Record of a spaceborn fe.., p.22
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       Record of a Spaceborn Few, p.22

           Becky Chambers
 

  ‘I’m sorry. I just—’ The man’s voice broke. ‘I didn’t mean it. I really didn’t—’

  ‘I know. And that is why we’re doing this for you. Because you’re crew, and shit happens. If you’d meant to hurt that kid, we wouldn’t be busting our asses to make this right.’

  ‘I’m sorry. I’ll make it up to you, I—’

  ‘I know.’ There was a touching sound, a friendly pat. ‘Now are you going to share that kick, or what?’

  Kip shut his eyes. He tried to ignore the voices. He tried to ignore everything. He wanted to go back to the grass and the weird toes, but that was gone now. Lost. Now everything was sharp and hot, and – and he didn’t want this. He didn’t want his brain to be like this anymore, but he was pretty sure he was stuck this way forever, and someone had died, and oh stars, what if he died? What if he was going crazy and then something went wrong in his brain and he died? He looked down at the dirt he was crouching in, the dirt smeared across his palms, the dirt staining his knees. There were dead people in that dirt. Lots and lots of dead people. They were dead, and he’d be dead, and he’d be dirt, too. He didn’t like smash anymore. He didn’t want to feel like this. He wanted to be okay. He wanted to live. He wanted to live so badly.

  Tessa

  She heard him, despite his best efforts. Stars, he really was giving it his best. She heard the rustle of his sheets as he tossed them aside, then a slow, deliberate crossing of the floor and ascent of the mattress. He wiggled under her sheet. She did not respond. He thought she was sleeping, and she wanted to see where that would lead. With what must’ve been agonising self-control, Ky lay alongside her, touching but only barely, silent except for his breathing. He held himself with a two-year-old version of stillness – a tortured rigidity that gave way to a stray twitch and wiggle every few seconds or so.

  He was trying – trying very hard – to snuggle without waking her up.

  Tessa scooped the kid up and covered his tangled scalp with kisses.

  ‘You ’wake!’ he squealed.

  ‘Yes, buddy,’ she said between one kiss and another. ‘I’ve been awake a while.’

  ‘Good morning!’

  ‘Good morning, Ky.’ She waved at the bedside lamp, and a soft glow spread through the room. Ky’s hair was a portrait of chaos, and deep pillow lines crossed one of his chubby cheeks. Tessa sat up with her boy in her arms and caught a glimpse of herself in the wall mirror. Her hair and face weren’t in much better shape than his, and she didn’t have the free pass of toddlerhood. But who cared, at this hour? Certainly not her son, who had inserted a finger a worrying ways into his ear canal.

  ‘Mama, no breakfast,’ Ky said. He raised his voice in a shout: ‘No breakfast!’

  ‘Shh,’ Tessa whispered, pulling his twisting hand away from his head. ‘We don’t want to wake everybody up. Okay? Can you be quiet? Can you whisper?’

  ‘Yes.’ Ky’s whisper could’ve been heard from the opposite side of the room, but it was an improvement.

  ‘Do you want to go see the stars?’

  ‘No.’

  Everything was no these days. He’d put precisely zero effort behind this particular one, so Tessa paid it no mind. ‘I think you do. Let’s go see the stars.’

  Ever-growing boy on her hip, Tessa walked into the living room. A few nightlights and the emergency arrow pierced the darkness, but otherwise, it was pitch dark. She could hear Pop snoring, and nothing from Aya’s room. Good. Tessa tiptoed forward, anticipating the couch, the table, the— ‘Motherf—’ Tessa hissed, and swallowed the rest in a muffled groan. She hadn’t anticipated the stray toy that had found its way into the bare sole of her foot.

  ‘Shh!’ Ky breathed loudly. ‘Quiet!’

  ‘Yes, thank you,’ Tessa said. Smartass, she thought.

  She reached the ring of tiny floor lights that marked the edge of the shaft down to the family cupola. She’d thought, once, that the reason homes had cupolas in common spaces was because the architects had tried to parcel out window resources as economically as they could. That was true, but only the half of it. Apparently, the shared portal was an intentional design. Her ancestors had worried that if people could lock themselves away and look outside in solitude, they’d lose a few screws. They’d get scared, lose hope. It was a mixed bag, the view of the open. Breathtaking beauty and existential dread all mixed together. Far easier to focus on the former and avoid the latter, the thinking went, if you sat at the window with friends ready to hold your hand or listen or just share company with. That, Tessa thought dryly, or you’d go buggy as a group. Either way, you weren’t alone.

  Her eyes adjusted to the negligible light. She opened the railing gate, sat on the bench with kid firmly in grasp, and pushed the down button. Home slid away, and for a second or two, the only sounds were the pulley turning and her son sucking his fingers. Then: a rushing, strangled roar behind thick walls. ‘Ky, can you tell me what that sound is?’

  ‘Don’ know.’

  ‘Yes, you do. What goes through the deck under ours?’

  Even in the dim, Tessa could see her son’s blank stare.

  ‘Water,’ she said. ‘Remember? All the water we use goes through big pipes in the floor.’ She’d save filtration tanks and settlement ponds for another year.

  ‘Can have cookie?’

  Tessa looked forward to the day when linear conversations became a thing. ‘Not for breakfast.’

  ‘What ’bout . . . what ’bout cookie to lunch?’

  ‘Maybe if you’re good this morning, Grandpa will give you a cookie at lunch.’

  Ky looked around as the background noise changed. ‘Where water?’

  So he was paying attention. ‘It’s up above us now. We’re about to stop.’

  ‘Oh boy, get ready!’ he said.

  ‘Get ready,’ Tessa said with a laugh. ‘Aaaaand – stop!’

  The bench settled into place. At their feet was a shallow window sticking into the empty space outside. It was different than the one her family’d had when she was a kid. They’d had one of the old ones then, polygonal in shape, made of thick glass as old as the Fleet itself, the view cut in segments by thick metal frames. Ashby had bought them one of the nice new plex ones after his first tunnelling gig – no angles, no inner frame. He was always doing stuff like that. She’d once worried that he was treating them at the expense of getting things for himself, but once he’d bought his own ship, she didn’t feel as bad about it. She was just glad he kept them in mind.

  She thought about how much she liked the things he sent them – the plex window, the sim hub, a box of spices from some alien port. A guilty, toxic idea surfaced, the same one that had awoken her hours before. Tessa shoved it away before it could make itself plain. She focused on her son.

  She slid off the hanging bench onto the cupola seating area. It wasn’t much, just a shelf around the edges. The view wasn’t much either – at least, not compared to the big, broad starscapes you got at the plazas. But this was her own corner of sky, and she liked that. She’d always liked that.

  Ky wriggled against her grasp. She let him go. He toddled out onto the plex, brown feet against black sky. He sat, all at once, unceremoniously. ‘Stars!’ he said, looking down through the gap between his bent knees.

  ‘Yep,’ Tessa said.

  He pointed a chubby finger. ‘Is five stars.’ With his other hand, he held up two fingers and a thumb.

  ‘It’s a bit more than five, baby.’

  The stars darkened as a hefty transport shuttle sailed past, docking lights blinking, hull crusty with tacked-on tech and repurposed siding. Ky shrieked with glee. ‘Oh man!’ He looked to her, his eyes and mouth perfect circles. ‘Mama, did you see?’

  ‘Yeah!’

  ‘Wow! Did you – did you see?’

  ‘Yeah, I saw.’

  ‘Dat’s my ship.’

  ‘Wow, that’s your ship? Cool.’

  ‘’s my ship. ’s all fixed.’

  Aya had lost dessert privile
ges for a tenday over the origin of all fixed, but even though the illicit sim babysitting sessions had ended, the vocabulary addition remained. Tessa sighed, hoping her eldest hadn’t irrevocably mixed up the younger’s brain.

  She let him play on the window, automatically responding with stock affirmations as he babbled on and on (he was on about . . . pillows? She’d lost the plot, and so had he, it seemed). Her mind was on the sky at her feet, which was to say she wasn’t thinking about much at all. Something about that view always set her right, even though she’d seen it a million times. She thought back to the first time she’d been planetside, on a family trip to Hashkath. Ashby hadn’t been much older than Ky. Mom was still with them. Their first night, Pop called Tessa out to the courtyard by their bunkhouse. ‘Look at that, kiddo,’ he’d said. She’d tilted her head up to match his. As an adult, she remembered how different the stars looked in that moment, how muted, how fuzzy. Her father had wanted to share something special with her, she knew in hindsight, but her immediate impression then was one of fear. There was no plex, no frame between her and that sky. She felt that any second, someone would switch the gravity off, and she’d float up and up, out forever. She’d stayed outside for all of two seconds before running back in and clinging fast to her bewildered mother, sobbing that she wanted to go home.

  That experience still lingered on the few subsequent vacations she’d taken in adulthood, even though she knew nobody could turn off a planet’s gravity, even though she knew her walls were less reliable than grounders’ atmospheres. She knew that at home, she wasn’t really looking down. She was up, sideways, all around. She was looking in the direction the artigrav nets told her to look, the same direction the old centrifuges made her ancestors look (and their view, of course, had always been spinning). But she could know that and still feel in her gut that stars lived below her feet. That was normal. That was where they belonged.

  She thought, though, of visitors she’d had from somewhere else. The last time Ashby had been there with his crew – Ky had been tiny then, she reflected, remembering him kicking his untrained legs in her brother’s arms – those two odd techs and the Aandrisk had parked themselves in the cupola for hours, sitting on the floor like Ky was now, freaked out and fascinated, never tiring of the novelty. A person’s view of the stars was, ultimately, a matter of perspective. Of upbringing.

  Tessa wondered how Aya would do with a planetside sky. She never came down to the family cupola – or any cupola, for that matter. These days, wherever she was in a room, she strategically placed herself as far from walls as she could manage. Would she mind being close to a wall if her feet were always held fast to the ground? Would she look out windows if she could trust them to not suck her through?

  As for Ky, he was small. The sky was just another constant to him, like cookies and pajamas and family. He wouldn’t care one way or the other for a few years yet. He’d absorb whatever environment you stuck him in. All fixed.

  The guilty idea began to surface again, and Tessa knew it was time to get about her day. ‘Come on, baby,’ she said, gathering Ky, wiping his spit off the plex where he’d been licking it. ‘I gotta get to work.’

  They returned to the bench and headed upward. He looked up, watching the cable carry them. Tessa looked down just in time to see the stars darken again. ‘Hey, Ky, look! There’s a skiff!’

  Ky nearly threw himself out of her arms, doubling over at the waist, pointing his head toward the cupola. But he was too late. The ship had already passed.

  ‘Aw, bummer,’ Tessa said. ‘It’s gone now.’

  Her son looked at her, stricken, betrayed. His eyes widened. His lip trembled. The entirety of his face collapsed into itself, and he wailed with bitter injury.

  Dammit. Well. Time for everybody else to wake up anyway.

  Isabel

  Isabel hurried through the door as soon as she saw Ghuh’loloan through her office window, patiently waiting in front of her desk. ‘Good morning,’ Isabel said. She tapped her hud to bring up the time. ‘I’m sorry, were we supposed to meet early?’ She didn’t recall that they’d arranged that, but then, she had so much on her plate that things were starting to fall off the edges.

  ‘No, no,’ Ghuh’loloan said. She stretched her dactyli reassuringly. ‘I simply had much on my mind and wished to speak with you.’ She pointed a tentacle at Isabel’s desk, where two mugs of mek stood waiting. ‘I managed to brave that contraption of yours, but I’m afraid I was too cowardly to try for a brew as hot as you make.’

  ‘That’s not cowardly.’ Not at all, Isabel thought, considering the Ensk-labelled temperature dial and smooth knobs built for human hands. ‘That was very kind.’ She rather disliked starting her day with mek, but she wasn’t about to turn down a drink made by someone who’d risked a nasty burn. She sat, and sipped. Stars, but Ghuh had made it strong. ‘So, what brought you here?’ She put her scrib on the table, ready for whatever questions about musical traditions or food storage or toilet technology her colleague had today.

  But the Harmagian surprised her. Ghuh’loloan did not have her own scrib out, and she did not launch forth with a ravenous barrage of queries. Instead, she did something Isabel had never seen: she hesitated. ‘Dear friend, I’m not sure how to begin,’ Ghuh’loloan said. Isabel took immediate note of the change in address. Not dear host. Dear friend. ‘The topic I wish to discuss is positive, but I worry it may cause difficulty, or worse, insult.’

  Isabel set down her mug. She knew Ghuh’loloan understood smiling, and so she smiled. ‘Dear friend,’ she said, hoping her echo of the phrase came across as sincere. ‘I very much doubt you’d insult me, especially since you’ve told me at the outset that it’s not your intent. You trust me to be honest with you, right?’

  Ghuh’loloan’s tentacles relaxed. ‘Indeed. Still, if my profession has made me aware of anything, it is that cultural bruising is often worst when done accidentally.’ Her body quivered from front to end – her species’ equivalent of a shrug. ‘But now, at least, if insult occurs, you will know it was not by design.’

  Isabel sipped her lukewarm mek and nodded, patiently awaiting the end of the Harmagian song and dance.

  There was a great sucking sound as Ghuh’loloan filled her airsack. ‘You know my writings of my time here have gained a sizable audience.’

  ‘Yes.’ Isabel didn’t know how she could’ve responded otherwise. Ghuh’loloan had been downright euphoric over the messages she’d received from her readers. Modern life in the Fleet, it seemed, had struck a chord in the niche world of ethnography, and her colleague was happily spending her sleepless nights responding to as many questions as she could until Isabel woke up.

  Ghuh’loloan forged ahead. Her friendly concern was absent now, having given way to matter-of-fact explanation. If there was one thing a scholar was good at, it was laying out a case. ‘There has been a particularly strong reaction to my mentions of the Fleet’s technical capabilities and resulting challenges. I’m sure you can imagine the sort I mean.’

  Isabel gave a tight smile. ‘They think we’re a little backward, hmm?’

  ‘To some, yes. Please do not take it personally. Cultural arrogance is depressingly universal, particularly among my people.’ Ghuh’loloan paused, waiting.

  It took Isabel a moment to catch on. ‘I don’t take it personally,’ she said. ‘Not to worry.’

  The Harmagian was satisfied. She continued. ‘Those responses, I pay no attention to. But there are others . . .’ The hesitance returned. ‘Others who wish to help. Not because you are incapable of helping yourselves,’ she added quickly, ‘but out of a real desire to provide resources that would be of benefit.’

  Isabel leaned back in her chair. ‘We’re still a charity case,’ she said. She felt that twinge of ego once more.

  ‘Again, to some. But I wouldn’t look at it as an act of pity. For many, it’s out of a genuine wish for you to gain equal footing.’ She wrapped a tentacle around her own neglected mug of mek. ‘The re
ason I have decided to share this with you is that I have had a few letters that offer some intriguing possibilities.’

  ‘Such as?’

  Ghuh’loloan conducted the retract-face-open-mouth-pourliquid manoeuvre, then cradled the mug against her porous bulk. ‘Such as oshet-Tasthiset esk-Vassix as-Ishehsh Tirikistik isket-Haaskiset.’

  Isabel blinked. Full Aandrisk names were nothing if not a mouthful. ‘Who’s . . . that?’

  ‘Have you heard of Ellush Haaskiset?’

  ‘No.’

  ‘It’s a comp tech developer, based in Reskit. Their entire managing council is comprised of a single feather family, and they represent a staggering amount of wealth. Tirikistik is one of the more public faces in their circle. She’s also an amateur enthusiast of alien cultural study, and I’ve seen her in attendance at various symposiums at the Institute. It was quite exciting to receive a letter from her directly.’

  Ghuh’loloan paused again, and Isabel took the cue to compliment her on a prestigious happening. ‘That does sound exciting,’ Isabel said. ‘It speaks well of your work.’

  Her colleague twisted her dactyli with pride. ‘Thank you,’ she said. ‘Tirikistik has read all my writings on the Fleet to date, and she is understanding of the problem creds have created. She said she initially considered opening a trade line here, but my piece on your economic imbalance made her reconsider.’

 

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