Record of a spaceborn fe.., p.24
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       Record of a Spaceborn Few, p.24

           Becky Chambers
 

  I used to assume, when I first began to study the lives of my sapient neighbours, that perhaps sleep would better prepare those species for death. Sleep sounds quite like death to me, a strange temporary death, complete with an afterlife of surreal visions. I have heard both a Human and an Aandrisk, on separate occasions, posit that death must feel like nothing more than a ‘dreamless sleep’. You would think, then, that these species are less fearful of the inevitable end. If one experiences oblivion daily – and for an enormous portion of the day, at that – should it not be familiar territory?

  I was wrong about this, of course. Some species have a more passive reaction to death than others – I am thinking here of the Laru, with their total lack of funerary customs – but sleep or no, all fear it. All spend lifetimes trying to outstretch its grasp.

  In a highly social species such as my Human hosts, a death is keenly felt, even if it is that of a stranger. Certainly, I have been moved by the end of those I did not know – please read my fourth essay on this feed, dear guest, if you have not already – but Humans habitually react in a way that members of my own species might find extreme. A single death, regardless of relation, can dominate conversation for tendays upon tendays. It takes over news feeds, workplace chatter, decisions about the day. A death always fixates Humans in one direction or the other. They either talk about it at any given opportunity, or doggedly avoid the topic. I did not have a good hypothesis as to why this might be until I joined my dear host Isabel for dinner at her hex tonight. There has been an unusual death in the Fleet – accidental or purposeful, no one yet knows – and the families could speak of little else. All species emote around death, but there is an intensity of mood here I am unaccustomed to. I cannot stop pondering it.

  As I sat witness to this behaviour tonight, two individuals caught my eye: Isabel and Tamsin’s son, Miguel, holding his young daughter Katja on his lap. His embrace was snug, and he was stroking her hair as the others spoke and argued. At first, I thought the gesture was in order to calm or reassure her. Perhaps consciously, that is why he did it. But Katja was paying no attention to the conversation. She was fully engrossed in building a fortress out of mashed vegetables on her plate. If she registered the topic at hand, I do not think she understood much of it. But still, her father held, and stroked, and the longer the conversation went on, the more affectionate he became. I thought then of the means of Human reproduction. It is an intense process, an internal process. Even though her father did not go through this process himself, he was close audience to it (as is commonly the case, he is romantically partnered with Nina, Katja’s mother). Human infants are famously frail, and the amount of time they remain dependent on adults for needs as basic as eating or locomotion makes me wonder how the species didn’t give up on the whole prospect millennia ago.

  Perhaps I am completely wrong about linking these two behaviours, dear guest, but I find it likely that there is a connection – even if only a tenuous one – between Humans’ heavy parental involvement in child-rearing and how socially unsettled they become around death. Were I among my own kind and had someone met a sad end, it would be discussed, certainly. If I knew the deceased, I would visit their family to recite my praise of their life, as is proper. But I would not think of my offspring in that time. This would not occur to me. My offspring are not the ones who have died. I would know them to be well. Depending on age, I would know them to be swimming safely in their ponds, or being mindfully reared by their tutors, or living in homes of their own. I would not imaginatively transfer the misfortune of another onto them. I would not worry about them unless given reason.

  Human parents always worry. Their offspring developed while attached not to rocks, but to themselves. And unlike Harmagians, who bid farewell to polyps and welcome new children in their stead, their progeny have but once to die.

  * * *

  Tessa

  There was never a day when Tessa’s home wasn’t a mess, but the one she walked in on now was of a different kind. Cupboards were open, drawers were empty, and things she was sure she’d tidied up had found their way elsewhere. She might’ve thought the break-ins at work had moved to her home, were it not for Pop sitting on the couch in the middle of it, smoking his pipe and observing.

  ‘What is going on?’ Tessa asked warily, hanging her satchel by the door. Elsewhere in the home, she could hear industrious movement.

  Pop raised his chin. ‘Aya,’ he said, ‘is packing.’

  Tessa had long ago stopped trying to predict anything that was likely to be waiting for her at home. She might as well write a bunch of nouns on some strips of cloth, add an equal number of verbs, shake them up in a box, pull two of each out, and pair them with her kids’ names. Ky eating paint. Aya breaking bots. That system would be closer to the mark than anything she could come up with on her own.

  Still. Packing. That was new.

  She made her way to Aya’s room and leaned against the open doorframe. Yes, indeed, there was her daughter, sitting by several old storage crates and everyday satchels stuffed with clothes and sundries – a pack of dentbots, Tessa could see, and a tin of tea as well. Her son was present too, kneeling on Aya’s bed and trying his darnedest to put on one of her shirts. He was attempting to stick his head through the sleeve, but hey, points for effort.

  Tessa surveyed the goings-on. ‘Hey,’ she said. ‘What’s all this?’

  Aya looked up from her concentrated work. She took a large breath. ‘Mom,’ the nine-year-old said in a serious voice. ‘I know this might be hard for you to hear.’

  Tessa kept her face as straight as possible. ‘Okay.’

  ‘I’m moving.’

  ‘Oh,’ Tessa said. She gave a thoughtful nod. ‘I see. Where are you moving to?’

  ‘Mars. I know you don’t like it there, but it’s better than here.’

  ‘Sounds like you’ve made up your mind about this.’

  Aya nodded and resumed emptying her dresser into one of the crates.

  Tessa watched for a moment. ‘Can I help?’

  Her daughter considered, then pointed. ‘You can put my toys in this box here.’ She pointed again.

  As directed, Tessa sat on the floor and began to gather figurines and model ships. ‘So, how are you getting to Mars?’

  ‘I wrote to Uncle Ashby,’ Aya said. ‘He’s going to pick me up and take me there.’

  ‘Really,’ Tessa said. ‘Did he say that to you, or is that what you asked him?’

  ‘That’s what I asked him. He hasn’t replied yet, but I know it’ll be fine.’

  ‘Hmm. You know, he’s pretty far away right now. Why not take a transport from here?’

  ‘I don’t have trade good enough for a ticket.’

  ‘Ah. Yeah, that’s a problem.’

  Ky wriggled his way off the bed and marched over to the boxes. ‘I help!’ he said. He grabbed a battery pack out of one of the crates, put it on the floor, then reached for something else to remove.

  ‘Ky, stop it,’ Aya said, not a trace of patience in her voice.

  ‘No,’ Ky said. He threw a bundle of socks with a laugh. ‘No!’

  ‘Mom,’ Aya whined. ‘Make him quit it.’

  Tessa pulled her son into her lap. ‘Ky, come on, don’t throw,’ she said. She handed him the least fragile of the toy ships in order to keep him busy. ‘Aya, be nice to your brother.’

  ‘He’s so annoying,’ her daughter muttered.

  ‘You were annoying when you were little, too.’

  ‘Was not.’

  Tessa laughed. ‘All toddlers are annoying, baby. It’s the way of the universe.’ She kissed her son’s hair as her daughter continued packing. ‘So, once Ashby drops you off on Mars, what’s your plan?’

  ‘They have bunkhouses at the docks,’ Aya said. ‘I can stay there until I make enough creds for a house.’

  Tessa smothered a smile. Whatever vids Aya had picked up dockside bunkhouses from hadn’t driven home the fact that nobody on Mars would give her a room w
ithout creds. She was from the Fleet, through and through. She wondered what other facts about grounder life her daughter hadn’t gleaned. ‘You know Martians don’t live under open air, right?’ She said the words strategically, trying not to scare too much.

  Aya paused. ‘Yeah, they do.’

  ‘They don’t. Humans can’t breathe the outside air on Mars. Every Martian city is under a big shield dome.’

  ‘What? No.’

  ‘Yep. Here,’ Tessa said, handing Aya her scrib. ‘You can look it up on the Linkings.’

  Ky dropped the toy ship and reached for the device as it was handed off. ‘Mine!’ he said.

  ‘That’s definitely not yours,’ Tessa said. ‘And your sister’s using it now.’ Ky started to fuss, so she grabbed the pair of socks he’d thrown earlier and put it in his stubby hands. ‘Here, show me how fast you can make this into two socks.’

  Ky plucked at a random patch of fabric. He’d be at it a while.

  Aya, meanwhile, was frowning in a way that said she expected parental trickery. She looked down at the scrib and made a few practised gestures. The screen responded with pictures of Florence, Spirit’s Rest, Perseverance. All glittering, all metropolitan, all . . . corralled behind barriers against the harsh red dust outside. Aya visibly wilted. Tessa felt a little sorry for her. Adventures were a hard thing to let go of.

  ‘Did something happen at school?’ Tessa asked. The bullying had ended – as far as she knew – but Aya had been playing solo since then.

  ‘No,’ Aya said, annoyed at the question.

  ‘You sure?’

  ‘Yes.’

  ‘Okay.’ Tessa raised her palms. ‘Why do you want to move, then?’

  Her daughter’s bravado was shrivelling before her eyes. ‘I don’t know,’ she mumbled.

  ‘That’s not what you told me,’ Pop said. Tessa craned her head back to find him standing in the doorway. How long had he been watching? ‘Go on, bug,’ he said kindly.

  Aya said nothing. She fidgeted.

  Pop looked to Tessa. ‘She’s upset about that grounder they found.’

  ‘Oh, honey,’ Tessa said. A pang of jealousy blossomed in her, and she hated it, but she couldn’t shake it, either. Why had Aya shared that with Pop over her?

  Ky fell quiet, understanding as far as his baby brain could that something was up with the grown-ups. Pop reached over and picked him up, making distracting nonsense sounds, leaving nothing to get between mother and daughter.

  ‘I’m upset about that, too,’ Tessa said. ‘Everybody’s upset about it.’ That was true, and how could they not be? Some grounder thief, murdered and tossed away. Murdered. In the Fleet. Was there anyone who wasn’t rattled by that news, who wasn’t still wrestling with the idea of something like that happening here? There wasn’t much to the story yet, but that didn’t stop everybody from talking endlessly about it. Tessa scolded herself for not bringing it up with Aya before now. She hadn’t thought it was anything a little kid needed to concern herself with, but clearly, it was. Sometimes, she lost sight of how easy it was for children to absorb the things adults whispered about. ‘That was an awful thing that happened,’ she said. ‘A really terrible thing. But the patrols are on it. They’re gonna find the bad guys who did it, and it won’t happen again.’

  ‘How do you know that?’ Aya said. It was a direct challenge, a question that demanded an answer.

  ‘I—’

  ‘She doesn’t,’ Pop said. ‘She wants you to feel better.’

  Tessa glared at her father. ‘How is that helping?’

  He shrugged. ‘She wants the truth, Tess. She’s old enough to understand what happened, so she’s old enough for – hey, hey, quit it, buddy.’ He turned his attention to his grandson, who was pulling hard at his remaining hair.

  His refuting her in front of her daughter was irritating, but he was – all the more irritatingly – right. Tessa folded her hands together and spoke to her daughter, who was growing up too fast. ‘I don’t know that it won’t happen again. I’m bothered by it, and I’m scared, too. But I also know that . . . that kind of thing isn’t normal here. Our home is a safe place, Aya. It really is.’

  ‘That’s not—’ Aya struggled. She understood so much, and yet, not quite enough to pick apart her feelings. ‘I’m not scared about it happening again.’

  ‘Then what?’

  ‘I’m not scared.’ She frowned harder. ‘You said we can’t go live on a planet because bad stuff happens there. But – but bad stuff does happen here. I don’t understand why we can’t live on the ground if bad stuff happens here, too. If it happens everywhere, then . . . then it’s everywhere.’

  Aya’s words were clumsy, but Tessa understood. Every lesson she’d tried to impart was based in principle, rather than practicality. No, we can’t move planetside, because it’s too dangerous. No, you can’t have creds, because you need to learn to trade. No, you can’t watch Martian vids, because they solve every problem with violence, and that’s not our way. No, you can’t keep all the cookies to yourself, they belong to the hex, and you have to share, because we share. That’s what we do. That’s who we are.

  But now there was one news story, one unpleasant headline, that had thrown all that out of whack. There was danger in the Fleet, and it came from people who hadn’t cared about trade, who hadn’t minded violence – and those people were Exodan. That was the part that bothered Tessa the most. Everybody was so focused on the grounder, they sidestepped the one sentence that had shaken her: the patrols were pretty sure the dead guy’s crew was Exodan, and would anybody who knew anything please come forward?

  She looked at her daughter, bags packed, brow furrowed. Her daughter, who didn’t understand that rooms cost money, who had unabashedly called on extended family for help when she lacked the ability to trade. Fear was the primary driver for Aya wanting to be elsewhere, despite how not scared she claimed to be. But maybe there was more to it than that. Maybe it wasn’t that Aya didn’t want to be Exodan. She was Exodan already.

  Maybe, in her daughter’s eyes, it was the Fleet that wasn’t Exodan anymore.

  ‘I think,’ Tessa said, getting to her feet, ‘I think we could do with something out of the ordinary this evening. How about . . . fish fry for dinner?’

  Aya looked suspicious. ‘We only do that on birthdays.’

  ‘Well, I want to treat my kid. Is that allowed?’

  Tessa watched her daughter wrestle between a nagging existential problem and the promise of greasy, crispy, calorie-laden food. ‘Can we go to the waterball game, too?’ she said.

  ‘Is there a game tonight?’ Tessa asked her father.

  He nodded. ‘Fast Hands versus Meteors,’ he said. ‘Just a scrimmage, not a qualifier.’

  ‘Still, that sounds fun,’ Tessa said. She wasn’t much for waterball, but for her kid, she’d put up with a scrimmage. She smiled. ‘Sure. We can go to the game.’

  ‘Looks like it’s you and me tonight, buddy,’ Pop said to Ky, who was dozing off on his shoulder.

  ‘No,’ Tessa said. ‘No, we should all go.’ She took in her family, the mess, the room that had been hers. ‘It’s more fun if we go together.’

  Eyas

  Eyas hurried into the Centre, her heart a touch lighter. Her supervisor hadn’t said anything over the vox except that patrol was there and wanted to talk to the grounder’s caretaker. That had to mean progress. The stasis chamber holding the corpse had been left undisturbed since she’d cleaned the body over a tenday ago. Finally, finally patrol had found something. They’d found someone to take him home.

  She headed to one of the family waiting rooms, where she’d asked for patrol to wait for her. The door swung open at her gesture, and a woman wearing a distinctive shoulder patch sat on one of the couches inside.

  The patroller stood. ‘Hello, M. I’m Patroller Ruby Boothe,’ she said. ‘I understand you’re the one looking after Sawyer Gursky.’ She was full-time, her patch indicated, but oddly, she didn’t have a volunteer sec
ond with her. Under any other circumstances, Eyas would’ve reported her, but in this case, she got the impression the absence was for discretion’s sake. Perhaps the patroller didn’t want to stoke the gossip further. If so, Eyas respected that.

  The addition of a last name to Sawyer’s first should’ve kept Eyas’ mood aloft, but the grim look on the woman’s face prompted a spike of concern. ‘You found his family?’

  The twitch of Patroller Boothe’s mouth said otherwise. She gestured for Eyas to sit, then pulled out her scrib. ‘Sawyer Gursky,’ she read. ‘Twenty-four Solar years of age, born on Mushtullo, no siblings. We had to do some digging, but he’s a descendant of the Arvelo family on the Al-Qaum. Housing records say they left to grab some ground right after contact.’

  ‘No relations here, then?’ This wasn’t a surprise, given what Sawyer had said during their brief interaction, but she’d been hoping she remembered wrong.

  ‘No.’ Boothe cleared her throat. ‘We don’t have much communication with anybody in Central space, so it took a while to find the proper folks to talk to. Local law enforcement helped us out in the end.’ She was dancing around something. Whatever it was, it bothered her. ‘There was an outbreak of saltlick fever that tore through the Human district on Mushtullo about thirteen standards ago.’

  ‘I don’t know saltlick fever.’

  ‘Neither did I. One of those wildfire mutations you hear about from time to time. Some minor alien thing that jumps species and fucks everyone over for a few tendays until imubots can be updated. I’ll spare you the details. It was . . . well, it was bad. He lost his whole family. Grandparents, parents, everybody. Sawyer was the only one that made it.’

 
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