"Too Expensive to Ship Back"
Every pattern has its edges --
the profit margin of an economy,
the outliers in a bell curve,
the borders of a territory.
Beyond the Lacuna lie the Galactic Arms,
with the Carina-Sagittarius Arm
on the inside of the space and
the Orion-Cygnus Arm on the outside.
Naturally there are planets located
close to the rim of the Lacuna,
formerly staging areas for the war
and now fallen into disuse
as the peace rolls on.
Trunnion lies on the Orion side,
a battered little scrap of a planet
that is more scrubland than farm,
littered now with abandoned battle tech
and supplies too expensive to ship back
now that there's no need of them for the war.
Slightly more hazardous are the bits and bobs
of technology modded out by people like Cayson,
thus making other folks leery of buying things
that don't look like the picture on the box.
It makes life challenging for traders.
Then again, it makes opportunities too.
Spalling has been a soldier
for a handful of years, and then
a supplier for a handful more.
He got tired of the shooting,
in ways that made his head go strange
and that ultimately got him labeled
too expensive to ship back too.
So he used the last of his mustering-out pay
to buy a decommissioned military warehouse
and make a precarious living as a trader.
Now he spends his time scrounging for goods,
or picking over goods the other scrounges bring to him,
in hopes that enough of it will sell to keep the heat on.
Spalling is pretty sure that it's the heat
which attracts squatters, because
it sure isn't his cooking.
Normally he runs them off himself,
and can't be bothered to stir up the guard
or the civvie cops to take them away,
but sometimes it's harder than others.
Spalling finds himself looking down the barrel
of a refurbished positron rifle at a nest
made from army surplus blankets
and half a mattress, inside which
is curled a surly scrap of teenager.
The war has left a lot of orphans.
That's no surprise -- this isn't the first
scrawny desperate kid to wash up here.
What is a surprise, is the Alta Familia tattoo
banding one wrist with silver and starshine.
The High Clans don't lose their own easily,
not without some solid reason for it.
Spalling doesn't imagine he'll be getting
any answers out of the kid, but then
it's none of his business anyhow.
"Got a bucket of nuts and bolts today,"
Spalling says, minded to find a way
out of doing the scutwork himself.
"You sort them into the right cans,
and there's supper in it for you."
"What kind of cuisine?" the kid asks,
voice soft and cultured under a veneer
of wariness from living rough.
Spalling laughs. "It's soup made with dried veg
and cube meat straight out of the vat."
The kid's stomach gurgles like a leaky pipe.
"Your offer is acceptable."
Spalling still isn't sure if his stowaway
is a boy or a girl -- he thinks maybe girl,
the voice so high and soft, but
anything is possible.
"I'm Spalling," he says. "You got a name?"
Two fingers flip him a rude gesture.
"Call me V."
Spalling is pleasantly surprised by the speed
with which V turns humble-jumble into
sellable cans of 3/16 nuts and 5/8 bolts.
Altogether unlooked-for is V's quiet advice
about how to do just enough "specialty" trade
in modified tech and battle scrap -- quietly enough
to avoid upsetting what remains of the military
or the local law enforcement -- to put the business
and Spalling on a more solid footing here.
Although the older veteran keeps a sharp eye out
for more wayward teens, none appear.
This, he understands, is unusual; the street kids
tend to run in packs like lean hungry wolves
and fuck like a hutch of bunnies.
"You got any friends?" Spalling asks.
"I do not," V says.
Well, falling out of the clouds could do that.
It was a fixable sort of problem, with a little work.
"You wanna make some?" Spalling says.
"I hear there's a barrel burn down at the dump,
most weekends. You could go."
"I would prefer not to," V says
in that faint unflappable voice.
"You don't ... get lonely in here, with
only an old soldier for company?" he tries.
"You are not as old as my parents were,"
V says, which is as much as Spalling
has ever heard of personal history.
That's the end of it, more or less,
until Astin the trader pulls in with
a load of exotic Carinan goods and
"Do you happen to know where I might
find an algae-whiz and some seedstock?"
Spalling has four-fifths of an algae-whiz
right here in the warehouse, but no idea
where to go for the remaining parts.
It is V who flitters out and back again,
day in and night out, until the thing is complete,
then finds envelopes -- new, unopened ones,
not refilled and sealed up with heat and hope --
of spirulina and chlorella seedstock.
Spalling has no idea why V is so eager
to cozy up with Astin, who's a good trader
but surely nothing so special as all that.
So he asks.
"It's the paperwork," V confides.
"It does not say M or F. It says O.
That stands for Other. I asked.
Isn't that something?"
Spalling agrees that it's something,
although he's not sure exactly what.
Doesn't matter, really. The trade is good,
and V is smiling for the first time in ever,
so Spalling doesn't care what the hell
Astin's paperwork says. Besides,
he's a scrounge, not a bureaucrat.
V hovers around Astin, hanging on every word,
hardly leaving even to eat or to sleep.
Offers of fashionable new clothes
are met with a grim headshake, though.
Spalling isn't surprised. The kid won't undress
even to take a shower, just scrubs off with a rag,
which is more than a little annoying but then
he's seen stranger quirks than this.
It's the kind of thing that gets a kid
labeled "difficult" or "odd" and he thinks
the Alta Familia probably don't care for that.
Instead Spalling spends a stupid amount of credit
on a wide cuff bracelet beautifully woven out of
copper wirefloss and black plastithong.
He doesn't say anything, just hands it to V,
who promptly uses it to blot out the holotat
banding one skinny wrist. No thanks are
offered or expected in the exchange.
Then it's time for Astin to pack up and go,
with the pieces of what some mechanic
can hopefully reassemble into an algae-whiz,
and assorted army rations that nobody
around here but the two of them
was interested in eating.
"I'm building a route," Astin says, and that's
new, all right. "You can always reach me
through the ciphernet at my anchors.
You too, V, don't be a stranger."
V gives a graceful little bow,
head dipping down out of the clouds.
"I will take it into consideration."
Spalling is grateful to see the kid
tolerating some kind of human connection.
Maybe there's hope for all of them,
unlooked for and scarcely to be trusted,
piecing together a life out of the war-rubble
like the way they have to reassemble
all the remnants of technology
too expensive to ship back.
* * *
Anomaly detection is part of pattern recognition.
Trunnion comes from part of a bridge.
PTSD is common among veterans and war orphans. There are ways to help, but for some survivors it mainly comes down to living alongside each other and agreeing not to pick at it.
V is asexual and aromantic. Asexuality means a lack of interest in copulation, which can raise questions for teenagers about how to be asexual in a sexual world. Aromanticism similarly entails disinterest in amorous affections, creating another challenge for teens about finding their place in a romantic world.
Sex and gender have many complexities. V seems to be somewhere in this vicinity. There are tips for teens about being genderqueer, which can manifest in various ways. Closely related is androgyny, combining traits from masculine and feminine genders, and you can see how V presents an androgynous appearance. For any kind of alternative sex/gender identity, it helps to have a mentor.
V has experienced a lot of rejection on a family and class level. Intolerance has many causes, but key among them are wealth and power. There are ways to deal with prejudiced and arrogant people. It also helps to teach kindness as a counter to intolerance and violence.
There's a difference between being a loner and being lonely. It's okay to be solitary! There are tips on how to become a loner or how to deal with loneliness. You can also help a teenager to socialize more. V seems to have a low need for social contact, but would probably enjoy it more if not surrounded by assholes.
Algae has been described as a super food and a key to sustainable future. Enjoy some recipes for the two leading types of edible algae, spirulina and chlorella. An algae-whiz is an appliance that people in this setting use to grow and harvest substantial quantities of edible algae. The Lacuna has taken another step toward food independence!
After surviving a trauma, people may need to tear down their old life to rebuild a new one. Part of this may involve making new friends, especially among people with common interests such as queerfolk. V has found a good place because there are lots of asexual, aromantic, and/or genderqueer folks in the Lacuna. It's pretty much populated by people the Galactic Arms consider flakes, primarily neurovariant but also other kinds of folks who just don't fit in for all kinds of other reasons.