Record of a spaceborn fe.., p.13
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       Record of a Spaceborn Few, p.13

           Becky Chambers
 

  Kip

  Kip remembered how to speak, but it took him a minute or two to get there. ‘I don’t know,’ he said slowly.

  Ras placed a hand on his shoulder. ‘Aw, come on,’ he said. ‘Don’t be nervous.’

  In front of them stood a doorway like any other. A panel. A frame. Plants and globulbs arcing up around it. But the sign on the door . . . that made all the difference.

  THE NOVA ROOM

  Age 20 and over

  Kip swallowed. His palms started to sweat. This was Ras’ grand plan, why he’d saved up those creds, why he’d found some random modder to help him hack his patch. Ras wanted to go to a tryst club. And being the good dude that he was, he’d brought his best friend along. Kip should’ve felt grateful. He should’ve felt excited – and he did, maybe? But it wasn’t excited like finding a plate of jam cakes in the kitchen or trading in your old clothes for some crisp new ones. This was the other kind of excited. Broken artigrav excited. Rattle in the shuttlecraft wall excited. The kind of excited that occurred when the chances were good that everything would be okay, but you were still going to hold your breath until said okayness was a done deal.

  ‘I don’t know,’ Kip said again. ‘I— I haven’t showered, I—’

  ‘They’ve got places you can clean up,’ Ras said.

  ‘How do you know?’

  ‘Omar told me. He goes to the one in our district, like, every day.’

  Kip looked at his friend, all confidence and smile (and fresh shirt, too). His hair still had too much goo in it, but he at least looked like he belonged in a place like this. Ras’d had sex before – once with Britta, who he couldn’t even be in the same room with now, and lots with Zi before her family moved to Coriol and Ras moped around for, like, ever. Kip had . . . well, Alex had kissed him at that party that one time, and he’d . . . um . . .

  He hadn’t.

  Ras gave him a friendly slap on the chest. ‘Trust me,’ he said. ‘You’re gonna have a good time.’ He strolled through the door, hands in his pockets, looking like he’d done this a million times.

  Kip stood frozen. ‘Shit,’ he whispered, and hurried after.

  The hallway beyond the door was nice – like, really nice. Little lights, big flowers, and something that smelled awesome. He’d seen places like this in vids and sims and stuff, but this was the real thing, and . . . and stars, he felt out of place. He could feel every stray hair on his chin, every zit on his face. He knew the clubs were a public service and all, but would anybody even want to have sex with him? He thought about the guy he’d seen staring back in the bathroom mirror that morning. That skinny torso. That beard that wasn’t. Nobody would have sex with that.

  Ras was already at the front desk, chatting with the receptionist. ‘Two hours each for me and my buddy,’ he was saying. ‘Not together, I mean. We’re not together.’

  The receptionist looked between them, squinted, then craned his head toward the patch scanner without taking his eyes away.

  Moment of truth. Ras swiped his wrist.

  The scanner chirped, and the pixels in front of the receptionist rearranged themselves. His eyes moved as he read, but his face didn’t change. ‘And you?’ the receptionist said, eyes flicking up toward Kip.

  Kip felt like he might throw up. He could get in so much trouble, and he wasn’t even sure he wanted to go in, but – but Ras had done this for him, and spent all those creds, and if he just stood there and did nothing, then they’d definitely be in trouble. He swiped his wrist. The scanner chirped. The receptionist read, paused, and smiled.

  ‘Okay, gentlemen,’ he said. ‘I’ve got some good news for you. Since it’s your first time visiting us, we’ve got an extra special welcome package for you. If you’ll follow me, we’ll set you up with free drinks in the lounge, then send over some of our most requested hosts to take care of you this evening.’

  ‘Ha! All right!’ Ras said, grinning at Kip.

  Kip managed a weak smile. Was this happening? Was this his life?

  ‘Don’t we need to fill out a survey or something, so you know who to send?’ Ras asked the receptionist. ‘I like ladies, and he—’ He turned to Kip. ‘Which way you wanna go tonight?’

  ‘We’ll take care of the preference questionnaire in the lounge,’ the receptionist assured him. He stood and gestured toward a door. ‘If you’ll come this way?’

  Ras followed the receptionist. Kip followed Ras.

  The lounge was, no doubt, the coolest place Kip had ever been to. He turned this way and that as he walked, taking it all in. The ceiling was painted like a sunset – or at least, what he was pretty sure a sunset looked like. There were crazy drinks stuffed with fruit and leaves and flowers, and floating globulbs shining through the dim. There were all kinds of people in there – people alone, people together, people waiting, people headed elsewhere. There were some old people, too, which he hadn’t imagined at all and thought was kind of weird, but all right, okay. At the bar, he saw a super fit dude in a too-tight shirt and perfect trousers murmuring to a lady wearing short-sleeved coveralls like they did down at the farms. The dude touched her hair. He pressed his palm against the small of her back. The woman laughed and ran her hand down the dude’s chest as he whispered, down his stomach, down to – holy shit. She squeezed, and Kip tripped, running into an unseen table, rattling the flowery drinks perched on top, startling the kissing couple on the other side. ‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘Uh – sorry.’

  Ras glanced back. What the fuck are you doing? his face said.

  Kip hurried after. Cool. He was already looking stupid.

  ‘Right here, if you would,’ the receptionist said. He held out a gracious palm toward a table next to a fountain with a trio of globulbs slowly dancing above it.

  ‘Thanks very much,’ Ras said brightly, as if he went to places like this all the time. He sat. Kip joined him. The receptionist left toward the bar. Ras turned toward Kip, triumph written across his face. ‘Worth. Every. Cred.’ He glanced out at the room, and his mouth went slack. ‘Holy hell,’ he said, gaping at a pair of women at the bar. ‘Stars, they’re hot.’ He elbowed Kip. ‘See anybody you like?’

  Kip didn’t know how to answer that. He saw lots of people that yeah, he did like the look of, but the idea of having actual sex with any of them was making his foot tap and his mouth dry.

  The receptionist came back with a drinks tray. ‘Oh, nice!’ Ras said, and Kip had to agree with the sentiment. The drinks were . . . what even were they?

  ‘Two tropical twelves,’ the receptionist said, placing a tall, thin glass in front of each of them. Kip inspected the contents – layered greens and yellows, ice spheres that were glowing, a rim of sparkling sugar around the top, a blue and flowery plume crowning the whole thing.

  Ras raised his drink. ‘Cheers, buddy.’

  They clinked glasses, and sipped. ‘Wow,’ Kip said. Whatever was in a tropical twelve was pretty damn incredible. Kick usually tasted terrible, but there wasn’t anything bitter or rough about this. Just sweet and cool. If it hadn’t come from a bar, Kip would’ve sworn it was just juice.

  Ras slapped Kip’s arm. ‘Finally you look like you’re enjoying yourself.’ He took another sip. ‘Damn, that’s good. Seriously, that’s the best drink I’ve ever had.’

  The receptionist beamed. ‘I’m so glad. Now, you might have a bit of a wait ahead of you. We’re a little busy tonight. But we’ll send over some snacks, and if you need another round or two, we’ll keep them coming. Just wave at the bartender.’ He turned and waved at the lady behind the bar, who did the same. She was laughing about something. A conversation they couldn’t hear, Kip figured.

  ‘Thanks very much,’ Ras said. ‘And no worries, we’ve both got free days tomorrow.’

  That wasn’t even remotely true. Ras had another round of shuttle licence practice, and Kip had math class. Shit, Kip thought. Did he have practice problems he was supposed to do? If he did, he hadn’t done them. Shit.

  But he looked at Ras,
leaning back so chill in his chair. He looked at the receptionist, bowing his head to both of them like he was there for no other reason than to make their lives easy. He looked at the fancy drink, the fancy room. He looked at the polished people milling around, leaving in twos or occasional threes, holding hands or other things as they headed down mysterious hallways. Kip set his jaw. Okay. He could do this. He could be Kip Madaki, age 20, drinker of tropical twelves and expert at sex. He could have sex. He was going to have sex. Yeah. Yeah. He ran his hand through his hair, trying to knock it into something . . . good. ‘Do I look okay?’ he asked.

  Ras gave him a thumbs-up and a nod. ‘You look real cool.’

  ‘You sure?’

  ‘One hundred percent.’

  They drank their drinks, ate a bowl of spicy fried peas, got more drinks, and . . . they waited. They waited and waited and waited.

  ‘Should we go ask what’s up?’ Kip asked.

  ‘Relax,’ Ras said. ‘He said they were busy.’

  More time passed. More drinks were consumed, and more snacks, too. The novelty of the place wore off, and Kip’s worries gave way to boredom. Even Ras looked unimpressed after a while. Two women approached their table. Kip and Ras straightened up. The women passed them by for the next table over, and the boys slumped back down, returning to their drinks. A man headed toward them. They straightened up. He went elsewhere. They slumped. The pattern repeated, again and again. Straighten, slump, sip a drink. Straighten, slump, sip a drink.

  The lift at the far end of the room opened, and Kip saw the woman in the farm coveralls walk out. Her hair was different. She was alone. She was smiling.

  ‘How much longer, do you think?’ Kip asked.

  Ras shrugged. Kip could tell he was trying to look casual about it.

  Kip swirled his glass. The ice had melted into the last sips, and the cool layers had fallen into each other and gone kinda pale. It didn’t even really taste good anymore. ‘Do you feel drunk?’ he asked. He didn’t feel drunk at all.

  Ras shrugged again. ‘I’ve got a high tolerance.’

  ‘Do you think they forgot about us?’

  ‘They’ve been bringing us drinks.’

  ‘Yeah, but like—’

  Kip felt a hand drop hard on his shoulder. He saw the same happen to Ras. They turned, and— oh no. Oh no.

  ‘Fuck,’ Ras groaned.

  ‘So!’ boomed Ras’ dad, loud enough that half the lounge turned to look. ‘You boys lookin’ to get laid, huh?’

  It wasn’t just Ras’ dad. It was his mom, and Kip’s mom, and the swift, cataclysmic end of Kip’s entire life.

  Isabel

  ‘Buzz buzz,’ Tamsin said, sticking her head through the open doorframe.

  Isabel looked up over the cacophony of pixel displays and data tables wallpapering the air above her desk. ‘What are you doing here?’

  ‘What are you doing here?’ Tamsin ambled in, cane in one hand, cloth bag in the other. ‘Did you forget about your other home?’

  What time was it? Isabel tapped the control bar on the side of her hud, bringing a clock up. She blinked. How was it twenty-half? She shut her eyes and shook her head. ‘I’m so sorry, I—’ She gestured wordlessly at the desk.

  ‘I figured,’ Tamsin said. She plunked the bag on the table and herself in a chair. ‘That’s why I brought dinner.’

  Isabel peeked into the bag. A couple small storage boxes and a fork lay waiting. ‘You sweetheart,’ she said.

  ‘Crispy fish, bean salad, and a slice of melon for after. It’s not the best.’ Tamsin leaned back and folded her arms over her belly. ‘It was the Thompsons’ night to cook. You know how Dek is about spices.’

  ‘You mean, he forgets them?’

  Tamsin winked. ‘But, y’know. Food.’ She eyed the pixels. ‘I thought your minions were taking care of things while you’re busy with M Tentacles.’

  ‘Don’t call her that.’

  ‘Why? Is she here?’

  ‘That’s not the point.’

  ‘You’re ignoring my question.’

  Isabel sighed. ‘Everybody else has been taking care of things, but there’s a question of recategorising that’s come up.’

  ‘Oh, stars,’ Tamsin said knowingly. ‘Uh oh.’

  If you were to ask someone of another profession what archivists spent the most time fretting about, the assumption might’ve been restoring old corrupted files, or maintaining backup systems. But no. No, there was nothing nearer and dearer to the average archivist’s heart than categorising, and it seemed like every standard an argument broke out over some file that belonged to too many categories, or too few, or some visitor who hadn’t found what they were looking for because the tags weren’t responsive or efficient or thorough enough, and nobody could get anything done until the matter of everything being in the right place was settled. Isabel opened her mouth, about to detail the issue – this one had to do with Earthen historical eras, which was always a thorny thing to delineate – but she took one look at Tamsin and changed her mind. Her wife’s face was one of look interested at all costs, and she appeared to be bracing herself for an onslaught of archival minutiae. ‘I’ll spare you the details,’ Isabel said.

  Tamsin smiled. ‘Big project,’ she suggested.

  ‘Big project,’ Isabel confirmed.

  ‘The kind of thing you’re gonna get done in one night?’

  The projected data tables stared imposingly down at Isabel. ‘No,’ she sighed, tucking an errant lock behind her ear. ‘No, I suppose not.’

  Tamsin cocked her head. ‘I kinda miss you at home.’

  ‘I’m sorry,’ Isabel said. ‘She’ll only be here for a few more tendays, and then—’

  ‘No, no.’ Tamsin put up her hand. ‘What you’re doing with M— with Ghuh’loloan is good, and I know you’re excited about it. And I know this kind of thing’ – she pointed to the desk – ‘is your thing, and that it’s important. I care. It’s good. You’re doing cool stuff. But, also, I miss you.’

  Isabel reached her foot beneath her desk and found one of Tamsin’s. ‘I miss you, too.’

  Tamsin scrunched her lips so high, they nearly touched her nose. ‘Wanna go do the Sunside?’

  The suggestion came from out of nowhere and was the last thing Isabel expected to hear that day. She couldn’t help but laugh.

  ‘Come on,’ Tamsin said with a grin. ‘I’m serious. We could make the night flight if we go right now.’

  ‘We haven’t done that in ages.’

  ‘And?’

  ‘And I’m still working.’

  ‘And?’

  ‘And you just brought me dinner.’

  ‘Psh,’ Tamsin said, narrowing her eyes. ‘Put it in the stasie, have it for lunch. I’ll get you a stuffer on the way.’ She patted the side of her jacket. ‘I got a whole pocket of trade, and all you’ve got is weak excuses.’ Her grin spread wider. Every line in her face took part.

  Isabel was incredulous, but enchanted, too. The latter won out. ‘All right,’ she said, throwing up her hands. ‘All right, let’s go.’

  ‘Ha!’ Tamsin said, clapping her hands together and collecting her cane. ‘I thought you’d punk out on me.’ She extended her hand once she’d made it to her feet. Isabel took it without even thinking. The best kind of habit.

  ‘Deshi,’ Isabel called as they left her office. The junior archivist looked up from his desk. ‘Please let everyone know I’m leaving the pre-spaceflight project until tomorrow. I’m—’

  ‘She’s being kidnapped,’ Tamsin said, marching them toward the exit. ‘Better call patrol.’

  Deshi laughed and nodded. ‘I dunno, M,’ he said. ‘I saw the one who did it, and she looked like bad news.’

  Tamsin gave a deep, short chuckle. ‘Smart man,’ she said. She gave him a threatening squint worthy of any festival actor. ‘Nobody likes snitches.’

  Isabel rolled her eyes. ‘Have a good night,’ she said.

  They made their way to the shuttledock as the globulb
s began to dim. They made a short stop at the closest marketplace, where Tamsin made good on her word and traded a round of striped ribbon for two big pocket stuffers – toasted golden on the outside, packed with spicy shreds of red coaster meat and sweet onions. Isabel’s stomach growled in anticipation as she raised it to her mouth. It was hardly a balanced meal, and had she seen any of her grandkids trying to argue the same for dinner, she’d have foisted a few vegetables on them first. But stars, it was good. The dough crunched at first bite, then bloomed into airy fluff, then gave way to the fiery centrepiece. Perfect.

  She glanced over at Tamsin, who tore into her own stuffer as they walked. ‘Did you not have dinner?’ Isabel asked.

  Tamsin swallowed. ‘’Course I did,’ she said. ‘But why should you be the only one to benefit from my good idea?’ She took a large bite, mmm-ing appreciatively.

  They continued their walk, relaying the events of the day between bites of bun until they arrived at their destination. The shuttledock stretched out before them, less crowded than in earlier hours. Beyond the entryway, a team of sanitation volunteers swept the floor, gaining nods and thank yous and short bursts of applause from the few passersby.

  ‘Hi there.’ A dock attendant appeared – a young teen, probably new to the job. He was short and well-groomed, and his polite alertness made it apparent that he took his role seriously. ‘Can I help you find any particular vessel?’

  ‘Have we missed the Sunside?’ Tamsin asked.

  The kid looked surprised, but recovered quickly. ‘Let me check, M.’ His eyes darted and blinked with practised purpose as he accessed information on his hud. ‘You’ve still got time. Leaves in ten minutes.’ He looked between the two old women before him, a slight anxiety creeping in. ‘Have you done the Sunside before?’

  Tamsin tsked. ‘Kid, I was there for the first Sunside.’ She smiled wickedly. ‘And that was before they put in seatbelts.’

 
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