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Three Days, Fifteen Hours, Thirty Minutes to Savor Station
You can starve for the next three days, Kenna tells himself, eyeing the bigger kids down in the station lounge. Or you can take a beating.
His gut rumbles as he wills himself to walk down the corrugated steel corridor. There are four of them, well-fed workers’ sons hulking with gene-enhanced muscles. They laugh as they push light-balls back and forth at each other on their smartphones, playing some networked game. Their duffel bags rest by their feet.
One of those bags holds Kenna’s nutricracker allotment.
There is no more food within a million miles, not until the transport ship docks at Savor Station. Maybe not even then, depending on what ambassadors Mother and Father find to curry favor with.
He tenses his shoulders. This is the worst part: getting their attention.
“I crave your pardon,” Kenna says, wincing, hating the way he’s defaulted to feeble politeness. Mother’s influence.
The four kids turn. The adult passengers also roll over to watch, swaying in Kevlar hammocks above, exhaling puffs of marijuana smoke as they lean in to watch the festivities. The cramped spaces and long boredoms of interstellar transport transform any personal friction into public performance—a constant pressure that’s eradicated Kenna’s ability to cry.
The biggest kid—of course it’s the biggest kid—curtsies mockingly. “M’lord,” he says. Everyone laughs.
“You absconded with my food,” Kenna insists. “I mandate its safe return.”
“Have your valet buy you some new food.”
“I have no valet.” Kenna has never had a valet. His parents had had one, as children, and they sing him to sleep at night with the tales of his great-grandparents and their hundreds of servants—but Kenna counts himself lucky if he finds a maintenance closet to sleep in. “And I will not pay when the nutriments are rightfully mine.”
All four stand up. Kenna finds himself grateful he has nothing left to steal—Father has spent years trading away family heirlooms to survive, and so Kenna has no smartphone, no smartpaper, no duffel bags full of food. Just his bony black body and his reputation as a Philosopher.
Or, rather, his reputation as someone who might become a Philosopher. He’s supposed to be guiding galactic leaders to peace, not whining at bullies in a transport ship. Mother derived her Inevitable Philosophy before she was thirteen, Father unlocked his at twelve—and though Kenna meditates daily, hoping to find a belief so Inevitable it guides his every action, he’s sixteen and long overdue for inspiration.
He’s almost too old for a Wisdom Ceremony. He’s let his starving body taint his mind. Though he should leave these low boys to their food and seek out his Inevitable Philosophy, here he is wasting time trying to fill his belly instead of his mind.
“We don’t have your food,” Big Kid lies, sniggering. His buddies nod in time, like marionettes. “And even if we did, isn’t your mother Queen of Saving the Starving Millions? I thought she crooned in advisors’ ears to convince real emperors to unlock their granaries. Shouldn’t you starve yourself first?”
I do, Kenna almost says, but he knows how that conversation will go. The crowd will excoriate Mother and Father, tell Kenna the Philosophies should have died after they failed.
Father, whose chest is tattooed with his Philosophy—I will lead my people out of darkness—has lectured Kenna on how Philosophies fall into disrepute, then rise like phoenixes. Until Father can bring the wayward leaders back to the fold, regaining the generosity that wise leaders once aspired to through grand Philosophies, the rank and file will mock them for their struggle. There’s nothing an empty soul enjoys more than watching enlightened men fail, Father says.
Yet Kenna had so wanted to give these boys the benefit of the doubt. He’d trailed them for a day to ensure he wouldn’t accuse the wrong person. He’d watched them wolf down vending machine jerky to satisfy casual hungers, while Kenna had only stayed alive by rationing his duffel bag of bulk-purchased nutricrackers across months of lean journeys.
If Kenna had an Inevitable Philosophy, neither the bullies nor the belly cramps would bother him. If Kenna had an Inevitable Philosophy, he could walk away serene, his actions guided by higher concerns than mere survival. If Kenna had an Inevitable Philosophy, he could persuade these boys of the righteousness of sharing resources in scarce quarters, guiding this grubby ship to the compassionately Inevitable enlightenments that benefited empires.
But he has no Philosophy. And since there’s only one way to get his food back, he kicks the kid in the crotch.
Big Kid’s eyes crossing is wondrously satisfying—a stunned glare that seems to say, I thought you’d lecture me on how no lie could balk an Inevitable Prince. Terror flows as the other kids realize that no, Kenna is not that kind of prince.
He grabs two duffel bags as the adults above yell down scorn, jeering that a Prince of the Inevitable Philosophies should be concerned about the poor, and Kenna hauls ass down the corridor, hoping the other passengers won’t interfere.
Alas, the thieves’ terror ebbs as they realize Kenna was not that kind of prince, but neither was he an assassin-prince who could kick their ass with years of martial training. Kenna’s a street urchin with credentials, and starved for two days to boot. And so they run him down, and kick him in the ribs, and take their bags back.
“There!” The biggest kid upends his duffel bag to rain down empty wrappers over Kenna’s head. “We ate them already, you freak! And you know what? They tasted like shit!”
They did, Kenna thinks, imagining the sumptuous meals Mother told him of, detailing seven-course meals with a fixated lust that could have passed for pornography. His finest dining has been a cup of ramen noodles.
He crawls into a bathroom stall.
Kenna curls up on the toilet seat, holding his bloodied nose to stanch it because of course there’s no toilet paper. He watches the stall’s timer count down to kick him out in ten minutes. On the graffiti-smeared bathroom screen overhead display, a little graphical spaceship-dot creeps toward Savor Station, with a clock to mark the remaining time: 3:15:23.
There had been a third choice, Kenna realizes, blood trickling down the back of his throat. He could starve for three days, and take a beating.
But he doesn’t cry. You can’t drink tears.
Copyright © 2019 by Ferrett Steinmetz