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Stubbornness and Sisters and Spite

Somewhere between Mars and Vesta, there's a spaceship held together by stubbornness and spite and the two sisters who crew it. Damn thing has outlasted its lateral stabilizers, its secondary thrusters, and Alis's marriage to a gutless Venuvian commsat manager. Her and Errin's partnership is even older; they served together on two other long-haulers before saving enough money to pay for this beloved junker.
And now the ship has outlasted another solar storm, the third already this year. The spark arrestor bolted to the ship's hull coughs up a silent hairball of pure white lightning--unnoticed and unappreciated. The ship shudders with the discharge, but the sisters, both of them at least forty years old now and with more gray than brown in their braids, are engaged in a full-on hair-pulling, elbow-twisting, zero-gee brawl.
The ship's engines are already on Errin's side. They fire obediently, heaving the vessel over onto her planned course correction. The cargo hold's loyalty remains with Alis, however. The key that will trigger payload release floats just out of reach of both women, and the cargo doors, for now, remain closed.
They never fought like this when they were kids, not with each other. They didn't have parents to drag them apart and send them to opposite corners. Back then, they fought the other kids in the squatty government housing at the far edges of Olympus City, where the half the lights in the dome don't work and your food ration card is only as useful as your ability to hang on to it.
"Half of that payload is mine!" Alis has never stopped fighting those kids. In her bones, she feels every penny she's earned on these long hauls. She's too old to go hungry now. She's too tired. She has her own pod room now, in a dome that's not nice exactly, but at least all the lights stay on at night, and she's too old to give that up and too young to stare down all the years of hustling left ahead of her.
"It's just rocks!" And Errin hasn't stopped fighting for her stupid kid sister, who's always hungry and always exhausted and always chasing a glimmer of something better. Errin has always thought that better is just a shattered bit of sunlight, something you can see and chase but never actually seize for yourself. "There are kids out there."
And there are: fifty-two kids and forty-five adults, refugees from Earth, on a dead hunk of cobbled-together metal that met its fate at the hands of the same solar storm that Alis and Errin have come through unscathed. There's not enough room for fifty-two kids and forty-five adults in the main capsule. Cargo hold is airtight, though. Might be a little chilly in there, but fifty-two kids and forty-five adults ought to last the rest of the way into spacedock. Might lose a couple of toes on the ride, but they stand to lose a lot more than that. They've lost a lot more already.
"No one helped us!" Alis bawls. Her fist clips Errin's cheek, but instead of bruising, it just sends her spinning out of Alis's grasp. Alis floats off the other way, nauseous, seeking a sense of up and down that doesn't exist out here. "And we weren't dumb enough to sail off in the middle of the worst storm cycle in a century."
"They're not dumb, cloudfucker." The domed cities of Mars aren't exactly paradise. No one gives up having a sky, not if they have any other kind of choice. They both know that, at heart.
"So what?" At last Alis catches herself against the back of the pilot's couch. Errin floats, perpendicular to her sister, beside the cargo doors. The cargo key twists in the air between them; it has yet to choose its allegiance. "We've got to starve so they don't freeze?"
"It's not us against them." But it always has been, for Alis, since those first hungry days sleeping on cold red dirt. "...Or it doesn't have to be."
"We'd be doing them a favor, anyway. You think those kids have a future? Ha!" Alis has always worn her bitterness like a shield. Like the spark arrestor, she can't destroy the pain; she just points it elsewhere. "That pack of dirt-dropped brats aren't gonna be doctors and pill printers and prosthetic customizers."
Errin sees the little girl, beneath it all. She sees the hurt, too, but it's never been good enough to just shoo it on its way for someone else to take the hit. "Yeah," she says. "What if they turned out to be just a bunch of heartless, washed-up aluminum long-haulers who thinks love smells like money?"
Alis's mouth falls open. She blinks, hard, and tears spangle the capsule like collapsing constellations.
One strikes the key. A tiny bit of mass, fractional inertia; just enough to put a little spin on it. To start it moving.
End over end, it flips toward Errin.
A sullen Alis radios the hazard zone caused by the sudden deposit of four tons of aluminum into cold empty space. She gives the details of their coordinates robotically, slowly. Everyone mourns in their own way. And Alis has a lot to mourn.
They can fit a few kids, the youngest, in the capsule itself, where the air is warm and fresh. Parents and grandparents and cousins offer thanks, in half a dozen languages; Errin can meet a few of them in the middle, in French, and Allis too, in Tamil. (The Venuvian's grandparents came across from Bengaluru, so it turns out he was good for something after all.)
The engines fire once more, and the ship turns toward home.
"So this is it?" Alis asks, irritably, but quietly. There's a tiny person nestled against her in her sleeping cocoon and if she wakes up she might want food or a clean diaper or any number of things Alis is ill-equipped to provide her. "This is what we hustled so hard as kids for?"
"Dunno about you." Erin watches out the viewport. She has a kid under each arm; these are too old to sleep but too little to know what to ask. "I was hustling for caffeine rations."
The spark arrestor flings another blue-white stream away into the nothingness.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, July 12th, 2022
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