Every Saturday I post a chapter or two of my young adult science fiction novel Star Song. Coming in in the middle? The whole thing starts here with Chapter 1 and an explanation.
By Edward Willett
When he woke Kriss felt almost like himself again. He figured out how to use the zero-G shower, though he couldn’t say he liked the way the water, drawn by the suction of a fan beneath his feet, crawled down his body. Nevertheless, he emerged from it feeling quite human. His inches-deep closet, he discovered, contained three fresh, new and highly creased Family crewsuits, plus underwear, and he managed to struggle into both while only ricocheting off the walls twice and the floor once. He was admiring what he could see of himself in the small mirror when his door beeped.
Opening it revealed Tevera, hanging upside down (though he supposed from her point of view he was the upside-down one) and grinning. “I’ve got official permission for both of us to take one day for your ‘general orientation,’” she said. “We’ll start with a tour of the ship—”
“I’ve got a better idea,” Kriss interrupted. “Let’s start with breakfast.”
“You must be feeling better,” Tevera said twenty minutes later as she watched Kriss down his third sweetberry flatcake, chasing down even the smallest crumb before it could be carried away by the constantly moving air to one of the air-filtering ducts encircling the eating room.
“I feel wonderful,” Kriss said as best he could with his mouth full, and meant it. His nausea had subsided, he was having breakfast with the beautiful girl he loved, and he was in space, on his way to other planets, just as he had longed for since—well, if he were honest, probably since Mella first told him his parents were offworlders. Farr’s World had been a prison, and he’d just been set free. He flipped the last bite-sized piece of flatcake out of the syrup that held it in its container, and gobbled it out of mid-air. “Let’s go see the ship,” he said, tossing the container into the recycler, which sucked it in with a sharp popping sound.
“We’ll start aft and work our way forward,” Tevera said. The central “transport pod”—with no up or down, it couldn’t be called an elevator any more—took them back to the surprising simplicity of the engine room, all silver and glass and clean white light. From there they proceeded forward one deck at a time, bypassing the huge cargo holds, the largest of which, Kriss was surprised to learn, was filled with an unprepossessing type of grain from Farr’s World considered absolutely essential in the making of a gourmet bread on a planet he’d never heard of. “That’s the kind of cargoes Family ships generally carry,” Tevera explained. “Low-volume—because our ships are relatively small—but high-value. It requires a lot of trading savvy to make connections between planets that may never have thought of trading before. Captain Nicora is one of the best. Ordinary bulk goods almost always go on Union ships.”
Living quarters, communications, sick bay, galley, recycling, life support, food storage, hydroponics, computer room—the complexity of the “relatively small” Thaylia astounded Kriss. It had all the resources of a city crammed into the space of a single high-rise building, operated by just under three hundred men and women—and children, because even the youngest had some ship-related duty, thought it might only be cleaning a bit of glass on an inspection port or setting rodent traps. And everyone was related, Kriss learned; “Family” was more than just a term. Tevera and Rigel were among twenty-seven great-grandchildren of Captain Nicora currently living on the Thaylia. Another twelve were on other Family ships. “It’s called bloodswapping,” Tevera told Kriss. “We have very strict rules governing interbreeding. In bloodswapping, members of one ship’s crew are adopted into another. Out of our two hundred and seventy-two, about one-third were bloodswapped to us. The rest of were born on the Thaylia.”
By that time they were back in the transport pod, en route to the final stop on the tour, the bridge, which, Kriss had been interested to learn, was not the very top deck, but the one beneath it. The top deck was reserved for the Captain’s quarters. But five decks aft of the bridge, among the crew quarters, the pod stopped and the doors opened—and Rigel entered.
“Hello, Rigel,” said Tevera.
Rigel nodded to her, but he spoke to Kriss. “Well, worldhugger, so you’ve gotten over your spacesickness.”
“Yes,” said Kriss neutrally.
“Good. That means you’ll be able to work tomorrow.” He glanced at his sister. “Or have you managed to get him out of that, too?”
Tevera said nothing.
“What sort of work?” Kriss asked.
Rigel grinned. “Oh, you’ll love it. You’ll just love it.” The transport pod stopped at the floor beneath the bridge, and the door slid open. Rigel scooted out and turned around. “Tomorrow,” he said to Kriss. “Tomorrow we’ll find out what you’re really made of, worldhugger.” The door slid shut.
“What sort of work?” Kriss asked again, this time of Tevera.
“I’m not sure,” Tevera said, not looking at him.
“But you have a pretty good idea.”
“I think Rigel has been put in charge of cleaning out Hold Three,” Tevera said reluctantly. “I imagine that’s what he wants you for.”
“Livestock hold. It’s always a problem. Herd animals don’t adapt well to zero-G and they tend to overload the automatic waste-recycling units, so…”
Kriss winced. “I get the picture.”
“Anyway, that’s not until tomorrow. For now—” The door slid open. “The bridge.”
The bridge filled the entire deck, and every square foot of bulkhead seemed to be covered with switches, buttons, video and holographic displays, digital readouts and lights. Yet most of the complex controls, Kriss saw at once, were unattended. Only six people crewed the bridge, although there were acceleration couches for three times that many, and they didn’t seem particularly concerned about anything being displayed. In fact, one of them, Kriss was almost sure, was playing a game on his holographic computer terminal. He asked Tevera about it in a low voice.
She laughed. “He’s running a simulation. There’s not much to do up here while the ship is in dimspace. Take-off, re-entry and landing, orbit insertion and dimspace jump are the busy times. This is just a skeleton crew monitoring systems to make sure everything’s working properly.”
“What happens if something goes wrong?”
“While we’re in dimspace?”
Tevera shrugged. “I believe the current theory holds that our constituent subatomic particles would be randomly distributed throughout the universe.”
“Oh.” He resolved not to touch anything.
“Normally we wouldn’t be allowed on the bridge,” Tevera told him as they returned to the pod. “But I cleared it ahead of time.”
“Are there any other areas that are off-limits?”
“No…but if an officer sees you somewhere you haven’t been assigned to be, you’d better have a darn good reason for being there.”
They returned to the computer deck, where Tevera guided Kriss to a cubicle containing a voice-terminal. “Computer, hardcopy Family Rule,” she ordered.
After a prolonged whirring sound, a small opening appeared in the wall and extruded a thick book, which floated gently into the cubicle. Tevera picked it out of mid-air and handed it to Kriss, who read the cover out loud. “The Rule of the Family. As set down by the Council of Captains, Standard Date 01292765, and subsequently revised in decennial Councils. This edition that of Standard Date 03302954.” He glanced at Tevera.
“Learn it,” she said simply.
“Learn it?” Kriss opened it at random. “Family members accused of a crime while on a planetary surface are subject to the legal system of that planet or the sub-planetary politico-geographical entity in which the offense occurred, except in extraordinary circumstances as determined by the Captain, who must defend his or her actions at the next Council. The Family will assume all costs incurred by the accused Family member, with the following exceptions (see also Expenses, On-Planet, Reimbursement of)…” Kriss looked at Tevera again. “All of it?”
“From the moment you were adopted by the Thaylia, you became subject to Family Rule. And the Rule does not permit ignorance of it as a defense, although the Captain may show leniency.”
“But—” Kriss looked at the thick book helplessly. “It will take years!”
“If I were you, I’d start with the section on shipboard life.” Tevera smiled. “I doubt you need to know about the rules governing bloodswapping and market information exchange among Family ships, for instance, and hopefully that section on death rites can wait…don’t worry, you’ll manage.”
Kriss, carrying his copy of the Rule and thinking it was a good thing they were in zero-gravity because the book looked heavy enough to require a wheelbarrow, doubted it. But of course Tevera was right; he did manage. For one thing, he soon discovered that learning who to salute and who to call “sir” or “ma’am” was no problem, because absolutely everybody on board except for certain small children outranked him—but he also learned that when two Family members were off-duty, it didn’t matter if one was an officer and one was a livestock-hold scrubber; they were officially equal. His first test of that, however, was less than successful, since he had failed to take into account the difficulty of telling the difference between an officer who was off-duty and one who was just visiting the recreation lounge on an inspection tour. Fortunately, the officer chose leniency over the prescribed Rule punishment of three days of double duty.
The scrubbing of the livestock hold went on for a week, and Kriss, to his own surprise, found he had an advantage over his space-born fellow workers: he’d cleaned out the barn and the chicken coop often enough back in Black Rock, and while he didn’t enjoy it then and he didn’t enjoy this now, neither was he as disgusted and miserable as the others. He worked almost twice as fast as any of them, and at the end of the week surveyed the now-spotless, disinfected hold with satisfaction dampened only by Rigel. “Should have known a worldhugger would feel right at home in a pigsty,” Rigel said. “Starting tomorrow we’ll see how you do with some real spacework.”
“I’ll do my best, sir,” Kriss said smartly.
“Then I won’t expect much.” Rigel shot across the empty hold, flipping gracefully at midpoint and exiting feet-first through the open hatch on the far side. Kriss resisted the impulse to throw the scrubber after him.
“It’s no better,” he complained to Tevera later in the rec lounge, as they floated by the huge holographic display of their journey—or what that journey would have looked like if they’d had the requisite several hundred years to make it in normal space. “He doesn’t want me on this ship and he doesn’t want me with you and never mind what the Captain says—or this blasted Rule of yours.” Kriss had spent the previous night reading the section governing Andru’s gift of Family membership to him, and had gained a new appreciation for the sacrifice. But he obviously should have been reading a different section, because on his way to the lounge he had been yelled at by an officer—one of Tevera’s uncles, he thought—for failing to announce his presence at a blind curve. “Page 236, paragraph 5, section 2a, intraship movement under micro-gravity conditions, safety, curves, blind, announcing presence at,” the officer had quoted.
“Are you sure he’s your brother?” Kriss went on. “Maybe he’s really a bloodswap.”
Tevera laughed. “No, he’s my brother, all right.”
“Well, maybe your parents should give him a good talking-to.” Kriss knew immediately he had said the wrong thing; Tevera’s face suddenly closed up like a steel hatch.
“Our parents are dead.”
“Oh.” Kriss felt like something scrubbed off the wall of the livestock hold. “I’m sorry—I know what that’s like—”
“No. You don’t.” Tevera pushed away from the display. “I think I’d better go now—”
“Tevera—” Kriss grabbed her, remembering again what she’d done to him the first time he’d tried that, on Farr’s World. But this time she hung there, not looking at him, but not struggling, either. “Tevera, I’m sorry. I didn’t know. But please don’t shut me out…”
After a long moment she took a shuddering breath and turned toward him. “I’m sorry,” she said. “You’d think I’d be over it by now, but…”
“You’re never completely over it.” Kriss had woken up crying only two nights before, calling Mella’s name… “I do understand, Tevera. I really do.”
She nodded. “It’s just…ten years ago we landed on a planet called Varago, colonized at about the same time as Farr’s World but even more—excuse me—backward.”
“You don’t have to apologize to me for insulting Farr’s World,” Kriss said dryly.
Tevera didn’t smile. Her gaze moved past him, focusing on something far away in space and time. “It was a new trade venture,” she went on, as though talking to herself. “Some small pieces of a beautiful gemstone called blue jade had appeared on the previous planet we visited. We were told it came from Varago—and that the Varagoans would be eager to trade it, because their world offered little else to interest other worlds and they needed absolutely everything.
“My parents specialized in trade negotiations. They wanted Rigel and me to follow in their footsteps, so they took us along. I was six and Rigel eleven—almost twelve; old enough to be useful, while the best I could do was practice my newest skill, sitting still and staying quiet.
“The blue jade came from a particularly primitive part of the planet, where the planet dwellers lived in an almost pre-industrial state. They seemed very nervous when we arrived, but my parents thought it was just pre-negotiation jitters.
“Unfortunately, it turned out they weren’t nervous because they were worried about the negotiations; they were worried because a rival village had found out about the Family’s interest and decided to take over the bluejade mines themselves. Their timing was very bad, however; they attacked after the Family negotiators—us—had arrived.
“I don’t remember much about it—screams, explosions, people falling down and not getting up. What I remember very clearly is my parents, looking out the window of the house in which they’d been negotiating, seeing the attackers closing in and sending Rigel and me into the basement. Their last words—their last words ever—were to Rigel: ‘Take care of Tevera.’ And then…” Her voice broke. She blinked away two tears that floated from her eyes in perfect glittering spheres, and finally focused on Kriss again. “We hid, and we heard shouting upstairs, and then shooting, and finally when everything was still we went upstairs, and…” She shook her head.
“You found your parents,” Kriss said softly.
“Why did they kill them?” Tevera almost shouted at him. “Why? It made no sense. When they killed my parents, their precious bluejade became worthless—the Family placed the entire planet under a trade interdict. No Family ship will call there again for a hundred years. They must have realized…”
“In a situation like that—things happen.” He thought of Mella, dying in the doorway of the house where he had grown up, her belongings strewn like worthless garbage around the yard, and his throat tightened. “Things happen.”
“Things happen,” Tevera agreed bitterly. “And that thing—that thing changed Rigel. He blamed himself for not staying with our parents, he blamed me for being there to be taken care of—and then he felt guilty for that and tried to take care of me all the more. That’s why he’s so protective.”
“And that’s why he hates worldhuggers so much,” Kriss said slowly.
“It’s stupid. Stupid! You had nothing to do with our parents’ murders, and you’re certainly not going to kill me.” She smiled a little. “Are you?”
“No.” Kriss looked at her squarely. “Rigel doesn’t have to protect you anymore. I will.”
Tevera’s smile faded. “Will both of you get it through your vacuum-sealed skulls that I don’t need protecting?” And with that she brushed past Kriss, setting him spinning, and plunged through the hatch. By the time he reoriented himself, she was gone.
“What’d I say?” he asked the empty air, and receiving no answer, sighed and made his way back toward the tiny cube he called home, for another hour or two of study on the Family Rule.
He just wished it included some advice on Family girls.
“Real spacework,” Rigel had promised for the next day. Kriss didn’t know what he had in mind, but he suspected it would be unpleasant. He felt uneasy as he made his way through the corridors to the assigned rendezvous, in an area of the ship near the holds. Most of the Family members he met—and you couldn’t go twenty feet on the Thaylia without running into somebody—nodded neutrally, ignored him, or in the case of small children, stared at him as he passed and then giggled to each other afterward. Only one or two people, friends of Rigel’s, were ever openly hostile to him. At least he understood that hostility after talking to Tevera the day before. In some ways the cool neutrality of the others bothered him more—what did he have to do to really belong to this Family? They accepted bloodswaps easily enough—why not him?
But of course he knew the answer. Bloodswaps were still Family, still space-born and space-bred. He was a worldhugger, and a Family man had given up his position for him. That had shaken them up, and they weren’t over it yet.
Some nights, as he struggled with the Family Rule, he wondered if they ever would be over it. Every aspect of their lives seemed tightly controlled; everything structured and in its place, just like the layout of the ship itself. No wonder they didn’t like planets, so disorderly and random; and he, breaching shipboard etiquette a hundred times a day, must seem equally unpredictable.
He went through the same cycle of thoughts each night. At the beginning of the evening, he would take up the Rule with fresh resolve, determined to smooth off a few more of the rough edges that grated on the well-polished traditions of the Family.
At the end of the evening he would throw the Rule against the wall in tired frustration, and float awake in the dark, his brain filled with regulation upon regulation that blurred together until he could hardly remember the details of any of them, convinced he would always be an outsider.
But finally he would remember that to Tevera, at least, he was more than just an out-of-his-element worldhugger, and drift off to sleep.
And then in the morning…in the morning there was Rigel.
He saw him up ahead, at the end of the corridor, floating beside a red door which must be his destination. Kriss frowned. Red…red…a red door meant something…
He had it! “All doors leading into or out of airlocks shall be colored red as an immediate visual cue for crewmembers…” Kriss felt a chill. What did Rigel have in mind?
“You’re late, worldhugger,” Rigel growled.
Kriss checked his chronometer. “No, sir,” he said. “I’m precisely on time.”
“I like my workers to be five minutes early. If you’re on time, you’re late.”
Faced with such logic, Kriss said nothing—usually the wisest course where Rigel was concerned.
“You don’t know what this red door indicates, but—”
“Airlock,” Kriss said. “Are we going outside the ship, sir?”
Rigel snorted. “In dimspace? Spectacular suicide, worldhugger.” He put a special emphasis on the last word, an “everybody-knows-that” kind of emphasis Kriss found increasingly grating. “No, this airlock leads into the NLS hold. We’re going to—”
Kriss hated to do it, but… “NLS, sir?” he interrupted.
“No Life Support,” Rigel supplied, in that same scornful tone. “Some items are best shipped in vacuum. We’re going to suit up and conduct a standard cargo inspection of the high-density fuzzychips we’re currently carrying in there.”
“I respectfully point out that I’ve never worn a spacesuit, sir.”
“Yeah, well, this is also a training exercise for you. Captain’s orders.” Rigel turned and slapped the lockpanel, not for the red door, but for one a little further up the corridor. It slid open, revealing a locker filled with bulky white spacesuits, like a row of disconnected robots awaiting orders. “All right,” Rigel said briskly, moving into the locker and motioning Kriss in after him, “first get out of your crewsuit…”
Twenty minutes later, encased in several layers of bulky, rubbery material, hooked up to hoses in embarrassing ways and sweating like he’d run a mile in the summer sun, Kriss locked the transparent bubble down over his head, took a deep breath of air that smelled like the crowded Black Rock inn on a hot day, and suddenly heard Rigel’s voice filtered through the communications system. “There’s a small control panel on your left wrist. Touch the green button in the centre of that.” Kriss did so, and the suit stiffened around him and cool air filled the helmet and his lungs, thinning the smell but not doing away with it completely. Kriss wondered how many other people had worn that same suit over who-knew-how-many years.
“Normally for in-ship work like this we wouldn’t bother with all the under-suit layers and plumbing,” Rigel said. “But this is what you’ll wear if you ever go out of the ship while we’re in normal space. In the event of a suit drill, you skip the undersuit and just throw on the outer layers. That will protect you against vacuum, but it won’t do a thing to keep you from cooking on one side and freezing on the other if you’re out of the ship in sunlight.” Rigel droned on, explaining the various read-outs Kriss saw in the helmet’s heads-up display, apparently floating about six inches in front of him. Finally they moved out into the corridor, and Rigel opened the red door. The chamber beyond was barely big enough for both of them in their suits; Kriss heard a hissing that rapidly attenuated to silence, and then the inner door opened soundlessly and Rigel launched himself out into the eerie, blue-lit space beyond.
The NLS hold was a large cylinder, with the lock in one end. Kriss stayed in the doorway of the lock as Rigel sailed grandly across the hold and came to rest on the far side, among the handful of hexagonal crates that were the only things that broke the otherwise perfectly smooth interior. “Come on,” Rigel said, and gestured to Kriss, who hesitated—he’d never crossed that large an open expanse in zero-G before. They’d stayed close to the walls in the livestock hold.
“Come on,” Rigel repeated.
No help from that quarter, Kriss thought; and gathering his legs under him, he leaped.
He knew at once he was too fast. He’d jumped as though trying (impossibly) to leap that distance on a planet. He would hit the far side hard enough to break an arm or a leg or his neck, or maybe smash his helmet to shards and die with his own lungs trying to force themselves up his throat…
Something struck him a glancing, numbing blow on the shoulder, setting him tumbling—but also absorbing much of the energy of his leap. His stomach rebelled as the hold whirled crazily around him. Throwing up in a spacesuit is a very bad idea, his mind told him, throwing up in a spacesuit is a very bad idea, throwing up in a—
His mind lost.
He hit the wall near one of the hexagonal crates and managed to grab it and hold on, retching, his helmet filling with globules of the vile liquefied remnants of his breakfast. Miserably he closed his eyes and breathed shallowly and wished, at that moment, he were back on Farr’s World.
“Little fool! Worldhugger!” Rigel raged in his ears. He opened one eye and saw Rigel floating beside him. “If I weren’t responsible for you to Captain Nicora I’d leave you to choke in your own vomit!” But instead he grabbed Kriss’s arm and launched both of them back across the hold. Five minutes later they were back in air, and Kriss hurriedly yanked off the helmet, almost gagging again.
“You’re going to clean that suit inside and out,” Rigel snarled at him as he jerked off his own helmet. “What were you playing at? You almost killed both of us!”
“If we’d hit helmets when I hit you—”
“I didn’t ask you to, did I?” Kriss began stripping out of the suit, wincing as he did so; the whole right side of his body was sore. “I’d have managed all right.”
“You’d have broken your neck and smashed your helmet—and probably your skull—the way you were going,” Rigel snapped back.
“Well, then, why didn’t you let me?” Kriss shoved the suit away from him; it bounced against the wall and drifted back. He stopped it with his foot. “Wouldn’t you be happier if I were dead?”
“Kill yourself on your own time!” Rigel was already out of his suit and reaching for his clothes. “On my watch I’m responsible for you.”
“Yeah, and you’ve got enough on your conscience already, don’t you?” Kriss snarled.
Faster than he would have believed possible, Rigel leaped across the room and smashed him back against the wall, holding onto a racked suit with one hand and keeping Kriss motionless with the other. “What do you mean, worldhugger?”
“You blame yourself for your parents’ death! Isn’t that why you hate worldhuggers? They killed your parents—and you weren’t able to stop them. You didn’t even try—you were hiding with Tevera!”
“They told me to look after her. I did. And how do you know all this anyway?”
“How do you think?”
Rigel glared at him from about three inches away. “Tevera.”
“She doesn’t need protecting any more, Rigel. She can take care of herself.”
“She needs protecting from herself,” Rigel said. “She doesn’t know what’s best for her, or she wouldn’t have taken up with a miserable worldhugger like you.”
“Oh, and you know what’s best for her?” Kriss’s anger and frustration boiled up in him. “You’ve let what happened to your parents turn you into a miserable bastard, and you resent the fact she’s learned to get past it, don’t you? You want her as miserable as you are. Well, it won’t happen—not while I’m around!”
“Maybe you won’t be around—” Rigel began, then stopped. Almost visibly he gathered his composure. When he shoved back from Kriss his voice was calm, though his face remained flushed. “Clean out the suit you fouled, crewman,” he said. “Then report to sick bay for an examination. Looks like you could have some nasty bruises. Tomorrow report back here again. This cargo hold still needs inspection.”
Kriss didn’t trust this sudden change any more than the rage that had preceded it. “Rigel—”
“I’m awaiting your acknowledgement of my order, crewman,” Rigel said coldly.
Kriss took a deep breath, and saluted. “Orders acknowledged and accepted, sir!”
“Good. Carry on.” Rigel pulled himself into the corridor and disappeared, leaving Kriss staring after him.