It wasn’t that the word was unheard of, but Elias had never previously applied it to an alien. He’d grown up on the flotilla, of course, and his first understanding of alien races had come from systems that would give the fleet a ‘gift’ to go away, governments and companies that would call them everything from scavengers and gypsies to space trash and then hire quarian contractors on the side. Apparently they were able to pay his people less for the same job of a local, regardless of what species that was, and the tales he’d overheard those workers tell upon their return had the same simple refrain. “Get in, do your job, keep your head down and get out with your creds. No one likes us out there.”
And until this week on earth he’d been prepared to accept that. But he was at a tiny table in the corner with Corbin, who did have a wet patch on his t-shirt where he’d leant up against the bar, and a few people had come by to congratulate him on his singing and asked if he’d be singing again, to which he’d said ‘Maybe, if I find anything that I know’ and no-one had shot him so much as a dirty look. At least, not that he’d seen. One of the bouncers had even recognised him and come to ask how he was feeling.
“Honestly didn’t think you’d pull through when I found you out back, but Doc’s a wonder, ain’t he?” to which Elias could only agree.
All in all, it was a strange night where Elias felt the city wrap it’s warm arms around him and let him into its heart as a young woman singing I Was Lost Without You by the human pop sensation Samantha Hallick. Given the way the tables had been set up with a view of the stage, he found himself sitting almost shoulder to shoulder with Corbin as they chatted into the evening.
“The hours! You’d think they’d warn you ‘bout the hours,” Corbin said as he took a gulp of his beer. “I always knew it would be hard work, but the amount of things you need to know? In my first year at college at the very first lecture I went to, the prof told us ‘Fifty percent of what we teach you during your time here will be incorrect. The problem is, we don’t know which fifty percent.”
“At least you went for it though,” Elias said. “I was always told I should focus on something a bit more practical. It’s odd really, we love art as much or possibly more than any other species, but we don’t have very many artists of our own.”
“Maybe that’ll change now you got your planet back,” Corbin suggested. “Is your family as musical as you are?”
“Um, no, they’re not,” Elias said, taking a sip of his latest drink. “You know this is really good, what is it?”
“Pelegrin. It’s a Turian Whiskey. I’m told it’s good, but I had to take Jimmy’s rec on that one. And I’m not sure where he got that from either. Glad it’s not some sort of rotgut.”
Elias laughed, “No, it’s probably the best drink I’ve had since getting to earth actually. Um. Where was I?”
“Your family,” Corbin said helpfully.
“Oh, right, well, I’m an only child. My mother was an agronomist but she died during one of the epidemics that used to sweep through the liveships periodically and father…died trying to retake the homeworld a few years back.”
“I’m sorry… if I’d known I wouldn’t have asked.”
“It’s okay, Doc,” Elias said. “I’m dealing, it’s just…it was a stupid war to begin with. The geth didn’t want to fight us anyway and if we’d just tried asking nicely, they’d probably have welcomed us back onto the homeworld. Can you figure? My people have spent nearly three centuries roaming space because we were too stupid or too proud to open up peace talks with the beings we created.”
Corbin shrugged and raised a finger. “One word: Cerberus.”
Elias laughed. “Three decades,” he pointed out.
“Yeah, because the Reapers attacked,” Corbin said. “Your people don’t have a monopoly on stupid you know.”
“Thanks,” Elias said. “I just wish we didn’t run our galactic reputation into the ground while we were figuring it out.”
A warm hand gripped his shoulder. “Hey, look around. Every time you perform, you change us aliens’ perceptions of what quarians are or what they can do.”
Elias stared at Corbin’s face for several moments. “You know I never thought about it that way. Thanks.”
Corbin smiled and seemed to relax. “What’re friends for?”
“Statistical analysis suggests his touch lingered twenty four point zero six seconds longer than is customary amongst human males who are just friends.”
“Shut up!” Elias squeaked.
“Sorry, did you say something?” Corbin asked.
“Um, no,” Elias said, faking a cough. “Just swallowed wrong.”
“Hey, don’t injure yourself now, I’m off duty,” Corbin said with a grin. “Plus I’m not sure how safe my resuscitation techniques would be on you given that they normally require the patient to not be wearn’ an envirosuit.”
“Your galvanic skin response suggests you would not be adverse to the human’s advances.”
This time Elias remembered to keep the conversation inside his suit. “Can we not go there? He’s just being friendly to his new flatmate. Besides, humans are visual creatures aren’t they? Even if he was interested, he hasn’t got any idea what I look like.”
“He’s already seen inside your suit.”
“When he was treating you.”
“Yeah, I’m sure I looked incredibly sexy while I was bleeding out.”
“I’m sure he could tell you’re in excellent physical health, Creator Elias.”
“We are not having this discussion right now.”
“Certainly, would you like me to schedule it for a later date?”
There was a silence after that question that Elias was certain was Pi laughing at him.
“No, thank you,” he said with as much dignity as possible, and went back to watching the next singer.
It was strange to have a routine, but in a few short months, Elias and Corbin had settled into one. Corbin worked his irregular shifts at the clinic, and Elias found himself working his way through the small jazz bars and lounges to the larger, posh ones in on the Lafayette side of the city, although the two men had a standing night out at Jupiter’s on Sundays. It was a night off for both of them, unless Corbin had to cover an emergency, and in a way, Elias felt he owed the bar a little something. With that performance behind him, he booked a gig there the following week, and was soon able to give up his gig at Le Alligator. He and Corbin became used to colour coding things in their tiny shared kitchen but even then, one Saturday Corbin mistakenly made a batch of bolognaise using dextro-Quorn, turning out something that neither of them could stomach biologically and sent Corbin to his own clinic with some of the worst stomach cramps he’d ever experienced.
“What did you do Doc C?” one of the nurses—Paula according to her name tag—had asked when Elias had helped Corbin in, all but holding the larger man up.
“He ate some of my food,” Elias said.
Paula tsked and Corbin was soon lying on a bed hooked up to a number of monitoring machines and given some medication that looked thick and a little lumpy and smelled sharply of chemical flavourings.
“It’s a binding agent,” one of the more senior doctors advised Elias. “It’ll coat the dextro-proteins and prevent his body from trying to process them and he’ll pass them out normally.”
Corbin groaned. “Diarrhoea?”
“Better than the alternative, Corbin.”
Corbin managed a weak grin. “Yeah, I know. Thanks Doctor Renard.”
“And you label your food now!” Paula said, from where she was using an old fashioned cuff to take Corbin’s blood pressure.
“He did, I just didn’t look properly,” Corbin said with a groan. “I was hungry and it was late and—”
Paula tsked again. “And that’s why you need a woman in your life Doc C. Someone to take care of you. Lord knows that place is barely big enough for you let alone the pair of you.”
“Yeah, me and my crippling student debt,” Corbin said. “I think I’m doomed to be single forever, Paula.”
“Oh, I don’t know doc,” Paula said as she lingered in the doorway of the room. “I’m sure there’s women out there who see your better qualities, if you know what I mean.”
Corbin had blushed furiously and moved his chart—that he’d insisted on seeing for himself—in front of his crotch.
“What was that all about?” Elias asked later when they were back home, Corbin lying on the couch and Elias sitting crossed legged on the floor with his databook, going over the latest music scans he’d downloaded that day.
“What was what all about?” Corbin asked from the couch, his face mostly covered by a damp cloth that was currently resting over his eyes and forehead. It was odd not seeing his face framed by his glasses, but then, Elias wondered how odd it would be for his friend if he suddenly started going around without this facemask.
“You and Paula?”
“She flirts with all the doctors,” Corbin said. “I guess it’s just my turn.”
“You…don’t sound particularly excited about it.”
“I’m lying on the couch, with my insides being shredded by dextro-amino acids,” Corbin said. “I’m really not thinking ‘bout women right now.”
“She seemed to think you were impressive,” Elias pressed.
“Well, you know, I’m charming, intelligent, have buns of steel…”
Elias paused. “Wouldn’t buns of steel be inedible even to humans? How is that a desirable quality in a partner?”
“Um, it’s an idiom,” Corbin said, and out of the corner of his eye, Elias could see his friend’s face flushing again. “It means… um… it doesn’t actually refer to food…um…”
Elias burst out laughing and Corbin scowled. “Oh that’s nice, pick on the sick guy. I should have known your translator software would know what that meant.”
“Actually, it was your Men’s Health magazines,” Elias said.
Corbin laughed and then groaned. “Bathroom?” he said, lurching off the coach
Elias scrambled to his feet and steadied his flatmate as Corbin raced for the commode. “Sometimes I wish I had a suit like yours,” he said as he pushed through the door.
“I could probably make you a half-suit,” Elias said as he left, shutting the door behind him. “You’d just have to get used to not wearing pants and having lower body sectioned off and gripped by suction seals.” Then he paused. “Actually that sounds really weird out loud, forget I said anything.”
The next day, Elias ended up at the bar on his own, and although he had a great time with Jacque and the bar regulars, it still felt a bit off kilter and he kept half turning towards Corbin, only to find the other man wasn’t there.
“What you doing out here by your lonesome, sugar?” Turning the other way, he saw Shelley and Kym, a nurse and junior doctor at the Clinic Corbin worked at. He knew Shelley fairly well, as she had been the only other person who had been allowed into the clean room where he’d convalesced other than Corbin. She was short, round and had the most infectious laugh Elias had ever heard. Kym was a slender woman of Korean descent, with delicate features, a sharp wit and, according to Corbin, some of the steadiest surgeon’s hands you could hope to have operate on you. She was a new addition to the clinic staff having come in from the west coast a few months back.
“Well, Corbin’s sick, and mostly sleeping. And… we’re always here on Sundays.”
“You mean, you’re always here on Sundays,” Kym said, sipping her daiquiri. “And he comes to watch you.”
“Well, it’s his local and he’s the one who dragged me in here six months ago, so he…wait, what do you mean, watch me? I don’t always sing.”
“That’s not what she means, sweet pea,” Shelley also seemed constitutionally incapable of calling anyone by their actual name. If she liked you. If she didn’t like you, then you got your real name. Unless she really didn’t like you, then you got a nickname that wasn’t sweet in any way, shape or form.
“Well, what does she…” Elias stopped and turned to Kym. “What did you mean?”
“Elias, Corbin’s totally into you.”
Elias shot a glance over towards the piano, but Jacques was currently in the middle of the nightly rendition of Anywhere But Here, a song from the most recent summer blockbuster that was being played non-stop on the the airwaves, and predictably popping up into all the talent show auditions globally. Just the other day, Elias had heard an audition ad on the extranet radio and it had been a medley of at least six different teenage girls singing it, each one running into the next. He doubted if more than one of them had made the first round selection. “Why does everyone keep saying that?” he asked, turning back to the table.
“Because if you’re nearby his eyes follow you around the room, sweetness,” Shelley said.
“What she said,” Kym agreed.
“But, aren’t humans visual? I mean, he doesn’t even know what I really look like under here.”
“Honey, have you seen your ass in that suit of yours? You could bounce rocks off it.”
Kym’s lips pursed. “Did anyone else just go to a strange visual place?”
“I can’t believe I’m actually having this conversation,” Elias said.
“Well, if you aren’t interested, you could just tell him,” Kym said.
“But it’s not that…” Elias stopped. “If he liked me, he’d say something.”
“Honey chile, he’s saying it loud and clear. You just ain’t listening. Weren’t it you who told me you quarians are masters of body language on account of not seeing facial cues from each other? Something ‘bout your whole body being your facial expressions.”
“Yeah, what of it?”
“Treat Corbin’s body like a quarian face that’s been frozen by botox and you’ll work it all out.”
Kym finished her drink and pushed her glass away. “Okay, I’m back at the strange visual place again. Hey, Elias, dance?”
“Huh?” Elias said, his brain also having conjured up some strange mental images.
“Dance. If you’re not singing tonight you can at least dance with the single girl.”
Elias glanced at Shelley, who waved him off. “I’m good here, sweetpea. You young’uns can go boogie. I’m just glad to be sitting down after a long day on my feet.”
Walking home through the well lit main streets was…different, and it struck Elias how safe he felt. He probably wasn’t, but he felt it. Home. Somehow, a tiny, cramped—well, by human standards—apartment in a rebuilt city on earth amongst humans had become home. Staring up into the sky he wondered which direction Rannoch was.
“It is on the other side of the earth, Creator Elias,” Pi said. “You would need to look down at your feet.”
Elias looked down at the cracked concrete of the sidewalk. “How do you always know when I’m feeling down?”
“I monitor your stress hormones, Creator Elias. I am alerted if they rise above your resting baseline.”
Elias laughed and continued down the street, the reddish leaves of fall crunching beneath his feet. “You know that you’re the only person in the universe who has ever given me a coherent answer to a rhetorical question?”
“No, Creator Elias I did not know that. Wait,” Pi said. “That was a rhetorical question, was it not?”
“Yes, Pi, that was a rhetorical question.”
“So what is bothering you, Creator Elias?”
“Should I go back to Rannoch?”
“You feel you have found something of value to planet?”
“Have you seen the ecomarket that sprung up in the shell of the rec centre?” Elias asked. “There’s so much that could be adapted to sustainable living planetside. I mean, solar paint?
“I’ve seen your notes on the chemical breakdown.”
“And then there’s the natural ventilation system ideas and that aerogel stuff? I know I can use that. I can’t believe it’s still a novelty item here and we could manufacture that stuff by the ton.”
“So why not go?”
“What if the reapers already gave all that knowledge to the Admirals?”
“What if they have not and these are true innovations?”
Elias kicked some gravel into the gutter. “I’m a bad quarian, aren’t I?”
“Is that important?”
“Your people have a home now, Creator Elias. They have resources and space to settle and are no longer under constant threat of ship failure, food stores running out, or well…us.”
“I know, but they still gave me everything I’ve got.”
“Then you either return to Rannoch with what you have, or you make yourself more use to your people off world than on world.”
Elias blinked. “I guess so,” he said, as he started up the stairs to the flat.