The first thing that Theo noticed when he stepped off of the ship was the smell — all fresh air and greenery, mixed in with the unmistakable smell of ship exhaust from their landing. It wasn’t a smell he was used to, and at first he didn’t quite understand where it was coming from. But Shade had landed the ship at a docking area on the side of a massive hill, and as Theo turned he saw the farmland stretch out in front of him. For a moment, all he could do was stand still and stare, until he felt a hand fall on his shoulder.
Shade was back in xyr metal body, the one xe wore to leave the ship, and the copper colored metal glinted in the sunlight. This form was easier for Theo to understand; it was easier for him to translate the ever-shifting shapes and colors on Shade’s face to perceive xyr mood. Now, the morphing was slow and static, shapes pointed and the color dull. Theo frowned slightly and looked away, back to the scenery around them.
“Someone here is supposed to be able to fix our ship?” he asked uncertainly, and the duo began to make their way down the strip that their airlock had opened to. It was a series of steps that lead to a thin strip of a metal dock that would bring them to a collection of buildings. There were a few other ships that had also landed in other areas of the port, but most of them were small individual crafts meant to hold only a few people. It seemed that they had landed on the far end in the largest space, so they had a ways to walk past the other ships to reach the first building. Theo thought it was actually a bit impressive that Shade had gotten them down so smoothly, and in a proper space no less, but he didn’t say anything.
“There is an engineer here, yes,” Shade answered as they made they way down the dock, xyr metal feet clanking gently with each step. The other ships all seemed empty, the inhabitants no doubt out exploring whatever amenities the co-op had to offer.
Theo let out a small hum that meant he wasn’t quite sure he believed they would find what they needed here, but Shade didn’t seem to notice, or care, about his disbelief. They walked the rest of the way in silence until they came upon the first building, which was the smallest of the cluster. It was squat and made of red brick, but the side that faced them was a large window that allowed them see the inside; it seemed mostly to be an office of sorts. There was a sign on the door that read in cheery handwritten letters: PLEASE CHECK IN.
Theo pushed open the door and a little bell rang out signaling their entrance. “How quaint,” he muttered, mostly to himself.
The desk that filled most of the small office was empty, but a small old man peeked from a door behind the desk at the sound of their arrival. He wore glasses that made his eyes look comically large, and he had two pointed ears that were adorned with gold and silver rings of various sizes that would have put Shade’s holographic jewelry to shame. “Greetings!” he called, shuffling out to the desk. “Welcome to Imia II!”
“Er, thanks,” Theo said, slightly unnerved by the man’s friendliness. “We’re looking for an engineer.”
“Oh yes!” the man responded enthusiastically, and he began to shuffle around a few papers on his desk. “The Crofts told me to expect you. Now let’s see here—”
Theo watched, a bit bemused, as the man searched through his papers to find the exact one he was looking for. It seemed like a bit of an outdated system, and it did not bode well for his expectations that anyone on this farming rock would be able to help them. Although without their warp engines and fuel scoop it wasn’t as if they could get very far.
“Here we are!” the old man exclaimed, brandishing a yellow sheet of paper. “Theo Altair, correct?”
“Yes,” Theo answered. “This is my partner, Shade.”
“Yes, yes,” the old man said, looking over the sheet and not at them. “We have you both listed — are you the only inhabitants on your ship?”
“Excellent!” The man fished out a large round stamp from under another pile of papers on his desk and slammed it on the sheet he had been looking at before shuffling it aside. “Now, you’ll want to find Dimitri Croft. Croft farm isn’t too far from here, I think I have a map around here somewhere…” He trailed off and began to shuffle around the papers again, and with a soft “ah-ha!” he brandished a folded pamphlet. He opened it and spread it across the desk over the mess of papers to show Theo.
“We are here,” he tapped the image of the dock on the map. “This over here is where you’ll find most of the shops and community areas. Croft farm is this area over here.” He folded the map back up with a flourish and handed it to Theo. “This time of day, Dimitri likes to wander, but if you ask around I’m sure someone will be able to point you in the right direction.”
Theo took the map and tucked it in his back pocket. Shade had probably memorized the image when it had been spread across the desk, but he didn’t have the heart to tell the old man that. “Thanks again,” he said before turning to the door.
“Have a good one!” the man called, and as Theo and Shade left, he shuffled back into the room behind the desk.
The walk into town was a pleasant one, Theo supposed, if that was something that interested you. The path from the building that they checked in at wove around two larger buildings that looked as if they might be storage, and once they passed that it was nothing but open space and bright green fields. The road was paved, at least, and the two walked in silence as they made their way down the hill. From the position of the docks above they could see their destination, and it seemed to be nothing more than a handful of mismatched buildings and stalls, and people milling about to buy or trade wares and food. In every direction they looked there was something growing — a field full of vines with plump red fruit weighing them down on one side, and the other a scattering of trees growing fruits that Theo was unfamiliar with.
Shade didn’t say anything to him as they walked, but they were often silent in each others company, and it was rarely uncomfortable. When Theo looked at xem, the shapes on xyr face were changing slowly, more smoothly than before, and he thought perhaps Shade was less angry with him now.
The silence gave Theo a chance to think about what had happened, although he tried not to focus on the guilt that he felt. Shade had been right when xe said that he was too reckless, but he still felt that desperate hopelessness clawing at his gut. He didn’t know what else he was supposed to do. How was he supposed to keep going; what was the point? He couldn’t ask Shade this; xe wouldn’t have an adequate answer. Hell, even Boss never had an adequate answer for him when Theo posed the question: what do I do?
He remembered the old man’s chuckle — he was always chuckling at something — and the way he would pat Theo’s shoulder to reassure him. In those moments there was a touch of sadness in Boss’ eyes, even when he was smiling, and Theo couldn’t understand when he would say, “You just keep going, son.”
The path wound down, past a pen of loud braying animals that were chewing on patches of grass. They went quiet at the sight of them, watching warily as the duo passed. Theo kicked a rock in front of him and it skittered forward. He kicked it again, and it skittered out of his reach off of the path. He wondered again if they would actually find what they needed here — what kind of farming community had warp reactors and parts for sensor arrays? He hadn’t actually seen the full rundown of what damage had been done to the ship, but he knew Shade held that information safely in xyr memory banks.
The first stall they came to was an old woman selling vegetables of some kind; she was dozing where she sat and didn’t even notice them. They continued and passed a few people talking in groups, showing off their purchases and laughing. Fortunately the two of them didn’t seem to stand out too much among the groups of visitors, varying species and other androids, which had been a silent concern of Theo’s. You could never tell with a strange place, what sort of trouble you might get yourself into.
Although Shade would have pointed out that Theo was often the problem by his own actions if he had voiced this concern to xem.
The road that they were walking on finally ended at a town circle, that the buildings wrapped around in an open and friendly manner. At the center of the circle was a large fountain where a few people sat, drinking and talking with each other. Theo and Shade paused where they stood, taking in their surroundings. On the far end of the circle was an open-faced building that was unmistakably a tavern of some sort, with outdoor seating where people were laughing and dining.
“What do you think?” Theo asked, pointing the building out to Shade.
“I think that I do not need nourishment,” Shade answered. “But perhaps that is where we will find where to go to meet our engineer.”
Theo rolled his eyes and started for the tavern, dodging a group of children who were kicking a ball around in the dirt. A few of them stopped to admire Shade, but xe didn’t notice the attention. Xe never seemed to, in spite of being a rather impressive piece of technology — even in this form, which could have been passed off as an ordinary, if not well-maintained, android. Theo always wondered if it was trained, or that xe simply didn’t care.
When he pushed open the door of the tavern they were greeted with even more chatter, a bit loud but not unexpected for an establishment full of patrons for their midday meal. Theo paused until he saw a counter where a young woman stood, looking at a digital pad in her hand. Ah, so they did have technology here, he thought sharply to himself before he made his way over.
“Excuse me,” he said, speaking over the din, and the woman looked up at the two of them.
“Table for two?” she asked cheerily, glancing between them.
“No,” Theo answered with a small smile. “I’m looking for Dimitri Croft.”
The girl laughed softly. “He just left, actually. Was heading out to work, I think. You might find him at Zaxia farm,” she answered. “The orchard, about halfway up the hill.”
“Thanks,” Theo said and when he turned to leave the tavern Shade followed behind. He started back the way that they had come from, but he felt Shade’s hand on his shoulder once more.
“This way is a faster route,” xe said, proving that Theo’s assumption xe had memorized the map had been correct.
So they began their next trek, across the town circle to find a path that wound between two small shops and from there they could see the orchards on the hill. It was the same trees that they had passed on their way down, but they stretched further than Theo had initially thought. There didn’t seem to be anyone on this path, which was mostly dirt and patches of old cobblestones.
Once again they walked in silence, and Theo wondered what Shade was thinking. This sort of task would not annoy xem, not like how it vaguely annoyed Theo, so he didn’t bother to bring it up. Shade had never been one for smalltalk, anyway. About halfway up the hill Theo shed his jacket and wrapped it around his waist, and pulled his shoulder length hair up in a messy looking bun with the tie he wore around his wrist. He was sweating quite a bit under the midday sun, and he couldn’t remember the last time he felt a sun like this, or the last time he took a walk up a hill.
The entrance gate to the orchard was open, and the path led up to a small farmhouse. Outside the farmhouse there was another stall that was covered with boxes full of various fruits. A tall being dressed in a flowing white dress was tending the stall, seemingly taking notes on the items in stock, with their back turned to them as they approached. As they got closer, Theo could hear that they were singing.
“Excuse me,” he called from a distance, so as not to startle them.
The being straightened and glanced over their shoulder at the two of them; they had four yellow eyes on their green face and a wide toothy smile that was somehow still friendly. “Hello,” they said, their voice like music notes dancing on the heat from the sun. “I’m afraid we aren’t selling anything today, you’ll have to see what is in stock at the grocer, or wait until we are at the market tomorrow.”
Theo shook his head. “We aren’t here to buy anything — we’re looking for Dimitri Croft. The hostess at the tavern said he might be here.”
The being laughed, and the sound was just as musical as their voice. “He just left,” they said, and Theo groaned softly. “He went down the back path, toward the docks.”
“Of course he did,” Theo grumbled, wiping sweat from his brow and turning to leave. “Thank you.”
“Wait,” the being called after him. Theo turned and they tossed him a large round fruit, bright orange and red and pink with a smooth skin. “It’s on the house; should help with the heat. And try the path down that way—” They gestured past the farmhouse. “It’s faster, and you’ll have shade from the orchard.”
Theo smiled softly and nodded, heading the way that the being had pointed. This patch was not much more than a worn patch of land, a shortcut made by generations of feet trodding over it. Still Shade didn’t speak, and Theo took a bite from the fruit that had been offered to him. The flesh was soft and sweet, cool juice dripped down his chin after the first bite. He didn’t bother to wipe it away and instead took another bite, not realizing until that moment how starved he felt. When was the last time he ate?
It wasn’t long before he finished the entire thing, down to the pit which he pocketed, not wanting to abandon it among the carefully grown trees. Theo licked the juice from his fingers, humming softly at the pleasant taste, and when he looked over at Shade xe was watching him curiously. The shapes on xyr face were round and bright, which might have meant that xe was smirking, amused at such an animal display. Theo just rolled his eyes and looked away.
The stranger had been right to say that this walk was much more comfortable than the one before, even as they moved slightly more uphill. The trees around them let off a pleasant scent in the breeze, the sun was no longer bearing down on them so strongly, and Theo could have almost felt relaxed if he weren’t so frustrated by this wild goose chase they had been sent on.
The path went steeper now and the trees seemed to be further spaced apart. Theo wondered if they were reaching the end of the orchard. There was a sharp curve, then their view blocked by a cluster of large standing stones arranged in a circular pattern. When they moved around the first, suddenly there was a beast in front of them, grazing on the grass in the center of the stones. Theo paused, stepping on a stick that cracked under his weight, and the beast froze in its chewing.
It was a large creature on four legs, that ended in heavy, sharp looking hooves. Its entire body was covered in soft curly white fur, and it raised its head to look at them curiously. Sharp horns on the top of its head shined in the sun and its face was black, its eyes large and yellow with thin black pupils. It blinked at them, and Theo blinked back, unsure of what to do.
“Your heart rate is elevated,” Shade pointed out, with very little intonation in xyr voice. “It is just a creature.”
“It is a big creature,” Theo hissed, his face going warm in embarrassment. “And it’s in our way.”
“Nonsense,” Shade responded, and xe began to make xyr way around the standing stones. The creature paid xem no mind, and instead kept its eerie gaze fixed firmly on Theo. “See?” Shade called, and now xyr voice was almost mocking. “Come along, before we miss our engineer. No doubt he is headed to the docks to see where we have been.”
Theo’s brow furrowed for a moment and he let out a little huff, slowly following the steps that Shade had taken. He did not take his eyes off of the creature, who in turn also continued to watch him. As he moved to the closest point to it, the creature lifted its snout in the air, and let out a little bray, and began to trot over to Theo. Its hooves left sharp indentations into the dirt and grass, and it brayed again.
“Shade—” Theo started, and the android turned just in time to see the creature pick up more speed, braying loudly again. Theo tried to turn to run, but the creature caught up to him quickly and butted its head against his side, its horns narrowly avoiding tearing into his shirt and skin. Theo fell to the ground with a pained grunt, his elbows scraping into the dirt, and the creature reared back with another loud bray.
“Theo!” Shade cried as the creature lifted itself up onto its back legs, and xe quickly moved toward Theo in concern. The creature yelled at both of them now, huffed and lowered its horns in Shade’s direction as it stomped its hooves around where Theo lay prone in the dirt. When Shade took a step back it turned its attention back to Theo and began to bump its nose against his chest and stomach, still huffing, baring its teeth—
“Mila!” a new voice called, deep and stern, but when Theo turned his head he could only see Shade, standing still with xyr face looking toward the direction of where the voice came front. A tint of blue-grey on xyr face — confusion.
“Mila, you naughty creature!” the voice came again, and the creature was being pulled back off of Theo by large hands around its neck. The sun shone behind the figure, and Theo scooted back away from the animal and whoever it was who had rescued him. He lifted his hand to shade the light from his eyes to try to get a better look.
“Sorry about that,” the man said, holding his hand out to Theo now. He was tall and large, his shoulders wide enough that they nearly blocked out the sun. His hair was messy and as dark as night, and he was grinning widely. When Theo took his hand it was rough and strong, and the man nearly pulled him up on his own.
Theo turned his eyes to the animal, who was still staring at him balefully. “Is that thing yours?” he snapped, frustrated and embarrassed.
The man laughed and patted the creature lovingly. “Yeah, this is my Mila. She has a fondness for trecha fruit — you don’t happen to have any on you?”
Theo looked at the man, his brow still knit together angrily. But he remembered the pit in his pocket and he pulled it out to show him. “I have this,” he answered, his voice still sharp, and the animal — Mila — let out a sad little bray.
“Aww, sorry Mila, no treats for you now,” the man said with another little laugh, still patting the animal’s downy neck. He turned back to Theo. “I haven’t seen you two around here before — what are your names?”
Theo let out an annoyed little sigh. “I’m Theo, that’s Shade.”
The smile on the man’s face seemed to widen slightly, his eyes shining. “Ah!” he said cheerfully. “You’re just the man I’ve been looking for.” Confusion flashed across Theo’s face before he went on— “I’m Dimitri Croft, it’s a pleasure to meet you.”