Familiar Planet
Gabrielle Emem Harry

We materialise on a purple planet. Aka first, then Obua, Okana and Usi together, and Ntui last. We’ve never seen a purple one, but it somehow seems familiar.

Is there ever such a thing as a familiar planet? Are all these floating rocks not strange to walking flesh? The songs say any planet is our home, so long as we have kin there. Is that the core of a world? Family?

The blue lights on the viewscreens of our lifesuits indicate that the planet has been terraformed and it’s safe to remove our helmets. The suits are old, and they’ve been wrong before, so we keep our headgear on.

We are greeted by a lone waving figure wearing a lifesuit.

“I’m your guide!” the figure blurts excitedly over the Universal Frequency, which is recognised across the expanse of the galaxy.

It’s not strange that only one person comes to meet us. Sometimes no one does. What is strange is a guide that speaks only for themself. Maybe they do not form pods on this planet. Our people mostly cleave together, but maybe they don’t have to, here.

Our guide sings out kinsong to us. We do not know the words—they differ from planet to planet, but the tune stays the same.

Members of a tribe scattered across stars, all we have in common is a long-dead planet and a fast-dying history, but we call each other family in our songs.

We hum along absentmindedly, watching the ground glitter under our feet. We’ve seen many planets like this one, with dull skies, no sun to call their own and not a star in sight. But we’ve never seen a planet where the soil shines. It takes us a while to realise that it is the sand itself, and not something scattered in it.

We wonder what grows from it, if anything can grow here. What will grow from soil that light dances off of? Will it sparkle? Will it dance? Will it sprout dead, or deadly?

The song ends and we start to move. The five of us and the guide glide toward a pink dome in the distance. We walk in pairs as usual, ignoring the empty spot in the back.

We all connect our receptors to the settlement’s homeframe to listen to normsongs to learn local etiquette. All except Usi. Usi never bothers. We are always complaining about Usi’s refusal to socialise. Usi thinks it’s easier to just copy what the rest of us are doing. We’re never on one planet long enough for it to matter anyway. And there’s no point of making friends with family we will never see again.

It’s hard to read body language outside while people are wearing lifesuits and helmets but it’s obvious from the way our guide leans forward on their toes as if they will defy their gravity-adjusted suit and jump into the atmosphere at any minute, gloved hands swinging back and forth, that speaks of expectation. Maybe they hope to form a connection. Expectation. Hope. We know that things like that can only grow in someone who has been firmly anchored on one planet all their life. Things like that float away in space.

The normsongs on the homeframe are close to useless, details of surface area and gravity over an insistent drum beat being interrupted by hisses of white noise. They don’t even tell us how to address our guide or what distinctions matter on this planet.

We’ve been on planets where the only differences they acknowledge are between those who live and that which does not and on planets where those with certain organs are valued above others. We’ve been on planets where the kin we sought out were considered human and others where they were classified as cattle. We are numb to norms, but we do not want to be disrespectful. We cannot afford to be.

On our way to the dome, we do not see any buildings or people, only holographic projections advertising goods and services. One hazy green hologram is showing clips of a tree-lined settlement of identical boxy structures, and repeating “Why stay? Port today!” Another insistent hologram is offering a service that allows two consciousnesses to be placed in one body, shouting “Two-in-one! Two-in-one! Tested and trusted! Tested and trusted! One body, no stress!”

We wonder what sort of cutting-edge technology they have developed on this planet that allows them to house two minds in one body. Is it a solution for overpopulation? How did they achieve it? Could there be a form of spiritweaving involved?

The fabric between worlds is thinner on some planets. Or the spirits of the inhabitants are sharper, honed by harshness and willing to cut through heavy suffocating realities. That is common on dying worlds. This doesn’t seem like a dying world though. The surface of a dying thing does not usually shine.

We reach the dome, and the guide takes Usi’s arm. They place one foot flat on the side of the dome and walk up the smooth pink surface toward the top, dragging Usi up with them. We each place one foot in front of the other, putting our faith in the magnetic function of our boots. All our lifesuits are old but the boots on Usi’s are at least third-hand boots.

Okona is the one who bought them from one of the grasping traders who hang around Warpstations, selling anything from dehydrated plantain strips and pepper soup powder to lifesuit spare-parts. The trader swore on their homeplanet’s core that the boots were original Emeksons, but we’ve never seen Emekson boots that particular loud shade of green. It was probably the colour that drew Okona’s attention. Okona loves green. We insisted on getting them for Usi. Maybe we thought they would cheer us up, having something bright around. They do not, but Usi wears them for us anyway, so the lifesuit is black from crown to knees, where it sprouts green.

We reach the top of the dome, where the guide traces a pattern with their finger and a circle big enough for a body to pass through opens up. They step in and are swallowed up. We hesitate above the hole until an arm reaches out and drags Usi in, then we follow.

Suddenly our arms and legs are heavier and slower, as we adjust to the gravity within the dome. We twist off our helmets and our guide turns to face us after doing the same.

Their skin has an orange undertone. We wonder how much of it is cosmetics and how much is a natural variation from our own bluish skin. We can still see a resemblance that time and space cannot erase. Even when blood thins, its ties hold strong. Their bottom lip is full in the middle like Ntui’s, and they have a dimple on their left cheek like Aka and Obua do when they smile. They are smiling now.

“My name is Iyan. Do you understand?” our guide says in Eyi, our ancestral language. We are surprised to hear it. It was rarely spoken by our kin. Only Nomads like us care enough about preserving culture to actually learn the language beyond what is necessary for rites and to understand songs. We have to care. Our survival depends on it.

Aka nods and answers back in Eyi, ignoring Usi’s bitter frown.

We travel from planet to planet seeking shelter and refuge with nothing to offer but the promise of history and the knowledge of a people forgotten. We act as reminders, keeping people from forgetting themselves. We are proof of a connection across space and time.

That was what we were taught. We are not parasites or inconveniences, like we’ve been told on other worlds. We are not parasites. How can a parasite preserve?

Melo used to say we carried saving songs in the fullness of our lower lips. Melo always had a way with words. Maybe all betrayers do.

Iyan leads the pod to the middle of the room, where the floor looks like something has taken a scoop out of it.

In the middle of the indentation, there are two bowls, one of swallow and one of soup.

Our mouths water at the sight. We’ve been surviving on chalky nutrient-optimized garri soaked in what little water we could spare since the last planet. A warm meal is more than worth the aggravation of new normsongs and odd relatives.

Mats of welcome are laid out in a circle for us to sit on while we eat. It is a lovely gesture. Not many bother with such traditions anymore. The mats are not the usual dark colours. These ones are a shouting yellow with splashes of white, a shade brighter than some stars.

“I wove the mats myself,” Iyan announces with a smile almost as bright as the mats. “Well… I didn’t weave them exactly, but I chose the pattern and the colour and I uploaded them onto the printer.”

“They’re… beautiful,” Aka lies, after an extended silence.

Of everyone in the pod, Aka is the most likely to try and make sure things go smoothly between us and our hosts. The most skilled at mediation, at bartering, at begging. It might have something to do with the slightness of Aka’s frame, the wideness of the eyes, the fear in them, that makes people want to help, to help us. The fear of friction keeps Aka’s tongue wet with compliments and praises, most of which are lies. The weight of it keeps Aka’s neck forever bent at an appealing angle. We hate it. We hate that it keeps us alive. As Iyan directs an endless stream of chatter about Eyi honorifics and legacies of spiritweaving, Aka is the only one attempting to answer, managing to get maybe two words in between bites of food and Iyan’s flood of words.

We watch each other’s reactions as we eat, but we don’t bother watching Aka. The food could taste the bottom of our boots and there’d be no reaction except for a small smile and that wide-eyed look of gratitude. We watch Obua toss a second ball of swallow into the air before dipping it into the soup, smiling. Obua has a face that cannot lie. It is a treacherous thing to have, but we appreciate it.

We are all eating with a restrained focus. Hunger tempered by humility. By respectability. Even when we land on planets days after running out of food, our tongues glued to the roofs of our mouths. Even if we are starving, barely holding on to consciousness and hearing the echoes of our waning heartbeats in our empty stomachs, we have to hold on to that respectability, because it is all we have to hold up to our family to prove we were worthy. Of their time, their food, of the monetary token Aka will inevitably ask for as we take our leave.

We wonder what it is called here, the swallow. They are made of different foodstuffs on different planets of course. Our people make do with whatever grows where they are, but somehow they manipulate whatever grain or powder or tuber they could find into something that could be moulded, dipped and swallowed.

We like to note the colours. Most of the time it is something close to white. On a couple of planets, they’ve given us a greyish-black swallow served in the same bowl as the soup.

It tasted horrible but of course we finished it. The funny thing? We think that type was Aka’s favourite. We know because we didn’t see the usual grateful smile after the first bite. Aka closed those wide convincing eyes, and relished it.

We found Melo’s favourite swallow the year Aka’s back started to bend, on a planet with three moons that sat too close to a star. It was green. One of the last green ones from the days of the First Drain, when the landers still counted hope amongst their belongings. During the mass migrations of the Third and Fourth Drains, packed ships had carried empty souls to spartan grey planets, built hurriedly, desperately, in the face of calamity.

That world was called Akpa. We don’t know what the name means, but we know it means something. Something nostalgic probably, all the settlements in those days were. It was a time of desperate remembering. People like us were respected in those days.

Our hosts were warm. They met us at the warpstation, looking almost eager. We should have known, but how could we have known? Who had ever been that happy to see us? Where had we ever been received with anything but grudging duty?

They gave us a yellow swallow that was sweet instead of bland, with a bright red stew. We had closed our tired eyes, and savoured it. We did not know then, that you must always suspect sweetness. You can never believe in brightness. You can’t trust yellow.

After the meal, Iyan shows us to our sleeping quarters and promptly begins to strip down alongside us. We pause until Aka coughs quietly, prompting us to continue. Obua shrugs, folding clothes, unbothered.

Fully changed into loose sleeping clothes, Iyan looks up shyly, “I hope you don’t mind, but this is my pod’s old sleeping quarters. The rest of the building isn’t exactly… habitable. I can only maintain so much by myself.”

“Oh, what happened to the rest of your pod?” Ntui asks, tapping a tune on the wall, concerned. Ntui is always concerned, always wary.

“It’s not by force for them to tell us what happened.” Okona says, throwing a look of disapproval at Ntui.

Okona and Usi are alike in that way, not fond of asking questions, or answering them. Reluctant to get involved.

“No, that’s fine. I like talking!”

“We’ve noticed.” Obua says under a breath. We all hear it of course, because Obua’s whispers always carry.

“They left.” Iyan says cheerfully, pretending not to hear Obua.

“Left as in…?” Aka prompts, always more obnoxiously inquisitive than Ntui, but subtle.

“They decided to port to a new settlement. NGSA-188.

“And they left you?” Usi asks.

“Usi!” Aka snaps, glaring.

“They just… left you behind?” Ntui asks this time.

“No.” Iyan says, and it echoes. “I decided to stay. And they decided to leave.”

“Chei.” Obua sighs.

“They say it has trees.”

“Trees?” Ntui asks hesitantly.

“Yes,” Iyan says, slamming the storage unit shut, “Big trees. People climb them for fun.”

“They went there to be climbing trees?” Obua asks, perplexed.

“That’s what I asked!” Iyan says, hands flying up in frustration.

Obua laughs, and so does Iyan. Ntui is smiling, hand still on the wall, but no longer tapping. Ntui is never still. Okona’s eye roll is slow and exaggerated, meaning it’s one of amusement instead of annoyance. Aka and Usi both frown.

“Anyway… they wanted to go to a planet with trees…and a moon. Where they can see the stars. I like this one though.” Iyan says, sitting on a sleeping mat, “This is home. What’s my business with stars? Even the dirt shines here.”

Iyan seems so resigned. We cannot imagine how it must feel to be so completely abandoned. We feel Melo’s absence like a missing organ, so we know Iyan must feel like a heart ripped from a body, out in the cold, but still somehow beating.

We think of Melo as something we lost. As if we could ever lose someone so big, so loud and forceful. Melo was almost as loud as Obua, probably still is.

Melo was gone the moment we saw Ediye-Canaan. It was the green. Or maybe it was the yellow. Or the red. It was the colour after so much black with spots of white. It was the sweetness and the safety. Melo traded it for duty and left the rest of us to carry this load, now a little heavier with a pillar gone.

In the aftermath of that departure, we wondered how much of our fuel was desperation? Were we moved by the spirit of preservation? Or were we pushed from planet to planet by aggravated hosts, releasing us as burdens into orbit.

We’ve left the wound of Melo festering, as a reminder not to trust anyone outside of us, but now we are all realising at once that the wound we ignored has healed on its own. It took Iyan prodding at the scar for us to notice.

Inside the void that Melo left, we found our purpose. It is a selfish one. It is the survival of this body, of all the remaining parts, Aka, Ntui, Obua, Okana and Usi. But still, there is that phantom pain.

What is happening here with Iyan, with this empty building and this smile that is so genuine in its desperation…it feels like relief, like completeness. It is making Obua laugh and making Ntui calm. Making Okana curious and Aka feel safe enough to show displeasure and making Usi annoyed enough to not be sad. It is making us realise that it’s time to release duty into orbit, and sit on yellow mats. To land, and watch the ground dance under our toes.

Gabrielle Emem Harry (she/her) is a Nigerian speculative fiction writer. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Efiko Magazine, Omenana Magazine, Kenga Magazine and PRIDE: An Anthology of Diverse Speculative Fiction.

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