No one was sure how it started, but then no one was really sure how anything started, anything that wasn’t KP or duty stations or equipment rotations. But in the evenings a small group of the crew would get together and talk about things from Earth they loved. The things they missed. Trivial things. Entertainment things. Fan things.
Chloe would say it started with Eli, because he was good at telling a story.
“So then Bones says, Dammit, Jim, I’m a doctor, not a fighter pilot!”
Eli didn’t consider himself a particularly gifted storyteller, but the others laughed, and he felt pretty good about himself.
They were gathered in the mess hall, drinking weak coffee and telling stories. Given that Eli had gone through most of his life doing his best to be unnoticed, to do what he could to help his mother but stay out of trouble so no one disrupted his efforts, it was disconcerting to be the center of attention like he was.
But he was sitting up on one of the tables, and everyone else was sitting on the benches a little bit below him, and they were gazing up at him and listening. Listening to him ramble on about Star Trek, which he loved so much he could recite entire episodes from memory.
Halfway through Eli’s recounting of a second episode, he realized: he was entertainment. They had no TV, had a limited collection of books and music. They didn’t have video games or comic books. But they had each other.
So after Eli finished his secondhand performance of a Star Trek episode, the others saluted him with their mugs, and he stood up, took a little bow, and then hopped off the table, sat down on a bench beside Chloe.
“Your memory is incredible,” she said, patting his hand. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome.” Eli ducked his head, blushing. He’d never considered his ability to remember stupid trivia anything worth complimenting.
“I wish I’d watched more Star Trek,” Chloe said wistfully. “Back on Earth. Before.”
“Actually the show you want to have been watching is Wormhole X-treme,” Eli said. “It was basically about the Stargate Program.”
Chloe raised her eyebrows. “Really?”
Before Eli could say more, Matt jumped into the conversation, as he and all his buddies in SGC basic had watched the show together. Chloe angled toward him, eyes bright, and leaned in to listen as he described the show.
Vanessa caught Eli’s eye and rolled her eyes, stood up and slipped out of the room. TJ followed, and so did Eli. Chloe and Matt would have their alone time soon enough.
But the next night they gathered again. It was Vanessa, this time, who sat up on a table and talked about a book she’d read once called Cry To Heaven.
“Anne Rice?” Lisa asked. “Doesn’t she write vampire books?”
“Usually she does,” Vanessa said, “but I liked this one because it was different.”
And then she unfolded a tale of love, revenge, jealousy, passion, and above all, beautiful music.
Dale looked skeptical. “Opera? You like opera?”
“General O’Neill likes it,” Vanessa said. “Had to try it out, just once, to see what all the fuss was about. And I get where he was coming from. Operas were the original musicals. They told stories.”
They were all gathered together because they were in it for the stories.
But once the stories were done, Chloe slid closer to Matt, leaned in to talk to him, and the others drifted away, and Eli went back to his quarters alone and, for all that he was socializing more now than he ever had on Earth, feeling terribly lonely.
“Since we’re sharing the things we love, and the stories we love, I figured I’d combine the two,” Chloe said. “I really, really love music.”
Eli knew that. She’d taken him out to a club when they were “back” on Earth thanks to the science-magic of the Ancient communication stones to check out not the scene or the dancing but a singer.
“And Vanessa brought up a really good point - operas were the original musicals. One classic opera, La Boheme, was turned into my favorite musical, Rent. It’s a story about love, art, and friends who become family when they have no one else.” Instead of sitting on one of the tables, Chloe stood up, and she cleared her throat, and she began to sing.
She had a sweet, clear voice.
It was Greer who started to sway back and forth, humming along. He also had a lovely voice. As Chloe continued to describe the story, explained about Maureen and Joanne, about Collins and Angel, Eli couldn’t help but dart nervous looks at Greer and Matt, because they were military and had that whole don’t ask don’t tell thing going on, but Greer seemed to know the musical almost as well as Chloe, and Matt was smiling and listening intently.
When Chloe finished her half-retelling, half-recital, there was much applause, and she bobbed a neat curtsy before Matt rose up and offered her a hand down from the table. He was still holding her hand when everyone else drifted away.
Of all the things Eli expected TJ to talk about, a video game was not one of them.
“It’s the only one I’ve ever really played - for me,” she said. “I mean, sure, I’ve played Call of Duty and other games with other people just to pass the time, but this one I played just for me. I was walking through the mall and I saw this video display in a store window, and a movie was playing. At least, I thought it was a movie. And then the music swept over me, and I saw fire and ice and magic and romance - and so I played. I bought a game console and a memory card and a controller and I took it home and I played for hours and hours every night.”
Eli and Dale nodded appreciatively; if there was anything they understood, it was a certain level of obsession.
“What was the game called?” Chloe asked.
“Final Fantasy VIII.”
Eli remembered that game, remembered the dramatic opening theme music, how amazing the graphics were. He’d preferred FFVII, found the junction system on FFVIII confusing, liked the old Materia system better.
After their adventures on the planet with the bugs and the time-traveling Kino and the wormhole passing through a solar flare, the storyline from FFVIII seemed a whole lot more relevant.
Rinoa Heartilly, the politician’s daughter, untrained for war; Chloe. Squall, the taciturn hero, the orphan; Matt. Quistis, the cool, competent blonde, the leader; TJ. Irvine, the charming sharpshooter; Vanessa. Zell, the enthusiastic martial artist; Greer. Selphie, the little cute one, the one everyone forgot, the one who remembered what time and magic stole.
The hero and heroine had stumbled through time and defeated the evil sorceress, had found each other.
Eli had watched the mystery Kino footage in quiet horror as the team stepped through the gate, as everyone died, as Matt delivered his frightened message, as he stranded himself on an alien planet, in another timeline, to save everyone else, to save the crew, to save Destiny.
“I think about that game all the time,” TJ said. “What it would be like to be able to heal with a simple potion, a quickly-cast spell. What it would be like to be able to call on the power of a god to rain fire and ice and lightning down on our enemies.”
“To have a flying ship to get us places faster?” Eli piped up, and there was scattered laughter that faded fast.
They were going places faster than had ever been possible on Earth, but they weren’t going home.
TJ finished her story, and she stepped down. She plopped down next to Greer, nudged him.
“What about you? What’s your thing?”
“I was never really that into movies or books or music or anything with a story,” he said, shrugging.
Eli raised his eyebrows. Surely he hadn’t been the only one who noticed how well Greer knew Rent.
“I like MMA,” Greer continued.
“I feel like there’s a D missing from somewhere in there,” Eli quipped, and Dale laughed.
“Mixed martial arts,” Greer said patiently, and Matt and TJ and Lisa of all people lit up.
That was the end of their short-lived storytelling circle. The next night, a bunch of the other soldiers showed up, and there was talk of football and baseball, a lot of shouting and cheering and grunting and waving of hands, but not really much more in the way of stories.
And Eli was back to being alone.
And back to pretending not to notice how Matt and Chloe always went off alone, just the two of them, heads bent close together, Matt listening while Chloe talked.
Even though space was precious, time was precious, energy was precious, data storage was precious, Eli started talking to the Kinos for his documentary, about the things he missed from Earth, about the things he’d learned from the others.
“I’m the president, vice-president, and treasurer of the only sci-fi TV and movie fan-club in this galaxy,” Eli told a Kino. “So, if anyone ever finds this, everything you ever wanted to know about Star Trek is right here, in my head. Ask away.”
The Kino stared back at him, sightless.
Eli stared at it for a moment longer, sighed, and shut it down. Then he stood up, stretched, headed for the mess hall for some water. He missed real coffee so, so much. He hummed the theme song from Rent as he went, because it had a really catchy tune. Also, it had math, the kind of obscure math that Eli had always loved figuring out, the kind of math trivia he’d always enjoyed knowing.
Five-hundred twenty-five thousand six-hundred minutes. A year in the life.
How many minutes had he been aboard the Destiny, hurtling through space farther from Earth than any human had ever dreamed of being (or ever wanted to be)? More than once Eli had wished he was far away from his life, somewhere else, somewhere cooler than his humdrum college dropout existence, a burden and a disappointment to the mother he was supposed to help.
Eli rounded the corner and almost ran into -
“Oh, hey.” Eli tried to muster up a smile, but he was tired, too tired to handle the sickening cuteness that was Matt and Chloe.
“Eli,” Matt said, and he sounded oddly subdued.
Eli stepped back and realized - Matt was alone.
“I’m just looking to get some water,” Eli said. He went to step around Matt, only Matt turned and fell into step with him as he went to refill his water bottle.
“Haven’t seen you in a while,” Matt said.
Eli looked up from the Ancient water cooler. “I saw you earlier today.”
Matt ducked his head, gestured vaguely. “I mean - outside of being on duty.”
“Oh. Well, people get busy. I guess.” Eli resumed filling his water bottle.
Beside him, Matt shifted, his arm brushing Eli’s, and Eli was hyperaware of his warmth, just how close he was.
“I’ve been meaning to ask you,” Matt began.
Eli finished filling his bottle, screwed the cap back on, steeling himself for some complicated technical question. “Ask, but I can’t promise an answer.”
“Will you tell me about Planet of the Apes?”
Eli blinked. “Wait - what?”
“Chances are I’ll never to see the movie,” Matt said, “and you like it a lot, and if I want to keep up with you, I should know it.”
Was it Eli’s imagination, or was Matt blushing? “What about Chloe?”
Matt pressed his lips into a thin line for a moment. “What about her?”
“Shouldn’t you be spending time with her?”
“I’m not required to,” Matt said, sounding puzzled, though his expression was a little cagey.
Eli wheeled around to face Matt fully. “I thought you two were dating.”
“She’s kind enough to let people think that.”
Eli raised his eyebrows.
“Don’t ask, don’t tell.”
The little ball of lonely misery that had lodged itself behind Eli’s breastbone the first time he showed up in the cafeteria and his little storytelling club wasn’t there finally loosened, started to dissipate. He said, “We’re multiple galaxies from Earth.”
“We are. So, will you tell me? About Planet of the Apes.”
“Why me? Why now?”
Matt said, “I should tell you I’m disaster.”
“You’re a disaster? You’re a trained Air Force officer, you - oh.” Eli blinked rapidly. “Um.” What else had Chloe sung for them? His mind raced. And then he knew. “No day but today.”
Matt smiled, the smile Eli thought belonged only to Chloe, that no one else would ever get to truly see. “So, Planet of the Apes?”
Eli nodded, and Matt caught him by the wrist, towed him over to one of the tables. Then he curled his fingers through Eli’s, tugged, and Eli realized Matt meant for him to go up, so he climbed up onto the table with Matt’s hand in his to steady him, and then sat like he had that first night.
Matt sat on the bench, gazing up at him.
Eli looked down at him. All that single-minded focus was intense.
Matt squeezed his knee briefly. “Go on.”
Eli cleared his throat. “So, Planet of the Apes.”