by David Collins-Rivera
Tallu didn’t look at anyone as she checked in. She didn’t lock gazes when she used the IDent on the counter, or even when the man at the desk had her physically write her name on the attendance record — a simple digipad next to the brochures.
“Sign that every time you come to class,” he said slowly, like she was an idiot.
“I read the school guide.” Her reply was curt, and she finally looked up, but only to give him a stabbing glance. He was a tall, hefty guy, middle years, blue eyes, all pink and white.
He was unimpressed. If anything, he was amused.
“You sure you’re in the right place?”
“Are you? Your customer service skills are the pits.”
He flushed with embarrassment and sudden irritation — an easy thing, considering how pale he was. Pale people changed colors like chameleons, just about. He didn’t reply, but rubbed the back of his neck. His skin turned plain white where he squeezed for just a moment, then it returned to pink. That was weird and a little disgusting, Tallu decided. She’d never noticed it before about palies, but now she’d see it every time she looked.
Somebody behind her laughed lowly, like a chortle. She glanced over her shoulder to see a short chubby man. He wasn’t very pale — or, maybe he was, but not really, not like the Mr. Congeniality behind the counter. This new guy had black buzzed hair, and dark eyes. She frowned at him, because she hadn’t been joking. He dropped his smirk, but kept looking at her, as if waiting for something.
“You have a problem?” she demanded.
“Are you going in? I’m late for class.”
He wore a briefcase on his back, blue softshoes, and a gray, unadorned flight suit. He was entirely forgettable, she decided, and yet, a little creepy. The whole place was unsettling.
In reply, she pushed through the sensor door, which flashed green. From her watch, she flicked on the pop-up floor map, which had come with Chissold Academy’s orientation package, and followed a route she’d mapped out that morning over breakfast. The round guy in the flight suit trudged past her quickly, without a glance, and moved on ahead down a side corridor.
Chissold occupied a long strip of the lowermost deck, laced out along two parallel circumnavigating hallways. Companionways, they called them in the literature. Whatever. The school itself only took up a portion of this part of the deck, so she’d expected something much smaller and shabbier. The size of the station was still a hard to grasp; she’d been running behind on time since she’d left the flat, because of this — and now it was turning into a wilderness hike!
Doors marked as classrooms and simulation suites drifted by, and she figured she was walking at least a third of the station’s circumference before finally jagging right, to come back down the other way to RM207. It was so stupid! What idiot had laid this place out?!
She found the correct classroom, eventually, but was now late. Didn’t matter; people were always late, first day.
Or maybe not. When she entered, there were five others already there. (Intimate classes, she’d read. What did that even mean? Candlelight and mood music?) The teacher was talking, but broke off when she entered. The others looked up too. Two women and two men sat in cushioned chairs facing the instructor.
It was the round guy in the gray flight suit.
“Hi, again,” he said evenly, looking at a floating roster over the chair arm. “You must be, uh…TAY-lu B’teni?”
“TAH-lu,” she corrected. “How’d you get here so fast? Took me ten minutes, at least.”
“Ah. You’ll probably want to cut through the school lounge from now on. Linear designs on stations are pretty common. Chissold is no different. Grab a seat, we’re just getting started.”
“I am sorry,” said one of the students then, as Tallu settled behind. He was a very dark man with a thick accent she couldn’t place. “Could you please, man, pronounce your own name? I find the spelling inconclusive.”
“Oh, sure — Omar is it? Sorry, Omar…I should have done that first. It’s pronounced EEE-jok Doh-SAHN-tos.”
He said it slowly, exaggerating the syllables. Omar made some sort of note on a datapad, thanking the teacher.
“Mr. Dosantos,” a woman asked, “will this course cover the new Viper line of Zedpoint Plasma Lances?” She looked older than Aunt Ellia, and heavy-set, with brown skin.
“Ejoq is just fine,” the teacher replied, “Mr. Dosantos is for when you’re mad at me.”
The others laughed. Tallu didn’t. It wasn’t that funny.
“Well, we can go over them, if you want,” he answered, “but Zedpoint won’t be in open production of Vipers until at least the third quarter of next year. You aren’t likely to run across them, out in the wild, for some time. The only data I’ve seen so far is from the company sales campaign and a few anecdotes from beta testers, so it might be better to focus on them during your next re-cert, when more information is available. That’s what I’m going to do, anyway.”
The woman nodded, seemingly satisfied. Tallu had no idea what he’d just said, so she kept her frown in place, and opened up a scratch-pad application on her watch.
“Okay. Welcome to Day One of the basic Civilian Class Weaponry Certification Course.”
Ejoq looked them over, one-by-one, as he talked. He locked eyes with Tallu for a moment, just like with all the others, then started round again. His expression seemed easy, detached.
Or maybe just careful and fake.
“I’m sure you all know this, but I have to say it anyway: this is a mandatory, Inter-Territorial certification required for your license. CCW certs are valid for three years only, after which this course must be taken again. The curriculum is constantly evolving, and standardized within both the Alliance of Interstellar Nations, and Corporatespace. It’s recognized as being fully equivalent to the Class-A Gunnery Equipment Diploma, used over in the Empire and parts of Churchspace, which allows you to legally work across Territorial borders. With your CCW, you can get a valid Gunnery License here in AINspace, and work pretty-much anywhere else, too. Without it, you’ll be stuck here, competing for dodgy gigs on local tramps and private security boats — all while talking around the fact that you never got your hardcard.”
The others nodded knowingly, and Tallu was suddenly certain that they were all, each of them, already licensed — that this was just a re-cert for everyone involved. Everyone but her.
“Now then,” Ejoq continued, checking something off on a floating list, “this course is simulation-heavy, but there are also three important sit-down tests, which you’ll find on the syllabus. I’m your instructor, yes, but I will not be grading you on the tests — that process is completely automated. In point-of-fact, I’m a fellow student: I’ll be taking the sit-downs alongside of you, and running through all the same required sims in my personal time. My own re-cert is coming up, so, hopefully, I’ll be getting my CCW at the same time as the rest of the class. If not, I guess you’ll find me here again next semester.”
More laughs. It was a comedy club.
“Okay, today we’re just going to cover the syllabus in detail, go over the required study material, and get everyone set up with school library accounts, if they don’t already have them. After that you’re all free to leave, if you want. I do, however, have a two hour block reserved for the whole class in the Red Room, so anybody who wants to, can get in some sim time with Integrated Systems — any kind you want.”
“Will that count towards our Personal Hour Charts?” asked another woman. She was thin and light-haired, and had vaguely Noblespace features, though her accent was local.
“Today? Yes — PHC’s get that record. After this, though, we’ll be following the curriculum, so in-class simulation hours will only be put toward your CCW’s. You can always rent time on your own, of course, to bolster PHC counts. The student discount this semester is…what is it? Fifty percent?”
“Sixty,” put in a gangly, freckled young guy, with a shock of bright red hair. He grinned like he’d said something funny. Ejoq grinned back.
“Sixty! Not bad! You’ll want to take advantage of that, because it’s probably not going to last. Of course, instructors get ten hours each week for free, so I’m doing okay, either way.”
The others all groaned in envy, laughing, and Omar even said, “Come on, man!”
“Hey, I’ve got a contract coming up. I need my re-cert!” Ejoq chuckled. “Most of you could be teaching, anyway, if you wanted. Eahyaw, you’ve got more years in this biz than anybody in the room, including me! You’ve got two-and-a-half pages of certs! Why aren’t you in this chair?”
The older woman who’d asked about the Vipers (whatever they were), just shook her head with a grin, waving her hands like she smelled something bad.
“No, thank you! I tried it once, and that was enough. Shipboard Basics, at the Glister School over in Tyree. Class full of teenagers — almost lost my mind! Never again, never again!”
They laughed. Yeah, it was funny. Teenagers were always so funny. Tallu felt like a clown.
A big fat clown, getting fatter all the time.
“This washer’s empty,” she told Len. He looked at her like she was speaking Ceicion or something.
“How can it be? I just filled it.”
She squeezed its wide plastic trigger. It dribbled cleanser instead of spraying it.
“I don’t understand. I just filled it.”
He took it from her and squeezed, with the same result.
“Maybe it leaked out,” she offered.
“But I just filled it.”
Tallu looked to the floor and sighed.
She needed the job.
She needed the job.
“I don’t know why it’s empty now, Len. I just know that it is. I can’t do the duct-work until I have a full one.”
“You have to do the duct-work. It has to get done today. It’s on the schedule.”
“Well, can you fill my washer?”
“I just filled it.”
“Maybe you filled another one, but this one isn’t full.”
He looked from the washer in his hand, to her, and then back again. Confusion was printed on his face. He said nothing.
“Can I go fill it then?”
“The cleanser’s locked up with the other supplies. It was walking out the door, so Gerry had me lock it up.”
“Do you have the key?”
“Sure. The Crew Boss has the key.”
She waited for him to continue, but he kept looking at the washer, lost, drowning.
“Well…if you let me use the key, I’ll go refill it.”
He glanced up at her with a wrinkled brow.
“So I can clean the duct-work…?” she stated slowly, throwing out breadcrumbs with both hands.
“No — oh, no. Only a Crew Boss can use the key.”
“Then, can you, as my Crew Boss, use the key, to open the supply closet and refill my washer, so I can do the duct-work that’s on the schedule for today?”
He kept staring at her from kilometers away.
Then he did the same to the washer.
“But…I just filled it.”
“I can’t believe you’re even considering it!” Aunt Ellia exploded. Tallu was shocked. She was such a quiet, mousy woman.
“A mortal zin,” Uncle Greepo added, his heavy accent adding weight to his mumbled words, his heavy brows adding judgment to his salt-and-pepper scowl.
“I’m just looking at my options right now,” she parried weakly. “There’s no sin in listening to what they have to say.”
“You invite zin, by inviting zinful thought.” His face was dark, cloudy. It often was, and, just as often, was pointed at her that way.
“Abortion is legal here,” she stated, as if they didn’t know. “I’m old enough to make the decision for myself. It’s legal all the way up to the moment of birth, so I have lots of time to think about…”
“To think about what?!” her aunt demanded. “Murder?! The murder of your child?”
“I don’t agree that it is…necessarily.”
“Is this how Caroline raised you? I knew she had problems, but to have fallen so far…”
“Problems!” Tallu shouted. “She was an addict! She was a drunk! She was dead a full day before anyone even found her! She had me when she was fifteen — younger than I am. She must have been terrified.”
“As t’ou reap, zo shalt t’oe zow…” Uncle Greepo muttered, his face unchanged.
“You two could have helped her.”
“We’re helping you,” Tallu’s mousy, and apparently sometimes fiery aunt stated flatly, like it was a jab or a push.
“By pressuring me?!”
“By keeping you from making a terrible decision. You’d regret killing your baby for the rest of your life.”
Tallu sawed at her grain cutlet for several long seconds. She wasn’t hungry anymore, but it felt good to attack something.
“That’s a gross generalization,” she said at last. “I’ve talked to lots of women who’ve had abortions. Almost all of them say that they think about it from time to time, but don’t regret their choice.”
“Murderers. Butchers.” Uncle Greepo was working on his own processed vegetable block.
“Easy enough for a man to say!”
“I’m saying it too,” Aunt Ellia put in, placing her utensils down and staring at her hard.
Tallu matched her gaze, and felt like she was matching her outrage. She looked at her aunt’s dark eyes, slightly (and perpetually) bloodshot, angry, hurt, frightened. Then, she spoke without thinking.
“Benny didn’t have to be your last kid. You could get treatments even now, and conceive again…”
“Don’t you dare mention my sainted boy in a conversation about such filth!” The anger/hurt/fright was everything now. It was the skeleton beneath the older woman’s face. It was the fiber of her voice, the very structure behind her bearing. It was her cherished past, her vicious present — her supportive, perpetual future. “He died a martyr, far from this decadent place! A patriot! He was a warrior in God’s Cause! You aren’t fit to speak his name! Harlot! Baby-killer!”
The slap came from across that black roiling gulf, and from across the table, impacting Tallu’s face with a cracking shock.
Uncle Greepo had cocked one eyebrow so he could look up at the women at an angle, then dropped it again after a moment to re-focus on his dinner.
Aunt Ellia had her hand over her mouth — the same hand. Tears rolled down her sallow cheeks.
“Lord in Heaven…” she spoke, muffled, behind the hand, behind the shame. “Tallu…I’m…I’m so…”
But the girl was already on her feet, already throwing on her bag, already out the door.
“Drop your IR focus back…back, back…!” Ejoq snapped in her ear.
She was dialing! Dialing it! No!
She was dead.
*DEFENSE: FAIL — CCW-101-SIM-11 END*
The legend flashed red within the air itself, right in front of her face. She threw the control rods down in a fury, then threw herself back in the chair in a bigger one.
“Easy on the hardware,” her fat teacher barked through the earbud. “What happened?”
“What’d it look like?!” she punched back, feeling disgust rise in her gut. “I screwed up! Again! Say it!”
“No. I’m asking. What happened? Why did you die? Think about it for a minute.”
“I can’t. I’m…oh, God…”
“It’s all right. Take a breath.”
“No, I really think I’m gonna…”
“You’re gonna…?” He let the words hang in the air, like her failure, flashing, flashing, but he suddenly saw it in her face on the video feed. “Are you all right? You’re blanching…”
She made a dash at the hatch of the sim chamber, but her gorge was impossibly faster.
“Oh…” her teacher said, as she vomited through her fingers. “That’s, uh…wow. Okay…”
“Morning sickness? It’s late midshift.”
Her teacher wore a look of surprise. He couldn’t be that stupid.
“It’s morning for me,” she replied without any patience. “I work thirdshift — cleaning job. Then I go home and sleep, then get up and come here. That’s my life.”
Ejoq’s surprise took on a morphing quality, but never strayed too far from wonder. Honestly, some people…!
“The school has special nerve blocks for nausea. You can get them at the security desk.”
“They don’t help for morning sickness. I’ve tried.”
He blinked a bunch of times, looking lost.
“Um…sorry. This may sound weird, but I’ve never spent much time around pregnant women. A pregnant man, yes, but…”
A pregnant man…?
“Biohacker,” he explained, because she must have looked like she needed it. “Had a uterus and vagina installed for the occasion, and took lots of meds, then went back to his original plumbing when it was all over. Said it was worth it, but he sure was a mean cuss for a couple of months.”
He drew his dark eyebrows over his dark eyes, like little umbrellas, and just watched her.
“Co-worker. Look, I’m not sure what I’ve done to make you angry: a student of mine gets sick during a sim…”
“It happens a lot,” she injected, “according to the training handouts.”
“In first-timers, yeah. I wasn’t expecting it now, Tallu. This was your fifth session, not counting however many you had before.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, the number of training hours you had prior to this course. How many is that, anyway? Your record doesn’t show.”
“None. I thought this was a Primary course. I needed a Prime outside my specialty.”
“I haven’t decided yet. But when I do, I’ll be able to focus just on that, if this certification is already in place. Sorry I’m not working up to potential, but I have a lot on my mind, and I’m tired.”
His eyebrows kept fending off the rain, and her tone seemed to have chiseled in a frown somewhere under there. Tiny glints also danced in that space, like mysterious fairy sparkles…or those dazzling city lights in Klinn’s eyes, as they walked along Bayline Avenue…down in New Zurich…down on Killaire…down, down in the well.
When was that?
Maybe springtime — not that that had meaning up here.
They had gone to see the Thunderhead Babies play. Yeah, that was it!
Oh, what a band! What a show!
And the lights had just floated across his eyes, as they ran and tripped and laughed their way through the city…
Kind of like Ejoq’s now…
If she hadn’t been staring directly at them, and if they weren’t so dark, she probably wouldn’t have noticed a thing.
Maybe he was the daddy/mommy!
“And you’re sixteen years old?”
“Yeah. Sixteen, pregnant, and single. Late to the simulation party, too, it looks like. You can put a tight seal on your judgment, okay? I’m already getting it left and right. I’ll try to get my scores up, but I can only do what I can do.”
“Careful all that armor doesn’t weigh you down.”
“I don’t even what that means,” she replied with a disgusted shake of her head.
“It means, that at sixteen, we’re mostly adults already — but if we’re very lucky, we can still pretend to be children for a few more years. You haven’t been lucky.”
“This armor is the only thing I’ve got!”
“Then, without a hull breach, life won’t touch you.”
“That’s right! And your point is…?”
Nothing more out of the guy. He just stared, dark eyes sparkling with scrolling data, like he expected them to supply all the answers. Like he expected her to!
After a long while, he broke the spell, and his umbrellas became eyebrows again.
“I just had to be sure you were okay. And as for your scores…”
He paused, as if waiting for her to cry — but that was not gonna happen, pal! No way!
“Your scores are fine. See you tomorrow. I’ll, uh, make sure there’s a bucket handy from now on.”
“We’ll see you at the pub, Tallu, right?” Jeanette Whats-Her-Name asked, as she hung her work smock on a hook. The other girls were getting ready, and a few had gone on ahead. Bandy, the only guy on the crew besides Len (who didn’t count), had left for his other job, so it would just be a girls’ night out. Except that Tallu didn’t really know these girls, and didn’t want to know them, because…she didn’t know them. And she was really tired.
“I don’t know…”
“Oh, come on! It’ll be fun. You could use it. I know you can’t drink because of the baby, but you can hang out.”
“I can have some Drass — that’s safe enough. But I’m really exhausted, and I have class in the morning.”
“I didn’t know you were going to school!” Jeanette exclaimed, seemingly impressed. She checked her hair in the mirror as she spoke. The left half of her head was shaved bald. The right half was long, falling past her shoulders. It was a look Tallu hadn’t seen before moving to the station. “What are you studying?”
“Um…commercial shipping. I’m working on my CCW right now.”
Jeanette grimaced at her reflection, touching a tiny digital stylus to her front teeth, and changing the polycoat on them to a deep red. She studied the mirror critically, then nodded in approval. Tallu was rather horrified by the color: it made the girl’s mouth look bloody. Maybe that was the intention. Stationers were trend-setters, after all. You didn’t look up here to see what kids were into these days, you looked up here to see what they were going to be into next year.
“It’s for a civilian gunnery cert, and…”
But the other girls were ready by now, and interrupted with some chatty, screechy directions and laughter. Jeanette Whats-Her-Name strutted out into the thirdshift companionways with her crew, throwing a smile at Tallu just before disappearing, imploring her to swing by if she wanted.
Tallu didn’t. Because she didn’t.
Things at home — at her Aunt and Uncle’s home, to be more accurate — were frosty. Since the night Aunt Ellia had struck her, Tallu had made a point of avoiding the older woman. She didn’t need to avoid her uncle, because he had hardly talked to her before the incident, let alone now. He was a lean, morose man, who worked up in the station hub, on the docks. He had a gray-fringed head, and features set in perpetual disapproval, even when he dozed in his favorite chair watching the system-wide news after dinner.
Tallu tried to avoid dining with them, but eating out got expensive after a week or so. Aunt Ellia never apologized, but had started to leave a plate on the warmer for her. It was uncomfortable and awkward at first, but seemed to work. They weren’t talking, but they weren’t fighting either. Tallu found it easy to just sit alone at the table, eating and studying for her first exam, coming up — her relations in the living room watching vids, then going off to bed without a single word.
At school, she was sure Ejoq didn’t think she’d pass, because he kept harping on her during the sims, and quizzing her almost to the exclusion of the other students during class-time lessons. This was just review for the others, he explained, when she’d complained about it. She was starting to hate the pudgy little man, and his arrogant confidence. And the others in the class weren’t deep in her heart either.
She’d needed some detailed notes for the essay portion of the exam, which she intended to devote to the advantages of a particular class of flak gun, called a Wheller. She’d read about Whellers in a trade magazine from the school library, but nobody in the class — Ejoq included — had ever worked with them before, so they couldn’t point her to any Public Use Records of their own. Omar even mentioned, dismissively (and after furtively looking it up on his handcomp, Tallu noticed), that Whellers were only to be found in Corporatespace, these days, on ballistic containerboats. They all moaned at the mention of such vessels, and made several “canned meat” jokes, over which no one laughed.
Her fellow students were uniformly faster and cleaner on the sims. The study materials stated that scores weren’t comparable between gunners, yet the others always measured their latest rankings after class. Eahyaw, the grandma of the group, out-shot and out-scored everyone, almost every time. She was deeply competitive, as it turned out, and would beetle her brow in concentration whenever it was her turn to run a drill that someone else, earlier on, had performed particularly well.
Tallu’s personal best was getting better. She saw that, but also saw what professional gunners were doing with ease, and more often than not, found herself angry and disappointed. Though the forgettable instructor repeated over and over that it didn’t matter what anyone else was doing, he’d then list each of her mistakes and flaws, and, invariably, hold up one or all of the others in the class as examples of proper form.
One particularly bad session found her sim locked up and unresponsive, due to multiple command and routing errors. She had panicked, and gotten completely flustered, making about every bad call possible — and often, multiple times. Ejoq had to completely reset the station in order to clear it. That got laughs all around, and Tallu, face and ears burning, just gathered up her bags and stalked out.
She couldn’t drop the class now and expect a refund. She couldn’t even transfer to something else, because the semester was too far along (she had spent an hour going over the academy’s catalog, just to be sure). She either had to quit, or suck it up. The only two choices.
With dawning terror, as she sat in a fountain shop near the Academy, sipping a tall chocolate soda, and killing time until her work shift started, Tallu realized that that described everything in her life. Sure, she could just continue on. But she could also give up on school and her job, and become a State Dependent. She could give up on her aunt and uncle, and move into city housing back down in the well — maybe back in New Zurich. The girls from the neighborhood would be happy to see her. Nin, Sanna, MaryLou — they all had kids now. They were single…well, MaryLou may as well have been, despite the ring, since Raife was never there. They’d accept her and have advice: how to game the system; how to avoid Required Training, and Mandatory Employment quotas. Teri bin Duran was almost thirty, with her three kids, and she hadn’t worked a day in her life. Though three kids sounded like a full-time job, on its own…
She could give up on the baby, too, of course. Probably would.
But, thinking of Raife also brought up Klinntok in her mind’s-eye because the two of them were gangers and close friends: Klinn and Raife…not to mention Tumtum. The Inseparables, they were called, back on Rosemere Avenue! Except that Tutum got stabbed in the leg last year, right in a major artery, and bled out before help could arrive. And, Raife was everywhere, except home with his family, sleeping with every girl who’d have him…’til she wouldn’t anymore. And Klinn…
Klinn was in lockup for that botjacking thing down in Shore City.
Cute, with those glass-blue eyes under the close brow of his cap. Oh! Those eyes, that always swept the room when he first walked in, looking for challenges or trouble, before centering solidly on the floor when they spotted neither; those eyes that never rose again the whole time he was present. You couldn’t get two words out of him, most days, yet you always knew what he was thinking.
But so, so stupid! Dumber than life.
Like his girlfriend.
Tallu felt no better by the time her work shift was done.
Len hadn’t helped at all, complaining about dust on the tops of the electrical panels throughout “Maintenance Hall 12”. No one had ever mentioned dusting up there, including Len himself, and most of the panel tops were well over head height anyway. He brought them all down to one particular metal case, talking loudly and pointing a lot. The Assistant Manager for Energy Production and Infrastructure had inspected “Maintenance Hall 12” the day before. She had been looking for problems and climbed right up on a step-ladder. She had found dust — everywhere dust, dust! She screamed at the Maintenance Chief, who came down on the Sanitation Boss, who tore Gerry a new one, who then blasted Len. It was a Big Deal, understand? And it better be handled properly from now on, right? Because they were all replaceable, and there was a waiting list for each of their jobs a mile long, was that clear?
Apparently it wasn’t, because Jeanette Whats-Her-Name asked him what a mile was, as she’d never heard the word before, and he didn’t know either, and got all confused. Finally, after eating up nearly two hours with this nonsense, he dismissed them to actually get their work done, which meant everyone had to hustle hard to clean, mop, buff, and dust “Maintenance Hall 12”, before their shift was over.
Food was waiting at home, as was the new usual, but they were out of tea, and Tallu really, really wanted to just curl up on her bed with a hot cup of diligad red, and indulge herself in a pity party. She didn’t have class the next day, for a change, and could sleep in.
She deserved a good cry. She had certainly earned it.
And she had choices to make. Important ones.
She knew for a fact that the big chain market on-station carried diligad tea, but that was a tram-ride away, and would take at least an hour, there and back, so she opted for the corner bodega store. It was a busy place, even now, late as it was, because the suppliers usually made their deliveries during thirdshift, and people and robots trundled in an out of the place with cartons and bundles of goods.
“Do you have any diligad tea?” she asked the clerk — an older-looking guy with a scratched-up plastic arm that whined like a baby when he moved it around.
“No. But I have rooibos, on the back shelf, on the left.”
“I have some diligad out on the roller,” a hefty guy with a skid-lifter full of fresh fruit volunteered as he pushed by.
“Can I buy some?” Tallu shouted after him, because he was already out of sight, around a corner.
“Not from me,” he called back, “wholesale only.”
“I don’t know what that means.”
“He can sell it to me,” the clerk explained. “How much do you want?”
“Just one box,” she muttered, then yelped when a short autonomous machine carrying several cases of empty beer bottles whizzed by, just missing her toes.
“How many boxes to a case, Ernie?” the clerk yelled into the maze of aisles and deliveries.
“Ten!” came the muffled reply.
“Can I get half-a-case?”
“Yep, but it’s at the back. I’ll get it at the end.”
Tallu glanced out at the large roller on the street. It could have held the world. A world. Some other world.
“I haven’t tasted diligad tea in forever,” the clerk mentioned, as he checked a digital pad for a receipt from one of the robots that had just floated off. He “tsked” under his breath as he read it, and circled something.
“It’s a favorite,” she replied. “Warm and fuzzy.”
“I carry wine,” he offered, then circled something else.
“Can’t. Pregnant. Diligad’s safe, though.”
“Ah. Keeping it then?”
She looked down at her feet. She’d thrown on a pair of Aunt Ellia’s open toed slippers. They were cream-colored, and had little bows. Her toenails stuck out, the ends, sparkling, catching the stark light of the store. Metallic blue, she’d had them laminated before moving here. They’d grown out quite a bit, but weren’t chipped or cracked at all — no thanks to the bustling robot; that would have hurt. She and MaryLou had gotten them done together. To look good.
For themselves, of course, but for the boys, too.
Maybe, mostly for them.
They were all going out to dinner at Riccienero’s that night. Except that neither Klinn nor Raife ever showed. The next day, she learned that Klinn had been popped for Capital Theft, and Raife was laying low, “just in case” — because he’d been in on it, too, but had gotten away.
The clerk was checking through a longer list now, on another display. He looked distracted and focused at the same time — distracted from the conversation; focused on his life and it’s minutia.
“Figure I’ll decide tonight,” she said.
“It’s a good night for it. Quiet.”
“Not here, it isn’t.”
He grinned and chuckled, but didn’t look up from his work.
“Never here. People gotta eat; they need stuff, day and night…”
A loud crash interrupted his thoughts, along with a curse from Ernie, somewhere deep inside the store.
“You all right?” the clerk called.
“This Tindel ‘bot cut me off!”
Tallu stepped over to the aisle with all the commotion, and saw Ernie there, looking quite vexed. Crates, a few of them broken and spilling apples all over the place, clogged the way. A narrow-bodied robot, all yellow and green with the famous Tindel Foods colors and logo, lay on its side, red lights on one end flashing, but otherwise motionless.
“These stupid things can turn at right angles, yet they never get out of the way!”
Ernie must have already been having a bad night, because he kicked the errant machine, but only succeeded in unseating another couple of crates that hadn’t yet fallen off the lifter. One of them opened up, spilling out yellow/red mangatoes down the aisle. A few of them rolled past Tallu, which she chased automatically.
“Ernie, just take a break, all right?” the clerk commented evenly — almost cheerfully, in fact, picking up fruit and crates. “This isn’t worth the stress. Go pour yourself a joe, and have a seat at the counter. Keep an eye on things? I got this.”
“Yeah…yeah…all right,” and Ernie moved off, mutteringly.
Tallu brought the round, soft-bodied fruits in her shirt front, holding it up in front of her like a bag. Her baby bump was showing. How about that?
“Some of these are bruised now,” she commented, handing them over one-by-one, as the clerk carefully placed them back in their cartons, his arm whining and clicking the whole time.
“Eh…it’s outer space. People are lucky to get ’em at all.”
“You own this place?” Tallu asked, after a few moments of silence.
“My folks do, technically, but they’re both retired. Need a job?”
“No, I work for Sanitation. Hate it, though.”
“Yeah, I did that for a few years. Trash crew. Sucked. This place isn’t bad. Hours are long, and people are people — but it’s not hard. You’re on your own, but never alone…which I like.”
“Yeah,” the girl muttered, handing over the last mangato, “That sounds pretty good.”
“Keep it,” the cyborg told her, nodding to the fruit in her hand.
“Naw, they give me canker sores.”
He smiled and took it from her. The crates were all back on the lifter, and the man flicked it on. Rising silently off the floor a few centimeters, he eased the skid down and around the corner. It looked pretty unsteady, and Tallu followed him to the fruit display on the back wall.
“Ernie can put ’em out; his job anyway,” the clerk explained, settling the lifter down. “Thanks.”
Ernie was actually tending to a customer when they went back to the front counter. He looked up at the clerk.
“Win — sales tax on candy?”
“Your lucky day,” Ernie spoke, dropping the small packet into the bag for a round, matronly woman who had her hair in a scarf. He charged her account with a swipe and press of the register, clearly having done all this before, and the lady walked out with a simple thanks.
“On your own, but never alone,” Tallu repeated.
“I’ll dig out the tea for you,” the delivery man stated, as he yielded his seat to the clerk.
“Thank you,” Tallu replied, and watched him lope outside to the roller, and climb into the back.
“Okay…expect inbounds any moment now.”
“There, there! See the echo? Wait for it…”
“Over there? I don’t…oh! Oh, crap…!”
“Keep it cool. You have time. Make your selections.”
“Targeting already has them.”
“Yeah, but you can’t trust that. Always double-check.”
“Um…okay, uh…I think it looks good.”
“All right, then, commit.”
“They’re away. Looking good…looking good…”
“I hate this…”
“You’re doing fine.”
“No, I mean I really do. I hate gunnery.”
“So do I, some days…trim your thrust on Number Three…”
“Too much, bring it up a hair…yeah, that’s good.”
“They’re drifting…are they drifting?”
“No, they’re angling in. Remember, they have late-flight programming, making adjustments on the fly, and…”
“Oh! It’s a hit! It’s a hit!”
“Very nice! But check your two-by-one…”
“Where…? Oh…oh, you gotta be kidding!”
“Do you have time for ordinance prep?”
“I don’t know, do I?!”
“Don’t panic. Think about it.”
“I…I…no. No, it takes twenty-two seconds to…”
“Then what do you have to do?”
“Don’t ask me, ask yourself.”
“I…no. Kinetic Interpose. Auto-track looks good. Committing…wait, nothing’s happening!”
“You can’t time it by eye. Once you commit, the system takes over. Just wait.”
“Oh, yeah, right. Um…oh, wow, it’s getting close…”
“Don’t think about that, sweep for more bogeys. Use your time.”
“Okay…uh, yeah, contact seven-by-eight. I can do missile prep for that. Loading…aaaand…committing. It’s counting down. Um, KI still hasn’t engaged…yow! Okay, now it has!”
“How does close prox look?”
“Clean and green. We got it!”
“And missiles are away, now!”
“How’s thrust on them? Check it.”
“Uh…good. I think.”
“Okay. And, again, what do you do while you’re waiting?”
“I sweep. I use my time.”
Uncle Greepo didn’t respond to the news, of course, but Aunt Ellia was weeping.
“Oh, thank God! You’re doing the right thing, Tallu!” Her face was red, as was her eyes. She blew her nose loudly and wetly.
“I’m not so sure, but it’s the choice I’ve made.”
“Vat vill do for money? For livink?”
“I’m still thinking.”
He humphed, and turned back to his vid.
“Should be qvick vit it.”
Aunt Ellia had her hands clasped in front of her face, tears wetting them too, muttering a prayer of thanks.
“Yeah,” Tallu agreed, “I should.”
He glanced at the cam, then his eyes went down. They dropped to the floor. It was his way, and it was charming.
“Look…um, I decided to have the baby.”
He didn’t look up. His chin was in the collar of his red-and-white striped all-in-one. He seemed to be shuffling his feet, but she could only see him from the torso up.
“I don’t want anything from you.”
“You breakin’ up with me?”
Still shuffling. Still watching the floor.
Shuffle. Eyes down.
And that was it. He gave nothing else, because there wasn’t anything else. He had no way to express himself, no way to reach out, nor even frame his thoughts. He was what he was, and always would be.
“Are you even alive?” she whispered, seeing it now.
“Wha…?” He looked up without comprehension. “Am I get to meet my kid?”
Tallu studied him, but he dropped his eyes again.
Silence. Shuffling feet.
Behind him, slightly blurry and small, other prisoners wandered by, heads down, looking lost, blank; then one or two strutted along, eyes up, proud and fierce.
The same men came into view again after moment, going back the other way — out of focus, moving, going nowhere.
“Are you even alive?” she repeated, but she wasn’t talking to him.
“Check it out, check it out!” Ejoq spoke loudly, over their voices.
It was the last day, and the grades were in. Eahyaw, of course, topped the class. Tallu, of course, was at the bottom. That didn’t matter. Really, it couldn’t. A fail here had been inevitable, and she had figure on what to do next.
“I’m just back from the Scoring Office down the hall. Seems we have extra reasons to be proud today — we have a school record here — a new Academy benchmark. Tallu, congratulations!”
She blinked, and looked up. The others were staring at her, grinning. These insufferable egotists were all smiling and happy for her, even Omar.
“Tallu B’teni, you now hold The Chissold Acadamy record for the highest Score Ratio Increase in their entire history.”
He held up a paper — a real piece of paper, with her name on it, then brought it over. She took it with utter uncertainty. It was stiff, but flexible — such a bizarre combination! Her name was in black cursive letters across the front, which made it hard to read.
“I had the lowest score in the class!” she blurted out.
“You had the lowest score in any class in the school this semester,” her stout teacher corrected, laughing. “But I’ve never seen anybody come so far, so fast.”
“Sweetie,” Eahyaw added warmly, “you’re a natural. I couldn’t believe it when Ejoq told us you never had any training or experience.”
The others all nodded, and made affirmative noises, but Tallu couldn’t see them, really, or even hear them.
“I haven’t,” she confirmed, without thinking. “Not before here.”
“It took me a hundred sims to get the kind of scores you’ve gotten in twenty,” the old woman told her.
“It took me at least two hundred, man!” Omar injected, with a bellowing laugh that made every join in — even Tallu, though she was scared, too, for no reason she could name.
“People usually have private tutors, before they take any formal classes,” Ejoq explained. “That’s what I did.”
“I apprenticed for four years on a corporate ship,” the brown-haired woman stated. Tallu knew her name now: Dekwa. “I walked into my first cert course thinking I had it locked. I failed out with a lower score than you got today.”
“I still failed,” Tallu blurted, and she was crying. What?! Why?
“The Academy offers scholarships to worthy candidates,” her teacher said, from a light year’s distance, from the front of the class. “I drew the school council’s attention to your work here. You’ll have to go talk to the dean, as well as some committee or other — I don’t know who they are — but I’m told that you’ll have a full ride, if you want it. Not just a repeat of this course, or a specialist certification: they’re talking a degree track.”
That got impressed murmurs, all around the room.
“But I’m going to have a baby…!”
She sobbed it, blubbered it, cheeks all ruddy, all blotchy, mucus and water dripping over and over, like men that are boys, who go by, and go by, yet never go anywhere but down.
She looked up at her forgettable instructor like he was stupid — like he was a man from space, and just stupid.
“So, how can I go to school? It’ll be too hard!”
“Maybe,” he countered, digging through his breast pocket, and coming up with some tissues for her. “But life is hard, Tallu. You want guarantees? There aren’t any. Opportunities are the most you can hope for. Right now, you’ve got a big one.”
“I can’t work with a baby under my arm!”
Eahyaw laughed loudly, and touched her hand like she was an old friend.
“I got preggers on my very first run. Careless, but there you go. Ship’s owners fired me when we hit Bantou Stopover — middle of nowhere. They said I was a liability now. I sat around for a week feeling like you do now, then I scored a contract with a big family ship. They had a dozen kids already, living aboard, and an actual birthing room in the med bay! I had my little boy in mid-jump, and we stayed with them for ten years. Billy got to see the galaxy, growing up. How can you hope for more than that? Decent jobs are out there, Tallu…safe jobs. Especially if you’re good at what you do.”
Tallu looked at them, one after the other. Her classmates: ambitious, competitive, arrogant — and they were smiling, clapping her shoulders, seeing her, for all the world, as they seemed to see themselves.
“But, but…how do I even start…?”
Ejoq had taken up her certificate again, this time passing it around to the others, who all studied it curiously, and with good humor.
“You already did, gunner,” he replied over his shoulder.
David Collins-Rivera is a writer and voice actor who lives in the high desert of Arizona. His website can be found here.