The Ties You Have
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"…and the-e-erefore make me room, man."

Daniel Saulnier stumbled into the ship's common room, only questionably enthused at the prospect of joining in the sing-along. He forgot whose idea it had been, at first - we're going to be five weeks out on this shipment, nothing but routine maintenance daily and nothing to see but black until we reach the station we're resupplying, so clearly the solution to this is to gather in the common room every night and sing songs. Like heathens. Like children sitting around a campfire, and not a crew of professional haulers.

If he had his way, he would just slip through and go back to his berth, seal the privacy panel and block out the universe for the rest of the night. There were books calling to him from there, and he was already tired. But he had been told enough times, in certain enough terms, that doing so would be anti-social, and that was apparently a pretty big sin to most people. It was definitely a sin in Jasmine Khatri's crew. Daniel didn't think he'd ever met a more gregarious woman, nor one with so large a blind spot about other people's sociability thresholds.

(Come to think of it, the idea had probably been hers.)

So. Endure at least a couple songs, and then retreat. That, he could do.

He managed to find himself a space without too much difficulty or unwanted conversation, likely helped by the fact that the place he chose was squeezed between the bulkhead and a squashed red armchair currently being occupied by the other mechanic Devan, that Devan also half-asleep, and that Jasmine had leapt right into the next song with her ukulele. It wasn't tuned to the same key as her voice, and so Daniel made a concerted effort to turn his ears off, focus on rubbing his nail along the lines of the armchair's weave. It worked, somewhat - by the time she had strummed the last chord he had caught very few lyrics. Something about hauling away (this was a spaceship, for hell's sake, there weren't riggings or capstans or anything that needed to be rhythmically hauled on) and being bound for Colway Station (okay, that was true).

Before it had faded away another crewmember had already stuck out his hand for the ukulele. Darting a faintly curious glance over, Daniel was slightly surprised - the man's name was Sidney, although he couldn't remember what the surname was, and they had taken him on just before the beginning of this trip, just under three weeks ago. A bold move, for the new hire. He knew a few girls who had been on five times as long and still barely plucked up the courage to speak to anyone.

Sidney whatever-his-last-name-was plucked out a few chords and fiddled with the pegs (ain't going to work, Daniel wanted to tell him, she'd stripped those a long time ago) and launched in, but slowly, almost in duple. "- mud and the wind and the wet -" Interesting. Hadn't heard that one before, and from the looks on his crewmembers' faces they hadn't either.

Ah well. When they had done it day after day after day, then everyone would be sick and tired of the lyrics, however novel they seemed now. He dug into his pocket for his semi-secret dried fruit cache. By all accounts, the worst part of hauling was not the small quarters, nor the time pressures, nor the low pay - it was the fact that the food, though both edible and calorically-dense enough even for outsized humans, was exceptionally boring. They always looked like idiots at every docking, he was sure, obsessing over things like fruit, and meat, and bread that had actual leaven in it. Needless to say, for sanity's sake if nothing else, a personal store of something with some kind of flavour was a must.

"- I'm the man who wed the Pacific sea…" Daniel did have to afford him this: he sung better than Jasmine, although that may have been damnation by faint praise. But it was careful and, though faintly warbly, for the most part on key. Not bad, greenstick.

The end of this song, he told himself. And that would be enough participation for the day. He split apart an apricot with his thumbnail and chewed out the soft innard.

" - a more faithfu-" His voice snapped, and the sound frayed off like a cable end. Daniel looked up just in time to see him clumsily drop the instrument, and cover his crumpling face with his hands, and the next sound produced was far more sob than it was note. What the - oh, but of course. Music was built to be cathartic, and if the greenstick was tired or stressed or lonely or - sure. Sing yourself right into a crying fit, why don't you.

If it was a significant social faux pas to choose to minimize one's time spent in public, it was much, much worse of one to break down in tears there. Despite himself, Daniel felt a sympathetic twinge of embarrassment. Sidney would hate himself for this later, if he didn't already, having let himself be this vulnerable on top of being the new hire.

And then, of course, in a few more seconds the rest of them would start in and try to ask what was wrong in five different overlapping ways, or pet him like a cat, or offer more of Devan's shitty moonshine, and then ruin their own evenings as well by getting all uptight or offended when it didn't help, and then -

The rest of his crew was very compassionate, when it came to people having intense emotions on their ship. They were also just very, very useless.

Ah, hell. Daniel extricated himself from the chair and came closer. Sometimes - and this was definitely one of those times - he hated being a responsible person, because now an itemized list of actions was starting to coalesce in his head: 1, remove greenstick from situation. Sidney didn't fight a hand being put on his shoulder and being pulled towards the door. 2, prevent rest of crew from following and being unhelpful -

"Is -" Jasmine took a step forwards, but Daniel fixed her with his best glare. Jasmine, you are too much. Stay back here and… I don't know, find something else to say about Cape Horn. She must have got the message, because she let them go without any more solicitation, even as he sealed the door behind them.

3, figure out what the actual problem is.

The corridors of the ship were not designed with anywhere to sit, but they were designed with exposed girders everywhere, some of which were wide enough to serve as makeshift benches if one didn't mind a few rivets digging into the backs of one's knees. He guided Sidney to the closest one and sat him down, then settled himself two feet of careful space away.

And waited. Around the, the ship hummed - there was no quiet, ever, on a freighter. The ventilation whirred and the piping glooped and knocked and there was always an alarm going off somewhere in the ship, and the only thing for which one could wish was that it wouldn't be near them. The weeping was quiet but it was not silent, so that was added to the chorus, and after a few minutes some muffled rhythm drifted out from the direction of the common room, so he supposed they'd started up on another song. All hurtling along through space together, in a metal ball of unceasing harmonics.

Eventually, Sidney's sobbing died down into ragged breaths, and he seemed to straighten a little. All right. Getting… somewhere, at least.

He sighed. "Do you want to talk about it?"

An unspecified, miserable sound slid out from behind Sidney's hands. Hadn't waited long enough, apparently. Daniel put his head back against the bulkhead, bit on his lip, and went back to being quiet.

Two minutes later, a rustle, to his right. "Thanks," Sidney croaked, making a perfunctory gesture towards wiping off his face .

"Don't mention it. You all right?"

He hesitated. "I don't know. I haven't got any other songs from home that I know, or about home, and I thought - I just didn't -" He moaned, and covered his eyes again, shoulders hitching.

Daniel silently unhooked his canteen from his belt, and held it out. Sidney drank, then dropped canteen and hands onto his knees, as though he had used up all the energy that might have gone into holding it.

"You from out west?" he asked, carefully.

"Not, like, Bamfield specifically but -" He seemed to realize he was racing through the sentence, and swallowed hard. "The island, yeah."

"Heard it's a beautiful place."

"Mmhmm." He still didn't look up, staring at the deck like it would burn away the shine lingering in his eyes. "I didn't think I'd -"

"Miss it so much?"

Sidney nodded, pressing his lips together.

He shrugged, in the most sympathetic way he could. "It's rough," he said, wishing there was a better way to get across the genuine difficulty of a human heart trying to shape itself around the interstellar spaces. Some way to explain that he himself had deliberately put salt in his water his own first two weeks out, trying to evoke the saline fogs that enveloped his hometown in the winter; how the shy engine girls took to drawing faux billboards in their own languages on their notebooks and, sometimes, in pen on their arms; how Kaja, their navigator, had brought herself a small box of Mojave sage which she guarded as jealously as a sacred relic, and would when she got stressed open it up and just breathe in the smell, like it was a drug in itself. Against all that, one song was not a very unusual thing.

The recruitment materials deliberately left things like that out. They targeted people with little enough on Earth, anyway, but space will not, actually, fill all the holes in your life. It is, in fact, foreign and hard work didn't pull in potential employees. It was lies all the way down: everything is great, nothing hurts, no, we're not anything so weak as human out here -

Iron ships, they professed, and the mind filled in what the men must be made of, and it did not fill in flesh, and scar tissue, and crates full of memories of earth.

"Yeah, but - I didn't think it was that bad, and now -" I don't know if Captain Khatri will let me stay on, after such unprofessionalism. I don't know if I want to, having shamed myself that much. Maybe I can't do this after all, maybe I am too weak - It wasn't hard, to figure out what thoughts were probably running through his head.

"In your defense," Daniel offered, "half of all folk songs and shanties are about wanting to go home or missing home anyway." That'd be bound to set off anyone who was feeling even the slightest bit homesick.

"Name one."

He didn't even have to take a breath. "Farewell to Nova Scotia, the sea-bound coast… down in the lowlands, my heart cries out for thee, hills -"

A weak, damp chuckle. "All right, all right." Sidney pulled in a deep, shaky breath, and lifted his sleeve to dab at his eyes.

"You don't have to spill your guts out for them, you know." Sidney turned back, and gave him a look somewhere between startled and confused. "I know what all the recruitment materials say. I know how they - romanticize long postings and journeys like this. That whole 'wagon train to the stars' thing -" he mockingly waved his hand to evoke the glittery advertisements splashed across screens in every station, that popped up in personal messages "- that whole 'one big close-knit family' thing - it doesn't have to be like that. Not if you don't want it to.

"Maybe that adventures and excitement shit works for some people, all those stories about haulers falling in love with the void, their crews. Maybe some do. But you aren't doing space a wrong if you love your Pacific more.

"It's just a job, at the end of the day. Just that."

"I -" Sidney scrubbed a hand over his face, shoved back his hair. "Thanks. That - means a lot."

He nodded an acknowledgement. "Get some sleep. Shifts change back over in -" he checked his watch " - six hours." A grateful look, and Sidney hurried away.

Daniel wandered more slowly back down to his own berth. Slowly, measuredly, he set down his tools in their usual niche, and undressed, and cleaned, and lay down. His half-finished book was where he'd left it when he'd woken; he didn't open it, instead flicking off the lights and going still, hands folded over himself. And he thought of wooden ships, and iron men; all the children of Earth who dreamt of space enough to sign themselves on as haulers, and kept dreaming, even when it wasn't all they thought it would be; and the fog, rising up from his own ocean, until the whirring of the ventilation might have been waves against their hull, and he slept.

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