Record of a spaceborn fe.., p.10
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       Record of a Spaceborn Few, p.10

           Becky Chambers
 

  George’s on-screen image crackled with distance. ‘Well, if they’re down, that means more time for us,’ he said. ‘Though you look pretty tired.’

  ‘I am pretty tired. But I’ve always got time for you.’

  ‘Aww,’ he simpered.

  ‘Aww,’ she repeated, making a face. ‘So? How’s the edge?’ This was always her first question.

  George shrugged, looking around his cabin. ‘Y’know. Rocks. Dark. The usual. We’ve got a big ol’ ore ball we’re headed for now. Take us about two tendays to get there. Should be a good haul.’

  ‘Teracite?’

  ‘Iron, mostly, looks to be. Why? You going into comp tech?’

  ‘Not me. Everybody else, though. I can’t tell you how many queries we get about teracite stores.’ She leaned her jaw on her palm. ‘How’s the ship?’ This was always her second question, the one spacers were forever asking each other.

  ‘Fine, fine,’ he said. His eyes shifted away from the screen. ‘Still kicking.’

  Tessa squinted. ‘Don’t bullshit me, George.’

  ‘It’s nothing, and definitely nothing you need to worry about.’

  ‘You know that’s a great way to make someone worry, right?’

  ‘We had a minor – minor, Tess – hiccup in life support today. Air not filtering right, CO2 got a little high for a couple hours.’

  That was minor, in the grand scheme of things. But the Rockhound was an old ship even by Exodan standards, and this wasn’t the first time there’d been ‘hiccups’ in their patched-up life support. ‘Did Garren get it fixed?’ Their mech tech.

  George gestured to his door. ‘Would you like me to get him up here?’ he asked with a teasing look. ‘Have him walk you through it?’

  Tessa eyed the screen flatly. ‘I’m just saying, Lela’ – his captain – ‘should talk to the mining guild about replacing it already.’

  ‘You know as much as anyone there’s a list as long as my leg for ships that need upgrades, and we are not at the top, I assure you.’ He smiled in a way that was meant to soothe. ‘Worst case, we’ll head home if we start coughing.’ His smile went wistful, and Tessa could see the tangent at work. An unexpected trip home meant he could hug the kids sooner, which meant they’d have grown a little less since the last time he saw them. ‘How’re they doin’?’ he asked.

  ‘Your son—’

  ‘Uh oh.’

  ‘—stuffed his pajamas down the toilet and told me you did it.’

  George guffawed. ‘No! I’m innocent, I swear!’

  ‘Don’t worry. You have a solid alibi.’

  ‘That’s a relief. My own son, throwing me out the hatch like that.’

  Tessa shook her head. ‘It’s like family means nothing.’ She paused. ‘He’s on this kick lately – “all fixed”. He says it constantly. Any idea where he got it?’

  George stroked his thick beard. ‘I dunno.’ He squinted at the ceiling. ‘Isn’t that a Big Bug thing?’

  Tessa had never been into The Big Bug Crew as a kid, and she hadn’t played any of the new ones with her daughter. ‘Is it?’

  ‘Maybe I’m remembering it wrong, but I swear it’s Big Bug. Whenever something on the ship breaks down and you repair it, there’s this, like . . . fanfare and confetti, and the kids yell, “All fixed!”’

  ‘But he hasn’t—’ Tessa stopped. Ky wasn’t old enough to be playing sims yet, not by a long shot. Anybody who’d only figured out his knees a standard ago didn’t yet have the mental chops to distinguish between virtual reality and reality reality. She knew this. Aya knew this. Aya had been told this. And yet, Aya had also recently been deemed responsible enough to look after her brother unsupervised for a few hours. There’d been a few of those afternoons where Tessa had come home to find Ky wound up like she’d never seen. She’d chalked it up to his sister’s overly liberal forays into the cookie box, or him just being excited about time spent playing with the coolest person in his little world. But Tessa put herself back in her childhood big sister shoes. She remembered the times her parents left her alone with Ashby. She remembered how annoying he’d been sometimes, how impossible to please. She remembered trying to find something, anything that would keep him occupied for more than ten minutes. She wondered, if they’d had a sim hub at home then, if she might’ve stuck a slap patch on his head, leaned him into a corner of the couch, and pumped sims into his brain while she did whatever she fancied. Watched forbidden Martian vids, maybe.

  ‘Uh oh,’ George said again.

  ‘What?’

  ‘Your face.’ He made a circular hand motion around his own. ‘It went super scary.’

  She glared at him. ‘I don’t have a scary face.’

  ‘You do. You do, sometimes, have a scary face.’

  ‘If I have a scary face, it’s because your daughter—’

  ‘Ohhhh, boy.’

  ‘—is in big trouble.’ And stars, was she ever. Tessa had half a mind to wake her up right then. She would’ve, too, if getting her to sleep hadn’t been such an odyssey.

  ‘Sounds like everybody’s in trouble. Am I in trouble? I swear to you, Tess, I didn’t have anything to do with the toilet thing.’

  She rubbed one of her temples and gave half a laugh. ‘I still have to review the evidence on that. You’re not out of the open yet.’

  ‘Shit,’ George said, with a sad shake of his head. ‘Maybe it’d be best if I didn’t come home early.’

  Tessa looked at him – his broad chest, his big beard, his perpetually sleepy eyes. He was greyer than he’d been once, and fuller, too. He was a kind-looking man. A normal-looking man. George wasn’t the sort of guy she’d once dreamed about. George was just George, and George never changed.

  She knew that wasn’t true. Nothing was permanent, especially out in the open. But when she was with George, even just on opposite ends of a sib call, it was nice to pretend, for a little bit, that this one thing would never end. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t perfect, or wasn’t always exciting. It was hers. There was one thing in this universe that was wholly, truly hers, and always would be.

  It was the cosiest lie she knew, and she saw no reason to stop telling it.

  Part 2

  We Have Wandered

  Feed source: Reskit Institute of Interstellar Migration (Public News Feed)

  Item name: The Modern Exodus – Entry #4

  Author: Ghuh’loloan Mok Chutp

  Encryption: 0

  Translation path: [Hanto:Kliptorigan]

  Transcription: 0

  Node identifier: 2310-483-38, Isabel Itoh

  [System message: The feed you have selected has been translated from written Hanto. As you may be aware, written Hanto includes gestural notations that do not have analogous symbols in any other GC language. Therefore, your scrib’s on-board translation software has not translated the following material directly. The content here is a modified translation, intended to be accessible to the average Kliptorigan reader.]

  * * *

  At the heart of every district is a four-story cylindrical complex, stretching through the layered decks like a dowel stuck into a disc. The complex is made of metal, like everything else, and has no windows. The exterior is covered in muted murals of varying age, the details often obscured by the climbing vines growing from planters that encircle the base of the building. There are two entry-points at the neighbourhood level – an unobtrusive door used by the people who work there, and a larger archway used by those going through the most difficult days of their lives.

  The complex is, in function, a corpse composting facility. Exodans do not call it that. They call it, simply, the Centre.

  I admit I felt trepidation as I passed through the archway. This is an area of Exodan custom I was unschooled in, and I was unsure what I would find. I braced myself for the sight of rotting flesh, the air of decay. I found neither. The Centre does not feel like a place of death. The lights are kind. There are planters everywhere, but they are tame and controlled, j
ust as the entire process within this place is. The air surprised me the most: a slight hint of agreeable humidity, coupled with an utterly pleasant warmth (in truth, it was the most comfortable environment I’ve been in since arriving in the Fleet). There’s a strange feel to it, yes, but it is inoffensive, reminiscent of a forest after a rain. I wondered if Humans – with their notoriously poor olfactory sense – could detect it at all.

  The professionals who tend this place are known as caretakers, and one named Maxwell met me near the entrance. I knew his clothing was ceremonial, but you would never know it, dear guest, if you had not been told in advance. He wore no ornamentation, nothing that communicated pomp or importance. Just loose-fitting garments made of undyed fabric, cinched around his forearms and ankles to prevent dragging in the dirt. The outfit was a reminder that my visit that day was on a strict schedule. Maxwell was to conduct a burial – a ‘laying-in’, they call it – and though I was welcome to see the preparation, I would not be permitted to attend the ceremony itself. It was a ‘family matter’, he said, and studying the events from the sidelines would not be well received. Exodans tend to express strong emotions quite freely – brashly, even – but I have observed a general (though not universal) dislike of doing so around strangers. I struggle with this idea, but I respect it all the same.

  ‘So,’ my host said, gesturing to the chamber before us. ‘This is the main event.’

  The space we occupied was as tall as the exterior suggested. Stretching up before us was an enormous cylinder, unchanged since the days of the Earthen builders. A ramp spiralled around the cylinder, all the way to the top, wide enough for several Humans to walk side-by-side. At the base were several well-sealed hatches, from which the final product could be retrieved. Another caretaker was engaged in this very activity, filling metal canisters with what could easily be mistaken for nothing more extraordinary than dark soil. I was immediately filled with questions, but Maxwell had other ideas. ‘We’ll come back to this,’ he said. ‘We can’t go out of order.’ He paused, studying me. ‘Are you comfortable seeing bodies?’

  I answered honestly. ‘I don’t know. I have never seen one.’

  He blinked – a response that indicates surprise. ‘Never? Not one of your own kind?’

  I gestured in the negative before I realised he wouldn’t understand. ‘No,’ I said. ‘I’m not in a medical profession, and am lucky enough to have never witnessed serious violence. I have lost connections, and have grieved them with others in a ceremonial sense. But we do not grieve with a corpse present. We do not see the body that remains as the person we have lost.’

  Maxwell looked fascinated, as one could rightly expect from one of his profession. ‘What do you do with them, then?’

  ‘They’re cleanly disposed of. Some still practise the old way of leaving them just beyond the shoreline, where the waves cannot reach them. Mostly, though, corpses are dissolved and flushed away.’

  ‘Just . . . with wastewater?’

  ‘Yes.’

  Maxwell visibly wrestled with that. ‘Right. That sounds . . . efficient.’ He gestured for me to follow him. ‘Well, if you do feel uncomfortable, just let me know, and we’ll leave.’

  I followed him through a staff door and down a corridor until we reached his preparation room. The difference between this place and the main chamber could not have been starker. My tentacles reflexively curled with chill, and the air was irritatingly dry.

  It is difficult for me to distill all I felt as we entered the room. If I were to describe the moment with pure objectivity, I stood at a table looking at a dead alien. She was old, her body withered. I related to nothing of her anatomy, laid bare and unshrouded. I realised my declaration to Maxwell that I had never seen a dead body was untrue. I have seen dead animals. I have eaten them. I have walked past them in food markets. I have fished expired laceworms out of my beloved swimming tank at home. In some ways, observing the Human corpse on the table was no different than that. Please understand, dear guest, I do not mean that I believe Humans are equivalent to lesser species. What I mean is that what lay before me was a species other than myself, and so any connection to my own mortality, my own eventual fate, was at first safely distant.

  But then I began to think of the dead animals I have seen and disposed of and consumed, the ended lives I did not grieve for because I did not understand them fully. I did not see myself in them, and therefore it did not matter. I looked to this former Human – this former sapient, with a family and loves and fears. Those things I could understand, even though the body was something I could not. Nothing in the room was moving, nothing was happening, and yet within me, I felt profound change. I grieved for the alien, this person I had never known. I grieved for my pet laceworms. I grieved for myself. Yet it was a quiet grief, an everyday grief, a heaviness and a lightness all at once. I was overwhelmed, yet there was no way to express that beyond silence.

  I do not feel I am explaining this experience well, dear guest, but perhaps that is appropriate. Perhaps none of us can truly explain death. Perhaps none of us should.

  * * *

  Tessa

  Tessa stood in the doorway to her workroom, lunch box in one hand, the other hanging at her side. She’d had a bad feeling since the moment she’d discovered that the staff door opened for her despite the lock being offline. In the workroom, poor Sahil lay with his head on the desk, snoring and drooling without a care in the world. She looked out to the endless shelves. Everything appeared just as it had when she’d left the day before. She knew it wasn’t. Somewhere, something was missing. Probably a lot of things were missing.

  She did not need this today. She really, really did not.

  She crouched down beside her colleague. ‘Sahil?’ she said, giving his shoulder a shake. ‘Sahil? Dammit.’ She gave him a once-over, just to make sure nothing was bloodied or broken, then turned to the vox. ‘Help,’ she called.

  The connection was instant. ‘Patrol dispatch,’ a voice said. ‘Is this an emergency?’

  Tessa was pretty sure she knew the speaker. ‘Lili?’ she said. ‘It’s Tessa, down in Bay Eight.’

  ‘Ah, jeez.’ Definitely Lili. ‘Again?’

  Tessa wasn’t sure whether to laugh or sigh, so she did both. ‘Again.’

  ‘Anybody hurt?’

  ‘No, but looks like they hit my coworker’s bots.’ It was a mean but easy exploit, if you could get your hands on a med scanner. Trigger the imubots’ suppression protocol, like a doctor would before a minor surgery, and say goodnight. ‘I think he’s just asleep, but—’

  ‘Yeah, I gotcha. You’ve got two patrollers and a medic headed your way. Ten minutes, tops.’

  ‘Thanks, Lili.’

  ‘You got it. If you come by Jojo’s tonight, I’ll get you a drink.’

  Tessa laughed dryly. ‘I just might take you up on that.’ The vox switched off. Tessa sat on the desk. She set her lunch down and studied Sahil, her hands folded between her legs. His sinuses roared. She thought about wiping up the drool, but no. She did enough of that kind of thing at home.

  She glanced up at the clockprint on the wall. Ten minutes, tops, dispatch had said. So, rounding up to ten, that meant it was in her best interest to wait five minutes before calling Eloy, who would take twelve to get from home to work. Technically, she was supposed to call the supervisor the second something like this happened, but Tessa found the idea of delaying the inevitable headache until she had patrollers there much more palatable. Eloy was easier to deal with if another person of authority was there to balance him out.

  One minute passed. Tessa opened her lunch box and removed the cake she’d packed for the afternoon. It was only eighth hour. It was warranted.

  Four minutes passed. The cake had been pretty good. A little stale, but then, it was two days old. She brushed the remaining crumbs off her knee. Sahil snored.

  Five minutes passed. She took a breath. ‘225-662,’ she said to the vox.

  A second went by. Two. Three. ‘Yea
h,’ Eloy’s marginally awake voice said. Great. Just great. This was the start of his day.

  ‘Eloy, it’s Tessa,’ she said. ‘We’ve had a break-in.’

  ‘Ah, fuck,’ he snapped. She could practically hear him rubbing his hands over his face. ‘Fucking again?’

  Sahil shifted in his sleep, his lips folding unflatteringly against the desk. ‘Fucking again,’ Tessa said.

  Isabel

  When dealing with other sapients, issues of compatibility were difficult to anticipate. Isabel’s go-to example of this was the first meeting between Exodans and Aeluons. The Exodans, overjoyed by what felt like a rescue, exhilarated by the confirmation that their species was not alone, predictably assembled in their festive best, and decorated the shuttledock in streamers, banners, bunting. There were recordings of the scene in the Archives – an overwhelming array of every colour the dyeworks could cook up, hung and layered like confetti frozen in time. To Exodan eyes, the display was ebullient, effusive, a celebration like no other (not to mention an extravagant use of cloth). To the chromatically communicative Aeluons, it was the equivalent of opening a nondescript door and finding a thousand screaming people on the other side. The Aeluons, well familiar with the more colourful habits of other species, dealt with it as gracefully as they could, but as soon as some Klip/Ensk translation wrinkles had been ironed out, a gentle request was made to please, please put the flags away.

 
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