Born and bred to be crewkin, Renna is devastated by the death of her ship and her kin. When her company’s medical department advises the few remaining survivors to commit suicide and join their kin in death, Renna refuses. Knowing she can never join another crewkin, she seeks a berth on one of the short-haul shippers running cargo hauls between the planets. Integration into ‘norm’ crew seems impossible until she joins the crew of the Vagrant Spirit. Her captain seems as desperate for any capable crewman as Renna is for a ship’s position. This job, this journey will propel her into a new world. There is nothing so true as change is inevitable. Rumours of a new engine capable of thrusting a ship greater distances in a fraction of the time a crewkin ship takes, threatens Markham Company’s business. There is only one thing left to do—get rid of the evidence, the last survivor, and anyone else who threatens discovery.
…2178.347-17:34 universal space-time…mission status…systems failure…initial test terminated…manual shutdown in progress...
Renna felt as lifeless as Sen’s cold body on the bed next to her. She packed her possessions in her travel bag with careful precision. They were few enough. Everything else belonged to the ship, or the crewkin as a whole, so reverted to Markham Company. Renna didn’t care. She needed no reminders. The vision of the bodies of her kin, removed one after another from this hospital room promised memory enough.
“You can't survive.” The doctor echoed Sen's last warning.
A glance showed the doctor, leaning against the door, watching her, waiting. She didn’t know his name. He never identified himself. Another anonymous Markham employee, dressed in a Markham medical uniform, as foreign to her as everyone else.
Years of ingrained prohibitions prevented the response screaming inside. She controlled her voice. “You recommend I join Sen, join my crew?” Like you and your staff encouraged her? Helped her? A final joining? Bastard. Renna closed her bag.
Truth struck her. I don’t want to. I’m afraid of dying. Coward. She couldn’t look at Sen, loyally joined with her dead kin.
“Where will you go? You are genetically unfit to live planet-side and mentally unprepared to interact with another ship's crew. Crewkin are longhaulers, not shortrunners. We recommend a final joining because we know you won't fit in.”
Renna looked around the windowless, beige room, now mostly empty, with her kin and their hospital beds removed. Only Sen’s and her beds remained. Sleeping alone in a bed had seemed so strange. Perhaps another unspoken means to encourage her kin to their final joining? Although her eyes burned, she held no more tears.
“My problem, doctor.” Me, mine, my, such strange pronouns after we, ours, and us—now unimportant, like everything else.
Renna snapped the closures on her bag and turned to the door. He remained, relaxed against the doorframe.
“The staff understands your pain, no matter what you think. I've seen kin like you before. You’re conditioned to survive within your own society. Believe me, we only want to provide for your needs, for your comfort.”
Renna looked away, escaping his gaze. No. Not me. Her kin, her future, her known existence ended with Markham3’s failure, yet she refused the doctor’s cure. In the awkward silence, she left. He didn’t move as she passed. She sidled around him to prevent any touch. He huffed, shaking his head in unvoiced comment on her defiance.
Hospital staff and other Markham employees watched her. They stared as she made her way through headquarters. She felt their gazes follow her departure, ushered by a wave of quiet crashing behind her in hushed exchanges. The skin of her neck itched, expecting Dom Dukan’s disapproval. His reprimand already rang through her mind. “The Dom represents Markham3 Crew. To attract attention to Renna defiles our kin. We are preeminent among ships; we strive to excel, anything else is unprofessional. Seeking recognition belonging to the whole kin makes you less. More like unreliable shortrunners.”
Renna swallowed the painful gasp swelling in her throat, ignoring those regarding her exit. Good kin performed joining before committing the heresy of desertion, so Markham taught. Their notice made her exit a judgment.
Renna stopped before the massive plasmetal hatch disguised as elaborate carved doors defining the Markham Company boundary. Through a transparent section of the gate, Renna watched the norms crowding the space station’s causeway. A memory of walking with her kin out of this portal flashed before her. They had left as a group. All dressed in their neat tan utility suits. All heads bore the same short blond hair, except for her. Dom Dukan demanded her head remain shaved to eliminate her unkin colored hair. She swiped her scalp, felt the prickle of growth and swore to never again cut whatever grew. He could do nothing about her dom-matching height, or her colorless eyes. Markham Company had deemed his request to change her eye color frivolous.
The automatic portal to the astroport opened, closed, and opened again while she hesitated. Her kin had found leaving the Markham3 difficult; leaving Markham territory terrified them. Safe among her kin, Renna remembered her excitement for the chance to explore the space station alive with so much noise, so much color. Stepping through the doors, she remembered, how upon returning, Dom Dukan refused to leave Markham property again. She quashed the memory, refusing to look back. She would never return, no matter what.
Now everything looked gray. The resonance in the port swallowed individual sounds forming a cacophony of white noise, which created an odd noise construction of silence. Unfamiliar smells permeated the air, mixing into a repugnant strange atmosphere. The difference divorced her from any response as effectively as the hatch closing behind her severed her from her past life.
With steady steps she headed for the station’s main concourse.
She focused on the people. Some stood, turning their head to read signage looking for their direction. Others talked in small groups. Often a jagged burst of laughter erupted around them. Still others rushed, carrying, pulling or pushing packages, crates, or luggage.
People…strangers...norms, no matter what you called them...they crowded, jostled, and shouted in fast flung sounds she didn’t understand. Each one appeared different in shape, size, color, and clothing. Their smell curled within her nose. Each seemed at once both self-absorbed and attentive, threading through one another’s journey with little interest in other travelers. So different.
Alongside the concourse, trams stopped or left with accompanying tumult. Station communications broadcasted throughout the station from multiple AV ports. Shock and fear hit her anew, alone among so many. She froze in place, closed her eyes, and ignored her inner turmoil. You’re a Speaker; dealing with norms is your special domain, your duty. Another perverse inner voice shouted, Not like this! She clamped down on her panic and took a deep breath. You can do this. Don’t react. Don’t feel.