Record of a spaceborn fe.., p.9
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       Record of a Spaceborn Few, p.9

           Becky Chambers
 

  ‘What’ve you got there?’ Isabel asked, entering the inner sanctum.

  Tamsin had a box of fabric at her feet and a sewing kit perched on the closest shelf. She held up a small pair of trousers. ‘Sasha wore the knees out.’

  ‘Again?’

  ‘Again.’ Tamsin picked up her needle and resumed patching. ‘She’s an active kid.’

  There was no argument there – of their five grandkids, Sasha was the biggest handful, always bruised or bleeding or stuck in a storage cabinet somewhere. Menace wasn’t the right word for her. She was too agreeable for that. Scamp. That fit the bill. Sasha was an absolute scamp, and though Tamsin showered all the grandkids and hex kids with equal amounts of teasing and candy, Isabel knew she had a special soft spot for the little cabinet explorer. Tamsin had never said so, but she didn’t need to. Isabel knew.

  She set Tamsin’s mug of tea within easy reach, pulled up a workstool facing her, and sat. ‘You should’ve made Benjy do it. He’s started stitching, he could use the practice.’

  ‘Yeah, but then she’d be running around with lame practise patches.’ Tamsin spoke, as always, flat and factual, the kind of voice that hid its owner’s perpetual good humour beneath a dry disguise. ‘You get patched-up duds from me, you’re gonna look real cool.’

  Isabel laughed into her tea. ‘So, tonight went well.’

  ‘It did.’

  Tamsin said the words in a neutral tone, but there was a line between her eyes that made Isabel ask: ‘But?’

  ‘No buts. Tonight went well.’

  ‘But?’

  Tamsin rolled her eyes. ‘Why are you pushing?’

  ‘Because I can tell.’

  ‘You can tell what?’

  Isabel poked the spot in question. ‘You’ve got that crease.’

  ‘Oh, stars, you and your magical crease. I don’t have a crease.’

  ‘Yes, you do. You’re not the one who looks at you every day.’

  Tamsin squinted at Isabel as she knotted a thread. ‘And what does the magical crease tell you?’

  ‘That there’s something you want to say.’

  ‘If I wanted to say something, I would’ve said it.’

  ‘Something that you’re not saying, then.’

  ‘You’re such a pain,’ Tamsin sighed. ‘It just . . . felt kind of . . . I don’t know. I don’t know what I’m saying. It was fine, you’re right.’

  Isabel sipped her tea, watching, waiting.

  Tamsin set down her stitching. ‘She’s condescending.’

  ‘You thought so?’ This came as a genuine surprise.

  ‘Didn’t you?’

  ‘No, I—’ Isabel replayed the events of the evening as quickly as she could. Ghuh’loloan had been delighted to meet the hex. She’d brought gifts and stories and a wealth of patience. Isabel had thought it a rousing success on both sides of the exchange, right up until now. ‘I had a really good time. It felt like we got things off to a great start.’

  ‘See, and that’s why I didn’t want to say anything. This is your work, your friend. I don’t know her like you do, and I don’t want to ruin this for you.’

  ‘You’re not. This is your home – our home – and if something in it bothers you, you have to say.’

  ‘Can I tell our neighbours to knock off their brewing experiments then? That scrub fuel they cooked up last time was awful.’

  ‘Tamsin.’

  Tamsin picked up her tea. ‘She just came across so . . . so sugary. Everything was wonderful and fascinating and incredible.’

  ‘That’s just how Harmagians are. Everything’s couched in hyperbole.’

  ‘Yeah, but it makes it hard to trust them, y’know? If everything is wonderful and fascinating . . . I mean, everything can’t be those all the time.’

  ‘But it is to her. This is her . . . her passion. She’s curious. She wants to learn about us.’

  ‘I get that, I do. And I don’t want this to sound like a bigger deal than it is. It’s . . . I just felt like I was on display. Like some kind of exhibit she’s visiting.’ She shook her head. ‘I don’t know. I’m probably being unfair.’ She paused. ‘I know this isn’t a nice thing to admit,’ she added slowly, ‘but it’s hard to have her here saying these sugary things, poking our tech, touching our kids, and not remember how it was.’

  Isabel didn’t need to ask what she meant. She remembered. She remembered being not much older than Sasha and hearing the adults in her hex talking about the growing push for GC membership. She remembered the news feeds, the public forums, the pixel posters with their catchy slogans. She remembered being a little older, when the Fleet and the Martian government were in the thick of smoothing out relations so as to join as a unified species, and everything felt like it was one spark away from a flash fire. She remembered being in her teens and watching the parliamentary hearings, listening to the galaxy’s most powerful debate whether her species had merit enough to go from tolerated refugees to equal citizens. She remembered the hopes everybody had pinned on it – Grandpa Teyo, with his medical clinic badly in need of new tech and proper vaccines, Aunt Su, with her merchant crew hungry for new trade routes. Everybody who had ever been to a spaceport and felt like they were a subcategory, a separate queue, an other. And she remembered the Harmagian delegation in those hearings, fully split on the issue of whether Humans were worth the bother, unable to vote in consensus. They hadn’t been the only species with objections, but that wasn’t the point. Every voice that got up there and spoke against Humanity stung as if the words were being said for the first time.

  Isabel laid her hand on her wife’s knee. ‘That was such a long time ago,’ she said. ‘So much has changed.’

  ‘I know.’

  ‘Ghuh’loloan wasn’t around for any of that. She wasn’t even born yet.’

  ‘I know.’ Tamsin thought. ‘They’re born underwater, right?’

  ‘Yes.’ Isabel smirked. ‘I’m sure she’d be happy to answer your questions about it. Seeing as how you’re curious about her species.’

  Tamsin stuck out her tongue. ‘It’s not that I don’t understand curiosity. It’s that . . . it’s like you said. She wasn’t even born yet. She missed out on all of that ugliness, and yet we’re kind of quaint to her, it feels like. Yeah, it was forever ago, but those Harmagians who said those things are still around, right? They had kids, and those kids would’ve learned—’

  ‘They don’t raise kids like we do.’

  ‘Well, somebody’s raising them, right? Somebody’s teaching them, somebody’s telling them how the galaxy works. So what was your pal Ghuh taught about us? What do they say about us when we’re not around? In some ways, they were right. We don’t have much to offer. We build off their tech, and we get the planets they’ve decided are too crummy to live on. And our kids see that. They all want to go to Central space and mod their bodies and get rich. Did you hear Terra at dinner tonight?’

  ‘You’ll have to be more specific.’

  ‘She was talking about the ferry ride she went on last tenday, and she said, “we flew past a big yelekam”. I asked her what the word was in Ensk. She didn’t know. She didn’t know the word for comet.’

  Isabel blinked. The younger generation, she knew, was mixing Klip and Ensk in ways hers never had, and they tended to lean heavily on the galactic language when speaking among themselves. But Terra was five years old. She would’ve barely started being taught Klip at school. Clearly, she’d been learning elsewhere. ‘Languages adapt.’ Isabel exhaled. ‘That’s the way of it.’

  ‘Stars, you are the worst person to sympathise with about change being scary,’ Tamsin said with a crooked smile. She set both stitching and mug aside, and leaned in to Isabel, lacing the hand on her knee into her own. ‘I’m not saying I hated it tonight, or that I don’t want her here. I’m saying I felt like I was on display, and it was weird. I expect that if I’m elsewhere. I don’t expect that here. That’s all.’

  Isabel cupped Tamsin’s face with her free hand
and leaned forward to kiss her. ‘I’m sorry you felt that way,’ she said after their lips parted. ‘That isn’t fair to you.’

  Tamsin rested her forehead against Isabel’s for a long moment, the kind of moment that made everything else hold still. She pulled back just a touch. ‘So since I’ve been so emotionally wounded in my own home—’

  ‘Oh, stars.’ Isabel sat back, letting the roll of her eyes lead the way.

  ‘Can you go fetch the leftover custard out of the stasie?’ She gave her lashes an out-of-character flutter.

  Isabel sighed in acquiescence. ‘Did you not get any at dinner?’

  Her wife looked at her seriously. ‘I am seventy-nine years old. If I want dessert twice . . . I get dessert twice.’

  Tessa

  This was a battle of wills, and Tessa was going to win. She was sure of that, sure in her bones, even though the scene before her was a daunting one.

  ‘Ky,’ she said. ‘You need to lie down now.’

  Her toddling son stood atop his cot in her room, all tummy and gravity-defying curls. He was the cutest thing in the universe, and she would’ve given anything for him to be someone else’s kid right then.

  ‘No,’ Ky said with simple conviction. ‘Up now.’

  ‘It’s not time to be up,’ Tessa said. ‘It’s time for sleep.’

  ‘No.’

  ‘Yes.’

  ‘No.’ His knees wobbled, but they held steady. Ky presented his argument: ‘Mama up now. Aya up now.’ He raised his voice. ‘Ky up now! All fixed!’

  ‘Your sister is not up, either. She’s asleep.’

  ‘No!’

  Tessa looked over her shoulder, across the living room toward Aya’s door. It was closed, but . . . but. A new uncertainty needled at her. She wondered what little ears could hear that hers couldn’t. Tessa ran her hand through her hair and let out a terse sigh. She looked Ky in the eye as she started to exit the room. ‘When I come back, you need to be lying down.’

  ‘No!’

  Tessa crossed the living room, trading one battle for another. She opened Aya’s door, and – well, she had to give the kid credit. She was tented under her blanket, which would have hidden the light of her scrib were it not for one traitorous hole created by an errant foot.

  ‘Hey,’ Tessa said sternly.

  Her daughter froze, an oh shit rigor that might’ve been funny if Tessa hadn’t been so sick of this. ‘I was just—’ Aya began.

  ‘Bed,’ Tessa said. That would’ve been that, were it not for a creeping suspicion. She pulled the blanket up and away. Aya scrambled to shut off her scrib, but she was too slow. An image of neon weapon blasts and campy explosions lingered in the empty air.

  Tessa frowned. ‘What were you watching?’

  Her daughter pouted at the bed.

  ‘Aya.’

  ‘. . . Cosmic Crusade.’

  ‘Are you allowed to watch Cosmic Crusade?’

  ‘No,’ Aya said, mumbling so low her lips barely moved.

  ‘No,’ Tessa said. Stars, but she was over fighting to keep that Martian trash out of her kid’s head. She took the scrib.

  The protest was immediate and indignant. ‘Mom! That’s not fair!’

  ‘It’s totally fair.’

  ‘When do I get it back?’

  ‘You’re not really in a negotiating position here, kiddo.’

  ‘When?’

  ‘When I say so.’ She pointed. ‘Bed.’

  She heard her daughter let out a long-suffering sigh as the door closed. One down. Tessa forged ahead, back to her room. She walked through the open door and . . . she blinked. ‘Ky, where are your pajamas?’

  Her naked son slapped his torso with twin palms. ‘All fixed!’

  Everything was all fixed! with him these days, and she had no idea where he’d picked it up from, no more so than she could figure out where his pajamas had gone. She looked around the bed, beside it, under it, under blankets, under pillows, feeling ridiculous at being outwitted by a two-year-old who was placidly watching her with a finger up his nose. This was one single room. How many places could there . . . she paused. It wasn’t one room, technically. She walked the short distance to the attached lavatory, and opened the door. The light switched on. Tessa closed her eyes. ‘Come here, please.’

  Silence.

  ‘Ky, come here.’

  Ky padded over. He looked at her with his lips pulled inward, rocking slightly as he stood in place. It was an expression that would have been the same on any person of any age – the unmistakable dread of someone who knew they’d fucked up but wanted to see how it would play out.

  Tessa put her hands on her hips. ‘Why are your pajamas in the toilet?’ she asked.

  ‘Don’ know.’

  ‘You don’t know? Who put them there?’

  ‘Daddy.’

  Tessa bit back a laugh. ‘Your daddy’s not here.’

  ‘Yes, he – he put ’jamas. And – and then bye. Bye Ky, bye Aya, bye Mama.’ He put his hand on his mouth and made kissing sounds. ‘No ’jamas. No way.’

  ‘I don’t think so,’ Tessa said, tugging the discarded footies away from the vacuum pulling them toward the sewage line. ‘I think you put them here.’

  ‘No, I don’ think so,’ he repeated while giggling. ‘You – you put them here.’

  Tessa imagined, as she put her kicking, now-crying boy back into another pair of pajamas, this same script playing out in this same room with herself and her parents. It had been their room once, and their parents’ before that, and their parents’ before that, and on and on. Generation after generation of wriggling toddlers and weary adults. She remembered waking in what was now Aya’s room and hearing tiny, tubby Ashby shriek with laughter across the way. It was fair, she supposed, this cycle of aggravation. Payback for the days when you threw your own jammies in the toilet.

  After two more false starts, three sung rounds of ‘Five Baby Bluefish’, and ten minutes of hand holding and hair stroking, the kid was down. Tessa tiptoed out of the room, holding her breath. She didn’t exhale until the door closed behind her and she had waited long enough to confirm that the sound had fallen on unconscious ears. Whew.

  Usually, she didn’t fly solo for bedtime. But Pop was out that evening – off at the waterball game with his cronies, like he did every pair of tendays. He’d be home in a few hours, tipsy and ornery and no help whatsoever. She could’ve asked the Parks for a hand. They didn’t have any kids, and they often helped out around the hex in terms of bathing and bedtime stories, but both Paola and Jules were going through that temporary period of punkiness everyone went through after bot upgrades, and Neil had had a rough shift at work – yet another water main was about to bust, he’d said at dinner – so Tessa hadn’t wanted to bother any of them. No, better to brave bedtime alone and savour the reward of a few sweet, sweet moments all to herself.

  She surveyed the living room. It was a wreck, as always, a carnage of toys and laundry and stained furniture even the cleanerbots couldn’t keep up with. She considered the nearly-full bottle of kick sitting on the shelf, a gift from her workmates the standard prior. A few warm sips before bed sounded awfully nice, but . . . nah. If Ky woke up, she wanted to be clear-headed, and these days, even one drink was enough to make her start the next day with a headache.

  Somewhere within, her teenage self was screaming in horror.

  She poured herself a glass of water instead, and sat on the sofa, letting her body fall back like a bot that’d had its signal cut. Her head sank blissfully into the balding fabric. She closed her eyes. She listened. Quiet. Beautiful, sweet quiet. Nobody crying, nobody complaining, nobody needing her for anything. Just air filters sighing from above and the distant whoosh of greywater pipes below. She’d go to bed before long, but first, she was going to just sit. She was going to sit and do n—

  Her scrib pinged. Somebody was making a sib call. If it had been anybody else, she would’ve thrown the thing across the room, but when she saw the name, she relented.
With a sigh, she hauled herself up, sat back down at the ansible desk, and answered.

  ‘You just missed ’em,’ she said.

  On screen, George sighed. ‘Yeah, I thought I might’ve. Damn.’ He was unsurprised, but still disappointed. Tessa couldn’t help but smile. His skewed frown looked just like Ky’s.

  If you’d told eighteen-year-old Tessa that she’d have kids with George one day, she would’ve thought you were insane. George had been the friendly guy, the low-key guy, the guy you might trade a word or two with at a party before you each went off with your respective friends. George was nothing like gorgeous Ely, with a body straight out of a sim and the emotional intelligence of fish spawn, or charismatic Skeet, whose ambitious dreams were so easy to become smitten with until you realised there was no work ethic to back them up. It wasn’t until she and George were both in their thirties that something clicked. He was on leave from his latest mining tour, Tessa was the bay worker who noticed the discrepancy on his formwork. Not exactly the most romantic of reunions, but it had led to drinks, which led to bed, which led to days of more of the same, which led to a fond and noncommittal farewell, which led to two idiots having a panicked sib call – ‘Wait, did you not get dosed?’ ‘I figured you had!’ – which led, in turn, to Aya.

  At first, George had talked about leaving his job for something that would keep him around, but asteroid mining was valuable work, and Tessa hadn’t seen any reason to disrupt things more than a kid already would. George made sure he was around the first half-standard of Aya’s life, then went off again to the rocky orbital edges, with the baby in Tessa’s care and the hex looking after both. Mining tours were long hauls, so Tessa and George conducted themselves how they liked during the interim, each keeping their own schedules and having the occasional fling (the highs and lows of which were always shared with the other). They were, in most ways, their own people with their own lives. But whenever George’s ship came home with a haul of ice and metal, he stayed in the Santoso home, wrestling with Aya, chatting with the neighbours, sharing Tessa’s bed. They always got their doses now, except for that one time three years prior, when they’d decided the first accident was worth repeating. They’d also decided, without much fuss, that since the whole arrangement suited them both fine, they might as well get married – nothing fancy, no big party or anything. Just ten minutes with an archivist and a nice dinner at the hex. None of it was love as her younger self had imagined. It was so much better. There was nothing frantic or all-consuming about her and George. They were grounded, sensible, comfy. What more could you ask for?

 
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