Footprints

Author : Jim Wisniewski

They say the wind carries the souls of the dead, forever blowing to remind us of things past. At least, that’s what the kasht say, but then our worlds usually have less wind than Tun Ekshati. Most humans don’t believe it.

Marcus might. He’s been here long enough.

“You have to make them reconsider!”

We sit in the local equivalent of a bar, carved in rounding curves into the side of a rock face. Wind blowing through carefully shaped channels along the outer ledge plays a quiet, mournful note that changes with gusts and lulls. Kasht aesthetics dictate transience and minimalism. Dwellings are carved to look like natural hollows in the rock, structures built without metal requiring continual repair. Neglected for a few centuries, wind and sand would scour away even the largest community without a trace. It’s like they’re embarrassed they exist at all.

I shake my head. “Marcus, be reasonable. None of the Union admission criteria are met. The kasht aren’t independently spacefaring, have nothing valuable to trade and show little interest in contact with offworlders. We can’t justify the energy cost of maintaining the gate metric.”

I drain the last of my bowl of the locally favored drink, syrup-thick and heavy with vegetable fats. The proprietor flits over to clean off the floor between us, twittering praises to generous patrons in his own tongue as he works. Marcus, long since fluent, smiles and whistles a thank-you in response.

He’s clearly comfortable here. He ought to be, as the local xenoanthropologist for almost eighty standard years. His own cleft dwelling is virtually indistinguishable from a native’s. They’re just as clearly fond of him. They call him ikoberat-kinei, “Pillar-of-dawn,” because of his blond hair and after a mythic immortal from their folklore.

He faces me with a solemn look. “I’m worried that…” He pauses, hesitates. “This all seems like a soap bubble sometimes. I’m worried that if I’m not here to watch it, everything will disappear.” He gestures expansively, taking in the whole room. “What if I want to return?”

“You can take a slowboat. I’m truly sorry, Marcus, but the decision is made.” I gather my feet under me and stand; he follows suit. “They’re closing the gate as soon as we return.”

Marcus performs the traveler’s farewell ritual with the proprietor, and we pull on our facemasks as we approach the door. I step onto the sand, but he halts at the ornamented threshold. “No.”

“What?”

“I can’t do it. I’m staying here.”

“You…” I stop. I recognize the determination on his face, and I can’t force him to come, legally or physically. He’s bigger than me.

He has to know what he’s getting into. It’ll take a slowboat over a century to get back here. Maybe by then he’ll convince them to join the rest of the galaxy.

I just nod, and turn back towards the ship. As I walk, the wind erases each footprint as soon as it’s made.

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