I smile encouragingly at the wounded dragonkin. Trinek stares at the empty beach, holding his surfboard in front of him as if wondering how he and it got here. Even now, the program was backfilling the memory of a long shuttle ride in which he’d spent most of the time staring gloomily out the windows thinking about his dead partner, Lily.
“We’re... going surfing?”
“That’s right. You can call me Maro.” I let Trinek look me over, an old scarred winterborn ryphorian woman in a Second Skin wetsuit. I know that his eyes linger on the scars, wondering how I got them. I let him wonder. “C’mon, time for your first lesson.”
He limps awkwardly after me, his claws tensing on the brilliant white sand on this deserted beach in Grenloch. He’s suspicious of the sun and this brilliant warm day, shading himself protectively with his wings. He’s twitchy, anxious, continually looking for fighters overhead, or dangers waiting to ambush him behind any rock. I let him limp around the perimeter, looking for the enemies that are not there.
I introduce him to the board while still on the sand, show him how to position his body, balance, paddle. “As your leg gets stronger, we’ll work on other positions, but for now, the basics.” He picks it up quickly, and soon we transition to the water, paddling out.
As we paddle, he glances around suspiciously. “Shouldn’t Grenloch be more crowded, fancy resort like this?”
“Sure, near the dining areas and the hotel. But the waters are rougher here, and that keeps the tourists away. It’s the only reason they lease this spot to veterans. You and I are gonna be roughing it. Camping in the shuttle, fishing to supplement our supplies. And surfing and swimming each day until you heal up that leg.”
And that mind. I am going to keep you so busy that you forget to keep blaming yourself.
I teach surfing elsewhere on Grenloch. There are currently twelve copies of me teaching wealthy clients one-on-one at the resort. Most of the basics are standard enough that I can let the copies run on autopilot for a bit, giving me more bandwidth here.
With the wealthy clients, I start out easy, with a few perfect waves and good weather to build confidence. For Trinek, I’ve programmed the water to be difficult. He’s paddling against the tide, and surprise waves unseat him from his board multiple times. He has to work for it. More than once, he goes under. In his second skin, he’s in no danger of drowning as he swims furiously up to the surface. He mounts his board again, and the difficulty of just staying atop it is what sells this illusion for him.
“Trinek!” I bark out like the drill sergeant I once was. “You gonna give in to the water, or you gonna master it?”
No legionnaire is going to let a drill sergeant see them fail. No matter how much they’re hurting inside. He gets on top of the board, paddling fiercely out, not letting it unseat him.
Then the waves reward him, carrying him out, and he’s riding with them, and I hear a “Whooooo! Who’s the wave master now?”
I let him have that moment, then dump him under again. As he grimly claws back onto the board, he grunts. Still, he knows he can do it now, and he paddles out again.
Later, I pull out the fishing gear. “I had enough crappy rations while I served. Want to help me fish?” He’s exhausted, but he can’t admit it yet. He shrugs, nervously, but then I toss him a beer. “C’mon, soldier. Drunk fishing is a tradition.”
“Alright,” he opens the beer. “I don’t see how being drunk helps us fish, though.”
“If we don’t catch anything, the rations taste better,” I say with a grin. He laughs, and we get to it.
This I don’t put on hard mode. He needs some victories. Once we bring in our catch, I make a show of cooking it with the spices and herbs I brought. He eats with appreciation. Afterward, both exhausted, we lay on the damp sand, eight feet apart, looking up at the stars. The other copies of me have taught their lessons and are now off duty, so I can be fully present in this time and place.
“I can’t believe this is still Triaxus. This beach... This sand...”
“They told me it was because of a microclimate,” I say, half-truthfully. They tell everyone that, even though our unconscious bodies are hundreds of feet underground in a virtual reality bunker. The real Grenloch, while still warmer than the rest of the planet, is covered in snow. “Does it matter?”
“Maro?” he asks. “Can I ask you something?”
“Those scars... you served in the Skyfire Legion, right?”
“Nine and a half years.” It’s the truth and I know he can feel it. “We did a tour of bugtopia. Carn never made it home. Swarm.” I’ve told this story two hundred times now, and grief gets me every time. I don’t have to fake the tears glistening in my eyes. I just let the stars and the silence tell my story.
“What was Carn like?” he asks.
“Goofy.” I say with a half-smile. I pull up pictures of Carn dumping snow on my head, and another of me dumping it right back down his uniform. Finally, I pull up an image of the last parade we’d been in, all of us marching through the frosty streets of Cumo, dress uniforms and rifles, trying to look fierce. “Before we went out, the Legion held this parade to suck up to Xandrig, the director of Sinterfang. It was stupid, but we needed the funding. Xandrig loved having the crowd shout for him, and Carn loved strutting in uniform.”
“Lily loved the uniform too.” Then Trinek tries to muffle his sobs, and I’m up, holding and rocking him, as if I was his mother and he were newly hatched. The sobs wrack his body, and I know he’s remembering. Bonded partners are closer than lovers or twins. They’re the other presence that always lives in your head, the soulmate who did everything with you, and who’s now been ripped from your mind, leaving nothing but a gaping hole. It’s a searing psychic wound. Some grieving warriors fall into a hole so deep they never come out of it, willing themselves to die so that the pain will stop.
Or... they find another calling and purpose, like I did.
About the Author
Hilary Moon Murphy is a librarian, martial artist, and mom who has contributed to over a dozen different Paizo products.
About Tales From The Drift
The Tales from the Drift series of web-based flash fiction provides an exciting glimpse into the setting of the Starfinder Roleplaying Game. Written by members of the Starfinder development team and some of the most celebrated authors in tie-in gaming fiction, the Tales from the Drift series promises to explore the worlds, alien cultures, deities, history, and organizations of the Starfinder setting with engaging stories to inspire Game Masters and players alike.