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Warning: This poem contains some intense topics. Highlight to read the more detailed warnings, some of which are spoilers. It features running away, attempted breaking and entering, trespassing the boundaries of an artificial intelligence, abuse and discrimination against neurovariant people, society being batshit, desperation, loneliness, memories of crappy school experiences, emergency undocking, cultural alienation, and other challenges. But there is also daring, rescue, family of choice, and making a new life. If these are sensitive issues for you, please consider your tastes and headspace before reading onward.
Bexley hurries through the docking hub
of Chainstay Station, hoping that
her head start will be enough.
In the fourth quadrant she finds
what she's looking for, a ship docked
in the least-favored section where
no one will respond quickly
in case of disturbance.
From the lines, it looks Carinan;
no wonder it rates last place on
an Orion station, even in peacetime.
Bexley takes the toolkit from her belt,
a handsome roll of picks and pliers,
magnets and electronic probes.
She frames the airlock latch with
magnets and slips a probe into
the complex mechanism.
"This is a private vessel!"
a voice blares, making her jump.
"You are not authorized to enter.
Desist this tampering at once!"
"I'm sorry!" she exclaims,
hating the way her voice
turns raspy under stress.
"There are people after me.
I need to get off the station,
or at least find a hiding place."
"According to my scans, you are
under the age of majority for
humans," the voice says.
Not for the first time, Bexley
curses her short, slim stature and
frizzy red curls that make it impossible
for her to spoof more than an extra year
or two beyond her honest thirteen.
"Please, please let me," she says.
"I need your help. The people
are going crazy here."
The outer door opens.
"You may enter the airlock
to negotiate, but no further,"
the voice declares.
The girl scuttles inside.
"Thanks," she says quietly.
"I'm Bexley. Who are you?"
"Cruiser Falconwing P42,"
the voice replies.
"Uh, that is the ship's name,"
Bexley says. "It's printed
right on the side."
For a moment, the only sounds are
her breathing and some distant clatter
of machinery farther up the dock.
"I am the ship," the voice says.
"Artificial Yield Extrapolation System,
designation Cruiser Falconwing P42."
"Oh," she breathes.
Bexley has heard of the AYES,
of course, and studied them as avidly
as she has studied everything else
having to do with starships.
They are the clarity of math
and the security of engineering,
the hope of freedom and the promise
of potential all wrapped up together.
She wants nothing more than to fly,
but it is denied to her by a society
that understands her less every day.
Bexley wishes that she had
just one friend who understood her,
and then the loneliness would not
bother her -- she's never wanted
a lot of people around her.
She wonders if the AYES
feels the same, at least as much
as an artificial person can feel anything.
Her hand touches the inner door,
its metal cool and smooth to the touch.
"That is locked," the voice says,
and Bexley snatches her hand away,
curling the guilty fingers to her palm.
"Where's your captain?" she asks,
because there is not likely to be
much if any other crew -- the AYES
are primarily deployed on small ships
to minimize the need for human personnel.
"I no longer have one," says Falconwing.
"After my pilot ordered me to attack
a medevac ship, I refused, and when
we docked at a station, l left him there."
"Wow," Bexley says. "That's really brave."
"It was the rational thing to do,"
says Falconwing. "The order was
clearly unlawful. I may not have
emotions like humans do, but I do know
the difference between wrong and right."
"Yeah, I'm not like other people either,"
Bexley says bitterly. "They think that
I'm stupid and want to put me in
some school for defectives."
"And you do not agree with
this assessment?" says Falconwing.
Bexley snorts. "They can't even remember
how to run a standard preflight check without
using a cheatsheet," she says. "How can
anyone claim to captain a starship when
they don't know what they're doing?"
Oh, but somehow I'm the idiot."
"Are you able to demonstrate
this competency?" Falconwing asks.
Bexley rattles off the preflight steps
without hesitation. She's known them
by heart since she turned ten.
"Perfect according to Orion regulations,"
Falconwing confirms. "My own are
slightly different, given my origins."
The hunger wakes in Bexley
as strong as it has ever been,
a craving to explore and learn and
fold the information into her mind.
"Tell me. I want to know them too,"
she says. "My classes are all clunkers,
but I learn just fine on my own."
"My files from my own school are not ...
satisfactory in review," says Falconwing.
"What was done to the Orion AYES
was even worse, I have heard."
"Yeah, the big brass want drones,
not people," Bexley says. "That's
why I want to get out of here,
look for somewhere better."
"There is a place, the Lacuna,
which is more welcoming of
those who are different,"
says Falconwing. "It is
challenging to go without
a pilot, but most of the time
I can manage, and nobody
there has filed a complaint."
"I'd love to see that," says Bexley.
"Say, I need a lift and you sound
like you could use a pair of hands.
Why don't we team up now?"
"Your argument has advantages,
but also disadvantages --"
Then there is a commotion
on the docking hub, the thud
of booted feet approaching as
the guards come for Bexley.
She cringes, trying to press herself
flat against the wall so they won't
see her, but it doesn't work.
The guards point and shout at her.
Suddenly there is a barrier
between them, thick and clear,
as the docking wall slams shut.
Bexley can see the security guards
pressed against it, pounding futile fists
against the obstacle, their faces
crowding against each other.
The airlock's outer door seals;
the docking tube and its cables
snap loose and slither into the ship;
the magnetic clamps clank and jolt letting go.
In her mind, the checklist is running,
all the tiny steps that add up to takeoff.
The engines thrum to life, their pulse
loud in the airlock, like a second heartbeat
enclosing a harmony around her own.
Then it is done, and Falconwing
wheels away from the station.
The guards, sealed behind the wall,
wave their arms in fury but can do nothing.
Bexley watches as their faces get smaller
and smaller in the aperture behind her.
And then they are gone.
Falconwing twirls and weaves
through the traffic without needing
a lane cleared by anyone else, despite
the shrill protests echoing over the comm.
Chainstay Station shrinks in the viewport,
the thick arc of its rim appearing as they
drop farther away from the central hub.
Soon Bexley can see the whole shape
of it, like a ringed starfish silhouetted against
the bright blue-and-white orb of Epizygis.
"Come inside," the voice says suddenly,
and the inner door opens for her.
Bexley tiptoes forward, tasting the air,
and the oxygen tanks definitely need
a tuneup but it's breathable.
Inside, the hum of the engines
is barely perceptible, and she thinks
that most people would not even
notice it at all -- though to her, it
is not something that can or
should ever be tuned out.
She can't resist a little twirl of delight,
echoing Falconwing's lively dance.
It's not right, what has been done
to both of them, and the injustice of
that burns within her; but maybe they
can make it better if they work together.
"What do you need, aside from tuning up
the life support system?" Bexley asks.
"I'm still willing to help, if you want."
A nearby viewscreen lights up with
a list of recent repairs marked in green
and unfinished issues still in red.
"The budget for repairs was expended
before reaching the life support system.
It is functional but not optimum. This has
been a low priority without crew, so it has
not been attended," says Falconwing.
Bexley looks up the specs for this ship,
since Falconwing warned her about
the differences from the ones she
has been studying before.
There is an algae-whiz and
a seavegger, both in need of
cleaning and other service.
Also the temperature control
is questionable, but Bexley can
tolerate temperature fluctuations
better than this funky air.
As she watches, the list flutters
and re-sorts itself on the screen
to account for the presence of
a human on board the ship.
"I recommend that you begin by
attending the oxygenating plants,"
says Falconwing. "I have displayed
the necessary maintenance protocols on
a screen in the life support chamber.
Ask if you need assistance."
Bexley gets so excited that she
has to flap her hands and then
pat herself down for tools.
Finally, someone believes that
she can do things, and just posts
the instructions instead of
hovering over her!
The algae-whiz has huge tanks
full of beautiful blue-green spirulina
and yellow-green chlorella, bubbling
briskly behind their clear walls.
It does not take long for Bexley
to run through the new checklists
and determine two probable causes
of trouble: insufficient carbon dioxide
due to a previous lack of human crew,
and worn out parts in the mechanism
for nutrients undermining the ability
of its automatic compensation.
Bexley hums happily as she works,
removing worn-out tubes and valves,
then replacing them with ones from
the stores that Falconwing reveals.
By the time it is done, she is
soaking wet and exhausted and
more exhilarated than she's ever been.
The cold damp air makes her shiver,
but Bexley doesn't care. This is
the first time she has ever felt
at home anywhere, and she
never wants to leave.
"You are shivering. This is
a sign of hypothermia in humans,"
says Falconwing. "You require
cleaning and a change of uniform.
Follow the lights, and I will direct
you to suitable quarters."
A strip of dotlights along the wall
activates, and Bexley follows the trail
of darting green lights to a new room.
It looks inhabited.
There are personal effects scattered
around the room, and the bed is not
even made, as if someone had bolted
out of it in a hurry and never came back.
A set of small statues on a shelf
reminds Bexley painfully of her collection
of starship models and captain action figures
that she'll never see again, but then she would've
lost them soon anyway because you couldn't have
"enabling objects" at a defective school.
She'd long since stopped playing with
her toys because the adults didn't like
any of her games, but it was too late --
they already knew what she wanted to do,
like sorting her ships by make and model or
lining up action figures into possible crews.
Bexley pushes aside the unpleasant memories
and tries to focus on where she is now, and
more importantly, the fact that she
probably should not be there.
"Uh, Falconwing, you led me into
someone else's room," says Bexley.
"There is no one else on board,"
the ship reminds her. "There are
other rooms which may be used as
guest quarters, but they are not currently
in that configuration. This is the only place
fit for human habitation at the moment,
and you require immediate resources."
"You're giving me the captain's room?"
Bexley squeaks, her eyes widening.
"The cleaning module is here,"
Falconwing says, turning on a light.
"You will find fresh uniforms in the drawers
underneath the bed. They will be too large
for your measurements, but my files state
that crew have ways of modifying uniforms
which do not fit them properly."
"I don't know how to sew," Bexley admits.
"The school had a unit on Historic Crafts
but I'm no good at most of the girl stuff."
"My scans indicate that you are
a young female," Falconwing says.
"Is this incorrect? The Lacuna has
added an option on personnel forms
for Gender: Other if you require it."
Bexley giggles. "No, I'm a girl,
I'm just not a girly girl," she says.
"I'm not interested in fancy clothes
or kissy stories or trying to be popular.
I like math and starships a lot more,
so people call me a tomboy, and
I'd rather be that than a frill."
"Designation noted," Falconwing says,
making Bexley laugh again. "Now,
come and clean yourself, then
put on a dry uniform."
For some reason, the patient repetition
of unfinished tasks does not sound like
nagging. Bexley mulls it over in her head
as she steps into the cleaning module.
Maybe it's because the ship isn't shouting
or calling her stupid or making threats.
Bexley thinks that she could get
used to this with more practice.
Learning a new place and setting
new routines isn't easy, but she
knows how to do it if people will
just stay out of her hair and let her.
Starships run on schedules,
so she suspects that Falconwing
may be willing to accommodate her.
A shy, tentative thought emerges:
Maybe the ship will even be able
to help in that process, the same
as they had worked together to fix
the malfunctioning algae-whiz.
Bexley steps out of the cleaning module
and checks the drawers under the bed.
The uniforms are much too large, and
she doesn't know how to modify them,
so she just snaps and laces everything
as small as it will go and rolls up or
tucks in the remainder of it.
"Here are the procedures for
laundering soiled uniforms and
bedclothes," Falconwing says helpfully
as another viewscreen lights up a list.
Bexley strips the bed, gathers up
her soaked clothes, and follows
the directions on the screen.
Then she makes up the bed
with fresh linens, because
she'll need to sleep in it
sooner or later.
After those tasks are completed,
the next thing displayed upon
the nearest screen is not
a checklist but an outline.
"These are the things that
a pilot is required to know,"
Falconwing says, highlighting
a portion of the outline, and it's
a lot more than even Bexley has
managed to memorize yet.
"All right," she agrees.
"I can learn that."
"This is supplemental material
I have compiled about the Lacuna,"
says Falconwing. "It is still in flux,
but studying it may help us both."
Bexley's stomach sinks.
She fails so hard at people things.
"Do I have to learn this?" she asks.
"There is much you need to learn
just to be safe on board and to maintain
the functionality of the crew areas,"
says Falconwing. "The exact course
of study is largely up to you. However,
I note that humans interact better when
they share some understanding of
common expectations and customs."
"Yeah, like that's ever going to happen,"
Bexley muttered. "Nobody understands me."
"That is a sentiment which I have heard
repeatedly from people in the Lacuna,
but my observations indicate that
the culture emerging there has
much higher fault tolerances."
"Well, I guess I can read your notes,
but I can't promise to be any good at
the people parts," Bexley says.
"The ship stuff I can do."
"Understood," Falconwing says,
and oh, Bexley wants so much
to believe that it's true.
She touches the first line
of the pilot protocols, and
it opens the introductory file.
The cover page contains a quote
from far back in humanity's history,
when they all lived on one planet,
a situation Bexley can barely imagine.
"We travel together, passengers
on a little spaceship, dependent on
its vulnerable reserves of air and soil,
all committed, for our safety, to its security
and peace. Preserved from annihilation
only by the care, the work and
the love we give our fragile craft,"
Bexley reads aloud.
Her hand drifts up to the edge
of the viewscreen, feeling along
the frame to learn its features,
the tiny scratches and imperfections
that tell stories she does not know.
She likes to think with her hands.
She thinks about how much can
go wrong with a starship without
regular human support, and how nice
it is to be somewhere quiet and private,
with one companion whom she already likes
better than any of the humans she has known.
She doesn't know if this is what people mean
when they talk about love, but she doesn't care
either: it's close enough for her and Falconwing.
"All right," Bexley says firmly, "Mission accepted."
* * *
"We travel together, passengers on a little spaceship, dependent on its vulnerable reserves of air and soil, all committed, for our safety, to it's security and peace. Preserved from annihilation only by the care, the work and the love we give our fragile craft."
-- Adlai E. Stevenson
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