LIKE THEY ALWAYS BEEN FREE
Georgina Li is a new writer, with just one previous publication, a (non-genre) story called “Closer to the Sky” in the current issue of Chroma. She says she used to write everyday and then for a long time she didn’t and now she writes some days but not others. When she’s not writing she likes to paint, bright colors on small canvases, torn pages, cardboard squares pulled from the recycling bin.
About “Like They Always Been Free” she says, “In a larger sense it’s about the things we value and the things we don’t, about how everything changes when that one paradigm shifts. But mostly it’s a love story.”
Underground there ain’t nothin’ but dark and sweat and filth, figure that out quick or get on with dyin’, just weren’t no other way. Guard on the transpo told Kinger, “You ain’t willin’, you ain’t worth it,” and Kinger opened his mouth easy, Guard’s skinny business jammed in his throat, words sinkin’ in. Cut that Guard’s throat with his own damn knife, didn’t even bother runnin’. Figured the Hole probably weren’t much different from where he been headed, ’cept for Boy bein’ huddled in the corner there, big eyes shinin’ in the dark.
Boy said, “You kill that Guard?” and Kinger grinned bloody, spit a chunk of flesh down where Boy could reach.
Underground Kinger told himself every day, “You ain’t willin’, you ain’t worth it,” told himself over and over, every time he killed, every time he ate, sewed them bones right into his skin. There’d been light on the transpo, even down in the Hole, not much, but enough Kinger could see Boy without tryin’ too hard, blue skin so pretty it hurt to look away, so pretty Kinger knew Boy weren’t headed Underground, weren’t meant for minin’ some shit-torn planet, not lookin’ like he did.
Underground ain’t no light at all, not so it mattered. Weren’t nothin’ there to see.
This ship there’s sunlight, this ship there’s noise, this ship ain’t any place Kinger ever expected to be. Underground six years best as he could figure, no sunlight, nothin’ but what he come with and that weren’t much. Blood on his hands and an empty belly, Boy on the transpo still, slavebound somewhere else.
Underground Kinger scraped the hair from his body with that Guard’s knife most every day, blade sharpened on the rocks. Hard enough to keep himself alive, keep breathin’ even if it were only the same dank air he spit out the day before. One thing bein’ willin’, somethin’ else all together havin’ vermin burrowed in, livin’ off his meat. Underground, you ate what came your way or it ate you, and Kinger staked his claim on the food chain day one, kept on livin’.
Dreamt of Boy off and on, his voice, his skin; licked the lichen off the rock walls when it glowed pale blue, bitter in his mouth, clean, sweet. Dreamt of Boy slow jackin’, fingers curled around his rodder, dark blue and shiny at the tip; dreamt of Boy bloody and beaten, a leash around his neck; dreamt of Boy in sunshine, skin like the warm turquoise water any planet bred men like Boy must be floatin’ in, Boy laughin’ soft in Kinger’s ear.
Kinger dreamt of Boy, and Boy’s voice echoed all around him, bright lights shinin’ down.
Boy’s people came lookin’ for him, and Boy’s people found him, and Boy came lookin’ for Kinger straightaways, last man ever been nice to him, last man took care, Kinger just seventeen in the Hole and Boy younger than that. Boy’s people tore a path across the universe findin’ their lost young, spread a trail of wreckage behind them, this ship and a dozen like it, hunters, every last one. Kinger ain’t used to people anymore, but Boy ain’t people, Boy is Boy, kept him company Underground even though he weren’t ever really there.
This ship there’s water and plenty of it, clean water come from waste and plants in the sphere. Boy says it’s so and Kinger believes him, Boy stretched out in the lookout bay, scars on his body weren’t there before, pale blue ridges Kinger ain’t afraid to touch. Kinger ain’t afraid of nothin’ to do with Boy until Boy says, “You can go back home now, if you’re wantin’ to,” and Kinger tenses right up, fear in veins like bein’ Underground again, afraid he won’t see no light.
Back home Kinger scrapped for a livin’, recycled foodstuffs and boxed ’em up, corporate drones in sharp suits, lookin’ over the counter at Kinger like he somethin’ they can’t figure out, data streamin’ dark in their eyes. Kinger beat one of ’em stupid back when he was still growin’, beat the data from his head and run for his life, blood runnin’ just as fast, blood stuck to his fists, his thighs, his mouth, seawater black and heavy, pullin’ at his feet. Kinger hopped one transpo then another and another, hopped ‘til that Guard said, “You ain’t willin’, you ain’t worth it,” and Kinger promised himself he weren’t never goin’ back.
Boy don’t mind none, just kisses Kinger like he might catch fire if he don’t, hot and open, one hand at the back of Kinger’s neck, stubble growin’ in. Boy kisses Kinger’s fingers, his wrists, his throat, sucks hard where Kinger’s blood beats strongest, blue like Boy’s own skin, makes Kinger ache, makes Kinger want to taste Boy’s scars, his seed, the heat of his insides. Kinger ain’t done this not tainted with blood and hate before, ain’t felt nothin’ so sweet as Boy’s body pressed hard against his, slick all over, everything Kinger wants tied up like a knot in his belly, Boy breathin’ heavy just like him.
This ship breathin’ heavy, too, Kinger starin’ out at worlds gone by and Boy’s arms wrapped around him, like they always been free. Boy kisses like his heart might burst, makes Kinger worry he might be dreamin’ still, might wake up curled over himself, tonguing his own slit. Underground ain’t nothin’ wasted, nothin’ livin’ anyway, and Kinger knows he got life in him still, like the engines on this ship.
Boy’s people say this ship knew Boy’s heart even before his body done its healin’, set a course that led ’em right to Kinger. Boy smiles when they tell this story, shakes his head, and Kinger knows he ain’t scared neither, Boy’s warm breath on the bones stitched into Kinger’s skin. Boy says he never needed no rattlin’ to find his way.
“Ain’t goin’ back,” Kinger says, voice gone quiet, and Boy laces their fingers together, blue and white, blue and white. “Ain’t never goin’ back,” Kinger says again. “Ain’t never goin’ nowhere without you.”