Eryx is alone in more ways than one. While he’s surrounded by his fellow scientists on a privately owned planet where they monitor and protect endangered animals, he isn’t quite one of them. He’s the only gay man in their group, and even if he weren’t, the company he works for prohibits office romances of any kind. (They also prohibit books, cards, or any form of entertainment that might make the tedium of their work a little less tedious.) But Eryx is also isolated from his family, who are back on Earth grieving over the death of Eryx’s brother. Eryx hasn’t even told the people he works for that his brother died. He’s having trouble processing it, let alone dealing with it.
One day it all gets to be too much. Needing to be alone, Eryx breaks the company rules and goes out into the snow — alone. Ostensibly he’s checking on the snow leopards, but really he just needs to clear his head and get away from his co-workers who know something is wrong, even if they don’t know what it is. The only problem with his little jaunt is that the snowstorm is getting worse, and soon Eryx finds himself in need of shelter, and fast.
Leander is a small-time smuggler who had to make a hard landing on this desolate little planet. Fortunately for him, he’d left a cache of parts and gear last time he was here, only … things have changed. The man pointing a gun at him is new, and so is the fact that his secret stash has been turned into an observation station. Leander has to convince the scientist he isn’t a threat and find a way to escape. When Eryx spots poachers in the cameras, he realizes he needs help if he’s going to save the leopards and he makes a deal with Leander: help him capture the poachers and free the cats, and maybe Eryx will look the other way while Leander finds his way back to his ship. But you know what they say about the best-laid plans of mice and men …
There’s a surprising amount of plot going on in this novella and the author manages to get in a great deal of world building and characterization at the same time. This story is almost equal parts adventure and romance with a good balance of both, and I won’t get too into the plot so as to leave some surprise.
Eryx has been working for the Company for several years now, but he’s still just a low-ranking cog in the great machine. Not that he minds. He doesn’t really have the ambition to climb the corporate ladder and he thought he was comfortable with his position, even if his family back on Earth might have wished him to come back for more than just a visit. His brother’s death, however, has left him oddly introspective and his guilt at the way it ended between them makes him prickly and stand-offish. With close quarters and limited company, Eryx has no outlet, no way to express whatever it is he needs to express.
Leander is a smuggler, mostly out for his own entertainment and profit rather than for any grand purpose. Other than his ship, he’s alone and, yes, lonely. Born on the moon, he has had access to a brilliant education, but he has no intention of doing what his family wants just because they want him to. Leander doesn’t know what he wants to do, and that’s part of the problem. All he really wants is space and stars and freedom.
The two men, when they meet, don’t fall head over heels for one another. While Leander does admit Eryx is kind of hot, he’s more interested in getting free of the restraints, and while Eryx can admit the other man is attractive, he’s under the impression that Leander is a poacher, which means he’s going to tie him up and toss him to the authorities. When the truth finally does come out, Eryx still isn’t certain what to make of Leander, and it’s a long few days and nights of conversation that brings them together. Eryx feels free to tell Leander what he can’t tell anyone else, because Leander isn’t going to stay. And Leander, having spent long days and nights with only an AI for company, is eager for an actual human to talk to.
The two of them become friends and then find themselves suddenly reaching out to each other for something more than just talk. Eryx and Leander crave the company of another human, the sympathy of someone who will listen to their pain, and the warm touch of someone who wants them as a person. It’s been a long time since Eryx had any physical contact with another man (he’s been celibate more out of a lack of privacy than a lack of want), which makes his reactions to Leander more intense than they might have otherwise been.
Both men know this isn’t forever, that there aren’t wedding bells in their future, but neither of them cares. What they want is what they have: one another, right here and right now. The book doesn’t end on a cliffhanger, but it is an open-ended story where optimism and a chance at a brighter future give us a better conclusion than the magical “the end” on the last page. They have a relationship that is almost friendship with the promise at both romance and actual closeness. It’s a sweet ending.
The world building comes through the conversations Leander and Eryx have, since it’s hard to do much world building in a snowed-in laboratory. The ribbing Eryx gives Leander at being a “Lunar” hints at age-old biases and tensions between Earth and the Moon without having to take pages to exposit. It’s a very compact story, well-written by someone who knows how to write believable characters. Their lack of perfection is part of what makes this book work so well, and I hope you give it a chance.