This story was originally published at Reedsy.com, as part of the Contest #172 on November 11th 2022. The prompt that inspired this story was “Write about two solo travellers who keep bumping into each other in the most unexpected places.”
A Taste of Home
By Jayde Holmes
He had not expected to meet another human at an ammonia bar on an ice-ball moon near the galactic core.
She had purposely gone to this remote, silicon-based place to avoid meeting other humans.
They didn’t even see each other at first. Their environment suits hid their figures enough to blend into the crowd of large, shaggy people that called this place – both moon and dark circular tavern – home. He was ushered towards her by the group of small, eight-limbed ferret-students he was currently travelling with. She was alerted to his approach by the bartender, who asked if it was really possible for two of the same carbon-based lifeforms to have ended up in their fine establishment.
“What are you drinking?” he asked, gesturing towards the bowls of ammonia-based alcohol spilling different coloured fog down the bench. Even if they hadn’t been wearing vacuum-ready space helmets with opaque faceplates, the light level in the bar – actually, the light level on the whole planet – was too dim for her to make out his grin.
“Spinnaroth’s” she said, tapping the side of the helmet where the water-tube was. “The blue stuff.”
“You put that altered berry crap in your water supply?” he asked. “Here?”
“It is the alcoholic version” she clarified. “You?”
“Cuba Libre” he said.
“Isn’t that just Rum and Coke?”
“Well, if you don’t have a sense of adventure…”
“I bought into the Galactic Wanderer’s Lottery, of course I have a sense of adventure. You’re just drinking Rum and Coke.”
“Still better than mutant berries and tequila.”
That exchange was the only detail of the conversation that either one of them remembered. With a whole galaxy of strange people out there, another being from a familiar world of green plants, sprawling cities, and an oxygen atmosphere was unimaginably boring. Besides, the best part of sex while touring the galaxy was working out how sets of genitalia that had evolved ignorant of each other could be best combined.
They slid back towards their original companions once a polite level of smalltalk had been achieved. Their companions were more amused at the encounter than the two humans. Truth be told, neither human was with a group that fascinating, but there was just something embarrassing about being seen with another human these days. Even without the rumors, their homeworld was a backwater that was mostly ignorant of the galactic community. A lame backwater which, thanks to the fame from their solar eclipses, everyone knew about it.
The encounter was forgotten for two months and a combined total of five solar systems. It wasn’t until she ended up on the homeworld of the orinaa – little eight-legged ferret-like creatures that she had last seen in that remote fog-filled bar – that she remembered the human she had been pushed towards. She had to admit, it wasn’t an unpleasant recollection.
This world had a breathable atmosphere, but the humidity was suffocating. She wore cargo pants and a tank-top, revealing her dark skin and afro-puffs dyed red. She had freckles splattered across her face that she was self-conscious about even out here in the Perseus Arm. She was small for a human, but still too tall to stand upright in the orinaa tree-houses.
As for the walkway tunnels, she had to crawl through them as her host scurried through. At least, the horizontal tunnels she crawled through. For the ones that ran vertical, there was nothing to do but put on the arborist’s harness and go outside. Which was how she found herself sitting exhausted and covered in sweat on the roof of some sort of tiny shop half her height, perched two-hundred metres up a stadium-wide tree of soot-grey bark and blood-red leaves. She told her host to go ahead as she took a bottle of blue soft drink out of her backpack and tried to cool down.
“Spinnaroth’s?” A familiar voice came from below. She looked down and saw a gangly human male of a similar age to herself crawling out the shop door. He also had a face full of freckles, but was pale, with no qualms about flashing his crooked teeth while he smiled. He had a number of mismatched spikes and rings in his ears, and as he worked his way onto the precipice she realized he was sunburnt.
“Rum and Coke?” she asked. “What a small galaxy this is.”
He climbed up to her, with a cavalier attitude towards his harness that both impressed her and reminded her about human stupidity.
“It was a Cuba Libre” he insisted.
“How did you get lime juice all the way out there?”
“Well, I couldn’t.”
“So it was just…”
“…Okay, it was just Rum and Coke” he admitted. “Which is still better than that Frankenstein berry crap. Did you really waste bag space on that bottle?”
“Have you even tried it?” She asked, holding the bottle to him. “No alcohol this time. It’s quite refreshing.”
“How could I not? They stock it everywhere” he said, while taking the bottle. He wasn’t quite sure why he felt the need to humour her; the drink was just as disgustingly bitter as the last time he drank it. But at least she seemed entertained by the way his face scrunched up after swallowing it.
“How can you drink this?” he asked. “This is like, the least Earthlike thing humans have ever made.”
“Exactly” she said, taking the bottle back.
After that, the conversation was abruptly steered away from Earth. They said nothing about the planet, nor about other humans, and certainly not about any of the disturbing news of AI experiments that were taking place back home. They talked about the planet they were on, and only took it to alien planets they had been to. She showed him all the planetary logo patches on her backpack, and even though he wasn’t interested in other humans, he ended up committing what he saw to memory.
It was only when they both went their separate ways did it occur to either of them to wonder about the other’s name.
Despite not having a name or commID to go off, he recognized her a few months later on a guided tour of a semi-quarantined bound-AI world. Not by her appearance; this world was just a small airless rock in space. They were bouncing around in their environment suits again, which looked different with the light of the Galactic Centre shining down on them. He had begun the tour by looking away from the obviously human figure, until he noticed that the logo patches on her suit-bag matched the backpack he had seen in the red treetops.
They talked. It wasn’t that the tour wasn’t interesting. Quite the opposite, they were on an abandoned mining station where a bloody robot uprising had happened. The sentient robot people that their guide belonged to had been isolated from the galaxy for three hundred years before agreeing to the limits to their programming that would keep the galaxy Singularity free. Even then, access to the mining station was tightly guarded, and they had both been waiting for a chance to go on this tour for months.
Maybe they just found each other more interesting than even these surroundings. Maybe talking about alien worlds and their shared experiences with the Galactic Wanderer’s Lottery were safer than speculating about the consequences of AI gone rouge.
Most likely, a bit of both.
When they retired to the makeshift oxygen-breather habitat for lunch, they exchanged names. It was a futile effort; ‘Spinnaroth’s’ and ‘Rum and Coke’ had already stuck. With their Comms sequestered on a spaceship for safety, they never got around to exchanging IDs. This double oversite went on to cause their first real fight, when almost a year later they met again at a mountain lookout on the twilight of a frigid ribbon world. Once they had cussed each other out thoroughly, she stormed down to the day side, while he made the climb down to the night side.
They made up just a few weeks later, when they bumped into each other on a bio-ship cruise through the rainbow-hued storm clouds of a superjupiter in the Sagittarius Arm. The bar had a small selection of earth-like ingredients, including something that tasted like lime juice. Spinnaroth’s had to admit the smile on Rum and Coke’s face when he got to have a real Cuba Libre was the highlight of the cruise. Well, that and the fifty-ton cloud whales, that the two of them watched together for hours.
With friendly relations resumed and commIDs exchanged, the meet-ups became more common, and less unexpected. They met in many different cities on land, in the air, and underwater. They met wearing various levels of protective gear under many different atmospheres. Sometimes they stayed together, and sometimes they pulled away. Other people, whose simplest life stories were full of unimaginable wonders, were still more interesting.
They first had sex while staying in a neon city made for spider-like pedestrians, that hung between two cliff faces like a street of technicoloured clotheslines. It was perfectly nice, but afterwards they found themselves going to hang with different crowds. This made things awkward for their next few meetings.
The bubbling resentment came to a head on a planet like Earth, but with argon playing the part of nitrogen in the atmosphere. The landscape was as noble as the air, dominated by ink-black plants and white stone that the locals had used to build manicured palaces and gardens.
The wildlife on this planet had evolved complete silence as a defence against massive predators, so Rum and Coke was already self-conscious about his loud footsteps as he toured the largest palace with a local friend. When Spinnaroth’s unexpectedly bumped into them, the friend’s displeasure at these two loud clumsy creatures made Rum and Coke insist he was different to all those other simple humans. Spinnaroth’s countered that he was just as two-faced and selfish as all the other humans that she had applied to the lottery to get away from.
They parted ways with shouts that terrified the locals. In seething anger, they both deleted each other’s commIDs, and were mutually glad to be rid of their constant shadow.
Until the quarantine was announced.
Earth’s dalliances with strong AI had gone too far, and the whole planet was sealed off. No shuttles, no transmissions; nothing that would risk the smart computer virus that had begun assimilating humans from crossing over to the wider galactic community. The community was too enlightened to shun every human tourist that had been offworld when their planet was shut away, but Rum and Coke and Spinnaroth’s got more looks as they travelled. A horrified, empathetic pity at first, followed by a more complex mix of curiosity and schadenfreude when the crisis team reported the known safeguards the AI researchers had put in place. It was estimated that it could be safe to send a probe to check on Earth in as little as fourteen years.
Rum and Coke went to visit Lunar Spaceport after all the fuss had died down. He had never seen the place so empty. Silent grey halls and dead screens stretched on forever, straddling his little friendly moon like the seal on an ancient tomb.
He found a lounge facing the window with the best view of Earth. He’d never been able to get close to this spot before, but now he sprawled out on the lounge, savouring the way his ass fit on the cushioned seat and how his arms could hang over the top of the chairback. A tear ran down his cheek as he looked at that pale blue dot through only acrylic glass. He hadn’t expected that. He glanced away for a second, took a bottle of blue liquid from his backpack, and began to sip as he gazed out the window.
He didn’t hear her footsteps, nor her quickening breath as she took in the site of their homeworld from behind him. It was only when she spoke that he looked away from the window.
“You drinking Spinnaroth’s now?” she asked, smiling down at him.
“I guess I got a taste for it” he said, as he smiled back at her and took a sip. Like him, she was dressed in sombre, plain clothes. Her hair was undyed and braided, and her eyes were on his face, seeing the scruffy stubble on his chin and marvelling how deflated he looked without a dozen rings in his earlobes.
In her hand was a can of cola.
“You changed your drink too?” he asked.
“Wanted a taste of home” she said, her eyes glazing over and looking up as she spoke. He let her have a moment with the view, then raised his glass.
“I felt exactly the same” he said. “Cheers.”
They clinked their drinks together, and she sat down next to him. They both started apologizing at once; stuttering, hurt words that felt insignificant with what literally hung in the air above them. They fell silent and held each other as they gazed at the Earth.
“I thought I was too good for it” Spinnaroth’s said. “Too good for Earth, and everything from there.”
“Yeah, I’m kinda like that” he admitted. “I just saw it as this big shameful thing holding me back. But I think the best… best part of my whole journey is from there.”
“Yeah. Same” Spinnaroth’s said. They let the silence stretch on, not uncomfortably, as they shifted their positions to huddle closer.
“I miss green plants” he finally said. “The most I mean. Just, green is a nice colour you know?”
“It is” she said. “I miss birds. Their songs filling the air…, I’ve never heard music like that.”
“Where are you from?”
“Gaborone, Botswana. You?”
“Montreal, Canada. Wow, how long has it taken for us to ask this?”
They giggled at their own stubborn stupidity. Then, before they knew it, they were kissing.
It was not their first kiss, but it felt like one of those mythologized First Kisses, tinged with the taste of perfect belonging. This was the kiss they would always look back on, once they had been adventuring together for long enough to know their planet’s fate. In the story they would tell of their adventures, this was the part where they truly came together, and thus found themselves home at last.