Bourbon, Sugar, Grace

“Bourbon, Sugar, Grace” by Jessica Reisman is a science fiction novelette about Fox, a young salvager living in a mining colony on an inhospitable planet abandoned by its owners once the mines were shut. When Fox is hired to find an object lost in a recent accident, she finds a mystery, an opportunity, and trouble.

 

I can do this. Indomitable, indomitable, in the Sloe Ghost’s image are we, indomitable. I can do this, this can I do, Fox repeated Pisque’s Litany in her head. From where she stood on the Furrow bank, the train car upended in the toxic sludge of a gurge-sink looked a long distance away.

Fox backed up several steps, ran, leapt.

She just missed the top end of the car and slammed into the tilted side, fingers flexing in her sticky gloves as she gripped a side rail. One of her booted feet slipped its purchase and she hung a moment until she found another bit of purchase on a window’s edge.

The train car had been wrecked several days ago as it traveled the Furrow line. A gurge, geo-spasm of this stressed and over-mined region of the rocky planet Fox’s people called Sloe, erupted under the train car without warning, taking it into the air, half-swallowing it down, and leaving a toxic sludge pit in the middle of the Furrow’s dry canal.

The Furrow line was shut down until such time as the council had the resources and give-a-shit to fix it, and too bad for the few mining techs left at the up-Furrow settlement who needed it for transport to Drumtown.

The Furrow ran through an expanse of folded rock like a giant shawl dropped by a passing cosmic grandmother. Currently it was hazed with low, clinging fog. Sloe’s brief early morning light curled through the thin, tech-assisted atmosphere.

Fox clung to the side of the train car, gripping the rail with both hands, one boot toe with precarious purchase, other foot searching for another bit of support.

Then her oxygen filament glitched. Her breath caught as the implant’s function stuttered. Fox dragged at suddenly too-thin air. No! Not now! There was one long, horrible moment of suffocation as her body tried to pull enough breath out of Sloe’s atmosphere, and then a gasp as the filament kicked back in. Fox closed her eyes and savored filling her lungs freely, muscles unclenching.

She inched herself up to the car’s rear door, wrenched open by the rescue drone that had lifted the few passengers—alive, dead, and in-between—out.

As her boot found another divot, Fox solidified her grip and pushed the last few inches to crouch atop the upended car. She peered through the hole where the door had been, then dropped into the car, the tough material of the mine suit she wore fending off the jagged metal edges of the opening.

The thin light of Sloe’s sun cast streamers through wreckage. Fox used the seats like rock outcroppings and came down to the opposite end of the train car. With one hand to a blood-streaked seat back, she slipped the scanner out of the suit’s hip pocket. Ryuu had cobbled it together specially for this salvage. Fox thumbed the seek switch on the finger-sized unit, not sure exactly what she was looking for; the scanner would supposedly identify it and Ryuu’s customer would pay a generous fee for it.

Debris littered the area around Fox’s feet in the corner of the car, a busted cool-pail with the rotting remains of someone’s lunch spilled from it, a mining tech’s helmet with basic data eye-screen, cracked, a crumple of kid’s blanket with holo-patterns of spin ships slipping through it. Other debris lodged above, between the seats and the curve of the train car’s side.

Ryuu’s scanner did nothing as she skimmed it over all the wreckage in her immediate vicinity. It wasn’t until she was halfway back up the car, using the seats to climb, that the scanner began to beep in her hand, speeding or slowing as she waved it this way and that. Fox climbed a little more, scanned a little more, and eventually found a small object wedged between a seat and the curved wall.

After trying to lever it out from above, she dropped down a seat and pushed from beneath. With a screech as it scratched the side, the object popped free and slid off the seat. Fox shot out a hand and caught it. At first glance it was just a rock, an oblong that fit in Fox’s gloved palm. There was a little bit of glint in the rough surface, but nothing to indicate it was more than a rock. Rolling it over, though, revealed an odd inset of fine, colorless crystal in the form of an organic-looking spiral—spiral amoeba was the thought that came to Fox.

She ran a gloved finger over the crystal facets; a pulse of sheen went through the spiral. Fox froze, but after a beat, nothing else happened. She tucked it into a secure inner suit pocket just beneath her breasts.

She was coming over the jagged edge of the opening at the top when a groan and a shift of the train car told her the gurge was still active. The car sank a hand span further as the sludge burped up a slow roil of bubbles. Fox’s lungs and eyes burned.

The car had shifted away from the bank. Fox eyed the new distance.

I can do this. Pisque and the Sloe Ghost, please.

From a low crouch at the very edge of the leaning car, Fox leapt. The upper half of her body hit the bank’s edge and she grabbed hold of rock and crusted sand. A moment of internal crowing, I can do this

—and then pain burned a signal up her lower hanging leg as it dragged in the sludge.

She managed to drag herself up over the edge of the bank—no, I can’t—before the pain whited out her mind.

 

Fox had been four when she and her moms got their oxygen filament implants and came to Sloe. When she was ten, her moms quit the mines—they always said quit, but everyone knew most of the tech jobs petered out as mining operations pushed past the edge of safety and their area of Sloe became a geothermal lacework, creating the gurges. Fewer techs were needed as one mine after another tapped out. Her moms, Ohnee and Taf, moved themselves and Fox from the up-Furrow miner settlement to a burgeoning co-op in Drumtown. The co-op had taken over the unused silo at one edge of Drumtown to work on resource and support streams independent of the mining combine.

Sloe—Planet 3010SL08—was uninhabitable beyond the combine’s atmosphere mixers, sunk into the rocky surface marking out 250 square kilometers with Drumtown roughly center.

Humans had been on Sloe for twenty-two years standard, twelve longer than they were meant to. They were confined to the area within the combine’s ring of atmosphere assisters, sunk like sentry columns of tech in the planet’s rock. Once the area had been mined of its resource minerals to the point of instability, turning the local geologic layers into lace and giving rise to the gurges, the combine was to have lifted off the human techs, scientists, engineers, and administrative personnel overseeing operations at seven different mining stations within the ring. First there were technical delays; then in-combine political delays, and then more technical delays. Eventually, it became clear that the mining combine had all but abandoned them. They still got the automated drops of survival supplies, meds and food basics, but queries on disembarkation updates were lost in the bureaucratic cloud.

Children were born, jobs tending the mining bots ran thin, and the need for habitation structures ran ahead of the process for approving it. The limited supply of oxygen filaments dwindled.

It was her moms who told her the story of Pisque and the Sloe Ghost, tag-teaming it at more than one bedtime.

“And so Pisque followed the voice of the Sloe Ghost, deep into its place, in the rock and ore and flow of Sloe,” Ohnee—the mom who’d borne her—would say.

“In the mines, where the lights ran out and the dark was all,” Taf took it up, using his long dark hair like a curtain about them as he leaned his face close to Fox’s, his dark eyes serious, brows raised, “down there the Sloe Ghost seeped back into the rock and said to Pisque, from all around her, ‘Everything must breathe, even rock.’” Taf’s voice always went woo-y and slippy on the Sloe Ghost’s words. Fox loved Taf’s hair, soft and shining dark, and his face like a beautiful story itself. Fox’d gotten Ohnee’s fuzzy hair, but Taf’s eyes.

“Pisque called back to the Ghost,” Ohnee picked it up, “‘Tell me what you mean, Ghost!’”

“Then the Sloe Ghost poured out its lament. And Pisque knew what she had to do.” Taf’s voice always sank here, to a sweet-rough whisper. “The thing that needed doing. Pisque gave the Ghost her breath.”

 

Metal taste of blood in her mouth. She’d bitten her tongue. Rocks dug into her cheek and palms.

Then a flash of pain from her left calf.

Fox rolled to her back, jaw clenched against escalation in the pain—

—which didn’t come.

Sitting up, Fox drew a deep breath and looked at her leg. It was ugly. The boot had protected her foot and ankle, but the suit had melted through in places on her shin, the leg burned dark red and puffy and bleeding sluggishly along cracked skin.

She should be screaming in pain. Instead there was just a low ache, an afterthought or memory of pain.

Judging by the level of light in Sloe’s layered haze of assisted atmosphere, it was late morning. She’d been out a little while. She got herself standing, every moment expecting the pain to kick in. It didn’t. Am I in shock?

She put a hand to her diaphragm, over the salvaged object; still secure.

The hike out here had taken her the entire previous night. No matter how little of the pain signal was reaching her, a return hike all the way back to Drumtown wasn’t a high-magnitude plan.

It was, however, the only plan she had.

 

By the time Fox reached the Pyres, a gathering of stone pillars rising into the thin air in cock-eyed cubic tumbles, it was night. The Pyres ran along one side of the Furrow for five kilometers. The light reflecting from Sloe’s three planetoid companions and the heavy spill of stars visible between drifts of cloud cover cast multiple shadows through the Pyres. A low fog obscured the ground.

The lack of pain from her leg was worrying. It wasn’t numb, or dead; something was between her and the sensory input.

A hard, human-made light flashed ahead, cutting a path by the Furrow. Some instinct nudged Fox back from the open space to hide among the Pyres as a transport came along, a heavy, roller-wheeled explorer. Not miners; only combine scientists, up-aboves, and their agents—flaks—had access to such a thing.

She watched the transport pass, nosing along the thin stretch between the Furrow and the Pyres. She couldn’t make out the occupants, only that there were two.

Fox limped on. In another hour she reached the number two mine and the station that had served it, both shut down. She came up behind the station, a deserted fab among the Pyres, from out of the rock forest, walking the path worn by mining techs between station and mine entrance. Equipment had been flown in by remote units, but humans had beaten this path.

Despite the muted pain signal, Fox felt ragged as the bed of a ripped out tooth. She crept through the empty station’s several rooms—meeting room, cantina, locker room. Graffiti scrawled over the degraded inset panels for notices on mine conditions, schedules, combine news; traces of the panels’ luminosity remained, leavening the dim.

Settling onto a bench that was part of one of the fab’s molded walls, Fox drifted, a tang of pain in her mouth, thoughts floating into patchwork corridors and dead-end alleys. Her moms appeared and wandered nearby, disappeared, reappeared. Ohnee said, “What’s that in your skin, Foxy girl?” Taf said, “She’s taken up molecular patterning, m’love.”

Molecular patterning was something speciationists did. It was also, indirectly, why Fox had left the co-op—before she could be kicked out. That and the fact that she and Jope, the co-op’s administrant, never had got along. Some people you just took against, they put your hackles up and you theirs, and that had been Fox and Jope since she was a headstrong ten-year-old.

By the time she was eighteen, she’d been salvaging for a few years. The co-op’s resident speciationist had asked her to find a sample of a particular mineral at one of the closed mine sites, and sent her son Attar, a little younger than Fox, along to test the samples on-site so Fox wouldn’t have to haul back any useless ones. Attar’s oxygen filament had glitched. It was one of the times a glitch was fatal; the filament died. She hadn’t been able to get him back to Drumtown quickly enough. She still woke up sometimes feeling Attar in her arms, wheezing for breath, and then—not.

That was when Fox started drinking the grain alcohol some co-op and other Drumtown residents made. It softened the hard edges, the ones inside, that hurt. It also made her sloppy, which led to the biggest fight she and Jope had yet had. He’d been right, and she’d known it, but he was so wrong in his rightness that she couldn’t, wouldn’t, back down.

Graceless, that’s what Jope had called her in the last argument they had before Fox left the co-op, graceless—a disappointment to him, the co-op, her moms, to Pisque and the Sloe Ghost.

Something woke her. After a moment she realized it had been a slant of light, moving over the station wall. Then she heard voices. The people in that transport, heading back to Drumtown.

Keeping to the shadows in the front room, Fox could see them standing outside their transport, its head beams cutting the night: a man and woman in the pale suits of combine flaks. The man was peeing against the platform side.

Their voices were clearer, but Fox couldn’t make out what they were saying.

Then, suddenly, she could.

“…back without it.”

“Who would have gone after it?”

“A hired scav, obviously; there’s only a few. We’ll start with them. You done yet?”

“Does it look like I’m done?”

“You pee a fuck ton. You should have that checked.”

“Slag off, Blanchard,” peeing man replied, but it was without sting. He was a tall guy with long features as laconic as his attitude, dark skinned as Fox. Folded in half he would still have been taller than Fox. Blanchard, the woman, was medium height, medium build, medium-pale skin, medium everything, the sort of flak you lost sight of even as she spoke to you. She stood there, stolid and unmoving, except for one hand, which fiddled restlessly with a slender cylinder device, flipping it in her fingers back and forth.

Fox recognized the device, oh-eight-sixers or wheezers, people called them. Triggered, it emitted a signal on a targeted beam that interrupted the functioning of oxygen filament implants. Fox rubbed her chest, above the left pulmonary artery, which was where the filaments were implanted. She’d had hers since she was four. Technically it was mining combine property. Like the mining colony itself, they’d never been meant to last so long. Drumtown had a limited supply, reserved now for any children born on Sloe; no replacements were available.

Peeing man shook off and tucked himself away. For a moment, Fox could smell his piss and the heavily spiced food he or Blanchard had recently eaten. She could hear the device flipping through Blanchard’s fingers, the sloughing tick of the transport, and the soft rolling of drops condensed from the fog dripping to the ground from the vehicle’s body.

Fox drew back against the wall, heart hammering as she freaked out at the over-boosted sensory input. Then it faded. In that moment, the pain from her leg flared, sick dizziness washing up with it. Slowly, the pain receded again, behind the veil of…something.

The little oblong of rough rock with its spiral amoeba that nestled in her jacket, close to her skin—Fox very much suspected.

The flak’s voices barely carried now and she caught only a word here and there. Her heart slowed as she breathed through the panic.

Crap.

 

“A combine scientist put me onto it, geologist, yeah?” Ryuu had said. “One of the passengers was carrying something interesting and she wants it.”

“And ‘it’ is what, exactly?” Fox asked.

Ryuu shrugged. “Something small, dunno. She says she’ll pay big. We can help your moms and the co-op get the collectors replaced properly through Jope’s connections—you know the council isn’t going to do anything about it. Maybe even”—half a breath hesitation—“a supply of new filaments.” When Fox didn’t react to that, he continued the sales pitch. “This way it gets done. You can do it—you’re the best salvager I know, yeah?”

The taste of that hope—the hope of doing something right for her moms, for the co-op, was intoxicating. Better than the warm, calming rush of any alcohol.

“Ryuu, there’s only a handful of salvagers on Sloe.”

Ryuu grinned. “Yeah.”

 

Yeah.

Fox sank down to the floor. When she heard Blanchard and peeing man leave again, she slipped the rock out of her suit.

It was warm from proximity to her skin. The colors in the crystalline amoeba on one side had changed from when she’d first looked at it. Indigo was blushing into the colorless material, a slow, inky bleed.

She turned it in her fingers, examining it in the faint light from the degraded notices.

“What are you?” she asked.

A warm pulse washed through her senses, calling up all good things—a hug from Taf, a good swig of Ryuu’s best alcohol, a deep breath of pure air, Ohnee’s hands massaging her scalp as she retwisted her hair—all at once. Every endorphin associated with sense comfort showered like light through her brain.

 

Fox’s usual salvage came from the closed mines and abandoned study sites; she scavenged things that facilitated the continuation of life in a settlement they’d only been meant to inhabit for, at most, a decade. Bits and pieces of prefabs and old equipment; there wasn’t anything of value beyond that to be had on Sloe—until this, whatever it was. Stupid. Damn you, Ryuu. And damn your ownself, too, Fox. Stupid.

Out beyond the ring of combine atmos equipment sunk into the rock of Sloe, the small planet was not habitable at all without full deep space suit, kit, and sealed habs, items to which no inhabitant of Sloe had access.

She came limping into Drumtown with the earliest suggestion of dawn scratching across the sky. As she reached the richer air of the settlement, she imagined she could feel the filament sigh in relief as its load lightened, boosted by Drumtown’s higher oxygen content. The squat buildings and blocky towers, all furred with algae, gained a brief grace in the light. Soon enough, as she made the shelter of her own tiny cubby on the dregs of her energy, the usual pall fell as the planet’s sun rose past the thick recursion of the assisted atmosphere.

Falling onto her bunk, Fox lay still, just breathing, before she pulled off her gloves and struggled back up to get the med kit from the water closet, a few feet away. She grabbed a supplement bar, refilled the water bulb—long since emptied in the trek home—from the distiller, then hobbled back to the bunk.

She was queasy, but ate the bar anyway, for grounding. Then she looked at her leg. Shit shit shit. She soaked a cloth in water with some biotics from the kit and put it over the place where the remains of the suit leg were stuck to her blistered skin.

Fox sucked in a breath at the apprehension of pain, but pain stayed at a distance.

Sweat dripping from her face and her hands trembling, she picked all the bits of the suit out, treated the burned sores, then sprayed the leg with synth bandage. She drank down more water and lay back trembling.

Sliding a hand into the loosened front of the suit, Fox took out the rock and set it on the bed. As she withdrew her hand, pain from her leg bit so hard she cried out, sucking the yell back on a curse.

Hand back on the object, pain receded.

Fox fumbled several pain killers out of the med kit, downing them and staring at the rock, inert and innocuous-seeming on her bunk.

Fox knew that, unlike Pisque in the story of the Sloe Ghost, she didn’t always do the right thing at the right time. She heard Administrant Jope’s voice in her head, graceless. Fox had fucked up, drinking when she shouldn’t. She moved out of the co-op before Jope could kick her out, leaving to save face for her moms, so they wouldn’t have to intervene.

And now, looking at the rock and considering the small, deep tug she was beginning to feel for it, Fox dug out the bottle of alcohol she’d been saving. She knew it was the wrong thing to do, at the wrong time. But she needed that swallow of familiar, warm calm.

It was a bottle of the mash liquor Ryuu made. He used the corn speciation the co-op grew in its hydroponics and aged it in scorched casks of wood—rare as rare could be, that—out of some gravity well. Fox had salvaged the casks from the remains of a storage fire. The resulting alcohol was dark and smelled like smoke and memory and drank far too easily.

Sometime later, Fox lay on her stomach, the heavy slag glass bottle she’d been drinking from listing in one hand as she leaned on her elbows, examining the spiral amoeba in the rock.

Several drops of amber liquor splashed onto it. The rock gave a tiny jolt, barely there, and the color in the crystalline spiral bled from indigo to gold, glowing briefly. Fox stared at it, waiting, but that was all. Once more it was inert, though touching it still played havoc with her senses, distancing the medication- and alcohol-dulled pain from her leg even further, bringing sounds from outside her cubby closer—the churning rhythm of the nearby turbines, her neighbors’ voices.

 

A few hours later, as Sloe’s short span of daylight sank into the long dusk of its twilight, Fox went to see Ryuu. She tucked the rock safe away on her person, not wanting to leave it in the cubby.

As she came out a side door into the chill, a prickle across her shoulders and the backs of her hands made her keep to the darkest shadow in the alley. Leaning against one wall, the algae cold against her cheek, she watched two shapes enter her building—which was nothing more than three floors of cubbies—from the street. Blanchard and peeing man—his height and curved slouch were distinctive. And in Blanchard’s fingers, the wheezer glinted as she flipped it back and forth. Cold sweat shivered Fox’s skin, a flush of fear, her breath shortening merely in reaction.

She pressed back against the algae, and then faded down the alley, slipping into the maze of unregulated structures sprawled up and down Drumtown’s cratered terrain. The structure with her cubby sat roughly center of town.

Drumtown’s alleys and byways ran between makeshift, puzzle-boarded walls of printed metal alloy and scavenged mineshaft panels—some scavenged by Fox—patched with ceramsteel castings and haphazardly grown over with a chemical lattice for algae. The walls leaned close as Fox navigated a path. Scents of cooking and the humid fetor of humans living in what was essentially a closed and artificial atmospheric system. Clashing threads of music and conversation, argument and rhythms of activity reached her and, once, then twice, close, breathless words of intimacy.

The fog drifted through Drumtown, familiar to Fox as the sound of her moms’ voices. Ryuu lived at the opposite edge of town from the co-op. Because the liquor Ryuu made provided a much needed pressure valve on Sloe’s population, what there was left of authority—the council—cut him some leeway in the matter of resource and energy consumption.

Ryuu’s cave was an igneous bubble in the side of a crater, a rough curl of rock overhanging the entrance, where he’d put in an old ship panel as a wall, with a hatch for a door. Fox climbed over the lip and into the flicker of light from a metal sander as Ryuu worked on something. The cave had three chambers: this one, uneven walls dark green with algae, had a long table and shelves of tools, bits of tech, and the projects and jobs Ryuu was working on, all in various states of construction or deconstruction; the room at the back of the workshop, little bigger than Fox’s cubby, was his living space; and under that was a hole dug with bots where he distilled and aged the liquor.

Ryuu bent over a sander, sparks and lines of light reflecting in the scratched visor obscuring his face.

Fox waited until he took a break. Ryuu was comfortable and stolid, his skin the same light ochre as the striations in the formations of the Pyres. He and Fox were the same age; she’d known him forever.

“Ryuu.”

He looked around, visor reflecting light, shelves, then Fox, in a curve.

“You get it?”

Arms folded across her chest, Fox gave a nod.

Ryuu sat back on his stool and lifted the faceplate to perch on his head. “What’s wrong?”

“Ry, this thing is something…alive? Maybe? It’s…” Fox shook her head, chewed her lip. “And two combine flaks are looking for it. They came to my cubby.”

Ryuu’s brows rose. “You’re—are you okay?”

“They just missed me, I’m fine.”

His gaze flickered to her leg, but he said only, “Huh,” and sat, clicking his tongue—thinking, Fox knew, but she wasn’t feeling patient.

“Exactly what did the scientist who set you on this salvage say, Ry? These were combine flaks—they’ve never given a damn about any salvage before.”

Fox suddenly remembered, picturing it in her head, the bottle she’d left on her bunk, a finger’s worth of dark liquor remaining, the little star and barrel symbol Ryuu etched into the slag glass as a label cutting a facet of light out of the dim.

It wasn’t a secret where Sloe’s best liquor came from.

“Shit.”

“Yeah?”

“They’re gonna come here.”

“So”­—Ryuu gestured with the hand not holding the sander—“I’ll contact the customer and we’ll do the handoff now; let the flaks hash it out with her. If they get here before, we just give it to them, yeah? It was a nice dream, getting new collectors for the co-op, but—” he shrugged.

Fox rolled her shoulders, feeling angry and stubborn—downright recalcitrant, she heard Ohnee say in her head, as she had when Fox was small—and unsure why.

Weird sense-manipulating qualities aside, even possible proto-life aside, it was just some salvage.

 

Ryuu’s scientist was in the med clinic, and had been since the train accident. Turned out, she’d been the one carrying the amoeba rock on the train.

She was a woman with hard muscles under doughy flesh. Her pale hair was shaved close, her face an interesting cross between pointy-featured and flat-planed. Currently, she sported dark hollows under the eyes, cuts and bruises still showing under synth skin. Her left side was bandaged from waist to knee.

The med clinic was in one of the original hab structures at the center of Drumtown. It smelled of the generations of algae that had lived and died on the walls, lattices replenished countless times.

Fox and Ryuu stood by the scientist’s cot, nodding to the on-duty med tech as he cautioned them about tiring the patient and then left. Movable screens provided privacy, diffuse light slanting through the shadows from collector panes in the walls.

“You have it?” These were the first words out of the scientist’s mouth. She had the irritated, querulous tone of someone who’d been laid up and rubbed raw by injury and inactivity.

Ryuu looked at Fox and Fox shifted. She slid a hand into her pocket and grasped the rock, pulled it out, and then just stood, frozen.

The scientist held out her hand. Fox’s hand with the rock in it stayed where it was, hovering.

Slowly, the woman lowered her hand. She frowned. “It got to you, didn’t it?”

Fox swallowed. “What is it?”

The scientist grimaced, rubbing at a spot above her bandages. “I’m an astromaterials geophysicist. The combine has had me poking around in the closed mines and sites of geothermal reactivity”—the gurges, she meant—“for some time now. Since about the beginning of colony overstay.”

She let that hang a moment. “Then I found that”—she lifted her chin toward it and hesitated before finishing—“rock. Near the gurge sinks of the Outlier.” The Outlier was mine number seven, furthest out from Drumtown.

Fox rolled that around in her mind, clutching the amoeba rock and staring down at it.

Ryuu, always quick to leap from fact to conclusion, said, “Are you telling us that rock is why the combine abandoned us here—hoping someone would find it?”

With the rock in her hand, Fox could hear the scientist’s heart beating, the push of her blood, and sense Ryuu’s curiosity and concern as little touches and twitches on her skin.

“The toxic lace at the Outlier is treacherous—and there were multiple meteor strikes recently, making it worse. The mine itself is off limits; but that’s where the combine told me to go.” Her mouth worked a moment, as if she would say more, but the words stuck in her throat. Instead, she picked up a worn, grimy link globe from beside the cot and cupped it in one shaking hand—shaking with rage, not weakness, Fox thought.

“Outlier recording bex-alpha-eight.”

The muted, layered colors of Sloe’s twilight sky and a stretch of barren terrain softened by low fog filled the space over the scientist’s cot. Whip sound of wind, hiss of sand over rock. It had been recorded from the shelter of the mine entry, it looked like, and the perspective put the link globe affixed to the scientist’s suit at the shoulder. A counter that seemed to hover in the middle distance along the bottom of the recording showed time elapsing, date, location coordinates.

The feed turned into the mine entrance, beam cutting a hard angle over rock, into darkness.

“Skip to index four-seven-nine,” the scientist said.

The recording jumped. Down in the mine. The link globe’s beam showed rock debris, bits and pieces of the wreckage of the mine, then went around a fenced-off gurge sink, toxic heat waves smoking off it. Along a rock strewn corridor, more gurge disruptions and crumbling patches, to what looked like…it took Fox a moment to resolve what she was seeing: a section of mine wall had sheaved open like a split geode. A suggestion of faceted, rough crystal and a low-simmering glow came from within it.

Fox held her breath as the recording led them inside the split. The rock and crystal flickered with a kind of luciferase veining through all the matter within.

The scientist climbed over rough, veined cubes and facets of rock and crystal. The veining intensified to a knot at a central point in the heart of the split. Gloved hands hesitated before them, then reached into the heart of the veining, where the rock was crumbled into smaller cubes and rubble, and dug. What should have been hard rock matter sloughed away from the scientist’s hands, oily looking, fresh flickers of luciferase veining were revealed and then an oblong rock, the glinting in its rough surface fading as it came into the air. The scientist picked it up and turned it in gloved hands. The amoeboid spiral on one side was dark and rough, crystalline facets snagging the globe’s beam.

The scientist switched off the globe and the holo image went out, leaving the med clinic dim and flat.

“Whoa,” Ryuu breathed.

“I was taking it to the only exo-biologist on planet; he’s shacked up with one of the mining techs still living out at Furrow’s end. And fucking Sloe tried to swallow the train,” she gestured at the cot.

“That rock is the key to making the combine lift us off this rock—they want it, badly.” She looked up at Fox. “Whatever it is. It doesn’t matter if it’s—” She waved her hand.

“If it’s what?” Ryuu said. When neither of them answered, he said, “Well fuck the combine anyway—we do all right for ourselves.”

The scientist shook her head. “You have no idea how fragile our existence is.”

“Course I do,” Ryuu said. “But it always is, yeah? There’s not that much more guarantee on a habitable planet, a station, or a spin ship.”

“There’s far more guarantee, more opportunity, more civilized daily life—on any central planet or station—but you two wouldn’t remember that.” She shook her head. “You’re really Sloe’s children.”

Fox held the rock, fingers curled around it. It was warmer, in the chill of Drumtown, than Fox’s own body heat could account for.

Then she smelled a distinct, sharp funk and heard Blanchard’s voice, “You’re killing me, man, again?” as peeing man pissed against the outside wall of the med clinic.

“Two flaks,” Fox said, “outside.” She lifted her chin. “They followed me somehow—they’re here for the rock, aren’t they?”

The scientist cursed. “If they take it we have nothing to bargain with. We need it for leverage with the combine.” With a sharp gesture, she said, “Go.” When Fox hesitated, she flung out her hand. “Go. I’ll tell the flaks we need assurances from the combine.”

 

Fox and Ryuu slipped out another side of the clinic hab and into Drumtown’s maze. Ryuu peeled off to confuse things if the flaks followed, while Fox threaded the tangle of byways toward to the one place she knew that would both welcome her and provide a thin layer of security: the co-op where her moms lived.

It was full dark, and though there were lights here and there, Fox navigated as much from memory, the map in her mind, as by sight. And the boost in her senses from the rock—every algae-furred wall was a presence she felt on her skin, the distant sift of wind over the open spaces surrounding town reached her, haunting as the voices of interstellar space.

She came out past a series of jutting crater artifacts, curved and broken rock, to the ramp that went to the co-op’s entrance at the base of a silo, the landing site’s original equipment warehouse. A woman straightened from a slouch by the entry at the top of the ramp.

Fox had salvaged almost every panel and bolt of the ramp.

“Ayo,” Fox greeted the woman and Ayo slung the puffer gun she carried back and resumed slouching with a lift of her chin in greeting. Her gaze returned to scanning the area before Fox passed her. Fox knew there was another guard, up above, in the shadows.

Inside, the productive, ordered chaos of the co-op slipped around Fox, familiar as an old jacket. The silo had been converted over time with a ring of multiple levels. Variously salvaged and crafted walls and screens created cubbies and networked spaces for individuals and families, with community space, dedicated hydroponics, and workspace on the first level, from which there was a view all the way up past the circling floors to the silo’s domed, collector-paned roof. Sometimes, on rare, clear nights, you could see stars. Every wall or screen that could support it grew vertical crops of lettuce, beans, edible flowers, speciated rarities. The watering and reclamation systems were brutally complex.

It was as quiet now as it generally ever got, most inhabitants settling in for the night. A child shrieked a laugh somewhere above. Fox nodded to several people, some working, some just sitting and talking; the late-burning hydroponic lights glowed behind crop-spiky walls.

The stairs up to each level were more patchwork. The last set, to the top level where Fox’s moms had their place, creaked, in need of shoring. Down a short corridor, past two other cubbies, around a screen.

Her moms sat at the little table, a covered oil lamp between them limning their hands and faces, Ohnee’s bush of hair, a sheen on Taf’s braids. The third chair was still there. Her moms kept it for guests, but it was also, always, Fox’s chair. She slid into it.

“Hi, Foxy girl,” Ohnee said, a flash of teeth in her dark face, and Taf leaned over to wrap an arm around Fox’s shoulder and hug her to him, his warm scent—the speciated miniature sandalwood he grew in wall pots—calming. His hair was in two long braids and he wore his much mended kimono of fee silk that Fox had always loved. The worn silk was violet, originally stitched with tiny amber and green beads, though few of them remained, in figures that Taf said were foxes, the old earth mammal for which they’d named her.

Ohnee was watching her, and Fox dropped her gaze to the table. Ohnee made an mm-hmm noise. “What’s wrong?”

Fox pulled out the amoeba rock, set it on the table between her hands, and told them about the last night and day. When she got to the part where she got hurt, they insisted on inspecting her bandaging job. Then they made her eat. At the mention of the rock’s reaction to the drop of Ryuu’s liquor, though she elided somewhat over getting drunk, Fox felt them exchange a glance past her. When she got to the end, they sat, mulling it all over.

“Well,” Ohnee said eventually, “I think we can expect these flaks will be referred to Jope and Jope will be up here wanting your rock in the morning. Pretty sure whoever’s on security won’t let the flaks in during the night, though.”

“It’s Ayo,” Fox said. “But the one flak, Blanchard, she has that wheezer.”

“She uses that on Ayo and whoever’s got angel duty will take her down,” Ohnee said, referring to the second, up-above guard always posted. “We’ve got the night, and you need to sleep, child.”

Fox’s fingers rested on the amoeba rock’s rough curve. “I should trade it to the combine, shouldn’t I? In exchange for whatever we can get out of them.” She closed her eyes, listening to the winds. “Where will we go if we leave Sloe? Or—what should I ask for—should I leave it to—to Jope?” Jope, fuck.

Taf made a thoughtful noise. He put out a hand, fine-boned and elegant despite the mining scars, and set it gently on the rock between Fox’s hands. An expression that Fox couldn’t read shivered over his features.

“Taf?” Ohnee frowned, glancing at the rock.

“‘Life exists in more forms than we can predict or comprehend,’” he said, voice soft as the silk of his robe.

Ohnee was still frowning. “What’s that from? And why are you quoting it?”

“A monograph on biodiversity by a long-dead speciationist.” He drew his hand back. “What do we think the combine will do with Fox’s rock?”

Ohnee pursed her lips. “Are you saying we should care?”

Taf looked at Fox.

“I care,” Fox said, as much to the rock as to her moms. “But—I want to, I need to do the right thing. For you guys and the co-op and—everyone.” The right thing at the right time. Please Pisque, let me not be graceless in this.

 

Unwilling to let the rock go, Fox slept with it tucked between one arm and her body. Curled up on her old cot, she was secure in the knowledge that she’d hear any approaching problem well before it arrived.

The defining feature of the small space that Ohnee and Taf made home was a panel of flexi—one of Fox’s earliest finds—set into the outside wall. It gave them a window overlooking the ice and breccia sea that edged part of Drumtown.

When she woke, Fox stared out over the sea’s frozen waves, low fog snugged into its jagged undulations, shadows sharp and long over the deeper troughs. The ice and breccia shifted, minutely, slowly, over time; some wit had dubbed it the Sloe Sea and it had stuck. Fox could just see the edge of the co-op–run ice-dredging works, which fed Drumtown’s supplemental water supply. The window shuddered and flexed in the wind off the sea; the whole silo shook with it sometimes, a music of her childhood.

It was shortly after the window’s installation that Fox had moved out of the co-op, after her disagreement with Jope. Moved out before she could be kicked out.

Hearing the sounds of Taf and Ohnee up and about, she rolled over.

“You guys owe me.”

Taf set a bulb of tea beside her and kissed her forehead, stood back up in a rustle of silk. “We gave you life, darling.”

“Yeah, but I gave you the best view in Drumtown.” She sat up cross-legged, the rock in her lap. “Any word?” she asked Ohnee, who sat at the table with her own bulb of tea.

“Nothing. Your flaks probably had to check with whoever sent them. Like I said, combine is leery of messing with us since the last dustup.”

“Been thinking about it,” Taf said from behind the bedroom screen. “I think it was probably Tilson who sent them. Some on the council think Tilson knows the real reason the combine kept us on Sloe.” Tilson was the highest combine exec on Sloe. Taf, who cultivated connections wherever he could, had some on the council. He emerged clothed in loose thermals that he managed to make look elegant.

Fox traced a finger over the spiral amoeba, listening in on bits of other conversations in the huge silo, feeling multiple shifts of air and motion on her skin. Someone on the next floor down was grinding their teeth in sleep, and over on the other side of the silo, old Minch was playing her viola. If Fox focused, she could feel the settling of the morning fog over the Sloe Sea.

Closer, Taf was sprinkling date sugar—another of the co-op’s contributions to the Drumtown economy, made from a date speciation grown in its hydroponics—on warm corn cakes.

“The combine,” Ohnee went on, “gave up its right to any Sloe salvage when it abandoned us. Tilson’s a suit leak for being loyal to them, but that’s his affair.”

Fox frowned. “I’m sorry I brought trouble on you guys. I just…”

“What trouble, a couple of flaks?” Taf waved a hand with a dismissive t-cha. He’d loosened his braids and his hair hung like rippled dark water as he set plates of corn cakes on the table.

Fox took her seat, one hand still on the rock, which she set by her plate. With her other hand she put a finger to the date sugar on the cakes, pressing to collect a finger full of the sticky grains and put the finger in her mouth as she had since she’d been a child.

At the rich burst of sweetness in her mouth, a jolt translated between the rock and her hand, all through her. The spiral amoeba flushed from indigo into spectrum, blue to green, gold, orange, crimson, rose.

In the ensuing silence, Fox heard several pairs of boots on the stairs, accompanied by familiar voices. One was Jope; the other two were Blanchard and peeing man.

“Jope’s coming with the flaks.”

Taf stood and gathered his hair in a twist. “Right. I’ll put on the kettle for more tea.”

 

It was all very civil.

“Tilson says we can get replacement of the collectors and a new generator,” Jope said, seated in Taf’s chair, big hand curled like a five-legged rock spider about a bulb of tea. He inclined his head in Fox’s direction. “So, you can see why I had to bring this to you—” He leaned forward then and actually looked at Fox. “You’ve always put the co-op first, Fox-girl, I know you have, and your people.”

“Jope,” Ohnee said, on a note of warning. She sat in her usual spot and Fox took some strength from her Ohnee-ness. Taf leaned against the counter, arms folded.

Blanchard stood behind Jope, menacing in her block-of-bland-protein way, while peeing man—whose name was Voisin—sprawled, gangly and impertinent, on Fox’s cot.

Fox folded her arms, mirroring Taf, feeling the rock inside her suit. “Not good enough. Collectors, generator, a supply of new filaments—and transport off Sloe. Or no deal.”

Voison, nee peeing man, rubbed a finger over one eyebrow and said, “Technically, everything in the mines is combine property.”

“Technically,” Taf echoed him, “the combine was contractually required to have lifted us off Sloe when the mines closed. So­—”

“—technically,” Ohnee chimed in, “the combine has forfeited its right to much of anything.”

“Hey now,” Jope said, spreading his hands, “we’re dealing in good faith here, aren’t we?”

Fox grit her teeth, then repeated, “Collectors, generators, filaments, transport—” she paused, thinking of what Ryuu had said about their life on Sloe, about her moms and how they’d worked to make a life here, and then added, “for those who want it—with automated shipments to continue.”

Jope drew a breath and said, “Girl,” but Blanchard leaned forward and dropped a hand on his shoulder, stilling him.

“I believe Tilson can agree to that,” she said.

“But can the combine be trusted to actually deliver?” Ohnee’s mutter wasn’t quiet.

Jope rubbed a hand over his mouth, clearly somewhat taken aback by Blanchard’s capitulation. He gave Fox a narrow stare. “What is this thing?”

“Yes,” Blanchard said, “time to produce the object, I believe.”

“No,” Fox said and felt the ripple of reactions through all present, muscles tightening, blood rushing as heartbeats sped up. “We need guarantees.” Her senses soaked in data from everyone in the room and she knew it was all down to the rock. It was waking up, had been for a while now.

“Agreed,” Ohnee said. “The combine hasn’t banked any trust with us.”

“We’re giving you your guarantee,” Blanchard said.

Fox examined the flak’s face, the twitch of a muscle in her cheek, the steadiness of her gaze. She felt a prickling awareness of muscle tension and shift, watched Blanchard’s hand.

Jope looked from the flak to Fox. “Is transport off Sloe really on the table here?”

Both flaks nodded once and Blanchard said, “It is.” They had sub-aural com contact with Tilson, Fox realized.

Jope breathed out, looking like he’d been hit by a pocket of heavy gee.

Fox tried to imagine life elsewhere, off Sloe, in the glamorous wider universe she’d been told about, but remembered only in vague imprints and flash-stills from her four-year-old self’s mosaic bits of memory.

She looked at her moms and realized they’d never really expressed any urgent desire to get back to that universe, to leave Sloe. There were those who did—like the scientist who found the rock, like Jope—but many who didn’t, who had made Sloe home, through bitter hard work, cussedness, and tenacity. They’d made it theirs.

It could all go sideways tomorrow, but it was home.

The right thing. Pisque, what is the right thing? She felt the rock—she wasn’t sure what it did, but a flush went through her, richer and smoother than clean oxygen or Ryuu’s liquor.

“What are you waiting for?” Blanchard said. “Show us the object.”

“From what Fox and that scientist say,” Taf said, “it’s not just an ‘object.’”

Blanchard shifted. “So what?”

Fox’s gaze hadn’t strayed from Blanchard’s hand. Now she watched as that hand—triggered by something in Fox’s expression, she thought—moved to a pocket.

Out came the wheezer.

And Fox knew what the right thing was. She met Blanchard’s pale gaze. “So, you and the combine, you can kiss Pisque’s sweet ass.”

Jope raised his hands as Blanchard took a step toward Fox. “Calm now, just give us some time. No need for that. Fox girl—” He broke off as Ohnee stood.

But Blanchard tapped a brief staccato into the wheezer, aimed at Fox. Fox’s breath caught, lungs going tight.

Pulling a long, wheezing breath, Fox shook her head.

Everything slowed down, the moment tunneling down into the contact between her and the rock. Warmth reached up from it, over her heart into her throat, easing straining lungs; suddenly she could breathe, whatever signal Blanchard’s device sent rendered null.

The rock was suddenly so warm it almost burned and Fox pulled it out of her suit. She ran her fingers over its rough surfaces, the intricate facets of the spiral amoeba, felt the pattern and energy of it pressing into the world, waves that never stopped.

Life, in more forms than they could predict or comprehend.

Fox closed her eyes, lifted the rock to her mouth and whispered on a breath—precious, remarkable breath—“Go.”

Her blood beat hard in the vast splinter of a moment before the rock shivered open in a flash of heat. Fox opened her eyes.

Rock debris fell away, a sift of thick, geologic dust. The air filled with scents, smoky liquor, date sugar, and something sweet as a kiss, endless and deep and wonderful as nothing else, something Fox couldn’t name.

A shout of life and vibrancy spoke in tattoo over her skin. Sharp breaths and curses came from around the room, as that tattoo of life touched each of them.

The vibration of the air escalated into singing, sub-aural, so low and deep it hurt. Blanchard cursed as the wheezer went to pieces in her hand. The flexi window shattered on the thrum and cold wind whipped in.

Fox could still feel it in all her senses, the entity that had been the rock. Then her senses were her own—but for a wisp of promise and the knowledge that it was still there, with them on Sloe, that it wouldn’t abandon them.

Her leg really fucking hurt.

 

“Bourbon, Sugar, Grace” copyright © 2017 by Jessica Reisman

Art copyright © 2017 by Jon Foster

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