Record of a spaceborn fe.., p.7
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       Record of a Spaceborn Few, p.7

           Becky Chambers
 

  ‘How come?’

  ‘Because Ashby’s his kid, and parents can’t help but worry about their kids.’ She tousled Aya’s hair. ‘So be extra nice to Grandpa tonight, okay?’

  ‘Did they use a gun on Ashby’s ship?’

  Guns were another subject of fixation – an exotic, abstract danger Aya knew of from sims and news feeds and whatever kids talked about among themselves. ‘Yes,’ Tessa said.

  ‘What kind?’

  ‘I don’t know.’

  Aya crunched and crunched. ‘Was it Aeluons?’

  Tessa blinked. ‘Was what Aeluons?’

  ‘The aliens who broke his ship.’

  ‘No. Why would it be Aeluons?’

  Crunch crunch crunch. ‘They have the biggest guns and go to war all the time.’

  ‘That’s—’ Tessa struggled to unpack that technically accurate statement. ‘The Aeluons have a big military, that’s true. But they’re our friends. They’ve done a lot of good things for us in the Fleet, and they wouldn’t hurt Ashby.’

  ‘Have you ever met one?’

  ‘An Aeluon? Yes. I’ve done work with a few Aeluon merchants, a long time ago. They were all very nice. Well, except one. You gotta remember, baby, other sapients are people just like us. There are good people and bad people and everything in between.’

  Crunch crunch. ‘Then who shot at Uncle Ashby?’

  ‘A species called the Toremi.’

  ‘What do they look like?’

  ‘I don’t actually know. I don’t know much about them. We can look it up on the Linkings when we get home.’

  ‘Have you met one?’

  ‘No. How could I have met one if I don’t know what they look like?’

  ‘Why were they mad at Uncle Ashby?’

  ‘I don’t know. I don’t think it was about him, just the GC in general.’

  ‘Why—’

  ‘I don’t know, honey. Sometimes . . . sometimes bad things just happen.’

  The crunching had stopped. ‘Will they come here?’

  ‘No,’ Tessa said with a firm voice and a reassuring smile. ‘They’re very far away. The Fleet’s a safe place. It’s one of the safest places you can be.’

  Aya said nothing. Her mother was sure she was thinking of bulkheads and damaged hulls.

  Sawyer

  Everybody had a home, and nobody went hungry.

  That was one of the foundational ideas that had first drawn Sawyer in when he’d started reading about the Fleet. Everybody had a home, and nobody went hungry. There was a practical necessity in that, he knew. A ship full of people fighting over food and space wouldn’t last long. But there was compassion, too, a commitment to basic decency. Too many people back on Earth had been hungry and cold. It was one of the copious problems the first Exodans had vowed not to take with them.

  Sawyer stood in a home now – one of the empties left behind by a family that had gone planetside, now opened to travellers like himself. The grass was always greener, he supposed, but he couldn’t understand why anyone would travel in the opposite direction he had. Colonies had hungry people. They had people without homes. He’d seen both plenty of times back in Central space – sapients picking through trash or carrying everything they owned. The GC tried, they really did, but planets were big and settlements were vast and taking care of everyone was hard. Things were better in sovereign territories, but in neutral colonies like Mushtullo, where trade was the primary drive and nobody could agree on whose rules they should follow . . . well, it was easy for people to fall through the cracks. Sawyer had been mugged twice in the past standard, once by some messed-up woman with a badly installed headjack, then again by someone he never even saw. Just a pistol in his back and a hand he couldn’t identify twisting his arm around to scan his patch and drain his credits. The bank got the creds back, but that wasn’t the point. Someone had been willing to kill for the sake of . . . what? Some new clothes? A few tendays of groceries? That had been the last straw for Sawyer. That had been the moment he decided he was leaving.

  He set his bag on the floor and looked around. An entry-and-storage room, a common room, a bathing room, and four more bedrooms, all the same size and shape as the others, all windowless, all spread out around the circular hatch that led down to the family cupola. The home was tidy and filled with basic furniture, all signs of previous ownership erased by cleanerbots. There were tables and chairs, a couple of couches. Cupboards for food and belongings. Empty planters waiting for seedlings and a guiding hand. It looked like a package home, like something that popped out of a box. There was no sign that anyone else had ever lived there – except one. Sawyer walked with reverence toward the wall in the common room, the one the cleanerbots had known to leave alone. It was covered with handprints, pressed in paint of every colour. Big handprints, little handprints, smudged infant feet. Belkin, someone had painted above it – the name of the first family that had lived here, and the name that every other family who lived there after had taken, regardless of genetics. This was one of the many Exodan customs he admired. When born, you took your parents’ name. When you grew up and started a family of your own, you took the name of the home you settled in. In a lot of cases, your name didn’t change at all, not if you kept living with your parents and grandparents and so on. If you settled in the home of your partner, you took your partner’s family name. If you both decided to live in a separate home entirely, apart from both of your families, you’d both get the name of whoever’d taken care of that home before you. Sawyer liked that.

  He looked up at the bold, painted letters above his head. He wasn’t a Belkin. It wasn’t his custom yet, and this placement was temporary. He ran his hand along where others had been. ‘Wow,’ he whispered. He didn’t need to count the prints to know that there were at least nine generations represented here, all the way back to the first. He crouched down, looking toward where the wall joined the floor. The prints there were faded, and covered with others, but their shapes were clear as day: six adults, three children, one baby. He tried to imagine what they must have felt, watching their planet fade away through a window in the floor, pressing painted hands to an empty wall with the hope that one day the wall would be full.

  Sawyer put his hand over the tiny footprint. That kid had grown up never having known the ground. That kid had grown old and died in this ship, and all xyr kids besides. The enormity of it almost made him dizzy.

  He straightened back up and looked around the room. The wall was full, but the home was empty. So empty. It was a space meant to house three generations at least, where kids could run around and adults could relax and everyone would be together. But right then, it held only him. Just him in a big room full of ghosts. There were families outside, in the homes the Belkins had shared a hex with. Sawyer knew the kitchen was for his use as well, and the digestive punishment of Jojo’s ninth day special had faded enough for him to be hungry again. But he wasn’t sure about going out there. When he’d gone to the housing office, he’d hoped to be put in a home with another family – a spare room, like he’d read about. When he’d gone to the hex number he’d been given, he’d hoped for a big welcome, with shaken hands and big smiles, introductions all around. Granted, he’d gotten his hand shook and a few names and nods, but the smiles had been hit or miss and mostly confused, and everybody seemed too busy for him. There were kids to chase, vegetables to chop. They all looked at him, though, with questioning eyes and words whispered out of earshot. He got it. He was a stranger, the new neighbour, the guy who’d just moved in. They had their own days to get about, and ice-breaking would come soon enough. And truth be told, Sawyer was tired. It had been a long haul, and a long day. One adventure at a time.

  He stuck his head in each of the bedrooms, trying to determine a favourite. Each was the same as the last. He settled on the middle-left, and sat on the edge of the bed. The air filter whirred quietly. He could hear a faint rushing in the pipes below the floor, the odd click in the walls. But other than that, no
thing. No drunk idiots out on the street, no skiffs zipping past at every hour, no delivery vehicles rumbling along. It was nice. It was odd. It would take getting used to.

  His stomach growled. He reached into his bag and pulled out the bean cake he’d bought on his way. He was used to wrappers that crunched and rustled, but even the throw-cloth was silent. He took a bite. It was just a cheap sweet, but his taste buds bloomed with gratitude for something sugary. Take that, pickle bun.

  Sawyer sat alone and ate his snack. Okay, so it wasn’t the first day he’d imagined, but hey, the sentiment held true. Everybody had a home, and nobody went hungry.

  Kip

  There was a delicate balance to getting the dishes done fast. Do it too quick, and a parent or a hexmate would make him do it over. Too slow, though, and . . . well, then you were still cleaning dishes. Nobody wanted to be in those shoes.

  He picked up a plate from the eternal stack and scraped the food remnants into the compost bucket. Crumbs, flecks, whatever oil and sauce hadn’t been soaked up by quickbread. Kinda gross, but he supposed it could be worse. He remembered one time watching this crime-solving vid set on Titan – Murder on the Silver Sea – where some characters were at a fancy restaurant having this crazy smart conversation where the investigator and the informant both think the other one’s the killer and they were saying it but they’re not really saying it – and also they kind of wanted to bang each other? That scene had layers, seriously – and when the conversation was done, they just . . . left their food. Like, let the server come get it while they walked out of the place. The scene would’ve made sense if one of them wasn’t hungry or had a stomach ache or something, but if that were the case, then the other one would’ve reached over and eaten the leftovers. But no. Both of them left. They left half-plates of food on the table. It was the weirdest shit. He couldn’t imagine what cleaning dishes was like in a place like that. Dealing with half-eaten food sounded disgusting.

  Scraps bucketed, he picked up the compressed air canister you could find in any kitchen and blasted away everything that wasn’t plate. He’d kind of liked that part when he was little. He remembered it being satisfying. But that had been about, oh, eleven billion dishes ago, and blasting away food bits had long since lost its charm. He looked over at Xia, who was helping him that night. She was seven, and hadn’t yet realised that getting to do grown-up things like dishes and pruning and floor cleaning was super boring. She stood attentively at his side, waiting for each plate he handed her, placing each one just so in the sanitiser. He had to admit, it was kind of cute.

  He handed off the blasted dish to Xia, then picked up another dirty one, and scraped, and blasted, and handed off, and started again. Beyond the kitchen counter, everybody else from his hex was sitting in the same spots at the same tables, as they always did, having the same conversations they always had.

  ‘The new algae pumps everybody’s using, they’re no good,’ Grandma Ko said. ‘You can feel it on the ferry. Anytime we push past the slow zone, there’s this hum that starts up . . .’ Grandma Ko – Kip’s great-grandma, but that took too long to say – had been a freighter pilot back in the day and thought any tech that had been invented past, like, thirty standards ago was garbage.

  ‘I’m telling you, we’re going about the water budget all wrong,’ M Nguyen said, on a tear about some political thing like always. ‘If the other guilds got together and unanimously pushed for the growers to overhaul the farms, the growers would have to give in, and the council would have to fund it. But that’d mean the guilds doing something efficiently together, and we all know that’s not going to happen.’ Seriously, there was nothing more boring than politics.

  ‘Did you see that new planter they’ve set up over in 612?’ M Marino said. Kip took a wild guess that the next sentence would include the word imports or creds. ‘Imported seedlings, all of it.’ Bingo. ‘They’ve even got jorujola in there. It’s incredible – have you seen it? Those bio-luminescent leaves? But I don’t know where they get the creds—’ Double bingo.

  ‘I hear Sarah’s moved back in with the Zhangs,’ M Sousa said in an excited hush to Kip’s mom. ‘Now, it’s none of my business, but this isn’t exactly the first time she’s had things go south with a partner, and you have to wonder—’ Kip’s mom gave a nod that didn’t really confirm anything, and she threw in an ‘mmm’ here and there for good measure. Kip knew she didn’t care, and she didn’t even like M Sousa much, but she pretended to, because that’s how hexes worked.

  ‘That reminds me of the time me and Buster let a whole tank of hoppers out,’ laughed Kip’s dad, talking to the Mullers. ‘Have I told you this one before?’ Stars, Dad. Yes, everybody had heard this one before. Everybody had heard this story twelve thousand times.

  Kip thought about Solan restaurants, where people talked about murder and sex and left dishes full of food for someone else to deal with. He thought about the university exams looming on the horizon. He thought about his score on the last practice exam. Ras had told him it was no worries, that he’d do better next time. But Kip knew what was what. He was going to fail, and he’d live here in the same hex forever, cleaning dishes and listening to his dad tell the same jokes over and over until one of them died.

  Stars, he was stuck. He was so, so stuck.

  Kip scraped and blasted faster now, knowing he’d left bits less than clean but hoping the heat of the sanitiser would burn away the evidence.

  ‘You missed some,’ Xia said, holding up the dish she’d been handed, pointing at a swatch of oily crumbs.

  Kip sighed and took the plate back. ‘Guess I did,’ he said, giving the plate another scrape. How come lunch breaks never lasted this long?

  At last, at fucking last, the stack of dishes ended. Xia looked satisfied; Kip was relieved. They both washed their hands. As they did so, a few bubbles appeared in the big clear cistern by the herb planters. Kip remembered one time when he was really little letting the water run and run because he liked the bubbles so much. His mom had given him a strong talking-to for that.

  He looked at Xia, counting the seconds under her breath as she washed up, hurriedly turning off the faucet once she hit fifteen. Looked like somebody’d given her the same talking-to.

  Kip started to head for home, but his mom stopped him, dead interrupting M Sousa. ‘Kip?’ she called, leaning away from the table. ‘Did you empty the bucket?’

  Kip shut his eyes. ‘No.’

  ‘Well?’

  Kip sighed again, trudged back to the kitchen, picked up the forgotten bucket of crumbs and bug husks and veggie stems, lugged it to the garden, and dumped it into the hot box. He could feel Mom watching him the whole way.

  ‘I don’t understand why he can’t come sit with us,’ he heard Dad mumble. Dad never mumbled as quiet as he thought.

  ‘He will when he wants to,’ Mom said.

  Kip did not want to. He wanted to go home, so he did just that. The front door slid closed behind him, and he exhaled. He kicked off his shoes and headed to his room, letting that door close behind him, too. A double barrier. He flopped down on his bed and shut his eyes. Finally.

  He heard the sound of his scrib dinging, muffled under . . . something. He sat up and looked around his bed. Nothing. He rolled over, found his satchel on the floor, and dug around. Nothing. He rolled over the other way. There it was – on the floor, sticking out from the jacket he’d been wearing earlier. He picked it up, and found a blinking alert from Ras.

  Ras (17:20): do you have any tethering cable

  Kip (18:68): uh no

  Kip (18:68): why

  Ras (18:69): I have something really cool for us to do

  Kip (18:70): what

  Ras (18:70): it’s a surprise

  Kip (18:70): what kind of surprise

  Ras (18:71): a tech project

  Ras (18:71): trust me, it’s going to be awesome

  Ras (18:71): I can get the parts in a few tendays

  Ras (18:72): so long as you’re not st
udying

  This was code. Kip’s parents didn’t read his scrib, as far as he knew, but Ras’ had once, and they’d found out he and Rosie Lee snuck a couple bottles of kick out of Bay Twelve and got shitfaced together, and it had been a ridiculous mess. Like, completely ballistic. So now, if there was something Ras wanted to talk about but didn’t want to put in writing, he said ‘so long as you’re not studying’ instead of ‘it’s a secret, I’ll tell you in person.’ Studying was the perfect cover for anything. What was that if not responsible? What parent would read that and worry?

  Okay, maybe Ras’ parents. Ras never studied.

  Eyas

  Hopping between homesteaders was a beautiful thing. She’d taken the ferry more times in her life than she could count, and yet every time, she looked forward to those twenty minutes or so spent in transit. She could view the space outside anytime she pleased from a cupola, but it was easy to lose track of the fact that reality did not end with a bulkhead, that the starry black outside was not just a pretty picture framed below your feet. It was in passing beyond the hull, in travelling through the gap, that she was reminded of the true scope of things. The view out the window beside her passenger seat was a busy one (the window beside her, that was important – the confirmation that space existed not just below but above and beside). She could see public ferries, family shuttles, cargo ships, mail drones, nav markers, harvesting satellites. There were spacewalkers, out doing repairs or for the sheer joy of it, separated from the ship lanes by rows of self-correcting buoys. Behind it all was their adoptive sun, Risheth – a white sphere that deceptively looked to be about the size of a melon, shining softly through the ferry’s filtered windows, scattering light among the dense plane of floating rock that gravity would gather up in time. No planets to speak of, though. Risheth didn’t have any orbital bodies big enough to build on (hence why the Aandrisks hadn’t felt much loss in shrugging off their claim to the system). Eyas had been planetside twice in her life, both times on short vacations, both times wonderful, yet nothing she needed to repeat. Planets were imposing. Impressive. Intimidating. Eyas preferred the open. It was easier for her to wrap her brain around. Even though it was dangerous. Even though she’d seen it at its worst. But that wasn’t something she needed to dwell on right then. No point in spoiling the view.

 

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