A Light in the Dark (Xoe Juliani)
The translators are offline again.
There’s something almost funny about watching a room full of various alien species all suddenly become incapable of communicating with each other, but Mirja Katan isn’t laughing. Her bar is known for its translators. That’s what makes it such a popular spot. If they don’t work, there goes her bar’s popularity. And the translators haven’t been working very well recently.
Poking at the translators does nothing. Pressing buttons on the translators does nothing. Kicking the translators does, unsurprisingly, nothing. Mirja spits on them, which also has no effect except making her feel a bit better. Then she goes into the bar and offers everyone a free drink to make up for the malfunctioning translators. Of course, it takes a while for the message to spread through all the clientele, but soon enough it does. The bar closes early, at which point Mirja tries poking, pressing, and kicking the translators again. When they still persist in not working, Mirja calls her mechanic.
“Translator issues again?” Ashoro asks as she picks up.
Mirja sighs. “In the middle of opening hours,” she says. “When can you be here?”
“Give me five minutes,” Ashoro replies.
Mirja ends the call and waits. She cleans up the bar a bit, and then, five minutes later, Ashoro knocks at the door.
Mirja appears mostly humanoid, except for her slitted pupils and retractable claws. Her physiology is different from a human’s, but she can pass fairly well. Ashoro can’t. She has four arms, two on each side, and instead of legs she has tentacles from the waist down. She doesn’t have a navel, but Mirja’s never asked if that means she hatched from an egg. She’s good with technology, though, and that’s what matters.
“Okay,” Ashoro says, rubbing two of her hands together while holding a toolbox in the other and drumming her last set of fingertips on the bar. “Do you have any idea what the issue was this time?”
Ashoro shakes her head, going over to the translator. “You should just get a new one. Yours doesn’t seem likely to stop breaking any time soon. That’s what happens when they get old.”
“New ones are expensive,” Mirja replies. She’s got some money stashed away for a new translator, but not enough to afford one yet. “Can’t you fix this one up again?”
“I’ll do my best.” Ashoro sighs. “Will you make me a drink?”
“Your usual?” Mirja asks, crossing to the bar.
“Yeah, thanks.” Ashoro opens up the translator and peers at the inner workings. Mirja goes to the bar and mixes Ashoro’s favorite drink, bringing it back when it’s ready.
Ashoro grabs it with one of her hands while the other three poke at the translator. “I might be able to jury-rig something here, but I can’t guarantee you that it’ll work very well.”
“Anything you can do,” Mirja replies. Ashoro sighs deeply, then grabs a few tools and begins working with the insides of the translators. A few of her tentacles writhe, twisting around each other. Mirja knows by now that means Ashoro is concentrating hard. She waits patiently. If her translator is going to be fixed, Ashoro is going to be the one who does it. If she can’t fix it, Mirja doubts she’ll find anyone who can.
“Alright,” Ashoro finally says, stepping back from the translator. “Say something in a language I don’t speak.”
Mirja speaks a few different languages, and other similar tests have taught her which ones Ashoro does and doesn’t know. She says something in the home tongue of her planet.
Ashoro nods. “Got it. I can’t promise it’ll work perfectly or for very long, but it’s working for now.”
“Thank you,” Mirja tells Ashoro gratefully. She goes to her cashbox and pulls out a few chips. “Is this right?”
“That’s fine,” Ashoro replies, even though Mirja thinks she paid her more the last time. “Anything else you need fixed up?”
“I don’t think so.”
Ashoro nods. “Call me if you do. See you next time, Mirja.”
“See you then, Ash.”
Ashoro grins at the nickname as she leaves, her tentacles brushing things off the floor as she goes. Mirja follows her with a broom and pan, brushing up the little piles Ashoro leaves behind her. She’s never asked if it’s an automatic response or something Ashoro consciously does when she visits the bar. If it’s the former, it’s an interesting quirk. If it’s the latter, Mirja doesn’t know what that means.
Mirja considers reopening the bar for the late night crowd, but decides against it; it’s too much effort for too little gain, and she doesn’t feel like it. Instead, she closes up and goes upstairs. She lives above the bar in a small apartment. It’s not the best place, but it comes with the bar, so Mirja lives there to keep from having to rent both the bar and an apartment. There’s a shower and a kitchen and everything else Mirja would need, if in very close proximity to each other. She makes do.
Mirja takes a quick shower, then gets into her bed. She lies on the mattress for a few moments, staring up at the ceiling. Then she groans and rolls back onto her stomach, burying her face into the pillow.
She’s supposed to be nocturnal. Her species naturally is. But she’s forced herself to sleep during the night instead, to be on a better schedule for her work. The bar stays open late some nights, but it’s also a café during the day. Mirja has considered closing it as a café and having the bar stay open later, so she can sleep during the day, but she earns too much from the café for it to make financial sense. Instead, she just forces herself to stay up during the day and sleep at night.
But there are some nights where her instincts are too loud and won’t let her sleep. Mirja knows she’ll regret it in the morning if she doesn’t get some rest, but she’s too keyed up. Instead, she gets up and gets a drink of water, leaning against her counter. She has some sleeping pills stashed away in her bathroom, but she doesn’t like them very much. She’ll try some more natural remedies first.
Two hours and half a dozen failed attempts at sleeping later, Mirja admits defeat and takes two sleeping pills. She’s out in ten minutes. When she wakes the next morning, she feels woozy and still half-asleep, as she always does when she takes sleeping pills. It’s part of the reason she dislikes them so much. Three cups of coffee later and she feels better, more able to go downstairs and open up the café.
Except, just as Mirja gets downstairs, the power blinks out.
Mirja looks around and sighs. Her translators are old. They go out all the time. But the electricity in general shouldn’t. A quick look out the window makes Mirja groan loudly. The electricity seems to be out all through the block, which means it’ll be even longer until it’s back on.
There’s a knock on the door, which Mirja would normally ignore while she’s closed. She checks quickly and goes to open the door, seeing that it’s Ashoro outside the door.
“I’m glad not to be on duty right now,” Ashoro declares as she enters the café. “I was on my way here when the power went out. It’s out for half the grid right now, and the other half looks about ready to go out any second.”
“Any idea what the issue is?” Mirja asks.
Ashoro shrugs. “Nope. I’m off duty. I was actually on my way over here to see if your translators were still working, but all things considered, I guess we can’t figure that out right now.”
“I guess not,” Mirja replies, a tinge of bitterness in her voice.
Ashoro leans forward. “Anything you need help with? I can give you a hand. Or four.”
“There’s not too much I can do without power,” Mirja admits. “I was going to put the pastries in the oven to bake, but as long as the power’s out…”
“Do you want me to see if I can get your old generator working?” Ashoro offers. “I can try and figure something out, then you can open while everyone else is closed.”
“Could you really?”
Ashoro grins. “Let me see what I can do,” she replies, cracking her knuckles and getting to work. Mirja goes over to a seat and sits down, a piece of paper in front of her. Her plan is to come up with a few new dishes for the menu at the café.
Then Ashoro shakes her awake a few hours later and she accidentally knocks the empty paper to the floor.
“I almost had it figured out when the power came back on,” Ashoro tells Mirja, sounding put-out. “The translator is working properly.”
“How do you know?” Mirja rubs at her eyes.
Ashoro grins. “Because I’m speaking Bullic.” Mirja blinks and looks at Ashoro’s lips. “If you understand me, it must be thanks to the translator.” Mirja can see that the sounds she hears don’t match up with the moving of Ashoro’s lips. She’s normally good at noticing that, but she must be more tired than she realized.
“Did you not sleep well last night?” Ashoro asks. Her lips line up with her words now, so she must have switched back to their common language.
“Not particularly,” Mirja replies, rubbing a hand over her face. “Nocturnal issues.”
“Ugh, don’t I know it.”
Mirja had almost forgotten that Ashoro’s nocturnal as well. “Have you slept yet?” She may very well have worked the whole overnight shift and not slept before coming to the café.
“Nah, but I snuck a cup of coffee,” Ashoro replies, holding up the mug with one of her tentacles. “I’ll be good for another few hours.”
“Do you want to crash upstairs?”
Ashoro blinks. “Huh?”
“You’re tired. Why don’t you just sleep in my bed? I’m not using it at the moment.”
“Really?” Ashoro asks.
“Okay. Thanks.” Ashoro goes over to the stairs, regards them for a moment, then begins going up. It takes a while for her to get up the entire flight of stairs. Mirja realizes she’s never seen Ashoro on stairs before; she has no idea if she always has this much difficulty or if it’s because she’s half asleep.
The café is strangely silent. Mirja begins getting things ready for customers, but she’s not sure if many will show up. Her rush is normally in the early morning, and the power outage meant that she missed most of it. Today looks like it’s going to be a bad profit day. Hopefully, last night’s issues with the translator won’t affect tonight’s customers at the bar.
Four customers come in between the time Mirja opens up and Ashoro comes back downstairs, looking much better rested. “You didn’t sleep long,” Mirja remarks. It’s only been three hours.
“I normally don’t,” Ashoro takes a seat in one of the booths. She likes booths more than chairs, Mirja has noticed; they must be more comfortable for her tentacles. “I don’t need that much sleep.”
“Lucky,” Mirja mutters. She’s still feeling the affects of her own limited sleep.
“Do you want me to watch the café for a while so you can sleep?” Ashoro asks. Mirja considers the offer for a moment, then shakes her head.
“The more I give in to being tired, the more tired I’ll be,” she replies. “Do you know what I mean?”
“I get it,” Ashoro says, nodding. “I can help you anyway, if you want.”
“You’re not usually this eager to help.” Mirja softens the comment with a smile.
Ashoro shrugs. “You let me sleep in your bed. I figure that means I owe you a favor.”
This makes more sense. Ashoro has always been very specific when it comes to favors. Apparently, it’s a thing for her species. Mirja hasn’t met enough of them to know whether that’s true or not, but she knows it’s the case for Ashoro. Favors are important, and if someone does someone else a favor, it needs to be repaid.
“It wasn’t that much of a favor,” Mirja remarks.
Ashoro shrugs again. “One good turn deserves another. Is there anything I can do?”
There isn’t much to be done, considering how few people are coming in. But both the café area and the kitchen could use a cleaning, and Ashoro always seems to sweep just by walking around.
Ashoro’s happy to clean, taking the broom, mop, and bucket that Mirja gives her. With her four arms and tentacles, she manages to use a small dustpan to sweep shelves while also sweeping the floor with the broom. Mirja mans the counter, getting a head start on readying the café for its transformation into a bar.
Ashoro sweeps the entire café and kitchen, then mops it all as well. “Do you accept this in repayment?” she asks.
Mirja wonders for a moment what Ashoro would do if she said ‘no.’ Would she keep helping out until Mirja was satisfied? Would she argue? Would she try to bargain? Mirja doesn’t try it out. Ashoro has more than repaid the favor that Mirja barely saw as a favor anyway. “I accept the repayment,” she says. She’s learned the language of favors from a few other similar instances with Ashoro. The specific question must be asked and the specific answer must be given. Otherwise, Mirja’s pretty sure, the repayment isn’t considered valid. This is one of Ashoro’s traditions; Mirja will respect it.
Ashoro checks the time. “I should get home. If you have more issues with the translator, call me.”
“I will,” Mirja promises.
Ashoro salutes lazily as she leaves the café.
Mirja drums her fingers along the counter. No one’s coming into the café, not that Mirja really expects anyone to. Customers normally die down around this time. She might even close the café and start focusing on getting ready for that night at the bar. Perhaps she’ll open early, to maximize profit.
Perhaps, Mirja thinks as she gently thunks her head down on the counter with a groan, she’ll stop thinking about Ashoro for five seconds and actually get some work done.
Mirja’s crush on Ashoro isn’t anything new. She’s been attracted to her since they first met. But it’s never been this bad. Mirja blames the damn translator. Since it’s started breaking down, she’s had to see Ashoro more often. With each time, her crush deepens. So long as the translator keeps malfunctioning, Ashoro will keep coming regularly and Mirja will continue to drown in her crush.
She could tell her. Mirja is very aware of that possibility, especially when she sees Ashoro do something particularly crush-worthy. But she also knows that Ashoro’s species can be weird about dating. Ashoro has told her a few things and Mirja has looked up a few others. For example, dating outside the species is frowned upon. Most of Ashoro’s kind enter relationships for the sake of procreation. Mirja is a woman and a different species; that’s two marks against her in that regard. Ashoro has never mentioned wanting children, but as far as Mirja knows, that’s how her species typically works.
Then again, Ashoro is different from her species in many ways. It’s a side effect of being raised on a core planet. Mirja is the same way. Her people have many traditions she doesn’t follow, since she wasn’t raised among them. As far as Mirja knows, Ashoro has visited the planet of her species twice. Perhaps she feels differently about relationships than they do.
Mirja could risk it. It could work out perfectly. Or Ashoro might also be horribly offended at the mere idea and swear never to see Mirja again. There’s really no way to tell. Mirja would rather not take the risk.
A customer walks into the café, forcing Mirja to think about something other than Ashoro. She uses the distraction as an opportunity. She’s obsessing over Ashoro when there are things that need to be done. Sitting around dwelling on a crush won’t help with any of them.
Mirja throws herself into whatever work she can find. She gets all of the bottles of various alcohols lined up on the counter, preparing for when she opens the bar. She cleans up everything she’s had out for the café that she won’t need for the bar.
Then the goddamn power goes out again.
Mirja fumbles for her flashlight, flicking it on. It’s battery powered, so the power outage doesn’t affect it. It illuminates the room as Mirja looks for her phone. Hopefully, it’ll work.
It doesn’t, of course. Mirja should have known better. The communication towers are connected to the electricity; without power, the phones don’t work either. She crosses her arms. She wishes Ashoro could be here, like she was earlier, but she’s probably already home. Mirja’s going to have to wait alone in the dark for a while.
Power outages like this aren’t common. To have two in one day is strange. Mirja frowns. She doesn’t know what the problem is, but she doesn’t like it. She can only hope that things get sorted out.
There’s a tap at Mirja’s door. She swings the flashlight over and sees Ashoro standing outside, waving.
“I thought you’d be home by now!” Mirja says as she opens the door to let Ashoro in.
“Didn’t get far before the power went out,” Ashoro replies, closing the door behind her. “I figured I’d turn around and keep you company. This is weird.”
“I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks that. We haven’t had a blackout in years, and now two in one day?”
“It is weird,” Ashoro agrees. “Do you want me to see if I can fix that generator I was working on earlier? I think I might almost have it.”
“Aren’t you going to the power station?” Mirja asks. “They could probably use your help.”
Ashoro shrugs. “It’s not my shift. I’d rather stay here with you anyway.”
“Oh.” Mirja can’t deny that she’s pleased. “Do you want a cookie while you work? I’ve got a bunch that didn’t sell earlier.”
“Don’t mind if I do,” Ashoro replies with a grin.
Mirja puts a plate of cookies within Ashoro’s reach and settles down to watch her work. “That generator’s even older than my translator,” she remarks.
Ashoro grins. “I can tell.” The generator makes an angry fizzling noise as Ashoro pulls on a wire. Mirja jumps. “It’s okay,” Ashoro says quickly. “Nothing’s wrong. It’s supposed to do that. Maybe.”
“I’m not feeling particularly convinced,” Mirja replies, amusement in her voice. “Are you sure this isn’t a problem?”
“I’m not sure the generator can be fixed,” Ashoro admits. “It’s in pretty bad shape. Some bits are completely rusted.”
“I haven’t used it in almost six years. Just come over and sit with me. The generator is probably beyond help.”
“Are you going to get a new one?” Ashoro asks as she settles into the booth, grabbing a cookie and taking a bite.
“I can’t afford a translator,” Mirja replies with a snort. “How am I supposed to afford a generator? Anyway, I barely use it.”
“How close are you being able to afford a new translator?”
“A month or so out. Maybe less. Maybe more, if we keep having power outages.” Mirja takes a cookie of her own. “I bet you’ll be glad when I finally get a new translator.”
“Why?” Ashoro asks.
Mirja frowns. “So you don’t have to come back and fix the old one all the time. It’s got to be a pain.”
“I don’t really mind,” Ashoro admits. “I like coming to visit you.”
“You can still come visit.” Ashoro smiles and Mirja feels her heart twist strangely in her chest. “Do you want a drink?” she blurts out.
“Oh.” Ashoro looks surprised at the sudden change in subject. “Sure.” Mirja busies herself at the counter, getting out a nice bottle of pomegranate wine. “Ooh, we get a fancy drink?” Ashoro asks eagerly when Mirja returns with the bottle and two glasses.
“It’s just been collecting dust behind my counter,” Mirja replies, popping off the cork and pouring some wine into each of the two wine glasses. “Enjoy.”
Ashoro picks up her glass and takes a long sip of the wine. “I meant what I said, you know. About liking visiting you.”
“I like visiting you too,” Mirja replies, swirling her wine in her glass. “I meant what I said as well. Come by any time.”
“Really?” Ashoro asks, looking dubious.
“I’m always open for friends,” Mirja replies nonchalantly, taking a sip from her glass.
Ashoro grins into her own glass. “I’m glad to hear it.”
The camaraderie between the two is palpable, sitting there in the dark café. The only light they have is from the flashlight, but both Mirja and Ashoro are nocturnal, so darkness isn’t exactly a problem for either of them.
“This is nice,” Ashoro says quietly. “We should do this more often.”
“We should,” Mirja agrees. She dares to slide her hand over to Ashoro’s… and Ashoro takes it. Mirja takes a sip of her wine, smiling. Ashoro leans her head on Mirja’s shoulder. Mirja barely dares to breathe. This is the perfect moment. She could sit here with Ashoro in the dimly-lit booth forever and not want to change a thing.
Then, with a flicker, the power comes back on.
Ashoro sits upright, looking around, while Mirja mourns the loss of her warmth. “Seems like they’ve got the power fixed up,” she remarks.
“Seems like they have,” Mirja replies, running her finger along the top of her glass. Ashoro’s going to leave now, of course; she probably wants to get back home. Mirja picks up the glass, downing the wine that’s left.
Ashoro gives Mirja a tentative smile. “Should we have a celebratory kiss?”
Mirja almost drops her glass. “What?”
“Just an idea.” Ashoro quickly looks away. “If you want to.”
“Do you want to?” Mirja asks.
Ashoro grins. “I wouldn’t have suggested it otherwise,” she replies, leaning forward. Mirja lunges forward to meet her. Their teeth click together as they kiss, inelegantly and messily. Ashoro twists one of her hands in Mirja’s hair and angles her head properly to make the kiss work a bit better. When Mirja finally pulls away, she looks at Ashoro with wide eyes.
“I thought… With the traditions of your species…”
“You know I’m not traditional,” Ashoro replies with a grin, and she leans in for another kiss.
The translators are offline again.
This time, Mirja doesn’t need to call Ashoro. All she has to do is make eye contact with her across the room and jerk her head subtly at the back room. Ashoro’s already on her way over. Mirja turns to the next customer, answering them in the scraps of their language she speaks, and waits for Ashoro to return.
A moment later, she does, going up behind Mirja and nestling her head on Mirja’s shoulder. “I got it working again, but we really need a new translator.”
“We can almost afford it.” Mirja kisses the side of Ashoro’s head. “If you want to be able to get one sooner, make yourself useful.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Ashoro replies, saluting playfully as she goes to the other end of the bar to mix drinks.
When the bar finally closes for the night, Mirja’s exhausted. Ashoro ducked out early, as she worked a long shift before coming to help out at the bar. Mirja locks up and goes upstairs. Ashoro’s lying in their bed, still awake.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” she tells Mirja drowsily.
“I had to finish up downstairs.” Mirja gets changed and crawls into bed next to Ashoro. “It was a long day.”
“Tell me about it,” Ashoro groans. She lies her head down on Mirja’s chest. “We should take a few days off.”
“Then how are we going to be able to afford that new translator?” Mirja counters.
Ashoro sighs. “Fine. Once we have enough, we should take a few days off. What do you think?”
Mirja grins. “I think a vacation would be lovely,” she replies. “What were you thinking we do? We could visit somewhere.”
“Or we could stay right here in your bed,” Ashoro counters, kissing Mirja lazily. Mirja moans softly against her lips.
“That works too,” she agrees breathlessly when Ashoro pulls back. “I think that’s a better idea.”
“How long until we have enough saved?”
Mirja shrugs. “A week, perhaps?”
“So in a week, we’ll be on vacation,” Ashoro says with satisfaction. “Probably.”
“I love you,” Mirja murmurs. She has an arm around Ashoro and can feel her heartbeat in her lower back. “I love you so much.”
“I love you too.” Ashoro nestles closer to Mirja. Her tentacles curl around Mirja’s legs, and all four of her arms wrap around Mirja’s torso.
“Goodnight,” Mirja says to Ashoro quietly. Ashoro grins, burying her face in Mirja’s chest.
“Goodnight,” she replies.
The stars twinkle as they fall asleep.