Science Fiction & Fantasy

Null States

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Fiction

Blue Ribbon

I should have known when I didn’t hear whooping and hollering and congratulations from Chornohora Station when I crossed the finish plane. My sister Luzia and I eked out a win over Scott and Ferenc Nagy in the maneuverability race even though Luz was just barely old enough to compete in the teen division. Usually that sort of thing calls for celebration, and Luz was not going to let it go without some.

“Wooo!” she hollered into the comms. “That’s right, Pinheiros have beaten you again, even without Amilcar’s help!”

Scott’s voice sounded admiring and rueful: “Sneaky little demons. Next time, though . . .”

“Next time will have to wait awhile, with you guys in adult competition next year and us still in 4-H,” I said. “You’d better spend that time trying to improve, maybe even looking at the throttle on that thing. Chornohora Station, I think we’re ready for our victory lap, so go ahead and pop the champagne corks, we are coming in.”

And . . . silence. Real silence, not just chatter unrelated to my obstacle-racing victory (teen division). I get that not everybody is thrilled with 4-H racing, especially not every adult. There are infinite varieties of 4-H contests, from chicken genetics to hydroponic tomato sauce competitions to straight-out speed races in the STL ships, and nobody can get excited about all of them, not even during the fair. But mostly the people manning the station comms during the race were racers themselves as kids and more than happy to give us feedback as needed.

“You getting anything from the station, guys?” I asked the Nagys.

“Negative,” said Ferenc, the most he’d said all race.

“Not a word,” Scott concurred.

“Us either.” I tried switching frequencies. “Chornohora Station, hello?” Still nothing.

There were another couple of Muspel 670s hanging near the finish plane, nearly identical to ours in lines but painted wildly differently. They weren’t from our race—those losers were still coming in and would be for quite some time, thanks—but I wasn’t sure what they were from.

“Hailing the blue Muspel,” I said over the comms. “This is the Pinheiro sisters, Luzia and Tereza. Do you require assistance?”

“I don’t know,” said a rather small voice. “This is Simon Chao-Cohen. I’m here with my in-cousin Huang Fu Chao-Cohen. We finished our race—”

“Which race?”

“Maneuvers preteen.”

“Okay, sorry, go on.”

“We finished our race, and nobody answered our hails. That was maybe two hours ago.”

I frowned. Two hours was far too long for everyone to be busy with incoming ships, especially at this stage of the fair. We had been nearly the last ones in, and Luz and I had had to scramble into our Muspel and go in order to make our race registration cutoff—we hadn’t even gotten to see the inside of the station yet. Nobody would be later than that for one of the year’s three big fairs.

And nobody would leave a preteen division out there in radio silence for hours.

“Hang on a sec,” I said. “My uncle taught me several miner emergency frequencies. I’ll hail on those.”

I tried the entire broad band to no effect. Another few Muspels straggled in from our race, and the little kids from the preteen course started to cluster theirs up with us, together, hanging in a constellation outside the station.

Finally I heard a voice, but it was not a response, or at least not the kind of response I wanted. “Attention, incoming ships. This is the Chornohora Station auto-response system. The Station customs and immigration personnel are unable to process your ship at this time. Please proceed to another station for your trade and leisure needs. Chornohora Station is closed for quarantine. Please proceed to another station for your trade and leisure needs. Chornohora Station is closed for quarantine. Please proceed . . .”

I punched the “accept” button so that it wouldn’t keep playing us the same automated message. It would still let me know if the message changed.

Closed for quarantine.

None of the Oort Stations had ever been closed for quarantine. Ever. We learned about it in lessons because it had happened to one of the Jovians once, back before the Oort was even settled—the encephalitic measles, and that was horrible, five percent death toll. Now there was something on Chornohora that warranted a quarantine.

And our family was on the station.

“Tereza?” said the little voice I had come to identify as Simon Chao-Cohen. “What are we going to do? We can’t go to another station like it says. Muspels don’t have FTL, and all our parents’ FTL ships are locked up to the station in the quarantine.”

“I know, Simon,” I said. “It’ll be okay.” Luz shot me an incredulous look, but I just kept talking. “You’ve got emergency rations in your Muspel, right?”

“. . . sort of?”

“Okay, we’ll sort out ‘sort of’ when we’ve got everybody gathered. Meanwhile let’s see who’s here and go on to—hey, Scott, will you look for a good rock while I take attendance here?”

“Sure thing,” he said. I might make comments about Scott and his in-cousin Ferenc when we were in the heat of the race, but it was all in good fun. They were some of my best friends, and I was glad to have them to count on in a crisis. Scott was going to marry my out-cousin Amilcar in another year, but they hadn’t decided who would be the in-spouse and who the out-spouse. If Amilcar out-married, he and Scott would have more position on the Nagy ship, more seniority; with a single-ship family like the Nagys (or like my own), it was much easier to make your voice heard, much less likely that you would be drowned out by still-living generations of ancestors, all of whom felt they knew more about mining, art, and life than you.

But if Amilcar in-married, Scott would have access to everything the Gouveia family had, which was a lot. Really a lot. A lot of ships, a lot of possessions, a lot of connections . . . anything at all that they wanted to do, anything their contract-children wanted to do, would be possible with the Gouveia family. My out-cousins were a pretty big deal.

It’s part of why Dad out-married into the Pinheiros: He didn’t like being just another Gouveia artist, without anyone who could keep track of what he did differently or why.

The point was: Scott was nearly family. So he ran the calculations while we took notes on who was who and who was where. We had four ships from the preteen division—it sounded like they’d lost, poor mites, and the winners had made it into the station before the quarantine shutdown. Which might have made them even unluckier. The rest of our division of teen maneuverability pilots was limping in a few at a time, and Luz and I hailed them and took stock of who they were, which families they were from.

Then I zapped the coordinates Scott had picked out to their ships, and we regrouped to an asteroid not far away: big enough to let us anchor our ships to it and power the artificial grav that way, but not far enough away that we wouldn’t hear about it if in-system med ships came to Chornohora, or if the quarantine was lifted or like that. We formed a ring on the surface, able to pass things with waldos if they were vacuum-safe but not actually connected by airlocks. Can’t be too careful in quarantine.

Chornohora was one of the three big fairs of the year, so pretty much all my family was in that station except for Luz, even my out-cousins, except Amilcar’s ship of them. I kept hoping we’d get the all-clear and laugh about it a little nervously with Mom and Dad and Grandpa and Grandma later. I started thinking about how to make them laugh, telling them about how we had to hang out in space sweaty and stinky from our victory. That many hours of obstacle-racing adds up; you get pretty rank together. But then the Chao-Cohens made it clear that they didn’t have the regulation amount of emergency rations, and I got funny and serious stuff all in one package.

“What do you mean, you don’t have the regulation amount? Come on, the Chao family practically founded Oort mining. You guys know better than this.”

“Simon kept stashing things to eat and then coming back and eating them,” said Huang Fu, speaking for the first time. He sounded, if anything, younger than Simon.

“Have you got anything to eat in there?”

“Oh yes!” chirped Simon. “I’m going to enter the preteen baking section for nuts.” Of course. We were all 4-Hers—that’s who sponsored the racing, and in fact most events at the annual fairs. So Luzia and I wouldn’t be the only one with our competition entries in our ships.

“Nuts? I bet,” said a little girl’s voice I recognized as one of his competitors, one of the Aafjes girls—either Grace or Anni, I couldn’t tell yet which.

“It’s got nuts in it, stupid! They’re plum dumplings with ground walnuts, and they’re really good, and just for that, you can’t have any.”

“None of that,” I said sharply. “No name-calling, and absolutely no threats of food-hoarding, do you understand?”

“Yes ma’am,” muttered Simon.

“We’re entering the competition for novel flavors of lichen-based proteins,” said the other Aafjes girl. I’m pretty sure that one was Anni. “We’ve got durian mac and cheese.”

There was a general outcry on the comms.

“Not real durian!” Anni protested. “I know it’s banned for the sake of the air vents. So we did our best to replicate durian flavors with lichens. It’s really good!”

“We’ve got spruce beer,” said Ferenc. Usually he lets Scott do the talking, so it must have been his spruce beer.

“Didn’t anybody else do vacuum emergency kit competition this year?” I said plaintively. It transpired that the two little Van Haanrade boys, Liwei and Mikko, had, and also three of our contemporaries. In addition, we had my currant mustard, Luzia’s dilly beans, and several more entries in the lichen competition. Everything had been canned except the dumplings.

“Okay, so, you keep the dumplings,” I said to the Chao-Cohen boys. “We can’t share those without risk.”

“What do you mean, without risk?” asked Liwei Van Haanrade.

I took too long to answer. Luzia jumped in for me, and less delicately than I would have. “Look, there’s some nasty disease on the station, right? Well, that means someone must have brought it, right? And the odds are pretty good that those of you who were on the station got exposed to it before you started your races. So we can’t link life systems. We have to pass everything with the waldos and let the vacuum sterilize it.”

“Will that work?” asked Scott.

“It’s the best chance we’ve got,” I said. “We can’t let the Chao-Cohen kids starve, dumplings or no dumplings. Everybody comm me what you’ve got for supplies, and we’ll share them out evenly.”

“Does this mean I won’t win with the durian mac?” said Grace Aafjes.

“I think we’ve won all we’re going to win today, Grace,” I said.

“But we didn’t win! We came in at least fifth, maybe sixth. The logs aren’t auto-updating, so I can’t see.”

I did not feel like trying to explain to her that if we were dealing with plague protocols, just being alive and in a separate life-support system from the victims might be a win condition. So I just didn’t argue. Instead, I did the calculations while Luzia manned the waldos, passing hardened vac-safe jars of preserves and lichens up and down the chain of ships on the tiny rock we’d found.

The sour smell in our Muspel was not going to get better any time soon.

We were chewing through our allotted mouthfuls of salt-and-pepper lichen (good) and washing them down with spruce beer (which is not alcoholic, for the record; being alcoholic might have helped the flavor, so: not good) when Luz issued a very dramatic sigh. “We’re missing the Saloma concert.”

Saloma is my sister’s favorite singer. Mine, too. We’d only ever been to her concert at the previous fair at Servaas Station. It was out of this ecliptic. I said, “We can put on one of our recordings.”

“I guess,” said Luz, “but we do that all the time. It’s not the same.”

“Luz . . . they might not even be having the concert.”

“You think Saloma’s sick?”

“I think anybody might be sick.” Then I was glad I’d turned the comms off to the younger kids’ ships, because Luzia started crying, loud and ragged and scared, and she didn’t stop for quite awhile. I put my arms around her and muttered meaningless encouragement, and then when she got herself calmed down and curled up in one of the emergency blankets to listen to her favorite Saloma song, I had to go lock myself in the head so I could cry, too.

Tear-streaked and stinking of old sweat, I picked up the inside of the Muspel as best I could. There was a comm indicator. “Tereza?” said a little voice. It was Mikko Van Haanrades. “They’ll let us in tomorrow, right?”

“I sure hope so, Mikko,” I said. “You guys look after each other in there, all right? Try to get some sleep.”

I followed my own advice as best I could. I woke up with a crick in my neck and my hair stuck to my face. Luzia looked no better. The comm alert was going off. I pressed it, hoping for a station message.

“Tereza? They’re still not answering,” said Simon Chao-Cohen.

“It’s awfully early, Simon,” I said. “It looks like it’s a real quarantine, not a drill, so we’re probably stuck here until they get the med-ships out from Ganymede.”

“Shouldn’t we . . . try to get somewhere else?” he said.

I sighed. It’s really easy to forget how big the Oort is when you’re always using FTL drives. Then get stuck in a Muspel 670 or something else with only STL, just a little mining vehicle, and see how big it feels. At top speed, we could probably make it to the next station in only four or five years, except that we’d run out of fuel and have nowhere to get more in less than a month. Food also. Earth people would probably compare it to trying to get from Oslo to Cape Town on a tractor. You’d be better off with a musk ox cart, because musk oxen can swim, or if you get too hungry, they’re much tastier than a Muspel 670.

So I talked that through to the satisfaction of half a dozen ten-year-olds, all of whom were smart, all of whom were well-trained, all of whom just wanted their families. Nor could I blame them.

And failing their families, they wanted something to do, and I couldn’t blame them for that, either. We all had movies and music and books downloaded to our Muspels for quiet moments of travel and letting the ship automate some of the less interesting mining functions, but that’s not nearly enough when you’re trying to distract yourself from a plague at your doorstep.

Luz set up a round-robin Go tournament, at which she soundly spanked all comers, and I taught the little ones to play cribbage through the ship computers. Squabbling and technical difficulties took care of most of a day, and we older ones got very few questions about where the med ships were and when we were going to get there.

We got to the end of a day-cycle out there in the dark and cold, and everybody was cranky and tired and getting smellier by the minute. So I did what I was taught to do: I tried to start a sing-along.

Other people are not very good at sing-alongs even when they’re perfectly good at singing.

But oh, I did my best. I taught them “Rose, Rose” and “Sweet Deep Black” and “John Jacob Jingelheimer Schmidt,” which is apparently a song about in-cousins whose mothers did not consult sufficiently about their names. Luzia tried to get everybody to sing Saloma’s “Out-Cousin’s Lullaby,” which is a great song, but it’s terrible for people who have less vocal range than Saloma, which is pretty much everybody, especially Luz. Ferenc unexpectedly saved the day then and jumped in to teach them “I Hate to Wake Up Sober on Europa,” which under ordinary circumstances I would not teach to preteens, but what the hell, their parents could yell at me later.

If their parents were still alive.

I resolutely did not think of that, and I kept not thinking of it when he taught them the song about the seven old ladies and their misadventures in the head, and I was almost doing fine when he taught them the one about the miner and the chicken, which is dirty in at least two languages that I know of.

And then, very quietly, Liwei Van Haanrade said, “Tereza? I miss my auntie.”

“We all miss our aunties, sweetie,” I said. “We’ll get to see them soon, when the med ships come.”

But he continued, “Tereza, I don’t feel good.”

“He’s all feverish,” his brother Mikko reported, “and I think I’m a little feverish, too.”

“Probably too much of that yummy yummy durian-flavored lichen the Aafjes gave us,” I said heartily. “Get some sleep.”

“It was durian mac and cheese,” said Grace Aafjes, and we all agreed that it was unforgettably that, that if she was going for durian mac and cheese, she had certainly achieved it. And then we went to regular comms for the night, and Luz said to me, “They’re sick. The Van Haanrades. They’ve got whatever it is on the station.”

“We don’t know that,” I said, but we had a pretty good guess at it.

Up until that point, we could almost convince ourselves that this was just another adventure, like a survivalist course under the domes or something. Like Earth people who go camping. None of us had ever been anything like camping, so—we read old Earther kids’ books, and we could sort of half-convince ourselves it was similar.

But then I woke up in the night to Mikko comming me that Liwei had been throwing up blood. And there was honestly not a damn thing I could do except talk to them, sing to them, use my most soothing voice with them and be there through the comms. I had everybody inventory their emergency med supplies, but honestly I didn’t expect much, and that’s what I got. Muspels aren’t meant to be far away from their parent ships for long. There are a few adhesive bandages and some mild painkillers, and that’s about it.

And Liwei did not get better, and Mikko got worse, and even if I had been willing to expose myself to the plague—even if I’d been willing to throw precaution to the wind—there was literally nothing I could do except listen to these two little kids, brothers in their ship like Luz and I were sisters in ours, vomiting blood. Then shitting blood. And I’m not sure what-all happened toward the end there. It sounded bubbly and horrible.

I just know they died.

Early on, I got Scott to handle the rest of the little kids, and I got him to tell everybody not to comm the Van Haanrades. If they’d had particular friends, I would have let them say goodbye, but we were just all Oorter kids who knew each other’s families a little from fairs. There was no one who could be more comforting than I was, and what a sad state of affairs that was.

And the last thing I needed was more of the little ones to freak out.

That is, any more than was strictly necessary.

Which, frankly, was quite a lot. Luz and I held each other and cried and repeated reassurances about how we hadn’t even been exposed to the station air. But that didn’t help much.

Nobody took it well when I told them the Van Haanrade kids were dead. I didn’t expect them to. The littler ones had started thinking of me as someone who was in charge, so I spent hours trying to explain to terrified, upset kids why I hadn’t saved the others. They asked me the horrible questions, about whether I would let them die, too. Because somewhere along the line, my 4-H pledge to the community had come to mean them, and they just could not wrap their brains around the idea that I couldn’t fix it.

Scott tried to say something consoling over the comms, but he had to talk to Luz at that point, because I was not listening to anything but the white noise in my head.

The next morning, Simon Chao-Cohen commed me with a timid little voice saying, “Tereza?” And my heart went right back to my feet. I was just sure it would be another little kid vomiting blood.

In some ways it was harder than that.

“Tereza, our life system is malfunctioning. Help?”

“Oh shit,” I said coherently. “Oh shit, oh shit, Simon, what have you got left?”

“Two hours. Can we come in with you?”

I looked at Luz. Luz looked at me. The Chao-Cohen kids had been on the station for days before the race, and we hadn’t been there at all. Maybe we should try to shove them off on someone else. But the Muspels were small, and I had put myself in charge, so . . .

“Just a second,” I said. I turned the comm off.

“We’re taking them,” said Luz. She sounded tired. No thirteen-year-old should ever have to sound like she’s accepting her own death.

“We have to split them up. One each. A Muspel with four people in it would be completely unbearable, even if three of them are you and little bitty sprouts like those boys.”

“But we’re taking one. Scott and Ferenc can take the other—give them Huang Fu. He and Ferenc can be quiet together. Scott’s used to it. But honestly, Tereza, which of our other competitors has shown the slightest bit of backbone? They can’t take care of a little kid. And the Aafjes are just little kids themselves. And there’s no way to sterilize the Van Haanrade vehicle thoroughly without losing most of the remaining life support anyway.”

I forebore to mention that Luz was only one year out of the preteen division herself—that at this time last year, I’d been partnering with Amilcar for competitions like this one and watching Luz dazzle the single-digit set. I flipped the comms back on. “Okay, here’s the plan,” I said.

It sounds like Luzia and me, we were these amazing angels, so selfless and so wonderful, or alternately like we were just ordinary humans doing what you always hope ordinary humans would do. And maybe both of those were true.

What’s also true is that the Chao family—all nine branches of it—are some of the most powerful people in the Oort. So . . .yeah, we were taking a pretty big risk. On the other hand, we could have the gratitude of an entire great clan if we succeeded.

Mostly, though, we took them in because if I was going to listen to another little boy cough and cry and die, I was going to do it where I could damn well rub his shoulders and stroke his hair and clean him up a little.

Maybe that makes me stupid. I don’t know.

Simon cried for half an hour when he got into our ship and got his suit off, I think mostly with relief but also some with exhaustion. He had carefully brought his rations, good boy that he was. Once he finally stopped crying, Luz showed him cat’s-cradle tricks and got him calmed down.

And then the med-ships came.

We saw them approaching the station first and hailed them. One of them broke off from the main group and approached us immediately.

“We’ve lost two little boys in the third ship clockwise in the ring from me,” I told them. “Do you know anything about what’s going on there on Chornohora? We haven’t been able to raise any kind of comms since the auto-signal went on.”

“They have no spare personnel,” said the Ganymedan medic. “I’m not sure how many are still alive, but certainly not enough to keep them out of emergency shutdown mode. It’s pretty bad.”

“What kind of bad?”

“We don’t know, but it’s hemorrhagic,” he said grimly.

“Hemorrhagic” is one of those words you never, ever want to hear used near your loved ones. I had the urge to clap my hands over my sister’s ears. But Luz had been coping with all of this just as I had, and when I turned to her, she had her hands over Simon’s ears.

That’s my girl.

The med-ship personnel were using special suits to get in and out of Chornohora, and as long as nobody started running a fever, we were low priority. They passed us supplies through the airlock. It was a really bad sign that they were not sparing any of the Ganymedan personnel to keep our spirits up—they just took Liwei and Mikko’s bodies and left us, and brought us rations from time to time.

It was another week before they actually towed the Muspels away to a big in-system med ship and let us out of them. They were going to separate me and Luzia to talk to me, but Luz wasn’t going anywhere without me. She didn’t actually threaten to bite anybody, but I think the implication was clear.

The in-system official waiting for us was not Ganymedan, as I’d expected from the med-ships. She was Europan.

Which meant there were finances involved.

“Tereza Pinheiro,” she said. “And Luzia Pinheiro, I presume, though you were not called for.”

Luz jutted out her chin. “I came anyway.”

“Well, girls.” She looked at her handheld as if it carried new information, though I was sure she had loaded and read everything long before we’d walked in. “Looks like you could use a shower and a hot meal.”

“And a beverage that isn’t spruce beer or recycled water,” I said fervently. “What—what’s happening?”

“You have the gratitude of a grateful Chao family,” she said. “So there’s that for you. The seven branches want you to know that you can call on them at any time.”

“Nine branches,” said Luz, because in-system people don’t always know.

The Europan glanced at her, and I saw that she was desperately trying to be kind. “No, honey. Seven.”

I sat down in the ugly chair they’d provided and gripped the edge of the metal table for support. “Everyone’s gone. Aren’t they.”

“I’m sorry. In addition to the gratitude of the Chao family, you have an offer for a new berth. Both of you. I’ll send your accounts the details. Think it over. You don’t have to rush.” She looked at us both carefully, greasy and stinking and smudged. “It sounds like you did the lion’s share of the work of keeping the other kids from completely panicking. If you play your cards right, that will serve you well in the future. Inasmuch as Chornohora has a hero, it’s you.”

She left us alone, left us to shower and eat and think and cry. We met up with Scott and Ferenc in the corridor, freshly scrubbed and stunned.

“Our offer is from the Gouveias,” I told them all. “Our out-cousins say we can be in-cousins now.”

“Then you’ll be with us,” said Scott. “I’m going to out-marry Amilcar—no reason not to, now—and we’re making special arrangements to adopt Ferenc. He’ll be my firstborn son, legally.”

Ferenc tried to grin at that, but his mouth was only going through the motions.

“But we won’t be Pinheiros any more,” said Luz urgently. “We won’t, will we, Tereza? They won’t make an exception?”

“Honey, I don’t think they can,” I said.

“I don’t want to be a Gouveia. I’m a Pinheiro, and you’re a Pinheiro, and we were supposed to grow up and be Pinheiros together and do our own thing. I don’t want to be a Gouveia!”

“I bet they’ll call us ‘those Pinheiro girls,’” I said. Honestly I don’t think Luzia had the least notion of how much worse things could be. We could keep the official legal name Pinheiro and get shipped in-system and not have it mean anything more than Argleblargle. Family names are like that in-system. They’re noise.

“It’s not the same,” said Luz.

Scott bent down to talk to her, and I think he was the only one who could do it without Luz taking the opportunity to throttle him at that point. “Luzia, sweet, look. This way you and Tereza can be together, right? And you can be with me and Ferenc and Amilcar. And we’ll be our own little unit inside the Gouveias. And then when we make enough money—”

Bless Scott. Bless him, oh, bless him. “That’s right, Luz, when we make enough money, we can get our own ship and be Pinheiro-Nagys. And neither of us will out-marry, we’ll make any men we meet in-marry or gene-donate, and we’ll have the babies for the new Pinheiro-Nagy ship.”

Luzia’s sobs slowed to sniffles. “You promise?”

“I promise, honey.”

And Scott and Ferenc promised, too, and I expect they had time to go off and cry by themselves, as I did. But mostly we focused on taking care of Luz and each other, because that was the only way we could win now.

Marissa Lingen

Marissa Lingen

Marissa Lingen is a science fiction and fantasy writer living in the south suburbs of Minneapolis with two large men and one small dog. She bakes bread, plays the piano, and makes paper art. She is currently at work on a novel featuring kelp dryads and were-sharks.