Record of a spaceborn fe.., p.32
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       Record of a Spaceborn Few, p.32

           Becky Chambers
 

  The sky was a hazy pink by the time they got home, and Tessa was starting to shiver. She warmed up quick, though, as she and Ammar and the villagers who saw them approach worked to get the fruit into the storehouse before dark. The liftbots – which had lain unused and in disrepair before Tessa’s arrival – accepted their new inventory, emptying the heavy bushels into stasis crates, carrying their burdens silently. In contrast, the busy Humans unleashed a loud chorus of chatter. Tessa heard people talking about the size of the fruit, the colour, how it compared to the year before, and the year before that, and the year before that. They talked about who was going to make jam, and who was going to make kick, and how the suddet root should be coming up soon. Simple talk. Harvest talk. She’d never had interest in the farms back home – back on the Asteria, that is. This was different, somehow. Something about the dirt, maybe, or the added chaos of wild bugs and desert chickens (which weren’t actual chickens, of course – they weren’t much like Earthen birds at all – but you made do with the words you had). She wasn’t entirely sure what the reason was, but she liked being part of the farm crew here. To her unending surprise, she liked it.

  A herd of kids ran over, the eldest and fastest at the front, the little ones trailing dutifully. They were followed by two elderly folks – the childminders. Their careful eyes were belied by their unfussed stroll and minimal interference. The kids waited the barest of seconds to get an approving nod from an adult, then swarmed upon the fruit. They took them into their hands, gnawed in starting points, then scraped out the sweet pulp with whatever stage of teeth they had. Tessa saw Ky, shadowing Alerio as usual. His idol was an impressive six and a half, and everything five-year-old Ky wanted to be. But though Alerio always generously put up with his devotee, he failed to notice that Ky couldn’t reach the top of the bushels.

  Tessa made her way over and crouched down behind Ky. She put her hands over her son’s eyes. ‘Guess who,’ she said.

  Ky ducked down out of her hands and spun around. ‘Mom, don’t do that,’ he giggled.

  ‘Oh, I’m very sorry.’ She raised her eyes to the out-of-reach sunfruit. ‘Do you want one?’

  ‘Yes!’

  ‘Yes, what?’

  Ky bounced up and down. ‘Yes, please.’

  She stood, picked him up around his midsection, and lifted him within reach. Stars, he was heavy. Ky made a move for a fruit that was about half the size of his head. ‘You’re never gonna finish that one, bud,’ Tessa said. ‘I think you should get one you can pick up with one hand.’

  Ky grabbed a more moderately sized one with both hands. ‘I can finish this one.’

  ‘All right,’ Tessa said. Compromise had been found, in a way, and besides, her back couldn’t take much more of him deciding. She set Ky down, and he wasted no time in running back toward the pack. Tessa called after him. ‘What do you say?’

  ‘Thank you!’ Ky shouted in motion.

  ‘You’re welcome,’ she said, even though she was sure he’d stopped listening. She scanned her eyes over the kids, looking for a tall head of choppy black hair.

  Where was Aya?

  Ammar was leading the charge with harvest storage, and there were more than enough hands, so Tessa had no qualms about walking home in search of her errant kid. It was properly dark by then, and she hurried along with hands in her pockets and bare arms pressed to her sides. She passed the school, the fuel depot, the med clinic. She passed the gathering hall, still decked with bunting from Remembrance Day. She passed the sculpture of a homesteader standing in the middle of a growing wreath of desert plants, the plaque below inscribed with heat-etched words:

  In honour of all who carried us this far.

  She arrived, at last, at a mud-and-metal home, not particularly different from the others. This one, though, had a painted sign beside the door. Santoso, it read, underlined by four handprints – two big, two small. She relaxed as she saw a familiar red scoot-bike tossed unceremoniously onto the front porch. Aya was home. She’d be receiving yet another talking-to about putting her things away properly, but still – she was home.

  The warm air inside made Tessa melt with relief, and a wonderful smell met her nose. George stuck his head out of the kitchen doorway. His beard and belly were streaked with flour, and he wore a pair of oven mitts. ‘You are about fifteen minutes away from a kickass desert chicken soup and what is, I believe, my best bread yet,’ he said. He looked her up and down. ‘Did you forget your jacket again?’

  Tessa rolled her eyes. ‘What’s so special about this bread?’ she asked as she pulled off her boots.

  ‘Nuh uh,’ he said, ducking back into the kitchen. ‘A chef never reveals his secrets.’

  Tessa shook her head with a smile. The previous winter – their first on Seed – when there’d been little to do but stay warm and go bonkers, George had discovered a previously unknown love for baking. He was honestly talking about quitting the construction crew to open up a shop. George. Her husband, George. Tessa privately thought he could do with a few more loaves that weren’t gooey on the inside before he made the leap, but she wasn’t about to squash his enthusiasm, and besides, she was happy to eat her way through as many experiments as it took.

  Stars, but it was nice having him around.

  ‘Where’s Aya?’ she asked.

  ‘Talking to your dad,’ he said.

  Tessa raised her eyebrows and made her way to the living room. There indeed was her daughter, covered in dirt from head to toe, having an animated discussion with Pop on the sib.

  ‘And then,’ Aya said, ‘Jasmin was like, I bet you can’t jump that ditch, and I said, yeah, I can, and I did. I crashed when I landed, though. Look, see.’ She raised up her elbows toward the screen. ‘I’ve already got crazy bruises.’

  ‘Yikes,’ Pop said. Light glinted off his ocular implant as he nodded approvingly. ‘Those are impressive.’

  ‘Yeah, tomorrow we’re gonna go off the dock into the lake. Tommy built a ramp, and it’s fine, the water’s real deep.’

  Pop laughed from way deep in his chest. ‘You’ll have to show me when I come visit.’

  ‘When are you coming?’

  ‘Early next standard. Takes a long time to get there. Think you can find a scoot-bike for me?’

  Aya giggled. ‘I dunno.’ She turned her head. ‘Mom’s here, do you want to talk to her?’

  ‘Nah,’ he said. ‘Don’t have time.’

  Tessa raised her voice. ‘Thanks, Pop.’

  Pop leaned toward his screen confidentially. ‘Tell your mom I can’t talk because I’ve got a hot date.’

  Aya craned her head back. ‘Grandpa says he can’t talk, he’s got a hot date.’

  ‘Oh, stars,’ Tessa said. She pinched the bridge of her nose, then walked into frame. ‘Lupe?’

  ‘Psh,’ Pop said. ‘Old news. I’m meeting Marjo at Top to Bottom.’

  ‘And I’m sorry I asked,’ Tessa said. She gave a sarcastic wave. ‘Have fun.’

  ‘Bye, Grandpa,’ Aya said.

  Pop was still waving and smiling as the screen went dark.

  Tessa put her hands on her hips. ‘So speaking of scoot-bikes . . .’

  ‘Oops.’ Aya gave her a charming smile.

  Tessa was not swayed. She plucked at her daughter’s shirt. ‘Have you been strolling around this house in this nasty shirt?’ She moved her hand to Aya’s scalp. ‘Stars, your hair.’ Crusty bundles of dirt clung to her daughter’s locks.

  Aya looked down as if seeing her clothing for the first time. ‘Oops,’ she said again.

  Tessa brushed the transferred crud off her palm, wondering just how much of Seed was now coating the inside of her home. ‘Kiddo, you have got to remember that dirt exists.’

  ‘And you have to remember to bring a jacket.’

  Tessa ignored the poorly smothered laugh from the kitchen. She narrowed her eyelids. ‘Shower. Clean clothes. Now.’ Aya made a face, but she obeyed, and received a gentle swat on the shoulder from Tessa as she went.
<
br />   Tessa sighed and surveyed her wreck of a living room. Toys, tools, visible footprints. She bent over and started tidying up, knowing her efforts would be made futile by tomorrow. Her limbs were sore from the day spent in the field, and she knew that while the next day would be less strenuous, it’d be just as busy. They had to start covering the roots before the first fall frost hit, and the pollinators needed to be cleaned before they got packed away. Plus, there was laundry that needed doing, and globulbs that needed replacing, and a draughty wall that needing patching, and . . . stars, it never ended, did it?

  ‘Hey,’ George called. ‘You’re not cleaning, are you?’

  ‘I’m just tidying up.’

  ‘Tessa. It’s not hurting anybody, and I can do it in the morning. Sit down, have some kick, warm up.’

  She opened her mouth to protest, but then . . . why not? The mess wasn’t hurting anybody, it wasn’t going anywhere, and there’d just be another one tomorrow. She picked up the bottle of Whitedune and an accompanying glass from the top of one of the shelves. She sat on the couch, pretending she didn’t see the puff of dust that rose up when she sat down. She poured herself a splash. She didn’t need more than that. Just five minutes of a warm throat and stillness. That would do nicely.

  She thought, as she closed her eyes, about home. Seed was a good place, better than she’d expected. But it wasn’t home yet, and she worried, sometimes, about whether it ever would be. There were nights when she lay awake, missing the hex so much she could hardly breathe, or when she was so unaccustomed to the luxury of having George home all the time that she went and slept on the couch for the familiarity of sleeping alone. Sometimes she snapped at the kids when they didn’t deserve it. Sometimes she got sad over silly things – the oxygen garden, her old mek brewer, even the stupid cargo bay. It was hard, life on the ground. Yes, homesteaders had to worry about water and crops, too, but if one of those systems failed, if your ship fell apart, there were others you could go live on. It wasn’t like that out here. Leaving Seed meant leaving the system, travelling for tendays, figuring life out again. Part of her still couldn’t believe that she’d done this. Part of her was still unsure. Maybe part of her always would be.

  She opened her eyes. Something was off. With a sigh, she realised – she hadn’t heard any sounds of showering. She hadn’t even heard the water turn on yet. She got up, walked to the bathroom, pushed the door open, and – the scolding died on her lips. Aya was in there all right, still clothed, still filthy. But she had the window propped open, and she was halfway out of it, twisting her torso to look up at the sky. Her dirty hair swayed in the evening breeze. Her face was turned toward the biggest moon, shining bright and beautiful overhead. She hadn’t noticed her mother come in, and was talking to herself. Whatever the words were, Tessa could not hear. Some story, perhaps. Some idea she didn’t want to forget. But while her words were lost, the expression on her face was unmistakable. She was curious. She was unafraid.

  Tessa stepped back out, taking care to lean the door shut silently. She made her way to the kitchen. George was facing away from her, transferring his precious bread from oven to cooling rack. She walked up behind him, wrapped her arms around his middle, and rested her cheek between his shoulder blades.

  ‘Hey, you,’ he said.

  ‘Hey,’ she said.

  ‘I think I fucked up this bread,’ he sighed.

  She laughed and shut her eyes, soaking up the warmth of him. The bread, fucked up or not, smelled great. So did he. He always did. ‘That’s okay,’ she said. She held him tight. ‘You’ll make another one.’

  Isabel, Three Standards Later

  The assembly hall was decorated as it always was – cloth flags, metal stars, shining ribbons. There were differences, of course. Some of the other archivists had been fed up with the worn flags they’d dragged out standard after standard and took it upon themselves to make a batch of new ones (Isabel had to admit, they were much better). The seedlings on the favour table weren’t sky vine anymore, but four-toes, which had come back into fashion (she’d found their fussy flowers so old hat when she’d been in her youth). But details didn’t matter. It was still a Naming Day, and she never tired of those. They were the best kinds of days.

  She felt someone looking at her, and she glanced over from her out-of-the-way corner to Tamsin, who’d tagged along for this one. The Mitchell family from hex 625 was the one getting an extra name record that day, and their cooking was legendary throughout the neighbourhood. Tamsin had taken a chair off to the side of the room, and very much looked the part of an innocent old woman who needed to rest her legs. Isabel knew her too well for that. Her wife had chosen a strategic spot that would put her right at the front of the buffet line once the formalities were over. Tamsin locked eyes with her, and gave a purposeful tilt of her head toward a man setting down a giant bowl of noodles mixed with crispy fish, a rainbow of vegetables, and all sorts of tasty bits Isabel couldn’t make out at a distance. Tamsin held her hands close to her stomach and gave Isabel two secretive thumbs up.

  Isabel smothered a laugh and looked elsewhere. She had to be respectable today. Tamsin didn’t always make that easy, but then, that was part of the fun.

  The young family arrived, hanging back in the hallway. Isabel made eye contact with the musicians, and they began to play. The crowd parted. The couple approached, baby in tow. They stopped at the podium, as they knew to do. But Isabel did not move. Instead, she looked to another, and nodded.

  Isabel watched her new apprentice as he took his place. He’d filled out well in the years that he’d been away. He’d grown into himself. He had a full beard, and his voice had settled steady and low. He’d completed an academic track in Post-Unification History, which he’d passed by the skin of his teeth. He spoke spaceport Reskitkish, and his arm sported a swirling bot tattoo he’d picked up from some market stop, like you do. He’d gained a soft spot for snapfruit tarts. He liked letting ocean waves run over his toes. But he drank his mek hot and his kick ice cold, and found no meal as comforting as a hopper topped with twice-round pickle. He peppered his Klip with Ensk, his Ensk with Klip, and thought Martian accents were the funniest thing there was. He knew that the sky was best viewed below his feet. And he’d told her, when she’d demanded to know why he was back, that seeing so many singular things had made him realise he came from somewhere singular, too, and even if it was ass-backwards and busted – his words – it was theirs, and there was nothing else like it. The Fleet was priceless. The only one. If it was gone, there wouldn’t just be nothing for other Humans to learn from. There’d be nothing for him to learn from.

  She’d put in an order for his robes right then, the same robes he wore handsomely now – bright yellow with a white apprentice’s stripe on the shoulders. He was nervous, she could tell, more than his face gave away. Of course he was. She’d been nervous her first time, too.

  She looked out at the crowd waiting for him to begin. They smiled warmly at him. They understood. They had his back. He was one of theirs.

  Kip cleared his throat and gave a brave smile. ‘We destroyed our world,’ he said, ‘and left it for the skies. Our numbers were few. Our species had scattered. We were the last to leave. We left the ground behind. We left the oceans. We left the air. We watched these things grow small. We watched them shrink into a point of light. As we watched, we understood. We understood what we were. We understood what we had lost. We understood what we would need to do to survive. We abandoned more than our ancestors’ world. We abandoned our short sight. We abandoned our bloody ways. We made ourselves anew.’ He spread his hands, encompassing the gathered. ‘We are the Exodus Fleet. We are those that wandered, that wander still. We are the homesteaders that shelter our families. We are the miners and foragers in the open. We are the ships that ferry between. We are the explorers who carry our names. We are the parents who lead the way. We are the children who continue on.’ He picked up his scrib from the podium. ‘What is his name?’

 
; ‘Amias,’ the man said.

  ‘And what name does your home carry?’

  ‘Mitchell,’ said the woman.

  ‘Amias Mitchell,’ Kip spoke to the scrib. A blue square appeared on screen. He took the baby’s foot and attempted to press it to the square. The baby kicked mightily, and for a moment, Kip looked intimidated by the person a fraction of his size. A quiet laugh rippled through the crowd. Kip laughed, too, and with the help of the child’s father, got the foot in order. The scrib chirped. Record had been made.

  ‘Amias Mitchell,’ Kip said. ‘Born aboard the Asteria. Forty Solar days of age as of GC standard day 211/310. He is now, and always, a member of our Fleet. By our laws, he is assured shelter and passage here. If we have food, he will eat. If we have air, he will breathe. If we have fuel, he will fly. He is son to all grown, brother to all still growing. We will care for him, protect him, guide him. We welcome you, Amias, to the decks of the Asteria, and to the journey we take together.’ He spoke the final words now, and the room joined him. ‘From the ground, we stand. From our ships, we live. By the stars, we hope.’

  Acknowledgements

  This book had the unusual experience of starting with one editor and ending with a different one. This is the sort of thing that would make a writer panic (and there may have been a bit of that), but my luck on both sides of this equation has been amazing. Thanks forever to Anne Perry, who pulled me out of the weeds and gave me a place to lay down roots, and to Oliver Johnson, who helped me find the rhythm of the whole thing. Thanks, too, to Sam Bradbury, Jason Bartholomew, Fleur Clarke, Becca Mundy, and the entire team at Hodder.

  On the science side, the Exodan caretaking tradition was inspired by real-world efforts to establish human composting as a funerary practice. Big thanks to Katrina Spade of the Urban Death Project and Recompose for taking the time to chat with me and answer my questions. Additional thanks to Mom and Dad for letting me bug them about gravity.

 

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