The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

by Becky Chambers

From the ground, we stand;

From our ships, we live;

By the stars, we hope.

―Exodan proverb

For my family, hatch and feather

Day 128, GC Standard 306

TRANSIT

As she woke up in the pod, she remembered three things. First, she was traveling through open space. Second, she was about to start a new job, one she could not screw up. Third, she had bribed a government official into giving her a new identity file. None of this information was new, but it wasn’t pleasant to wake up to.

She wasn’t supposed to be awake yet, not for another day at least, but that was what you got for booking cheap transport. Cheap transport meant a cheap pod flying on cheap fuel, and cheap drugs to knock you out. She had flickered into consciousness several times since launch—surfacing in confusion, falling back just as she’d gotten a grasp on things. The pod was dark, and there were no navigational screens. There was no way to tell how much time had passed between each waking, or how far she’d traveled, or if she’d even been traveling at all. The thought made her anxious, and sick.

Her vision cleared enough for her to focus on the window. The shutters were down, blocking out any possible light sources. She knew there were none. She was out in the open now. No bustling planets, no travel lanes, no sparkling orbiters. Just emptiness, horrible emptiness, filled with nothing but herself and the occasional rock.

The engine whined as it prepared for another sublayer jump. The drugs reached out, tugging her down into uneasy sleep. As she faded, she thought again of the job, the lies, the smug look on the official’s face as she’d poured credits into his account. She wondered if it had been enough. It had to be. It had to. She’d paid too much already for mistakes she’d had no part in.

Her eyes closed. The drugs took her. The pod, presumably, continued on.

Day 129, GC Standard 306

A COMPLAINT

Living in space was anything but quiet. Grounders never expected that. For anyone who had grown up planetside, it took some time to get used to the clicks and hums of a ship, the ever-present ambiance that came with living inside a piece of machinery. But to Ashby, those sounds were as ordinary as his own heartbeat. He could tell when it was time to wake by the sigh of the air filter over his bed. When rocks hit the outer hull with their familiar pattering, he knew which were small enough to ignore, and which meant trouble. He could tell by the amount of static crackling over the ansible how far away he was from the person on the other end. These were the sounds of spacer life, an underscore of vulnerability and distance. They were reminders of what a fragile thing it was to be alive. But those sounds also meant safety. An absence of sound meant that air was no longer flowing, engines no longer running, artigrav nets no longer holding your feet to the floor. Silence belonged to the vacuum outside. Silence was death.

There were other sounds, too, sounds made not by the ship itself, but by the people living in it. Even in the endless halls of homestead ships, you could hear the echoes of nearby conversations, footsteps on metal floors, the faint thumping of a tech climbing through the walls, off to repair some unseen circuit. Ashby’s ship, the Wayfarer, was spacious enough, but tiny compared to the homesteader he’d grown up on. When he’d first purchased the Wayfarer and filled it with crew, even he’d had to get used to the close quarters they kept. But the constant sounds of people working and laughing and fighting all around him had become a comfort. The open was an empty place to be, and there were moments when even the most seasoned spacer might look to the star-flecked void outside with humility and awe.

Ashby welcomed the noise. It was reassuring to know that he was never alone out there, especially given his line of work. Building wormholes was not a glamorous profession. The interspatial passageways that ran throughout the Galactic Commons were so ordinary as to be taken for granted. Ashby doubted the average person gave tunneling much more thought than you might give a pair of pants or a hot cooked meal. But his job required him to think about tunnels, and to think hard on them, at that. If you sat and thought about them for too long, imagined your ship diving in and out of space like a needle pulling thread… well, that was the sort of thinking that made a person glad for some noisy company.

Ashby was in his office, reading a news feed over a cup of mek, when one particular sound made him cringe. Footsteps. Corbin’s footsteps. Corbin’s angry footsteps, coming right toward his door. Ashby sighed, swallowed his irritation, and became the captain. He kept his face neutral, his ears open. Talking to Corbin always required a moment of preparation, and a good deal of detachment.

Artis Corbin was two things: a talented algaeist and a complete asshole. The former trait was crucial on a long-haul ship like the Wayfarer. A batch of fuel going brown could be the difference between arriving at port and going adrift. Half of one of the Wayfarer’s lower decks was filled with nothing but algae vats, all of which needed someone to obsessively adjust their nutrient content and salinity. This was one area in which Corbin’s lack of social graces was actually a benefit. The man preferred to stay cooped up in the algae bay all day, muttering over readouts, working in pursuit of what he called “optimal conditions.” Conditions always seemed optimal enough to Ashby, but he wasn’t going to get in Corbin’s way where algae was concerned. Ashby’s fuel costs had dropped by ten percent since he brought Corbin aboard, and there were few algaeists who would accept a position on a tunneling ship in the first place. Algae could be touchy enough on a short trip, but keeping your batches healthy over a long haul required meticulousness, and stamina, too. Corbin hated people, but he loved his work, and he was damn good at it. In Ashby’s book, that made him extremely valuable. An extremely valuable headache.

The door spun open and Corbin stormed in. His brow was beaded with sweat, as usual, and the graying hair at his temples looked slick. The Wayfarer had to be kept warm for their pilot’s sake, but Corbin had voiced his dislike for the ship’s standard temperature from day one. Even after years aboard the ship, his body had refused to acclimate, seemingly out of pure spite.

Corbin’s cheeks were red as well, though whether that was due to his mood or from coming up the stairs was anyone’s guess. Ashby never got used to the sight of cheeks that red. The majority of living Humans were descended from the Exodus Fleet, which had sailed far beyond the reaches of their ancestral sun. Many, like Ashby, had been born within the very same homesteaders that had belonged to the original Earthen refugees. His tight black curls and amber skin were the result of generations of mingling and mixing aboard the giant ships. Most Humans, whether spaceborn or colony kids, shared that nationless Exodan blend.

Corbin, on the other hand, was unmistakably Sol system stock, even though the people of the home planets had come to resemble Exodans in recent generations. With as much of a hodgepodge as Human genetics were, lighter shades were known to pop up here and there, even in the Fleet. But Corbin was practically pink. His forerunners had been scientists, early explorers who built the first research orbiters around Enceladus. They’d been there for centuries, keeping vigil over the bacteria flourishing within icy seas. With Sol a dim thumbprint in the skies above Saturn, the researchers lost more and more pigment with every decade. The end result was Corbin, a pink man bred for tedious labwork and a sunless sky.

Corbin tossed his scrib over Ashby’s desk. The thin, rectangular pad sailed through the mist-like pixel screen and clattered down in front of Ashby. Ashby gestured to the pixels, instructing them to disperse. The news headlines hovering in the air dissolved into colored wisps. The pixels slunk down like swarms of tiny insects into the projector boxes on either side of the desk. Ashby looked at the scrib, and raised his eyebrows at Corbin.

This,” Corbin said, pointing a bony finger at the scrib, “has got to be a joke.”

“Let me guess,” Ashby said. “Jenks messed with your notes again?” Corbin frowned and shook his head. Ashby focused on the scrib, trying not to laugh at the memory of the last time Jenks had hacked into Corbin’s scrib, replacing the algaeist’s careful notes with three-hundred-and-sixty-two photographic variations of Jenks himself, naked as the day he was born. Ashby had thought the one of Jenks carrying a Galactic Commons banner was particularly good. It had a sort of dramatic dignity to it, all things considered.

Ashby picked up the scrib, flipping it screen-side up.

Attn.: Captain Ashby Santoso (Wayfarer, GC tunneling license no. 387-97456)

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