Above the shuttleport ticket line, migrating orison-birds roosted in twos and tens and hundreds on the skylight before lifting and wheeling east, toward the distant winter nesting grounds. Lucy thought glowfall on Indigo must look something like those flashing blue wings refracting the sunlight, but she might never find out, because far up in the shuttleport line, someone else had bought the last ticket to the planet. The last glowing sales-counter sign winked out.
It was one thing to sell out a concert or a handball game, but Indigo orbited close enough to Violet for travel only once every twelve years. Miss it, and you might never get there. Job offers expired. People expired. Over that kind of time, ellipses became periods.
If you were smart, you bought a ticket early, long before the pass. Nobody knew anticipation like those with tickets to Indigo. It was a bet you made with yourself that you would still want to go when the next pass happened, that you wouldn’t be in love or pregnant or dead from alcohol poisoning. It was self-predestination. Buying a ticket early was also the only way to get there, for most people.
Lucy couldn’t afford to miss the pass, so she unlocked her cycle and caught the ferry to the next shuttleport. Through her headphones, a baritone saxophone unwound the bluesy opening bars of the song Justin loved. She had a promise to keep to an old friend she’d never met, a man whose small kindnesses had made every last one of her four hundred and sixty-two remaining days alive worth paying gladly.
Her handheld’s alarm buzzed. Lucy opened the tin in her pocket and took today’s stay-alive.
Four hundred and sixty-one.
Lucy and Justin went back ten years, long before the stay-alives and her illness, to the time she thought she would hit it big on the indie music scene. One summer she rounded up her poetry notebook and scraps of chords and recorded her own album in her capsule apartment in Port Darwin, borrowing pillows and blankets from all the neighbors to soundproof the closet.
The album flopped on Violet. Lucy junked her recording gear and forgot about her music until three years later, when far away, her single “Indigo Blue” hit the Leonor Top 500 list on Indigo. She put half the royalties toward a bottle of fine brandy that tasted like smoke, which she drank one night with the help of her boyfriend Derek and his two roommates. In the morning, hung over and smelling of sex and sweat like a real rockstar, she spent the rest on the ticket to Indigo. It was cheap, relatively speaking, because they were only two years out from the last pass, and demand was low. If you wanted to make the hop, you had to plan years ahead, or else tickets would sell out, or get too expensive. Still, it cost her the difference between a capsule apartment and a spacious flat on the docks. At 33, she was the only one in her graduating class still living in a dump like that.
Her next album didn’t sell, not on Indigo or anywhere, and her mic gathered dust bunnies under the bed. One morning, after plucking three grey hairs from her scalp, Lucy called the courier service and asked to go full time. Her mother and Derek badgered her about the cheap capsule apartment. Lucy explained she liked her neighbors, the way all the kitchen smells converged through their open windows in the evening. When Lucy thought about her future on Violet, all roads ran straight and smooth and relentlessly unbending, a dull march through all the usual stops on the way to death, wonderless and savorless.
Then three years after “Indigo Blue,” Justin’s letter hit her email, bounced around the sun via relay satellites, timestamped 2:35AM. Lucy didn’t know what that meant in Indigo time. Days passed faster there, just like years did. The planet ran on hummingbird time, making a whole orbit in twelve Old Earth years to Violet’s fourteen.
Justin confessed he didn’t usually write to foreign musicians like this. I don’t even know if this will reach you, but I had to tell you your music got me through some tough times this year. He’d driven klicks and klicks after work each day to tend to a mother with dementia. Everything was so far-flung on Indigo, he had only music for company, and got home too late to see his young daughters. It was lonely and relentless, and he was grateful for the company her voice brought. Lucy seized Justin’s letter like a rope in a storm. No one had ever reflected her weariness so precisely.
He attached a picture of his backyard in the rain. A great droopy tree dripped shining water into puddles in the dark. Where the droplets touched ground, they shone blue. The ripples stood out like stacked halos. You sing like you grew up here, he said. It takes me back to childhood, to glowfall games in the rain. When he spoke of his home, it sounded like a fairytale. Lake Radiance. Fiddler’s Leap. Iridescent rain falling slantways down the mountainside, glittering like broken glass.
They began writing back and forth almost daily.
I drive the harvester on the biofuel colony, wrote Justin. The hours are long, especially in the cold and wet, but it’s necessary work, it pays well, and the views are incredible.
I’m a courier. I cycle to all the islands, rain or shine, Lucy answered. Mostly shine. I can listen to music, and sing, and I get lots of fresh air. I might be the only courier on Violet with all the ferry schedules memorized.
The emails came at all hours, always syncopated, good mornings and goodnights shuffled and dealt out randomly. Justin loved her pictures of sunrise. On Indigo, it always rained. Sometimes during winter, the clouds would break up a little, and they’d glimpse scattershot stars, a moon or two, and sometimes the red, faraway sun. But it was rare.
Not that it’s dark here, Justin added. It’s not at all. There’s the glowfall, and the symbiotes, and I think anyway it’s better than you get with just stars.
How would you know? asked Lucy, and he didn’t answer, but the next day she got a photo of the great threaded net strung street to street over his hometown, glow vapor condensed to starry blue droplets, lighting up the winding alien street, the incomprehensible signs, the faces grinning beneath clear umbrellas.
Businesses closed early on Violet due to the electricity ration, and Lucy just missed her last drop-off at the end of the workday thanks to a late ferry. Lucy’s molars pulsed — somewhere far away, another shuttle launched from the island. Its white smoke drew a line up the sky, Violet swinging on a thread in space. For three months, the ships would come and go, ferrying people between two worlds, exchanging goods that couldn’t endure the low-energy transfer orbit pipeline. For a couple months after that, shuttle travel would taper off as the trip grew riskier, more fuel-consumptive, harder on life support, until the pass ended, and Indigo’s orbit pulled too far ahead to catch anymore. Then the 12-year counter would start over. Thirty-three became forty-five. Justin’s kids would be adults, maybe married. His sickly old cat would be dead. Lucy would probably still be a courier, skirting the edge of poverty to pay for her stay-alives.
In the morning, Lucy called in to apologize to her boss. Arn was a kind man, patient with her. Lucy had worked for him since before she got sick. The customers had come to trust her discretion, and some requested her by name, so Arn cut her a lot of slack. “Lucy, you know I like you, but you can’t be late like this. You’ve been slipping lately. This is the third time this month you’ve gone off-grid while on duty. What’s going on?”
Lucy swallowed back the truth, because hunting for tickets was her private business, and it didn’t matter because she couldn’t get another ticket to Indigo anyway, not after she’d lost the one she’d bought with her royalties, so why bother? “I just lost track of time. It won’t happen again. I’m sorry.”
Arn sighed and the handheld made it sound like typhoon winds tearing at water. “I mean it, Lucy. It costs me whenever you’re late. You know I like you, but next time, you’re out.”
Lucy thanked him and hung up. A message from Justin came through on the handheld. Let’s dump our whole schedule. When I see you next week, let’s just spend the whole trip getting drunk and then drunk-singing around the firepit in my backyard. It was an old joke. Truth was, they’d planned her itinerary to Indigo over and over for years now. They’d filled it past the point of practicality, but it didn’t matter, because half the fun was the dreaming, the planning, the imaginary road trips that only ever played out in their minds. You could do that with a friend you might never meet. You had to.
Let’s go to Lake Radiance and dive for fungus blooms, if they’re in season, Lucy answered. And remember I’ve promised to watch your daughters dance.
On her apartment wall, Lucy had a huge street map of the Greater Darcy island chain, all fourteen islands linked by ferries and bridges, her best routes traced in blue pencil. She knew those streets very, very well. Anything their customers wanted, she could deliver. And if you had the money, there was always someone selling.
This is really happening, isn’t it? said Justin. Fair warning: I might cry.
It’s okay if you do, Lucy answered. We’ll just cry together. They’d cried together before. Something made possible by distance, that you could cry without shame and know that far away, somebody understood.
Most people didn’t know Lucy was sick, thanks to the stay-alives. There had been a few weeks of fatigue, a nasty green bruise on her shin that wouldn’t heal, and a trip to the doctor for some blood work. Lucy was scrolling through pictures from Justin’s biofuel colony on Indigo when the doctor gave her the diagnosis. He explained mitochondria to her, how her body was built on an ancient partnership between some single-celled organisms, but there had been a quarrel, a divorce, and now it would kill her.
She nodded, eyes fixed on the handheld like a guiding star, a thread stretched all the way to Indigo. The doctor scribbled the prescription for the stay-alives. “I’m starting you on replacement therapy. These are expensive, but you need to take one every day.”
“For how long?”
“The rest of your life.” He tore off the sheet and handed it to her. “It’s very important you don’t skip them or reduce the dosage. If you’re going to skip, you might as well not take any at all. The disease will come back, and we might not be able to stop it. You’re lucky we caught it so early.”
And that was that. Or it would have been, except for the price of the medicine. It came from Indigo, a byproduct of the symbiotes, and like all things imported on the 12-year cycle, it only got more expensive between passes. Just one of the pills cost more than Lucy made in a day. People held bake sales and cycle races for you when you lost your hair and puked your guts out in a bucket. But if you didn’t look sick at all? If you got on your cycle the day of your diagnosis, rode 20 klicks to the pharmacy, emptied your savings for a three-month supply of stay-alives, and rode home, young and strong and whole of body? Well, no one had any pity for a woman like that. People didn’t really donate to the sick. They paid you to perform your sickness.
Justin texted her furiously in the weeks following her diagnosis, although she hadn’t told him anything. Are you okay? he asked, and asked again. Lucy demurred. She didn’t want to cry with him over this. On Indigo at least, she wasn’t sick. Whatever it is, I’m here for you, okay? he said, and somehow, that eased the thick, sticky pressure in her throat.
In the end, she only told her boyfriend Derek. When he finally left two years later, broke from the price of keeping her alive, it was because of her ticket to Indigo. “Just sell the damn thing,” he said near the end. “It’s like you don’t want to live.”
Lucy tried to say why mere survival wasn’t enough. That she needed to write those impossible itineraries and believe in a perfect day. Justin’s favorite tea shop, smelling every single blend on the shelf, the smoked teas and the dried teas and the fresh teas wet in their wrappers. Picking one to have on the porch with Renza, Justin’s wife, while the mycoblossoms opened and sang in the evening gloom.
“But you can’t do those things if you’re dead,” Derek pointed out, and for that, Lucy had no answer except the wordless, struggling rage of orison-birds pinned in the snare while the flock flew west without them.
Lucy counted pills, and Derek stopped speaking to her. Justin sent her a video clip of his youngest daughter asleep with their cat, their drool iridescent against the pillow.
I haven’t heard from you in a while, said Lucy, and the time-lapse stretched out so long, she knew he’d paused and considered it before answering.
It’s been hard here lately, he said. Renza miscarried last week.
She typed and deleted a bunch of replies, and finally sent, Damn. It occurred to her that he curated his life too, that the Justin in her head was a mosaic fitted from the pieces he gave her, and what she decoded from the length of his pauses.
By the time Derek left, Lucy’s music had shuffled into the corners of her life, to lyrics scribbled from smoke-shaped dreams right after the alarm went off, measures hummed between the ringing of the ferry bells. On weekends, she dusted off her old mic and synthesizer and tapped rhythms in 9/8 time. It was easier with Derek gone. She tried out “Indigo Blue” again. She made a remix for Justin.
I really like this version, said Justin. The space between measures, how the pauses carry weight. Like a good conversation. Tell me you’ll sing this when you visit during the pass.
Okay, Lucy told him. I promise.
That was the day she rode her cycle to visit Sage the first time.
After Arn chewed her out, Lucy took the ferry to Traverse Island to see Sage again. Lucy could’ve married Sage, if not for his Doz addiction. He had a voice like a foghorn, strong and melancholy. When he sang, you could feel it in your bones and teeth and behind your eyes. She’d couriered Doz for Sage’s dealer a few years back, and she’d taken a shine to Sage. One day she’d stayed late to fix his broken handheld. They’d ordered pink radish noodles, shared some rice wine, watched a documentary on orison-birds on the history channel. He fell asleep on her arm, soaking her sleeve in drool, but she didn’t mind.
Sage made his living scalping tickets to Indigo every twelve years, buying them cheap and spending the profits on enough Doz to stay high until the next pass. When Lucy sold her ticket to Sage after Derek left, Sage gave her the friend rate, because he liked her and because she told him about the stay-alives. He’d nodded, understanding what it was like to live for your next dose.
Now Lucy sat on empty banana chip wrappers on his couch and worked up the nerve to ask for her tickets back. Sage rubbed his shaking hands one over the other, wavelike. He looked twelve years older when he came down, like he’d gone to Indigo and back.
“C’mon, Luce. I can’t just give away tickets, not now.” His Doz supply was running dangerously low so close to the pass.
She held within her ten years of pining for the friend who sustained her with mutual daydreams and photos of his backyard. Hope glowed beneath her breastbone, fragile and terrible. “Sage, if you do this for me, I swear on the bones of dead Old Earth I’ll make it worth your while.”
“Got a deal going down on Indigo?”
Lucy shook her head. “No. Just seeing an old friend.”
Sage nudged her thigh with his socked foot. “Long way to go for a friend.”
She swatted at him. “You don’t get it. It’s like…Ever gotten homesick for a place you’ve never been? Distance is what you make of it.”
He unrolled a flat canvas bag from his pocket and pinched out some Doz. The grains oxidized green to black on his fingers. He rolled it under his gumline, tongue creasing the spot thoughtfully. “The best I can do is one-way. You’re on your own getting home before the pass ends. And it’s going to cost you. It’ll be unfair after what I bought your round-trip for, but that’s the best I can do. It’s still going to piss off the lady I’m holding it for.”
Lucy knocked Sage over with a hug. “Thanks, Sage. I owe you big time.”
He returned the hug awkwardly, because she’d never hugged him before. “Where are you going to get the money?”
She was going to lie. She meant to lie, but something in her face must’ve given it away, because suddenly Sage sobbed into his elbow. “Damn you, Lucy. You’re as broke as me. You only have one thing worth any money.”
She forced a smile because she hated to see him cry like that. “I’ll make it work somehow.”
“You’ll die without your meds.”
“It’s not like I have much life left anyway,” said Lucy, and her voice broke because saying it aloud made it feel real. “Another year, and then what? What can I really do on Violet with that kind of time? At least I can see Indigo once. At least I can say that much.”
“Are you even coming home?” Sage’s chin was wet and snotty.
For the second time, Lucy chose the truth. “I don’t know, Sage. I really don’t.”
When she sold her ticket after Derek left, Lucy turned most of the money into meds and rent and sacks of rice, her half-hearted nod to responsibility. But for the price of one day’s dose, she splurged on an Indigo clock that mounted on her cycle. It converted orbits and planetary rotations and let her select between local time zones. On long trips between the islands, she liked to wonder what Justin and his family were doing. Sleeping while Lucy peeled her sunburned shoulders beneath her sarong. Having glowtea for breakfast while she ate spiced curd for dinner.
The best times were when their days synced, and they emailed back and forth as quickly as the distance would allow, minutes-long gaps that shrank as the pass drew near, until it was almost like talking in real time.
Lucy told him about the vast sandbars on Violet stretching out into the ocean, and how it was sunny almost year-round, except when the tides brought in lashing storms that reshaped the beaches, sucking sand from one place and carrying it to others. And there were the ferries, and everyone rode cycles, and it took forever to get anywhere because you had to use your own two legs. The cities were extremely dense. You could make a living hauling goods from island to island. At night, everyone lit candles and lamps to drive back the dark, because biofuel came from Indigo via the transfer orbit pipeline, and electricity was expensive, and you wanted to keep your monthly ration for charging your handheld and for your refrigerator. Sometimes a fire broke out, and people died in their sleep because it spread so fast in the close, dry quarters. Lucy’s uncle died like that, from smoke inhalation, and ever since she slept with the window open, even on stormy nights when the rain came in.
Justin told her about how on Indigo, it was always wet, and the sun rarely broke the clouds, and whenever it did, they’d declare a holiday, and schools closed early and neighbors cooked together over an open fire that sizzled and hissed in the lingering drizzle. Violet had been terraformed by the seedships of Ancient Earth, but Indigo life was hybrid, indigenous glowfall symbiotic with the imports. Old Earth trees grew huge in the continuous rain, colonized by glow to photosynthesize even in dim daylight. Those who grew up in glowfall never caught the flu. In his pictures, the whites of Justin’s eyes shimmered iridescent when the light was dim. The glow even entered their saliva. On Indigo, you could spit stars on the pavement.
Once, Lucy raided her market’s tiny imports section for Indigo food: dried algaes and fungi and powdered glowtea stocked for homesick immigrants. She cooked them at home with recipes found online, with too many substitutions. The resulting stew smelled like mildew. The glowtea Justin raved about was tepid greyish lumps bobbing around in souring milk. She snapped a picture for him. You actually eat this stuff?
Well. I think you have to taste it on Indigo firsthand, he said. You can’t eat dead glow and expect to like it. See for yourself when you get here.
To pay Sage, Lucy sold all but three weeks of pills, just enough to get her there. And after that? Well, she’d have only a few days planetside to find a ticket home. If she missed the window, she’d make her way on Indigo with the cash saved from the return ticket, at least until her days ran out. Maybe her drugs would be cheaper at their place of manufacture. Or perhaps meds were a luxury in a place where people didn’t even get the flu. Lucy figured nobody’s mitochondria rebelled on Indigo.
The morning of the shuttle launch to Indigo, she snapped a picture of sunrise for Justin. She bought savory yogurt with pineapple from a street vendor at Port Jekyll, and iced coffee at the shuttleport on Traverse. For good measure, she picked up some fresh coffee beans for Renza and some rice candy for Justin’s daughters. The morning air clung hot and sticky, but Lucy wore long sleeves because it was spring on Indigo. She took her stay-alive with the dregs of the coffee and locked up her cycle. The clock on the handlebar said it was morning in Indigo.
Lucy snapped a photo of her locked cycle and sent it to Sage. If I’m not back before the pass ends in three weeks, my cycle’s yours. And help yourself to anything in my capsule apartment. It’s a load of junk, except for the synthesizer. Key’s inside the clock. She snapped off the Indigo clock’s plastic cover and left her key there, wondering if she would ever touch it again.
On the shuttle, as she watched the planet fall away, Lucy thought this was the closest she would ever come to time travel.
She was vibrating when they landed, long after the shuttle’s engine coughed its last and died. All the tiredness and aches of the trip fell away. He was near, somewhere out beyond the tinted windows, waiting to pick her up. Lucy skipped down the runway, stretched the kinks out of her limbs, and breathed in Indigo, thick and heavy as a damp towel. The walk from the airstrip took them under the open sky. It was evening, and the sky was all roiling clouds, gold where the sun touched it, blue at the edges. A huge bronze plate piled with eddies and cloud banks. She felt light on her toes. Then they were in the airport itself, and she saw him, the real him, Justin in the flesh for the first time.
His pictures resembled him the way a brother might — close, but not the same. Real-him had physics. He held his arms just so and stood like this, his own way and not another.
“Justin?” After all this time it didn’t do to assume that she was anything but a stranger to him. But he grinned so huge that he couldn’t possibly be anyone else, and when he said her name, suddenly it was okay, and she ducked beneath the rope to get to him.
They fell into one of those long, awkward hugs that are really a thousand hugs never given at all. Hugs don’t expire, she thought. He smelled like unfamiliar soap. It had a spicy edge, like chai. In all those years, she’d never thought to imagine what he smelled like.
“Are you tired? Hungry? How was the trip?” Justin grabbed for her bag, and she let him. Suddenly she was bone-weary.
“I feel like I could sleep for days.” Lucy followed him through the shuttleport to a walkway leading outdoors. Justin twitched his waterproof hood up, and she imitated him, trying hard not to gawk at all the cars in the parking lot. She’d never seen so many at once. “I could really use a shower.” The shuttle had less comfort than a submarine, although the views were better.
“Well, let’s go straight home then. You can meet Renza, and I know the girls are dying to see you.”
Justin’s car looked like a beetle: six wheels, six doors, painted in green and white stripes. He placed her bag in the back and waved her in. Lucy watched him sidelong to figure out the complicated straps and buckles interlacing over her chest. She’d never ridden in a car before. The vehicle thrummed like the shuttle, and traveled almost as smoothly. When they hit the road, Lucy dropped all pretense and gawked. Land rolled in all directions like stormy swells sculpted from earth. So much of it! Every inch overgrown and blooming, trees she almost recognized, and giant scalloped mushrooms and leafy purple fronds big enough to wear.
They zipped down an elevated road with a meter-long dropoff on either side. Lucy flinched, gripped the seat.
“We’re on the outskirts of Iaaku, the capital city of this province. It’s about two hours south to get to my house. Not the most scenic drive, I’m afraid, but it’s the middle of nowhere, and you’re catching the tail end of winter.”
“It’s spectacular,” she said in a low voice. Moths as big as her hand flittered from treetop to treetop. Brooks crisscrossed the jungle, running beneath channels under the road. Occasionally, another car passed them from the other direction, and the windows trembled from velocity. Over it all came the drip and patter of ever-falling rain, sometimes thunderous on the windshield, sometimes gentle like kisses. “Where’s the glowfall?”
“You won’t really see it until evening. It’s too bright at midday.”
Lucy’s handheld buzzed in her pocket, reminding her to take her meds, but she was all out of stay-alives. She’d thought it would be easier to tell Justin when she got there, but now that he sat beside her, close enough to touch, all her scripts dissolved.
Justin lived in a tall house with a pointed roof. Houses on Indigo reminded her of women at a costume ball, bright and many-layered and painted in scrolling curls. The asymmetrical roof sloped steeply, channeling the runoff down gutters into a creek that ran down the street past the other houses. They parked in the driveway and immediately the front door flung open. Out came Renza and Justin’s two teenaged daughters, Nell and Ziana, each with a huge umbrella. Somehow they herded her inside without getting anything wet except Lucy’s thin canvas shoes. Her teeth chattered anyway.
“It’s colder than I’m used to,” Lucy explained. Nell passed Lucy a round red blanket.
“How about I make us all some glowtea?” Justin asked.
Lucy remembered the grey lumps curdling in milk. “I’m not sure I care for it, honestly.”
“But you’re supposed to make glowtea for company,” Nell insisted, pulling Lucy to her feet again. “We’ll do it properly, with new glowfall.”
Ziana and Nell brought her to the backyard. In the falling dark, the rain had become blue meteors. Ziana pressed a shallow ceramic bowl into her hands. “Go collect some.”
Lucy held out the bowl and caught the storm. Glow beaded her bare arms in little constellations, cold and bright. She willed it through her pores to her war-torn cells, imagined a mitochondrial truce, an exile of flus and viruses to the dark countries where no glow dwelled. It clung to the skin more than regular water. The bowl glowed like a lamp. Lucy and the two girls bent over it, and their reflections shone back.
When the glow-infused water bobbled to the bowl’s brim, Nell led them inside with tiny shuffling steps. Justin stirred a boiling pot in the kitchen—something spicy and fragrant, like oranges and rose petals and anise. He strained it into five mugs, and Ziana topped them off with glow ladled straight from the bowl. Lucy swirled her drink. The glow clung to itself like oil, and felt soft and slippery on her tongue. The taste bit like raw chocolate, but the warmth filled her stomach. She shivered hard, curled her toes until chill passed. The second sip tasted sweeter.
“It’s the glow enzymes,” Renza explained. “They digest the tea compounds, and it changes the flavor. When you’ve been here long enough, the symbiotes transform your palate.”
She wondered if she could carry glow home in her own saliva. If it would hold back all sickness on Violet too. She stepped around the wild hope carefully because she knew it was more deadly than any storm. Better not to imagine it at all. “How long does the glow stay in your body?” Lucy asked.
Justin shrugged. “You’ll have to tell us when you get home.”
Lucy rolled around that word, and came up with nothing. You were supposed to know in which direction your home lay. Even an orison-bird in a squall knew that. The lack made her feel weightless, unmoored. In the absence of gravitational pull, there was no difference between flying and falling.
In the following days, everything went wrong. Lucy overslept, so they missed their scheduled trip to the biofuel plant. Sage asked how her trip was going, and she sent him a picture of the fields from afar. Lake Radiance flooded, and Justin’s favorite tea shop closed for renovations. Sage asked how she was feeling, and she ignored him because she didn’t want to think about sickness, not on her trip to Indigo.
The itinerary dwindled line by line. It was too much for just a week. It was too little time. Lucy and her hosts stayed up late at night talking about their lives, and the books they’d read, and Lucy’s music. She danced around some of Justin’s questions: what happened when Derek left, or why she’d given up her music, or how she could be a courier forever when it was a job for the young.
After Justin and Renza went to bed, Lucy lay awake in the dark with her handheld, watching the glowfall pelt the windows while she searched for tickets back to Violet. Exhaustion pressed down hard. Perhaps normal fatigue, or perhaps the first signs of her mitochondrial death approaching. In the dark, she banged her arm hard against the bed frame and waited for the bruise.
Just before she went to sleep, Sage emailed her a photo of a Violet sunrise, and she flushed, realizing his emails had been piling up. Are you coming home? he asked, and the word prickled. Instead she told him about the food, and how he was right that Indigo was an acquired taste, but once you had it, it stayed for life.
I was afraid something happened when you didn’t answer me the other day, Sage said after a pause so long she thought he’d left for the day. I’m glad you’re okay.
Lucy recalled her own texts to Justin, the days his crazy itineraries had been her reason to go to work. She hadn’t known Sage relied on her like that too, another stay-alive.
Sorry. They’ve been keeping me busy. But I’ll bring you something back, she promised, and part of her wished she could take it back. Promises could save, or they could snare.
In the morning, Justin noticed the blue-black blotch on Lucy’s arm. “What happened there?” His eyebrows crinkled over his glowtea. Renza had gone to work. The girls tromped around upstairs, getting ready for the day.
Lucy tugged down her sleeve to hide the bruise. “I just hit a corner, is all. Got disoriented when I woke up.”
His gaze pinned her. She met his eyes with great effort, and found kindness. “Lucy. I already know. About your ticket home, I mean,” Justin said gently.
She swallowed against the lump in her throat. “How?”
“After all these years, don’t you think I know you pretty well? I put it together a long time ago. You don’t have a ticket home, not anymore. It happened around the time Derek left, and ever since you’ve been trying to make up for it.”
Lucy’s ears burned. He’d known all along. She shivered, suddenly vulnerable, humiliated, exposed in this cold and foreign land. He reached out a hand, but she leaned away.
“I’m not going to burden you and Renza. If I can’t find a ticket, I’ve got enough money to make it for as long—” She stuttered to a stop. “For as long as I’m going to be here.”
He arched an eyebrow. “You don’t have money for a twelve-year stay.”
Lucy crisscrossed her arms, cupping the bruise in her hand. She tried on the words home and Indigo, but the pull in her heart remembered sunrise and Violet. She’d longed for Indigo for years, but now that she’d arrived, it was like when the seasons changed and the orison-birds flew the same course in reverse, called out and back and out again by more than one home. The pause drew out like an interlude between stanzas, music for those with the skill to read it.
Justin touched her arm across the table, and the warmth of him diffused like glowtea. It was pictures of sunrise, and flashing blue wings, and falling stars, jokes and punchlines: time and space impossibly bridged at long last in a dear friend’s kitchen.
“You don’t have to explain. You’ve never had to, because it doesn’t matter. The truth is I bought a ticket too, years ago, because we promised we’d see each other, and that promise was half mine. It’s yours now, if you want it.”
Her last night on Indigo, Lucy cooked a Violet meal for her hosts, cobbled together with many substitutions from what they found at the market. It tasted awful, but her friends were gracious about it, and anyway sometimes you had to travel a long ways in order to try things properly. Or perhaps it was less about the meal, and more about the company.
The bruise on Lucy’s arm was healing rapidly, like it had no time to waste.
She cried the night before she left, privately. She emailed Sage about her travel plans, and he said he’d meet her when she got home. The drive to the shuttleport with Justin crawled, oppressed by a bored silence that masked deep dread, like planets about to part ways until their orbits crossed again. What could she possibly say to him? What could fill the years and distance and sustain them until they met again?
Next time they saw each other, they’d be older. They would meet again for the first time. They’d wasted so much time being afraid of each other, getting used to the physicality of it all, the body language, the mannerisms. Maybe they would change too much in twelve years. Maybe the bruise would come back, or she would be dead after all. You couldn’t always count on things to last when even your mitochondria could betray you. But you had to make plans anyway, and trust yourself to keep them.
When they reached the outskirts of Iaaku, panic collapsed Lucy’s façade. Maybe she should stay, make her home on Indigo among these wonderful, funny people with their umbrellas and their fascination with the sun. Maybe if she stayed, their world would heal her—except healing never came that easily, not when even the good memories left you scarred with a longing for home. She would always need tickets or stay-alives. Anything else meant death.
“I never sang you ‘Indigo Blue’,” Lucy said suddenly. “I promised you, and I never did it.” What she really meant was, I don’t know how to say goodbye.
Justin wove the car through traffic. The windows whooshed whenever someone passed them. “Sing it now, a cappella. And promise me the full version next time you visit.”
And so she did. Lucy sang the stanzas, and Justin sang the pauses.
The day gathered in her throat, and she ached from the weight of distance and time. Why did it hurt so bad to leave? Lucy tasted bitter glowtea on the back of her tongue. She swallowed it down. The day settled under her breastbone, and the bitterness became a warm, fragile glow.
The glow lasted all the way home. It lasted when she debarked the shuttle, light again on Violet, beneath the purple sky where hung Justin’s star. The shuttleport was nearly empty, except for Sage, who met her with a long hug, this time unhesitating.
“These are for you,” he said, pressing a tin of pills into her hand. “I ripped you off. Please, take them.”
Lucy didn’t argue, or try to explain how the glow stayed inside her, and her secret hope she might live now. She took one of the stay-alives, because he needed to see her do it.
“Good to be missed,” she said, and meant it. “There’s an errand I need to run, though. Meet you for coffee in half an hour?”
After Sage took off for the cafe, she circled back into the shuttleport. The ticket lines were deserted. Now that the pass had ended, they kept only one window open. The glow became a burn.
Whatever her doctor might say next week, symbiosis had a cost. Homesickness could also be chronic. To endure it, you didn’t need stay-alives. You needed tickets.
Lucy swapped Sage’s gift of pills at the ticket counter for a round-trip ticket to a future she couldn’t picture yet. But Indigo would wait its turn. This was a season for Violet. For the first time since she got sick, she craved its promise.
Lucy found her cycle undisturbed, chained safely to its rack, and then the tears flowed, phosphorescent in the coming night. By their light she tucked the new ticket into her pocket, twelve years and no time at all away.
Rachael K. Jones grew up in various cities across Europe and North America, picked up (and mostly forgot) six languages, an addiction to running, and a couple degrees. Now she writes speculative fiction in Athens, Georgia, where she lives with her husband. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in a variety of venues, including Lightspeed, Accessing the Future, Strange Horizons, Escape Pod, Crossed Genres, and Daily Science Fiction. She is an editor, a SFWA member, and a secret android. Follow her on Twitter @RachaelKJones.
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