Space is quiet. You might not notice during the day, when you’re bustling about, making sure the little pocket of atmosphere you set out in doesn’t collapse in on itself. But at night? At night even the churn of an Alcubierre drive isn’t enough to keep the dull thuds of your heart from echoing endlessly into the great empty. It’s the eternal beat, accompanied by every haunting thought, every neurotic inkling that dances through your vacant mind, all making the music of madness that keeps the sleep away.
I never did sleep easy when it was just me and the rest of family aboard the Mule. Thankfully, it wasn’t often we took her out under-crewed. She wasn’t a huge tanker, nothing like the Dutchman or galleon-class freighters that could fill a station’s stocks in a single run, but she was big enough that for most hauls mère and père hired a dozen drifter-folk to help manage the freight and keep things running smoothly. But that wasn’t the case for one particular run in my fourteenth year.
For nearly three months we hadn’t kept a crew outside the four of us, not since Rhett had left. And over all that time there had only been a handful of mornings that I’d awoken fully rested. I’d lie there for hours, staring up at the tedious pattern on my bedroom’s ceiling, trying to focus on it enough that it might bore me to sleep. But in the end I’d always get fed up and take to the hallways.
I’d grown up aboard the Mule just like my père and the thirteen generations before him, and by the time I was six nearly every nook, cranny, and alcove of the old clinker was as familiar to me as my own skin. She was far from glamorous, the old boat, but she had some hidden charms. There was the serene twinkle the old-model Alcubierre gave off as it spun, bending space around us, and the cargo bay, where my sister Mirella and I had served as princesses over countless castles made from spare storage-cubes. But more recently my favorite spot on all the ship had become the observation deck.
It was a small room, nestled tightly between the cargo bay below and the bridge above. There was a small window there, to be used in the unlikely event that all our navigation cameras were disabled, and while most nights there was little to see from it, the light from the stars becoming nothing more than a monochrome blur while we were on warp, I spent many of minethere during the sleepless months. The draw of the place had never been the view for me anyway, it had always been the memories.
Rhett had been two years older than me and a man by the laws of Merovingia. He’d needed a job and my father had obliged him, hiring him on as a cargo-hand for one of our longer, inner-system hauls. By the time he’d been aboard a month, he and I had traded enough lingering looks for my mère to forbid me from visiting with the hired-hands after working hours. But her watch was never tight enough to keep me from wriggling free, and through very creative use of the emergency service hatches I’d sneak down once or twice a week to the observation deck, where Rhett would be waiting.
Some nights we’d just talk, others we’d do more, but every one of them became a precious memory. And in the months after Rhett had gone, I spent as much time as I could down there, reliving each of them, hoping that doing so would keep them all from fading.
It was on one such night, one where I’d been curled in one corner of the window, weeping, that my père appeared in the doorway. I wiped hastily at my eyes, rubbing until all the wetness was gone and waited for him to say something. Instead he just blinked at me, sipping at a cup of coffee while his uniquely small-frame swam beneath the tarry-cloth bathrobe that had always been too big for him. “Fancy joining me on the bridge?” he asked, just before the silence had grown uncomfortable.
Too curious to say no, I got to my feet. The bridge was one of the few rooms on the Mule that I didn’t know inside and out. It wasn’t exactly legal allowing unlicensed personnel onto the bridge of a commercial vessel, but there had been a few times on rim-world hauls that Père had allowed Mirella and I to watch as he charted our path across the stars. Still, I hadn’t been in the room more than half a dozen times in my 14 years aboard the Mule, so when my father stepped quickly toward the control console I took a moment to drink it in.
For the most part it was a humble room, not like those big command bridges you saw on movies or VRs, just a pair of pilot consoles in the center of the room, a weapons station in a far corner collecting dust, and a small kitchenette complete with mini-fridge and coffee-machine. The impressive part was the enormous panoramic screen that stretched across the front half of the room in a semi-circle. At first it didn’t show much more than the familiar grey blur that it always showed when we were in warp. But when Père tapped a few buttons on the panel and the Alcubierre stopped turning, it was lit up suddenly with a myriad of stars.
“You going to stand there all night?” asked my father, studiously checking the panels and screens that spread out before him. When I didn’t answer he nodded to the chair beside him. I approached it with apprehension, still not entirely sure a verbal lashing wasn’t on the way. When I finally sat down, he extended his mug in my direction. “Coffee?”
“You’ll let me?” I asked. He raised both his eyebrows, jostling the cup gently. I took it, breathing in its earthy-smelling steam and taking a sip.
I made a face and papa smirked, watching me out of the corner of his gaze as he flipped through star-charts on the console. Not wanting to disappoint, I choked down another gulp. His smile grew. “Not bad, huh?”
“It’s—good,” I said. “Can I have my own cup?”
“We’ll share,” he said, “Less evidence that way, don’t want your mother finding out.” He took the mug back and drank much deeper than my taste buds would have tolerated then returned to his navigation adjustments, plotting the Mule’s course through a nearby asteroid field.
Figuring that if I didn’t come out and say it we might be stewing in excruciating silence all night, I finally blurted out what had been on my mind since my father had first appeared in the observation deck. “Aren’t you going to ask me what I’m doing out of bed?”
He stopped tapping away at his charts for a moment, gave an abrupt snort, then resumed. “Did you think you were the first one to go searching for answers down these halls at night? I was young once too, if you can believe it.” He scratched at his silver colored stubble, snorting again, though this time it was something closer to a laugh. “You never were able to sleep on an empty ship, even when you were just a pup.”
I turned in the chair as far as it would go, until just my back was facing him. “Guess I won’t be sleeping for a while then,” I said in half a whisper, quiet enough that he’d have to perk his ears, but not so quiet that he wouldn’t hear them.
I heard his fingers stop their flitting on the screens again, then a sigh. “Wish I could say you were wrong, Kit. But truth be told, your little stunt gave more than just your mère a scare.”
“Gave you a scare, did I?” I volleyed back, giving a derisive snort of my own. “You gave me a life-sentence. You can’t keep me on this boat forever, you know. The minute I’m sixteen I’m going back to Maxson Station and–”
“Do you know what happened when I was your age?” my father interrupted, raising his voice just enough that it drowned mine out but not enough to sound belligerent.
I spun back around to face my father so that he might see the unimpressed look I was preparing to give him. But when I saw how sullen and somber he’d grown, the urge left me. I’d never seen my father quite like this before.
“For the longest time I was the youngest boy aboard this ship,” he said. “I had eight older brothers and each of them could have wrestled a pair of Khakians at once and all walk away the winner. They were colossal men, mountains of muscle and power and I worshiped them because—well, because they were everything I wasn’t.” My père’s gaze grew distant, his shoulders shrinking. and in that moment I didn’t see how small he really was, but how small he must have felt back then.
“I wanted to be just like them. But it was becoming more and more clear by the time I was your age, that that was simply never going to happen. No matter how much I ate, no matter how much I trained, I never got to be any bigger than I am right now.
“Then to make matters worse,” he went on, “King Clovis called up all the able-bodied sons and daughters of Merovingia to fight for freedom against the Council Worlds. Every one of my brothers, all eight, were able to stand proud beside the king and his knights, my mère and père had never been so proud. But me? The army wouldn’t touch me. There was apparently no place in the ranks for a boy who, even carrying one and a half times his own weight, couldn’t handle half of what the man beside him might. I even tried to sneak aboard a gunship once. They tossed me out the moment they found me, told me to come back when my balls had dropped and I’d hit my growth-spurt.”
My father sighed again, rubbing at the mess of hair that jutted out in wild patches from his skull. “I never thought I’d get over being left like that,” he said. “Rotting on this rust-bucket while my brothers were making history. I still wished I’d gone when the Council Worlds forced the peace and none of my brothers came home. I wished I’d gone even when your grand-père died the following year and the Mule and me were all my mother had left. I even wished I’d gone when we made enough to buy her a home on Cerberus and the Mule became mine in full. And then, one day, I didn’t.”
“What?” I asked, not sure I was still following.
He leaned toward me, his amber colored eyes locking with my own. “After nearly a decade of wishing I’d died on some distant battlefield, gunned down in a blaze of glory, one day I woke up and realized how lucky I was that I hadn’t.” He snorted again. This time there was no denying the laughter in it. “A few years after that I hired on a pretty engineer that could have welded circles around any of my brothers, and a few years later still she gave me you.”
He reached out then and grabbed my shoulder. I thought about shrugging it away, but the look in my father’s eyes told me that if I did, there would be no going back to a world in which I hadn’t. “It gets better, Kit,” he said, squeezing softly. “Maybe not today, maybe not next week, but it does get better.”
I won’t lie and say that my world suddenly became brighter. I still missed Rhett, I was still angry at Mère and Père for throwing him out, and I was still far from completely forgiving either of them for sending the station police to come find me when they realized I’d snuck out. But in that moment I cared about all those things a little less and cared about my père a little more.
“Can I have another drink of that?” I asked, nodding toward the coffee.
He glanced down at the near empty cup, then got up from his seat and went over to the kitchenette on the far side of the bride. When he came back he was carrying two.
We didn’t share many words the rest of the night. Instead we just sat there, sipping away as the stars rearranged themselves around us, the silence of space a little sweeter knowing there was someone else in it.