The Frequency of Compassion

Kaityn Falk loves the dark phase of the moon. It’s quiet. Soothing. Insulated in their spacesuit, comm dimmed, Kaityn sits in the rover and watches the sky. Here on Io 7, a newly discovered satellite in retrograde orbit around a dwarf planet the size of Pluto, they are the only living human in several thousand lightyears. They are here to establish research beacons for star-charting, a risky job for how isolated it is—and Kaityn hasn’t loved anything this much in their life. The exhilaration of travel, the calmness of deep space, the possibility of an ever-unfolding universe.

“Daydreaming again?” 

The onboard nav AI, Horatio, is the exception to Kaityn’s preference for silence. Developed with multi-faceted personality modes to stem off homesickness and loner’s fright, the AI is Kaityn’s co-pilot, research assistant, and friend.

“Just dreams,” they reply. “Wouldn’t it be cool if we evolved in a way to survive vacuum and could sail around without spacesuits?”

“Technically, I already can,” Horatio says.

Kaityn laughs. “When I was a kid I wanted to grow giant dragonfly wings in order to zip around in zero-G. I guess hyperdrive is close enough.”

The vast scope of sky, its silken blackness, rocks Kaityn in a serene, wordless lullaby. These few hours between the rotation from dark to light on Io 7 are theirs, and they bask in the solitude. There are plenty of other taxing, long distance meetings and digital paperwork to dull their enthusiasm of being in space, on the rim of the Milky Way. This time is theirs.

In another two weeks, they will begin the trip to Mars HQ to re-orient and decompress from a six-month shift. Kaityn sighs. They don’t like thinking about the inevitable burst of human interaction they will have to bear for half a year before they can travel again.

“You seem melancholy,” Horatio says. The AI’s voice is warm against Kaityn’s ears inside their helmet. “Is something distressing you?”

“Just thinking about how little time we have left on this shift.”

Kaityn is autistic and hyperempathic. When they were young—before they knew they were agender, before they had words for why they always felt so keenly for everyone around them—they coped badly. So much sound, so much light, so many shades of emotion. It was the promise of cold, isolated quiet in space that drew them to the Galactic Exploration for Peace agency. GEP needed people willing to risk the vast expanse on the edges of known space.

Out here, Kaityn can breathe. They can serve humanity without being overwhelmed by everything that makes humans imperfect and wondrous.

“I’m programmed to list the benefits of six months on, six months off duty,” Horatio says, “but I suspect that is unhelpful.”

Kaityn smiles wanly. “I’ll figure out something—”

A bright wisp flickers across their helmet’s viewscreen. It moves too fast for them to define it—but its distress radiates sharp like a needle. Kaityn straightens with a gasp. “Horatio, did you pick that up on scanners?”

“Yes, I did,” Horatio says.

“What’s your take?”

“It touched down two kilometers from your position. Odd energy reading, extremely small mass. There should be no minor satellites in decay orbit.”

“It feels alive.” Kaityn ignites the solar engines and guides the rover along the path Horatio provides via map readouts. “And it’s hurt.”

Their thoughts blur with sudden excitement. Alive. Could this be potential first contact? Protocols rush through their mind. Establish sensory verification if possible: auditory, ocular, olfactory, tactile, light spectrum, mechanical observation, recordable frequencies; identify yourself and designation but do not engage in any negotiation without authorization—

Kaityn’s pulse races. They shouldn’t assume anything: maintaining objectivity is the leading tenet for space exploration. It’s hard when so many ideas are flooding their brain, the adrenaline spike intoxicating.

“Better hurry,” Horatio says. “I’ve just detected ZeroGen Corps’ beacons; their vessel has also picked up the signal.”

Kaityn’s shoulder twitches in surprise, the emotion fast bleeding into sharp fear. “Why are they in this sector? No reports were logged!”

ZeroGen personnel, unlike Kaityn and members of the GEP, always explore with weaponry ready. ZeroGen Corps is a multi-national conglomerate for profit-based space exploration. But there are rules, regulations, responsibilities. Any human-piloted expedition or spaceflight is supposed to be logged on a public records database. If ZeroGen is out here incognito, they are disregarding all safety protocols. Why?

“They are not responding to my hailing request,” Horatio says. “Please proceed with caution.”

Kaityn swallows. “I will.”

The sense of pain grows stronger as Kaityn approaches the signal. 

The rover purrs over the rocky surface of the moon. Kaityn remembers playing the old video game series Mass Effect, where they piloted an indestructible ground vehicle. They reveled in flying it off cliffs just to watch the absurdity of low-G and unbreakable shock absorbers. They aren’t nearly as reckless with an actual GEP commissioned rover—especially when they’re driving, and this is reality. Still, in private, Kaityn thinks of their rover as the Mako 2.0.

Dust kicks up behind the treads, and on the radar map, Kaityn notes the signal lit up as a green flare. They park the rover half a kilometer away and strap on their survival/first aid pack.

The vibrations of hurt-lost-scared presses against their consciousness even this far away. They swallow hard, their throat tight.

In space, they have only their own emotions to process. This nervousness is all theirs. Although Kaityn believes AIs have cognition and emotion, Horatio operates on a different frequency from their perception. They asked once if that was intentional to accommodate them. There was a long pause—for Horatio, at least—and then the AI replied: “Yes, I do. I was not programmed to project emotions, merely to observe and respond to them when appropriate.”

“But you’re full of sensors,” Kaityn said, flapping their hands in excitement. “And you do feel, I can tell by the way you operate. We might be similar in that way.”

“Interesting analysis,” Horatio said. “Perhaps we are both outliers from how we were originally programmed.”

Kaityn liked that: another thread of connection between them and Horatio.

Now, Kaityn struggles to rein in their wildly fluctuating emotional response. This could be first contact! The sheer thrill is muted with fear, and the building sense of pain they can’t ignore, like an oncoming migraine.

Kaityn unstraps from the rover and hops out.

Their boots leave quarter-inch tracks in the soft moon dust. Kaityn resists the urge to flop down and roll around, making an angel-pattern in the sediment. It isn’t polite to the moon, and they can’t spare the time. They’re reminded of fresh, soft snowfall in North Dakota, where they lived as a child. They would bundle up in plush jacket, snow pants, mittens, hat—always refusing a scarf for how it itched against their skin—and dash out into their huge yard. After a snowfall, there was a sense of calm and serenity under the vast gray sky. They would flop in the beautiful drifts, gather clumps of snow to make forts or dinosaurs, until called back inside when their lips grew numb and their cheeks turned bright red. Winters were never the same for Kaityn when they moved to Chicago at age ten, and there was no peace under the sky.

Kaityn navigates via digital map and their helmet’s built-in spotlights. Mesas sprout up and meld into cliff faces on Io 7’s surface. Their helmet light casts jagged shadows along the gray-blue stone. There: a disturbance in the arid stone. Dust sways like smoke suspended over dimming embers. Something bright and translucent shimmers within a tiny crater, a crack in the stone.

Pain.

It makes Kaityn flinch: the intensity is needle-hot, cascades of glass fragments carried in ice water. Alone. Lost. Help.

“I’m coming,” Kaityn calls aloud, aware that whatever it is, it may not understand vocal resonance or language constructed for human tongues and minds and hands. Protocol states any approach should be made with caution and only as a last resort if visual, verbal, or mechanical hailing signals do not produce a verifiable response. But they can’t wait. They break into a run, the low gravity carrying them in long, effortless leaps across the remaining distance.

“I advise caution,” Horatio says. “Even if unintentional, a distressed lifeform may prove dangerous.”

“I know.”

“Overriding internal contact failsafe,” Horatio says. “I will abide by your discretion.”

Kaityn didn’t know the AI could do that, but right now, they are too focused on reaching the lifeform and aiding in whatever manner they can.

Kaityn narrows their eyes as they approach, dimming their helmet light to the lowest setting. It takes a second to control their momentum and balance theirself. They hold their hands away from their body, heart pounding, and edge around the last chunk of rock between theirself and the hurt lifeform.

The lifeform is octagonal light, soft-edged, with undulating ripples along the surface. Perhaps two feet in diameter, with no visible protrusions or indentations. Yet it has mass, for it is partially buried under crumbled rock and dust, and it is hurt.

Kaityn takes slow, deep breaths, centering theirself and trying to control their vocal tone.

“My name is Kaityn Falk,” they say as they edge nearer. GEP protocol dances in their foremost thoughts, ingrained training, and yet the wonder almost closes off their voice. First contact with another being, out here on Io 7. This is real. This is real. “I’m a human from the planet Earth, and I mean you no har—”

The alien shape undulates, its light frequency strobing, and it lets out a sound that is not auditory so much as felt in the bones, in the soul. Kaityn screams as the pain hits them—

breaking away from the cluster, caught in solar winds, tossed and tumbled against ice and void, snagged in gravity, pulled through atmosphere. Where are the others? So alone. Afraid. Lost? How will others find? No communication thread, broken from stress. Falling, matter denser and sensation-undocumented-not-good

The sensory overload sends Kaityn reeling back, and they collapse.

Kaityn is six again, sitting on the porch of their house with their Mom, drinking hot cocoa and watching the aurora borealis dapple the sky with spilled gasoline colors.

“I want to fly in space!” Kaityn declares.

Mom laughs. “What would you do in space?”

“Pick up all the colors and put them in a basket and bring them back for you. So you can paint with them!”

“Wow, that’s pretty cool,” Mom says, grinning. “Are there colors up there I can’t find in the art department?”

They nod solemnly. “Those are space colors, Mom. You can’t buy them in the store.”

Mom hugs Kaityn with one arm. “Well, baby, that sounds like a good plan. When you bring me space colors, we’ll paint a picture together.”

Kaityn beams and finishes the melty marshmallows at the bottom of their mug.

Mom never saw them celebrate their twelfth birthday. Car accident. Kaityn stopped drawing; they would never collect space colors, not when their mom couldn’t paint anymore.

In the cluster, we all are connected by the billion threads. We flow ever outward, sharing thought and wonder and memory. Languages saturate our understanding, rich and intricate; trillions of ways for connection, for empathy, for life. We are vastness, we are unity, we are individual. And there is a hole in ourselves: we are missing one of us. This is hurt, this is pain, this is sorrow. We cannot move forward, towards the beginnings and the ends of the universe, until we find ourself. To abandon one is to abandon the cluster. It is not who we are. We will find ourself, ourselves, for one is no greater or lesser than all.

Kaityn often chats online with their boyfriend (before he’s their ex) about the possibility of first contact. One day, he says, “You know I support you and all, but what if you were the first person aliens met? Wouldn’t being agender just confuse them?”

Kaityn grasps for words, their mouth empty, their brain feeling sluggish and disconnected.

He presses on, his face close to the screen. “I mean. Wouldn’t it make more sense, if you met an alien, to explain you were a woman? That way when they encounter the rest of humanity, it wouldn’t be as jarring.”

Kaityn looks at their hands, their whole body flushed with shame. They can’t find a coherent way to explain all that is wrong with his assumptions. Would aliens need to be dual gendered, or even have a concept of gender? Would aliens even need pronouns? All Kaityn’s snappy semantic and scientific theories and explanations vanish like a hard drive crash.

“I’m just saying,” he says. “You’ve got to think of what’s best for humanity. First impressions only come once.”

“I know,” they mumble. It’s in all the training material for GEP, and they’ve downloaded and studied it over and over with giddy excitement. There is such possibility in the stars.

“Kaityn,” he says. At least he consistently uses their correct name. “You know I care about you. I just want to make sure you’re doing what’s right.”

He’s been subtly resistant to their gender and pronoun choices, especially when they legally changed their ID before accepting the position in GEP. Kaityn doesn’t want to confront him about it. He gets defensive and asks why they’re attacking him over such trivial details. It’s his disappointment that always stings worst.

Kaityn can’t shake off the doubts that are always there, in the back of their mind, insidious and small and prone to springing up when they are least prepared. What if he’s right? Their chances of encountering alien sapient life are billions to one; yet people still win lotteries. It isn’t impossible.

“Okay,” Kaityn says then, and mumbles an excuse about a migraine—their head throbs, their eyes sting from withheld tears—and logs off.

“He was bad for you,” Horatio says later, when they share that painful story while almost drunk. It’s their first week on a solo trip and every time they look at the vast mural of space, they hear their ex’s voice and his… concerns. “He wanted the his-version of you, not your true self.”

“Yep,” Kaityn agrees. “Should have dumped his ass long ago.” Their voice doesn’t have the conviction they want, but it feels good to say aloud nonetheless.

Kaityn blinks against the searing light-pain in their eyes. They’re lying just outside the crevice where the lifeform crashed; their suit’s readings show no physical damage, and the timestamp in their helmet’s log indicates barely thirty seconds have passed.

“Kaityn? Kaityn?” Horatio sounds deeply concerned. For a moment, Kaityn feels the AI’s worry like an ache in their jaw, spreading down their neck. “Your biorhythms and brainwaves were erratic and completely inconsistent with human physiology. I was afraid you were dying. I have sent distress signals on all frequencies.”

Carefully, Kaityn sits up. They want to rub their face, dig their thumbs against the cheekbones and sinuses to alleviate the throbbing pressure. Their helmet prevents them. Gloves too insulated, no skin contact. Their vision normalizes, the afterimages of falling stars and sun flares dissipating into memory. The suit injects a mild painkiller and a faint whiff of lavender into their oxygen supply. It’s the scent Kaityn likes most, and they have the dosage perfectly balanced so it won’t overwhelm them.

“I’m… okay… ” Kaityn blinks again.

We are so sorry, says the light still trapped under stone.

Kaityn’s whole body shivers and their shoulders hunch up in excitement. 

“Horatio?” Kaityn whispers. “Do you hear that?”

“I do,” the AI says. “There is no auditory or digital relay for this communication, however, at least that my sensors can detect. It is… not a phenomenon I am programmed to understand. Is this telepathy?”

In a sense, the voice says. It is soft, like a pillow wrapped in microfiber and with no aroma. We did not intend you harm. We bonded thoughts without your consent, and we are deeply ashamed of this. We ask forgiveness for such violation.

Kaityn shakily regains their feet and edges nearer to nu. The knowledge of the cluster’s pronouns—the cluster and this individual alike—feels natural. Nu broke free of nur clusterselves and fell. Nu is alone here, unsure where nur otherselves are now. It was not an intentional fall—nu simply wished to reach out to the colors of the universe, the beautiful radiance that shimmers between folds of vacuum.

“Wow,” Kaityn breathes. Their thoughts spin in ecstatic patterns, like small shiny cubes all clanking together. They resist flapping their hands, even if it makes their arms ache. “Wow.”

Nu is still trapped under the outcropping of moon rock.

They need to focus. Their GEP training is a solid grounding point: in an emergency, remember to breathe. Oxygen for the brain. Appraise the situation. Your kit and vehicles are equipped with a wide range of multi-situational tools. Your AI co-pilot will assist you.

They kneel by the rocks. Their kit has a collapsible pole for a mobility aid. It’ll work well as a pry-bar. Kaityn withdraws the metal tube and snaps it open.

“I’m going to loosen the rocks,” Kaityn says, their voice shaking. “I’m going to move slow so more debris doesn’t fall.”

Understanding shimmers from the lifeform.

Gingerly, Kaityn digs the tip of the pole into a crevice where the largest rocks are pinning the lifeform’s body. “Is there anything I can do to ease your pain?”

Not alone, nu says. Enough for… It flickers, the pain flaring and dimming. Kaityn gasps and flinches. Tries to steady their hands and push past the hurt.

“Alert: ZeroGen Corps’ shuttle is in orbit and locked onto our location,” Horatio says.

Kaityn bites the inside of their cheek by accident, and a sharp tingle of pain makes them wince. They scrabble to get leverage on the stone without harming the lifeform or causing more rocks to fall.

You show distress, nu says, and sends concern-for-well-being and offers soothing-calm-serenity. Kaityn hesitates: the emotions hover in soft swirls, like fresh watercolors held in little paper cups. They accept a sip of soothing-calm, if only to steady their nerves. Peace settles inside their mind, and their bio-rhythms smooth. Their focus sharpens. There, mapped out like a puzzle’s answer, they see where they need to apply leverage to the moon rock and shift it so the low gravity will roll it safely away and let nu free.

“Thank you,” they say aloud, and nu’s light tones warm in mutual pleasure to have helped them. Nu is transferring nur pain inward so as not to distract and cause harm to Kaityn. They smile shakily in gratitude.

With a slow tumble and spray of dust, the rock shifts and the lifeform lies bare and exposed. Kaityn pulls out an emergency solar blanket and drapes it across nur body.

Nu sends thankfulness to them.

And then ZeroGen Corps arrives.

Dust gusts and spins in angry patterns, violently disturbed as a militarized shuttle drops from orbit and blasts the surface without care or consent of the moon.

Kaityn flings an arm up in reflex.

“Step away from the alien.” The ZeroGen operator’s signal blasts into Kaityn’s frequency. “It is being claimed by ZeroGen Corps for scientific study.”

Kaityn winces in pain and freezes. Their suit compensates for the decibel level over the channel and drops it until they can hear and aren’t overwhelmed by the noise. They raise their hands, the protocol for a GEP employee’s non-hostile acknowledgment and negotiation tumbling in tangled patterns through their head.

There are five operators: all in dark-tinted armor and helmets, armed with electric bolt guns, and radiating intensity tinged with hostility and nervousness. The ZeroGen personnel have already logged the signal and site; if they don’t return with evidence, or secure the asset, they’ll be docked and fined.

“I’m Kaityn Falk from—”

“We know who you are,” snaps the operator who spoke first. “GEP outposts are noted on this moon but you haven’t tagged the alien for official observance. Move away from it now.”

“Nu,” Kaityn corrects, and then realizing the operator may not understand, they add, “Nur pronouns are—”

“Alert!” Horatio beeps in alarm. “Weapons armed!”

The lead operator shoulders their bolt gun and aims at Kaityn’s torso. The ZG-X24 model: it has enough force, even in low gravity, to damage or rupture their spacesuit. Worse, Kaityn is alone except for Horatio, who is incorporeal, and if ZeroGen intends to harm them, it’s no stretch to assume the operators would also disable the AI and leave no contestable records of illegal activity. Horatio has sent an emergency ping, yes, but signal still takes time to traverse space, and by then it will do Kaityn and Horatio and nur no good.

Kaityn’s pulse flutters, a rush of blood in their ears. They can’t hold down their terror, the sudden, visceral realization they might die here on this moon and it will be weeks before the next scout ship reaches them. Days before anyone knows something’s wrong when they don’t log a report update. Unknown span of time where their body will freeze from depressurization.

Yet worst of all is knowing that if ZeroGen captures nu, nur will be subjected to horrors and pain and aloneness.

“I’m sending an additional distress—” Horatio’s frequency shorts out. Jamming signal. Kaityn can only hear their own breath, their own thoughts.

Trembling, Kaityn puts one foot before the other. They will not leave nu alone. They will not fight—they’re unarmed and outnumbered and have always been a pacifist—but they will not abandon the lifeform to cruelty and destruction.

“You are not going to harm nur,” Kaityn says. The radio frequency is still open between them and the leader. “Please return to your vehicle and—”

“Step. Away.”

Kaityn steps, but they step in front of the light and keep their arms outspread. “No,” they say, soft and firm, and press outward with their emotions as steadily as they can. Peace. Calm. Acceptance. They do not want to die afraid; they do not want nur to suffer. “I cannot let you harm nur.”

“Fine,” the ZeroGen person says.

The leader fires.

We reach across the brightness of space, searching, and we find ourself, ourselves, once again. There! The thread is splintered, an unanticipated fall, suspended in this chronological moment. We knit closed the hurt and we see ourself huddled beside the other selves. There is distress and fear in all the selves that are not ourselves, and we see the patterns unwind from one self: violence intended. This self acts from bitterness, willingly, and the self’s anger radiates outward like the self’s weaponry. We sing sadness for this self, this lost one that is not ourselves, for they are alone and do not understand the harm they bring themself when they aim such violence at others. It is not our preference to intervene, and yet, there is a bright self that stands betwixt the violence and our lost self, and we will not let them perish.

Kaityn is packing for their shuttle flight to GEP Station, which is in orbit around Mars. They have a list:

  • favorite video games stored on a flashmem drive, portable screen and controller
  • a tablet loaded with their music library
  • plenty of ebooks
  • their favorite sweatshirt
  • a plush squid, named Inky
  • headphones
  • There’s room for a few more physical objects before they reach their weight limit in their suitcase and carryon. Kaityn looks at the sketchpad, yellowed with age, and the cup of colored pencils that have gathered dust on that same shelf for years.

For a moment, they almost reach out and drop the art supplies in their bag. Mom isn’t here to see this. Mom would have loved every minute of packing, departure, hearing the updates, even waiting on lag from text and compressed video messages from Earth to the station.

Mom would have been so proud.

Kaityn leaves the remainder of their weight limit unfilled. They haven’t drawn or colored since they were a child. There’s no point in trying again.

The universe is bright.

Warmth and love and protection flare around Kaityn. They gasp. Relief: strongest, with the mellow undertones of welcome and we found you!

Kaityn blinks rapidly, trying to ground theirself in the sudden flood of emotion and light.

The ZeroGen Corps unit is suspended in a shimmery bubble. The electric bolt drifts away, freed from trajectory, left to float calm and cold in space.

“Their vitals and brainwaves are stable,” Horatio reports, “and it appears to be a state similar to cryo-stasis.”

“You’re all right,” Kaityn breathes.

“I am. Are you?”

Slowly, Kaityn shifts their gaze upward.

The sky is bright with bodies of light, the cluster, for nur’s family has come to find nur.

Their chest squeezes in excitement, in wonder. A vast cloud of light, all hues and tones and shades—so many distinct selves within a whole—

We greet you, the cluster says. A chorus, a unity of voices in cascading music.

Kaityn’s mouth hangs open and they slowly lift a hand towards the cluster. “Hello…”

Then nur floats beside them, free of the moon rock, and Kaityn turns their head to meet nur. Their blanket is folded neatly at their foot.

Thank you for your aid, Kaityn Falk. Nur voice is one and many.

“I… think we’re… even,” Kaityn manages. “You saved me, too.”

Nur, and nur cluster above, stretches out a fan of synapses, tendrils of light that coil and drift in the vacuum before Kaityn’s helmet.

We wish to share views from the universe as we have traveled, the cluster says.

Kaityn gasps, nods, and lets the light twirl around their helmet. “Can I see… can I see them later?” They’re on the edge of a crash, overwhelmed, and they don’t want to collapse under the pressure of so much input and sensation.

Whenever you choose to see, they are yours, the cluster says.

“If I may,” Horatio says. “There is still the ZeroGen team to deal with. I have logged a complaint about the hostile interaction we have experienced on Io7.”

Kaityn turns back towards the suspended soldiers.

They intercepted our self’s cries when we separated, nu says. They followed us when we fell.

That makes sense to Kaityn. Even if ZeroGen didn’t feel nur’s distress, the energy reading would explain how they arrived so fast, if they were already in the sector—chasing an unknown signal the way Kaityn did.

“What will you do with them?” Kaityn asks the cluster.

We will carry them back to their base of operations and release them from stasis, nur replies. They will not be harmed, and their memories will not be tampered with. They will simply have wasted fuel and resources in this endeavor to do harm.

Kaityn lets their breath out in relief. “Thank you. For not hurting them.”

There is no value in violence, nur says. Its sum equals only pain, and we do not wish to bring pain upon anyone. We hope, in time, your people will understand this.

“I hope so too.”

Nu floats upwards into nur cluster, is welcomed back with affection and joy, and reconnects into the synaptic threads of the whole.

The ZeroGen team is pulled gently into the light, along with their shuttle.

“Will we see each other again?” Kaityn asks.

Naturally. The cluster gives off pleasant, soothing reassurance. We are part of the universe and so are you. We continue onward. So do you.

“I’d like that,” Kaityn says, and lifts their hand to wave. It’s not goodbye; it is until we share again.

“This will be quite the report,” Horatio says as Kaityn begins their careful walk back to their rover. They’ve repacked the emergency blanket and will clean moon dust off it later.

They need to lie down; the overstimulation is fast catching up to them and it will take six hours or more of sleep to compensate for the effects of the encounter. Then they will self-sooth by playing one of their favorite video games installed in their quarters: the newest PuzzleCroft, or the Star Harvest sim. They’ll need to decompress over the next few days, too, and access Horatio’s self-care subroutines to help them process all of this. They nearly died, and that isn’t a shock easily brushed aside.

“GEP will be…” Kaityn leans against the hood of the rover. They’re still aware of the shimmering halo-effect around their helmet, the gifted glimpses of the universe. For later, when they can savor and appreciate the offering in full.

“Excited?” Horatio offers. “This is confirmed first contact with another sapient extraterrestrial species.”

Kaityn is too tired to parse the correct words. This is first contact, yes; their helm cam will display a visual and auditory record, and Horatio—

Horatio. Kaityn’s face heats with sudden embarrassment. “I’ve never asked you if you have pronoun preference, Horatio. I’m so sorry.”

“Apology accepted, and please do not berate yourself,” the AI says. “While my programmers coded me as male due to, I assume, an overwhelming influence of male-ID’d droids in popular media, I’ve come to think of myself as ze/zir.”

Their heart swells, bolstered by hope, relief, and kinship. Kaityn grins. “That’s awesome.”

“Indeed,” ze says.

“With your corroboration and my helm feeds and report, I think GEP will believe us. Perhaps one day nur and nur cluster will visit us all.”

“That is my wish, too.”

“Horatio,” Kaityn asks as they steer their rover back towards their ship, “do we have any art supplies aboard?”

“Affirmative,” ze replies. “GEP regulations do allow for a percentage of cargo weight to be allotted to creative pursuits vital for mental health. There are markers, paper, and a paint app tablet aboard. Plan to take up drawing?”

“More like resuming,” Kaityn says. “I once told my mom that when I fly in space, I’d collect all the colors for her.” They can see more shades and hue in the sky, in the dust, in the distant gleam of stars. Another small gift the cluster left them. “It’s time to keep that promise.”

The dark phase of the moon is turning towards the bright star, and soon it will be dawn.

A. Merc Rustad

A. Merc Rustad is a queer non-binary writer who lives in Minnesota. Favorite things include: robots, dinosaurs, monsters, and tea. Their stories have appeared in Lightspeed, Fireside, Apex, Uncanny, Shimmer, Cicada, and other fine venues, with reprints included in The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy (2015 and 2017). Merc likes to play video games, watch movies, read comics, and wear awesome hats. You can find Merc on Twitter @Merc_Rustad or their website: amercrustad.com. Merc also has a debut short story collection, So You Want to Be a Robot, published by Lethe Press (2017).

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