Aetherbound by E.K. Johnston



1.


            THE FIRST TIME PENDT Harland saw the stars, she was five years old. She was watching her brothers play Spark in the crèche on board the Harland, where the Family children learned ship operations in the guise of competitive play, and the lines of alliance formed before teeth were cut. Pendt couldn’t play Spark. Or, she could, but she lost every time and so no one wanted to be on her team. She couldn’t make the cards light up yet, activating the necessary circuits to identify a match in her opponent’s hand, let alone find the set in her partner’s. She was a liability, and so she always sat out. On the bright—ha!—side, this gave her more time to study the less popular aspects of the Harland. While her brothers learned to run the engines, Pendt taught herself everything she could about interstellar travel itself.

            It was a strange thing, knowing oneself useless at five. Space was dark and cold, and worked against life in most of its forms. For a human to be in space while also being a liability was dangerous, for the human and for everyone around her. Pendt did her best to stay out of the way, and to excel wherever she could. Her bed was always made the most neatly. She always scraped her plate the cleanest, getting every trace of protein from the meal. She cleaned up the crèche if her brothers or cousins forgot something, and she always volunteered to run errands when a messenger was called to run belowdecks. Pendt avoided the captain, but there was no avoiding the first mate: She was Pendt’s mother, and they shared quarters.

            The day that Pendt saw the stars was the same as every other day since the Harland had set out into deep space. Pendt had been born shortly after their departure and knew no world but the grey metal that lined the innermost hull.

            Sometimes her mother was kind and warm—cuddling under blankets in those last few moments before the alarm went off and made them rise for the day—but more often she was the Harland’s first mate, and had no higher loyalty than to its captain. Her children must grow quickly, as their cousins had, and earn a place on the ship. Her oldest boy, Kaeven, was ten years old, and they went down like rungs on a ladder to Pendt.

            All of the children tensed the moment Lodia Harland entered the crèche. As a matter of survival, all Harland children could tell when their mothers were being Family or Officer. The captain was rarely Family, but Lodia was softer, and with her there was always a dreadful moment of uncertainty. Today, as Pendt examined her mother’s face, she found no answers there. Lodia was a strange mix of Officer and Family both.

            “Pendt,” Lodia said. “Come with me.”

            Pendt was moving by the time her mother finished saying her name. Behind her, Willam found a match in Antarren’s hand, and Rheegar immediately began to accuse the twins of cheating.

            “If we can do it, and if it doesn’t cost, it’s allowed,” said Willam, and Rheegar conceded the match with an angry glower while the twins crowed and little Tyro looked grateful he was also sitting out and wasn’t forced to pick a side. Kaeven was too dignified for squabbling and stayed out of it.

            For her part, Pendt felt nothing, no glimmer of the pull that circuits and spare parts always mustered in her siblings. Her youngest cousin, Karderee, sat by the door reading an engineering manual. He was eleven, and was too old for Spark now. Soon Kaeven would join him, and then they would both disappear to the engine room forever. Now Karderee settled for sniffing disdainfully at Pendt as she went to answer her mother.

            “Good luck, little cat,” he said, a sneer twisting his mouth.

            In the early days of space travel, there had been a cat on board every ship to hunt vermin. Now there were environmental filters for that, and cats were an outdated luxury, another mouth to feed. Pendt was never sure if her family meant the name as an insult, though it did seem like her cousins felt that way.

            Pendt raised her chin and took it like a Harland. Lodia squeezed her hand, just a little bit, and pulled her out of the crèche.