Record of a spaceborn fe.., p.29
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       Record of a Spaceborn Few, p.29

           Becky Chambers
 

  Judging by Kip’s expression, he was making a valiant effort to be polite – or maybe he just really wanted that bean cake. ‘It’s cool, yeah.’

  Isabel folded her hands in front of herself and continued to admire their surroundings.

  Kip waited. He shuffled. He stopped waiting. ‘I’ve been down here before, M.’

  ‘I’m sure you have. School visit?’

  ‘Yeah.’

  ‘Mmm. I’m sure you got a very technical explanation of how it all works, like I’m sure you did with water reclamation and engine tech and solar harvesters.’ She sighed. ‘Kip, what’s the most important cargo the Fleet carries?’

  ‘Um . . . food?’

  ‘Wrong.’

  He frowned. ‘Water. Air.’

  ‘Both wrong.’ She pointed to the racks. ‘This.’

  Kip was unconvinced. ‘We’d die without air, M.’

  ‘We die one way or another. That’s a given. What’s not is being remembered after the fact. To ensure that, you have to put in some effort.’ She reached out and touched one of the racks, feeling the warring balance of cold metal and warm energy. ‘Without this, we’re merely surviving. And that’s not enough, is it?’ Isabel looked at the boy, who was still confused. She patted the rack and began to walk. ‘Our species doesn’t operate by reality. It operates by stories. Cities are a story. Money is a story. Space was a story, once. A king tells us a story about who we are and why we’re great, and that story is enough to make us go kill people who tell a different story. Or maybe the people kill the king because they don’t like his story and have begun to tell themselves a different one. When our planet started dying, our species was so caught up in stories. We had thousands of stories about ourselves – that’s still true, don’t forget that for a minute – but not enough of us were looking at the reality of things. Once reality caught up with us and we started changing our stories to acknowledge it, it was too late.’ She looked around at all the lights, all the memories. ‘It is easy to remember that story here, in the Fleet. Every time you touch a bulkhead, every time you tend a garden, every time you watch the water in your hex’s cistern dip a little lower, you remember. You know what the story is here. But outside of here, there’s a different story. There’s sky. There’s ground. There are cities and money and water you can take for granted. Are you following?’

  ‘Uh . . . I think so.’

  Isabel nodded and went on. ‘Comforts are not bad things, not by base. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to make life easier. The Gaiists on Earth would have you think otherwise, but they’re also dying of diseases that can be easily cured and leaving imperfect infants out to freeze, so no, I don’t think technology is the greater evil here. The comforts we’ve invented – or that our neighbours have invented – can become bad if you don’t always, always ask what the potential consequences could be. Many of our people skip that step. Many – not all, but many – leave here and are too eager to change their story. There’s not just one planet with organic resources anymore. There are thousands. Hundreds of thousands. And if that’s true, you don’t need to worry so much, right? You don’t need to be so careful. Use one up and move on to the next. The Harmagians were like that, once, until the rest of the galaxy got tired of their story. They changed. They learned. And that’s why their society, and the Aandrisks, and the Aeluons, and everybody else – that’s why they look so appealing to us. We’re coming in at their happy ending and not stopping to think about how they got there. We want to take on their story. And we can, if we want to. But I worry about those who think adopting someone else’s story means abandoning their own.’ She turned to face the boy. ‘That’s why the theatres are here, Kip. That’s why we keep Archives, why we paint our hands on the wall. It’s so we don’t forget. We’re our own warning. That’s why the Fleet needs to remain. Why it has to remain. Without us out here, the grounders will forget within a few generations. We’ll become just another story, and not one that seems relevant. Sure, we broke Earth, but we won’t break this planet. We won’t poison this water. We won’t let this invention go wrong.’ She shook her head. ‘We are a longstanding species with a very short memory. If we don’t keep record, we’ll make the same mistakes over and over. I think it is a good thing that the Fleet is changing, that our people are spreading out. That’s what we were meant to do. That’s what our species has always, always done. But we must remember.’ She contemplated Kip, as if he were a file that needed categorising. ‘What are your plans for the future? Have you chosen a profession yet?’

  Kip shifted his weight. ‘I’m gonna leave the Fleet.’

  Isabel waited for some specificity. None came. ‘And do what?’

  ‘I dunno.’

  ‘Where will you go?’

  ‘I . . . I’m not sure.’

  ‘Are you going to university? Are you looking for work?’

  ‘I don’t know. I don’t know yet.’

  ‘Then why,’ Isabel asked without judgment, ‘do you want to go?’

  Kip shrugged with agitation. ‘I just . . . I need to get out of here.’

  ‘Why?’

  She’d hit the crack in the boy’s patience. ‘Because there’s no point to any of this!’ Kip blurted out, finally speaking with something other than a guarded drone. ‘Seriously, what is the point to orbiting here forever? So we remember stuff? Why? For what? What are we for?’

  ‘A fair question. You think you’ll find the answer to that planetside?’

  ‘It’s . . . that’s where we’re supposed to be.’

  Isabel laughed. ‘That’s a slippery slope you’ll never see the end of. Head down the path of “how we’re supposed to be”, what we evolved to be, and you’ll end up at “hunting and gathering in grassy plains”. Maybe the Gaiists are right, and that is how we’re supposed to be. I don’t know. But if everything has to have a point: what’s the point of hunting and gathering? How is that more meaningful than any of this?’

  ‘I’m not talking about hunting and gathering, M.’

  ‘Oh? Why?’

  ‘Because . . .’ He struggled. ‘That can’t be all there is, either.’

  ‘So what you’re saying is Humans aren’t really supposed to do anything in particular, and we get to choose the kind of lives we have. But that doesn’t mean any of it has a point, son. You think people born planetside don’t wonder what the point of it all is? You don’t think they know that their cities will fall and their houses will rot, and that somewhere down the line, their planet will get swallowed up by its sun? Spacers and grounders, we’re riding the same ship. We both depend on fragile systems with a million interconnected parts that can easily be damaged and will eventually fail. Yes, we built the Fleet. The Fleet didn’t just happen the way a planet does. But why does that matter? The only difference between our respective ecosystems is scale and origin. Otherwise, it’s the same principle.’ She studied him. ‘Have you ever gone through any of the Archives from the first days of Human spaceflight?’

  ‘No.’

  ‘I’d be surprised if you had. It’s archaic stuff, and the Ensk translations aren’t the best.’ Yet another project, she thought, to keep some future archivist happy. ‘Do you know why people – why Humans started heading out into the open? Oh, there was lots of military posturing involved, no mistake, but the true believers, the ones who couldn’t bear the thought of not going out there – that’s where they thought they’d find answers. They said, hey, we haven’t got the context right. We need a sample size bigger than one lonely planet if we’re ever going to understand any of this. And in many ways, they were right. We found other people out here, so that question got answered. We found out that life isn’t rare. We’ve learned exponentially more about how planets work and how physics works, and the technology we have today would’ve blown their minds. We understand the galaxy in a way we never could have if we hadn’t left. But the big question – the end-all, be-all question – well, that’s still up for discussion. Why? What’s the point?
Kip, there isn’t a sapient species living or dead that hasn’t grappled hard with that. It scares us. It makes us panic, just like you’re panicking now. So if the lack of a point is what’s bothering you, if it’s making you want to kick the walls and tear your hair out, well, welcome to the party.’

  ‘But—’

  Isabel put up her palm. ‘Your ancestors thought they would answer the big question in space. Now here you are, out where they longed to go, looking back at the planets, trying to answer the same damn thing. You won’t. You need to reframe this frustration you’re feeling. If what you’re saying is that you don’t see a life for yourself here, that the kind of work you want to do or the experiences you want to have aren’t available in the Fleet, then by all means, go. But if the only reason you want to do it is because you’re looking for a point, you’re going to end up miserable. You’ll float around forever trying to make peace with that.’

  Kip looked lost, but an entirely different kind of lost than he had moments before. ‘I have no idea what kind of life I want,’ he said at last. ‘I don’t know what I want to do.’ He fell quiet, the blue glow of the data nodes highlighting his face.

  Stars, he was young. He had so far to go.

  ‘What do you like to do?’ Isabel asked. ‘What interests you?’

  Kip gave a brittle laugh. ‘Nothing.’

  ‘There must be something. What do you do with your day?’

  ‘Nothing important. Sims, vids, school.’

  Isabel let the implication that school wasn’t important slide. ‘Job trials?’

  The heaviest sigh in the world escaped the boy’s lips. ‘Yeah.’

  ‘And nothing’s stuck?’

  ‘Nothing’s stuck.’

  ‘And you think something will out there?’

  He looked at her as if that were obvious. ‘Why else would so many people leave and not come back?’

  ‘Again, that’s fair. You’re waiting for something to grab you, then. Something that feels like it’s got a point.’

  ‘Yeah.’ Kip looked at her. ‘What do you think I should do?’

  ‘Oh, I can’t tell you that,’ Isabel said. ‘I can only tell you what I want you to do, and that’s based on my shallow impression of who you are and how I’d like your story to go. You can’t operate by that. You’re the only one who can think about what you should do.’

  ‘Okay,’ Kip said. ‘Then what do you want me to do?’

  Isabel paused. ‘I’ll only tell you if you understand that when a person tells you what they want of you, they’re not deciding for you. It’s their opinion, not your truth. Got it?’

  ‘Yeah.’

  ‘All right.’ Isabel didn’t need to think about what she was going to say next. She’d wanted to say it since the moment they’d started digging a burial trench together. With a sure step, she began to walk back out of the data chamber the way they’d come. ‘I want you to apprentice with me.’

  She could practically hear the kid blink. ‘What?’ he said.

  ‘Not a job trial. A proper apprenticeship. Stripes and all.’

  ‘Um.’ Kip hurried after and fell alongside. ‘Why?’

  ‘Because of what you did for Sawyer.’

  ‘What does—’

  ‘—that have to do with anything? You tell me. Why wasn’t it enough for you to simply report what you heard to patrol and have them deal with it?’

  ‘I – I don’t—’

  ‘Yes, you do,’ Isabel said firmly. ‘Why?’

  ‘It just . . . it bothered me.’

  ‘Him being alone.’

  ‘Yeah.’

  ‘Him being thrown out. Him not getting a real funeral.’

  ‘Yeah.’

  ‘But you didn’t just pay your respects. You weren’t a passive mourner. You carried his body. You read the Litany for the Dead. You care about our ways, Kip, even if you think you don’t. The idea of them not being performed shook you so hard, you had to do them yourself. And that – that’s the kind of love the Archives needs. We won’t survive without that.’ She sorted her thoughts. ‘I know that in this moment, you hate it here. I’m not belittling that. That’s why I don’t want you to apprentice for me right now.’

  Kip was the picture of confusion. ‘M, I’m sorry, but I . . . I really don’t get it.’

  Isabel smiled. ‘I want you to leave the Fleet, Kip. For a little while. If you decide to stay wherever you land forever, so be it. But you can’t apprentice with me until you see what’s out there.’

  ‘I don’t—’ Kip gave his head a short shake. ‘You don’t know me, M. You don’t know me at all. I’d suck working here. I’m not smart.’

  ‘What makes you say that?’

  ‘I’m . . . I’m not. I suck at school, and—’

  ‘What’d you get on your entrance exams?’

  ‘803.’

  Not amazing, true, but hardly a suggestion of not smart. ‘That’s an entirely decent score, Kip. That’ll get you into everything but the top-tiers.’

  ‘I barely made it, though. I busted my ass, and I got entirely decent. I’m not like . . .’ He frowned. ‘Like people who ace all their tests.’

  Isabel gave a single nod. ‘Good! Stars, the last thing I want is some cocky gifted kid who’s never had to break a sweat. Give me someone who wants it and had to work for it any day.’

  ‘But I don’t know if I want to work here, M. I— I dunno, I’ve never thought about it.’

  ‘You don’t have anywhere you want to work, so having at least one option on the table can’t hurt, hmm?’

  ‘Wait, so . . . why would I have to leave first?’

  ‘It’s simple. If you never leave, you’ll always wonder. You’ll wonder what your life could’ve been, if you did the right thing. Well . . . scratch that. You’ll always wonder if you did the right thing, no matter what the decision is, big or small. There’s always another path you’ll wonder about. But that wondering is less maddening if you know what the other path looks like, at least. So. You should go. Go to Hashkath. Go to Coriol. Go to Earth, even. Go wherever calls to you. And maybe you’ll find out that life out there is good, that it suits you. Maybe you’ll find that thing you’re missing. Maybe not. What you will find, no question, is perspective. What that perspective is, I have no idea. But you’ll find one. Otherwise, you’ll only ever think about other people in the abstract. That’s a poisonous thing, thinking your way is all there is. The only way to really appreciate your way is to compare it to somebody else’s way. Figure out what you love, specifically. In detail. Figure out what you want to keep. Figure out what you want to change. Otherwise, it’s not love. It’s clinging to the familiar – to the comfortable – and that’s a dangerous thing for us short-term thinkers to do. If you stay, stay because you want to, because you’ve found something here worth embodying, because you believe in it. Otherwise . . . well, there’s no point in being here at all, is there? Better for everybody to leave, in that case.’ She pushed the button to call the lift. ‘Go out there and see what it’s like to be the alien. Eat something weird. Sleep somewhere uncomfortable. Then, if you come back, and if you want to apprentice here, I want you to look me in the eye and tell me exactly why.’

  Kip frowned. ‘I don’t know, M. This is kind of a lot.’

  ‘Of course it is!’ The lift arrived, and she stepped in. ‘I wouldn’t want anything to do with you if it felt otherwise.’

  Tessa

  The scene at home was the last thing she expected to find. Instead of discarded clothes and messy toys, there was only Pop, sitting on the couch in a tidied-up living room, a bottle of kick and two empty glasses on the table. He had been waiting, elbows on his thighs, hands folded between his knees. He smiled when she entered the front door.

  Pop picked up the bottle. ‘Don’t worry about waking the kids. They’re spending the night next door. Been a while since this home had only grown-ups in it, huh? Not since Aya was born.’ He examined the label. He squinted, holding it at length, then up c
lose, then farther out, trying to find the spot that fit his eyes best. ‘You know, they don’t make this stuff anymore.’ He rotated the bottle for her to see: a bluefish, leaping its way into the stars. ‘Farmer’s Friend,’ he said. ‘They used to make it out of the fruit that wasn’t good enough for the stores. Stopped making it after M Nazari died – must’ve been . . . well, let’s see now . . . I guess forty-some years ago. She was the one who made the stuff. Sweet old lady, always nice to me and my brother. Whenever we’d go down to trade with her, she’d always hand us a bunch of fruit or something after the barter was done. And we’d always say, aw, c’mon, M, we didn’t give you enough for that, here, take a couple extra chips. But she’d always say, no, no, and tell us we were her favourite customers. I think she said that to everybody, but she made you feel like it was true. After she went, though – well, none of her kids were much into brewing, so, the kick went, too.’

  Tessa sat down, the back of her neck tingling, her stomach uneasy. She’d been holding the conversation with George in her stomach the whole way home, and the added uncertainty of wherever this conversation was going made her . . . not scared, exactly. But time had slowed, and she felt awake. Present. There was gravity centred around the table. Real gravity, not the conjured stuff in the floor. ‘I remember the label,’ she said. An old memory came back to life. ‘You kept a few bottles on the shelf, over there.’ She pointed. There weren’t bottles there now, but tins of seeds and tech bits.

  Pop nodded. ‘For fun and company,’ he said, pouring two generous fingers into the glasses. ‘That’s how your mother always put it. And you two weren’t supposed to touch that shelf. You did once, though.’

  ‘Oh, stars.’ Tessa laughed. ‘Oh, no. I forgot about that.’

  ‘When your mother and I were going on a market trip—’

  ‘The shuttle broke down half a day out, and you had to come home early.’

  ‘Yeah, we came home to you two dipshits, puking your guts into a blanket.’

 

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