48. Matters of the Heart
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Hanga loved the smell of oil and burnt metal wafting through the air in the morning. He was humming a strange song about dark matter that somehow remained stuck inside his mind even though he couldn’t remember where he had heard it or what its name was.

Maybe the humming helped him cope with happiness, an unfamiliar feeling for him. He had Maya and some working self-sufficient droids. The guilt of trading Carmen’s scrapes for the formula and that unique metallic alloy dissipated a long time ago, right when he had realized the deal was worth it.

He didn't have to turn around to notice Maya had entered the room. Her scent was a combination of persimmon and Valerian jasmine. The perfume reminded him of the Rala River on a hot summer day. He enjoyed its freshness even though he was not much of an outdoors person.

Maya gave a whiff. His workplace reeked of neglect and oppressive clutter.

“We need to talk.” Her voice had a sing-song quality like the ringing of bells, almost as good as metal scraping.

"Can't wait a few minutes?" He strived to speak without producing vibrations via his fingers. The leg, which was scarcely bigger than a toothpick, had to be inserted at the correct angle. That was why he was using tweezers and magnifying glasses.

“You've been saying that since last Tuesday. When will it be really over?”

Scurrying dark things raced over the floor. On spider-like legs, they scaled the table stand in rising spirals. Maya took notice of them and caught a glimpse of his smile.

“How many more monsters are you gonna create?”

“They aren’t monsters. They are miniaturized prototypes of the self-sufficient repair droids. I don’t have much alloy, and I want to experiment before creating a normal droid. So, in the meantime, I make tiny ones and optimize the process.”

"I need to know what happened to the man I fell in love with, Hanga. You aren't him. He was quick-witted, loving, and tender. You only care about these... things."

Every word was a blow, every phrase an agonizing slash. Hanga released the tweezers. He had no way of telling her she was right. He wasn't the one who swooned her off of her feet. It would have been nice if he could hate Tejeda, but the Nubilae just followed his orders. As a result, the only person to blame was himself.

Maya hurled one of the tiny metallic monsters into the wall with a flick of her wrist. When the droid collided with the hard surface, it burst, leaving only a black stain. The pieces of its shattered carapace rained over the floor.

Hanga fell to his knees, gathering the shards. What more could he do? The very thought that he had to choose flailed his soul. Why couldn’t he have both?

As Maya waited, Hanga stared up at her, nodding slowly, his long head bobbing up and down. She glared back at him. “Stop looking at me and say something.”

To his surprise, she knelt in front of him and clutched his hands, holding them tight. Her fingers entwined with his, and he loved it. He was so on edge with emotion that it was only a matter of time before the tears would win him out.

"I adore you, Hanga Odull," she declared. Her hand found its way to his cheek. "Say you'll get a job in the repair business and forget about your studies. Let us be happy. Together." She sighed heavily. "Now choose. Me or them." Her head tilted toward the little droids on his workstation.

The task was impossible as lifting a moon with one hand. Giving up on his studies or letting Maya leave were both out of the question. He couldn't choose, even if it meant losing something irreplaceable. His frustration mounted. Uncomfortably, sweat dripped down his spine. Heat rose to his cheeks. He stopped his foolish gawping, trying to return to a semblance of normalcy. "I can't choose."

Her soft fingers retreated from his cheek. Maya stood up and marched to the front door. As she stepped out, a breeze swept her long black hair against the crimson fabric of her top.

Hanga acknowledged this was the last time he saw her as if he could see into the future. Couldn't he?

He went back to his workbench. The chamber darkened as the sun set over the horizon, hiding everything except the repair droid, which had a weak light on standby. Hanga let go of his arms, and a sliver of golden light touched across his scarlet cheeks, casting shadows underneath his black eyes.

He punched the table, making all the droids jolt into the air for a tiny second. “I’m sorry,” he muttered as if they could understand him. Then he covered his face with his hands.

“No need to apologize.”

Jumping off his chair, Hanga sought the one who spoke. No movement in the room. And the voice sounded more like a synthetic one.

“I’m here, on the table,” the voice continued.

“Who are you?” Hanga asked. His self-preservation instinct kept him from coming any closer to the workbench.

The golden lights of the self-sufficient repair drone, which was missing a leg, flashed. "My name is E00, and I know you, Hanga Odull. You're a great engineer who designed the most sophisticated droids."

“They’re not ready yet.” Hanga shook his head. This couldn’t possibly be real.

“Oh, but they are. You have repaired the Space Spoon with them.”

“If my life’s work is complete, why don’t I feel happy?”

“Life is difficult, and every entity is different. You’ll eventually find happiness one way or another.”

“I should go after Maya.”

"That moment has come and gone. You're in a memory, and no matter what you do, you won't be able to change reality. Maya is no longer in your grasp. Please return to us. We all need you--your droids, your ship, and your crew."

The void inside his heart caused by Maya's departure remained. On certain days, he cursed the moment he met Tejeda. But then he understood that if it hadn't been for him, he would never have known what true reciprocating love felt like, even if he was never the one Maya loved.

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