You have to forgive my brother; he’s not like any of the boys at the home. Miss Slake says Jem’s a typical, and once typicals reach a certain age they can go most anywhere they want, which means they can get into most any kind of trouble. It’s not like the trouble with Martin, you know, who talks through snack and music time, but still doesn’t owe anybody any money. When Jem came to visit he said he owed a whole bunch of money, and wouldn’t I help him get right with everyone again? Of course I will, I said. We’re family. Besides, Jem can’t really help it, Ruby. I think he was just born this way.
When Jem said he’d already received the home’s permission for me to travel, it’s not that I didn’t believe him, either. I just wanted to be sure so that Miss Slake wouldn’t worry, like she always said she would if we ever just walked out. And of course, I wanted to say goodbye to everyone before we left, with hugs if they’d let me. (Yes, you, too.) But Jem said there was no time, on account of the last shuttle leaving so soon, so he took me hard by the arm through a side door clearly marked STAFF ONLY, though I was telling him the whole time–Jem! Jem! That door’s for staff only… Jem!–until I remembered all the other things I knew he had trouble seeing that I could. Then I thought maybe he was just ashamed to admit that he couldn’t read the sign, and that he might even get mad if I kept going on about it. Francesca is like that sometimes, isn’t she? I remember one Tuesday after fish and cakes when she got confused about where to put the glasses and where to put the plates, and when Davis tried to show her she just dropped her glass and smashed her plate and had a long cry at the table until they got her fingers loose from all the edges.
Well, I didn’t want to upset Jem like that, so after we got outside and I got one of my walking sticks back so I could walk on the soft grasses (I think he thought he was helping by carrying them and just pulling me along, but on account of all that thinking about the door, I forgot to tell him that he wasn’t helping, not at all), and after I had my sunglasses on to protect my eyes from all the horrible rays, and after I had my headphones in to protect my ears from how awful the streets always sounded, I promised myself: I said, Alvin, you’ve got to be nicer to your little brother. He’s the only family you’ve got left.
Jem was always a handful, though, and sometimes it was like there was no teaching him how to behave around other people. On the way to Thetis, when the shuttle started to rock, and lights and sounds cascaded all around us, Jem even wrapped his arms tight around me, even though he didn’t need to–really, he didn’t–and he didn’t need to clamp a hand over my mouth, either. I was just singing back trajectory data to keep calm while the pilots made their descent. Didn’t everyone need to keep calm when the ship started shaking?
There was even an old woman talking on the other side of the aisle about how scared she was and nobody told her to shut up, like my brother did to me, but then the pilots were yelling at him instead of singing back their own data, and that was too much noise, just too much—so I bit him. I had to. You know what it’s like, Ruby, when everything hurts inside and everything just feels like it’s closing in?
I couldn’t stand it anymore, so I pulled off my buckles, tore out to the floor, and just screamed and screamed at how coarse and how cold and how metallic it all was. The rest of the landing is kind of a blur (I think I probably went to sleep), but it didn’t have to be–really, it didn’t–if Jem had just listened for once.
The way I saw it later, though, was that he must still have been so worried about the money that he couldn’t think clearly about anything else. You know those days when all you can do is say the same word over and over and over again for hours?
Sometimes I really like those days, Ruby. Sometimes I really like all those words and the way they sound when you say them. But other times I just want to make them stop, and I think about it–really, I do. I think about just taking your pillow and pressing and pressing until the words go away.
Anyway, after I woke up I met some of Jem’s friends: Critchley Spokes, Hefron Ab’Adams, Prewitt Malawi, Jin Mototo, The-Robot-But-Everyone-Calls-Him-Crank (Crank for short), Critchley’s-Dog-Forenz (Forenz for short), Quantz Lafferty, and Hex. They did not all look friendly, but even the unfriendly ones said they were all friends of my brother, and then they all looked at Jem, and Jem said nothing, so he must not have disagreed. Forenz looked all right, but otherwise I thought that Jem’s friends were not nearly as good as my friends (yes, you, too), although I know Miss Slake would say that you really shouldn’t judge another person by how they look, or sound, or smell, or whether they can get all their words out on the first or second or even fifth try.
Not that any of Jem’s friends had any trouble getting their words out on the first try when they wanted to.
I wish you could’ve been there with me, Ruby, just holding my hand, but also I’m really glad that you weren’t, because this wasn’t a very clean place, and I know how much you need your things to be clean.
“I thought I told you not to show your face until you could pay up,” said Hex to my brother, right after Jem had introduced his friends to me.
Hex was a big man with pictures all over his forearms and a shiny bald head. “And I don’t see any money on you. How ‘bout from where you’re sitting, Jin?”
Jin Mototo was on the other side of the stockroom, which had a low ceiling and bad lighting, and was packed with all kinds of crates heaped with bundles of thick mesh. He glanced at Jem and grinned, shaking his head.
“I know that,” said Jem. I watched him look from friend to friend. He kept both hands palm-up in front of him when he wasn’t rubbing them against the sides of his pants. “Honest to god, Hex–I know how much I owe you, and I am here to pay it.”
“That why you brought collateral?” Hex jerked a thumb at me. “His fingers instead of yours?”
I was sitting just then with Forenz, having a talk through my hands and my cheeks with the top of his musky, soft, brown head. Do you remember the kittens they brought last year after they took all our visitors away? It was just like that but bigger and older, and I don’t think I had to be anywhere near as gentle as Miss Slake kept telling me to be.
Jem jolted then as if someone had put his hands to an electrical outlet, which I could easily have told him he should not do. “No!” he said. “No, you don’t understand. Alvin–he’s got this trick, see. He’ll handle the Game no problem, I just know he will. And then… if you just give me a few days…”
“How ‘bout I give you one day.” Hex stared at me and I stared back. I was in the habit of smiling even at strangers, ever since my mother told me I had to practice being nice, and calm, and good, but I was much happier keeping my smiles right then for Forenz, since Forenz didn’t make my insides feel strange.
“Come to think of it,” said Hex, “if he’s the money-maker in this equation, why do we even need you?”
Then Quantz Lafferty drew a firearm, the make and model and related specs of which I could rattle off in full–so I did. Jem did not look very impressed with me, but then, there was that whine of the laser gun as it charged next to his head, so I understood that my brother was busy being scared, because I was scared now, too.
“No, wait–” said Jem, holding out his hands again. “Please–he needs me. I’m the only one who understands him, the only one who can–”
“Shit,” said Hefron Ab’Adams. He stood with the crook of his arm over his face and moved as far from me as the stockroom allowed. “Hex, the kid’s gone and messed himself.”
Hex looked from me to my brother and wrinkled his nose. “Well, hell if I’m wiping his ass.” He glanced at Critchley Spokes, who just scowled. “Okay, fine–you’ve got one day, Squint. But don’t you dare disappoint me again. And… oh, hell. Critch, Prewitt–air.”
My brother’s friends left the stockroom then—some coughing, some gagging, some just muttering words I made a point not to understand–while Jem put one hand and then another to his eyes, and came over.
“I’m sorry,” I said, when I couldn’t stop shivering from the stink and the sudden cold and how wet it all was. “I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m–”
But Jem didn’t hit me, like he used to hit me when we were very small, and our mother said it was Jem’s turn to change the diaper. Jem just put his arms around me–gently, this time, so gently that it felt kind of nice–and when I finished being surprised by the heat, and the touch, and the smell of him, I realized my brother was shivering, too.
Sometimes my brother can be really thoughtful, Ruby. Once I was all freshly washed and changed he brought over the headphones and the walking sticks without me even having to ask, so all I needed to worry about when we made our way through the marketplace on Thetis were the smells, and the sights, and the press of bodies all around us. Even then that was more than enough, though.
There was charred meat on one spit after another, the smoke moving this way and that, and people waving their arms and flapping their lips about other things on the tables for sale. There was sweat, too, from all the armpits of passing merchants, like the one with a barrel set on each bulging shoulder, which I was afraid for a moment would fall. Perfume, too–real sharp-smelling–coming off a man with red cloth wound into all the thick knots in his hair. Cinnamon, then citrus, from somewhere, then the hard bump of a bag of pots against my left elbow–—hard enough that I cried. Dried urine off a concrete pillar, too, and a man with no legs bobbing and weaving his head at its base. Plus mining fumes after all that, just one big shiny taste of metal up from the tunnels, and a blue-gray moon through one of sixteen portholes on this side of the building alone—and the ice cliffs, and the landing bay, and the storage fields with frosted shuttlecraft all in a row. But most of all Jem’s tugging on my right arm when he thought I was moving too slow. How fast through all this did he expect me to go?
Eventually, though, we came to the sector perimeter, which was just this sudden squeeze in the long compound walls where the floor grilles turned to solid, studded-metal partitions painted in red-and-yellow chevrons, half the colors long run-down. There were fewer people around us when we came close–which was nice, because it meant I could breathe through my nose without panicking–while on the other side of the passageway hung a line of half-rusted, block-text signs like: EXITING HUMAN ZONE. ENTERING NEUTRAL ZONE. MOGRIAN COMBAT LAWS MAY STILL APPLY. PROTECT THE PEACE AT ALL TIMES. I’d never seen words in such strange orders on any of the common items at the home, Ruby, so I just rolled their lovely yellow letters over my tongue and scrunched my brow trying to make sense of them all, but the hand on my arm kept tugging and tugging, so before long we went on.
There were humans in this new sector, too. I watched them duck into and out of these richly colored tents–reds and purples and yellows and browns–that sat all in a row in the first district on the other side of the divide. When one of the men lifted a tent flap high enough for me to see clear through to the Games tables inside, I cried out and made to follow him in, but Jem’s hand came down vice-tight on my shoulder, so hard that I screamed and dropped to the floor instead. There were people all around us, and some of them looked at me and my brother the way people do, but no one said anything, and not one interfered.
“Sorry,” said Jem. He crouched to help me up. “Sorry–I had to. You can’t go in there. You have to promise you won’t ever go into any of those tents.”
“We’re here to play it, I promise. But you can’t play it with other humans. Promise me you’ll never play it with them.”
Jem had a firm grip on both arms now, and it hurt, so I whimpered a bit before I nodded, because I could feel my cheeks go all hot and slick with tears and you know, Ruby–you know–how much I hate the way they prickle on my skin. “But why–”
“Because humans don’t play the Game the same way, see? These’re men who spend their nights in the mines and they’re just trying to make it rich enough to go home. So they see you playing, and they see you taking all their hard-earned coin, and they’re going to start to hate you real quick. They’re gonna think they’re being ripped off, and that it isn’t fair, you having the advantage you do and still being allowed to play. And then… hell, Alvin, I don’t know just what they’ll do to you then, but I just know it won’t be any good. So stick to the mogrians, okay? The mogrians are bored with us humans–that’s why they almost never play out here anymore. But sometimes a human joins one of their kids’ tables, so that’s what we’re going to do. Okay? Just trust me, Alvin. Can you do that?”
“I trust you,” I said, but it came out as little more than a whisper because my arms still hurt, and he should’ve known better–really, he should’ve, scared about the money or not.
I waited for an apology but all he said was, “Okay. Good. Come on, then, Alvin–hurry up. We’re running out of time.” And that’s why I’ve got to remind you, Ruby, you know, that sometimes Jem can be really thoughtful. I just wish it was more of the time.
When he did get me into a tent, though, I spent the first two rounds just watching–not the Game board or casino dames, exactly, or my console, but all the others around the table. There were eleven mogrian children, watched over by what I guess was their version of Miss Slake at the master console–only Miss Slake doesn’t have skin that looks so tough or dark green, and she sure as heck doesn’t have yellow eyes or a tongue with two points at the end.
I’d never seen a mogrian before, you know, but I know mother would’ve said it wasn’t polite to ask another little boy about his scales, or the trumpeting noises that came from the frills of skin along his neck, or the suckers at the ends of his long, wobbly, see-through fingers, even if they made such fun sloosh sounds as they whipped from one key to the next. But surely there was no harm in just looking?
Since Jem wasn’t playing the Game he wasn’t allowed in the tent, but eventually I heard him whispering through the fabric–Is it your turn yet? Have you wagered? How’s it going?–and I remembered–really I did–that I had a job to do. While getting me out of those sticky, awful-smelling trousers and washing all the hard-to-reach spots, Jem had even said to me: “It’s fine, buddy. It’s no problem at all. See, I do this for you, and you play a few rounds and turn fifty bits into two thousand credits for me. Yeah? Okay? It’s how we live, you ‘n’ me: in trade.”
I didn’t know what to say to that, really, at the time. I suppose what I wanted to say was that we’re family, and helping family is just what you do, but then I remembered that Jem really didn’t seem to have much that he was good at all on his own, so I figured that maybe he just needed to say this for himself–to feel useful, like he had something to give back in turn.
So I said, “Sure, Jem, okay, Jem.” And once I remembered all that inside the tent, I blinked my eyes clear of tears and paid more attention to the Game.
The Game board in the front was still spinning, always spinning. The whole thing was this huge vidscreen with little black points popping up in spirals, or fractals, or just these ragged, weaving lines like valleys and hills. In vids taken from human sessions, which Jem first showed me back on the farm, back when our mother wasn’t killed yet and our father wasn’t in jail for it, the Game board had been marked with a really obvious grid, each space filled with a number, and each number either set against red or white, depending on the transformation for each round. “The Mother,” Jem had called it–which sounded just about right to me because everyone had to have a mother, didn’t they? (Do I still have a mother now, Ruby, now that my mother’s dead?) But after thirty seconds in those vids the whole Game board began to blink, then disappear entirely, and a set of eight numbers would appear in their stead. In one round, the eight numbers read: 126 – 344 – 1332 – 2198 – 4914 – 6860 – 12 168 – 24 390.
“Okay, so,” Jem had said, “See, you’ve already got the Mother, and these numbers, so you’ve got to work backwards and figure out the Children—the primes you put into the Mother to get the first and the last. Now, the trick is–”
“5 and 29,” I had happily agreed. And Jem stopped talking for a while, his bright green eyes looking confused and… something else, something that just made me sad, so I didn’t think on it long. He looked up at me and then quickly down.
“How did you–no, never mind. Yeah, that’s it, Alvin. You got it, buddy. You think you can do it again?”
But the Game board for the mogrian children was so different, Ruby. There was no grid, and no Mother listed overhead, and no numbers spelled in words I understood, let alone set apart from the bigger pattern and slowed down so I could think about each one a long while. It was all just a series of endlessly shifting dots with spaces between them, along invisible number lines I traced from the shapes they made on the screen. See, if I counted from the center of the spirals out, or from the ratios in the fractals, or from the start of the hills and valleys that rolled sometimes for long, beautiful minutes from right to left on the screen, it all made sense just the same. Just don’t ask me to explain it, okay?
I tried to show Jem once, but he just couldn’t see what I saw, no matter how much I stabbed and I stabbed at the screen in the learning room with my fingers and thumbs, until I just got so frustrated that Jem had to take me back to my bed and say goodbye and then I didn’t talk to anyone again for four whole days (yes, I know, Ruby, even you).
But that was in the past, and now when I looked all around me I saw mogrians who saw the same numbers I did, even without all the words there, and I grinned so hard I could feel it up to my ears. I had to catch my breath at first, I was so excited, because when parts in each sequence turned red for a few seconds, the mogrian children slicked and slooshed their fingers over player consoles—just like I was doing now, too.
“It’s fine, buddy,” I said after a few rounds to the mogrian beside me, who blinked back with a funny white membrane all over its eyes. “It’s no problem at all.”
When Jem and I returned to where his friends seemed to work (but not sleep; I don’t know where they did that), there was a man I didn’t know curled up on the floor of Hex’s stockroom. Jem had been so happy and relaxed on the way back–as jumpy in the marketplace as the numbers had been on that mogrian screen, though nowhere near as beautifully patterned–but at the doorway he just set a hand over my chest and wouldn’t let me go in. Through the passageway I could just make out Quantz Lafferty wiping the barrel of his firearm, and Hefron Ab’Adams and Jin Mototo taking two limbs apiece and hefting the body onto a bit of mesh pulled down from one of the crates. Then they wrapped and wrapped the man until I could only see his boots through one end, and then–
“You smell that?” said Critchley Spokes. He looked to the door and grinned. “Thought I heard something crawling up from the gutter.”
“He clean?” Hefron Ab’Adams shouted. “Don’t you dare let him in if he ain’t.”
“Yeah,” said Jem. “He’s fine.” But when he stepped inside he still wouldn’t let me follow, twisting around to block the doorway instead. “Stay with Crank.”
Jem crouched and caught my hand so hard that I whimpered again. “Just do it, okay? This is business–that’s all. I just need a minute.”
I cradled my hand as the door closed behind me, and after I felt the pain start to go down, I looked all around the front of the store, which I could tell was supposed to look like it sold general goods to this really quiet corner of the marketplace. Crank was polishing gunware over a glass counter filled with restricted classes, and though I knew them all by heart I only hummed their names and specs, because I got the feeling that nice old Forenz, his sandy-brown snout resting over folded paws by a stack of gas masks, would not understand. And Crank, of course, probably already knew.
I knew it was wrong to stare, but I couldn’t help looking at that robot’s face, either, which had all the same features as a child’s. Behind his ears, though, there was just this mess of fiber optics and liquid crystals inside a metal cage, which I could see whenever Crank turned or looked up, and all of it sat on this rust-yellow body suit, like the rest of him just hadn’t been finished. Crank was doing his cleaning with hands that were no more than metal pincers, and he had these telescopes for eyes that watched the entrance closely when station patrol trooped past in gray uniforms with red shoulder patches–looking, Jem had told me, for anyone who might be at risk of breaking the treaty, though he never said just how that could be done.
Prewitt Malawi ducked in soon after the patrol had passed, though, with a dark metal case in either hand. He looked first at Crank, then at me.
“So how’d it go, kid? You saved your dumbshit brother yet? He in there now?”
I nodded, but I could hear myself stutter when I added: “You shouldn’t say that.”
Prewitt Malawi’s expression hardened as he set his cases on the counter and switched up the latches. “Say what?”
“That,” I said. I might’ve been clearer, but I knew Miss Slake wouldn’t like me repeating bad words.
“What,” said Prewitt Malawi. And he came over and stood really close to me, close enough that I could see all the better just how tall he was, and how big. “You got some kinda problem all ‘a sudden? ‘sides the obvious?”
“Malawi,” said Crank–and I was surprised–really, I was–by this harsh grinding sound that came out from behind that smooth baby face. “He means the ‘dumbshit’ business.”
Prewitt Malawi laughed. “Oh, that.” His expression relaxed and he went back to unpacking the cases. “You’d know, wouldn’t you. Two of you so alike and all.”
Crank’s face turned, unchanging, to me. “Hardly.”
“Aw, don’t mind him, kid,” said Prewitt Malawi. “Crank’s just jealous. Even if he says he doesn’t have the stuff for it. Used to do your line of work when the mogs first set up shop in this compound. Dumbshi–I mean, those guys didn’t know what humans really were back then, ‘sides the guys drilling their planet for stuff they had no use for anyway. So slap a face and suit on any old unit and you were good to go, you know? But then they figured it for a scheme, and cogs like Crank here were done. Mogs were pretty pissed off at first–on principle, you know?–and after they just wouldn’t play with us no more.”
His knuckles came down hard on the counter, but I heard them even louder in my head. “The Game started changing then, too–—for the better, ‘you ask me. I mean, go in for the numbers if you want–keep the primes from 1 to 1000, and your odds aren’t too shabby if you’re smart about your guesses–but where it really counts? Where the fun comes in? That’s betting on the guy beside you. He gonna be close, or is he gonna blow it? And more likely, you know, they’re gonna blow it. Hefron used to be pretty good with that kind of betting. Made himself real tidy a few years back, before they took out his knee.”
“His knee? Who–”
But the door to the stockroom opened enough then for Jem to slip through. He didn’t look so good anymore, his face pale and trembling and his mouth not moving at all. He grabbed me again–but gently, very gently, like when we’d been inside the room before, so that I started thinking maybe that room wasn’t such a great place to go into after all. I would’ve said so, too, except that Jem didn’t look like he was listening. He looked like Wyatt right after they’d put tubes all inside, Ruby–really, he did–so I just set my free hand over his and waited until I thought I saw a bit of a smile at the corner of his mouth. It was hard to tell, though, with all the blood from his forehead still dripping down.
“Come on,” he said. “I got us a room.”
Prewitt Malawi watched him as we left, but Jem did not look up, so I tried not to, too, once I had my headphones in again to help with all the other noise. We were in the middle of the marketplace when I realized I’d forgotten to say goodbye to Forenz, and I just hoped he wouldn’t be too mad the next time we both came around.
After two days on Thetis I asked Jem as gently as I could how soon his debt would be paid off in full so that we could go home. He’d told me at first that he needed 2,000 credits, but I’d won 2,356 the first day alone, so I figured that maybe he’d told lies at the beginning because the real number kind of scared him. I’ve seen all kinds of numbers scare people, Ruby, and I know you have, too.
Remember when Krissy first came to the home, and told us about all the numbers on her file that made her parents cry and bring her to us? I like some numbers more than others, you know—really, I do–because of how they sound, and how they sit in my head, and all the beautiful patterns some of them make, like a lake with millions of ripples on top, and even more down below. I don’t know if I’ve ever been scared of a number, though, and just from how Jem looked I hoped I never was.
But that couldn’t be right, either–Jem lying about his debt at first, I mean–because didn’t Hex say he had only one day? (I guess Hex had his own bills to pay, too.) Unless Hex was just one of the tough people Jem had to pay off? I hadn’t met anyone outside this group, though, so a lot of things just didn’t make any sense, and Jem’s answers didn’t help.
“There’s been a change of plans,” said Jem. “I tried to stop it, but… well, maybe we should’ve made it look harder than it was for you, or… I dunno. I dunno if anything would’ve worked. But I am sorry about all this, Alvin. I never meant to get you involved.”
Jem said strange things like that from time to time, and each time I tried to correct him without hurting his feelings.
“Of course you did,” I said. “You took me out of the home because we’re family. And family helps family.”
“Yes, but–that’s not what I mean, Alvin. What I’m saying is–” But then Jem just sighed and went quiet, squeezing my hand. “Come on, buddy. We’ve got work to do.”
He called it ‘work’, you know, which was funny, because the more I played the Game with the mogrian children, and “Miss Slake” watching over us with those yellow eyes and pointy tongue of hers, the more I got to realizing that none of the other children ever got credits if they came in first with the right answer. Only me. Sometimes I tried to share the credits, too, with the mogrian children on my left and my right, but they all just stared at me when I did, and blinked those funny white layers on their eyes.
Jem didn’t think much of it, though, when I told him–as long as the money keeps coming was all he ever said–but then again, all his friends seemed more and more distracted as the days went on, always watching for station patrol and spending a lot of their time wrapping up dead people in mesh in the back. Most of them didn’t pay any attention to me if they could help it (and Crank didn’t seem to like that he couldn’t help it as often as the rest, though his child’s face never changed when he was told to watch me for a while), but Prewitt Malawi paid attention.
Prewitt Malawi caught me talking in the front of the store one day while Jem was with his other friends in the stockroom, and with a loud sigh and a lot of swearing, Prewitt Malawi drove his knife into the countertop and asked me, “Who the hell you keep talking to anyway?”
By then I knew better than to tell him he shouldn’t use words like that, and besides, I had just been telling you something that made me laugh, so I was feeling pretty okay.
“Ruby,” I said. “Ruby DiShawn.”
He just stared at me, though, and then stared at the shelf of preserves beside me. When he did I rolled my eyes and my head like my mother used to do, and put my hands on my hips.
“I know she’s not really here,” I said. “I’m not stupid, you know.”
But I did feel something else right after I’d said that–just this squeeze in my belly, like I’d be better off curling up in a ball. “It just helps sometimes,” I said. “Just to talk to her” (yes, you, silly!) “…about everything. About being on Thetis at all.”
Prewitt Malawi stared at me some more, then burst into laughter.
“Shit,” he said, tugging his knife free. “Al’s got a girlfriend. Why didn’t you say so?”
“She’s not my girlfriend!” I said. “She’s my friend. My very best friend.”
“But she’s a girl, ain’t she?”
I paused only because I guessed where this was going.
“It’s not the same thing,” I said instead.
“But if you could,” he said, pointing the tip of his knife at me. “You would, right?”
“If I could what?” I said. But Prewitt Malawi only grinned until my cheeks went hot.
“Do you have a girlfriend?” I said, while my ears still burned. He smirked.
“Plenty,” he said–and that’s when I decided I didn’t like the way he said ‘girlfriend’ at all. It wasn’t like with Martin at the home, you know, who went around saying that all the girls were his girlfriends, and put a flower on each of their stations just after breakfast, and then went around trying to kiss everyone who’d let him until one of the girls didn’t let him and he did it anyway, even when she said no, don’t, Martin, stop, don’t touch me, and then he’d have to go into a safe space until he promised to behave.
Or maybe that was exactly the same, except there was nobody on Thetis who could put Prewitt Malawi in a safe space until he promised to behave. Either way, Ruby, I wish I hadn’t told him your name. I thought that if I could just take it back he couldn’t ever say it the way he says so many other words, and then you’d be safe again. Out here on Thetis, I felt like I couldn’t keep you safe–from Martin or anything–and that didn’t make me feel very good at all.
I think Jem felt the same way, too, sometimes, from the way he talked one night when the whole station was on lockdown, with station patrol guarding all the entrances and exits–even to the sector where I played the Game. The big voice on the speakers said that there was reason to believe someone was smuggling human beings into fights to the death with the mogrians, and although it was only human beings who kept dying so far, Jem said that if ever a mogrian died in those fights that might be enough for war to break out. I asked him why humans would keep fighting if they knew that humans always died, and Jem just shook his head and said that some humans had nothing left but debts they just couldn’t pay.
“Like you?” I said, although probably I should’ve said nothing at all.
Jem just gave me this look with watery eyes and set a hand on my shoulder. “No, Alvin, not like me. I have you, after all.”
And I was sorry right away that I’d said it, but Jem maybe forgot all about that just a little while after, when we were eating dinner along a crowded bench in the marketplace, and he kept looking at all the booths and the vendors selling everything from belts to boots to booze to babes. (I had fun–really I did–sounding out all the words on those signs.)
“You know,” he said while I was eating my noodles. “We’re making quite a bit of money now, and I’ve been putting a little bit aside every day, although that’s just between you and me, okay? No one else can know. So then, one day, when we’re through here–when we finally get to leave–how ‘bout I take you to one of those genetic spas? Y’ever heard of those? They’re great–they’ve got all kinds of stuff there. Maybe something to fix your legs. Maybe something to switch out some of your organs with better ones. And stuff for your brain, too–so you won’t have to wear those headphones again. Or use those crutches. Or a diaper. Wouldn’t that be something, Alvin?”
I looked at my little brother then, still glancing nervously about him as he spoke, with his shoulders all hunched and tensed as he ate, and these deep lines all along his face like he was so much older than I knew that he was, and I slid my hand across my table until I had one of his own under my palm, and I squeezed. Jem looked at me–really looked–so I smiled.
“If we did that, Jem,” I said, as gently as I could, “there’d be nothing left for you to trade, though, right? I mean, we’re family, you and me, so I’d earn all the money it took to make you happy for the rest of your life if I could, Jem. But I know you’ve got your own way of thinking about all this. I know you don’t want to feel like you owe me anything, the way you owe all these others people so much. So, really–it’s better this way, Jem, with me as I am, and the diaper, and… and everything. This way you get to do something for me whenever I do something for you.” I grinned. “In trade, right? That’s how we live?”
I guess I don’t understand typicals, Ruby–even my own brother sometimes–because he didn’t look happy at all when I said that. He just pulled his hand away, real hard, like I’d burned him, and then he stood up and left the table, half his noodles uneaten, and me with my walking sticks and headphones all alone in the middle of the crowded bench. It’s not that I couldn’t get back on my own, in my own time, moving one careful step after another over the grilles. I just didn’t think I’d ever have to.
What I would’ve done in all that noise and that messiness if you hadn’t been there with me (yes, you, Ruby!), I don’t even think I can say.
Jem and I never did talk about that night, but that wasn’t unusual, Jem having so much trouble sometimes with his feelings. So I thought most everything had gone back to normal (all the fresh new patrols and station-wide searches aside) until later that week, when I finished a day in the mogrian children’s Game tent and poked my head outside, only to find that Jem wasn’t anywhere to be found.
I returned to my console then and just stared at it, although none of the consoles were lit anymore, and the mogrian children only gave me their usual blank looks and were gone. “Miss Slake” didn’t go anywhere, though, and even though she didn’t speak in the common tongue, when she came over and put her long, wobbly fingers on my shoulders I knew it was okay to cry.
“Miss Slake” waited a bit, looking this way and that herself, before she pointed to the back of the tent, then gestured for me to follow. I knew I probably should’ve just wait for Jem, or else return to our room, but I didn’t really like being all alone on this old, smelly mining station so far from the home, and “Miss Slake” had been so nice and so patient in the last few weeks that I just felt it would be all right to go.
She took me through parts of the sector I’d never seen before, since Jem and I never really went anywhere on this side except to the tent for the Games. The mogrian adults kept tidier stalls, I thought, though their food was just as smelly as ours, and there was plenty of stuff piled under labels in a language I just couldn’t read.
Mostly, though, there were big open spaces where mogrian children and adults sat studying tablets, or chasing one another, or making statues together in huge blocks of ice. The air grew colder here, too, although when I shivered “Miss Slake” just took us to a vendor and picked out a cloak. I never saw her put any credits down, so I thanked both her and the mogrian behind the counter, and they hissed in a real nice way in turn.
At last we came to a proper building, with doors and thick walls and windows and mogrians in uniform and all. “Miss Slake” gestured for me to enter, so I did, and when I got deep enough inside I grinned up to my ears and clapped my hands and cried out.
“Look!” I said to her. “Oh, just look at them all!”
In this room there were three mogrians at consoles far bigger than any we used in the children’s tent, and all around us–just hanging in the air, Ruby! really, they were!–were the most beautiful constellations, and land maps, and wave forms of all types and sizes. The mogrian adults were talking to one another, and also to their screens, and as they slicked and slooshed I saw different pictures start to come together, to match up one by one, and make even more beautiful patterns appear.
(I almost fell, too, Ruby, when I forgot about my walking sticks and tried to reach for one of the most beautiful galaxies mixing with a bunch of wave forms, but “Miss Slake” caught me before I could, and soon found me a seat where I could turn and watch them all.)
I watched and I watched for what felt like hours, Ruby, and if there were prickly, no-good tears down my cheeks every now and then it was only from all my gasping and pointing and laughing as the patterns began to make sense. Like music, Ruby! Oh, like the prettiest music I’d ever seen with my eyes.
Maybe it didn’t come to me all at once, you know, because sometimes it takes me a little while to focus, but eventually I got to thinking as I watched all these transformations that maybe this room was why “Miss Slake” never gave money to the mogrian children when they got a question right in the Game–because one day the mogrian children would grow up and get to play with these really beautiful number sequences if they had practised just long enough with all the rest.
Meanwhile, I thought about how all the humans came into those Game tents expecting money, and how the mogrians just gave them exactly what they wanted if they could sit and play awhile. I wondered if that was maybe why the mogrians got into death fights with the humans, too, and if maybe all the mogrian laws were about giving others just what they asked for, or what it seemed they most needed, even if that kind of trade didn’t always work out well for us humans after all.
But that couldn’t be right, Ruby, because if that was the case, why would station patrol need to worry about war? So long as humans didn’t want it, the mogrians wouldn’t either, right? But someone must have, because ever since that lockdown the station patrols had been out day and night, and there were red lights running in wall strips along all the human sectors, just to let everyone know they still hadn’t found just what they were looking for. So maybe I was just making guesses about all these typicals, Ruby–human and mogrian alike–but they were nice guesses, at least, because it was nice of “Miss Slake” to show me all this, and I said just as much when she eventually brought me back to the children’s Game tent.
“Can I give you a hug?” I said then, and held out my arms. I knew she couldn’t understand the words but she seemed to understand all the rest, and even though her scales were rough and smelled funny when she hugged me, I was glad I’d asked her all the same.
Jem was waiting outside this time. He looked angry and scared and there was blood all down one side of his face.
“Where the hell were you?” he said, tugging my arm. “We have to go.”
“You weren’t here,” I said. “And ‘Miss Slake’, she–”
“I’ve been busy,” he said. “You should’ve just stayed put, Alvin. Now everything’s a mess and I don’t know if there’s even time anymore, but we have to go. Now.”
“Go? Go where?” He was hurrying me along, holding one of my walking sticks in his hand so that I had to hop extra fast on the other while he had an arm looped under my shoulder. Whenever we passed someone from station patrol Jem just set his jaw and looked straight ahead, and that’s when I realized that he meant it was time to leave Thetis.
We didn’t go, then, to the store, or our room, or even the main docking bay. Instead, we went to an airlock in one of the smaller cargo holds, where Hex and all the rest were already in suits. They even had one for poor old Forenz.
“You’re late.” Jin Mototo tossed a suit Jem’s way and another at my feet.
“Please,” said Jem. “I’ve done everything you asked. I’ve paid my debt thirty times over. If you let us leave now there’ll never be trouble. You’ll never see me again, I swear.”
But Hex only nodded at me, grinning in a way that didn’t make me feel good. “Not a chance, Squint,” he said. “You two make too good a team. There’ll be even better opportunities for this kid on the far side, and I’m sure as hell not missing out on them. So suit up or we’ll just take him and shoot you. And don’t think I don’t still have eyes on this station if you even think about trying to run.”
My brother’s hands were shaking as he put on the suit and helped me into mine. I wanted to calm him, Ruby–really, I did–but when it hit me that I was probably never going to see the home again, that I was going to be out wandering these strange worlds with these horrible typicals forever and ever, I had no calm left in me, Ruby. I just started to cry.
“Shut him the fuck up,” said Critchley Spokes, even as Prewitt Malawi punched him in the arm.
“Aw, leave ‘im alone,” he said. “Kid’s just scared.”
“I swear,” said Hefron Ab’Adams, “if he shits himself again–”
“I’ll shoot,” said Quantz Lafferty, grinning and tipping his gun at me. “No, wait–then he’ll just shit himself again.”
“Time,” said Crank to Hex, and Hex nodded and opened the airlock, keeping an eye on the passageway behind us. Jem returned my walking sticks and we went out, all of us, into a coldness even worse than the one in the far end of the mogrian sector. I could see in the distant tundra, set against the dark, starry sky, a rugged old freight shuttle–the specs of which I knew by heart, so I sang them through chattering teeth.
“The hell’s he doing now?” I heard Hefron Ab’Adams through my helmet.
“It’s just something he does,” came Jem’s voice. “Keeps him calm.”
“He’s reciting the shuttle stats,” came Quantz Lafferty’s voice. “Shit, Hex, what if the kid’s got all our numbers? The things he’s seen–”
“He just won’t get captured, is all,” came Hex’s voice. “And if they try–”
But even as he said it, there came a rumble behind us, and an oh shit! from more than one voice on the headsets. Run! somebody said, and Hex and the rest tore out for the shuttle while bullets started sailing over our heads. When I looked back, there was station patrol racing across the ice, and then even if I could’ve kept up before (don’t laugh, now, Ruby) there was no way anymore. I sunk to the ground instead, and even with Jem screaming in my helmet for me to get up! get up! and Forenz bounding back as fast as he could in his own suit to help I couldn’t do it. Nothing would make me move with so many people shooting around me–no, Ruby, not even you.
When I looked one way, too, I saw Quantz Lafferty pause behind the shelter of a shuttle wing to take aim–not at station patrol, but at Jem and me. When I looked the other way I saw station patrol take aim at Forenz, even though Forenz never did anything wrong.
I don’t know which one got hit first, either, because when Jem went down and Forenz went down I was watching Quantz fire another shot that just missed my arm, before station patrol advanced so far that he had no choice but to retreat. The shuttle took off before station patrol could break their way onboard, so I watched the ship shoot up and disappear behind the distant ice mountains before I remembered to breathe. I never got to see my brother’s body, or Forenz’s. The last thing I saw was me–me, Ruby! in a space suit!–reflected in three helmets looking down–and then I guess I just went to sleep.
In one of their waiting rooms I told station patrol all that I could about Jem and the men who had once said they were his friends–which was probably more than station patrol wanted to know, because one of the officers kept sighing and saying “Can you just stick to the facts, please?”
But I was, Ruby–really, I was–only how could they know what facts were the useful ones and what facts were not until I’d told them all that I could?
After a while, though, they said they had enough, and they got me a nice bowl of soup and some water and then set up a console with Miss Slake on the other line.
“I was so worried!” she said, and I cried when I saw her beautiful old face.
“I knew you were,” I said. “I just knew you were.”
She told me not to be too sad if I could, and that there’d be a shuttle for me soon. “Hang in there, Alvin,” she said. “You’ve been so brave, but hang in there just a little while longer. Station patrol will take care of you in the meantime, so you won’t be alone.”
There were many things I could’ve said then, Ruby. I could’ve said I was never alone, since I had you to talk to all along. Or I could’ve just said, Okay, Miss Slake; see you soon.
It wasn’t even true, really, what I said instead, since there were men just in the other room, and the whole station on Thetis was a very crowded place filled with all kinds of people–humans and mogrians and all kinds of smaller animals, too. But it didn’t feel so much like a lie, either, so I said what I was really thinking at the time and just hoped no one would get mad.
“Miss Slake,” I said, as gently as I could. “I think I’ve been alone here all along.”
Copyright 2014 Maggie Clark.
About the Author
Maggie Clark is a doctoral candidate in English literature at Wilfrid Laurier University (Waterloo, Ontario, Canada). To date, her science fiction has appeared in Analog, Bastion, Clarkesworld, Daily Science Fiction, GigaNotoSaurus, and Lightspeed.