by Nostalgia

"After X."

Two words that begin it all. An explanation and an origin.

The linguist instinct kicks in and considers the lone letter, confronting it with the context and rules of the language. "Pronounced 'zzz' - xylophone, xenon, xenobiology."

"They killed him in the end. He scared people."

"I'm not scared."

But she is, and this is why she is here. To help her sleep, she says. To make sure the stars keep going the right way. After all this time she is still afraid of the darkness outside.


After X. This is the first time, when the offer is his, when he shows her a context. It is the only meaning he has to offer, for words are her world, her function. This first night he offers her his only understanding of the name; the received wisdom of those who chose it.

After X. History, the steady progression of events. The idea that there is hope, that one man can change the world.

But he no longer believes this, and he needs fresh interpretations. You know words, Hoshi, you can help me.

And he can help her, might distract her from the infinite silence kept out by metal and gun-metal paint. He doubtless knows the exact thickness of the hull, must by virtue of his function understand complex equations of force and strain, stress and strength. He exists to find the ways to build defences and the ways to punch through them. It occurs to her - a vicious inner whisper - that he probably knows dozens of ways to destroy the thick cocoon of metal that shields her from space.

He can protect her because he knows how to kill her. And she can accept his offer, because from his bed the stars still cross the sky in the right direction.

So they play a game to make it all seem simple. A name for a night, company for context. Hoshi plays to win, but she hopes she won't need the game for long.


Back in what is now quaintly termed as 'the Olden Days' and more formally termed 'history' (as opposed to 'History' which demands a capital letter and which doesn't really exist anyway, according to Marx, who is part of history in the lower case) everyone wrote in Latin and sang in Italian. Latin was the lingua franca of the Middle Ages, knows Hoshi, although this is not entirely true. But a culture descended from the ones that wrote their wisdom in Latin taught Hoshi the fragments of the past that she can call to her, so it is Latin that she thinks of in this regard.

Sometimes she wishes that everyone understood each other, so that she could rest and be certain of peace. But mostly she knows that if they did, she would be surplus, a waste of valuable resources. She feels guilty for flourishing amid confusion.


"A devotee of St Columba. Thus also 'a servant'." Her first attempt, the most easily traceable meaning. His eyes stay as dim as always and she knows that she has disappointed him. But the fastidious are by their nature patient, and he can tolerate the failings of a first attempt.

"That's two. You should have saved that. Pace yourself." As he speaks he beckons her with a tilt of his head, reaching for the lock on the door as it slides closed behind her.

She can sleep tonight. Her words have bought her a touch to keep out the cold of space and a kiss to keep out the silence.

But she will have to be careful that she doesn't come to depend on this. Eventually she will have to stop. Eventually she will have no new meanings to give him, will have told him everything that his name entails. Because everything must serve a purpose, everything must have its meaning.


"Royal blood." The third night, after a sleepless week, the tiredness pulling her back to the developing addiction. But she can sleep tonight, and worry some other time. She can stop whenever she wants, she says, she is in control.

"I think this is the least erotic thing I've ever worn in my life." Joking to ease the tension that still wanders the room; she needs to relax, or she'll keep coming back.

He looks down, gaze travelling across the expanse of fabric. He smiles, "Ausziehen." The accent is wrong, his second language trails so far behind the first. She feels pity.

Verstehen Sie, Hoshi?

Ich ziehe aus, er zieht aus, wir ziehen aus: I remove, he removes, we remove.


When she visits now she sees the sheets, the mirror, the clock; the indications of a personal life being lived in the room. She looks at the only decoration, one of those old maps where half the world is pink - "A reminder of the wrong reasons," he says, because the Europeans still have the monopoly on history. It's a worry he has, that they will do something wrong out here. "It's worse when good people do it," he says, "because they're supposed to know better." And she realises in that moment that he doesn't trust other people to his firepower - they might not be so careful with it, they might hit a reactor and send death instead of disability. She wakes him from dreams of Dresden and Nagasaki.

Later, she brings him a print-out of an old propaganda poster, and he places it carefully over his desk, next to the map - "Loose lips sink ships."


The eighth night, when the galaxy has scared her back into his arms. Another name for him presented in the doorway, another furtive glance down the corridor.

Fingernails across his back; royal blood.

She wakes this time, because the bed is too small and the constant hum of the engines carries more easily to this room. Five minutes, no more, but enough to see him sleeping and peaceful, enough to find herself worrying a little less. She rests her head on his chest, listening for the steady beat. Trained ears track slow inhalations of breath and find a trace of his accent even there. Her eyes close, and she is asleep again.


And nothing is said between visits, there is no context. No meaning. She slips her etymology in between translations and encryptions, uses the price as another distraction from the journey. By now, so many nights since the first, she looks further away, seeks the familiar pattern of syllables in more and more unfamiliar tongues. She finds her meanings and stores them up, keeping them safe.

Until the next time that she can't sleep, the next time that the silence of space is too loud.

The door slides open, right to left like written Arabic. He leans against the frame, looking out, tired yet insomniac. Dishevelled. Groggy.

"A dove."


"Etymology? Isn't that the insects?" When was this? So long ago now, her first week on this metal barge. A time of introductions and explanations.

"That's entomology." She smiles, and wonders if he knows, really, and is feigning ignorance to start a conversation. She admires his vowels.

"Don't get them mixed up then."

"I don't."


She used to call him 'Lieutenant'. It was his name, almost, a device to call him with. Occasionally, after hours or in private she called him 'Malcolm', but it never seemed to fit him, and it felt as if she should be more detatched. So it was 'Lieutenant', with a nod in the hallway or a half-smile in the mess hall. Once she offered the old British pronunciation, 'Leftenant', but he'd looked confused, so she'd hadn't tried it again.

But now she calls him by his given name, and his foot brushes against hers under the table. A stunning breach of protocol. She smiles.


The rules (for everything must have rules, heirarchy and structure) demand a direct translation, or the meaning of a similar enough word that the sound is convincing.

"Russian. 'Malcheeshka'. Urchin." Back to the languages of Earth, back to one she overlooked when all this was still a game, before words were such precious currency. He looks at her for a moment, and she wonders if this one is too tenuous. She has others ready, just in case.

But the smile flickers across his face for a fraction of a second, and his hand closes gently over her arm, pulling her across the threshold. She feels relief flood through her. She needs to sleep tonight.


In her translations he becomes a noun, a verb, an adjective. He is home, a metal, a deeper shade of red, the way the stars twinkle through an ozone-rich atmosphere, a magical protection against demons. He is transformed.


Hoshi begins to feel like Sheharazade, extending her life by telling stories. But her life is not at stake here. She isn't entirely sure what is.


"Mal'kiym. Andorian. Masculine third person present tense of the verb 'to comfort'. "

New and, he assumes, true. He runs his tongue along the length of her throat. Slow and careful. "He comforts," he whispers, words and breath in her ear.

He reverses the action, working his way down - his journey has its meaning now.

Mal'kiym: verb - to comfort.

At her abdomen he asks: "What's the third person feminine?"


He looks up, expression perplexed. "That's an entirely different word."

"It's very simple once you understand the basic grammatical-"

He moves again, lower, and Hoshi silences herself with a gasp and a moan.

Lingua franca. A language held in common.


She starts to worry as the weeks slide past that one of her meanings will be definitive and he won't need her anymore. She starts to wander away from the more philosophical interpretations. She needs to keep him needing.


"The Hawaiian would be 'Malakoma'."

"That's a tranliteration.That's cheating."

"Do you want me to go?"

He stands silent for a moment, considering. Finally he moves back from the door to allow her admittance, "No."

She smiles, slightly. "Malakoma."


She would swear she can hear the smile in his voice as she drifts off to sleep;

"Goodnight, Sheharazade."


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