothing. "My father thought I'd join the engineering corps. Before," he said and didn't have to elaborate. Before the outbreak, before the quarantine. Before the unspoken fears that anyone with those tattoos might be carrying some version of the virus; the mistrust that remained even if they were tested clean. Jobs were scarce, higher training became impossible and opportunities to join the Service or the government corps disappeared.

"If nothing else, this job gives me time to read. It would be good to have something to research," Scofield said, as if this was nothing more than idle curiosity.

Alex had his doubts but in the end, what could it hurt? He pulled up the note-taking interface on the closest screen and typed in the make and model number. Then he went back to peeling potatoes.

***

They ate before Scofield woke the next shift of settlers. It felt like an odd perversion of luxury: steaming containers of food, brightly coloured and freshly cooked, any choice was theirs. It felt like excess for the two of them, but of course it was food to feed twenty settlers.

They ate like oligarchs, generous servings spread across a long table, only the two of them amongst such fresh bounty. Scofield said very little and Alex said nothing.

At the end of the meal, Scofield led him back to his hypersleep chamber. There was no pointless suggestion of staying awake, which Alex would have refused. No wasted explanation of the diagnostics running on Alex's chamber, making use of the time Alex had been awake to recalibrate.

"I can set it to wake you up with the rest of this area's passengers," Scofield said, and they both knew it was a foolish offer. The chamber had been calibrated and would last longer before the next calibration was required.

Alex frowned and shook his head. He had no reason or need to spend any unnecessary time around other people, avoiding their conversations.

Scofield's answering smile was brief but relieved. "Then I'll set the chamber to wake you between shifts."

***

“You have completed the first seventy-two percent of your journey,” Alex heard as he woke up. For a moment the number didn't make any sense, then he remembered Scofield and the unexpected blessing of being out of sync with his neighbours.

He opened the chamber and tried to stretch the stiffness out of his muscles. It was a lost cause, but he tried anyway.

He set the diagnostics running on the chamber, the slow and tedious process of recalibration automated enough that he could leave it alone once it was set, and took an unsteady step into the chilled, dark room.

It took a few moments for his eyes to adjust to the eerie green glow of hypersleep chambers, but he made his way to the door and along the clanking, metal walkways.

The hallways were empty, dark and chilled, running on the least power required. The kitchen was deserted. Alex looked around at the clean surfaces and forced himself to pay attention to the sounds he'd started taking for granted: the steady low rumbling of the engines, the wheeze of air compressors. All regular, healthy sounds of a cargo ship flying steadily through empty space. No need to be concerned yet.

There were containers hidden at the back of low shelves. Alex filled one with water, took a few thirsty gulps, and then went out to find Scofield.

He wasn't in the greenhouse, but the corn was tall and yellow, husks drying and starting to turn brown. There was a framework against a wall that was now covered in glossy leaves and dark, round fruit, vines stretching and twisting up to the lights dangling from the ceiling. The plants were growing but they felt wild and untended. The neat rows of seedlings had vanished, and now plants grew through and around each other, thriving or struggling against neighbours.

It made Alex uneasy but he walked the length of the greenhouse to make sure Scofield wasn't there.

From there, he found a terminal and located the crew quarters and the control centre. The crew quarters were abandoned, metal walls holding the kind of chill that told Alex the area hadn't been heated in weeks.

He wasn't worried about Scofield, he told himself. He didn't know Scofield well enough to worry about him. If Scofield had taken on a three-year solitary job and found he couldn't bear it, it wasn't anything to do with Alex. Scofield wouldn't be the first to abandon his duties and climb into a hypersleep chamber. He also wouldn't be the first to lose hope, to lose reality, and step out of an airlock.

But Scofield wouldn't do that. He'd known the cost of depressurizing, the fuel that would be wasted, and the strain on the engines. And those engines sounded stable to Alex.

He was relieved to turn the corner to the control centre and see lights beneath the door. For a moment, he felt embarrassed that he'd worried at all.

He opened the door, and found light and warmth and Scofield sitting on a blanket on the floor. His hair was dark, nearly two inches long and standing in curls. He had mechanical pieces spread around him and was turning something small between his hands.

Alex cleared his throat and the sound was a flat, robotic hum.

Scofield looked up, eyes bright and a satisfied smile twisting his mouth. "I have something to show you."

***

It was small, circular and the metal gleamed as if newly made. Alex knew what it looked like, but he had doubts as Scofield brought up a display of schematics.

"It will work," Scofield said, calm and focused. "I need to program the vocal range and then replace the existing encoder, but it will work."

Replacing the existing encoder would require surgery. Nothing too complicated. A steady hand, a good sense of machinery and a lack of squeamishness would be enough to get the job done, but it wasn't as if they had a medical bay on-board. "Where?" Alex asked, flat mechanical tone betraying none of his sudden interest.

"We'd have to convert one of the hypersleep chambers. Use it to monitor vital signs and keep you unconscious. I can manage the rest." A few flicks of long fingers, and Scofield had another diagram on the screen. Anatomical model, and the next screen had surgical instructions. "We won't be able to convert it back."

There weren't any spare chambers. If this worked, he'd spend the last year of this journey awake. If it didn't work, he'd never wake up again. It hardly felt like a risk.

***

"Okay," Scofield said. "The vocal range will be easiest if we can get a sample. We can extract an estimate from the ship's database if we have to."

Alex reached to the collar of his shirt and pulled out the chain around his neck. There was a simple tag on it, electronic identification, a second set of data about the plot of dirt waiting for him on a distant planet, and a tiny scrap of something so precious his fingers fumbled with the opening mechanism. He pulled the data chip out and handed it to Scofield.

It was cheaply made, an old vid recording format that half of the modern systems couldn't read, but it was the only real thing he had left. A simple recording of their first night in their apartment, Pam young and laughing, dark eyes beautiful and bright. They couldn't afford much but they could record that moment, talking about future they were going to have, curled around each other on a corner of the bare floor.

Everything else, Alex sold or left behind but that moment of promise, that hope, that night when love was all the certainty and protection they'd ever need ... Alex couldn't leave that behind.

Scofield took it gently, respectfully. "I'll be careful."

***

Alex blinked his eyes open. Everything around him was bright and blurred. Slowly it came into focus and he found himself staring at the sharp lights of the greenhouse. The hypersleep chamber let out a low hum as it recorded his vitals and saved them to memory.

Alex raised cautious fingertips to his neck, expecting… He wasn’t sure what he expected. The same scar tissue, ridged and white? But there was a plastic bandage, vacuum sealed to the skin.

“Careful,” Scofield said, quiet and hushed beside him. “It needs to heal. You need to sleep.”

He didn’t want to sleep. He wanted his voice back. He wanted everything he’d lost in one mindless accident, poor maintenance and substandard materials causing enough deaths to make powerful people shake their heads in shame. For a week or so, they even decried the systems that kept them in warm luxury and then, those same people forgot about the tragedy and went back to their comfortable lives.

Alex fell asleep dreaming of that day. Taking the morning train with Pam to the factories, sitting beside her as she yawned and nudging her awake a stop early. She kissed him goodbye before shuffling through the crowd towards the doors. It had been the same trip for years, the same morning pattern of riding the train together, watching her get off at her stop, and then riding for another few stops before getting out to his factory.

Except maintenance had been cut back due to budgets. The thinner rail lines had a tendency to warp when overheated. A few small mistakes that ended in a roaring blast, the screech of metal, a sudden flash of an explosion. Half the carriage was torn apart and twisted, bodies bloodied and broken. Alex had been pinned against the wall, metal bar crushing his throat, with his ears ringing from the explosion. But he’d still heard the screams and sobbing, the panicked terror of the crowd. It had been a relief to pass out.

Until he woke up in a stale, crowded hospital room with bandages across his neck. There had been a long wait until someone confirmed what he already knew – Pam was dead, charcoaled remains that couldn't be identified enough to bury – and there hadn't been anything to say.

Days later he heard the flat, robotic sound of his new voice, the most the Service would fund and the last thing he wanted to hear.

***

Alex slept deeply in loose, unfocused dreams he couldn’t remember. Slowly, he woke up to the sound of metallic tinkling in the far corner. Alex blinked his eyes open and rolled over to his side on the small cot.

Scofield was sitting on the metal floor, back to the wall and knees bent, scraping the edge of a curved piece of metal. His hands were steady, scraping then tapping the debris away. His hair was short again, shorn so closely Alex could see his scalp.

His focus was sharp and clear, fascinating to watch. He held the piece up to the light, eyes narrowed and mouth caught in a frown, turning it carefully. Something didn't meet his approval because he lowered it and started scraping it again.

Alex cleared his throat, the sound low and rough, but passably organic. He took a steadying breath before attempting to speak.

"What are--" His throat felt sore, inside and out, and his voice was half-growl, but it sounded human. Raw and full of pain, and gloriously uneven.

"What am I doing?" Scofield finished for him, looking away from his hands and pinning Alex with a sharp gaze. "I'm trying to increase the secondary engine system above 60% efficiency."

Alex would have asked more, but a yawn overcame him.

"You still need to sleep," Scofield said, looking down.

Alex rolled onto his back and closed his eyes, listened to the metallic scraping start again. He tried to remember the sound of his own voice.

***

It took a week to manage full sentences. A week mostly spent unconscious, surrendering to his body’s need to rest. Alex was exhausted, frustrated and terrifyingly hopeful in turns. He didn’t want to risk sabotaging this unlikely solution; he struggled to find the patience to wait for his body to heal. It was absurd that a trip to the edge of civilisation had given him a second chance. That after losing so much and deciding to abandon the rest, such a simple saving grace had been granted.

“Thank you,” he said to Scofield. His voice sounded smoother, less of a growl, but his throat still hurt.

There was a twist to Scofield’s mouth, too wry to be a smile. “You should rest your voice,” Scofield replied.

“You don’t understand.” Not that Alex had the words to explain it, to define the wonder of being able to open his mouth and hear himself again, to feel that this body was his, that he didn’t have to second guess what impression he’d make until it was easier to avoid everyone. This was the voice he’d yelled orders in, sometimes saving lives, sometimes not. This was the voice that had whispered earnest, empty promises to Pam in the dark.

“I get it,” Scofield said, fingers brushing the back of his other hand, mindlessly tracing the dark lines of the tattoo.

“Yeah?” And Alex has missed this. Missed being able to use inflection in his tone, to make words short and sharp and aggressive. Nothing sounded like a challenge in a flat monotone.

“When you lose that much, when there’s so little left of you…” Scofield shrugged, drops his gaze to the floor. “Appearing whole is important.”

A flash of the eastern slums stirred in Alex’s memories, funeral pyres burning high. The smell in the air, the way ash smeared on buildings and stuck to the soles of his boots, how dirty the children became as they ran through the streets.

“Thank you,” Alex repeated. It wasn’t enough but it would have to do.

***

Scofield’s routine was as opaque as the man himself. There would be quiet days, nothing but the rumble of the engine and Scofield’s steady hands on a piece of machinery, cleaning, scraping, and improving the ship one tiny piece at a time. Days spent in the greenhouse, checking the flow of the hydroponics and carefully pruning unwanted leaves, recording current crops and planting new seeds as needed.

Occasionally, Scofield would hold a one-sided conversation, explaining what he was doing and why. Alex understood some of it, enough to know Scofield had under exaggerated when he said he was good with machinery. His understanding rivalled the factory engineers Alex had known. When Alex mentioned that, Scofield shrugged.

“There’s a lot of time to read on these trips,” he said, as if there was nothing extraordinary about learning that level of detail from diagrams and articles.

There were no alarms, no rosters that Alex could see, but Scofield always knew when a batch of passengers was scheduled to wake. Those days would be full of action and noise. Scofield would call out ingredients and recipes, the noise of their knives against the steel counters of the kitchen, food sizzling and bubbling as he cooked enough to feed an army.

There would be footsteps in the hallway, the sleepy murmur of people shaking off the echoes of hypersleep, and then the empty kitchen would suddenly be crowded. Dozens of people all lining up to eat, serving themselves with clattering spoons and too loud laughter, continuing conversations from their last meal. It was overwhelming after the solitude of the ship; Alex preferred it when it was only the two of them awake.

Once the crowds were sitting and eating, he’d follow Scofield down to the docks and help him recalibrate each hypersleep chamber. He found himself motivated to reset each chamber as quickly as possible. The quicker they recalibrated, the sooner the other passengers would go back to sleep.

Then it was back to the kitchen, replacing the emptied trays with more food and starting to clean. Scofield did it all with a politely interested smile, nodding at passengers who mostly ignored him, talking to each other. After the calibrations were complete and the passengers were herded back to their waiting chambers, the kitchen had to be scrubbed clean and then, only then, would Scofield bring out their food to eat in tired silence.

Alex found himself looking forward to being able to hear the wheeze of the air recycling units and the low rumble of the engines. It was beginning to feel like peace, sitting beside Scofield’s hunched shoulders, shovelling food into his mouth too quickly to notice the lack of taste.

***

"This is my last trip," Scofield said, sure fingers adjusting a series of small screws. They'd spent the last hour in silence, working across the underside of the consoles to check for loose panels or exposed sections. Neither of them were particularly small men, so folding themselves under the consoles had been achingly awkward. Easier to work in the quiet.

"How many?" Alex asked. His throat barely hurt.

"Trips?" Scofield moved to the next screw, biting his bottom lip as he concentrated for a moment. "Three. There, back again. This one."

"Nine years." Alex didn't need to say it, but now he could. He still hadn't got used to the wonder of enjoying the sound of his own voice. "Why?"

"It pays." A pause as Scofield moved to the next section, shuffling forward on his elbows. "Couldn't get out here any other way."

It made sense. A fare out here wasn't cheap, even on an old freighter like this ship. Alex cashed in everything he had for it, but for a kid from the eastern slums, that unspoken untouchable status, there was no way to pull those sorts of funds together. Not legally, anyway.

"That was the deal. Three trips and the ship is mine. Sell it to the highest bidder, buy land, try something." Scofield's voice dropped low, softening with old memories. "My brother used to talk about it, about finding somewhere no one else had been, making it ours. He never had a plan, just... read a lot of stories. Dreamed of being a settler."

Alex didn't ask what happened to Scofield's brother. He didn't need to. Instead, he opened his mouth and talked about Pam. About loss. About having nothing but things around him, nothing worth staying for.

The words came out slowly, haltingly. Awkward on his tongue and rough in his throat. Scofield listened with his back turned to Alex, his talented hands busy but Alex had no doubt that he heard every word. He didn’t ask any question, only gave the occasional hum of acknowledgement, but Alex couldn’t have said those words any other way.

***

Words came easier after that.

When Scofield asked how he knew about stripping back the transmission connections on the gravity generators, Alex said, "Lunar oil-wells. Worked there for a few years."

"Guard?" Scofield asked, like he already knew the answer.

"It's honest work and it paid," Alex replied. Then -- for no better reason than because he could now, because he could say it and Scofield would listen -- he told Scofield about working there. The stifling heat of the worksuits with the bulky airtanks; the taste of recycled air on his tongue every time he woke up. The constant view of the Earth, always just above the southern horizon, a shifting swirl of blue and white against the black space around it. "From that far away, you miss it. You think it's more beautiful than it is."

"Will you miss it when we get to Sona?" It could have been a teasing joke, if Scofield hadn't been watching Alex so seriously.

"Not this time," Alex said slowly, shaking his head. "I won't be watching it everyday."

"Are you sure there's nothing you'll miss?"

"There was nothing worth staying for." Nothing worth living for, nothing but memories of Pam and that gaping hole left in his life. "Nothing worth missing."

Scofield went quiet, but he frowned as he worked.

***

"You were in the eastern slums," Scofield said quietly. It was something between a question and an accusation. There was a heavy pause while Alex waited for Scofield to finish his thought. "When the contagion broke out?"

It was the first time Scofield spoke that morning. Yesterday had been one of those manic passenger feeding days, the entire day spent chopping and cooking, feeding the crowds and cleaning the mess left behind in the empty ship. That sort of day was usually followed by quiet, Scofield too tired to ask questions. Or maybe it was gratitude; maybe he was silently thankful to have any form of company remain awake.

Either way, Alex hadn't expected conversation today. Even if he'd been waiting for that particular question for a long time.

"There were a lot of soldiers sent there. I was one of them." Alex could say he was young, that he followed orders not knowing how badly it would turn out. He could say that the Service sent dozens of men and women in there and then declared quarantine that trapped them as much as the general population. There were a lot of excuses and he didn't say any of them. He was there. He remembered what he did. It had taken years for those memories to fade into occasional nightmares.

Scofield didn't raise his eyes from the wires across his lap. His hands stilled. "You recognised the tattoo."

"Everyone knows that logo." And the unspoken fear of contagion and disease that went with it.

Scofield nodded, brushing a thumb over the dark lines on the back of his wrist. "When people see it, they look scared. Threatened. You looked sad, like you understood. Like you remembered."

"I try not to," Alex said, indulging a sudden urge for honesty.

Scofield twisted the wires, brows drawn in concentration but long, graceful fingers steady with the tools. He frowned as he worked, full lips pursed. He was always working, busy doing something in the precious warmth of the control centre or the greenhouse. He was always focused on something else. It gave Alex too much time to stare.

He didn't want to notice Scofield's capable hands, strong or gentle as needed. He didn't want to watch Scofield's mouth, soft lips slightly parted, wet with the occasional swipe of his tongue. He didn't want to recognise that Scofield was attractive as well as smart and controlled.

He wanted Pam to be the last person he'd shared a bed with. That last morning had started with the ordinary drone of morning alarms, the mundane organisation of taking turns in the shower and packing lunches, before one accident changed everything. He wanted that to be the last time it felt right and easy in someone else’s company.

"Why ask?" Alex demanded, angry at Scofield and himself and everyone else. Angry for no good reason, but angry all the same.

"To see if you'd admit it," Scofield replied, as if that was a reasonable answer. "To see if you'd justify it."

"I don't need to justify it. Nothing can." Because the crowds were unarmed and Alex still had to shoot. It wasn't acceptable but letting the contagion spread was worse. Because he'd carried those bodies to the funeral pyres, those endless gruesome bonfires, and later he carried fellow soldiers, dorm-mates, friends, to those same pyres and tasted ash in the air. "But it was all we could do."

***

Alex woke the next morning expecting something to have changed. After that confirmation (not a confession, no forgiveness asked for his sins), he expected anger or cold silences, but Scofield's focused calm remained. If anything, Scofield's tone was warmer. There was occasionally a smile.

Scofield's smile made him look younger and carefree. It made Alex feel... wistful was the closest word for it.

The quiet routine continued: tinkering on the ship engines followed by loud, busy days of passengers waking up. As they got closer to their destination, the chatter became louder, echoing down the metal corridors. Alex found himself avoiding it as much as he could. It was too loud after Scofield's comfortable quiet.

Scofield's questions continued but the focus changed. He stopped asking about the past, about Alex's skills, and started asking about Alex's plans for the future.

Alex told him. He couldn't see any reason not to. So he explained details of crops and the parcel of land already purchased. Scofield asked about supplies and Alex listed them in their makeshift glory: enough to cultivate the soil and plant crops; enough to build shelter. Enough stores that with lean rations, he could last three years before starvation.

"Is that likely?" Scofield asked. Today they were in the greenhouse. Scofield's fingers were smeared with dirt.

Alex shrugged. "Most lone settlers die from accidents and infections. Medical assistance is days away and expensive."

Scofield nodded as if he already knew the Sona economy. Out there, across the isolated settlement plots, credits were useless. They couldn't be eaten and there wasn't much that could be bought with them. Everything worked on trade. It was a rare settler that had any excess food, let alone enough to tempt a doctor to travel for days or weeks.

Most settlers got by with whatever medical know-how they had. They hoped and relied on good luck.

There was no point dwelling on it. Alex knew his chances going in. "What about you?"

Scofield paused, apparently surprised by the question. "I'm trading this ship for supplies and equipment."

"Not land?"

"Given the survival rate of settlers, finding abandoned land is easy. Having the supplies to be self-sufficient is the critical."

They fell back into silence. Scofield's head was bent over the soil bed, metal glinting between his fingers as he mixed the soil. He pursed his lips as he worked, brows drawn.

"My brother..." Scofield said softly, then stopped. He cleared his throat. "He had one of the old settlement brochures for Sona."

Alex nodded. He remembered those, back when the settlements were first being planned. Booklets full of information about the different planets, covers painted with artists’ interpretations of prosperous settlers. In those pictures, everyone looked healthy and well-fed, proudly surrounded by green fields of crops. The booklets were full of information about what crops should be grown and the equipment needed. It was propaganda but it was informative.

"He used to read it to me. Tell me stories about what it would be like up there." Scofield shrugged, lush mouth twisting at the corners. "I believed him but he couldn't have known. He was just a kid trying to entertain his little brother with stories. When he got sick..."

Scofield trailed off, but he looked up at Alex and stared him straight in the eye as if daring him to say something. "He wanted you to get offworld?" Alex asked, as gently as he could. He almost reached out to hold Scofield’s dirt covered hands.

He didn’t think it would help.

"When the rashes started appearing," Scofield said, meaning when his brother had days left to live, "he told me I was smart and stubborn. If anyone could find a way to the settlements, it was me."

"So you found a way." Nine years of space travel, ferrying other people to their futures; waking up alone, teaching himself skills to maintain the ship, and falling asleep in empty rooms. All to avoid disappointing the dead.

Alex understood too well.

***

The simplicity of the perfect solution was astounding. When it came to Alex, he marvelled that he hadn't seen it coming. Scofield had the engineering knowledge, a plan to get supplies and equipment; Alex had the land and his own meagre supplies. They'd managed months alone together and already had a system for working side by side in the greenhouse.

Working the plot together would give them the best chance at survival. Settling together would double their resources, double the manpower, allow a sliver of security and support.

As soon as Alex thought of it, he wondered why Scofield hadn't. It was logical and obvious. He couldn't imagine Scofield's sharp mind had overlooked it.

"Why didn't you suggest sharing my land?" he asked when the control centre lights were set low, a false idea of night still brighter than the endless darkness outside. The mattresses were rolled out on the floor.

Scofield was quiet enough to be asleep, until his voice rumbled in the dark. "Once people see the tattoo on my hand, they usually don't want to share space."

"I was there," Alex said. "I'm not prone to superstitious panic."

"When I first saw you, I recognised the type. You're not the first settler to come offworld to die." In the dark with Scofield's back to him, those words lost a little of their painful edge.

It was still too painful to admit out loud. “I never planned to die,” Alex said and it was true enough to sound honest.

“You didn’t plan it.” Scofield stayed still, lying on his back. Alex watched his profile, the straight bridge of nose, the soft curve of lips. The dark eyelashes as he kept his eyes closed. “But you wouldn’t have cared if it happened.”

“In that case, you should have suggested it earlier,” Alex said, words sharp enough to draw blood. “Free land and supplies once I was gone.”

Scofield’s breath hissed out, and Alex instantly regretted his words. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”

He’d seen Scofield with that young woman, seen how respectfully he’d treated her body. He’d seen Scofield with her family, how careful he’d been with them and how deeply he felt their grief. It was cruel to suggest he’d be cavalier with death.

Scofield kept his eyes closed. “I’d rather find my own land than-- than have to the one to bury you.” The human voice, Alex thought, was a miraculous thing. To be so rough with things unsaid, so heavy with feeling; to give sound to dread and pain and fear. It turned simple words into something that made you feel, that made the chest clench and lungs catch.

“And if I promised it wouldn’t come to that?” Alex asked quietly. It wasn’t a promise he could guarantee but he could try his hardest to keep it. “Would that be enough?”

Scofield took in a slow breath and blinked his eyes open. "I was waiting on an invitation."

"I'm inviting you now."

"Okay," Scofield said, as if it was easy. "Yes."

***

They conserved fuel, kept the heat turned low. Sometimes Scofield rolled towards him in the night, seeking the warmth of another body in his sleep.

Alex didn't think twice about Scofield rolling closer, not until he felt the steady hand slide down his torso. Those long, clever fingers tugged at his clothes, found warm skin to skate across.

The movements were too deliberate for Scofield to be asleep. Alex tried to think of what should be said: that Scofield didn't have to, that there wasn't an obligation. All he managed was, "Scofield."

"Michael," Scofield corrected as his fingers traced back and forth across Alex's stomach, dipping lower with each pass.

Alex listened to the ragged edges of his own breaths. Scofield's touch was light but certain; smoothly confident as if Alex was just another collection of gears to be eased into working.

"Tell me to stop," Scofield said, "if you don't want this." His tone was clear and calm, but Alex could hear what he wanted: the animal comfort of shared breaths and warmth and sweat-slicked skin. Simple pleasures he hadn't had for months, that Scofield might not have had for years.

He didn’t let himself wonder if Scofield had ever had it. If Scofield had gone from surviving one form of isolation to another, if he’d allowed time within his ambitious plans to find consolation and reassurance.

Wrapping an arm around Scofield's neck, Alex pulled him close. Cheek to cheek, he breathed in. He could have said no. Or stop. Instead, he ran his mouth along Scofield's jaw and held him tighter.

***

It became another part of their routine. Quiet, productive days were spent working through the ship's systems and when the lights dimmed to artificial night, they'd heat food and take it back to the relative warmth of the control centre. They'd eat, and check on the navigation and environmental controls. Then they'd reduce power consumption to minimum levels and crawl onto the two mattresses shoved side by side. It was easy to reach for Scofield in the dark, to learn the curve of his shoulder and the bony edges of his wrists and knees. To explore with touch and taste, to run his mouth over hand and forearm as if he might feel the ink in Scofield's skin.

Over weeks, it settled into familiarity. Like Scofield's intense gaze and sharp questions, or his tendency to piece together knowledge into unspoken plans, it became just another set of facts Alex knew about the man. That his feet were cold and ticklish, that he would hiss between his teeth if Alex dragged fingernails across his hip, that Scofield's hands were always careful and confident but his kisses were hesitant and sweet.

Alex tried to think of it that way. Objective facts and observations. Not comparisons to Pam, to years of knowing each other and love shared as easily as sleepy midnight kisses. Alex knew those comparisons were unfair; no one living could match them.

So he tried to notice details like the soft skin beneath Scofield's jaw, the hard muscles of biceps and the way Scofield groaned when Alex scraped his teeth there. Tried to think of the body in his arms, not the ghost hovering in the back of his mind.

***

Weeks passed easily, distance counting down so slowly it almost came as a surprise to recognise the distant system on the sensors. "We're there already?" Alex asked, sounding like a ridiculous overgrown child.

"Not really," Scofield said, wry amusement showing at the corner of his mouth. "It'll take another week to get there."

Scofield was right. Each day they got closer and Alex was drawn to the navigational systems, the constant countdown towards S0N-A104-5709. It was Sona to the locals, just another settlement planet, but Alex was excited to wake one morning and spot the distant grey-brown disc of the planet. He hadn't expected to be excited, but each day it grew larger and clearer.

One day, it was all that could be seen through the small windows on that side of the ship. A gently curving planet of grey-blue seas and red-brown stretches of dirt, smudges of dark brown and greens where settlements had survived.

Alex found himself mesmerised, watching it as he ate. "What's it like? Down there?"

Scofield shook his head. The closer the planet came, the busier they'd become. Scofield had started studying passenger manifests like he wanted to memorise them. "We dock at the space station and the settlers get off. They'll get shuttles down to the planet."

"You couldn't go down?"

"Had to restock for the trip back."

"But this time..." Alex suggested, grinning.

"This time I have to trade the ship," Scofield replied, marking a name against the shipping cargo list. "After everyone gets off. We'll be lucky if we get everyone off in four days."

Alex found himself turning back to the window, to the faint spider web of clouds stretched over the planet. "Eventually, you'll stand there and see it."

Scofield made no reply.

***

Organising the other settlers was both complicated and boring. There were charts and lists, people and cargo, combinations of what would fit in a shuttle and how far each shuttle could travel. There were hours spent staring at the same lists, adjusting them over and over.

In the end, Alex found an old mechanical marker and started drawing lines on the walls. Scofield stared at him, brows drawn. "You okay there, Alex?"

"People," Alex said, pointing at the first column, then the second, "Cargo. Cubic space required on the shuttle."

"Okay," Scofield said slowly, his tone patronising.

"Get the map, we'll divide areas into regions. Different region, different wall."

"I've done this before." Scofield stood up, map in his hand. "Categorising the manifest works."

"If you want to overcomplicate it," Alex replied, ignoring the flash of Scofield's rueful grin.

It took hours, but at the end there were messy walls, a mismatch of two handwriting styles scrawled across the metal, and a schedule of two dozen shuttle runs. They were prioritising the regions -- debating whether to send shuttles to the furthest regions and use the wait time to organise the next run, or to clear cargo faster by starting with the closer regions and shortest runs -- when Scofield paused with his hand brushing the sixth region.

"You could leave on the first shuttle," he offered. It sounded like a practical offer.

Alex thought of the planet hovering outside the window, the wide tracts of red-brown land waiting to be tamed. If he left first, he could set up equipment and shelter. It would be an advantage but it wasn’t necessary. It had taken him months to get here and he'd aged years in that time; another few days wouldn't make any difference.

But a few days away from Scofield, leaving him alone to deal with the impending chaos… It didn’t feel right. Even if Scofield had done it before, even if he knew he was capable of it, even if he was trying to spare Alex as much as possible, it felt like abandoning his commitments. It felt like he’d be starting this the wrong way.

Leaning into Scofield's personal space, Alex reached out and laid a hand on Scofield's forearm. His hand looked pale in the stark artificial light. He frowned, suddenly realising how often he held Scofield in the darkness, how rarely he touched him in the light.

Alex looked up, made sure he caught Scofield's eye. "We'll see it through together."

***

The ship was loud with echoed conversations, people crowding through narrow walkways and stomping down metal corridors. Days were filled with marking cargo, moving it through the space station docks, stacking it into the shuttles and programming routes. Alex got through as much of it as he could without talking to anyone.

It wasn't until the second day that he remembered that he could. That he didn't need to wait at the back of a crowd, keep his head down to discourage conversation. He could clear his throat and say, "Come on, everyone, find a seat," and sound like a person. No one would stare, no one would notice his voice as anything other than the sound of someone in charge.

***

The shuttles left full of people and supplies, and returned empty. The lines of hypersleep chambers grew darker as more settlers were woken and sent away. At first there were empty pockets in the cargo bays, and then stretches of clear space, until finally there were only the last half dozen crates stamped with Alex's ID.

The ship was quiet again. Darker. Larger without so many voices compressed inside.

"I've sent coordinates for the trade," Scofield said, "but we'll have to wait until tomorrow."

Alex has been awake for the last 18 hours. He has no objections to collapsing into a mattress and pulling Scofield close. "Tomorrow, you'll trade this ship," he murmured into Scofield's hair. It hadn't been shorn in a while and had started to grow into dark curls again. Alex liked it.

"Collect the equipment, then register the land deed," Scofield recited.

"And then set up shelter." They'd already discussed it, made plans around expected daylight and basic needs. This wasn't new information, but in a new place on a new planet, Alex found it reassuring to be sure of what would happen next.

"Unpack the emergency provisions."

"Then get the equipment working." Survival first, and then preparing the soil for planting. Scofield even packed seeds from the greenhouse on the ship, species designed to grow in hydroponic bays to make sure they have indoor crops as well. Alex liked having contingencies in place, but he liked the idea of those tall golden stalks of corn even more.

He listened to Scofield's breathing start to slow down, and suddenly realised what he hadn't said. "Thank you."

Scofield hummed, and asked, "What for?"

"For--" But it wasn't easy to put into words, to say helping me, for staying, making this opportunity feel like a possibility instead of a death sentence. For holding on in the dark, and talking in the light, for keeping us occupied and occasionally smiling. For letting him leave everything behind, for showing Alex the scars of his past and proving that wounds heal. For a human voice. For company and connection. For hope. "For reminding me I was alive."

Silence hung between them, soft and close in the dark. Scofield took a breath, and everything paused for one perfect moment. Then Scofield let it out and pressed a kiss to Alex's jaw. "Don't forget."

Alex promised with a squeeze of his arms and a return kiss, and then another, until he fell asleep with Scofield's forehead pressed to his and the distant hum of the ship's engines.