- Author: Kim Fielding
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Phineas crouched as he heated the salvaged electrical cord with utmost caution, holding it the perfect height above the fire, keeping his hand steady, being patient. Just a moment more and the metal interior would soften the right amount, and then—
The sap-filled firewood had popped, sending up a shower of sparks and burning his hand. He reflexively dropped the cord, which landed on glowing coals. He pulled it out immediately, ignoring the additional damage to his skin, but it was too late. The insulation was charred beyond rescue and the delicate metal had warped and blobbed. With a strangled cry of frustration, he heaved the cord away. It landed on the dirt floor with a thud and slight sizzle.
With a sigh so deep it hurt, Phineas rose to his feet and crossed the small room to a wobbly little table. He poured some water from the clay pitcher onto one of the rough cloths he used as a towel and wrapped the damp fabric around his burned hand. Then he walked wearily to his cot and plopped down with a groan. “Stop wasting your time,” he scolded himself. “You’re never getting off this hunk of rock.”
He’d lost track of time and had no idea what season it was back home, far across the galaxy, countless light-years away. So he closed his eyes and pretended it was autumn, that perfect time of year when the air carried strong hints of cold days to come and the two suns slanted their mellow golden rays, warming even glass and steel. In past autumns, he and Somboon had arisen early on their days off and enjoyed brunch at a little café near the apartment. Then they hopped into an airpod for their reservation at one of the virtual nature reserves, where they hiked through holograms of forests, the leaves gloriously colored and the appropriate scents and sounds piped in. Then Phin and Somboon had zoomed home, showered, zapped something tasty for dinner, and cuddled in front of a vid. Sometimes they hadn’t bothered to convert the couch into a bed before making love and falling asleep.
“Way to torture yourself,” Phin growled. At least he’d intended it as a growl; it came out more like a plea. He knew he shouldn’t dwell on the past, but it was painful to see the last grains of hope slip through his fingers. His burned, dirty fingers.
He allowed himself to wallow for a few minutes before standing and shuffling to the shelves where he stored his worldly goods. Back when he’d been learning how to light his hearth fire and cook over it, Scapaurr the herbalist had given him a little pot of burn salve. It was gooey stuff that smelled like mud, but it worked amazingly well. Almost like magic. After he rinsed his hand with the pitcher, he gingerly smoothed on some of the gunk. The sting of the burns faded almost at once and the angry red marks disappeared.
Phin looked at the charred, mangled cord with bits of its violently purple insulation still intact—a shade and texture rarely found in nature. It clearly didn’t belong in this place. Didn’t belong on this planet. Just like him.
“Well, I’m not quite ready to give up on myself yet.” Phin picked up the cord and walked through the open doorway into the front yard. Lots of green things were poking up through the dirt, possibly all weeds. But some of them might be survivors from his hut’s last resident, holdovers from a kitchen garden perhaps. He should ask someone. Maybe some of the seedlings would turn out to be flowers, which would be nice. He had vague memories of flowers last summer.
He and Somboon used to fantasize about being wealthy enough to afford an apartment with some outdoor space—maybe a little balcony where they could grow a few things in pots and sit with their morning tea. Now Phin had so much outdoor space that he couldn’t see his nearest neighbors. “Yay,” he mumbled.
He tossed the cord onto the goodly pile of other failures. Tomorrow he’d carry them out to the crash site where they could rejoin the remains of his ship. That seemed more appropriate than littering the countryside with bits of alien plastic and metal.
It was time to decide how he was going to support himself for the rest of his life.
Back home—and dammit, he needed to stop thinking of that place as home—he’d been a lawyer. That earned him enough to pay his half of the bills, and he was also good at playing vid games, making coffee, and doing 3-D crossword puzzles. None of those skills were the slightest bit useful in this place, where electricity, writing, and lawsuits hadn’t been invented, and where coffee didn’t exist.
The nearby village had a few craftspeople—a potter, a blacksmith, and several knitters—but the majority of the locals farmed. Phin didn’t know how to do any of those things. The people here had been incredibly generous, welcoming him as a complete stranger, providing a place to live and enough food and supplies to get by. But most of them were poor, and he didn’t want to burden them any longer. He would, however, have to ask them for some guidance at least.
The villagers had settled him in a little stone hut, past their fields and near the edge of the forest. He didn’t know whether they’d decided that was the best available house among the several empty ones in the area or if they’d intentionally isolated him, for his comfort or theirs. When he’d first moved in, he hadn’t known enough of their language to ask. Besides, he’d been too