Record of a spaceborn fe.., p.20
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       Record of a Spaceborn Few, p.20

           Becky Chambers
 

  Eyas continued to feel thrown. She remembered the announcement that the Oxomoco victims would be flown en masse into their sun, and the second grieving that decision had prompted – the disbelief, the backlash, the endless requests for personal exceptions, the crowded lines at counselling clinics and emigrant resource centres and neighbourhood bars, the exhaustion, the resignation, the popular justification that the bodies would fuel the sun, and the sun fuelled their ships, so a similar end would be achieved. And now here they were, just a few standards later, talking about that recourse as matter-of-fact as could be. ‘You’re forgetting resources,’ she said, speaking words she’d never thought an Exodan would need to be reminded of.

  ‘That was true for old folks,’ Sunny said. ‘That’s why we did composting while we were still drifting around the open. It’s different now.’

  ‘We . . . we still have to manage metal and fuel. They’re less rare than before contact, yes, but the . . . the need to be frugal hasn’t changed. You can’t fly bodies anywhere without metal and fuel.’

  ‘But does the math work out that way? Is it actually less of a drain on resources anymore to keep the Centres working than it would be to kit out a busted old skiff sometimes?’

  Eyas stared at him. That wasn’t math she’d ever done, ever considered doing. She had a dozen polished responses to the question of why the tradition she oversaw existed. But Sunny wasn’t asking why, he was asking why now, and that . . . that she didn’t know how to answer. She emptied her glass down her throat and tried to think.

  Sunny cringed apologetically. ‘So, what I was trying to do was push you into some kind of epiphany and help you untangle this thing . . . but it looks like I maybe messed you up further.’

  She sputtered. ‘How was this supposed to help?’

  ‘You were supposed to say that the math doesn’t matter. Because you love it, and because it’s our way, and that’s reason enough. And then, see, you’d feel like your job was enough, and you wouldn’t feel conflicted anymore.’

  ‘You asked me a practical question!’ She hit him with a pillow. ‘Not an emotional question! Those two never have the same answers!’

  ‘Well, fuck, sorry!’ he laughed, fending off her attack, holding his pipe well out of harm’s way. ‘You called me perceptive, and I got cocky.’

  Eyas shook her head with a smile. ‘That’s the last time I pay you a compliment.’

  ‘Probably for the best.’ Sunny gave a low whistle. ‘Stars, I am sooooo glad I picked an easy job. I am not used to getting this existential.’

  She chuckled. ‘I wouldn’t call your job easy.’

  He gestured to his reclining, naked frame. ‘I am in the middle of a shift, right now.’ He took a long drag of his pipe. ‘I am on the clock.’ He sipped the last of his drink and swallowed with an indulgent exhale. ‘Oh, what a difficult profession.’ He set the pipe and glass aside and rolled over onto her, far more goofball than alluring, and planted his face smack between her breasts. ‘Look at me, serving the greater good,’ he said, nuzzling appreciatively. He sat back as Eyas laughed. ‘I guess I kinda am, huh?’ he said, his voice more serious. He gestured at her. ‘You’re the literal greater good here.’

  Eyas raised an eyebrow. ‘Do you get this sappy with all your clients?’

  Sunny grinned broadly. ‘I wouldn’t have gotten very far in this job if I didn’t.’ His eyes softened – not worryingly so, but enough to make her stop teasing. ‘I meant it, though.’

  Eyas held his eyes for a moment. She squeezed his hand, and poured them both another drink.

  Sawyer

  ‘Boss, we got a problem.’

  Everybody in the airlock paused their suiting up. ‘Do tell,’ Muriel said, continuing to wake the four empty autocarts that would be joining them.

  Nyx cleared her throat over the vox. ‘We’ve got company. The Neptune.’

  Muriel paused. ‘How long?’

  ‘Three hours, maybe four.’

  Sawyer stood awkwardly, helmet in hands, not sure what that meant or why the mood in the airlock had changed. ‘Ah, shit,’ Oates said. He frowned at everyone present. ‘Who got drunk and told someone where we were going today, hmm?’ His eyes lingered on Sawyer.

  Sawyer swallowed. He was pretty sure he hadn’t said anything to anybody other than that he had a salvage job. He hadn’t known he wasn’t supposed to talk about it, but who would he even have talked to?

  ‘It doesn’t matter,’ Muriel said. She fastened her suit latches in sequence, one, two, three. Methodical. Matter-of-fact. ‘Is what it is.’ She looked around at her crew. ‘This just became a rush job. Grab and carry first. Tear-downs if you can.’

  Sawyer cleared his throat. ‘I’m sorry, I don’t— what’s going on?’

  Muriel clicked her helmet into place, and the vox below the seam switched on. ‘We’ve got competition. Another salvage crew. Think of it like a race.’

  A competition. Sawyer hadn’t planned on that. ‘Do you guys – do the salvage crews not keep a schedule?’

  Dory laughed and shook her head, walking toward the hatch.

  ‘Salvage is a more . . . independent line of work,’ Oates said. ‘First come, first serve.’

  The airlock remained tense, so Sawyer decided to save the rest of his questions for later. Still, his list was growing. If retrieving salvage was competitive, there must be some kind of special compensation given by the Fleet to salvage crews, but that didn’t mesh with . . . well, with how everything else worked. Maybe it was dangerous, or messy? You could say the same about asteroid mining, though, or zero-g mech work, or sanitation. Sanitation. Maybe he should have stuck with that, started there. He didn’t understand enough about anything else yet. Maybe . . . maybe the race Muriel mentioned was purely a matter of pride. A race to see who could bring the best stuff back home. Yeah, that made sense. He put on his helmet and got ready to follow.

  That is, he thought he was ready. He’d been outside before, tethered and on a guided walk, but that was different; he wasn’t floating now. He could feel the sudden lightness of everything in and around him, but his cling boots held his feet firmly to the ruined shuttledock they walked out onto. He’d never worn cling boots before, and he found them . . . not uncomfortable, exactly, but more challenging than the others made them look. A little like walking through wet sand. It’d take practice, he assured himself. After all, this crew had probably been wearing them since they were kids. One step at a time.

  Sawyer looked up from his feet and met the Oxomoco. He shuddered. He swallowed. Around them were the same features he’d seen in the Silver Lining’s dock four days prior – walkways, railings, directional signs – but this was a fever dream, a rent and twisted mirror image. The vacuum occupying the space around them glittered with dust and dreck. It would’ve been almost pretty, were it not for the violently wrenched metal everywhere else. Sawyer turned to look around, and even in the regulated warmth of his exosuit, the sight made him go cold.

  There was no wall on the other side of the dock. Just a gaping hole into empty space, the edges surrounding it bent outward. He knew the decompression had been quick, but stars, he hoped it had felt that way, too.

  ‘All right, three hours,’ Muriel said. ‘We should split up. Oates, head to the hexes. Dory and Len, let’s go to cargo. It’s bound to be even more picked over than the last time we were here, but we gotta give it a shot. Sawyer, you’re with Oates. More code that’ll need tweaking where he’s headed. Nyx, you’ll keep us posted?’

  ‘You know it,’ Nyx’s voice said inside their helmets.

  Muriel nodded at the group. ‘Let’s move.’

  They split as directed, autocarts trailing after. Sawyer followed Oates, and tried his best to look nonchalant.

  He failed at that, apparently. ‘Don’t worry,’ Oates said, pushing his big bag of tools along. ‘Fucks everybody up the first time.’

  Sawyer felt embarrassed at that, but relieved, too. ‘I’ve seen pictures, but—’

&
nbsp; ‘Yeah, pictures don’t cut it. I always need a good, stiff drink to get me to sleep after we make a run here. Speaking of – you holding up okay?’

  The slightest echo of a headache was all that remained of Len’s Whitedune. ‘Yeah,’ Sawyer said. ‘I’m good.’

  Oates gave him a solid pat on the back, his thick glove landing dully against an even thicker oxygen canister. ‘See, you’ll be great. We got about an hour’s walk there, and if we’ve gotta be back in three, we need to keep a good pace if we’re gonna have any time to actually work. If you gotta piss, well – you’ve worn a suit before, right?’

  Sawyer hadn’t ever used that particular exosuit feature, but he nodded.

  Oates grinned. ‘It’s a fancy job, what can I say.’

  The walk was tiring, thanks to the boots, but Oates made for good chatter. After an hour and change, as had been predicted, they arrived in a residential corridor. ‘Okay, a lot of these will be empty already,’ Oates said. ‘I’ll know a good one when I see it, though.’

  Oates’ quarry was found a few minutes later, though Sawyer couldn’t see what had drawn him to this particular spot. The centre of the hex was empty. No toys or tools littered the floor. No dishes lined the table. No plants remained in the hollowed planters. Everything that wasn’t bolted down had been sucked away through a gash in the floor that split the hex in two. Sawyer could see the remaining edges of the sewage deck below and the stars beyond.

  ‘Hmm,’ Oates said, as if he were picking apart a pixel puzzle. He eyed the front doors. ‘That one. We’ll start there.’ He pointed to a door that was open about a hand’s width, on the other side of the gash.

  Sawyer hesitated. ‘How do we . . .’

  ‘Ah,’ Oates said. ‘Here, I’ll show you.’ He reached down and hit the cling boot controls on his ankles. With a low buzz, Oates was unanchored. ‘Okay? And then—’ His suit thrusters activated, and he flew forward at a cautious speed, drifting over the tear in the floor, then reactivated his boots once he reached the other side. ‘See? Nothin’ to it.’

  Sawyer repeated each step. Detach, thrusters, forward, anchor. There wasn’t anything to it, now that he’d done it, but he felt pleased anyway.

  The autocarts flew themselves across the gap as well, and the small party stood at the cracked-open door. Oates reached into his tool bag and retrieved a power pack and a pair of cables. He popped open a service panel by the doorframe, connected the pack, and gestured at the door. Nothing happened. He ran his hand inside the open space between door and frame. ‘Nothing blocking it,’ he said. He rattled the door itself. ‘And it’s not off-track. It’s just locked itself in a weird spot.’ He nodded at Sawyer. ‘This is where you come in.’

  On cue, Sawyer hooked up his scrib to the control panel and dove into the code. It was a different setup than the lockbox code, naturally, but the territory was more familiar now. He tweaked and teased, coaxing the commands to do what he wanted. Sure enough, five minutes in, the door slid open.

  ‘Hey, hey!’ Oates said. He rubbed his hands together as he entered the home. ‘We’re in business. Nice work.’

  A smile briefly formed on Sawyer’s lips, then disappeared. Eerie as it was to see a hex without any stuff in it, a home still full to the brim with belongings was worse. Free of gravity, every piece of furniture and everything that had been on them was afloat, drifting in a bizarre jumble. Oates pushed things out of his path as he walked through, like a parody of a man wading through water. The objects tumbled into each other, set in motion by the intrusion.

  A sock floated past Sawyer’s face. He saw a fork, a kettle. A frozen, dilapidated piece of fruit. A horrible thought struck him. ‘Are there any . . . um . . . there aren’t still . . .’

  Oates looked at him. ‘What?’

  Sawyer wet his lips. ‘Bodies.’

  ‘Oh, stars, no.’ He made a face. ‘Couldn’t pay me enough to come here if there were. No, after it happened, the Aeluons, they’ve got these . . . I dunno what they’re called. Some kind of bots that detect whatever organic form you tell ’em to look for. They use ’em to retrieve their dead after battles in zero-g. You know what I’m talking about?’

  ‘No.’

  ‘Well, anyway, the Aeluons gave us a bunch for clean-up. They can bore through walls and whatnot, so if you’re in a closed-off space like this and you don’t see a big hole in the wall, it means there was nobody in here, and nobody’s been in since.’

  There was nobody in here. A small comfort, but Sawyer took it.

  ‘Okay,’ Oates said. ‘Cloth and metal, those are always good to grab. Anything that can be made into textiles or melted down.’ He grabbed a floating storage crate, put it beneath one boot, and began to pry the lid up. ‘Tech takes priority over everything. Broken is fine, intact is better, functional is best. We can’t grab everything, so use good judgment. Find things people can make use of.’

  Sawyer looked around. Everything in there had had a use, once. Everything in there had been brought in for a purpose. He shook his head. Job. He had to do his job. Okay, he thought. He reached out and grabbed the floating kettle. ‘Like this?’

  ‘Yeah. Someone can smelt it, if nothing else. Remember, we’re on the clock. Grab and go.’

  Sawyer grabbed. Utensils, tech bits, blankets. He brought handful after handful to one of the autocarts, steadily filling its enclosed compartments. The grimness of the place was starting to ebb into the background. Instead there was just the work, the task at hand. There were creds to be made, and crew to win over, and – he paused. He’d opened a decorative box – no, not a box. An old cookie tin someone had painted. The contents inside drifted up to greet him. Sawyer’s chest went tight. There wasn’t much in the box, nothing that Oates would want, nothing that was of any use. There were kitschy figurines, a pair of Aandrisk feathers, an info chip, a handful of yellow stones washed smooth by an alien sea. He took the info chip, which had a name printed on it. Myra, it read. He turned his attention to the wall of painted handprints, which he’d been steadfastly ignoring since the moment they walked in. Okoro, it read. The hands reached nearly to the ceiling. He wondered which of them was Myra’s. He wondered where she’d been during the accident, if she hadn’t been here. He wondered if she’d made it.

  ‘Hey,’ Sawyer said. ‘What about things like this?’ He gestured to the floating mementos.

  Oates was busy carving hunks of stuffing out of the sofa with his knife. ‘Like what?’ He looked over. ‘Just junk. Leave it.’

  ‘It’s got a name on it. If she’s still around, she’d be in the directory, yeah? Doesn’t weigh much, and I bet she’d be happy to get her stuff back.’

  Oates paused. He lowered his knife. ‘We’re here for salvage,’ he said. ‘Not lost and found.’

  ‘But—’

  Oates’ voice changed. Sawyer couldn’t put his finger on what it was, but he didn’t like it. ‘On the clock, remember?’ Oates said. ‘You pick up every piece of junk you find, and we’ll be here forever.’

  Sawyer frowned. An uneasiness filled him, the same feeling he’d gotten after the tunnel hop, the same he’d gotten in the airlock when competition arose. Competition. He looked at Oates, speedily tearing away hunks of fibre as if someone might take it away at any moment.

  ‘Oates,’ Sawyer said slowly. His tongue felt thick. He knew what he wanted to ask, and he knew how stupid it was. He knew he’d sound like an idiot, that it was probably nothing to worry about, that this might take him down a few points in the eyes of the man who’d picked him out of a crowd. But the needling grew stronger, and his stomach felt sour, and . . . and he had to. ‘Are we allowed to be here?’

  Oates sighed, his helmet angling toward the floor. ‘Can we have this talk once we get back to the ship?’

  ‘Um—’ Sawyer shook his head, a bright panic growing in his chest. ‘No, I want to talk about this now. Are we allowed to be here?’

  Oates gave him a look of pure exasperation, then returned his attention to the sofa. ‘
You’re a grounder, so you’ll understand this analogy. Imagine you’re with a bunch of people wandering out in the desert. I mean a real desert, nothin’ anybody can use. There are jungles nearby, but you can’t go there. The jungle will eat you up. You’ll get lost in there. You’ll disappear. Now, sometimes, the people in the jungles will throw you a bag of food, but it ain’t much. Not like you’d get if you actually lived in there. But you’re desert people, and you’re not goin’ anywhere. One day, you stumble across a big, dead animal. Like a . . . I dunno, I was never good at animals. What’s a big one?’

  ‘I—’

  ‘A horse. That’s big, right? You stumble across a dead horse. Biggest horse you’ve ever seen, and it’s freshly dead. You could cut it up and eat it right now. It’s there for the taking. But the leaders of your group, they say, no, no, we need to talk about this. We can’t do this now. We need to talk about how to do this fairly. We have to make sure everybody’s getting the exact same amount of horse. We’re going to cut just a little bit of horse off, but oh, wait, no, now we need to reorganise all our satchels so we have room for the horse bits. And while we’re doing that, we should really talk about which of us could use some horse more. So everybody sits in the sand, doing fuck all but talk about the horse instead of actually using it. Meanwhile, everybody’s hungry, and they’re getting hungrier. Your family is getting hungrier, and that horse isn’t getting any better as the days go on. So some of your group, they decide to just cut up the damn horse already, because the people in charge are going to talk forever anyway, and you can feed a few mouths in the meantime.’ He shoved an armful of sofa stuffing into the nearly-full autocart. ‘What’s the harm in that?’

  Sawyer stared at him. ‘That’s . . . this isn’t a horse. The Oxomoco isn’t rotting. And nobody’s starving. Nobody’s gonna die without . . . without . . .’ He gestured emptily at the cart.

  Oates opened a closet and began working his way through the floating clothing. ‘I didn’t say it was a perfect analogy. But we’re getting people the things they need. We’re not hurting anybody. We’re helping. If the council’s gonna sit on its ass, somebody else is gonna step in.’

 

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