Authors: Audrey Faye
opyright © 2015 Audrey Faye
. Who has heard me sing.
“We are but flotsam—vestiges of fluff on a galactic sea. It is only in knowing this that we can truly learn how to swim.”
Incendio Vargas, Poet Laureate, Aurelius II
I tried to resist the urge to strangle the guy calling my name. I was two seconds away from the door to my pod, a good mug of Tee’s homebrew, and a bath in my entire water ration for the month. I turned to face the spike-haired teenager who had put his life between me and domestic bliss. “You want to die, Zee?”
Zane Lightbody, baby brother of my roommate and general all-around pest, blinked hard. “Singers aren’t supposed to kill people.”
KarmaCorp has all kinds of rules for its personnel. I’m not well known for following them. “I could make an exception.”
“You won’t.” He looked almost sure. “Tee would be mad.”
Tyra got mad about as often as the head of the Interplanetary Federated Commonwealth Council farted on vidscreen. “Is there a reason you’re here, or can I strangle you now and leave you for compost?”
“Human bones go straight to the Growers, you know that. They need the calcium for mineralizing their soil mixes.”
Only a dumb sixteen-year-old space brat lectures a would-be killer on the proper disposal of his body parts. I reached for the thumb-swipe on my pod door. “Go away, Zane. I’ll see you Sunday at dinner.” He and Tyra came from the most normal family in the galaxy. His dad made fried fish and rice every Sunday, and the whole family gathered at skydusk to eat and chat and catch up on each other’s lives.
And ever since the first week of trainee school when I’d been summarily dumped into a co-pod with one Tyra Lightbody, my presence was expected at Sunday dinner.
His eyes lit. “Cool—Mom will be really jazzed you’re back.” He clicked his heels together, activating the old-school air-wheels that had somehow not yet been outlawed in the walkways. “Catch you later. Tell Tee I said hi.”
She could probably hear that for herself—her baby brother was seriously loud. I swiped a grimy thumb across the security pad, grateful when the door opened without complaining. It had been randomly denying us entry for months, and neither of us had the spare change to cough up for a tech. Besides, beating on the door usually worked. Eventually.
“Hey, Kish. Welcome home.” The cheerful voice greeted me from the depths of our small pod. “Close the door gently, I’ve got bread rising.”
I felt the grime and weariness of the trip start to lift off my shoulders. It had taken Tee a good six months after we’d moved in together to convince me to try her home-baked bread—it was made with microbes, for freak’s sake. But something about the smell of those microbes cooking in the little box her dad had wired together as a home-leaving gift had eventually convinced me to live dangerously. I’ve been eating weird shit with microbes in it ever since.
I reached into my travel bag, inhaling the happy smells of yeast and friendship. “Get that stuff cooking—I brought you a present.”
Her neatly coiffed head peeked around the corner that divided our tiny kitchen from the rest of the podspace. “Oooh, what?”
She had a little kid’s love of treats and surprises. I held out the slightly squished tube, a lot worse for the wear after four days traveling inside one of my packed gravboots. “I brought you butter.”
She squealed like a teenager at a vid concert. “The real stuff—are you serious? It must have cost two cycles’ pay.”
More than that, but I wasn’t going to dampen her exuberance. “I figure there’s enough there to take some to your dad, too.” His fried fish was always good, but I’d had it a couple of times done up with real butter, and it had damn near put me into a coma.
“He’ll be over the moon.” She took the tube with reverent hands. “We’re going to totally pig out first, though. Bread will be ready in an hour, so go get clean.”
Tee’s my best friend in the universe, but she can also be bossy as hell. “Yes, Mom.”
“Whatever.” She rolled her eyes and set down the butter, slinging herself into one of the ancient gel-chairs we called furnishings. “Stay grunge, see if I care. How’d the assignment go?”
The way they always went. Tricky with a helping of “oh, shit” on top. “When I got there, half the biome was ready to burn someone else at the stake.” And that had been the saner half of the population. “It got worse while I was en route, apparently.” When I’d left, it had just been your garden-variety revolt under way.
“Ouch.” She shook her head, commiserating. “They never call you guys in fast enough.”
All Fixers get sent into tough situations, but Singers have a special affinity for bringing people into harmony—it’s one of the things our Talent does best. And Singers with wide vocal ranges get sent into situations where the parties are particularly far apart. I sighed. “In this case, I’m not sure there was anyone law-abiding enough left to make the call.” A passing ship had radioed in the initial alert.
“A hard one, huh?” Tee’s voice was full of sympathy.
“It went fine—it was just exhausting.” When the people involved started kilometers apart on their desires, it was damned hard work to find the harmonics that would draw them together, and even more work to sustain those notes while stubborn heads and chakras contemplated the inevitable.
Tee has the personality for that kind of work—she’s a born mediator. Me, I just try to outlast the idiots. I don’t have much choice. Talents don’t give a shit about personalities or anything else—they manifest wherever they damn well please. “I had to hold the final notes for almost two days.”
She murmured all the right wordless things.
I leaned back, soaking in the satisfaction of telling a tale of woe to someone who really knew how to commiserate. “And then the jerk-off guy flying the tin can that brought me home missed his bounce by about ten nanos and put us through some really ugly negative-G acrobatics.” Which had been hell on my aching lungs. The exhausted muscles between my ribs had been ready to decapitate the pilot where he sat. “I probably shouldn’t have yelled at him.” He’d totally deserved it, but my larynx didn’t.
Tee winced. “Aww, your poor throat.” She reached for a tiny bottle of aqua-blue liquid sitting on a nearby shelf. “Here, swallow a few drops of that when you go to bed tonight.”
I’d do it in a heartbeat—her brews were magic. “Done, thanks. Got anything for my ribs?”
She smiled. “A good night’s sleep.”
That sounded seriously decent too. I closed my eyes, enjoying a moment of companionable silence. Tee knows when to talk and when to shut up, and I’ve always loved her for it. On a mining rock, the noise never stops. Silence was one of the first gifts KarmaCorp delivered to me. After that, the gifts had landed with more strings attached.
“Don’t get too comfortable,” said my roommate quietly.
I didn’t like the sound of that. I squinted one eye open. “What’s up?”
She shrugged. “Bean’s been trying to reach you.”
Yikes. The boss lady’s assistant. They hadn’t even let me get through Review yet, the mandatory tune-up every Fixer was subjected to when she came off a job—Yesenia insisted on it. They’d check to see that my vocals hadn’t developed any strange wobbles while I’d been yelling at the shithead space pilot.
I could have told them not to bother, but nobody disobeyed the edicts of Yesenia Mayes, whether they agreed with her or not. The woman ran the KarmaCorp presence in this corner of the Commonwealth with a strict and arrogant fist—but based on the stories I’d heard from Fixers in other parts of the galaxy, she also ran a tight ship free of most of the crap that has infected bureaucracies since time began. And while I’d never seen her show mercy, I’d never seen her be overtly cruel, either—and a mining-asteroid brat like me has a pretty good nose for such things.
However, none of that made her any less scary.
“Yo, Earth to Kish.”
I snorted. Neither of us has ever been anywhere near the planet that gave birth to our ancestors out of some sort of primordial ooze. “I’m still here. And since it’s about to be after hours, I vote you raid your brew stash.”
She grinned. “What brew stash?”
I rolled my eyes. “What, you got all legal and proper while I was gone?” Not likely. Tee is sweet and gentle and a goddess because she puts up with me, but she’s not as much of a pushover as she looks. She flexes the rules with the best of us, and then bats her flirty brown eyes at the people in charge and generally manages to stay out of trouble. It’s hard to hate her for it, though—she’s too damn nice. Always has been, even in the early days of trainee school when I’d been ready to chew nails and hated everyone who breathed within a hundred meters of me.
My first friend.
I took the clear glass of light purple brew she handed my way and sighed in deep contentment. It was good to be home.
, Kish—welcome back.” The cheerful face of Yesenia’s assistant peered out from my tablet. “You got time to go through a few things?”
I had a belly full of Tee’s homemade bread and the yogurt she made from coconut milk and hoarded like gold bars. Even the boss couldn’t rock me out of my happy lassitude. “Sure thing.” I swung my feet up on a gel-stool and settled in. Chats with Bean were never brief. I grinned at one of the people I liked best in the galaxy. “Any of the new trainees call you Lucy yet?”
Yesenia’s executive assistant and right hand had been born Lucinda Coffey. Her grandmothers and the occasional dumb trainee called her Lucy—the rest of the Commonwealth called her Bean.
She winced. “Not yet.”
Whoever did would get a friendly warning. After that, they’d get a visit. Fixers took care of their own, and Bean was as universally loved as the drink she’d named herself after. Which was a fair feat when you were often the messenger for a woman who ate small children for breakfast and reduced grown men to quivering puddles frequently enough that every bartender on Stardust Prime recognized the symptoms.
I eyed my tablet, vaguely embarrassed to be woolgathering. “You got my report, yeah?” I’d filed it two minutes before docking, and written it in the ten minutes before that.
“Got it.” Bean nodded solemnly. “It’s a little sparse.”
More than a little. “I’m economical with my words.”
“I’ll pass that along to Yesenia if she has concerns.”
I snorted, knowing that was an entirely idle threat, at least in my case. “I brought you back some flowers.” Bean had an unreasonable fondness for things that died in less than a week, and the rebellious biome had been lousy with a bunch of varieties I’d never seen.
Her entire face softened. “Zane delivered them a few minutes ago, thank you.”
Hopefully Tee’s baby brother hadn’t smushed them against more than a few walls on his way. “Did they arrive in one piece?”
She chuckled. “Mostly.”
Damn, I needed a better delivery service.
“So hey, can I get you to drop in on a trainee class while you’re here?” Her voice was almost pleading. “You don’t have to give a talk or anything, just do a question-and-answer session. Let them see a real, live Singer in the flesh.”
Poor Bean had the thankless job of trying to keep trainee school from entirely sucking. “Haven’t I already done that twice this rotation?”
“Different class. This is the third-years—they’re harder to impress.”
And past the trauma of being yanked away from home, which was hard, even for the ones who were willing. I hadn’t been one of the willing ones, which was why Bean often sent me to visit the youngest classes. “What am I supposed to do to entertain them, Andalusian tap dance?”
She grinned. “Just be yourself. You can wow them with your command presence and steady temperament.”
I laughed. We both knew I’d missed the lines where those were handed out.
Her head tilted a little to the left. “Remember what a big deal it was when one of the Fixers came to your class fresh off an assignment?”
That was playing dirty. I’d been eleven the first time it had happened, still coated in several layers of mining-brat grime and looking for a way back home. The woman who’d come to visit with us had been a Dancer, and by the time she’d left, something far less putrid and homesick had been running through my veins. “I’m not going to Sing for them.”
Bean snorted. “That’s what you always say.”
It’s what I always meant. I had no willpower against shiny eyes and wistful faces, grimy or not. “Just let me know when to be there.”
“I will.” She held a couple of fingers up to her screen cam. “Thanks.”
I had no willpower against kind hearts, either. “Is that all you need?” It was exactly an hour after breakfast, but I felt a nap coming on. Travel lag is such a strange beast.
“Nope.” Bean sounded apologetic. “I have the briefing file for your new assignment. Sending it now.”
I tapped on the small, blinking folder on my screen, shaking my head at the name emblazoned across the top. Lakisha Drinkwater—after twenty-five years, you’d think it would feel like mine. It was a nod to two of the many heritages flowing in the mongrel blood of my adoptive family, and an overlong mouthful of a name nobody ever bothered to use. Those who know me well call me Kish. Everyone else calls me Singer, because that’s my function in the universe. What they call me behind my back is their problem. Singers don’t tend to make a lot of friends—people get a bit twitchy when you can open your mouth, sing a note or two, and screw with their lives.
Or so says the mythology Yesenia works hard to feed, anyhow. She wants the Fixers respected—and in the language she understands, that means she wants us feared.
I spread the folder’s contents out on my screen, scanning for the data that mattered. As usual, KarmaCorp buried the important stuff in a sea of background material I could have easily looked up for myself on the GooglePlex. My eyes hit the first critical piece of information and paused. “Where the hell’s Bromelain III?” I knew most of the Federation planets in this quadrant. “Don’t tell me I have to ride in a sleep bucket.” I’d only done cryo-travel once and I’d hated every oblivious second of it.
“Nope. It’s only six days away. One of the outpost colonies.”
That could mean anything from lawless to fourth generation and ready to join the Federated Commonwealth as a grown-up. It also explained why I’d never heard of them. Fixers rarely got sent to the colony planets—not enough happened there that could shake the galaxy’s core. They were more the province of the Anthros. The rest of us got held firmly behind the borders that kept the inner planets sheltered and safe, and the colonies free to innovate and find their own way until they got stable enough to join the club.
I scanned a few more lines and files—and then two words in red registered. “Get out.” I squinted at Bean’s tiny face in the top corner of my tablet. “Why the heck is this ‘Ears Only’?”
“You know I can’t answer that.”
I knew she wasn’t supposed to, but Bean usually managed to work around the rules when it mattered.
I enlarged the video app to full-screen. “What’s going on?”
“Can’t tell you.” She looked apologetic and a little squirmy. “I don’t actually know all the details. Yesenia can see you any time this afternoon.”
A squirmy Bean was disturbing—Yesenia willing to fit me into her schedule was terrifying. “When’s a good slot?”
Her eyes scanned something that I assumed was the boss lady’s calendar. “How about right after lunch?” She glanced sideways and spoke under her breath. “She’s been on a bit of a tear lately.”
I snorted. “When isn’t she?”
Bean choked on a laugh. “Gotta run, I hear the next meeting arriving. Thanks again for the flowers.”
Some people were really easy to please. “No big. See you this aft.” I signed off and flipped my tablet over to GooglePlex mode. Time to do some digging on Bromelain III, and not in the nice, manicured fields of the KarmaCorp briefing materials.