Petrolea 13b

Their hut was a dome sunk into the center of one of the Leviathan’s broad carapace plates. The man-sized still steamed under the mast of the antenna Victor had caused to be grown there. Their quaint and rusty home.

“I’m home,” Feroza broadcast to Victor.

A crackle from her earpieces. Then, “Good. Did you bring feedstock for the still?”

“I return victorious, yet again,” said Feroza.

She fed her catch into the hopper, leaned her spear against the hut, and crawled through the airlock tube, feeling more medieval by the moment. How did the poem go?

Longing for the emperor’s arrow,” she recited, “the game leapt and jumped so in the hunting ground/ That the wild animals, wishing they could run faster, envied the speed of the birds.”

“I have no idea what you are talking about.” Victor looked up from his housekeeping.

“I am talking about, or rather quoting, Abu Talib Kalim, poet laureate to the Mogul Shah Jahan.”

“Uh. Oh?”

How good it was to see Victor out of his environment suit. Feroza had missed being able to see those dark, serious eyes. That large, rather hooked nose. The firm lips. Her gloves and helmet were such a chore to remove, but with them on, how could she run her fingers over the sharp, tiny hairs on his face and scalp? How could she kiss him?

After some time, Victor was able to open his eyes and frown at her. “You’re in a good mood,” he said.

“I’m alive, am I not?” She took a deep breath of the air her lover had oxygenated for her. “Cold,” she said, “and it smells even worse than the aerie, but it is breathable. Your magic works again.”

“It worked even better the second time,” he said, nodding at the holes in the wall for air, food, and water, the LEDs embedded in the ceiling. “And no, it’s not because I had extra time to tinker with the programs. The parasites are actively helping us build this place, even though we have to keep feeding them to the still.”

“Our flying steed abounds with abundance, oh tender of my hearth,” said Feroza. “By the grace of God and this giant airborne lobster, we shall never lack for sustenance or shelter.”

“Whatever you say.” Victor prodded the curving wall of their little shelter. The individual creatures that made up its bricks were now invisible under the layer of insulating foam they had secreted. “I’m still not entirely sure this place isn’t going to fall in on us and eat us.”

“Of course it won’t,” said Feroza. “And this shelter makes perfect sense if you think about it. You’ve made a bubble of hot, poisonous gas. The Leviathan does with oxygen what it does with any other irritant. It builds a cyst around it.”

“I guess,” he said. “But what about the improvements to the still? The…the architecture of this place seems wrong. I never told any of the mechanoids to build a door in this cyst.”

Feroza had her theories, but decided to let them cook a while longer before feeding them to Victor. “Perhaps we must simply respect the Leviathan’s hospitality,” she said. “It encysts.”

Victor squinted at her. “Was that a joke?”

It was a rather insulting just how shocked he sounded. Feroza sniffed. “A pun. And if it wasn’t up to your standards, I apologize. I haven’t had cause to make many jokes recently. Perhaps my skills have atrophied.”

“Oh,” said Victor. “So you should practice more…” he looked like he was doing calculus in his head, “so your puns might win…a trophy.”

Feroza put a hand over her mouth. “I have created a monster.”

“That’s usually my job,” he smiled and she kissed him again.

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