“You know, Jess,” Tierney called out from the rushes, a good twenty meters from the shoreline, “it could have been a lot worse.”
Jessica stood waist-deep in the salt-saturated water, curling her toes into the silt. The heat was interminable, here in the late summer; but they’d been greeted lately by unusually dry days, the humidity hovering around 80%, the breezes off the Rian Sea reaching as far inland as the habitat buildings set deep in the jungle. Gone were the acrid odors of decaying riddlebugs and spongifruit ruptured in the heat; instead she could smell the must of the rushes and the flowering needle grass, and the only sounds the wind carried were the knocking of the pneumo-tree leaves and the sleepy hum of sand crickets preparing to lay eggs for overwinter.
The bright sun was invigorating, the water felt cool on Jessica’s skin, and Tierney was absolutely wrong: it couldn’t possibly have been worse.
Aunt Pella had told her the night before the council would push for a severe sentence. “They’ll take into account your age,” Pella had said, “but they can’t ignore the seriousness of the crime. Jessica—“ Here Pella had stopped, staring down at Jessica with her usual severe expression— “whatever they say, whatever choices they give you, take your night to decide. It’s your legal right.”
Jessica had figured that meant her decision would be an easy one. Jessica had also figured Pella would be at her side at the sentencing to advise her, but Pella hadn’t appeared in the courtroom that morning. Instead Jessica had been left alone, standing before Alder James, fully half the town seated in the gallery behind her, as she was sentenced to work in the infirmary until she turned nineteen.
Five standard years. Nearly forty seasons. Learning medicine. And monitored every minute of her day, no software shadows or memory strips or anything she was any good at, anything that was any fun. Like she was dangerous. All these people she’d known her whole life, treating her like a criminal.
Which she was, of course. There was no avoiding that much.
She sank into the water and came up again, the cool streaming through her hair and down her back. “At least they let me go to the beach,” she called back to Tierney, forcing some cheer into her voice. Tierney was only trying to help, after all. None of this was Tierney’s fault. None of this was anyone’s fault but Jessica’s, and she was going to pay for it with the next five years of her life. Because Alder James’ alternative sentence had been nothing but a joke.
“Optionally, you may choose to be banished from Tengri for fifteen standard years, to leave the planet before the next Umé Rise.”
She’d expected some nominal support from the gallery—a cry, or at least one or two outraged gasps—but there had been only silence. And she had almost broken her long-standing rule against crying in public.
The council had followed the law, giving her two appropriate punishments to choose from. Except one of them would strip every joy from her life, and the other would throw her out, alone and helpless, into a strange and hostile galaxy she knew nothing of at all.
“Come on in,” she called to Tierney, but didn’t wait when her friend shook their head. Tierney hated the beach, never mind it was the only place within easy travel distance that offered relief from the dense, sticky jungle. Jessica suspected Tierney had a phobia of water; Tierney accompanying her at all was a kindness born of their long friendship. Jessica resolved, as she often did, to be a better friend, and maybe earn some of Tierney’s goodness for once.
She dove, and kicked her way down to the ocean floor. This might be all right. Sea and sand, Tierney waiting for me on the shore, even if the security people are following me everywhere and everyone thinks I’m some vile criminal and I’ll never touch a logic core again.
She surfaced to find Aunt Pella treading water next to her, the salty water dripping off her dark curls.
Jessica’s hard-won spark of optimism died in a wave of hurt. Where were you? she wanted to shout, but her throat was too tight. She supposed Pella had joined her here in a show of support; Pella disliked swimming almost as much as Tierney did. But Jessica had needed Pella that morning, in court, when she’d felt small and vulnerable and terrified she’d screwed up her life with a prank.
“It wasn’t, though, was it?” said Pella, as if she’d been following Jessica’s thoughts. Her eyes, vivid blue against skin nearly as pale as Jessica’s, held deep disappointment.
You can’t be disappointed with me, Jessica thought. Right now I’m disappointed with you. “I didn’t hurt anybody,” she tried.
“Hmph.” Pella swam closer, turning her sharp-featured face to the afternoon sunshine. “You took what belonged to all of us, to the whole colony, and you gave it away. What was the purpose of that?”
Jessica hadn’t, initially, thought about giving the money away at all. It was supposed to be like all her previous pranks, apart from the scope: moving money into the wrong accounts, misplacing deposit records, creating tangles of mistaken commits and dead-end memory shadows that would take the colony techs weeks to unravel. A victimless crime; Tengri almost never needed actual currency. Their trade was research, and it was only their relative isolation in the Second Sector that subjected them to the occasional thin season. She never pulled anything when starvation loomed, and she’d never moved the money somewhere unrecoverable.
But this time…the summer flu had been so bad. Every eightday had brought a funeral for at least three people. Her cohort had been untouched this time—the first time in years—and that had left her feeling both grateful and guilty. Tierney’s cohort had lost four: three adults and a child, the newest infant, infected despite their rigorous attempts to isolate her.
And every funeral was followed by a feast on the town common, where the dead were praised for their contribution to the colony’s research, Tengri’s one-and-only export. Every death produced value, medical research that saved lives all across the galaxy. It shouldn’t have made Jessica angry. It didn’t seem to make anyone else angry. But when she’d triggered the code to funnel the colony’s fall seawall maintenance budget into an anonymous off-world PSI food charity, she’d said research THIS out loud.
“I don’t know why I did it,” she told Pella, aware she sounded sulky.
Pella scoffed, a very un-Pella-like sound. “You do,” she insisted. “You just think I’ll be angry with you for it.”
“I don’t know,” Jessica repeated. “We didn’t need the money, not this year. Other people might.” She met Pella’s eyes. “Maybe there’s more we can do for the galaxy than just let our people die.”
“You think it’s either-or? Cash or research?” Pella’s expression finally softened, and she kicked herself closer, resting a hand on Jessica’s shoulder. Her fingers were needle-grass thin, her touch rough with drying salt. “Every day is a choice, you know,” she said. “A choice to steal from the colony. A choice to tell the truth when you were on trial, even though you could have lied. And now you choose how you’ll atone.” Her hand dropped back into the water. “You already know what you want, Jessica. It’s just that you don’t yet see.”
“Jessica!” Tierney was calling from the shore, and Jessica turned to find she’d drifted out further than she’d thought.
“I have to go,” she said, looking back over her shoulder; but Pella had vanished. No splash, no farewell, not even a ripple. She was gone as if she’d never been there.
Jessica blinked at the glare off the water. Was she really that tired? Had she manufactured that entire conversation in her head? Puzzled, she turned back to the waterfront, and saw her security detail standing with Tierney, all three of them waving her furiously back to shore.