Record of a spaceborn fe.., p.26
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       Record of a Spaceborn Few, p.26

           Becky Chambers
 
‘It’s up to you,’ Isabel said. ‘But you helped this man. You helped the right people find him. You’re the closest thing he has to a friend.’

  Eyas extended her scrib. Kip took it. ‘I don’t know,’ he said.

  ‘You can do it,’ Eyas said with the sympathetic smile that went hand-in-hand with her profession.

  He cleared his throat, then licked his lips, then cleared his throat again. He began to read. ‘From the stars, came the ground. From the ground, we stood. To the ground, we return.’

  Isabel bowed her head as he spoke, one hand on his shoulder, the other holding Tamsin’s. This still wasn’t right. But it was better. It was a little better.

  ‘Here, at the Centre of our lives, we carry our beloved dead. We honour their breath, which fills our lungs. We honour their blood, which fills our hearts. We honour their bodies, which fuel our own. We honour you, son of, um . . .’ Kip stopped. ‘What’s his homeworld?’

  Isabel turned the question over a few times. She’d never heard this portion of the Litany for the Dead said with anything other than a homesteader name. She wasn’t so rigid in her traditions that the idea of inserting the name of an alien planet bothered her, and yet . . . and yet. ‘He’s still Exodan,’ she said. ‘Just more distantly.’

  The boy looked unsure. ‘So . . . should I say the Asteria, or . . .’

  ‘The Al-Qaum,’ Eyas said. She looked at Isabel and nodded. ‘Patrol said that’s where he was descended from.’

  Kip started again. ‘We honour you, son of the Al-Qaum. From death, you took life, and from your death, we now live. Here you will stay, until we rejoin the stars once more.’

  Isabel took her cue and gestured at her scrib. ‘We record the laying-in of Sawyer Gursky, age twenty-three. His name will be remembered. For so long as the Archives remain, so shall he.’

  Eyas turned to Kip. ‘Will you help me with him?’

  Kip nodded, his face unreadable, his heart unknowable. But he took his place at the head of the stretcher. He shared the caretaker’s weight. He accompanied the stranger on the long walk up the ramp. He did these things, and it said all that needed to be said about him.

  Isabel followed, Tamsin leaning on her arm. All unoccupied caretakers had gathered, as they always did, standing vigil along the pathway, each holding an item of their choosing – a globulb, a flower, a dancing ribbon, a gnarled root, a bowl of water.

  ‘Thank you,’ they murmured to the body as it passed by. ‘Thank you.’ Thank you for what you will become, they meant. Thank you for what you will give us.

  They came at last to the top of the ramp, and reached the covering bed. To the untrained eye, it was nothing more than a flat layer of bamboo mulch, but Exodans knew better. There were walking paths raked by the caretakers around the unmistakable mounds. There were painted flags stuck in patches recently filled. There were shallow craters over patches ready to be filled again. And there was the warmth – a thick, earthy heat rising from the ground, almost too hot. A suggestion not of death, but of life, of energy, of birth.

  Eyas led the way to an unmarked patch, then set down her end of the stretcher. Kip set down his as well. A set of shovels lay waiting. They both took one, and Isabel did as well, though she knew she wouldn’t get as far as the other two. That wasn’t the point. Everyone who was able had to turn the soil. Tamsin stood by the body, resting her weight on her cane, eyes closed as she whispered the Litany from memory, for no one’s comfort but her own.

  Isabel dug as best she could, and as she did so, her heart filled with a complicated tangle. Sorrow for Sawyer, whose time had been stolen. Anger for Sawyer, who’d been led astray. Respect for Eyas, and all of her profession. Respect for Kip, too, who dug vigorously, even as his face became covered in silent tears. Love for Tamsin. Love for her living family. Love for her dead family. Fear of death. Joy for life.

  It was, in the end, a proper funeral.

  They set aside their shovels and lifted Sawyer’s body. Slowly, carefully, they laid him in. He was cold now, and heavy, but those things would soon change. He’d followed his ancestors. He’d rejoined their ancient cycle. They would keep him warm.

  Part 6

  We Fly with Courage

  Feed source: Reskit Institute of Interstellar Migration (Public News Feed)

  Item name: The Modern Exodus – Entry #18

  Author: Ghuh’loloan Mok Chutp

  Encryption: 0

  Translation path: [Hanto:Kliptorigan]

  Transcription: 0

  Node identifier: 2310-483-38, Isabel Itoh

  [System message: The feed you have selected has been translated from written Hanto. As you may be aware, written Hanto includes gestural notations that do not have analogous symbols in any other GC language. Therefore, your scrib’s on-board translation software has not translated the following material directly. The content here is a modified translation, intended to be accessible to the average Kliptorigan reader.]

  * * *

  Imagine, for a moment, a Harmagian shoreline village of old. It is a busy place, but a simple one. The people there do little more than gather – river mud for building, ocean sand for resting, smaller creatures for eating. There is a world outside this tiny territory, but the villagers know next to nothing of it. There is no need for them to think beyond home and dinner.

  Well past the beach, there is a wooded marsh, and in the marsh lives an animal. The villagers have never seen it, but they have heard its call – a strange hooting that pierces the dawning hours. There are many stories about the sound. Some say it is a monster that will prey on any children foolish enough to leave the safety of the village. Some say it is a being made of dead Harmagians, the amalgamation of each body left to disappear under the heat of the sun. But there are some who doubt these stories. How, they wonder, can you speak of what a thing is if you have never seen it with your own eyes?

  One day, quite by accident, the question of the animal is answered. Its corpse washes downstream, and comes to rest in the very spot where the villagers gather mud. No one has seen anything like it before. This is a creature adapted not to water, but to trees. It is covered in hair – a feature no Harmagian has seen before. Much debate takes place over what to do with it, and, perhaps inevitably, one question dominates all others: Can we eat it?

  When the beast is cut apart, a discovery is made. The poor thing’s stomach is full of metal slag, which the villagers routinely dispose of in an out-of-sight heap on the edges of the beach. Undoubtedly, this was the cause of death. Why was the animal eating this? the villagers wonder. Why did it continue to eat this?

  Why?

  And so, they make the leap from people of superstition to people of science. A group of the village’s bravest set out for the marsh, in search of the animal’s kin. They discover much more than that, of course, and a frenzy takes hold of the explorers, a mad passion for wanting to unlock every secret the marsh holds. More expeditions are launched. Base camps are built, so they may journey farther and farther still. Trading posts are built near rivers, so as to not waste any time in back-tracking to replenish supplies. Their intentions are born of the purest curiosity, a trait no one can fault them for. But their quest for knowledge has an unfortunate side effect. The animal they were seeking – bal’urut, they have named it – is comprised of a devastating combination of traits. It is skittish to the extreme, instinctively afraid of anything travelling in a pack (thanks to the prowling kressrols, a predatory species our villagers will encounter in due time). If the bal’urut becomes scared enough, its drive for survival will cause it to flee the area – with or without the lengthily gestated young it has been caring for in its den.

  The bal’urut is also a specialist. It eats only a specific type of insect that nests in a specific type of tree in this specific corner of the world. Migration to more tranquil territory is not an option, not in the time it would take their guts to evolve for more varied fare.

  By the time the explorers realise their presence is what is drivi
ng the very creature they wish to understand to abandon its offspring, it is too late. Infant mortality has skyrocketed to the point that the species can no longer sustain itself. Within a Harmagian lifetime, the bal’urut is no more. Other species fall in its wake. Our plucky explorers have the dubious distinction of making the first Harmagian record of a trophic cascade.

  If you have studied any scientific discipline through Harmagian instruction, dear guest, you already know the story of the bal’urut. It is one of our most enduring cautionary tales. Many a professor has relished frustrating students with the ethical quandary at its core. If the villagers had not ventured into the marsh to better understand the bal’urut, then its breeding behaviour would not have been disrupted. But had the villagers stuck to their beach and their narrow view, they would’ve continued to pile slag at the marsh’s edge, and the bal’urut would’ve kept dying from eating it (archaeological studies suggest that bal’uruts found the salt deposits left behind in the metalworking process irresistible). My own research methodology professor phrased this concept succinctly: learn nothing of your subjects, and you will disrupt them. Learn something of your subjects, and you will disrupt them.

  The bal’urut has been on my mind as of late. As an ethnographer, my role is to be a neutral observer. I cannot judge, I cannot suppose, I cannot fill in blanks with my own biases (as much as this is possible). And yet, my presence here has prompted change. I have not done anything harmful, to my knowledge. All I have done is talk. I ask questions, I give answers, I make connections. This is not much, and yet, I of all people should know that this can be everything.

  I am being vague, dear guest, and for that, I apologise. I have set events in motion that will bring new technologies into the Fleet – namely, improved medical equipment, and sentient AI installations to facilitate resource management. I believe – or I sincerely hope, at least – these will be of great benefit to my hosts here. Given the letters I have received from many of you, I feel confident in assuming that you would agree. Indeed, I am humbled by the generosity that has made these donations possible. Truly, the name of our Galactic Commons was chosen well.

  Still, I cannot ignore the fact that I came here to document the Exodan way of life, and as I near the end of my visit, that way of life is changing. This should not surprise me. I have ventured into the marshlands. I know this story well.

  * * *

  Received message

  Encryption: 0

  Translation: 0

  From: Tessa Santoso (path: 6222-198-00)

  To: George Santoso (path: 6159-546-46)

  Well, they actually did it. Cargo bay jobs are going away. Not today. Not for a while. But they’re going to install sentient AIs here on the Asteria as a pilot programme, and, if it goes well, kit out the rest of the Fleet as well. I would’ve told you differently a couple tendays ago, but today, my gut says that pilot programme is going to catch on quick. People love these things. My brother just had to get a replacement for his old one, and he’s being very weird about it. It’s like he lost a pet or something. I don’t get it, but I’ve never worked with one, so who knows. Easier to deal with something that’s always cheerful and there to help than with us slow, cranky people, I suppose.

  Me and a few others have been asked to work with the incoming comp techs to figure things out or set things up or however it works. Teach the machines what we’re doing so they can do it better. I’ve also been advised to start talking to the job office now, so I can figure out where I might want to go. Y’know, make time for classes. Make time to apprentice. Stars, George. I’ve been running job trials all standard, and now I’m the one who needs one.

  I’m mad about it, and I know it’s stupid. It’s not like managing cargo is the most exciting job there is. But it was my job, and all I can think about are the projects I’m not going to finish and the systems I worked out and felt proud of that don’t matter anymore. I don’t know if this will make sense, but I keep wondering where we’re going to draw the line. Nobody’s talking about replacing pilots or bug farmers or teachers, even though AIs could do all of those, because those are fun jobs. Jobs that mean something, right? But I liked my job. There were things in it that I found fun. I thought what I did was meaningful. I thought I was doing something good. Who decides that? What if we decide that flying shuttles and raising red coasters aren’t actually all that fun, and we get rid of those jobs, too? What do people do, then? I went for a drink with Sahil after we got the news, and I asked him that question. He thought it’d be great. He said he’d go be a permastudent at some university and learn all he could. But why? Why learn anything if you’re not going to do something with it? Why learn anything if everything worth knowing is in the Linkings anyway, and you can ask your pet AI?

  Sorry, I know I’m rambling. I just don’t know where I want to go from here. Right now, I’m not sure I want to be here at all.

  * * *

  Eyas

  Eyas fidgeted in the corridor outside the unfamiliar hex. What if this was a bad idea? What if this screwed things up? She’d entertained both those possibilities, and was entertaining them still, but this was the only course of action that didn’t leave her feeling restless. This was the only thing, right then, that made sense.

  She walked forward into the common area. Eyas had thought, on her way here, that she’d have to approach a stranger, introduce herself, bring a third party into this exchange. But her timing was perfect. Sunny was kneeling right there in a planter square, a gardening apron tied around his neck and waist, a palette of leafy starters abandoned by his knees, a young boy clinging to his back and wrestling him from behind. Sunny could’ve easily thrown the kid off, but he swayed and moaned in mock defeat.

  ‘Oh, no!’ Sunny yelled. ‘Oh, no, you’ve got me! Help, someone help, there’s a monster, a horrible monster’s got me—’

  The kid giggled. ‘I’m not a monster,’ the boy said. ‘I’m a lion. I’m from Earth!’ He made a . . . well, he made a sound. Whether it was actually lion-like was anyone’s guess.

  ‘I’m very sorry, I should have realised,’ Sunny said. ‘Please, M Lion, don’t eat me.’

  ‘I am gonna eat you!’ the kid said, noisily play-biting Sunny’s shoulder.

  Sunny gave a wicked grin. ‘Or maybe . . . I’m gonna eat you!’ In one fluid sequence, he grabbed the kid, hauled him around to his front, pinned him down, and made chomping sounds as he mercilessly tickled the now-shrieking boy’s tummy. ‘Oh, no, a dramatic reversal! Nom nom nom nom nom—’ His eyes flicked up and saw Eyas for the first time.

  Eyas had her knuckle against her mouth, a smile spreading behind it. She gave a little wave.

  Sunny was surprised, no question, but took it in stride. The ticklefest ended abruptly. ‘We gotta take a break, buddy. We’ve got company.’ The kid looked over as Sunny stood up. ‘This is my friend Eyas,’ Sunny said, cocking his head. ‘Hi.’ It was a question.

  ‘Hi,’ Eyas said. She smiled at the boy. ‘What’s your name?’

  The kid scrutinised her. ‘Kirby.’

  ‘My nephew,’ Sunny said, pushing his own hair back into place, brushing his hands on his apron. Was he self-conscious? Did he mind her seeing him like this – unshowered, dirty palms, ratty work clothes? Had she crossed a line? Having sex was one thing; entering someone’s home was another. Maybe this was an intimacy she shouldn’t have assumed.

  ‘I’m sorry,’ Eyas said, ‘I hope I’m not—’

  ‘No.’ He meant it. ‘No, not at all. Please.’ He gestured to one of the dinner tables. She followed.

  ‘Hi there!’ someone called. Eyas turned. An elderly woman had stuck her head out the front door of her home, no doubt curious about the newcomer. She waved as if they were fast friends.

  ‘Hello,’ Eyas called back.

  ‘Friend of mine,’ Sunny said. ‘From the Asteria.’

  ‘Oh, welcome!’ the old woman said. She nodded with approval – approval of what, Eyas could only guess at – then went back
into her space.

  ‘That’s M Tsai,’ Sunny said, sitting at the table. ‘She’s very sweet, and very nosy.’

  Eyas laughed as she sat opposite him. ‘I gathered.’ She looked around the hex. Kirby had abandoned lioning and was now digging haphazardly through Sunny’s neat planter rows. If Sunny noticed, he didn’t seem to mind.

  ‘So.’ Sunny looked at her, the question unanswered.

  ‘Right,’ she said. She’d had the entire ferry ride to think about this, but now she didn’t know where to start. ‘I was hoping I could – that is, if you have the time to talk—’

  ‘Yeah, I’m not— hey, Kirby, you can play in the dirt all you want, but leave the shears alone, yeah? – sorry.’

  ‘Don’t be. Kids are kids.’

  ‘I’m not busy, is what I was saying.’

  ‘Cool. Okay, well . . . I’ve been stuck on this idea, and I thought—’

  Her attempt was derailed by M Tsai, who had reappeared with offerings in hand. ‘I thought you two might like some iced tea,’ M Tsai said, setting down a full pitcher and a pair of glasses. ‘My own special recipe. I always keep some around in case guests show up.’ She filled Eyas’ glass. ‘Are you one of his clients?’

  ‘M, you know you can’t ask that,’ Sunny said. ‘That’s confidential.’

  ‘It’s okay,’ Eyas said. She smiled at M Tsai. ‘I am.’

  ‘But she’s my friend, too,’ Sunny said. He locked eyes with Eyas. Something passed between them. He’d seen her every which way, and yet, somehow, this – a shared pitcher of tea, a confirmation of friendship, a secret smile – this was the most vulnerable she’d ever felt around him.

  ‘How nice,’ M Tsai said. ‘And what’s your profession?’

  Sunny transmitted an apology through his eyes.

  ‘I’m a caretaker,’ Eyas said.

  ‘Oh! Oh, my goodness. Well.’ She looked at the now-filled glasses, trying to find an excuse to stay now that her previous one had ended. ‘You know . . . biscuits. I got a packet of quick dough as trade a few days ago, and a bunch of herbs in my home that aren’t going to last much longer. I think this kind of company deserves a proper snack, don’t you?’

 
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