by Aliette de Bodard
Quy was on the docks, watching the spaceships arrive. She could, of course, have been anywhere on Longevity Station, and requested the feed from the network to be patched to her router--and watched, superimposed on her field of vision, the slow dance of ships slipping into their pod cradles like births watched in reverse. But there was something about standing on the spaceport's concourse--a feeling of closeness that she just couldn't replicate by standing in Golden Carp Gardens or Azure Dragon Temple. Because here--here, separated by only a few measures of sheet metal from the cradle pods, she could feel herself teetering on the edge of the vacuum, submerged in cold and breathing in neither air nor oxygen. She could almost imagine herself rootless, finally returned to the source of everything.
Most ships those days were Galactic--you'd have thought Longevity's ex-masters would have been unhappy about the station's independence, but now that the war was over Longevity was a tidy source of profit. The ships came; and disgorged a steady stream of tourists--their eyes too round and straight, their jaws too square; their faces an unhealthy shade of pink, like undercooked meat left too long in the sun. They walked with the easy confidence of people with immersers: pausing to admire the suggested highlights for a second or so before moving on to the transport station, where they haggled in schoolbook Rong for a ride to their recommended hotels--a sickeningly familiar ballet Quy had been seeing most of her life, a unison of foreigners descending on the station like a plague of centipedes or leeches.
Still, Quy watched them. They reminded her of her own time on Prime, her heady schooldays filled with raucous bars and wild weekends, and late minute revisions for exams, a carefree time she'd never have again in her life. She both longed for those days back, and hated herself for her weakness. Her education on Prime, which should have been her path into the higher strata of the station's society, had brought her nothing but a sense of disconnection from her family; a growing solitude, and a dissatisfaction, an aimlessness she couldn't put in words.
She might not have moved all day--had a sign not blinked, superimposed by her router on the edge of her field of vision. A message from Second Uncle.
"Child." His face was pale and worn, his eyes underlined by dark circles, as if he hadn't slept. He probably hadn't--the last Quy had seen of him, he had been closeted with Quy's sister Tam, trying to organise a delivery for a wedding--five hundred winter melons, and six barrels of Prosper Station's best fish sauce. "Come back to the restaurant."
"I'm on my day of rest," Quy said; it came out as more peevish and childish than she'd intended.
Second Uncle's face twisted, in what might have been a smile, though he had very little sense of humour. The scar he'd got in the Independence War shone white against the grainy background--twisting back and forth, as if it still pained him. "I know, but I need you. We have an important customer."
"Galactic," Quy said. That was the only reason he'd be calling her, and not one of her brothers or cousins. Because the family somehow thought that her studies on Prime gave her insight into the Galactics' way of thought--something useful, if not the success they'd hoped for.
"Yes. An important man, head of a local trading company." Second Uncle did not move on her field of vision. Quy could see the ships moving through his face, slowly aligning themselves in front of their pods, the hole in front of them opening like an orchid flower. And she knew everything there was to know about Grandmother's restaurant; she was Tam's sister, after all; and she'd seen the accounts, the slow decline of their clientele as their more genteel clients moved to better areas of the station; the influx of tourists on a budget, with little time for expensive dishes prepared with the best ingredients.
"Fine," she said. "I'll come."