Thursday, August 1, 2019


By David Barber

This is the Ada Swann, limping into Vesta Dock on manual, which is illegal, but there was no way Perry was paying tug fees, so with automated systems blinking on and off, she eased the big Ceres Series Four into dock by eye.

Dockside’s not handshaking your autopilot, Ada Swann.

“Maybe you’ve got a software issue,” said Perry, powering down. Previous owners of her ship had tinkered endlessly and she guessed this cascade failure was their doing.

No more cowboy spacer tricks, Ada Swann. Sort it out.

Later, making her way across the cavernous dock, a Jirt appeared at her elbow. “You got stuff need fixing, boss?”

Perry halted, and encouraged, the Jirt edged closer. “Fix electrics. Fix machines. Fix...”

Dockside crew were passing and one aimed a kick at the Jirt. It squealed and darted away.

The man saw the look on Perry’s face. “They’ve been told to keep off Dock,” he shrugged. “Don’t encourage them.”

Perry spent the morning trying to source obsolete electronics, and came back in a bad mood. More Jirt loitered on the Dock.

“Hear ship broke boss.” Perhaps it was the one from earlier.

Jirt were fixers of things, all manner of things, this being their gift. Otherwise, a short, timid folk with faces cleft where noses ought to be, known for their feeble six-fingered grasp of money.

“These my Jirt. All good at fixing broke ship.”

It was their smell, a damp-rot odour, like a mushroom cellar. Perry first noticed that stink on Pallas when she piloted short-haul, now they were here too, their shanties round docks and spaceports in a diaspora of usefulness and poverty.

Going out again, the Jirt were still waiting, and she waded through them, waist deep. But then she took an outsize in vac suits and had forearms like hams.

The Weather Inn had seen better days; even the trademark holos of Earthside climate weren't like she remembered. It was playing rain rattling against windows, like someone tossing handfuls of gravel.

Didn't there used to be a wet green smell? she asked the barman. The barman was new. He shrugged. What you see is what you get.

Spacers ended up places like this, loners recognising one another, telling their tales of breakdowns out in the dark, deals that went sour, the run of bad luck since the ice rush ended.

She learned about Jacob and Ada Swann, brother and sister, previous owners of her ship, before Ada escaped down a gravity well to get married.

Bet he never saw that coming, said the spacer with the prosthetic eye.

The Ada Swann was a six-berth, but the boards had been rigged so everything could be run from the pilot's seat. Opinion was unhelpful. Maybe a problem in that maze of add-ons. There were shrugs. Even Perry, who wasn’t good at this sort of thing, sensed an undercurrent of resentment. The way she’d acquired her ship smacked of undeserved good fortune.

By now most of the spacers at the bar were wasted, and when she mentioned the Jirt on dockside they began to argue blearily back and forth.

Saw one make an old compressor purr so smooth, you put a drink on it and the ice-cubes hardly tinkled.

Maybe be natural fixers, but the smell.

Anyway, spacers fix their own stuff, always had.

Let `em onto your ship, you’ll never get `em out. Like roaches in the walls. Have to open the whole ship to space.

Did a vacuum clean-up like that once, someone began. The conversation wandered away.

“Jirt like being around us,” the spacer confided to Perry, his lens gleaming. “That thing with jokes, you know?”

Perry blinked with both eyes, that thing she did when put on the spot.

One-liners pop flashbulbs in the Jirt brain. A glimpse of something cosmic, he’d heard. In exchange, they fixed stuff for free. Just keep a few jokes handy, like loose change for tips.

Her face settled into a frown. Those years out in the dark, who would she have told jokes to?

And don’t listen to this bunch, he added. All they have is the past.

“You know you’re not leaving here on manual,” the Dock Manager told Perry next day. “Not without a Certificate.”

And paying dock fees until she went broke, the woman meant. Which wouldn’t be long. Again pull-out modules tested green, then crashed when put back. Perry rarely got angry, but she put down her tools very carefully and went for a walk.

The commotion out on the Dock was Jirt squealing. Dock crew going off duty had cornered the bunch hanging round the Ada Swann.

Hey, warned Perry, stepping between them. She motioned towards her open airlock and the Jirt scrambled aboard.

You’ll regret that, a docker told Perry, and she stared him out until he shrugged and walked off.

While its fellows swarmed through the Ada Swann, chasing cables and peering at motherboards, one Jirt stayed close to Perry.

They admired our human things, it said. Less fiddly than the tiny Shrax, not as brutal in their tonnage as the gadgets of Behemoths. At least, that’s what Perry thought it said.

It stroked Perry’s hand. Only humans were funny, it added. This being our gift.

And when the Ada Swann glided out of Vesta Dock on autopilot, Perry knew she would never be able to unravel the fix-arounds these Jirt had improvised. They were her crew now, their nest in an unused cabin loud with addicts huddled round old comedy shows, drunk on punch lines.

Show us, they pleaded with her sometimes, the damp-rot odour thickening in anticipation of the moment when the god seized them.

Perry would have to learn some jokes. This Jirt has no nose. Then how does it smell?

Tell us how you do it, they pleaded, as if some accidental molecule in a flower might teach dreams; as if this was how poppies might feel, if they knew.

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