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Under Rusted Skies

Chapter Text

Well over ten thousand years ago, a race of aliens had come to Haixing. There had been wars, there had been use and abuse of the mysterious alien technology that had brought the aliens to Haixing, and the aliens had spent a long while in separation beneath the earth's surface. For this reason, and perhaps due to influence of some forgotten self-identifier in the aliens' long-lost language, they were called Dixingians. Only recently had they started to come back up to the surface in secret. Tensions were still present between humans, Dixingians, and Yashou, and as chief of Special Investigations and thus interspecies affairs, Zhao Yunlan really should have been on Haixing to help with it all. Alas, the human colony on Huoxing had reported suspicious activity, so Zhao Yunlan was now aboard a small space ship that was burning a considerable amount of fuel to get from Haixing to Huoxing in reasonable time.

The ship was cramped, but Zhao Yunlan was still exceedingly happy, for he had managed to recruit a recalcitrant scientist into the SID by dangling the lure of a Huoxing trip in front of him. Every biologist secretly yearned for a chance to play with the Huoxingian bacteria, and Shen Wei was no exception. Since he was now on the payrolls as a consultant, Zhao Yunlan could take him with.

Another side benefit of the trip was the close proximity to Shen Wei: there was only one room for non-crewmembers. While there was more than one (tiny) bed, the opportunities for observation were unparalleled. As were the opportunities for flustering the good Professor.

Zhao Yunlan waited for Shen Wei to come from the bathroom. It was called “the head", since spaceships borrowed heavily from sea-ship parlance, and Shen Wei had spent an awful long time in it.

Digestive troubles or a wish for privacy otherwise unavailable in this bucket? Zhao Yunlan mulled it over and considered knocking and asking Shen Wei if everything was all right, even if it'd spoil his plans, when Shen Wei finally opened the door.

“Well, hello, Professor,” Zhao Yunlan said in his sultriest voice while he was sprawled on the tiny bunk in a manner deserving of a medal. He sensuously unwrapped one of his tightly rationed stash of lollipops and started fellating it, all while maintaining eye contact with Shen Wei.

Shen Wei blinked like a deer in headlights, disoriented, but Zhao Yunlan wasn't imagining the short flash of longing in those wine-dark eyes. “Sugar is bad for your teeth,” Shen Wei said.

“You know me, I just need to have something in my mouth,” Zhao Yunlan said and winked. He was laying it on much too thick, he knew, but he loved-

“Good night, Chief Zhao,” Shen Wei said, despite it being at least an hour before the official shipboard sleeptime.

“So early? Oh, were you perhaps hoping for company?” Zhao Yunlan leered, then pulled back before Shen Wei could react. “Ah, no need to worry, your virtue is safe! I wanted to take a walk, anyway, so you can fall asleep in peace.”

There wasn't much – any – space to walk around in in this little courier ship, but Zhao Yunlan still retreated from the passenger quarters so Shen Wei would have some time to regroup and stew in his thoughts. The atmosphere-proof door whizzed closed with a click behind him.

The little ship had a command module, quarters for crew, a space that could be either passenger quarters or cargo storage, a small kitchen/canteen/lounge, an engine control room, and little nooks and crannies used for cargo and miscellaneous other utilities, all stacked atop each other like an apartment block. The other three quarters of the ship was fuel tanks and engine and the Huoxing lander stowed at the bow of the spaceship. Haixing surface to orbit was served by the space elevator at Tomorrow Mountain, but the only way to do a Huoxing trip with less than four hundred days' stay on the planet involved taking off in a separate lander while the main craft did its own thing involving a gravity assist and lots of complicated physics; the end result was that they'd have ten-ish days on the surface before they had to depart or be stranded. Zhao Yunlan had spent all his luggage allowance on Shen Wei, who could hopefully wrangle himself into the lander in zero gee with minimal supervision. Alternatively, Zhao Yunlan would get to put his grubby paws all over the good Professor, which, well, he wouldn't say no.

He paced around the tiny space that ringed the central stairwell a few times, then went to the kitchen – the only other thing on this level – to find one of the miscellaneous other utilities. Shipboard time was based on Tomorrow Mountain time, an hour ahead of Dragon City, so there might still be someone at the SID. Zhao Yunlan called.

A minute later, Wang Zheng picked up. “Chief! It's good you called. The Black-Cloaked Envoy just visited and said he would be unavailable for months due to Dixing-internal matters.”

“Chu still knows the address of the Dixing judiciary, no? He can deliver the prisoners there, unless the Envoy gave you other instructions.” The light-speed lag had grown just long enough to disturb the flow of conversation. While he waited, Zhao Yunlan let the news of the Envoy's very suspiciously timed absence settle down in his brain. When he'd been summoned away, he'd gone through his Dixing contacts – not as many as he'd hoped for, but after Dixing activity increasing and his much-belated realization of Dixingians' humanity, he'd gone out of his way to befriend a few smugglers and other border-hopping folk to grow an information network – and confirmed that nothing seemed to be brewing in Dixing. Either it was very abrupt, or the Envoy had merely come up with a plausible-sounding excuse.

“The Envoy didn't say anything, he just came to warn us,” Wang Zheng said after the stilted pause. “It was only a few minutes ago – maybe we could summon him with the incense?”

“No need,” Zhao Yunlan said. Only a few minutes ago? Hmm. Well, nothing was infinite; it made sense that even the Envoy's teleportation had a range limit. “Keep your eyes peeled. I trust you to make accurate judgments in my absence. Zhao Yunlan out.”

After the requisite pause, Wang Zheng said, “Understood,” and cut the call. Zhao Yunlan was left staring at a blank viewscreen.

He'd honestly expected that unveiling the puzzle of Shen Wei would've taken longer than this, but as the saying went, curiosity exposed the cat's secret. He had known Shen Wei was from Dixing, but the thought of the Envoy's day job being a mild-mannered University professor who dealt with bureaucracy meekly... Zhao Yunlan would have to take a moment to adjust to this. And the fact that he'd saved the Envoy from a pair of muggers. Yep, he definitely had a long while of thinking in front of him.

He waited long enough that Shen Wei – the Black-Cloaked Envoy – would certainly have changed into his sleepwear and crawled into the sleeping bag that automatically tightened around the sleeper like a contraption from a bad horror film, then quietly returned to their quarters. Shen Wei was facing the wall and breathing evenly. If it wasn't the real deal, it was a good mimicry of slumber. Zhao Yunlan changed into his sleeping clothes, put his day clothes into the zippered pouch that would prevent them from flying off in case of emergency, brushed his teeth, and slipped into the sleeping bag, mind ticking all the while. The automatic tightening of the sleeping bag's straps jerked him to alertness like it had the prior night, but he eventually managed to fall asleep.

 

Travel to Huoxing still took almost two months. That was a lot of time to get bored. Zhao Yunlan became intimately acquainted with the exercise bike tucked into a corner of the kitchen, upon which fifteen minutes a day was mandatory.

Communication with the SID revealed that indeed, the Envoy hadn't appeared, so the hypothesis that the Black-Cloaked Envoy was Professor Shen, hurtling towards Huoxing at a breakneck pace, wasn't disproved. It was time for Zhao Yunlan to escalate in hopes of confirmation.

The last of his lollipops seductively in his mouth, Zhao Yunlan leaned over the narrow space separating their beds and well into Shen Wei's space. “Oh, Professor Shen, you look very nice, reading your book like that.”

Shen Wei looked up from his ancient viewer. “I am trying to concentrate,” he chided, but not as strongly as he could have. “Please maintain at least some professionalism.”

Time for the next phase. Zhao Yunlan withdrew and lied, “Oh, don't get me wrong, Professor, you're not really my type.” Yes, that was dejection on the Professor's face, definitely. Zhao Yunlan leaned to one side and addressed the ceiling, sighing dramatically. “The kind of man I like wears a mask black as his eyes and hides beneath a hood, the weight of the world heavy on his shoulders.” The light had come back to Shen Wei's eyes. “I want a man whom I can peel out of his shell and wrap inside my covers instead.”

“It seems you have someone specific in mind,” Shen Wei said. His voice gave him away; the frisson of excitement was obvious.

“How astute,” Zhao Yunlan purred. “I do indeed have someone specific in mind. You'd get on with him, I think.”

Shen Wei raised an eyebrow. “I doubt we'll ever meet.”

“Oh, but Professor, you see him every time you look in the mirror.”

Shen Wei recoiled. “Chief Zhao, you- you can't just accuse innocent academics of being the Black-Cloaked Envoy!”

“Oh?” Zhao Yunlan licked his lips and went in for the kill. “I think you've forgotten – ‘innocent academics’ don't know who the Black-Cloaked Envoy is. So, Professor Shen, how do you know his title?”

Shen Wei spluttered. “I-”

“Shen Wei. How many people would ask the chief of the SID about whether or not he considered Dixingians to be people on their first proper meeting?” Zhao Yunlan took the lollipop from his mouth and leaned forward, turning serious. “Firstly, who would care about whether the SID Chief considered Dixingians human? Not many topsiders, that's for sure. No, Professor Shen had to be from Dixing, and everything confirmed that. Secondly, who would dare ask the SID Chief? Had I been more like my father, they'd have invited a sea of troubles upon them. Which Dixingian has the clout to stay despite the wrath of the SID? The options narrow down to one.”

“None of that is proof,” Shen Wei said, drawn back with what was very obviously the imperious authority of the Envoy.

“The day we left, you spent an awfully long time on the loo. I called Wang Zheng, and apparently the Envoy chose that precise time to visit the SID and say he'd be absent for months.” Zhao Yunlan sighed. “Please don't try to claim indigestion; I won't believe you. This cat cannot be put back in the bag.”

Shen Wei looked up at him through his eyelashes. “Not even if I erase your memories?”

“Ah-” Zhao Yunlan spluttered. “You'd have to keep doing it regularly, because I'd just rediscover it.” It was likely as good a confession as Zhao Yunlan would get from him. He sat back and gesticulated with his lollipop. “Don't take my earlier words to heart, Brother Black; I do like glasses, too, and suit jackets. Also those armband thingies.”

“They are called sleeve garters, Chief Zhao,” Shen Wei said, very quellingly now that he didn't have to feign being a mild-mannered academic. “My earlier point still stands.”

Zhao Yunlan leaned forward and very slowly placed a hand on Shen Wei's knee. Confident of the Envoy's ability to freeze him in place or teleport out, he said, “I brought you out here as the first Dixingian to travel off Haixing in millennia, and forewent all my luggage allowance so I could bring you and your empty sample tubes along. Don't I deserve some compensation?”

“Don't-” Shen Wei was shut up by Zhao Yunlan nimbly stuffing the lollipop in his mouth. A blush rose to his cheeks as he stuttered in place.

Perhaps it was a bad idea to find ancient, powerful beings this adorable, but Zhao Yunlan was past the point of no return. “If you like it, you can keep it. When we return to Haixing, I can buy you all the lollipops you want!”

Shen Wei moved away to sit with his back against the wall and feet crossed on the bed. He kept the lollipop and sucked on it deep in thought. Zhao Yunlan observed him.

While he'd suspected Shen Wei of being from Dixing, he had also done his fair share of introspection. He knew he liked the Professor in manners more than sexual, unlike anyone else he'd met since the age of about twenty, and truth be told, Professor Shen being the Black-Cloaked Envoy didn't really faze him. In fact, it was an unexpected boon, in that even his father couldn't try to deport the Envoy in an effort to get his son into a more socially acceptable relationship with someone from Haixing.

Zhao Yunlan hopped next to Shen Wei on the bed and swung an arm around his shoulders. “May I sit here?”

“You already have.” Shen Wei possessively held on to the lollipop; it was kind of adorable. Had Zhao Yunlan had more lollipops with him, he'd have promised Shen Wei all of them.

The future belonged to the bold, and happy endings belonged to those who could communicate well enough to arrange them. “I like you,” Zhao Yunlan said, for once sincere and speaking from his heart. After so long jesting and wearing masks, it was a little terrifying.

“Did you only reconsider your views on Dixingians because you like me?” Shen Wei asked around the lollipop.

“I'm sorry,” Zhao Yunlan said. This was a conversation in some respects long overdue. “I'm sorry for my earlier assholishness. When I saw Dixingians fall in love and protect those they loved, stand together as family and live on the surface without bringing anyone trouble, I realized I'd been wrong about you. You're human in all the ways that matter.”

Shen Wei exhaled deeply. He was still curled up around himself and sucking on the last of the lollipop, but he hadn't thrown off Zhao Yunlan's arm or moved away. In fact, he might even have leaned a bit towards him. Apology accepted.

Silently, Shen Wei held out the stem of the eaten lollipop. Zhao Yunlan took it and tossed it into the trash receptacle.

Very softly, Shen Wei asked, “Stay the night?”

Zhao Yunlan did.

 

Now, Zhao Yunlan hadn't packed lube – only the bare essentials, Shen Wei, and Shen Wei's sample tubes – so their activities were somewhat limited, but the promise of pleasure was one of the best ways to bring out humankind's infinite capacity for creativity. Moreover, one of the participants was a Professor, schooled in the academic virtues of grasping the whole picture and experimentation, while the other participant was a former homicide cop, well-versed in the depths of human vice. They managed to have fun just fine.

Rust-red Huoxing grew in the starfield the ceiling viewscreen showed. Zhao Yunlan went over the case files and shared them with the Envoy without reservation.

Near the first and so far only Huoxing Base, there was a little valley, mostly hidden from view, which sent out what the astronauts called “telepathic tourism marketing” – exhortations to visit the location, delivered straight to the brains of anyone nearby. The intensity and wording of the messages varied, but the basic content remained: “Come here.” As the selection criteria for the first men and women on Huoxing included sanity, they had obviously not driven their rovers into the valley. The reports had come to Haixing, and been tossed around for a few months as some other possible causes were ruled out before someone realized that Haixing had a department of weird shit in Dragon City, and this was certainly some weird shit worthy of their attention.

Zhao Yunlan tapped the viewer on which the evidence was gathered. “A relic from when your kind first arrived in this solar system, or an enterprising Dixingian who reinvented space travel?”

“One would expect an automated system to be more consistent in its calls,” Shen Wei carefully said. “On the other hand, a stranded traveler would perhaps plead for help instead.”

“How much do you know about arrival-era technology?”

Shen Wei looked down and sighed. “The knowledge was lost before my time, perhaps deliberately. The meteor annihilated any traces left.”

“So it could be an old piece of technology now malfunctioning.” Zhao Yunlan leaned back and thought. There wasn't enough evidence to narrow down the cause; perhaps Shen Wei had insight on the consequence. “What do you think would happen if someone followed the call?”

“They would find death or a graveyard,” Shen Wei said. “It's likely not a person – they'd have to have a power that let them acquire powers, since everyone needs food, water, and air. The occurrences have been observed over a period of months, long enough for any canned supply to have run out. Thus it must be an automated system. It might malfunction and attack or otherwise harm any comer, or it might be a distress beacon for an accident over ten thousand years old.”

Bodies didn't decompose on Huoxing like they did on Haixing. If this were the corpse of a second colony ship, Shen Wei might be forced to confront a mass grave of his people. “You don't have to look if you don't want to. I'm the one who has to write the report, after all.”

Shen Wei shook his head. “I must. Even if it's unpleasant. Perhaps especially if it's unpleasant.”

Indeed, Zhao Yunlan hadn't expected anything else. Being the Envoy was a thankless task, and Shen Wei threw himself into it. Of course he'd think it was his place to see whatever it was, no matter how traumatizing. At least in the confined space of the spaceship he wouldn't have the chance to run away from Zhao Yunlan's debriefing.

Zhao Yunlan changed topics. “Shen Wei, I was thinking ... maybe we could tell the station staff outright that you're from Dixing? ‘Dixingians' ancestors arrived tens of thousands of years ago. Now they live underground and mostly keep to themselves. Some of them have special powers, like teleportation or altering soil composition, so the Special Investigation Department was formed to police those who come to the surface.’ That way, you could use your powers out in the open; over here, going off to use them in secret would be too suspicious. How does it sound?”

“I-” Shen Wei let out a choked noise before recovering his stern professor look. “That goes contrary to the established custom of the past ten thousand years.”

“The thing is, people fear what they don't know. If Dixingians are just the odd neighbors who occasionally come to the surface, they would be common fact and people would accept them as a part of life.”

“Human history is full of discrimination.”

Zhao Yunlan shrugged. “You look just like us. If presented well enough and without any hitches around the time of the reveal, it could go well. Wouldn't you like a world where you could exist without having to hide what you are?”

For someone hidden in the darkness out of fear, the thought of calmly bathing in the light would always be terrifying. Shen Wei said, “I fear my people would still be unfairly targeted, especially as Haixing's resources are limited, and your people would want to take over what we have.”

It was one of the great tragedies of Haixing: the planet was well-named, with only one continent on it and otherwise covered in ocean. Land resources were scarce, leading to the government heavily promoting aquaculture and space research. Huoxing was the next great frontier, only a bit smaller than Haixing but with no oceans and thus much more landmass. There was already a terraforming committee.

“I know.” Zhao Yunlan placed a soothing hand on Shen Wei's shoulder. “I wouldn't make Dixing public knowledge without your assent, but for this mission – you know they're curious people down there, and we'll find something of Dixing origin anyway. It would make more sense to lead with it, so they can trust you and not feel betrayed by you being something they didn't expect after all.”

“I'll think about it,” Shen Wei said. “Now, about the landing arrangements-”

 

Due to things called “velocity differentials” and “gravity slingshots”, the little courier craft didn't need to do a mid-journey moment of turning off the acceleration, turning around so its butt pointed at its destination, and then turning the engine back on to decelerate. Zhao Yunlan was glad to not have to deal with any extra zero gee; the time at the space elevator had been bad enough.

Nevertheless, at the end of the ride, there was a mandatory moment of microgravity. The ship was still tumbling along at breakneck pace, but as the acceleration had been turned off, it felt like floating in water yet being unable to swim. It was more than a bit disconcerting.

Zhao Yunlan swallowed his discomfort and put on the small backpack that contained all his personal effects. Making sure that Shen Wei and his own, slightly larger backpack with padding and sample tubes followed him, Zhao Yunlan slowly pulled himself over to the axis of the ship, then “up” to the command level where the airlock was. The one crew member who'd pilot the lander and come with them brought up the rear, no doubt wanting to ensure the gravity well dwellers wouldn't screw up and get lost.

Tragically, they had to get into spacesuits for the journey to the lander and the entire descent, removing any chance for Zhao Yunlan to get his grubby paws on Shen Wei. Their luggage also went into a separate vacuum-proof cargo container.

A second crew member came to help move the surface dwellers to the lander and help with the cargo. She'd been hard at work already, moving all the miscellaneous items – food and medicine and entertainment – every ship to Huoxing brought over. Zhao Yunlan went out the airlock with her, obeying her instructions. They were at all times anchored by at least one guidewire that ran between the waist of the spacesuit and one of the convenient attachment points on the ship. Progress was slow, unhooking and rehooking the tether ends, and Zhao Yunlan found himself falling into the same almost-trance as those times when he'd gone mountaineering with Da Qing. He should probably look into doing it again when he got back to Haixing.

He arrived at the lander and was carefully strapped into his acceleration couch by his minder. After that, he had lots of time to be bored while his minder checked the rest of the cargo and Pilot Officer Mei brought over Shen Wei. Zhao Yunlan had long accepted that for the spacers, he was cargo, so he took the opportunity to nap a bit and daydream about Shen Wei's naked form.

Everything strapped in, Zhao Yunlan and Shen Wei included, the general radio channel filled with chatter as their pilot and the spaceship's crew ran through the checklist of departure. It continued through the shuddering jolt of what must have been detachment, then the sideways lurches of trajectory adjustment and the main engine turning on.

It was as if an elephant had decided that Zhao Yunlan's ribcage was a nice place to sit down and take a nap, except that the pressure was on every part of him, feet and pelvis and even his fucking eyes. His field of vision was distorted. He shut his eyelids in an effort to ignore it.

After an indeterminate amount of time, the elephant decided to go on a diet. Zhao Yunlan took gulping breaths and appreciated the newfound lightness to his chest. The comm chatter had abated.

“You can tell them about Dixing,” Shen Wei whispered in his ear.

“Wha-”

“This is one of my powers,” Shen Wei whispered, again, despite being meters away in another gel bed thingy entirely and probably being unable to operate the suit radio, the Luddite fossil he was. “My power is learning; I can learn powers that others use. One of those is sending private whispers to others' ears.”

Zhao Yunlan nodded. Useful. Shen Wei's powers probably didn't extend to telepathy, so any communication from Zhao Yunlan to him would have to wait until they were on Huoxing's surface.

The next phase of descent was a coasting phase where deceleration happened, but was calmer than the acceleration the spaceship had done on the way over. Zhao Yunlan considered the logistics of investigation. They had at most twelve days on the surface – ideally they'd depart after only eight so they'd need less fuel resources – during which they'd have to do an expedition to the valley and deal with whatever was in it.

One of the few possessions he'd taken was the gun. He didn't know whether it'd work in Huoxing's thin, oxygen-free atmosphere.

Day one: gather any information on changes of status or things that didn't make it into the reports. Day two: go investigate the damn thing. Days three through twelve were not possible to plan for, given the lack of information. Zhao Yunlan had thankfully always been good at thinking on his feet.

The elephant sat back down, and this time the little lander started vibrating. Atmospheric entry, Zhao Yunlan recalled from the mission plan. Almost there.