Captain Yuel Telspa walked with a swagger and appeared quite comfortable on her feet, even though it had been a good three years since any of her trio of followers had set foot on a place that had full gravity. The rest of her crew rocked on the balls of their feet, had to fight for every step forward.

“The Wanhanii system is getting crowded, ain’t it?” she asked, laughing at their difficulties, “When I started mining the rocks, I swear there wasn’t a single soul in the middle regions of the Harlish Galaxy, not counting the Rockers. They all lived at the tips of the Head Arm, and you could fly all the way through the Galactic Axis and through the Tail Arm and not hear a single voice on the radio until you got to Errisk. Now, though…”

“It’s full of Tarmithian grounddwellers who think themselves spacemen,” said Gurtagan, who was thick and short, born and bred on a high-grav world, and struggled more than the rest of them.

“They’ll wash out the first time they set foot on a rock,” Sengen said, and curled his heavily tanned face into a sneer, “They can’t hack it out on those asteroids.”

Telspa snorted. “They’d wash out the first time they farted in their spacesuits.”

The fourth member of the group, the youngest and the least seasoned to the asteroid-mining trade, was Marilon Yavin. She lagged back, hands shoved into her jumpsuit pockets, telling herself it was the high gravity on Wahanii VII and not her own fears that slowed her pace.

“The people aren’t so bad,” she said, “Remember why we’re here?”

The three of them chuckled back at her, as much out of pity as out of mirth, and then together they continued on in silence. The street below their feet was parched by the daytime sun, so plumes of dust rose up under their feet, and the walls of the buildings around had all been bleached to the same nondescript tan. At a glance, Marilon could distinguish between the locals, who wore soft and earth-tone garments, and the the off-worlders who wore brighter synthetic colors or full space suits.

“This is it?” Telspa asked, when they came to a restaurant at the end of the street. There was a neon sign in the doorway, board over the windows; Marilon had noted that all of the buildings had multiple windows, but eery one of them was shuttered or curtained to keep out the sun.

“This is it,” she confirmed. The rest of the crew started towards the door as soon as she spoke, but she found herself glued to the dusty sidewalk.

“You were the one who brought us here, girl,” Gurtagan sighed, when they turned back to her, “If not for you whining about how nervous you was about being on the same planet as your family, I could be out, hunting myself up a good beer.”

“They’ll serve beer, there’s an add taped next to the door there,” Marilon said. Her mouth felt dry, reluctant to move.

“Come in Yavin, I order it,” Telspa said. Marilon swallowed hard and found her feet and went towards the door. When Sengan held it open, cool air and the sound of music spilled outwards.

“It can’t be any worse than throwing yourself around asteroids like a Rocker tribesman,” he said.

Marilon glared at him. “It can be. I feel like I’m on a death walk.”

“One hell of a melodramatist, as always,” Telspa said, returned her sour look, and then cut off all further conversation when she stopped at the far end of the vestibule and put her hands on her hips. Her pose and her pressure suit drew the crowd’s attention even before she bellowed for the waitress’s attention. “A few drinks for us! We just came down from the Belts and we are thirsty as hell!”

She and Gurtagan and Sengan reveled in the crowd’s attention, at once admiring and slightly fearful, but Marilon found no joy in it. She walked with her head down as a waitress showed them them to a table in the corner, wished she could disappear into the floorboards.

“That one of them?” Gurtagen said, jerking his thumb backwards at the girl once they had been seated.

Marilon glanced at the girl’s face, and then shook her head. “No one in my family has black hair. We’re all redheads, except for Crespi, he’s the only blonde out of all seven of us.”

She stopped there, clicking her jaw shut, overcome with a sudden fear that speaking her brother’s name aloud would conjure him up in person. She turned her head up and looked over the crowd, searching for anyone who possessed the same bright hair as she did.

“I don’t think they’re here,” Marilon said, and frowned outward. The reputation of the asteroid miners was so fierce that on some planets, they could walk into a rest joint and turn away anyone seeking to pry into their business with a frown, and she would certainly appreciate the easy out if that happened here, too. “Maybe this place has changed hands and my family doesn’t own it anymore. It’s common in places like this.”

“Keep your ass in the seat, Yavin,” Telpa said, “They’re here, and you know it, because when we looked it up, it was still registered in your ma’s name. You know you got to face them sometime, and today’s as good a day as any other.”

Sengan and Gurtagan nodded along with her, which Marilon resented, but Telspa’s words rang true. She turned her frown down to the surface of the table. A few dozen other space travelers had carved their names into the surface of the table before moving on. She imagined most of them were hopeful travelers headed into the unknown territories, the rest jaded space merchants and asteroid miners.

I could just leave my name, Marilon thought, My mother and my siblings will come across the name. They’ll know that I’m still alive, and I was here. That will be enough.

A clattering brought the fantasy to an end. The drinks had arrived, brought by a younger girl, who smiled widely as she set the drinks down on the table. She hardly looked twelve, at the most, but her movements were practiced enough that she did not spill even a drop down the sides.

She’s not even that old, shes almost exactly ten, Marilon thought, as she picked up her drink and saw the name of someone ringed in condensation. She immediately recognized that heart-shaped face, the auburn hair that framed the girl’s features, and did the math in her head. Millie had just turned six when I left four years ago – she was barely a schoolchild – and now she’s gangly and looks half grown!

Millie leaned over the table, as the four of them sipped at their drinks. Her smile was innocent, endearingly conspiratorial.

“I steal Elloo’s tables when I see people come in with suits on,” she whispered, “Did you come in from the rocks?”

“That we did,” Telpa said, “Spent a good couple of years up there, bringing down the ores that you groundrunners use to keep yourselves in trinkets.”

“Every off-worlder says that, and we’d all be out of a job if we obliged them,” Millie said. She turned a look of playful chastisement onto each of them, and when her gaze lingered on no one in particular, Marilon realized that her own sister did not recognize her.

“My ma doesn’t like me talking to the miners,” Millie went on, “But every time they come in, I try to get them to tell stories about what it’s like up there. What do you do up there?”

“It’s dangerous, that’s the only thing to say about it,” Gurtagan said, “No place for a girl like you.”

“A girl like me?” She straightened herself up, and frowned down on him. “I’ll have you know, I could do it quite well, if I wanted. My sister runs up in the rocks.”

“Does she now?” Telpa said, and flicked her brows up from behind her tankard.

“She does.” Millie leaned over the table again. “I wish I could be up there in the stars, like she is, no matter how dangerous it is. That’s why I always ask the miners who come in here, no matter what my ma thinks of them.”

Marilon suddenly felt four pairs of eyes laying heavily on her, anticipating and demanding her response. She sighed, took a long draught that made her tingle down to her knees, then folded her hands over the signature of someone named Ilsh Coltran.

“She’d be in constant danger,” Marilon began. She caught Millie’s eye, returned that playful, roguish smile, but detected no sign that she had been recognized for who she was. “You get all the normal dangers of space up on the rocks, plus a whole lot more. The rocks throw debris out in all directions, and all it takes is one little pebble hitting in the right spot to knock out a ship, and everyone on board freezes or suffocates. It’s worse when you actually get onto the rocks themselves. All you have between you and the vacuum is a suit, and any one of your tools or the sharp rocks around you can puncture your suit. A splinter can puncture your suit. Not to mention, if you step wrong, you can throw yourself off the rock and into space, never to be saved.”

“We have a strict rule,” Sengan said, and shook a finger in Millie’s direction, “Any miner who’s stupid enough to step off of a rock is one that’s too stupid to save.”

Guratagan nodded, and slurped down the last of his drink. “Better hope your sister isn’t the type to go stepping off the rocks.”

Marilon rolled her eyes; Millie held hers wide open. “I’ve heard some of the other miners say the same thing. I think that must be why my mother still prays for my sister – she’s heard it, too.”

“She prays, does she?” Marilon said, and snorted into her cup as a hot burst of anger seared through her. “And I suppose she never stops to think about why her daughter left, that she can only think of it as an act of rebellion…”

She stopped herself there, clapped her jaw shut, but the damage was already done. Millie backed away a few steps, but would not look away from the table. “It’s you, isn’t it? Mari – you’re back?”

Marilon bowed her head, spread her hands wide. “Live and in the flesh, Millie.”

Millie’s face lit up as soon as she heard her own name, and then she started speaking so rapidly that her words flew out in a jumble. “It’s been so long, and I can’t believe you’re here! Mari, why have you come back now? What have you been doing, you have to tell me! We lost the old farm, did you know that? Is it really as dangerous as you say up in the rocks?”

“Hey!” Gurtagan said, “Don’t bump the table, girl, you’re going to spill our drinks, and these are the first we’ve had in a damned long time.”

Millie straightened, focused but unfazed by his gruff response. “Aldair and Crespi are here, too. They’ll want to see you, Mari. I’ll go get them.”

She turned on her heel and practically skipped off through the crowd of patrons; Marilon sucked down half of her drink and then cowered over the glass.

“She seems happy to see you,” Sengan said.

“There are seven more of them,” Marilon snapped, “Six siblings, and my mother Renga Yavin. It won’t all be hugs and smiles.”

Millie returned a few seconds later, towing two other people behind her. This time it was Marilon’s turn to barely recognize her own siblings. The shape of their facial features was familiar, the same as she saw when she looked in the mirror, but she remembered Aldair and Crespi as boys, barely into their teens and double-digits, respectively. Now their young faces had both become hard and angular, and their shoulders had widened.

“It’s her – really her!” Millie said, and pointed.. Aldair and Crespi stared at her, coolly, displaying none of the excitement that Millie had shown.

“You really did become a rockrat,” Aldair said. He heavily emphasized the last word. “I had half hoped that was just a rumor, or something Ma made up.”

“It’s a living,” Marilon said.

“You’ll get tipped off into space,” Crespi said. She heard a youthful, prepubescent crack in his voice, but nothing to indicate that he would actually regret it if she did loose her footing.

“I’ve done all right so far,” Marilon responded. She looked to Telspa and the others for support, but they seemed to have faded, to have removed themselves from the situation. “What have you been doing since I left?”

“Working,” Aldair said, without a second’s hesitation, “We worked our fingers to the bone trying to keep our home, and now we keep on grinding them down, trying to make a living here.”

“Every one of us,” Crespi said, in the same clipped tone, “Even Reen works in the kitchen.”

“Reen is a baby,” Marilon said, recoiling somewhat, “He can barely walk…”

“He can walk well enough to pull his weight, as we all do – almost all of us.”

Marilon closed her eyes for a few seconds, dabbed at her forehead when she felt sweat beginning to bead above her brow. She had had chores around the farm as early into her childhood as she could remember, but nothing that would be implied to be the difference between the family surviving and foundering.

“And Mother?” she asked, “I heard she still prays for me.”

“Half the time the prayers are to curse that you were ever born,” Crespi said, “I don’t know that she’ll want to see you.”

Telpa is right, best to get this over with now, Marilon thought to herself, and drew herself into a more defiant position. “Well. Whether she wants to see me or not, I am going to come and see her.”

#

The Tarmithians that came from the heart of the galaxy to Wahanii, Marilon thought as her siblings led her away from the rest stop and into the neighborhoods, had taken the worst parts of their home planets with them. Most of the people who came to the hinterlands did so in search of open, uninhabited worlds, but settled instead into prefabricated apartments that looked no different than the slums they had left behind.

“Nobody ever calls this place Fallsbottom,” Aldair said, as they walked past a sign erected next to the road, “We who live here call it Jetsbottom, because every time a ship lands or takes off, they fly over us and the ground shakes and we get to breathe up all the exhaust.”

‘We probably got a good dusting of it when your ship came in,” Crespi said. He wiped his fingertips on the signpost, and they came away dusted in black.

You put us here – we are here because you left. Marilon recognized a quiet insult in her brother’s voice, and stared at the tenements looming above until Millie pulled her forward. They seemed to lean slightly to one side, and the streets began to feel labyrinthine as they walked farther into the neighborhood. The sheer amount of dust and grime made her want to pull at her hair; Telspa and every other commander worth their salt kept their ships immaculate, for fear that dust or stray debris might clog up the essential mechanisms.

“This is it,” Millie said, stopping in front of a building that advertised two-room residences. Marilon shuddered to think of all seven of her family members condensed into two rooms. They ascended the stairs, and were all winded by the time they came to the fifth floor.

“We’re at the far end of the hallway,” Crespi said, and pushed the door open when they arrived. Marilon hesitated in the doorway, squinting into the darkness, until Millie tugged her hand again. “Ma! You won’t believe who we’ve got with us.”

Marilon heard a piece of furniture groan as someone stood up. She blinked, and could suddenly make out several children sleeping on mismatched furniture and pallets on the floor. These are also my siblings. The youngest ones have grown so much, changed so much, I hardly recognize them at all

“Don’t shout,” said a voice, “You’ll wake the young ones. Who is it?”

Marilon flushed cold, felt her muscles beginning to shake. That was undeniably her mother’s voice, and a few seconds later, she appeared from among the shadows. For half a second, she wanted to run, their eyes met and she was frozen to the spot.

No flash of recognition came over her mother’s face; she squinted, and the frown that seemed to have been etched onto her face deepened. “It’s you.

“It’s you,” her mother said. She walked a few steps forward, and Marilon realized that she was walking with a cane. “I’m here.”

Her mother stepped closer, favoring one leg. One of the children sleeping on the floor stirred, and Marilon realized that it was Reen, the baby. “So. What do you think of our new home?”

“It’s cozy,” Marilon said. Working in the confines of a space vessel had made her used to living in close quarters, but the dingy apartment seemed absolutely stifling for seven people.

Her mother rumbled a response in the back of her throat. “Sit down, girl, if you can find a spot. Have you had your fill of running around the rocks?”

“I’m on leave,” Marilon said. “I have two standard weeks. The rock-mining crews work like a militia. You sign on for a certain number of years. Five in my case.”

“Five years,” her mother said, and then looked around the room. Only a few square feet of floor were visible in the very center of the room. The rest was crowed with boxes, piles of clothes, stacks of belongings, and the younger children who found a place to rest amidst all the clutter. “This isn’t what you remember when you think of home, is it?”

Marilon shrugged. “It’s not our farm. I don’t think there’s a mountain on this whole planet. How long have you been here?”

“Two years. It’s harder to scratch out a living here than it was trying to grow or hunt up a meal in a land that had been dried of wild food. We fought to keep our farm, but in the end we lost it – I think we could have held on to it with just a little bit more, if we’d had it.”

Again there was the same quiet implication. If you had stayed here, we would have kept it. Marilon bowed her head, and said, “I never really appreciated the beauty of the place until I left.”

“Which is why you should have stayed instead of running off for some fantasy,” her mother snapped, “If you had stayed, we might have kept the place.”

“We lost the place because Father died,” Marilon said, firmly enough that her siblings stirred again.

Her mother drew herself up. “All we needed was a little bit more money! It was well within the range that one more salaried worker could have made up, but you decided that you wanted to go play in the stars, and the fate of the rest of your family be damned-“

“Mother!” Marilon interrupted, “I’ve two more years left in my apprenticeship, and when I finish that, I’ll have a license and stand to make more than everyone here combined.”

The air was silent a few seconds, then her mother said, “If you survive to finish it.”

“If,” Marilon admitted.

Her mother swallowed hard, and by the time she was done with the movement, her face was trembling. “In all honesty, when I didn’t hear from you, I’d assumed that you must have already floated off of some godforsaken rock and died somewhere off in open space. You never even wrote us.”

“You moved,” Marilon said, as she felt her throat tightening, “And you didn’t tell me where I should contact you.”

“If I had only known…”

And that was enough that the angry pretense disappeared, that they were drawn towards each other as if by magnetism, and the floodgates were opened. They fell into each other’s arms and stayed there, talking, until the smallest children woke up and demanded to know who their visitor was and then refused to believe that it was their own flesh and blood.

Finally Marilon reached a point of being so thoroughly exhausted that she had to admit that her body was going to shut down and rest,whether she consented to it or not. She lay down on the couch, feeling incredibly light and buoyant now that she had achieved reconciliation.

Marilon did not wake until light poked in through the thin spots in blankets tacked over the windows. Her feet stopped at the edge of the couch when she tried to stretch herself out, and as she attempted to move into a sitting position, she realized that sometime in the night Millie had edged onto the couch and snuggled up next to her.

“I have to work at the rest stop again today,” Millie said, after she yawned and rubbed her eyes, “How long are you going to stay, Mari?”

“A week,” Marilon answered, “Then I’ve got to get back with Telspa and her crew. We’ve got a contract to fill – we can’t afford to rest.”

“Neither can we,” Millie said, and rested her hand on her palm. “There are always people that want to eat. I haven’t seen Mother as happy as she was last night in a very long time, you know.”

“Me neither,” Marilon agreed, “Even before I left, she hadn’t been happy.”

Millie rolled, and sat all the way up. “Why did you leave, Mari?”

She grimaced; that was the one topic of discussion that had not come up between mother and daughter the night before that she hoped would remained buried. “Because Father…”

“I miss him, too.”

“Yes.” For a few seconds, she felt a giant hand, squeezing her throat. “You are probably too young to remember, but back at the farm house, we all used to sit on the back porch when dusk rolled around. We’d look down the mountains, and then when it got dark, we would look up at the stars. Pa was savvy about astronomy and he would point up and say, “That’s Llariel Prime, the capitol of the Collective.’ Or, ‘That’s Arrastan.’ Or ‘That’s Elstan.’ He knew all the important systems back in the more populated parts of Tarmith. He would also point towards the middle of the galaxy, on the other side of the sky, and say, ‘All those stars are empty. There are some systems that humans have never even set foot on. Lots of the planets and stars out there don’t even have names. There’s absolutely nothing until you get to the other side of the galaxy, to the Haldamirian colonies around Errisk Prime. Those are some of my favorite memories of him.”

“You have to tell that to Ma,” Millie said, and sat enraptured.

“I should,” Marilon agreed. “When Pa died, somehow I got this crazy idea that I could find him out there, and the rock-miners were the easiest way to get up there. They don’t ask questions and didn’t care that I was sixteen and a girl.”

“But you didn’t find him,” Millie mourned.

“No,” Marilon said. She followed the sliver of light spilling across the floor up to its source, a gap between the blanket over the window and the wall. “But I know that’s where he wished he could have been, out on the hinterlands.”

“I think he would be proud that you made it up there,” Millie said. She raised a hand, pointed up like she imagined an entire night sky instead of a ceiling. “And he’d be prouder still if you actually went into the beyond, into the unknown.”

Marilon smiled. “That’s exactly what I hope he would say, because someday, that’s exactly what I intend to do.”