Return to the sprawling universe of the Galactic Commons, as humans, artificial intelligence, aliens, and some beings yet undiscovered explore what it means to be a community in Record of a Spaceborn Few, the exciting third adventure in Becky Chambers’ acclaimed and multi-award-nominated science fiction Wayfarers series—available from Harper Voyager.
Hundreds of years ago, the last humans on Earth boarded the Exodus Fleet in search of a new home among the stars. After centuries spent wandering empty space, their descendants were eventually accepted by the well-established species that govern the Milky Way.
But that was long ago. Today, the Exodus Fleet is a living relic, the birthplace of many, yet a place few outsiders have ever visited. While the Exodans take great pride in their original community and traditions, their culture has been influenced by others beyond their bulkheads. As many Exodans leave for alien cities or terrestrial colonies, those who remain are left to ponder their own lives and futures: What is the purpose of a ship that has reached its destination? Why remain in space when there are habitable worlds available to live? What is the price of sustaining their carefully balanced way of life—and is it worth saving at all?
A young apprentice, a lifelong spacer with young children, a planet-raised traveler, an alien academic, a caretaker for the dead, and an Archivist whose mission is to ensure no one’s story is forgotten, wrestle with these profound universal questions. The answers may seem small on the galactic scale, but to these individuals, it could mean everything.
four standards earlier
‘Mom, can I go see the stars?’
Tessa looked up from her small workbench and down to her even smaller daughter. ‘I can’t take you now, baby,’ she said. She nodded toward the cleanerbot she was trying to coax back to life. ‘I want to finish this before your Uncle Ashby calls.’
Aya stood in place and bounced on her heels. She’d never in her life been still, not while sleeping, not while sick, not while she’d grown in Tessa’s belly. ‘I don’t need you to go,’ Aya said. ‘I can go myself.’
The declaration was made boldly, laden with enough self-assurance that Tessa set down her screwdriver. The words I don’t need you made a part of her shrivel in on itself, but then, wasn’t that the point of being a parent? To help them need you less and less? She turned to Aya, and considered. She thought of how deep the elevator shaft to the family cupola was, how easy it would be for a bouncing almost-five-year-old to slip off the bench and fall a full deck down. She tried to remember how old she herself had been the first time she’d gone down alone, but found she couldn’t. Aya was clumsy, as all people learning their bodies were, but she was careful, too, when she put her mind to it. She knew to buckle her safety harness on the ferry, to find an adult if she heard air hissing or metal groaning, to check for a green pressure light on any door before opening it. Aya was a kid, but a spacer kid, and spacer kids had to learn to trust themselves, and trust their ships.
‘How would you sit on the bench?’ Tessa asked.
‘In the middle,’ Aya said. ‘Not on the edge?’
‘Not on the edge.’
‘And when do you get off of it?’ ‘When it gets to the bottom.’
‘When it stops,’ Tessa said. It wasn’t hard to picture her daughter jumping off while still in motion. ‘You have to wait for the bench to stop all the way before getting off of it.’
‘What do you say if you fall?’ ‘I say, ‘falling!’
Tessa nodded. ‘You shout it real loud, right? And what does that do?’
‘It makes… it makes the… it makes it turn off.’ ‘It makes what turn off?’
Aya bounced and thought. ‘Gravity.’
‘Good girl.’ Tessa tousled her kid’s thick hair with approval. ‘Well, all right, then. Go have fun.’
Her daughter took off. It was only a few steps from Tessa’s table at the side of the living room to the hole in the centre of the floor, but running was the only speed Aya knew. For a split second, Tessa wondered if she’d just created a future trip to the med clinic. Her fears gave way to fondness as she watched Aya carefully, carefully unlatch the little gate in the kid-height railing around the elevator shaft. Aya sat on the floor and scooted forward to the bench—a flat, legless plank big enough for two adults sitting hip-to-hip. The plank was connected to a motorised pulley, which, in turn, was attached to the ceiling with heavy bolts.
Aya sat in quiet assessment—a rare occurrence. She leaned forward a bit, and though Tessa couldn’t see her face, she could picture the little crumpled frown she knew had appeared. Aya didn’t look sure about this. A steep, dark ride was one thing when held firmly on your mother’s lap. It was another entirely when the only person taking the ride was you, and nobody would catch you, nobody would yell for help on your behalf. You had to be able to catch yourself. You had to be able to raise your voice.
Aya picked up the control box wired to the pulley, and pressed the down button. The bench descended.
I don’t need you, Aya had said. The words didn’t sting anymore. They made Tessa smile. She turned back to the cleanerbot and resumed her repairs. She’d get the bot working, she’d let her daughter watch ships or count stars or whatever it was she wanted to do, she’d talk to her brother from half a galaxy away, she’d eat dinner, she’d call her partner from half a system away, she’d sing their daughter to sleep, and she’d fall sleep herself whenever her brain stopped thinking about work. A simple day. A normal day. A good day.
She’d just about put the bot back together when Aya started to scream.
Isabel didn’t want to look. She didn’t want to see it, didn’t want whatever nightmare lay out there to etch itself permanently into memory. But that was exactly why she had to go . Nobody would want to look at it now, but they would one day, and it was important that nobody forgot. Somebody had to look. Somebody had to make a record.
‘Do you have the cams?’ she asked, hurrying toward the exit. Deshi, one of the junior archivists, fell alongside her, matching her stride. ‘Yeah,’ he said, shouldering a satchel. ‘I took both
packs, so we’ll have plenty to— holy shit.’
They’d stepped out of the Archives and into a panic, a heaving chaos of bodies and noise. The plaza was as full as it was on any festival day, but this was no celebration. This was terror in real time.
Deshi’s mouth hung open. Isabel reached out and squeezed his young hand with her wrinkled fingers. She had to lead the way, even as her knees went to jelly and her chest went tight. ‘Get the cams out,’ she said. ‘Start recording.’
Her colleague gestured at his scrib and opened his satchel, and the camera spheres flew out, glowing blue as they absorbed sight and sound. Isabel reached up and tapped the frame of the hud that rested over her eyes. She tapped again, two short, one long. The hud registered the command, and a little blinking light at the corner of her left eye let her know her device was recording as well.
She cleared her throat. ‘This is senior archivist Isabel Itoh, head of the Asteria Archives,’ she said, hoping the hud could pick up her voice over the din. ‘I am with junior archivist Deshi Arocha, and the date is GC standard 129/303. We have just received word of— of—’ Her attention was dragged away by a man crumbling soundlessly to his knees. She shook her head and brought herself centre. ‘—of a catastrophic accident aboard the Oxomoco. Some kind of breach and decompression. It is believed a shuttle crash was involved, but we do not have many details yet. We are now headed to the public cupola, to document what we can.’ She was not a reporter. She did not have to embellish a moment with extraneous words. She simply had to preserve the one unfolding.
She and Deshi made their way through the crowd, surrounded by their cloud of cams. The congregation was dense, but people saw the spheres, and they saw the archivists’ robes, and they made way. Isabel said nothing further. There was more than enough for the cams to capture.
‘My sister,’ a woman sobbed to a helpless-looking patroller. ‘Please, I think she was visiting a friend—’
‘Shh, it’s okay, we’re okay,’ a man said to the child he held tight against his chest. ‘We’re gonna be home soon, just hold onto me.’ The child did nothing but bury xyr face as far as it would go into xyr father’s shirt.
‘Star by star, we go together,’ sang a group of all ages, standing in a circle, holding hands. Their voices were shaky, but the old melody rose clear. ‘In ev’ry ship, a family strong…’
Isabel could not make out much else. Most were crying, or keening, or chewing their lips in silence.
They reached the edge of the cupola, and as the scene outside came into view, Isabel suddenly understood that the clamour they’d passed through was appropriate, fitting, the only reaction that made any sense in the face of this. She walked down the crowded steps, down as close as she could to the viewing glass, close as she could to the thing she didn’t want to see.
The rest of the Exodus Fleet was out there, thirty homestead ships besides her own, orbiting together in a loose, measured cluster. All was as it should be… except one, tangled in a violent shroud of debris. She could see where the pieces belonged—a jagged breach, a hollow where walls and homes had been. She could see sheet metal, crossbeams, odd specks scattered between. She could tell, even from this distance, that many of those specks were not made of metal or plex. They were too curved, too irregular, and they changed shape as they tumbled. They were Human. They were bodies.
Deshi let out a wordless moan, joining the chorus around them.
‘Keep recording,’ Isabel said. She forced the words from her clenched throat. They felt as though they were bleeding. ‘It’s all we can do for them now.’
‘Do they know how many yet?’ someone asked. Nobody had said much of anything since they’d left the Asteria, and the abrupt end of quiet startled Eyas out of wherever she’d been.
‘Forty-three thousand, six hundred,’ Costel said. He cleared his throat. ‘That’s our best estimate at this point, based on counting the evacuees who scanned in. We’ll get a more accurate number once we— once we collect the rest.’
Eyas had never seen her supervisor this rattled, but his halting words and uneasy hands mirrored her own, mirrored them all. Nothing about this was normal. Nothing about this was okay. If someone had told her the standard before—when she’d finally shed her apprentice stripes—where accepting this profession would lead her, would she have agreed to it? Would she have continued forward, knowing how this day would unfold?
Probably. Yes. But some warning would’ve been nice.
She sat now with the other caretakers from her segment, twenty of them in total, scattered around the floor of a volunteered cargo ship, headed to the Oxomoco. More cargo ships and care-takers were on their way as well, a fleet within the Fleet. This ship normally carried food stuffs, she could tell. The smells of spice and oil hung heavy around them, ghosts of good meals long gone. Not the smells she was accustomed to at work. Scented soap, she was used to. Metal. Blood, sometimes. Methylbutyl esters. Cloth. Dirt. Rot, ritual, renewal.
She shifted in her heavy exosuit. This, too, was wrong, as far a cry as there was from her usual light funerary garments. But it wasn’t the suit that was making her uncomfortable, nor the spices tickling her nose. Forty-three thousand, six hundred. ‘How,’ she said, working some moisture into her mouth, ‘how are we supposed to lay in that many?’ The thought had been clawing at her ever since she’d looked out the window thirteen hours prior. Costel said nothing for too long a time. ‘The guild doesn’t… we don’t know yet.’ A ruckus broke out, twenty questions overlapping. He put up his palms. ‘The problem is obvious. We can’t accommodate that many at once.’
‘There’s room,’ one of Eyas’ colleagues said. ‘We’re set up for twice our current death rate. If every Centre in the Fleet takes some, there’s no problem.’
‘We can’t do that, not all at once,’ said another. ‘You’d fuck up the carbon-nitrogen ratio. You’d throw the whole system out of whack.’
‘So, don’t do it all at once. A little at a time, and we… we…’
‘See,’ their supervisor said. ‘There’s the issue.’ He looked around the group, waiting for someone to step in with the answer. ‘Storage,’ Eyas said, shutting her eyes. She’d done some quick math while the others spoke, much as she hated to reduce something this important to numbers. One-hundred and eighty Centres in the Fleet, each capable of composting a thousand corpses over a standard—but not at the same time. A Human body took just under four tendays to break down fully—bones and all—and there wasn’t space to lay in more than a hundred or so at once. Even if you could set aside the carbon-nitrogen ratio, you couldn’t change time. You’d have to store tens of thousands of bodies in the interim, which the morgues could not handle. More importantly, you’d have to tell tens of thousands of families that they’d have to wait to grieve, wait to hold a funeral, wait their turn to properly say goodbye. How would you choose who went first? Roll dice? Pick a number? No, the trauma was great enough without adding anything smacking of preferential treatment to the mix. But then… what would they do? And how would those same families respond when told that the people ripped away from them would not be joining their ancestors’ cycle—would not transform into nourishment for the gardens, would not fill the airways and stomachs of those who remained—like they’d always been promised?
She put her face in her hands. Once more, silence returned to the group, and this time, no one broke it.
After a while, the ship slowed and stopped. Eyas stood, the pain inside stepping back to make room for the task at hand. She listened to Costel give instructions. She put on her helmet. She walked to the airlock. One door closed behind her; another opened ahead.
What lay outside was an obscenity, an ugliness she would wrestle another time. She blocked out the ruined districts and broken windows, focusing only on the bodies floating between. Bodies she could handle. Bodies she understood.
The caretakers scattered into the vacuum, thrusters firing on their backs. They flew alone, each of them, the same way that they worked. Eyas darted forward. The sun was muted behind her tinted visor, and the stars had lost their lustre. She hit her stabilisers, coming to a halt in front of the first she would collect. A man with salt-and-pepper hair and round cheeks. A farmer, by the clothes he wore. His leg dangled oddly—possibly the result of some impact during the explosive decompression—and a necklace, still tied around his neck, swayed near his peaceful face. He was peaceful, even with his eyes half-open and a final gasp at his lips. She pulled him toward her, wrapping her arms around his torso from behind. His hair pressed against her visor, and she could see the flecks of ice woven through it, the crunchy spires the cold had sculpted. Oh, stars, they’re going to thaw, she thought. She hadn’t considered that. Spacing deaths were rare, and she’d never overseen a funeral for one. She knew what normal procedure was: vacuum-exposed bodies got put in pressure capsules, where they could return to normal environmental conditions without things getting unseemly. But there weren’t enough pressure capsules for the Oxomoco, not in the whole Fleet. No, they’d be piling frozen bodies in the relative warmth of a cargo hold. A crude half-measure improvised in haste, just like everything else they were doing that day.
Eyas took a tight breath of canned air. How were they supposed to deal with this? How would they give these people dignity? How would they ever, ever make this right?
She closed her eyes and took another breath, a good one this time. ‘From the stars, came the ground,’ she said to the body. ‘From the ground, we stood. To the ground, we return.’ They were words for a funeral, not retrieval, and speaking to corpses was not an action she’d ever practised (and likely never would again). She didn’t see the point of filling ears that couldn’t hear. But this—this was the way they would heal. She didn’t know where this body or the others would go. She didn’t know how her guild would proceed. But she knew they were Exodan. They were Exodan, and no matter what threatened to tear them apart, tradition held them together. She flew back toward the ship, ferrying her temporary charge, reciting the words the First Generation had written. ‘Here, at the Centre of our lives, we carry our beloved dead. We honour their breath, which fills our lungs. We honour their blood, which fills our hearts. We honour their bodies, which fuel our own…’
Excerpted from Record of a Spaceborn Few, copyright © 2018 by Becky Chambers.