This is just one ordinary day in Senchai’s new life. So far, it’s not going well.
People say that the asteroid that destroyed 47 Piscium was set in motion by a passing star. That it was a handful of dust coalesced into rock, with a bare nothing of a molten core, minding its own business out on the far reaches of traversed space, until its nearest star puffed off its outer layers in a radiant twinkling and it tumbled into history contrariwise to the spin of the galaxy. Senchai isn’t sure she understands that – how that sequence of relativistic forces led to a crater hundreds of metres across and a cloud of ash blocking out the midday sun – but she’s pretty sure, first of all, that she knows what that felt like, that sudden lurch into uncharted territory, and, second of all, that there is a direct causal relationship between that bright burst of stellar energy and the fact that she, Senchai of Signa and Earth and Nazer, respected attorney-at-law, is sitting on her office floor crying into the powdered steaming remains of her morning cup of coffee.
Chrissie does a couple more pull-ups on the door frame, her arm muscles tensing visibly, her feet landing with firm thumps on the honey stone floor, and then realises. “Oh, no, did the vibration push your coffee off the table? Oh, honey, I’m sorry, I’ll go get you another one, okay?”
Chrissie’s too kind to mention the tears, Senchai notes dispassionately. She leans against the wall, the stone warm against her cheek, and listens to the sound of Chrissie sweeping up the debris and then to the distant whistle of boiling water. By the time she can smell the fresh coffee, she’s back at her desk, looking through her case docket for the day, making notes of points of law she wants to check before the hearing. A flash of Chrissie’s warm presence and then there’s a cup at her elbow; Senchai takes a sip while reading about the original Signan Lands Acts.
Then Chrissie says, “Oh, hey, Senchai, you know we’re out of paperclips?” – and Senchai is crying again, really crying, tears dripping down her nose along the same tracks as before, landing with disturbing swiftness in the dust on her desk. For a long moment, there’s no sound but her breathing and the rattles of beads in the mild desert wind. The office, like many in Nazer and on 31 Piscium, is built within a natural cave structure. Instead of doors and internal partitions, they have long strings of rough wooden fragments, threaded on twine and cut to fit. The beads rattle. Senchai cries.
“Honey,” Chrissie says, after a while, tossing her dreadlocks over her shoulders, “it’s nothing to do with the paperclips, is it?”
The ridiculous thing is that it is something to do with the paperclips, as well as with that same small asteroid rocking through space towards the Magellanic Clouds. They are running out of paperclips because there are none to be had in any of the small retail establishments in town, nor can any be sent for from anywhere else; everything here on 31 Piscium is bought or given away the moment it’s unloaded from the ship holds. What they do have in excess is people, eating food and drinking potable water and using paperclips to hold together the letters they’re sending to everyone they know to say they’re safe: that the warning system, installed at great effort and expense thirty years before around the colony world of 47 Piscium, worked, and at the time of impact, thousands of tonnes of solid rock and newly molten metal smashing squarely into the southern continent most of them, but not all, were already in deep space. Public opinion is divided between those who demand angrily, often of thin air, why humanity’s first foothold on another world should have been on 47 Piscium, a planet known for centuries to be the largest of an orbiting field of rocky debris, and are reminded gently of its soft soils and absence of height or depth, a whole world of calm, gentle fertility; and those who demand angrily why the refugees all have to come here to 31 Piscium, the closest colony world, and why their water is rationed and why are there not enough paperclips. (And those who say nothing but calmly resolve to eat a little less and wash a little less often, and make do with a lower dose of their medication.)
Human melodrama, Senchai is thinking: such unnecessary self-sacrifice. Senchai is human on her father’s side of the family, but the fact often doesn’t figure in her interior monologue.
“If you’ve got a needle and thread somewhere,” Chrissie says, her lips curled up, “I can sew your documents together. I’m sure the court won’t mind. I’ll do it when I get back, though –just going for a quick run around the block.”
Senchai considers telling her about the weight of the paperclips required to hold together the Nazer District Court regulations merely on the subject of the presentation and formatting of court-lodged documents, or about the effect of 31 Piscium’s sand-laden air on Chrissie’s wholly-human physiology, and decides against it on both counts. Because that’s it, isn’t it: the coffee cup Chrissie brought is warm and comforting, and so is the air in the room, thick with desert heat and solitude. It’s what Senchai wants.
• • •
Nick comes in an hour or so later, his pupils dilating in the relative dimness. He’s sweating from the effect of the desert sun, the crisp creases of his shirt beginning to wilt. He rummages through the piles on his desk, fanning and scattering them, papers making waterfalls into the dust. “Can’t be helped,” he murmurs, perhaps to himself. Looking up, he asks, “Shall I toddle down and issue then, Senchai?”
Senchai has a flash of something then that could be intuition, or logic, or what the humans still insist on mistranslating as “magic”: signene, that makes them what they are. “You wish to issue a claim?” she asks. “I will come with you. Chrissie will hold the fort, as you say.”
“No probs.” Chrissie toasts them with her cup, and Nick and Senchai pause to gather their materials in their arms and set out on the short walk around the corner. On Signa, justice must be done and seen to be done; Signan courts convene by custom under a broad-crowned tree.
The clerk rises at the sight of them walking down the shady street, nodding at them both. “Senchai of Nazer, and” – her eyes rest on Nick – “client? Name?”
“Ah, no,” Senchai says. “I am no longer a sole practitioner. I am joined by Nicholas Campbell and Crystal Lorde, both trained on Earth with rights of audience before Signan courts.” The clerk’s stylus tracks, and Senchai holds up a hand. “Also – we shall be acting only on the Lands Act claims.”
The clerk says, “Your family work – small commercial…”
“No longer.” Senchai’s tone is more severe than she meant it to be; the clerk says nothing more. The first hearing of the day is in session as they move into the clear space of the court. Nick sits down cross-legged, right foot over left, seemingly without thinking about it. Senchai smiles to herself: perhaps he has had the training in Signan jurisprudence, after all.
“Allow me to sum up,” the judge is saying. “You” – a pause for shuffling papers – “Teller of Nazer, did on the coming of the spring this year sell your neighbour several containers of seed, predicting a standard growth yield for the batch within a ten percent tolerance. It appears that the seeds have yielded…”
“Five times as much,” calls a voice from the bench, presumably the defendant.
The judge acknowledges the interruption. “And after that the refugees from 47 Piscium arrived, so we consider this a blessing. You, Teller of Nazer, are now applying for an overage payment in respect of the yield.”
Teller stands up and nods his head. “Not for the whole amount,” he says. “But for the excess, perhaps the original price could be paid over again…”
“Such a thing is contrary to nature,” the judge says, cutting him off gently. “It is” – and he makes the gesture, fingers curled against the grain of the webbing, so the court know the word is coming – “signene. And it is the oldest settled law of our people that where signene lies, no cause of action can. This is how things must be. I elect to dismiss.”
The man takes it with no bad grace; he rises, bows, and walks out of the shade of the tree.
“Next,” the judge says, taking the brief from the clerk, “the first Lands Act case of the day. Elan, now of Nazer. Advocate? Nicholas Campbell. What did your mothers call you, Nicholas Campbell?”
“Nick,” Nick says, standing and bowing, a little clumsily. Senchai places a hand on his elbow to steady him.
“Ah.” Nick hesitates before speaking. “My client, sir. Elon of Nazer.”
The judge consults his notes. “Elan of Nazer, it says here.”
“Ah,” Nick says, uncertainly, “yes” – and Senchai wonders at it. Perhaps it is because he is not accustomed to inquisitorial justice, made nervous by the clear-eyed focus on him. His client sits quietly on the ground, eyes on the judge. “Anyway” – more hesitation – “my client is, in, ah, an unhappy position.”
“As are all those making Lands Act claims, Nick. A little more expedition.”
“His mother owned land on 47 Piscium. It was left to her sister on her death, of natural causes, last winter. My client would have been in line of succession, eventually. But his mother and his mother’s sister, and his siblings and cousins – well, you know. He didn’t have any cousins. But the other things. And as his aunt held the land he is a nephew, which is not within the human lines of descent within the Acts. I hope that’s clear.”
The judge says, “Have you the deeds?”
An apologetic glance at Senchai, a shift from foot to foot, and then Nick is looking at the judge again. “It was rather a mess this morning,” he offers, and then pauses. Senchai notices his eyes flickering from side to side, as though he’s waiting in fear of something. Her own wrath, perhaps.
The judge sighs, an audible sigh rattling across the space beneath the tree. “It appears to me,” he says, “that the equitable resolution to the claim is quite clear. Elan of Nazer, I grant you land under the auspices of my jurisdiction and the Modern 47 Piscium Lands Acts, to compensate and comfort in the loss of your hearth and home; the clerk shall draft the order and you shall take it to the registry in due course. But” – his voice sharpens – “that is despite, rather than because of your advocacy, Nicholas Campbell.” Senchai flinches; the full name is an insult. “Bring the deeds to the clerk in the afternoon.”
Nick nods and bows again; the next case is brought up, the next client’s name read.
“Advocate, Senchai of Nazer,” says the judge. “What did your mothers call you, Senchai of Nazer?”
The issue is purely procedural – a claim under the Acts that was a mere day or so out of time, because of the plaintiff’s sudden illness – and Senchai goes through the rituals of the jurisprudence automatically, with her eyes on Nick. She’s wondering if she made a mistake.
• • •
When the court breaks for the afternoon all Senchai wants is silence – perhaps just the quiet space of her life as it used to be, before the noise of the impact and the misery and the two Earth-trained lawyers with their endless things to say. But when she arrives back at the office the doors are all open to the sounds of passing people and traffic, and Chrissie, assisted by two volunteers she appears to have pulled in off the street, is carrying a gigantic purple shrub in a makeshift pot into the office, dropping spiky scraps of foliage and twigs everywhere.
“What,” Senchai begins, but Chrissie waves her away.
“Long story, Senchai, don’t worry about it. Come on then, I was just about to go get some lunch.”
And that’s what happens – that’s what humans do, Senchai thinks with some frustration. Somehow without really wanting to, she’s following Chrissie to one of the small siesta markets that appear and disappear between lunchtime and sunset. Chrissie stops and expertly haggles over a bowl of vegetable soup with some black market rice. Senchai gives up and buys some of the soup for herself, too. She’s not hungry, but then, she rarely is these days. They sit on a low wall to eat it, looking back across the street to Senchai’s little frontage with Chrissie’s and Nick’s names roughly added.
“I wanted to tell you something,” Chrissie says, without preamble, once she’s devoured most of the soup. Chrissie always eats like that, Senchai has noticed – with the single-minded joy of one taking a sacrament. “When I was a kid my mom died. We lived on 47 Piscium back then.”
“I’m sorry for your loss,” Senchai says, startled, automatic.
Chrissie shakes her head. “No big deal. I hadn’t been back for years when the rock hit. I blew off my high school reunion. But Mom died, and then it was just Dad and me. And I love the Signans, Senchai, I do.” A pause. “I don’t, I guess. I mean, sometimes I love them, sometimes I don’t, like they’re my own people. But then it was just Dad and me, humans alone in this little edge-settlement town. 47 Piscium wasn’t so big of a place back then and I was young, I acted out.” She shrugs. “I want you to know you can do what you want, Senchai. You lost some of your family, didn’t you?”
Senchai lets out a sigh because this, this is what humans do. “Yes.”
“So – you know, I just wanted to tell you, you can stay home when you feel bad, smash some stuff. You want to sit in the corner and cry, that’s okay too.”
Senchai shakes her head. “What I do is my job.”
Chrissie smiles fondly in response at that, and Senchai doesn’t understand it. “Senchai, you’re doing your job. You’re doing it. You got us in to help, and you rearranged your whole practice, and you…”
“And I was here, when it happened; I still have a home.” Senchai has raised her voice without quite meaning to, and she knows her eyes are getting wider with emotion from the way Chrissie is moving backwards in alarm. Senchai’s father used to say that Senchai had eyes like two silver dollars, which was a human, kind way of saying they were large as a curled index finger and with the implacable surface of quicksilver.
But then the moment passes, and Chrissie takes another loving slurp of her soup, and Senchai finally feels moved to try her own. It’s thin and watery. “Tell me something,” Chrissie says, at length. “Your… signene.” Though without the accompanying gesture, she says the word quietly. Senchai approves. “Didn’t you know, that something…”
“That something terrible was going to happen. Yes.” Senchai nods. “Some of us did. My mother spent a day crying at nothing; I threw up. I believed it had been my evening meal. Once the data had been collected…”
“It was too late.” Chrissie makes a wry expression, not quite a smile. “I guess it’s never like fairy tales. I guess we have to go back to work.”
“Precisely.” Senchai helps Chrissie up, and they walk back across the street.
• • •
There are still two hours before the evening session. Chrissie goes out to visit a client at home and Senchai sits down to work, noticing that the purplish shrub from earlier has been carefully moved to a large glass bucket, its roots bathed in water. She shakes her head at it and sits down at her desk, beginning on her afternoon briefs.She works solidly for a short while, making handwritten notes for later reference, when she hears the strange sound, the movement somewhere near her feet, and gets down to her hands and knees to investigate with a sigh.
“I’m fine,” Nick says, irritably. He’s sitting, Senchai notes, almost exactly in the same spot she chose in the morning; some of the white dust from the smashed cup is now on his hands. With his head against the stone wall, his eyes are closed. “I’m fine, Senchai. Just… a bad mental health day.”
“Ah,” Senchai says, understanding a number of things all at once, and goes into the kitchen to heat up some water. Nick doesn’t drink coffee, but she pours the boiling water into two cups and adds a precious slice of fresh lemon to each. She puts Nick’s cup directly into his hand, so he doesn’t have to open his eyes, and sits down next to him to sip from her own.
“Surely,” he says after a minute, still aware of her presence, “you have better things to do.”
“No.” Senchai takes another sip from her cup. “But I will leave if you wish.”
He opens his eyes at that, glances at her quickly, but doesn’t say she should leave. “Thanks for this,” he says, after a moment, gesturing gently with the cup. With some interest, he adds, “I thought… well. I thought Signans weren’t too good with this” – he taps the side of his head – “sort of thing.”
“Historically, they were not.” Senchai thinks about that, and drinks more of the lemon water. “People with illnesses of the mind were feared. For… what they might do.” She makes the gesture with third finger and thumb in conjunction, to avoid saying it: it is not right to use the word around a person already upset. “What you mistranslate as magic.”
“Ah,” Nick says, and she admires his wry, lawyer’s intelligence, evident even here on the floor in the dust. “A little bit of paranoia in the wrong person, then crash bang boom.”
“Yes. It is thought,” she goes on, slowly, “that this is why such illnesses are not common, with us. The genetic component to the condition has long since been” – she pauses, delicately – “eradicated.”
“Ah,” Nick says, again. “Well, that’s – terrifying.”
His voice is still wry, but he seems to shrink for a moment, pressing further against the wall. It takes Senchai another minute to perceive the disjunct in their understanding. “Do not think it was not a terrible thing,” she says, quickly. “The worst of things. If someone were to threaten you for your illness, I would pick up that thing there” – she points to the purple shrub with its spiked leaves and twigs – “and make your defence.”
Nick laughs, shakily. “I believe you would, Senchai. And then bring an action for the damage inflicted on your property by their face.”
“Sometimes that is necessary,” she says, primly, because she thinks it will make him laugh again. It does, a little, and she leans back against the wall in unconscious echo of him, enjoying the warmth of the cup.
“Senchai,” Nick says after a while, “may I ask you a personal question?”
She considers. “Yes,” she says, “like for like.”
“That’s the Signan way.” Nick nods. “You and me, we look similar on the outside, but inside we’re completely different right? I guess I don’t mean you and me, I mean, humans and Signans. We’re different. Different species. But you… you’re half-Signan and half human. Is that because of the” – he made the hand gesture – “signene? I’m sorry to use the word, if it offends you.”
“It does not offend me,” Senchai says, calm and expressionless. “Electricity will create an arc across space, to complete a circuit; so it is with us. When the physical things of the world are not enough, the signene will fill that space.”
“Equity sees as done what ought to be done,” Nick says, and she nods, pleased with the analogy.
“Quite. So it is with us; so it is with me.”
“Can’t have been a lot of people like you around, when you were growing up,” he says. “Guess you spent a lot of time alone.”
“Quite,” Senchai said, still expressionless; she’s irritated at the softening of his expression.
“It’s okay,” he says, and she resists the urge to ask him, indignantly, why suddenly he is consoling her. “It’s okay. Chrissie and me – we can learn to be quiet.” He looks up at her, his eyes bright and his hands shaking.
“Like for like,” she says, sharply: that’s the Signan way. For every secret given and every confidence demanded, an equal and opposite reaction. “Nick. Are you taking your medication?”
His head snaps up, eyes bright with anger for a moment, then swiftly fading. He glances up at her again, and down at his feet; it takes a moment, but he is a good lawyer and he knows the rules. “I just, I saw it,” he mutters, “and I thought, what can I do, I can do pro bono, but I did that before, Senchai, I did that before a planet got obliterated. And they were saying can you do with a little less. Can you manage without the full dose? And I thought I’ve been medicated half my life. They’ve got plenty to be anxious about right now.”
“You self-sacrificing idiot,” Senchai says, and is alarmed at the degree of fondness that has come into her voice. “Nick, the evening listing will begin soon. Are you ready?”
“It’s my job to be,” he says, and it’s hers, too, so she gets up to return to her desk, but pauses one more second, and touches his shoulder briefly, and catches the flash of his smile.
• • •
“Next. Nizramuddin of 47 Piscium, now Nazer. Advocate, Nicholas Campbell, whose mothers called him Nick.” A pause; Senchai wonders if the judge is going to offer a comment on Nick’s earlier performance, but the pause lengthens into nothingness and the moment passes.
“I had only one mother,” Nick says, ironically and lightly, “as is more common among my people, but that is correct. May I proceed, sir?”
“Do.” The judge pauses again. “Although my clerk reports you have not, once again, provided the deeds to the land. This is a Lands Act claim, is it not, Nick?”
The judge is matching him for ironic, and Senchai breathes in deeply, but Nick meets his eyes with equanimity. “Yes, sir. The crux of the case revolves around that particular point. My client was born on 47 Piscium to a family who had been working its land for as long as there have been humans and Signans to work its land.”
Had been, he should have said; there is a minute pause while Senchai and the whole court notice that, and then let it go.
“The land came to my client from his mothers. The land came to them from theirs.”
“I understand the nature of the thing,” the judge says, not unkindly. “No one demands that the refugees stopped to gather the deeds to their land as the klaxons sounded.”
Nick nods, and Senchai shakes her head, for some people did do just that. When the first family stumbled into the office with their arms full of crackling yellowed paper, she remembers that she took a long look around the room, wondering what she would take, should the planet-wide alarms start blaring at that very moment and pull her world from beneath her. She looked, and did not decide.
“However,” the judge continues, “there is the central registry of land proprietorship.”
“With respect, sir, there is not.” Nick puts his hands on his hips and leans back slightly. “Land registration on 47 Piscium, as here, recorded transfers, assignments and mortgages of land. When my client’s ancestors arrived on 47 Piscium all those scores of years ago, they made landfall on what would be their own land. Their own land: never for value given; never in other hands.”
Senchai can see the signs of his lack of calm in his wringing hands, but Nick’s voice is steady.
“And now, if you’ll forgive me” – Nick turns – “just for a moment” – and Senchai follows his gaze away from the judge to Chrissie and the clerk, struggling slightly with their burden of a giant purplish shrub, dropping foliage in a long trail behind them. Others seated on the ground shuffle rapidly out of their way to let them pass, and the judge looks on as they set it down in between of him and Nick. Chrissie puts a hand on Nick’s shoulder as she returns to her spot on the ground.
“This is what my client brought,” Nick says softly and a little dangerously. “This is what came with him in his arms from a dying world.”
“Nick,” the judge began, and is perhaps about to say something familiar to Senchai’s ears about human melodrama, but Nick sighs and the sound is strangely loud, even in that outdoor, quotidian space: it sounds like exhaustion, tempered with hope.
“The water,” he says, “in the twigs and leaves has been replaced by the tap water of Nazer. The rest endures.”
He bows, and straightens, and it’s over. Nick’s breathing is coming rapidly when he sits down next to Senchai, and there is a slightly jerky cast to his movements, but somehow Senchai isn’t surprised when the judge grants the application for land for the client, despite the lack of deeds. “It is held,” he says, “to be within the spirit of the Acts.”
Later, Senchai, Nick and Chrissie walk quietly along the shady road, winding beneath the canopies of other trees.
“Signene,” Senchai says, after a while, making the gesture with her eyes on Nick. “What could not be done, has been done.”
“I’m human, Senchai,” Nick says, tiredly. “I don’t think that’s how it works.”
“You have been here some time,” she says. “You will become like us.” Tentatively, looking around for passers-by, she makes the sign again, fingers curled into thumb, and places it against his skin, at the hollow at the base of his collarbones. Too late she remembers his anxiety and that perhaps he might not wish to be touched, but his eyes on her are calm and kind, not unhappy, as though he understands it’s a blessing. He holds her gaze for a moment, and then she takes her hand away.
“We should eat before we head back,” Chrissie says with determination. “It’s getting late.”
Senchai nods in return. The light of explosion from 47 Piscium took time to cross space, so for a few minutes, it existed as it did before, peaceful in the night sky. Perhaps, she’s thinking, this is the same thing: shocks and sudden tears taking their time to reverberate through the ground. Perhaps if they eat together, and take their time over the meal, there will be no more time, tonight at least, for solitude, and sorrow.
“My treat,” Nick says. “Somewhere quiet.”
Senchai smiles at that. They keep walking, beneath the trees, beneath the cooling evening sky.
Iona is a writer, lawyer and linguaphile, and the product of more than one country. Other than speculative fiction, her interests are mostly in politics and land rights. This is her first published story, but her other writing may be found at www.generalist.org.uk/iona, and she tweets as @singlecrow.