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The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

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The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

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Author: Becky Chambers
Publisher: HarperCollins/Voyager, 2015
Hodder & Stoughton, 2015
Self-Published, 2014
Series: Wayfarers: Book 1
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Space Opera
Space Exploration
Galactic Empire
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Somewhere within our crowded sky, a crew of wormhole builders hops from planet to planet, on their way to the job of a lifetime. To the galaxy at large, humanity is a minor species, and one patched-up construction vessel is a mere speck on the starchart. This is an everyday sort of ship, just trying to get from here to there. But all voyages leave their mark, and even the most ordinary of people have stories worth telling. A young Martian woman, hoping the vastness of space will put some distance between herself and the life she's left behind. An alien pilot, navigating life without her own kind. A pacifist captain, awaiting the return of a loved one at war. Set against a backdrop of curious cultures and distant worlds, this episodic tale weaves together the adventures of nine eclectic characters, each on a journey of their own.


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 tunnelling much more thought than you might give a pair of trousers 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 newsfeed over a cup of mek, when one particular sound made him cringe. Footsteps. Corbin's footsteps. Corbin's angry footsteps, coming right towards 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 per cent since he brought Corbin aboard, and there were few algaeists who would accept a position on a tunnelling 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 greying 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 hotchpotch 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 coloured 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 tunnelling licence no. 387-97456)

Re: Résumé for Rosemary Harper (GC administration certificate no. 65-78-2)

Ashby recognised the file. It was the résumé for their new clerk, who was scheduled to arrive the next day. She was probably strapped into a deepod by now, sedated for the duration of her long, cramped trip. 'Why are you showing me this?' Ashby asked.

'Oh, so you have actually read it,' Corbin said.

'Of course I have. I told you all to read this file ages ago so you could get a feel for her before she arrived.' Ashby had no idea what Corbin was getting at, but this was Corbin's standard operating procedure. Complain first, explain later.

Corbin's reply was predictable, even before he opened his mouth: 'I didn't have the time.' Corbin had a habit of ignoring tasks that didn't originate within his lab. 'What the hell are you thinking, bringing aboard a kid like that?'

'I was thinking,' Ashby said, 'that I need a certified clerk.' Even Corbin couldn't argue that point. Ashby's records were a mess, and while a tunnelling ship didn't strictly need a clerk in order to keep its licence, the suits at the GC Transportation Board had made it pretty clear that Ashby's perpetually late reports weren't earning him any favours. Feeding and paying an extra crew member was no small expense, but after careful consideration and some nudging from Sissix, Ashby had asked the Board to send him someone certified. His business was going to start suffering if he didn't stop trying to do two jobs at once.

Corbin folded his arms and sniffed. 'Have you talked to her?'

'We had a sib chat last tenday. She seems fine.'

'She seems fine,' Corbin repeated. 'That's encouraging.'

Ashby chose his next words more carefully. This was Corbin, after all. The king of semantics. 'The Board cleared her. She's fully qualified.'

'The Board is smoking smash.' He stabbed his finger towards the scrib again. 'She's got no long-haul experience. She's never lived off Mars, as far as I can tell. She's fresh out of university--'

Ashby started ticking things off on his fingers. Two could play at this game. 'She's certified to handle GC formwork. She's worked an internship at a ground transport company, which required the same basic skills I need her to have. She's fluent in Hanto, gestures and all, which could really open some doors for us. She comes with a letter of recommendation from her interspecies relations professor. And most importantly, from the little I've spoken to her, she seems like someone I can work with.'

'She's never done this before. We're out in the middle of the open, on our way to a blind punch, and you're bringing a kid aboard.'

'She's not a kid, she's just young. And everybody has a first job, Corbin. Even you must've started somewhere.'

'You know what my first job was? Scrubbing out sample dishes in my father's lab. A trained animal could have done that job. That's what a first job should be, not--' He sputtered. 'May I remind you of what we do here? We fly around punching holes--very literal holes--through space. This is not a safe job. Kizzy and Jenks scare the hell out of me with their carelessness as it is, but at least they're experienced. I can't do my job if I'm constantly worried about some incompetent rookie pushing the wrong button.'

That was the warning flag, the I can't work under these conditions flag that indicated Corbin was about to go non-linear. It was time to get him back on the rails. 'Corbin, she's not going to be pushing any buttons. She's not doing anything more complicated than writing reports and filing formwork.'

'And liasing with border guards, and planetary patrols, and clients who are late on their payments. The people we have to work with are not all nice people. They are not all trustworthy people. We need someone who can hold their own, who can bark down some upstart deputy who thinks he knows regulations better than us. Somebody who knows the difference between a real food safety stamp and a smuggler's knock-off. Somebody who actually knows how things work out here, not some blankeyed graduate who will wet herself the first time a Quelin enforcer pulls up alongside.'

Ashby set his mug down. 'What I need,' he said, 'is someone to keep my records accurate. I need someone to manage our appointments, to make sure we all get the required vaccinations and scans before crossing borders, and to get my financial files sorted out. It's a complicated job, but not a difficult one, not if she's as organised as her letter of recommendation makes her out to be.'

'That's a standardised letter if ever I saw one. I bet that professor has sent the exact same letter on behalf of every milquetoast student that came mewling through his door.'

Ashby arched an eyebrow. 'She studied at Alexandria University, same as you.'

Corbin scoffed. 'I was in the science department. There's a difference.'

Ashby gave a short laugh. 'Sissix is right, Corbin, you are a snob.'

'Sissix can go to hell.'

'So I heard you telling her last night. I could hear you down the hall.' Corbin and Sissix were going to kill each other one of these days. They had never got along, and neither of them had any interest in trying to find a common ground. It was an area where Ashby had to tread very lightly. Ashby and Sissix had been friends before the Wayfarer, but when he was in captain mode, both she and Corbin had to be treated equally as members of his crew. Moderating their frequent sparring matches required a delicate approach. Most of the time, he tried to stay out of it altogether. 'Should I even ask?'

Corbin's mouth twitched. 'She used the last of my dentbots.'

Ashby blinked. 'You do know we've got huge cases of dentbot packs down in the cargo bay.'

'Not my dentbots. You buy those cheap hackjob bots that leave your gums sore.'

'I use those bots every day and my gums feel just fine.'

'I have sensitive gums. You can ask Dr Chef for my dental records if you don't believe me. I have to buy my own bots.'

Ashby hoped that his face did not reveal just how low this tale of woe ranked on his list of priorities. 'I appreciate that it's annoying, but it's just one pack of dentbots we're talking about here.'

Corbin was indignant. 'They don't come cheap! She did it just to get at me, I know she did. If that selfish lizard can't--'

'Hey!' Ashby sat up straight. 'Not okay. I don't want to hear that word come out of your mouth again.' As far as racial insults went, lizard was hardly the worst, but it was bad enough.

Corbin pressed his lips together, as if to keep further unpleasantries from escaping. 'Sorry.'

Ashby's hackles were up, but truthfully, this was an ideal way for a conversation with Corbin to go. Get him away from the crew, let him vent, wait for him to cross a line, then talk him down while he was feeling penitent. 'I will talk to Sissix, but you have got to be more civil to people. And I don't care how mad you get, that kind of language does not belong on my ship.'

'I just lost my temper, was all.' Corbin was obviously still angry, but even he knew better than to bite the hand that feeds. Corbin knew that he was a valuable asset, but at the end of the day, Ashby was the one who sent credits to his account. Valuable was not the same as irreplaceable.

'Losing your temper is one thing, but you are part of a multispecies crew, and you need to be mindful of that. Especially with somebody new coming aboard. And on that note, I'm sorry you have concerns about her, but frankly, she's not your problem. Rosemary was the Board's suggestion, but agreeing to take her on was my call. If she's a mistake, we'll get someone new. But until then, we are all going to give her the benefit of the doubt. Regardless of how you feel about her, I expect you to make her feel welcome. In fact...' A slow smile spread across Ashby's face.

Corbin looked wary. 'What?'

Ashby leaned back in his chair, lacing his fingers together. 'Corbin, I seem to recall that our new clerk will be arriving around seventeen-half tomorrow. Now, I have a sib scheduled with Yoshi at seventeen on the nose, and you know how he loves to talk. I doubt I'll be done by the time Rosemary docks, and she's going to need someone to show her around.'

'Oh, no.' A stricken look crossed Corbin's face. 'Have Kizzy do it. She loves that sort of thing.'

'Kizzy's got her hands full replacing the air filter by the med bay, and I doubt she'll be done before tomorrow. Jenks will be helping Kizzy, so he's out.'

'Sissix, then.'

'Mmm, Sissix has a lot of prep work to do before the punch tomorrow. She probably won't have the time.' Ashby grinned. 'I'm sure you'll give her a great tour.'

Corbin looked at his employer with baleful eyes. 'Sometimes you're a real pain in the ass, Ashby.'

Ashby picked up his mug and finished off the dregs. 'I knew I could count on you.'

Copyright © 2014 by Becky Chambers


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