The little clock hand on the fuel gauge ticked toward the E, and Nyx pulled onto the grassy shoulder of the highway.
Marooned. First by her people, then by a spiteful station wagon.
She had too much to do, today and in eternity, and this would surely put her behind in the cosmic schedule of things.
She closed her eyes. Then she smacked the steering wheel, hard, and put her forehead against it. What a wasteful, awful planet this was. Gasoline—gasoline—as fuel. Cars that couldn’t even dream of light speed. The whole roadway system, which didn’t make any sense, and didn’t have any sort of consistency whatsoever; the stupid green signs; so many numbers that were completely arbitrary—
Somebody knocked on the car window.
She paused her cursing of the stars, the galaxies, and the varied pantheon of the universe and lifted her head.
“What?” she mouthed.
The man outside tapped her window, then slowly lowered his finger: a pantomimed request to roll it down. She obliged.
“You alright?” he enunciated.
He had a massive blonde moustache that curled at the ends. When he smiled cheerfully, the moustache wriggled, and despite herself, Nyx thought it quite endearing. She found herself recalling a children’s book, back when she’d been learning English, about pirates.
“There is no gasoline,” she said.
“Next exit has a 7-Eleven. Want a ride?” When she hesitated, he held out a hand through her open car window. “Lewis,” he said.
She accepted the handshake. “Nyxiri. Nyx.”
“Well, Nyx, I’ve got a kid in the car, if that’s any reassurance.”
In Nyx’s limited earthly experience, she had learned that humans with offspring often had gentler tendencies than those without. She chewed her lower lip.
“Yes,” she said. “Thank you.”
In true human-with-offspring fashion, Lewis drove a massive minivan—the kind with a little television pointing toward the backseat. The child had the same blonde hair as its parent, tied into the messiest bun Nyx had yet encountered. It sat cross-legged in the passenger seat.
“Hello,” Nyx said from the back.
“Cool lipstick,” the girl said in response. “Dad,” she said, “Shirley Ann wears blue lipstick to school.”
“Shirley Ann with the nose ring?”
“I used to have an eyebrow piercing,” said Lewis.
“I’d get another ear one. On the”—she tugged at the top of her ear—“the helix.”
“Technical,” said Lewis.
Nyx ran a thumb along her bottom lip. Out the window, a truck of almond milk passed the minivan; Lewis and his daughter squabbled good-naturedly over the merits of colored mascara.
The van pulled off onto the exit, drove a couple minutes down the road, and stopped in front of the first gas pump.
Nyx noticed, for the first time, that something felt horribly off.
Between her shoulder blades, sweat beaded up like scales, and the humidity stuck wisps of her hair to her neck. The air hung heavy and still; in it stewed an absence of vitality.
Yes—there was no mistaking it. The air was dead.
How strange, for that which gives life to die.
“I’m gonna fill up,” said Lewis. “You got it from here?”
Nyx smiled quickly. “Yes. Thank you.”
A bell rang when Nyx opened the glass door to the 7-Eleven, and the girl behind the cash register looked up at her as she approached. Her red nametag dubbed her Diana.
“Can I help ya?”
“There is no gasoline—in my car.” Nyx felt her face warm. “I leave it—a small time, on the road.”
Of all the earthly languages, English had the most foreign taste to it. A chewy, gummy sort of language, with acrobatic tongue-work that left her feeling flushed and uneducated. To worsen matters, Americans in particular had an animosity toward imperfect speakers.
“Got a container, babe?”
Nyx looked over her shoulder as though one would magically appear. “No.”
“That’s a-okay. We’ve got ‘em for eighteen dollars.”
“Ah,” said Nyx.
Another thing: money. The ludicrosity of it! Humans had a knack for instating systems that horribly corrupted them, and so entrenching such systems that removing them was nigh impossible. No wonder, as a species, they bore such mistrust and selfishness toward each other.
They’d invented money. And they could never uninvent it.
Diana the Cashier gave Nyx a sympathetic pout. “No money?”
“No money,” Nyx repeated.
“You headed to the launch?”
Diana’s voice was gentle enough that Nyx figured the launch would garner some pity, or at least something positive.
“Yes,” Nyx decided.
“Me too. I missed the last few—and they’re only so often, too, ya know?—so I asked to go home early, and I’ll just barely make it beside— But that’s a-okay, so long’s I get there, ya know?”
Diana bounced up to sit on the counter, turning around and sliding through the space in the window. She patted Nyx on the shoulder, and Nyx looked indignantly at her hand.
“I’ll hook you up, babe. Just pay it forward, yeah?”
She led Nyx to the red gasoline containers. On tiptoes, Diana took one down and handed it off.
“Pay it forward,” she said again.
“Thank you,” Nyx said.
Outside, a light rain had begun, and Nyx shivered uncomfortably. A man against the gas station wall smoking a cigarette regarded her unabashedly.
Humans had such a warped view of health. They didn’t take any responsibility for preventing death, nor for dying prettily, and the whole of it infuriated her.
After fiddling with the container uncertainly, she unscrewed the black cap and shoved it in her pocket.
What she presumed to be the gas pump had a thick black tube, so she tugged at that. When nothing happened, she grabbed closer to the head of it, and the nozzle came free. Hitchhiking and public transportation had been enough of a headache—and now she had to keep up with a personal vehicle? No, she reminded herself, just until she reached the ocean. Then the world would right itself on its axis and the god-awful station wagon would serve a purpose.
“Hey, lady,” said the smoking man.
Nyx looked over her shoulder, then back at him.
“You ain’t pumped gas before, or what?”
“I am fine,” said Nyx, the general expression for requesting an end to an unstarted conversation.
When she jammed the nozzle against the container, the man said, “No-no-no,” and hastily stamped out his cigarette.
As he walked toward her, Nyx dropped her hands in frustration, the fuel pump and the red container knocking against her legs.
“May I?” he said.
He reached a hand out, and she held up the nozzle.
“Other one,” he said.
The smoker took the container and set it on the ground.
“You wanna spill gas on yourself?” he continued. “Great way to get skin cancer.”
“Lung cancer,” she shot back.
He raised an eyebrow at her, and she realized how muscled and tall he was. Her survival instincts chided her.
“Well, aren’t you a peach?”
“Sorry,” she said. “I am tired.”
“No worries. My sister’d say the same thing.”
He lined the nozzle up with the container and squeezed the trigger.
“Yep. You fill it up almost-all-the-way. For fuel expansion or whatnot.” He took his finger off the trigger, then looked around. “Got the cap, lady?”
“Cap,” he repeated, making a twisting motion with his hand.
She dug it out of her pocket.
Once he’d screwed it on tightly, he picked the container off with a grunt. “You planning to carry this?”
“Yes,” said Nyx.
She reached for it.
“Really,” he said.
He gave it to her and she took it in one hand, and it promptly dropped toward the ground.
“Mmf,” she said, for lack of a better word.
He laughed, and though she first took it as a slight, it seemed so good-natured that she gave him a quick smile.
She hoisted it up on her hip. “I am fine,” she said.
“Lemme carry it, lady,” he said. Before she’d processed his words, he’d taken the container from her. “You far?”
“Five minutes, to drive.”
“Lead the way,” he said.
The rain hardened on them, drizzle turning to an itchy sort of haze. Rather than the weather cooling, the humidity had a suffocating heat to it, and Nyx suddenly felt guilty for accepting the smoker’s help.
Sweat and rain stained his white t-shirt. His jeans couldn’t possibly be comfortable; Nyx wore denim shorts, and even those felt stiff from the water. But when she looked up at him—up, because he really was tall—through her lashes, he caught her gaze and grinned.
“’Fraid you’ll melt?”
“Like the witch,” he said. “From that movie.”
“I do not watch movies,” she said, stepping directly into a puddle.
Nyx shook her newly soaked foot, hop-walking the next few steps, and the smoker held her elbow to steady her. The grassy shoulder pooled water like a swamp, brownish mud hiding beneath deceptive non-solid grass.
“Really, though. You live in a desert, or what?”
“Where’re you from, lady?”
The question sent a sudden pang of grief through her, as though the letters had marched down her tongue and re-coalesced into a lump in her throat.
“Far away,” she said.
They reached the spot where she’d left the car in no time. Nyx attributed the quickness of the trip to the pleasantness of the company, despite the weather. And to the persistent feeling that Earth had died hours ago, and just nobody acknowledged it.
“It was here,” she said, puzzled.
Because, at the moment, the station wagon was nowhere to be seen.
“Uh-oh,” said the smoker. “That you?”
She gave him a questioning look, but he only pointed, and her eyes followed his finger to a massive truck.
The station wagon was at the back of it.
“Who the hell’d tow you?”
“A bitch,” she seethed.
The smoker looked a bit surprised and strangely endeared when she turned her fiery glare onto him.
“We’ll just go up and talk to ‘em,” said the smoker. “No biggie.”
“Hmph,” said Nyx.
They approached the front of the tow truck, Nyx marching more than walking, and the smoker set the red container on the grass.
A tiny old woman stepped out of the truck. She crossed her arms over her chest, and the sleeves of her massive t-shirt cinched into crisp triangles.
“Can’t park on the shoulder, kids. Especially on a launch day,” she said.
Nyx took a long, deep breath.
“There is no gasoline,” she began. “No gasoline. What do I do, truck woman? Do I push the car to the gasoline house? Do you see my arms? I am like a corn stalk. With corn leaf arms. I do not push the car. So I get out and I go to the gasoline house. I do this for a very little time. And then you steal the car? Have fun, truck woman! You can not go a lot of places with a car that has no gasoline.”
“It’s a launch day?” said the smoker.
The tow truck driver stared at Nyx, then at the smoker, then at Nyx again.
“Look,” she said. “A cop called it in. There’s a puddle of gas under the car; you’ve got a leak.”
Nyx closed her eyes, leaned her head back, and made an irritated noise somewhere in the back of her throat. The pressure around her felt ominous and foreboding, and she had the unshakable sense that she needed to get to her destination as quickly as possible. She had miles still to travel before she reached the ocean.
“If you’ve got somewhere to go,” said the lady, “I can tow you there. A mechanic, nearby, maybe?”
“My sister’s a mechanic,” the smoker said. “In Cape Canaveral.” He fished a business card out of his pocket and handed it to the woman.
She skimmed it, then nodded. “Doable. You both going?”
The smoker glanced sideways at Nyx. “End of the line for me, lady.”
His orange hair had frizzed on the walk, sticking out messily, and sweat beaded his forehead and freckled nose.
“I should watch the movie,” she told him. “With the witch.”
He grinned. “You should.” For an almost awkward moment, he paused, then said: “I know it hurts to miss home. Sorry to dredge things up.”
The buoyancy of lighter gravity—of the world not resting its weight on your shoulders. The soft feel of sand, unmarred by ocean or salty pools—the taste of the sun—the unending shadow of trees more living than the wildlife, of leaves tangled lovingly across the sky—
“Hope you find what you’re looking for, lady.”
“Thank you,” she said, softly.
The tow truck driver—Meredith—helped Nyx secure the red gas container, muttering something about the non-handiness of today’s youth. Behind the wheel of the truck, Meredith looked comically small.
They drove in silence for a while, the scenery flashing by around them, until Meredith spoke without taking her eyes from the road.
“Are you foreign?”
“Yes,” said Nyx.
“You sound Russian,” said Meredith. “Sometimes Irish. I guess those are pretty different.”
“Yes,” Nyx agreed.
“Have you ever seen a launch?”
It clicked, then: a rocket launch. Humans weren’t an intergalactic presence—of course they’d be excited, as silly as it seemed, to send a hunk of metal into space. She wracked her mind, trying to remember if humanity had ever reached FTL speed, then gave up.
“No,” she decided.
Nyx couldn’t remember the last time she took an off-world shuttle, aside from that damned trip that’d gotten her marooned on Earth.
“I wonder,” said Meredith, switching lanes, “if they’ll ever find God up there.”
“Aren’t Europeans religious? I just think it’s a matter of time. I mean, if I could go anywhere, a field of stars would be a pretty place to go.”
“He would be cold,” Nyx said dubiously.
“He’s God,” said Meredith. “He could make Himself a sweater.”
That seemed to be the extent of Meredith’s musings, as she then turned the dial on the radio. Christian rock blared from the speakers, loud enough to make the highway quiet.
In between songs, the radio voice informed the pair that the rain had unexpectedly vanished, and wasn’t that good for the launch? The radar showed clear weather for the next week. All aces.
Nyx stared quizzically up at the sky. It’d gone perfectly cloudless, dark in the new night. The city’s light pollution left the handful of stars weak and dim.
“Here you are,” said Meredith, pulling into the parking lot. “Phone number, please.”
Nyx rattled off a random string of numbers.
“Have a good night,” Meredith said.
“Thank you. Also,” said Nyx, “God does not knit sweaters.”
She hopped out of the tall tow truck and headed away from the auto repair shop.
The car didn’t matter, now. She could smell the salt spray of the ocean from the parking lot, where she wouldn’t have to choose a station wagon. Maybe there was a roomy minivan.
Yes. A minivan would work wonderfully.
Nyx stopped at a small pier, looking out at the velvet darkness of the ocean.
She’d been in an awful hurry to get there, but the desperation was gone as quickly as it had come. The staleness of the air had turned to coldness—but maybe it was only the rain.
Her whole body felt hollowed out: bones de-marrowed, veins dry and unbloodied. She had the strangest sense that her eyes had left their sockets and were hanging, suspended, somewhere far in front of her.
Nyx turned to see a giraffe-limbed child waving enthusiastically at her. Beside the girl, a man with a blonde, pirate-like moustache held a telescope, a family-size bag of pretzels, and two pairs of binoculars.
The girl bounced on her heels, saying something to her father—Nyx couldn’t hear what—then broke into a run, leaving him to lug the supplies the rest of the way.
“Lipstick girl,” said the kid again, when she’d reached Nyx. She was a little breathless from the run. “We gave you a ride, do-you-remember? To the 7-Eleven.”
“Oh,” said Nyx. “Yes.”
The girl’s hands fluttered up to her messy bun, perhaps trying to fix it, but making it even less effective at keeping hair out of her face.
“I guess you’re watching the launch too,” said the girl. “We drove all the way from Huntsville—have-you-ever been to Alabama? Dad says you can see Jupiter too, so we brought the telescope.”
Her father reached them and set everything down on the ground, then stretched theatrically, hands on his lower back.
“I’m too old for this,” Lewis said. His tone was light, though, and he smiled at Nyx. “Fancy seeing you here. I’m glad you made it.”
Nyx returned his smile.
The girl grabbed the pretzels. “Dad says this is way better than buying tickets.” She tugged at the bag, but it didn’t open. “’Cause the tickets are so expensive.” She paused to attack the bag again, and it finally burst open, spilling a few pretzels.
“Don’t make a mess, Sam,” said Lewis, bending to pick them up.
“But it’s a rocket,” Sam continued undeterred. “You can see it from anywhere. You can hear it in Orlando.” She held out the bag toward Nyx. “Pretzel?”
“No,” said Nyx. “When is the launch?”
“Ten minutes,” said Lewis. “We made it just in the nick of time.”
But they hadn’t cut it as close as Diana, the 7-Eleven cashier, who swerved into the pier’s parking lot five minutes later.
“Whatta coincidence,” said Diana. “I barely found this place.”
“Us too,” said Lewis.
“I’ve lived here for years. Haven’t seen a single launch.”
“Wow. I can’t imagine. See, I—”
“Shu-ush, Dad,” said Sam. “Look!”
A dim glow had grown on the horizon, like a city had just been born.
The light strengthened. In seconds, it’d doubled, and suddenly it peeled away from the ground, rising slowly into the sky.
It was very much like a sunrise, except sped up to an exhilarating pace, and in that way perhaps was precisely and exotically what a sunrise isn’t. That was how people imitate nature: they look at God and remember he’s old, and in response to impatience they create more youthfully.
The whole sky turned yellow-grey. In the middle of a moonless night, the world looked like it had been bathed in the light of midday.
As though it had been rudely awakened from a deep sleep, the night began to slowly darken the horizon again. But the rocket burned like a persistent second sun, until the flare of it dulled enough that it could be seen clearly.
Sound rumbled across the water, growling louder and louder before fading away.
Lightning before thunder, Nyx remembered. Light before sound.
The rocket trailed a wobbly smoke behind it and dipped into a turn. For a moment, the light of the rocket on the thin clouds looked like a silky and crystalline energy—as though it had warped into hyperspace, and left behind an intangible trace.
The rocket dove neatly behind the clouds.
The humans cheered. Lewis was clapping; Sam bounced up and down. Diana had a bright, giddy grin on her face.
“I am not a spaceship maker,” said Nyx, “but that looked very small.”
Lewis, still smiling, cocked his head. “Well, it doesn’t have any people. Just satellites.”
“Ah,” said Nyx.
“You see,” he continued excitedly, “when I used to work on rockets—”
Nyx’s back straightened. “You?”
Beside them, Diana looked at Lewis with such awe and reverence he might’ve just announced he had invented science itself. “Lewis Rolwes?”
Lewis laughed and rubbed the back of his neck, but his daughter rolled her eyes.
“He’s not famous,” said Sam.
Diana bounced on her heels. “I’m an aerospace major at— Well, I was an aerospace major, but money got tight, ya know, and I— Jesus, you’re the Lewis Rowles?”
The parking lot and pier began to clear out, the buzz dying down. Night had settled back in, and Nyx could feel it—the exhaustion prickling at her eyes, the heaviness of shadow. She shook her head as Lewis and Diana chattered.
“Hush,” said Nyx. “Hush.”
Lewis, Diana, and even Sam looked up at her tone, six curious eyes on her at once.
“Lewis,” she said. “You build spaceships. Diana, you know spaceships.”
“It’s a little bit of both,” said Lewis, and Diana said, “Little of both.”
Nyx pointed at them. “I have a—a job. For you. Lewis,” she repeated, “I need the minivan.”
His large moustache twitched when he smiled, and the two of them—Lewis and the moustache—looked purely incredulous. “Why?”
Nyx briefly tilted her head to the sky, huffing out an exasperated sigh. English was a messy, clumsy language, and she couldn’t afford any miscommunication. Not when she was so close.
“You build spaceships,” she said again. “Build me a ship.”
Diana laughed. “That’s not how it works, babe.”
“I’m not from here,” Nyx tried.
Something in Lewis’s face changed—some disbelief turning defensive, something intentionally closing off. Some part of him believed her. She knew it. Humans had a panoply of confounding and useless emotions, but those emotions shone like stars on a clear night when in play.
She pressed. “You know that I do not belong here,” she said as gently as she could. “I am like a shadow where the sun shines. Fish bones in the forest. Eyes where ears should be. Look at me.”
Too tall to be so thin. Too blue to be just pale.
“What do you see?”
Long fingers. Hair the wrong texture. The wrong number of—
“The wrong number of teeth,” said Diana quietly.
Lewis scoffed. “Right, okay, and how would—”
Nyx smiled—not the quick, nervous smiles she’d been giving, but a bare-toothed smile, a menacing and mocking thing, which would be ill-received on any planet but this—and Lewis’s voice tapered to unsettled silence.
“What are you?” said Lewis.
“Build me a ship,” said Nyx. “And I will tell you everything.”
E. M. Craven is a lifelong resident of Atlanta, where she drinks an adequately stereotypical surplus of coffee. She is a poet and a programmer and writes as much code as she does fiction. Translunar Travelers Lounge is her first writing credit.