Pirate Songs

*This novelette was originally published in the anthology Accessing the Future, from The Future Fire, June 2015*

Pirate Songs

by Nicolette Barischoff

 

The floater turned out to be one of those shiny, sky island multi-deck passenger deals that would occasionally completely lose its shit in the middle of a jump.

This one would have been alright–various backup systems humming away, fifty or sixty first-colony licensed pilots determined to discover just what went wrong–had it not jumped straight into something else. Probably a garbage scow; there were a lot of garbage scows this far out. Now, the ship just drifted, listing and rolling like a fat, pretty corpse.

The Dustpan’s crew all had their faces flat against the port windows, eyeing it like a bunch of dogs with tongues out. That was the only reason Rumer had let them go salvage. You pass up a big, beautiful floater like that, you never get your men to do anything useful ever again.

We don’t got the time or space to pull her apart, he’d told them. No scrapping. Get yourselves something small and shiny and get back.

For the most part, they’d listened, filling up their suit-packs with the sorts of little things you always find on a floating hotel like that; alcohol in expensive-looking bottles, VR games with an obscene number of attachments, the palm and wrist PCs that were only considered valuable out here where nobody could afford them. Bottles and needles from a well-stocked sick bay, cards, cash, the turtles out of an elaborate terrarium… Kell, the mutinous asshole, had tried to haul back two of those sultry-voiced concierge kiosks, and a broken servitor droid.

Rumer wasn’t sure which of them had brought back the girl.

She looked to be about fifteen, but to Rumer Pilgrim, anybody not born and raised out of New Pelican looked young.

She didn’t have to be conscious to tell you she was far from home, either Earth or first colonies… German, Canadian, American, some single-nation settlement; she was that same kind of glass-house pretty. Well fed, with pale, untouched, swany skin, and a long, long waterfall of hair that somebody brushed out for her every morning, and a pale pink mouth that looked like it was used to pouting. When her eyes did flicker open for a split-second at a time, he could see they were a pale and brittle green.

The crew crowded around that narrow infirmary bunk for a full day and a half. Diallo, a skinny kid from the pan-Africas with half a field medic’s education and a permanent shit-eating grin, actually left the pilot’s chair to bandage her head wound. And Kell, his lecherous one-eyed bulldog of a first mate, seemed to think he was going to wake her by flicking her nipples.

“Haven’t even seen one like her in a while,” he said, rubbing his scrap glass eye, a sort of endearing nervous tick once you got to know him. “Kind of forgot they made ‘em like this.”

“With two eyes and two whole titties?” said Diallo. “Not every woman’s like your New Pelican dock-workers, Kell. Back up, man, an’ stop gettin’ in the light. This one’s never seen anything ugly as you.”

Kell grinned. “I’m sure she’ll just love that child-fucker smile you got.”

Rumer ignored their dick-swinging. “Who brought her?” he asked.

Diallo shrugged. “She was the only thing alive on that boat, Captain, her and that mess o’ turtles.”

Rumer frowned. “Bad time to have a hitchhiker, you forget that already? What’re you thinking we’re gonna do with her when we have to make our drop?”

“Don’t ask me,” said Kell, “you ask me, we shouldn’t have the stuff in the first place.”

“Right. But I didn’t ask you, and we do have the stuff, and we’re going to have to make a drop before much else happens.”

“You mean before the shit’s no damn good to anybody, or before big Papa Kang figures out who took it and sends a team after us? Because I can guarantee you that second thing’s already happened.”

“I’m thinking, Captain,” said Diallo, making the sort of diplomatic silencing gesture that made Rumer like him, “she is very far from home. She might help. With carrying, with distribution. In exchange for passage, you know.”

Rumer cocked his head. Nodded.

“It’s useful to have someone who looks like her, where we are going, what we are doing. People trust someone who looks like that. Nice pretty white face. They’ll take it from her. No need to tell her where it comes from.”

“So she plays little White Mother for us, we put her down wherever she wants, she goes on home having gratefully agreed to tell nobody, and everybody’s happy and still alive, is that it?”

Diallo grinned wide and white. “She won’t even have a ship’s name to tell her mother.”

“It might work,” said Rumer. “If we don’t run into any transit police or any Peacekeeping Officers she feels like chatting to.”

“Why would she talk to any Blueberries?” asked Diallo. “Why leave the ship at all? We are just some nice men of varying degrees of handsomeness taking her to port.”

Kell laughed at that, his loud bulldog bark. “I’ll agree with that! Why leave the ship at all? Hell, I’ll teach her to have fun sittin’ in one spot.”

“You’ll wait ‘til she’s awake, you ugly fuck,” said Rumer. “If she don’t immediately bite your balls off and run screaming from your very presence.”

Kell laughed again, louder and longer. Rumer turned to Diallo.

“She’ll get her ride, but she’ll have to work. You think you can get her to work?”

Diallo paused. The girl’s green eyes flickered open. And she sat up.

Or rather, she tried to sit up, squirming strangely for several minutes before going limp, and saying, in a slightly strained voice: “Could one of you please help me up?”

Nobody moved for a second. Diallo took her by the arm, and when that proved insufficient, grabbed her by the armpits, and propped her against the corner. Her feet were bare, and her legs dangled off the edge of the bunk, limp and pale. “Thank you,” she said.

Diallo answered with a nod.

The girl looked around her, not exactly frightened. Not exactly. But looking a little like she’d been thrown into an icy gray lake, and was just now bringing her head up out of the water to discover which of them had done it to her. “Who… What… happened? Where is this?”

Rumer thought it best to let her have it all at once. “I am the more-or-less captain, Rumer Pilgrim, and you are currently a passenger aboard my ship, this streamlined and classically engineered cargo vessel you see before you.”

“Why…?”

“Well, young lady, because your own is presently floating through deep space like a chunk of particularly metal-rich frozen shit. Now, I don’t know who you are, and I don’t really care to. But you’ve got to know that we’ve gone pretty well out of our way to pick you up. Now, I didn’t mind doing it, and you’re welcome. We’ll drop you off soon as we’re able, anyplace you want to be, so long as it’s not a place where people are likely to get up in our business. But before that happens… what?”

The girl was shaking her head, green eyes dry. “The ship, I was just… how did…?” She blinked, touched her head bandage, and suddenly settled on a question. “Your name’s Rumer Pilgrim?”

“That’s right.”

“That’s your real name?”

Rumer frowned. “Never had another.”

There was the smallest flick of a smile on that pink mouth. “So your name is actually ‘Pilgrim, Pilgrim’.”

“No.” Rumer Pilgrim looked at her with narrower eyes than he intended. “No, and I can’t say I know what you’re playing at.”

The girl’s smile widened the littlest bit. “Nothing. Never mind.”

“Young lady, if you’d rather not ride with us…”

“No, no. It’s fine. Thank you… Thank you.”

Rumer nodded.

She let out a somewhat shuddering breath of air. She looked around. “Sorry… can I have my chair, please? Where did you put my chair?”

Rumer blinked. Blinked again. “What chair?”

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“Where Did You Go?”

Well, folks. It’s been three months since I last wrote here. The last very long while has not been conducive to writing, either blog posts or  anything else.

July through September was a cheerful storm of cons (trying my hand as a panelist at Readercon, waiting with bated breath and Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster for history-making Hugos results at Worldcon) enthusiastic public nudity (as a participating model at New York Body-Painting Day) and very rainy music festivals (if you’ve never heard of Faerieworlds, I encourage you to discover it for yourself, a madcap, soul-stirring mixture of Burning Man and a particularly feisty Ren Faire.)

A lot of wonderful things happened, only some of which were writing related. Accessing the Future made its debut, and I got the opportunity to discuss my story “Pirate Songs” with a classroom full of undergrads, who were sharp, savvy, and enthusiastic in their deconstruction of my work. My novelette “Follow Me Down” finally emerged with Unlikely Story’s latest issue, the  Journal of Unlikely Academia  (it’s absolutely splendid. Read it for free here:  http://www.unlikely-story.com/journal-of-unlikely-academia-issue-12-october-2015/) Unlikely Story officially became a SFWA qualifying market, and I, in the wake of their achievement, officially became a full active member.

And then, on October 7th, my world stood still. Utterly still.

My mother, my beautiful Mama, Laura Ellen Diamond, was hit and killed by a cement truck while running a routine errand on her scooter a few blocks from her home. They told me that she didn’t suffer, that she was gone within minutes, that she was gone long before any paramedics arrived. I’m only now just beginning to appreciate that these things were told me in order to comfort me, rather than to make me scream.

I’m still climbing out of the hole that is my grief. Even on the days when I can breathe, when I can feel God, when I can feel my mother all around me and know that I will see her again, I find it almost impossible to be productive.

It’s not that I cannot imagine writing anything–I have half-conjured and discarded several stories in my head–but nothing quite matters . Nothing feels like the sort of story I ought to be writing after such a big crack has been made in my heart. Two months ago, I worried I didn’t have a story that felt big enough for a first novel. Now I worry I don’t tell stories big enough for this life.

This a trap, I know. I know the writer who thinks this way is the writer who never writes again. I know that there really is no such thing as a “big” story, that the only way for humans to get at “big” things is to write about small ones, in our own very small way.

But my mother, my radiant, talented sculptor, painter, activist, poet, Burner mother, deserves bigness. She was the first person to look at her strange chatterbox of a daughter, with her penchant for casual and elaborate lies, and say to her: “You are a writer.”

When I began to be published, my mother went on scarily passionate campaign to ensure that everyone I knew possessed copies of my work. I was introduced proudly to any chance acquaintance as her daughter, the published author.

My mother never did get the chance to read the stories I had published. In between the work of getting her own Bachelor’s degree (something she accomplished shortly before she died) and being an active member of the Occupy movement, she had little time for space pirates. I think somehow it was enough to her that I had been published, a confirmation of something she’d known would happen all along. It didn’t much matter that the stories I’d had published weren’t the stories she’d read. She had read countless others that were, to her, just as good. She had seen from the beginning just how it would be.

Today, I’m going to write Something. It won’t be the story my mother deserves (I’ll still have to dig for that one, maybe for the rest of my life). It may not even be a story about anything that matters, but it will be a story.

Unlikely Academia, or Why We All Want to Go to Hogwarts

In a very splendid piece of writerly news, my novelette Follow Me Down will appear in Unlikely Story’s upcoming Journal of Unlikely Academia, a collection of stories devoted exclusively to strange and fantastical institutions of learning.

Yes, that means every wonderful thing you think it does: complicated lessons in magic, syllabaries of untranslatable runes and long-forgotten languages, tomes of alchemal wisdom, hidden passages to hidden libraries, sacred objects of divination…

As my third pro-rate sale, this qualifies me for full active membership in the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (be sure to visit my snazzy new updated SFWA profile in the coming weeks!) and I truly do not think I could have conjured a better hat trick! Seriously, for a proud Ravenclaw, and long-time scholar at Jordan College, what could be finer?

(The answer is nothing could be finer. Check out Unlikely Story this August and discover how the experts navigate supernatural pregnancy at the New York College of Theogony and Preternatural Obstetrics!)     

So, this has me thinking. What is it that appeals to us about these magical schools? What exactly causes us to want to gallivant around Lyra’s Oxford with only our daemons as company? What’s so thrilling about finally having puzzled out, by long and scientifically rigorous processes, what Hogwarts house we empirically belong to? (before Pottermore, children, we did it the old-fashioned way, by the blood-tainted sweat of our fevered brows!).

The secret, powerful bastion of knowledge seems to be an ever-renewable story concept. There are always new school stories in speculative fiction, strange places to learn strange things. There were, of course, a rash of fantastical school stories trailing in the wake of Harry Potter, some of them entertainingly derivative, some beautiful, some painfully sloppy. But long before readers rushed to the post-Hogwarts succor of  Rick Riordan’s  The Lightning Thief,  or Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, there were books like Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea , and even Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game to school us in things unusual.

Part of the reason the schoolroom remains such a wet well for telling speculative stories has to do with the nature of speculative fiction itself. Speculative Fiction is all about rules. It’s about acclimating the reader to a special set  of laws that govern the universe of the story.  Who becomes a ghost and why? How much blood to make a spell work? Which carefully selected fourteen year-olds will pilot our giant battle-robots?

School is a natural setting for learning new rules. In an almost literal sense, a writer can sit her reader down and say “Listen up! Pay attention! There’ll be a test on this!” School settings are an ideal place to dump exposition, install important plot devices, and world-build. The fantastical school is, in a lot of ways, specially formatted for a wide-eyed protagonist to uncover  and explore it.

But it’s not just the story opportunities they offer writers that make school stories appealing. Such stories always seem to find an effusive audience, no matter how many times writers write them.

I suspect that a larger part of the draw for readers-we bookish, we nerdy, we asthmatic few- is the bright, shimmering meritocracy that is school itself.  School is a place for learning the laws of the universe, but it’s also a place for learning new skills, for testing previously untested powers (magical or otherwise). It’s a place where, if you are clever enough and quick enough and skilled enough, and hard-working enough, the world will unfold like a paper fortune-teller and reveal to you its secrets.

The true nerd ever suspects that there is some radiant untold truth she has yet to set eyes on waiting just behind the curtain. In a small way, she really believes in great, powerful books she hasn’t read, and great powerful tables of elements with which she is not familiar, and great, powerful maps of places she has never heard of. Because the world is always full of strange new things to know.

I’m Blogging Like I Mean It: This One’s Real

Hello! You reached the blog of one Nicolette Barischoff, fresh-faced writer of  speculative fiction, peerless pirate queen, proud Ravenclaw, and freelancing turtle.

Here you will find news items (which stories are coming out where and when, and what I’m working on at the moment) essays, about and informed by the experience of writing (I’ve tried this before. We’ll see how it goes) and perhaps even a stray story or two (what can I say? Some stories cannot be bought. Or sold.)

I’ll try to update this space as often as possible,  but I’m a naturally slow mover with a whole house on her back. Contact me on Twitter (@NBarischoff) if you have  questions re my work schedule, or any of the projects you read about, here.