Record of a spaceborn fe.., p.31
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       Record of a Spaceborn Few, p.31

           Becky Chambers

  ‘Hi, I’m Ayodeji,’ the first said. ‘I’m a doctor at a neighbourhood clinic. I’ll be answering your questions about basic medical care.’

  ‘Hi, I’m Tohu. I’m a ferry pilot. I’m gonna explain how to get around, both inside a homesteader and in between.’

  ‘I’m Jacira. I’m a bug farmer, and I’ll be talking to you about food stores and water management.’

  ‘Hey there, I’m Sunny.’ He smiled with all the confidence in the world. ‘I’m a sex worker, and I’ll be explaining where to go if you want to get laid.’

  The young woman stared. The man laughed. The Aeluon looked at him, confused as to what was funny.

  The instructors continued – a mural artist, a mech tech, a trade-only merchant – until there were no more names to give. Eyas turned to the class. ‘Now, I’d like you three to introduce yourselves as well. Who are you, where are you from, and what brings you here?’

  The students sat in silence for a moment, like all groups of strangers did. The man spoke first. ‘I’m Bruno,’ he said. ‘I’m a spacer. From Jupiter Station originally, but that was a long time ago. I haul cargo – foodstuff, mainly. The Fleet’s been one of my stops for six standards now, and I’m considering putting an end to all the back and forth. I like the people here, but I’m . . . I’m not quite sure yet.’ He gestured to the instructors. ‘I was hoping you could give me a better idea of what I’d be in for.’

  Eyas smiled. ‘We’ll certainly try.’

  ‘I’m Lam,’ the Aeluon said. ‘I am sure you weren’t expecting me.’

  The room chuckled. ‘Not exactly,’ Eyas said kindly.

  ‘I’m from Sohep Frie, and I’m a textile merchant,’ Lam said. ‘I’m not going to relocate here, but I would like to understand the Exodans I work with better. They make great effort to make me comfortable. I’d like to be able to do the same.’

  Eyas hadn’t considered that other species might find value in a Exodan cultural crash course. Something to add to the workshop description, she supposed. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Amad, the poster maker, already making a note on her scrib. ‘That’s wonderful,’ Eyas said. ‘We’re delighted to have you here.’ She looked to the woman. ‘And what about you?’

  The young woman swallowed. Eyas could tell she was shy. ‘I’m Anna,’ the woman said. ‘I don’t really . . . I guess I’m . . . I dunno. I guess I’m trying something new.’

  There wasn’t an encompassing word for what Eyas felt then. Tightness. Warmth. Pain. Clarity. She thought of the top of the cylinder, of one particular sunken crater she’d refilled with bamboo chips some tendays before now. She thought of the canisters that had rattled in her cart some tendays after then. She thought of dirt, dark and shapeless, and of sprouts, tender and new.

  Why now? Sunny had asked of her profession, right before giving her the answer she’d always had: Because you love it, and because it’s our way, and that’s reason enough. There wasn’t maths or logic or any ironclad measure of efficiency to back it up. There didn’t need to be. If trying something new was valid, then keeping something old was, too. No, this wasn’t the same Fleet as that of their ancestors. Yes, things had changed, and would keep changing. Life meant death, always. But by the same token, death meant life. So long as people kept choosing this life, Eyas planned to be there – for as long as she could – guiding them through both sides of the equation.

  Eyas looked Anna in the eye. She smiled, and said what she should’ve said the first time she’d heard a grounder speak those words. ‘Welcome. Whatever questions you have, we’re happy to help.’

  Kip, One Standard Later

  Ever since he’d arrived on Kaathet, Kip had encountered so many things he’d never seen before that the phrase ‘I’ve never seen anything like this’ had almost stopped feeling like something worth pointing out. Nothing was like what he knew, not the food, not the crowds, and definitely not the school, which was the complete opposite of school back home in that everything was fun and interesting (and that was a whole new problem, because it was all so good, he didn’t know what concentration to pick). To say ‘I’ve never seen anything like this’ was the same as saying ‘I got up today’.

  That said: he’d never seen anything like the Osskerit Museum, one of the biggest repositories of Arkanic artefacts in the GC. The inside of the building was decorated to look like one of their long-gone grand temples – or, at least, somebody’s best guess as to how they looked. It was hard to say anything hard and fast about a sapient species that had gone extinct long before any of the ones around today had woken up. Still, if their buildings looked anything like the Osskerit, the Arkani had been damn impressive. Everything inside and out was harsh angles and reflective surfaces, a sharp, stabbing fractal of shimmering light. The visual effect felt violent, almost, and was nowhere Kip would want to live. He was wowed all the same.

  ‘Hey, come look at this!’ Tuumuu said. The Laru’s body was facing a display, but her limb-like neck was stretched back around her foreleg so she could face the others. Kip was still getting used to that. He was also still getting used to having whole conversations in Klip all day every day, which he was getting better at. He wore a translation hud to fill in the gaps.

  The rest of the group came over to Tuumuu’s side, and Kip left the fossils he’d been looking at to drift their way. They were inseparable, the five of them, all first-year students, all interstellar transfers, all taking Introduction to Historical Galactic Civilisations. They were each from somewhere else, and even though the homegrown students at the Kaathet Rakas school were friendly (mostly), somehow it felt natural for the outsiders to stick together. Even if they were total weirdos.

  Dron leaned toward the display, his cheeks swirling speckled blue. ‘Huh,’ he said.

  Viola pointed at Dron’s face. ‘What’s that one mean?’

  The Aeluon gave Viola a tired look. ‘Stars, you are not going to let this go, are you?’

  ‘How else am I supposed to know what’s up with you if you don’t explain your colours? See, now there’s some yellow in there. What’s yellow mean?’

  ‘Yellow means lots of things.’

  ‘What’s this yellow mean?’

  ‘Annoyed. It means I’m annoyed.’

  Viola cuffed the innocent Laru. ‘Jeez, Tuumuu, stop bugging Dron. Can’t you see he’s yellow?’

  ‘Kip,’ Dron called. ‘Will you please get over here and make your cousin behave?’

  ‘And will you all please shut up?’ Kreshkeris said from a bench nearby. She was taking furious notes on her scrib, like always. ‘Some of us would like to actually do well on this assignment.’ She was a lifelong spacer, too, and always acted like she had to prove herself to the grounder Aandrisks they went to school with. Some things weren’t that different.

  Kip walked up to Viola with his hands in his pockets. ‘Hey, cousin,’ he said. ‘Behave.’ He could hear his accent, his imprecise words. But it was cool. With this group, he knew it was cool.

  Viola smirked at the joke. Their first day at school, Dron had asked if she and Kip were related, which was hilarious, because Viola came from Titan, and they looked nothing alike. At least, they didn’t think so. Everybody else did. ‘Bug-fucking spacer,’ Viola said in her weird, flowy Ensk.

  ‘Cow-licking Solan,’ Kip shot back.

  ‘That’s for Martians, you idiot. There aren’t any cows in the Outers.’

  ‘I dunno, I’m looking at one right now.’

  They both grinned.

  ‘They’re talking shit about us again,’ Dron said in the others’ general direction.

  ‘You have no idea what we’re saying,’ Kip said.

  An elaborate explosion of colour danced across the Aeluon’s face. ‘And neither do you.’

  ‘Oh, come on,’ Viola said.

  ‘You guys,’ Tuumuu said, the fur on her neck waving in the air as her big funny feet danced impatiently. ‘Look at this.’

  They leaned in to see what had gotten their f
uzzy history nerd so excited. On the pedestal before them rested an ancient lump of metal, smashed in on itself, worn down by time.

  ‘It’s a star-tracker,’ Tuumuu gushed. ‘It’s what they used to study the sky. Think about it! They were trying to find people out there, too. Only . . . only we showed up too late.’ Her head sagged. ‘Stars, that’s sad.’

  They leaned in closer. ‘Doesn’t look like much,’ Dron said.

  ‘That’s ’cause it’s old, dummy.’

  ‘How’d it work?’ Viola asked.

  Kip cocked his head. ‘Looks like there was a switch here.’ He reached out and picked up the star-tracker.

  Everything went batshit at once. An alarm went off. Previously unseen lights started flashing. His friends yelled in unison.

  ‘Kip, what the fuck?!’

  ‘Dude, what are you—’

  ‘Put it back!’

  A shout in Reskitkish came from behind. A line of translation shot across Kip’s hud: Put the object down.

  He turned to see an Aandrisk security guard standing behind him. She was about two heads taller than he was, and had a stun gun at the ready.

  Kip stammered. ‘I – what—’

  The Aandrisk repeated herself in hissing Klip: ‘Set the item down.’

  Kip looked down at the lump of metal he was still holding stupidly. He had no idea what he’d done wrong, but he did as told. ‘I – I wasn’t stealing—’

  The guard glared at him, and everyone else. She looked straight at Kreshkeris as she walked away. ‘Mind your foreign friends,’ she said.

  Kreshkeris got up from her bench and stormed over to Kip, her feathers on end. She was tall, too. ‘What were you thinking?’

  Kip looked at his friends – Tuumuu an anxious puff from front to back, Dron red as a bruise, Viola laughing with her forehead in her palm. What was he thinking? He had a better question: what had he done? ‘I wasn’t stealing,’ he said again.

  ‘Kip, you – you know you can’t touch stuff at a museum, right?’ Dron said.

  Kip blinked. ‘Why not?’

  ‘Oh, stars,’ Viola said, laughing harder.

  Tuumuu stepped in. ‘These are priceless things,’ she explained. Her fur started to settle. ‘This star-finder might be the only one left. If you break it, that’s . . . that’s it. There are no more, and we can’t learn anything.’

  ‘If you break it, why not fix it?’ Kip frowned. ‘You can’t learn anything like – like this.’ He gestured to the trouble-making metal. ‘You can’t learn how it works if it’s broke.’

  ‘I – well – you should take an archeology class,’ the Laru said, her tone brightening. ‘Professor Eshisk is great. You’d learn all about restoration techniques, and preserving context, and—’

  ‘The point, Kip,’ Kreshkeris said, ‘is that you can’t touch. That’s the rules.’

  ‘Okay.’ Kip put his palms up. ‘Okay, that’s the rules. I’m sorry.’ He surrendered the argument, but he didn’t understand. He tried to imagine the same situation playing out back in the Fleet. This is a First Generation telescope, and you can’t attempt fixing it, you can’t recycle the metal and glass, and you definitely can’t touch it. We’re just going to put it here on the shelf, spending space and fuel on something nobody can use.

  Tuumuu seemed to read his mind. She fell alongside him as the group continued through the hall, walking on four legs and keeping her neck down so as to match his height. ‘Don’t you have museums in the Exodus Fleet? You obviously don’t have buildings, but collections or . . . or museum ships maybe, or . . .’

  ‘No,’ Kip said. ‘We have the Archives, I guess.’

  ‘What’s that?’

  ‘They’re like a library. All on servers though, no paper or tablets or anything. Just recordings of . . . of . . .’ The Archives were such a basic thing to him, such an everyday given. He’d never had to sum them up before. ‘Of everything. Earth, the Fleet, families. Seriously everything. We don’t need to carry museum stuff around.’

  ‘But you – you don’t have any physical artefacts of your history. None at all.’ She looked bothered by that idea. Tuumuu lived and breathed for artefacts.

  Kip started to say no, but realised that wasn’t true. He thought about his hex, where he’d watched Mom melt down old busted tools, where he’d watched Dad refit an exosuit that was still good and sealed after three generations. He wondered how Tuumuu would react to that. If she freaked out over him just picking up an old thing, she’d lose her mind at a neighbourhood smelter. ‘We . . . use stuff,’ Kip said. ‘If we can use it, we use it, and if we can’t, we make something else.’ He thought for a moment. ‘I guess everything is an artefact, kind of. Like . . . I dunno, a plate. A plate wasn’t always a plate, see. It could’ve been a bulkhead once, or . . . or flooring, or something. Or maybe it was a plate all along, and my great-great-great-great-great-grandparents ate off of it. I’m still going to use it.’

  Tuumuu got that cute fold in her face that happened when she was putting ideas together. ‘And that plate would’ve been something else down on Earth first. A machine, or a house, maybe.’

  ‘A house?’

  ‘Well, because of the metal foundries, right? Where they took apart the cities.’

  ‘I guess so,’ Kip said. The Laru beside him had a better grasp on Earthen history than he did, and he was kind of embarrassed about it. He’d been meaning to get a Linking book.

  ‘Wow,’ Tuumuu said. ‘Wow. So you can touch everything. You’re touching your artefacts all the time.’ She let out one of her weird alien chuckles. ‘So that star-tracker, you would’ve just . . .’

  Kip shrugged. ‘Made a plate.’

  ‘Made a plate,’ she repeated, disbelieving. She pushed her face a little closer to his. ‘Can I come visit some time? Can I stay with your family?’

  Laru, Kip had learned, didn’t find it rude to ask for exactly what they wanted, be it a favour or part of your lunch or, apparently, a cross-galaxy trip to stay with your parents. ‘Yeah, sure,’ he said, and as he said it, he realised that he really, weirdly, did want Tuumuu to visit. He thought about the Fleet through her eyes, and it wasn’t the same Fleet he knew at all. He thought about the murals he walked past every day without a second thought, the theatres he went to because it was something to do, the farms that were just farms until you saw farms on the ground. He imagined how Tuumuu would see those things, what they’d mean to someone who never shut up about artefacts. He imagined saying, ‘Go ahead, touch anything you want.’ He imagined her fur fluffing and her big feet bouncing and her face folding and folding until she exploded from excitement. He thought, for a second, about taking her to the Archives so she could meet M Itoh, who would totally be able to tell Tuumuu anything she wanted . . . but that imagining wasn’t as good. He wanted to be the one to tell her. He wanted to know stuff, like Tuumuu knew stuff. He wanted to hang out in his district with her and have the neighbours come stare. He wanted to teach her things. He wanted his alien friend to think the Fleet was cool.

  And maybe . . . maybe it was.

  ‘Hey, hurry up!’ Dron called back to them. The rest of the group was rounding a corner. ‘I’m not coming back if you get lost.’

  Kip followed along. He moved through the museum, passing intangible history and thinking of home.

  Tessa, Two Standards Later

  The sun spike was a weird plant. Not quite a succulent and not quite a tree, it rose from the desert sand on its spindly trunk, an improbable support for the pod-like leaves and bright orange fruit that puffed out from its upper arms. The sun spikes weren’t native to Seed; they were an introduced species, just as the Humans who tended them were.

  Tessa watched the sun spikes go by in neat rows as she flew the low-hovering skiff down the orchard road and back toward the village. ‘What’d I tell you?’ she said to her passenger. She threw a glance over her shoulder to the bed of the skiff, full to the brim with bushels of fat fruit.

  Ammar raised his calloused
palms. ‘You win,’ he said. ‘I’ll never question your pollinator maps again.’

  Tessa nodded, satisfied. Drawing up a new rotation for the pollinator bots hadn’t been hard. Geometry and logic, that was all. Move this shape here, fill that gap there, and hey presto, you’ve got more efficient field coverage. That part had been a cinch. The hard part was convincing the settlers who’d been there far longer than her – people who didn’t trip over their own feet when looking up at the sky, who didn’t freak out over bugs that weren’t food, who no longer stared at the unending horizon until they felt dizzy – that her suggestion had a good chance of boosting the next harvest. That part had been hard, too – waiting. Seasons on their world moved fast, but still, she couldn’t just grab a few spare aeroponics parts and put her plan into action. She’d drawn up the map in winter, waited until spring to actually do anything, and crossed her fingers until late summer in the hopes that she’d be right.

  And she had been. She couldn’t help but feel a bit smug about it. It was a good way to feel.

  Ammar reached back, plucked a choice sunfruit from their haul, and took a huge bite. ‘Mmm. Stars, I love these.’

  ‘Hey,’ Tessa said, slapping his knee. ‘What is that, your fourth?’

  ‘If I pick ’em, I eat ’em,’ Ammar said. He took another bite, his lips already stained from the previous three. ‘Mmm mmm mmm.’ He looked down at Tessa’s arm. ‘Did you forget your jacket again?’

  A bit of the smugness faded. ‘I’m fine,’ she said tersely.

  Ammar laughed. ‘You are goosebumps from shoulder to wrist. Tess, you gotta remember that weather exists.’

  Tessa stuck her tongue out at him as she flew around the construction site for the new water reclamation building. Days on Seed were hot, and it was easy to remember to dress cool when you woke up with blankets kicked to the floor. The bit she kept forgetting was that the sun going down meant the warmth went with it. A lifetime of disconnect between light and air temperature was a tough thing to shake.

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