"Rare? What's rare about it?"
"Rare means that it's bloody inside," she says with vicious delight. "Practically mooing still."
"Ugh." I hold the leaves out to her. "I think I'm done eating."
She snort-giggles even harder, and I don't think I've had so much fun in, well, forever. Life on Risda is enjoyable but it's also incredibly calm…and dull. Rektar's a good male but he doesn't appreciate my wild sense of humor and I have to tame it down around Sinath and Ainar or else Rektar says I'm setting a bad example. But Ashley laughs at everything I've said so far and it makes me feel…well, good. Surprisingly good. Like I'm fully myself around her, not just Custodian i'Yani or the naughty, no-good i'Yani younger son, Khex. I'm just a male sharing a meal with a female and enjoying the night.
Ashley finishes her skewer of meat with a triumphant look over at me and then eats the last of my greasy fried leaves. We dispose of the trash at a receptacle near the custodial station, where Ainar is probably working the night shift and monitoring for emergency comms. She wipes her hands on her charmingly modified colonist uniform and then gazes back up at the stars again. "You think we can see my solar system up there somewhere?"
I squint at the spill of stars, but they all look the same to me, planet-side. "I honestly don't know. I'm not sure I could pick your sun out with a nav system and a map. Has anyone ever told you that I'm directions-blind? Because it's true. I nearly flunked out of militia training because I couldn't tell east from west."
Her smile up at me is slightly more wistful, and she glances at the stars again. "It's funny. When I was back home I'd probably have been fascinated at being able to see the stars so clearly at night. Now when I look up at them, they just make me sad."
"You miss your home?"
"Of course I do. It's one thing to visit another place. It's another to have everything you've ever known ripped from you." Ashley shakes her head. "You don't realize how good you've got it with three meals a day and a roof over your head. Freedom. Security. When they took me from Earth, they took everything from me. My career, my future, but most of all, my safety. This universe no longer feels safe and I didn't realize how much I needed that feeling of safety until it was gone." She crosses her arms over her chest and shivers.
Her words make me ache. I want to give that feeling of safety back to her, but I don't know how. "I'm sorry."
"It's not your fault. You didn't snatch me." Her smile is slight, her face turned towards the stars once more.
"What did you do, back on Earth?" I find myself asking. She mentioned that her future had been stolen from her. "Did you leave a mate behind? A child?"
"Me? Oh no." She chuckles. "I'd just graduated college and got a nice fancy job at a Fortune 500 company. Payroll. It's not the most glamorous of fields but I like to think I was pretty good at it."
"I have no idea what any of that means."
Ashley grins up at me. "No, I guess you wouldn't. Doesn't matter. Now I'm a farmer, which is a bit of a leap, let's just say." She wrinkles her nose. "But I'll figure it out. I'll manage. I always do." Her expression grows bleak again, but then she hides it, giving me a too-bright smile. "What about you? Did you always want to be a Port custodian?"
I laugh at that. "You do know they send us here when there are no other outposts for us, right?"
Her brows draw together. "They do? So you guys are like, what, the B team?"
Again, I have no idea what she's saying, but I can guess. "Anyone with a better option takes it, let's just say. Ainar and Sinath come from poor family lineages, and Rektar has no family lineage to speak of. That's why they're stationed here. Me, I'm just an embarrassment to my family. I think they like that I'm hidden away on this end of the universe."
"You?" Ashley seems surprised. "Everyone loves you, I thought. Well, everyone but me. So what did you do wrong?"
I manage a wry grin. "What didn't I do wrong? Let's just say I had a very wild youth. Nose spices, brothel visits, you name it. I was a younger son and my family was very focused on my elder brother and had no time for me. I acted out quite a bit. Just to get attention at first, but then I realized it was quite enjoyable to do whatever I wanted."
She gazes up at me, thoughtful. "I have to think a lot of younger men go through that sort of thing, don't they? Sowing the wild oats? So what was it that got you sent here? What step did you take that was too far? We call it the 'straw that broke the camel's back' at home, but that probably means nothing to you."