Aetherbound by E.K. Johnston



            The cooks made her stand on a stool to pass them things or carry pots that were too big for her. When she made mistakes, she was reported immediately for punishment. She didn’t hold it against them. They would be punished far worse if they coddled her, and they had no reason to. Even shamed, Pendt was Family and they were not. That meant she was the Family’s to use as they saw fit. Arkady ruled in the galley as much as she ruled everywhere else, and her edict regarding Pendt was wordless, but clear nonetheless. Still, she was small, and she was clumsy, so Pendt made many mistakes.

            “There is nothing in the void,” said Lodia as she locked Pendt into one of the supply closets for having dropped three grams of vege-matter on the galley floor on the fourth afternoon of her new life. It wasn’t her last infraction. She didn’t like the small space or the confining dark, but she was coming to appreciate the solitude. She’d been forced to eat the matter as part of her own rations, of course, so there hadn’t been any waste, but such behaviour couldn’t go unpunished. “You have to be more careful.”

            Pendt held her chin up and took it like a Harland.

            Three days and two more stints in the cupboard after that, she overheard her cousins discussing if their mother was going to airlock her.

            “It would be much more economical,” Donalin argued. “Otherwise we’re going to feed her all these years to bring us dinner. Usually, we make people pay us to do that, just for the privilege of being on our ship.”

            “She’s still Family,” Tanith said. She was sixteen, and there was something in her face that made Pendt think she knew a secret that would never even occur to her younger sister or any of the boys. “A Harland is always worth something, even if we have to wait for her for a bit.”

            “The captain has made it clear we’re not to bother with her one way or the other,” Jerrus said. He was the most practical of the lot, the most like his mother, except he couldn’t feel the stars. “So, we won’t, unless we get new orders.”

            “And you’d better set an example for her sibs,” Tanith said. “Not to mention Karderee. They need to understand how fragile our balance is, and what Pendt’s flaws might cost us.”

            That shut everyone up for a while. The Harlands were not afraid of space, but they were respectful towards it, and not a one of them, Pendt included, was going to tempt fate.

            As she cleared plates from the table without being acknowledged by any of her relatives, it occurred to Pendt that she had one thing they didn’t have: She had seen the stars.

            She didn’t see them again for a very long time.





3.


            JUST BEFORE SHE TURNED eight, Pendt asked if she could work in hydroponics. She told her mother that she knew as much about plants as she did about protein—which was to say, not much—and that she thought she could help the plants grow better.

            “How do you know that?” Lodia asked, and Pendt found herself the sole recipient of her mother’s attention quite suddenly. It was not a reassuring feeling.

            “I just”—Pendt groped for words to explain the feeling—“I just do?”

            It was difficult to elucidate. It was similar to the feeling that Pendt had as she measured out calories onto her siblings’ plates, but wilder and less predictable. She felt it most strongly when she had just eaten, and sometimes it knocked the wind out of her if she chased it for too long.

            Lodia was quiet for a moment, and then she put her hands under Pendt’s chin and forced her to make eye contact.

            “You will always feel that call,” Lodia said. Her voice was pure Officer, but there was a fear in her eyes that Pendt didn’t understand. “I feel a call to the stars and your brothers feel the call of electricity, but you must never answer it, do you understand me?”