We’re only two days out of orbit, and I already want to go home.
Well, back to the Priory, at least.
Home – my real home – is a whole star system away, and homesickness for the misty woods of my planet numbed to a dull ache long ago. So, until my class completes its final initiation test, the Priory is home. Those old stone halls at least offered some safety from the blackness of space now spread before us.
Usually, I like space. But when I applied to join the Order of the Seventh Orbit, I imagined exploring it in those sleek, white ships, bringing aid and defense with an interstellar sisterhood of strong, kind-faced faithful.
At least, that’s what the holo-ads lead you to expect. They neglect to mention the rigorous classes, or the pious politics, or how the initiation test is a mystery to us, redesigned every year. Designed to break anyone not born for Seventh Orbit sisterhood.
Which is why I’m now sitting alone in the rusty mess hall of a repurposed freight ship, test anxiety burning in my belly, while the rest of my future “sisterhood” whispers amongst themselves, their pretty Earthen eyes flashing in sly glances towards me.
Me, with the “ugly horns” and “woody skin.” Me, with the “soulless eyes” and “ears like dinner-plates.” Me, with the “freaky, alien limbs.”
I couldn’t pass for Earthen if I tried.
Part of me wants to stand up and say something, to call the other girls out for being petty, immature… racist, even. Everything the Order is not supposed to be. But… I’m not very good at speaking human languages, which doesn’t help. I can understand them, and even write most of their dialects. It’s half the reason I was accepted as a Seventh Orbit initiate at all… the other half likely being the Order’s interstellar diversity quota.
But my kind evolved with different priorities than speech, so now my words are just an extra thing for other initiates to mock.
Especially since I’d accidentally broken the ship’s AI translator, six hours out of the Priory flightzone.
By that time, the initiation test had begun and there was no turning back for repairs. Short of life-threatening injury, we were expected to complete the test, or return to the Priory as failures.
The Order of the Seventh Orbit doesn’t accept failures.
I sigh. My name is Kiktikijiket. It means “You Will Grow Strong Despite Winter’s Frost,” but no one in my initiate class pronounces it properly.
Margot, the self-appointed leader, stands at the end of my table, a finger twirling in her brown hair. I nod at her warily.
“We were wondering if you could take watch on the bridge again? Since you have, like,” she shrugs, “an non-Earth sleep cycle?”
Technically, yes, back at home, my kind only sleep in the autumn and winter seasons. But that doesn’t mean I want to take all the worst jobs on the ship, especially during our test.
“I’m sorry, I can’t tonight,” I say in Earthen. Or try to. What Margot hears is likely a collection of stuttered consonants, clacking together like dry branches in the wind. She laughs at me.
“Wow, you really can’t speak like a normal person can you?” she shrugs, “Not exactly sure what you said, but…” Margot smirks, “You’re usually super nice, so I’ll take it as a yes.”
Angry heat rises in me, and I stare up, catching the glint in her eye, a sweetly poisoned dare. Silence from the other initiates blankets the ship, heavy with expectation.
“And,” she leans closer, voice lowering, “Since it was you who broke the translator… it would be the least you could do.”
Anger dies in me, and shame circles like a vulture. She’s right.
So I just nod.
Margot smirks again, voice saccharine, “Thanks, Kitch!” She simpers back to where the others rustle over their meals, derision at my botched words freezing the recycled air between us.
I stare down at the name engraved on my Order mess kit. Kiktikijiket. You Will Grow Strong Despite Winter’s Frost. But right now, surrounded by the coldness of space, and of the humans colonizing it, I do not feel strong.
I feel alone.
Hours later, I slouch in the captain’s chair. The ship’s bridge is a tomb of dim consoles, and the other initiates are asleep, content to let me face the black expanse, to let me take the brunt of whatever the Sisters at the Priory have planted here to test us. To break us.
I still feel alone, but in the hours of silence on the bridge, I wonder if loneliness is not just another kind of winter, a frost all its own. I wonder if I can grow strong despite it. My mother and father would say so. And the Order’s proverbs are full of —
“MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY.”
I fall out of the captain’s chair. The distress call is ten times normal hailing volume, blaring across the empty bridge like a klaxxon.
But that’s not what shocks me.
The words are in my language.
“MAYDAY. This is Last Leaf. Requesting immediate aid. Radiation outbreak, unpurgeable. Escape pods damaged. Seedlings aboard. Is anyone out there? Over.”
I stumble to the communications console, fumbling at buttons too small for my inhuman fingers. I need to wake everyone, to hail the irradiated ship, to do something. My thoughts run rampant. Is this the test? Those are your people, their children. You broke the translator. No one will understand them. Margot won’t listen to you.
And then, like ice, You are alone.
The thought is crushing. Fear and panic burn its edges like midwinter frost.
But… I am Kiktikijiket. I could grow strong despite it.
I have to.
Finally, I find some purchase on a communication key, and I jab at it, opening the channel.
“This is a Seventh Orbit Initiate Vessel. We hear you, Last Leaf. I hear you. You are not alone.”