Record of a spaceborn fe.., p.15
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       Record of a Spaceborn Few, p.15

           Becky Chambers
 

  ‘Me neither,’ Mom said. ‘Twice a day, sometimes.’

  Kip buried his face in his hands. ‘Can we . . . maybe . . . not?’

  Grandma Ko looked over from her plants and laughed. ‘It’s not like you and your friends invented sex, kiddo,’ she said. She pointed back and forth between his parents with her gardening clippers. ‘You wouldn’t be here otherwise.’

  A rogue comet. A Rosk battlecruiser. A face-eating alien plague. Anything.

  ‘The reason you’re in trouble,’ Dad said, ‘is because you lied and you broke the rules.’

  ‘He broke the law, Alton,’ Mom said. ‘Not just Fleet law. GC law.’ She looked at Kip with that look that meant the next tenday or so was really going to suck. He could already picture the lengthy list of chores that was going to appear on his scrib after this. ‘The only reason you’re talking with us and not a patroller right now is because that host at the club cut you and Ras a break. Tampering with your patch is not a joke, Kip.’

  ‘I know,’ Kip mumbled. The faster he agreed with them, the faster this might be over.

  ‘That hack you boys used could’ve uploaded anything. It could’ve carried a virus that messed with your bots. You know that’s what happened to those people on the Newet, right?’

  ‘I know, Mom.’

  ‘One person went to an unlicensed mod vendor, and the next thing you know—’

  ‘My patch is fine,’ Kip said. ‘You made me scan it, like, five times.’

  ‘That’s not the point,’ Mom said. ‘The point is, you did something illegal and dangerous. You got lucky.’

  ‘Not in the way he was hoping,’ Grandma Ko laughed.

  ‘Grandma,’ Mom said. ‘Please.’

  Grandma Ko put up her hands in surrender and kept working.

  ‘Tika lu, okay?’ Kip said.

  The look on Mom’s face somehow got even frostier. ‘In Ensk.’

  Oh, stars, was she really going to get on his ass about that? Fine. Fine, whatever it took to get him out of there. ‘I’m sorry. All right? I don’t know how many times you want me to say I’m sorry.’

  ‘We know you’re sorry,’ Dad said, ‘and we also know you want to get out of here. But you need to know the score, son.’

  ‘I get it,’ Kip sighed. ‘I do, okay? I get it.’

  Mom tapped her fingers against her mug. ‘When do you start your next job trial?’

  Ah, shit, Kip thought. He mumbled a response under his breath.

  ‘What was that?’

  ‘I haven’t signed up for one yet.’

  The look on Mom’s face got worse. Kip could see three more to-dos being added to his list. ‘You were supposed to sign up for another before your last one ended,’ she said.

  ‘I forgot.’

  ‘Kip, we talked about this,’ Dad said.

  ‘Okay, so, first thing tomorrow, you’re signing up for a job trial,’ Mom said. ‘And until it starts, you come straight home after school so you can help your hex. No sims, no cafes, no hanging out wherever it is you hang out. There are a lot of projects in the neighbourhood that need some extra hands right now.’

  Kip reeled. ‘But I probably won’t start another trial for a tenday.’

  ‘Yep,’ Mom said.

  No way. No way. ‘That’s not fair!’

  ‘You’re home instead of in detention. You don’t get to complain about fair right now.’

  Dad put his hands flat on the table. ‘All we’re asking is for you to clear your head and get focused,’ he said, his voice irritatingly mellow. He often did this thing where he wanted to sound all reasonable and cool even though he was just agreeing with Mom. It drove Kip nuts.

  He tried to negotiate. ‘Ras and I are going to the waterball game on second day. We have plans.’

  Mom’s mouth tightened. ‘We think a break from Ras might be a good idea, too.’

  That did it. Kip exploded. ‘This wasn’t his fault!’ he said. It was totally Ras’ fault, but that wasn’t the point. ‘Stars, you guys are always hating on him.’

  ‘I don’t hate Ras,’ Mom said. ‘I’m just not sure he’s—’ She looked up at the ceiling, thinking. ‘It’d be wise for you both to take some time to think about the kinds of choices you’ve been making.’

  ‘This is bullshit,’ Kip muttered.

  ‘Hey,’ Dad said.

  ‘No, it is,’ Kip said, getting louder. ‘It is bullshit. Look, I’m sorry I messed up tonight, but the only – the only reason I went along – the only reason we went there is because there’s nothing to do. It sucks here. What am I supposed to do? Go to school, do chores, learn how to do a job that’s basically more chores?’

  ‘Kip—’

  ‘And now you don’t even want me to have friends.’

  ‘Oh, come on, Kip.’ Mom rolled her eyes.

  ‘Of course we want you to have friends,’ Dad said. ‘We just want you to have friends that bring out the best in you.’

  ‘You guys don’t understand,’ Kip said. ‘You don’t understand at all.’ He pushed away from the table and walked off.

  ‘Hey, we’re not done,’ Mom said.

  ‘I’m done,’ Kip said. He went into his room and punched the door switch behind him.

  ‘Kip,’ Dad called through the metal wall.

  Kip ignored him. Stars, fuck this place. Fuck these stupid rules and stupid jobs and fuck being sixteen. He was getting out. The day – no, the second, the very second the clock hit his twentieth birthday, he was hopping on a transport, and he’d be gone, university or not. He’d find a job somewhere. He didn’t care where or what. Anything was better than this. Anything was better than Mom’s lists and Dad’s stupid voice. Anything was better than here.

  Behind his door, he could hear them still talking. Kip knew listening in would only make him madder, but he put his ear up anyway.

  ‘Maybe I should go talk to him,’ Dad said. ‘Y’know, just me and him.’

  ‘He doesn’t want to talk to either of us,’ Mom said. ‘Or were you not here for this conversation?’

  ‘But—’

  ‘Let him be,’ Grandma Ko said.

  Mom sighed. ‘He’s so impossible right now.’

  ‘Yes, well,’ Grandma Ko said. ‘You were a dipshit at that age, too.’

  Kip snorted. ‘Love you too, Grandma,’ he grumbled. He flopped down onto his bed and buried his face in his pillow, wishing he could erase the entire day. Dammit, Ras, he thought, but he wasn’t mad at him. Well . . . kind of. But not, like, a forever kind of mad. He knew Ras hadn’t meant for it to go wrong.

  He rolled over onto his side and groaned. Seriously. Zero hour on day 23, standard 310. Once that hit, he was out.

  Sawyer

  ‘Nervous?’ Oates asked as they headed down the walkway.

  Sawyer gave a sheepish smile. ‘It’s a job interview. Have you ever not been nervous at one?’

  Oates chuckled and clapped Sawyer’s shoulder with his mech hand. ‘Don’t worry. The boss is gonna love you. I mean, unless she hates you.’ He winked. ‘She’ll tell it to you straight if she does.’

  They continued along. Ships of varied size coasted slowly by. The shuttledock was a complicated stack of layers and levels, all built over a century prior, once Exodans found themselves with other places to go. Sawyer felt as if he were standing in the middle of the sea, watching creatures migrate past – little lively ones, modest middling beasts, and ponderous behemoths everything else made way for. He remembered his mom taking him to the planetside docks on Mushtullo, making up stories about where each ship had gone and was going. The memory came with a familiar sting, but it was a hurt he’d long ago learned to shelve.

  Oates led him to a dock designated for mid-size ships – merchant vessels and small cargo, mostly. They walked past thick bulkheads, slim atmospheric fins, hand-hacked tech upgrades, every design as different as the last. Sawyer eyed the names with enjoyment. Out of the Open. Take-A-Chance. Good Friend. Quick and Easy. The Better Side of Valour.

&n
bsp; ‘Here we are.’ Oates gestured Sawyer ahead. ‘Home sweet home.’

  Sawyer looked up at a nondescript freighter – dull grey plating, big engine, somewhat rough around the edges. It wasn’t as flashy or added-to as some. It didn’t stand out. But to Sawyer, that was a good thing. Flashy tech would’ve been intimidating, and too much of a penchant for modding would’ve worried him. This ship appeared solid, functional, and looked-after. All you wanted in a spacecraft, really.

  He spotted the ship’s registry info, printed by the open entry hatch.

  THE SILVER LINING

  Registration No. 33-1246

  Asteria, Exodus Fleet

  ‘Do you live on this ship?’ Sawyer asked.

  ‘Pretty much,’ Oates said. He walked through the hatch; Sawyer followed. ‘I see my folks when we’re docked, but it’s easier to keep all your stuff in one place, y’know? Nyx, though – that’s our pilot – she splits her time between this home and a home-home. Her ex’s hex. They hate each other, but they’ve got a kid, so. Y’know. You don’t have kids, right?’

  ‘Uh, no,’ Sawyer said. He ducked, avoiding a low string of festival flags stretched across a doorway. The internal structure of the Silver Lining was as standard as the outside suggested, but it was crammed to the gills with crates, boxes, and barrels, sealed and stamped with the same multilingual export permits you’d find on any goods that had to cross a territory or two. On top of that, this ship was unmistakably a home, with all the weird decor and knick-knacks that implied. There were pixel posters of musical acts he’d never heard of, globulb strands wrapped around doorways, failing herbs planted in old snack tins and struggling up toward a grow lamp. It wasn’t a mess, exactly, but it was a lot. ‘What do you guys trade in?’

  ‘Oh, a little of this, a little of that. We’re not picky. If it’ll fetch good creds, we’ll haul it.’ He rounded a corner, and ran smack into the tallest, burliest woman Sawyer had ever seen.

  Whoa, Sawyer thought. Was this the boss? Was this who he’d have to impress?

  ‘Whoops!’ Oates said with a laugh. ‘Sorry about that, Dory.’

  Dory squinted wordlessly at him with her one organic eye. The plex lens in the other audibly clicked into focus. Her head was only about a hand’s length away from the ceiling, and her broad arms looked as though they resented what short amount of sleeve they’d had to push themselves through. Sawyer waited for her to smile, to offer her own cheerful apology, to do something resembling friendly Human behaviour. But no, instead, she moved her eye – and only her eye – to Sawyer. The squint evolved into a full frown.

  ‘This is Sawyer,’ Oates said. ‘He’s here about our empty spot. Sawyer, this is Dory. She’s terrifying.’

  Dory let out . . . not so much a laugh, but a short chuff. And that was it. She pushed past them and continued on her way.

  ‘A real bundle of sunshine,’ Oates said. ‘Come on, let’s find some better company.’ He went a short way further, and they entered a kitchen. Three people were present there, two in conversation across a table. A clean-shaven man leaned against a storage cabinet, eating a large jam cake. He, too, was broad and muscled, but something about his stature – or maybe the sticky pastry he held – made him look far more approachable than his one-eyed crewmate. He nodded congenially at Oates, then continued to watch as the other two spoke.

  ‘You said nine hundred last time,’ one said in a testy tone. She was around Sawyer’s age – twenty, tops, he guessed.

  The other was at least twice that, and cool as rain in her reply. ‘Last time, you brought me better merchandise. Nine hundred is what you get for quality. Not for this.’ She gestured dismissively at an opened box on the table between them.

  Sawyer no longer wondered who was in charge here.

  ‘That’s not fair,’ the girl said. ‘We made a deal.’

  ‘Yes, and you’re the one who isn’t delivering, Una, not me. You can either take three hundred a pop now, or come back with something better. Or find another buyer, if you really feel you’re being treated unfairly.’ Her eyes flicked over to Sawyer and Oates. ‘My next meeting is here, so I’ll let you settle this with Len.’ She gestured to the cake-eating man. ‘He’ll let me know your decision.’

  The man – Len, apparently – folded the last of his pastry into his mouth, brushed the crumbs from his hands with a neat one-two, and stepped forward to escort the young woman elsewhere. The woman sulked, but she grabbed her box of . . . whatever it was, and followed.

  The boss put her hands on her hips and sighed at Sawyer with the sort of knowing smile he might expect if they’d already met. ‘Business,’ she said. She waved him over. ‘You must be Sawyer.’

  Sawyer approached the table. ‘And you must be the boss.’

  She laughed – a rich, honest sound. ‘Muriel,’ she said. She looked to Oates. ‘I like this one already.’ She made a short tipping gesture toward her mouth as a means of request. Oates went about fetching some mugs. ‘I have to say, it’s a trip hearing that accent on this side of the galaxy. Central space, Oates said?’

  ‘That’s right.’ Sawyer took a seat. ‘Mushtullo.’

  ‘I haven’t been myself, but I have a friend who’s done business there. A bit rough, is what I heard.’

  The words came across as a question. ‘A bit,’ Sawyer answered.

  Muriel leaned back in her chair. ‘So. You’re here after Livia’s job.’

  Sawyer was confused. ‘Sorry, I don’t—’

  Oates leaned over from the counter, where he was pouring water from a kettle. ‘I don’t think I mentioned Livia.’

  ‘Ah,’ Muriel said. ‘Livia was – let me back up. How much has Oates already told you about this job?’

  ‘I know it’s a salvage job,’ Sawyer said. ‘Recovering scrap, that kind of thing.’

  Muriel gave a thoughtful nod. Despite her friendly demeanor, Sawyer couldn’t help but feel that every word that left his mouth was being weighed, measured, and scored. ‘Exactly,’ she said. ‘And the trick with wrecked ships is, sometimes both they and their cargo pose challenges that require a bit of code.’ She turned her palm to Sawyer, silently adding: and that’s why you’re here.

  Oates handed both her and Sawyer a mug overflowing with spicy steam. ‘Thanks,’ Sawyer said, setting it down before his fingers scalded. ‘What kind of challenges?’

  ‘Let’s say . . .’ Muriel considered. ‘Let’s say we’re talking about a cargo ship. Medical supplies, going from here to there. Now, any merchant worth xyr salt is gonna have xyr crates locked up, and xe’s not going to hand over the key code until creds are exchanged. But our poor merchant met the mean side of an asteroid patch, and now xe and xyr crew are dead, and nobody knows the cargo key.’

  ‘Ah.’ Sawyer got it. ‘You need somebody who can open doors so the rest of you can do your job.’

  ‘Bingo. Because otherwise, nobody can get those goods to where they were going.’

  ‘I see.’ This sounded like kind of a cool job, now that Sawyer thought about it. Opening doors, salvaging goods, making sure nothing went to waste. Nothing went to waste in the Fleet.

  ‘So Livia.’ Muriel’s eyes rolled. ‘She did stupid during our last planet stop.’ She waved her hand. ‘Not worth getting into. Kick and poor decisions. Anyway, her dumb ass is now in an Aandrisk jail, and I’m stuck here without a comp tech.’ She sighed at Oates.

  ‘I hear Aandrisk jails are nice,’ Oates said over the rim of his mug. ‘Y’know, far as jails go.’

  ‘She doesn’t deserve it,’ Muriel said dryly.

  A flicker of concern shot through Sawyer. ‘Just to be totally up front,’ he said, ‘I’m not a comp tech. I’m not certified or anything, and I don’t have a ton of experience. I just know mid-level Tinker.’

  ‘So Oates told me,’ Muriel said. ‘Though I appreciate your honesty. Certifications don’t concern me. What I care about is skill, and a willingness to learn. You have a scrib on you?’

  Sawyer reached for his holster. ‘Ye
ah.’

  Muriel reached elsewhere, and came back with a lockbox. ‘Think you could get this open?’ She slid the box across the table.

  Sawyer picked up the box and wet his lips. ‘I’ve never done locks before.’

  ‘What have you done?’

  ‘Input pads, gesture relays, that kind of thing.’

  Muriel looked less than impressed, but she shrugged and tossed over a tethering cable. ‘Hook it up, take a look. And take your time thinking about it.’ She blew over the top of her tea. ‘I’m in no rush.’

  You can do this, Sawyer thought. He connected scrib to cable and cable to lock jack. He gestured at his scrib, and a flurry of code appeared. All right, he thought. He spoke this language. He understood these puzzles. If, then. He scrolled through, minutes ticking by. Every second that passed pressed down on his neck. He could feel Muriel watching him as she sipped her cooling tea. He wondered if this was part of the test, too, if he was taking too long, if the bit of sweat forming on his brow was giving her second thoughts. But all he could do was his best. He’d been honest with her. He had to expect the same. She said take time to think about it, so he did. It was, in a way, not too different than his trips to the commerce square back home, demonstrating his skills for judgey Harmagians, impressing by doing rather than writing the right words. Only, this was so much better. This wasn’t a judgey Harmagian watching him work. This was a cool lady and a nice guy who were as Human as he was and didn’t hold it against him. These were people who wanted him to succeed. His nerve steadied as he realised that, and, at last, words and strings began to reveal themselves to him.

  Sawyer pieced the logic together. He tweaked here, added there.

  The box stayed shut.

  He glanced up. Muriel was nearly through her mug of tea. Shit.

  He grit his teeth, and he wrote, and he read, and he wrote some more, and—

  There was a sound – a dull click. It wasn’t much of a sound, but to Sawyer, it was sweet victory. He pulled the lid open and swung its empty inside around to Muriel.

 

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