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Turn of the Gorram Worm

Chapter Text

Ye Xian dealt with crap all the live long cycle.

Literally, she dealt with crap. Not Liance ship crap, course. When Xian was little, her Gran had always boomed loud. “There’s just too gorram much of it.”

But the small ships, yeah, she dealt with those, just as her Ma and her Gran had done in their time.

The Ariel’d fly ship to ship in the fleet - raggle taggle bunch a ships as it was - collecting waste to feed to the worms, which made dirt as to be bartered for what was as needed. Always something needed.

As her Gran had always said, “Three things in life you can be sure of: death, taxes, and crap happens.” She knew. She’d been there when the big crap had happened.

On the last day in the Verse that Was, Gran’d been in her garden when the Reavers’d hit atmo over Persephone and set the sky on fire all to Hades. Gran liked to talk like that. Skies on fire. While Ma had been quick to explain that the sky hadn’t actually caught on fire followed by an explanation of the physics involved, which as Xian had been six at the time had gone a mite over her head.

Gran had ended up on one of the ships escaping the screaming world - that was Gran again with the metaphors - with just the clothes on her back, a hand trowel, Ma in her belly, and a box full a compost worms. Eisenia foetida, because Ma thought it was important that Xian knew that sort a thing.

But that was then and this was sewage streaming out of the back end of the Bernadette to freeze in the Black. Xian tapped the controls on her Squito pack for some forward thrust and got in back of the catch bag. Once she squeezed it off, the frozen lump tumbled in the vacuum. She pushed and she prodded. She sweated a bucket inside her Vac suit. She sweated and she pushed at the big rough tumbling thing until she lined up with Ariel’s air lock.

She waited for Jun-Li to give her the go ahead, but got a whole lot of nothing. Finally Rhodopis came on and gave her the approval. Xian pushed inside and hit the controls.

The com crackled from the bridge, cuz now that she was in, Jun-Li had to pipe up. “Ma’s going to be pissed. The fleet’s pulled ahead while you floated around out there. Better finish storing it before she finds out you’re not done.” The com went silent. Wasn’t like Jun-Li had to haul the crap around.

It’d been different when Pa and Ma and Gran had been alive. When Xian’s Pa had been Captain. But they’d all long since gone to the worms and Jin, Jun-Li’s Ma, was Captain now.

Rhodopis glared at the com box. "Ain't right." The words just plain echoed around the crapper hold. Xian shrugged out of her suit and got the ice clamps. Rhodopis sighed. Between them, they hauled the lumpy thing across the deck and into the melter bin, which was nice of her. Rhodopis could have stayed in the engine room, but she was always a one to help out.

When they were done, Xian sank to the floor and sat with her back up against the bin. Rested her head on her knees.

"Ain't right." Rhodopis started up again.

Maybe if Xian ignored Rhodopis, she’d stop at ain’t right this time. Xian wrapped her arms round her knees and said a real articulate, "Hmmm." Put a lot grease in that hmmm, she did. She was too gorram tired to give a feh feh pi goh (baboon’s ass crack) for the right and the ain't right of it.

"I said, it ain’t right." Course, that was when Rhodopis poked her in the ribs with the butt of a Phillips from her tool belt. "Why do you put up with the way Jun-Lee and Jin treat you? I gotta as long as Jin's got hold of my indenture for my engineer’s schooling. But the moment they come due, I'm sliding." Rhodopis made a gesture with her hands to indicate just how slick that slide would be. "But they order you around like you’re a yi da tuo da bian (a big pile of shit). Seven hells, all the Barters she’s got come off your back. You’ve got just as much right to this ship as she does. Wu was your Pa just as much as Jun-Li’s."

Xian sighed. "It's not like I know how to pilot the ship."

"That’s just cuz after your Ma and Pa died, she's traded all the Barts for learning so that tian di wu yowng (completely useless) daughter a hers could call herself a pilot and where’d that leave you?"

Xian muttered in no particular direction, "Rhodopis, Jun-Li is my sister."

Rhodopis thumped the bin with her palm in a bwoom of sound. "Half sister. Serious like, I got no idea how your Pa kept his dick after screwing Jin."

On that image, Xian dropped her head back to her knees.

Jin's voice cracked on over the speakers. "Xian! Where are you, you yi dwei da buen chuo roh (big stupid pile of stinking meat)."

Xian made her legs get up along with the rest of her. She tapped the com dangling off the wall. "I'm in the crapper hold."

"Well, why aren't you on the bridge?" Jin's voice crackled three separate kinds of venom. "Jun-Li's made a course change and we're plumb three secs from where we need to be. Why weren't you up here making sure she didn't run us out past Fleet range?

Xian could have had a lot of responses to that. She breathed in and asked her Ma to give her the strength to remember that Jin was a good person really. That folk was just folk. That she acted this way cuz she had a whole bin full of bugs in her bonnet over Ma and Pa and herself. Xian said, "You want me up there?"

"I want you back in time. Doing your job." Jin's voice was steel like a rusty coiled bit of metal that you just stepped on was steel, "But I can't have that. Instead I have to tell you how to wipe yourself." She breathed in, which was never a good sign. "I took care of it. Anyway, you were supposed to go over to the To'Han and get our barter for the 7-cycle. I gave you my list over breakfast."

Xian did not ask how she was supposed to have been over on the To'Han and simultaneously perching on deck looking over Jun-Li's shoulder and getting a load from the Bernadette. Those kinds of questions never went well.

She pealed back her work gloves and checked her chrono. "Apec's already gone by on its rounds."

"Then you'll have to take the Mosquito." The com clicked off and Xian resisted the urge to hit her head against the bin. All it would do was hurt her head. Bugs in her bonnet; folk was folk; said thirty times quick in her head.

Rhodopis broke her out of it when she grabbed Xian's wrist. "You can't seriously be planning on going. Squito's just for short go rounds. Not crossing the whole damn fleet. I should know. I do the maintenance on the thing. Made some improves, but not much improves."

Xian shrugged. She reflected that she shrugged a gorram lot.

Now, there may as be the impression that Rhodopis shut up after that, but no. She talked about how if it was her, she wouldn't do it and if it was her she'd tell Jin where should take herself, being straight to all seven hells to have sex with the thousand demons as lived there. Since Rhodopis never said more than "Yes, ma'am," or "No, ma'am," to Jin, this was complete and utter da bian hua (crap talk) and Xian knew her crap, but it was nice to hear out loud. Even if neither of them would say it, because folk was folk. She let the words carry her as she suited back up. She thought of the way a trip to the To’Han could be nice.

Course, that was when Rhodopis did a quick course change and pinched Xian on the arm. “You sly dog.” She chuckled in a low dirty sound. “You going to go see your boy?”

Xian hunched her shoulders, purely to put on the suit. “He’s not my boy.”

Rhodopis laughed some more and said sing song, “But you want him to be.” She poked at Xian until she pushed her away, which got another round of laughter. “Fine. Fine. Be like that. Well, if you ain’t going to go wooing, then I’ll give you a few streams to barter. Then at least they’ll be some sorta porning going on.”

Xian asked a pretty redundant, “More feet?”

Rhodopis pushed her thumbs into the wide strap of her tool belt. “Yeah, got some streams of some real good ones with the red ribbon I picked up.” Rhodopis had small feet. No, she had cute, perfect, tiny toed feet. Oddly enough, in a life where there was so little, there were people that would trade good Barts for streams of Rhodopis’ feet and her walking around various places on those feet. Rhodopis laughed like she was always laughing. “These are real good. Help pay off my indenture good.”

Xian shook her head and checked where the To'Han was in relation to the Ariel while Rhodopis got a memory stick. Together, they filled the dirt panniers and heaved them into the air lock.

Now, as Rhodopis assured her, if Xian had the slightest sense of self preservation, she'd a felt afraid as she stepped out from the Ariel and watched it fly away from her. But no one ever called Xian smart, least not since Ma and Pa died.

It was sorta peaceful like. The lights of the slow moving fleet all around as they made their way through the Black. All that was left of the Verse that Was. Heading to the Verse that Would Be. Reavers behind. Unterraformed systems ahead, or so the talking science heads said. For now, it was moving lights in the Black.

But drifting in space while she got left behind weren't no time to get philosophical like. She tapped the Squito and wove her way forward through the lights of the fleet. Soon enough she was up under the long bridge line of the To'Han. She paid three Barts off her credit for a Mule to cart her panniers, which was a bargain. In her experience, gravity wasn’t always a friend and her feet were already dragging.

She made for the free market area on the Plaza deck. Spent a piece or two explaining to would be buyers that their offer prices weren’t worth the smear on the bottom of her feet and everyone had a good old time. As she sorted out the dirt for her barters, she found a bright yellow worm cocoon in the dirt. It was dead now, what with the trip through the Black. But still bright and shiny. She slipped it in her pocket. Went through the Fiesta and Promenade decks bartering for the stuff on Jin’s list. Made a trade on the Aloha deck for Rhodopis’ foot porn and built up Rhodopis’ credit.

When Xian was done, she thought that she should get back to the Ariel. She could already hear Jin telling her all the ways she’d screwed up. How she should a done all of it. Course, whether she went back now or in an bit, Jin was sure to have a list of Xian’s faults. May as well take a side trip.

She found her feet going up three decks to the Arabian deck where the odd bits dealers were. She stopped at the Fazil brothers suit in 169. She slipped in past a group of asteroid wranglers with their clean shaved heads and spot burns around their eyes. She walked like she wasn’t looking for anything.

Abdullah was in the back of the stall whispering love poetry to a shiny metal something. She said, “Hey.”

He dropped the part in a dull thud onto the worn carpet. “Oh, Xian, it’s... it’s... hey.” His face was down, but his lips was curved up

She adjusted the strap on her pack. “Sorry to startle you.”

He whispered, “Like being startled by a song whose words you’d thought you’d forgotten.” He looked at the ground. “It’s... I... well.... good to see you. It’s been too long. I was going to send a wave. I was just... so there’s this... next week. The all fleet fair. I was... I was wondering if you would... maybe, but of course, you wouldn’t, but maybe...” he took a deep breath, while Xian held hers.

“Abdullah, are you working out here on the parts again?” Tall Salim bustled past a crowded shelf full shiny metal. “Now what have we told you about that?”

His twin brother, Short Salim, said, “We’ve told you that that talking to people is just not in your wheelhouse.”

“Nope.” Tall Salim tapped Abdullah between his eyes. “That wheel, it don’t even know where your housing is.”

“Which is on the balcony not bothering customers.” Short Salim looked at Xian, though that look was chest centric and not on her face at all. “Such a lovely customer at that.” He grinned. “Now get.”

Abdalluh stood up in a slump. As he went round Tall Salim, he stumbled. Tall Salim laughed a sharp ratcheted sound. “Always so gorram clumsy.” Short Salim shoved Abdalluh between the shoulders.

Xian wanted to say something. She looked at the hunch of Abdullah’s shoulders as he went out the back door and it was too late for words.

She said to no one she cared about, “I’ve got to be going.” As she went, she slipped the bright yellow cocoon from her pocket onto Abdullah’s work table. She hoped he’d see it and smile.

She went to the food stalls on the Lido deck. She lingered by Bawang Putih’s, which had a painted picture of a magic crab over the old pizza sign. Last time she’d been on board, she and Abdullah had laughed over it. Must be magic, cuz there weren’t no crab in the whole fleet. Good stew though. She waited over her bowl, but Abdullah didn’t show.

Feet really were dragging then. All the Apec ride back to the Ariel. Later, when she unpacked, she found a little windup monkey in her sack. She put it on her bunk with the monkey that she’d bought off of Abdullah two years past. She looked at them and smiled and when she looked at the ceiling over her bunk, she was seeing something else entirely.

That carried her through a couple cycles. Mostly wondering what he’d wanted to ask her. Although, she hoped in her belly that she knew.

One late cycle, they were all in the galley. Jun-Lee sat swishing her feet back and forth. She talking about all the things she’d do at the all fleet job fair that was coming up at the end of the 7-cycle. The word fair stuck like a scrap of food on the edge of Xian’s mind.

Course, Jun-Lee wasn’t talking about getting a new job, because she and her Ma were rich by one whole ship. She wrinkled her nose at Xian, who pushed her protein mush from one side of the bowl to the other. Jun-Lee was going to meet up with other ship captains and technocrats and even Alliance ship officers. For some reason, Jun-Lee and Jin always called them by the name of the Verse that Was. As if they weren’t in the Verse Right Now.

She’d gotten to the part about dancing for the third time, when Xian said, “I’d like to go too.” She had never so much as gone to any of the fairs. This was her home.

“You.” Jin wrinkled her nose like she was smelling something particular foul, which must be where Jun-Lee got the expression from. “Why would you want to go to the Fair? Not like you’ve got a skill that’s good for much other than what you’ve got right now.”

“Besides,” said Jun-Lee getting up and taking a little sniff, “not like they’d want to get a whiff of you anyway.”

Xian felt something in her go all stiff and hard. “I’m going to the fair.”

Rhodopis’ eyes got wide as dinner plates and she was crushing a grin somewhere.

“No, you ain’t.” Jin slammed her bowl harder than necessary in the washer unit. “You and Rhodopis need to stay here and watch the ship.”

Xian sat with her feet square on the ground and her shoulders hunched a little, like there was an acid leak.

In the sleep cycle, she packed a duffel with her clothes. Unpacked it because she had a place here. This was her home.

Morning of the fair, Jin pulled Xian’s Vac suit out of the rack and put it in a Hold cubby. She put the Squito next to it on the floor. Locked it with her pulse key and there it was. A closed door in a large metal room. Jin didn’t say nothing. Just looked at Xian as if asking her to say something. But Xian didn’t. Really, wasn’t much to say. This was her home. Ariel had been her Pa’s ship. Gran, Ma, and Pa had all gone to the worms here. Everything in her life was here. She was needed. There was work to be done.

Xian watched Jin and Jun-Li board the early cycle Apec with her show nothing face on. She did her rounds. She checked the acidity levels for each of the bins. She added bedding. She made other adjusts. She found herself sitting on the stairs staring at the locked cubby.

Rhodopis sat down next to her. She put the dirt panniers on the floor with a dull thud. Everything felt dull as a really dull thing.

Rhodopis gave an overly prolonged look at her chrono. “Guess, Jin and Jun-Lee must be almost at the Magellan by now.”

Xian couldn’t muster the energy to glare at Rhodopis.

Rhodopis pulled a tool with a wide flat head from her tool belt. “Oh, no,” she said in a flat voice. She went over to a long panel on the floor. “How horrible.” She popped open the panel. “There’s been a power loss on all the Cubby doors.” She did something with some wires. There was a loud pop and hiss. Rhodopis shrugged. “Guess we should open it manually to, oh, make sure the stuff inside is still there.” Hope floated sharp in Xian’s chest. Together they turned the large wheel on the door. When they got it about half way open, it turned out that her Vac suit and the Squito were still inside. Xian touched them gently.

Rhodopis picked up the panniers. “I did a little something to these.” Rhodopis tapped them. “Now they’ll keep,” she waved a hand, “something breathing, happy and warm for, you know, an hour or so trip through the Black.” Xian took the panniers. She slid her hands along the outside of them. They felt cool and smooth under her fingertips. No different than always. Good piece heavier now.

She looked around the hold for a long moment. She looked at the bins and ladders. The arching metal of the crapper hold’s high ceiling. She went to the first bin. It was smaller than the others. Just large enough for a person to carry to a ship leaving a world behind. She transferred the contents to one of the panniers.

She went to her room. She found her duffel already packed, trowel on top. She lingered in the room door and then went back inside. Grabbed her jumping monkeys and shoved them in on top of the trowel.

Rhodopis helped her put on the suit and adjust the Squito’s straps. As Xian went into the airlock, Rhodopis said, “Now please, take this the right way. Don’t come back.”

Xian said, “Thank you.”

Rhodopis rolled her eyes. “Look on Jin’s face will be thanks enough,” and she hit the button. The air vacuumed out of the air lock. Door opened on the Black and Xian suddenly thought that she shouldn’t leave. She couldn’t leave her Pa’s ship. Her home. Her life.

Sudden, clear as shiny, she remembered the first time she went into the Black. Gran’s hand in hers. “Don’t worry, mei-mei (little one). I got you.” While Ma spouted statistics and Pa muttered encouragement over the com.

Xian stepped out into the Black.

Trip across was quiet. Except for her thoughts. Doubts. Worries. Right thing. Wrong thing. She reached the Magellan and the voice on the com was more surprised than a 30-cycle of New Years to have someone ask to come aboard using a Squito. But they let her on. Gave her a wrist ident card and a locker assignment. She was off to the job fair.

She went to the deck where ships with space were as looking for someone to take up a berth and share the load.

Two steps into the hall, she saw Abdullah clutching a battered red tool box.

His grin spread across his face. “Hey.”

She kinda thought hers had taken over her face; it felt like it stretched her so wide. “Hey.”

They said at the same time, “I hoped you’d be here.” Laughed nervous like. Happy like. Grinned. Which turned into a long kiss of smiling. When they broke, they took up hands and went to look for a place they could call their own.

 

Epilogue

Every rutting time Rhodopis went by Xian’s old bunk, she got a big old rutting grin on her face. Even better was watching Jin spin on the stick up her ass trying to figure a way to cover for all the stuff she hadn’t realized that Xian was doing.

She tried to make Rhodopis go out into the Black with a second hand Squito that she bartered off some fool on the Lucky Lucy, but Rhodopis had a copy of her contract and it clearly stated that Rhodopis was an engineer. Not a farmer or a doctor or sanitation engineer. Much as Jin wanted to argue that last one.

Jun-Li couldn’t even work the Squito. Jin and Jun-Lee killed every worm in bin nine. Rhodopis saluted it as she went by.

She was ass deep under the stabilizers, when the com waved an incoming.

“Ariel, this is the shuttle Trinidad, out of the Magellan, asking for permission to dock." By asking, the voice on the com clearly mean telling that they were docking. Permission or no. Rhodopis climbed out. Visit from the Trinidad could only mean a spot inspection. She hummed as she climbed out. Couldn't happen to a nicer captain.

Jin rushed past her to the crapper hold. Her eyes raked Rhodopis up and down. "Rhodopis, I can’t be having Alliance representatives seeing my crew in this state. Make yourself invisible.” Rhodopis rolled her eyes, because what Jin meant was don’t talk to the inspectors, as if that ever worked. Still no way she was missing this. She climbed on top of bin ten just as the air lock hissed open and damn but twenty purple bellys streamed out while Jin was in mid fuss over Jun-Li's clothes. Followed by the Captain of the gorram Magellan, who looked shorter than in the waves. Still from Rhodopis’ view point, his hair might be salt and pepper, but he had all of it.

Jin bowed almost touching her forehead on the floor. "You're most welcome to my little ship, Captain Amasis." Jin was putting enough sugar on her voice to make Rhodopis’ teeth ache. "Whatever tiny service we can provide for you would be our pleasure."

Captain Amasis snapped his fingers in a real commander like way and one of the purple bellys held up a shiny pillow with two tiny shoes out of some kinda clear polymer on it. He said, in that voice that Rhodopis had always liked from the waves, like the rumble of a deep engine, "I'm looking for the person who can wear these shoes."

Jin bowed again while simultaneously waving at Jun-Lee. "Of course." She turned in mid-bow to hiss at Jun-Li, "Take off your shoes." But even with Jun-Li down to her bare feet, no amount of shoving would get her feet in those things. Jin tried next, but that was never going to work.

One of the purple bellys said, "Madam, perhaps there is someone else on your ship who could try?"

The stick up Jin's ass got straighter as she said, "No, I'm so sorry. There is no one else."

Amasis turned to one of the purple bellys. "You'll have to start again. I want to find the source of that recording."

The words were like a cold spark up and down Rhodopis’ spine. She jumped down off the bin and practically yelled, "Give me a try." She shucked off her boards and grinned. Cause those shoes fit like they were made for her because they had been.

Amasis sighed in a long exhale, which was when Rhodopis decided to throw in for all she was worth. She leaned up to whisper in Amasis’ ear, "If you pay off my indenture papers, I might even consider walking in these shoes." A little lower then, a breath in his ear. "These shoes were made for walking up your spine. Ain't that right?"

Amasis' answer was a quick, "Lieutenant Aschenputtel, pay off this woman's indenture."

Which was how Rhodopis ended up on the rutting Magellan.

Now, it took her awhile to find something useful to do on that big ass ship of his, because Amasis was under the impression that her job would be shoe wearing. But the time for people who as did nothing but sit with their feet up was long ago and back in the Verse that Was. This was now. So, she broke him of that real quick. Took all of two steps, a grind with the tip of her big toe, and the spin of a lug wrench. Took a few steps adjusting the attitude of those high nose officers of his, but that’s why she bought boots and a new tool belt for New Years.