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art by Ron Sanders

Chapter One

Will Kaufman's work has appeared in Unstuck, Pank, and McSweeney's Internet Tendency, with more forthcoming in Lightspeed. He is a graduate of the Clarion Workshop, and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Utah, and an MA from UC Davis. You can find him online at kaufmanwrites.com, or on Twitter @specwill.

***Editor's Note: Adult language in the story that follows***
Chapter One
What is the point of starting a story you know you won't have time to finish?
Because there's nothing else to do, Ranna.
Chapter One The war was not over. The Greater People's Democratic Union and the Universal Republic of Inhabited Planets still sent ever-stranger warships to murder whole solar systems full of human beings. But the war had not come to our home, where summer would be turning the sunsets green, and our mother would be harvesting dropberries to make jam and pies. She would watch the news to make sure the war had not strayed into the trade route my father, my brother, and I traveled.
We could not tell her the war had found us, though not exactly in the way she feared. The URIP warship Star of the Stars crossed our path near a field of luminescent gas that was probably the energized remnants of some battle. The ship, bent and folded in ways that made our eyes twitch when we tried to examine its shape, ordered us to a stop and commandeered the bulk of our fuel, as well as a bottle of very nice wine my father had intended to gift to his client on Herman's Marsh.
The wine was expensive, but my father stopped griping about its loss as soon as it became apparent the Star had not left us enough fuel for the jump to our destination. Then he realized we didn't have enough fuel to return home, either.
My brother closed his eyes and I watched his fingers twitch. He was imagining picking dropberries, pinching the stems and letting them fall into his palm, the warm juice trickling down his arms, the sky greening at his back, our mother calling him home.
And then. And then nothing happened. Shit.
Chapter One Ranna Holdweights's ship ran out of fuel in the sort of space that's so deep it makes the core of a gas giant seem shallow. Her brother and father were about as useful as Dalvanian slime-molds, which is to say that aside from turning O2 into CO2 they could only be relied on to be warm and pink. But Ranna had an idea. Ranna knew just how to save the day.
Chapter One So what's your great idea, Ranna?
Chapter One Ranna Holdweight's coffin was twice the size of a house: a Nomad Wanderer class-2 commercial freight vehicle named Airene. It was easily three times her age, a plasteel box covered in lumpy paint layered over old debris scars, but it was clean and sturdy and Ranna had her own room. She didn't even have to share with her brother, which was a blessing, because no one wants to know what thirteen-year-old boys do in their rooms at night.
So she had two bunk beds to herself, and her father even allowed her to bring two hundred and fifty grams of personal effects with her. On this trip she had lipstick and a summer dress. And everyone is riveted by Ranna's lipstick.
Chapter One I wish I had had a life worth writing about. Instead, I am a nineteen year old who has spent the bulk of her life on board her father's ship--which he named Airene, after his wife--learning the family trade against my mother's strenuous objections. True, I've seen the polychromic lightning storms of the Oston asteroid belt. I've walked on the surface of the Airene, a millimeter of suit between me and vacuum, while on a gas giant that looked close enough to touch red clouds of iron dust swirled with blue hydrogen. I've floated in the sugar seas of Eroo, even though I contracted a toenail fungus that almost ate my toe.
Nice, Ranna. Way to meditate on the beauty of existence.
Chapter One Ranna never thought her life would be worth writing about until she found out it would be over soon, and then every part of it became painfully meaningful. Every moment had a halo, like the time she was four and tried to climb a ladder to help her mother pick dropberries. Her father caught her when she almost fell, and asked her if she wanted to keep climbing, even though her mother said it was too dangerous. He kept his hand at her back as she went. And the time her brother came into the world screaming and bloody and she had been so frightened and her father had been off-planet trading, but her mother squeezed her hand and said, "It's okay, everything is exactly how it's supposed to be."
And the time Izak put his finger on the dimple at the base of my neck while we watched the sunset and asked if he could kiss me, and the time I dreamed the sun came down and whispered to me. Dreams, Ranna? No one cares about dreams, or about Izak who you said no to anyway. And every moment has a halo? "And the time my baby brother took a shit in my favorite pair of shoes and brought the left shoe to me." Yeah, the wonder of existence.
Chapter One When rescue came for the Airene, it was not the rescue the Holdweight family expected. They opened the airlock for their would-be saviors, taking greedy breaths of the fresh air that flooded in from the other ship, only to find themselves on the wrong end of a handful of zap guns. Pirates!
"Yer ship is ours now," growled the pirate captain. Then he saw his opposition: a man and a boy cowering behind a young woman who scowled right back into his scarred face. "Har, har," he laughed. "Children and cowards, our easiest take yet!"
"Not so fast," said the woman, who was really more youthful than young, and very beautiful. "You'll take our ship over my dead body, scum."
"That can be arranged," said the pirate captain, lifting his gun to aim at her heart.
She scoffed at him, "You'd shoot a woman? Why not face me like a man, in hand-to-hand combat."
The pirate captain grinned. "Very well, girlie. That can be arranged," and he handed his gun to his grizzled first-mate.
What the pirate didn't know is that he was facing Ranna Holdweight, who had been carrying cargo for her father since she could walk, and she was made of wiry muscle, and besides being very strong, was very brave, and very cunning.
And Ranna beats up a grown man, steals his ship, and she and her family travel the universe as helpful pirates, having adventures and saving people. Maybe they sing happy songs together while they do it. Sure.
Chapter One Rescue came for the Airene before it was too late.
Chapter One The Airene reached Herman's Marsh without incident and Ranna spent four days squelching around between business meetings at her father's side, with her nose wrinkled up, avoiding her brother because he kept throwing mud at her. When her father finished his business dealings, and loaded his ship with methane tapestries or whatever the hell they make on Herman's Marsh, the Airene went home.
Chapter One Ranna wished she'd realized that just because she was growing up didn't mean she should stop helping her mother harvest dropberries. Every year her mother asked her if she'd like to come, and the last few years Ranna said no, even though she knew it made her mother sad. Ranna could have made her mother happy, going out and getting her hands all sticky while her mother went on and on about when was Ranna going to meet a nice boy and whatever happened to that Izak?
Chapter One Ranna's mother could not have been more wrong when she told her daughter that everything was exactly the way it was supposed to be. Whole planets were dying in the war, they'd just stop sending messages one day.
What about all those people who were off-planet when it happened? Some of them probably tried to go home. Some of them probably sat in orbit over scorched graveyards wreathed with black smoke wondering if they should land and cook in the radiation or just throw themselves out the airlock. Some of them probably went on and had normal lives.
Maybe Ranna's mother can move on after her family dies in space and have new kids to lie to. Shit. Mom, I hope you find some way to be happy.
Chapter One When Lieutenant Izak boarded the little trading vessel to commandeer their fuel supplies for the Star of the Stars, he had not expected to fall in love. That was before he laid eyes on Ranna Holdweight, the daughter of the captain of the little trading vessel.
She was waiting for him when he stepped through the airlock, her hands on her hips. "What the hell do you think you're doing," she said.
Lieutenant Izak meant to ask her who she thought she was, talking to a URIP officer in that tone of voice, and that under URIP law he was perfectly within his rights to commandeer whatever supplies he damn well pleased from her ship. Instead he barely managed to stutter, "Uh, my job."
"And a fine job it is, stealing fuel you don't need from a family-run trading ship," said Ranna.
Even though she was scowling at him, Lieutenant Izak thought he'd like to spend eternity staring into her eyes, which were green as a Vernian summer sunset.
So they fell in love and he defied his captain, or took her with him, or something. And he takes her in his arms like he needs her, and he's not a fumbling boy whose upper lip sweats when he's nervous, and they have lots of sex that's obviously not made up by a virgin.
Chapter One Ranna Holdweight got to kiss a boy before she died.
Chapter One Ranna Holdweight seduced a URIP officer so she could blow up his ship.
Chapter One Ranna Holdweight became a pirate so she could travel the universe, blowing up URIP ships until the war was over and everyone was safe.
Chapter One Ranna Holdweight can't write herself free. Ranna Holdweight can't really write at all, so how is she supposed to write her way free? If the engines could burn words she'd at least be able to shovel enough shit into the reactor to get herself home.
Chapter One Ranna's father made a hard choice when he vented himself out the airlock so there'd be more oxygen for his children, that many more hours for rescue to find them. He left a note on the computer full of love for his children and his wife. Love, love, love, and the cold fingers of the vacuum tearing at his insides and ripping the oxygen out of his blood and the capillaries in his eyes and nose bursting before he freezes solid and spins off into the blackness, propelled endlessly by his own momentum.
Damn, damn, damn damn damn damn damn damn damn
Chapter One Ranna Holdweight hates her father, the selfish bastard who took the quick way out and left her alone with her brother who just cries and sleeps and stinks and won't eat the rations she tries to give him and won't drink the water and he can't die too, Dad, he can't die too, but I can't save him.
I never wished he would die. He climbed a dropberry tree and threw berries at me and stained my new tunic, and he laughed until he realized he couldn't climb down. He said, "Ranna, please, come on, I'm scared."
And I did not say, "Good. I hope you fall and break your neck. I wish you were dead." I swear I never said that.
Chapter One The End.
Chapter One Once upon a time there was a young woman who loved to pick dropberries. She would go out every day of the harvest season to fill her basket with the delicate, red fruit so she could make jams and pies. One day she happened upon a prince who was passed out drunk under a tree, covered in dropberries that had fallen overnight.
"Wake up," she said, and nudged him with her toe.
The prince groaned and rolled over. The young woman thought about just leaving him there, but he'd started to snore and the noise was ruining her delightful morning. So she poked him again. He woke up, and when his eyes focused on the young woman, he smiled.
"I'm hungry," he said, "You want to get breakfast?"
"I don't date drunks," she said.
"I'm not a drunk," he said, "I just got dumped."
She snorted. "I don't date guys who just got dumped, either."
"Who said anything about dating? I asked about breakfast."
"Not today," she said.
"Okay," he said. "We'll do it tomorrow."
She snorted again and left him there. At least he wasn't snoring anymore.
But the next morning, when she went out to pick dropberries, the prince was waiting for her with a picnic basket full of toast and omelets and juice and coffee.
"How about that breakfast," he said.
"Not today," she said.
And it went on like that for a week, until the day the young woman went to pick dropberries and the prince wasn't there. She realized she was disappointed. But then she heard a puffing behind her, and turned to find the prince running up with his basket.
"Sorry I'm late," he said.
She said, "Let's have breakfast."
The prince smiled so widely the whole time they ate that she blushed every time she looked at him.
The next morning she brought some of her jam for the prince's toast, and when he tasted it he said, "This is amazing, you should sell this."
Eventually they got married, and the prince took over his father's shipping company, and started shipping his wife's jam to planets where it was hard to grow fruit. They had two children, who they loved, and every morning he was not off planet the prince made his wife breakfast.
And then everyone she loved died. And I will never get to have a story like this, or like anything.
Chapter One The End, cold and shivering and alone and gasping for oxygen that just isn't there. What a joke, air without air to breathe. Ranna Holdweight holds her brother, because that should keep them warm, because she needs to hold him tight, and the colder he gets the tighter she needs to hold him, and maybe if she could hold him close enough she'd feel something other than this, whatever this is, which is maybe a worse feeling than being dead.
Chapter One Ranna Holdweight is sorry, so very sorry. She loves her mother and father and her brother and she wishes she had more time. She's sorry she doesn't give a damn about all the people dying in the war. She's sorry she thinks that she'd kill them all herself if it meant she could go home.
She's sorry all she can do is cry and wait and that she's too stupid to save anyone.
Chapter One There's a knock on the porthole by Ranna's head as she sits slumped on the floor huddled under a foil blanket, trying to keep herself and her brother from freezing. She thinks, That's odd, there's nothing but space on the other side of that wall. She picks herself up and wipes condensation off the glass, only to find herself confronted with her father's face. He's floating in the vacuum, smiling and waving. He points over his shoulder at a passenger ship that's bearing down on the Airene and mouths, I brought help.
And he's not dead. He doesn't have a halo of crystals of frozen blood orbiting the meager gravity of his head.
Chapter One Rescue is coming for the Airene. I can see the transponder blinking. Someone is coming. Someone is coming. I swear, someone is coming.
Ranna Holdweight is telling the truth. She will have all the time in the world to finish her story.
Chapter One
The End
This story was first published on Friday, April 25th, 2014

Author Comments

I was lucky enough to attend the Clarion Workshop this year. During the workshop Kelly Link and Karen Joy Fowler gave a brief lecture about beginnings, all the different ways they're crafted and all the effects they can create. I started wondering if I could write an entire story of beginnings, which led me to "Chapter One."

(Karen later told me she thought I'd been feeling sick during the talk. Turns out my thinking face and my nauseous face are pretty much the same.)

I've also been kicking around the idea of writing a collection of linked stories set in the universe I created for my upcoming story in Unstuck 3, "The Beginning of Peace," which tells the story of a crewmember aboard The Star of the Stars. It was very important to me that "Chapter One" stand on its own--hopefully you'll agree that it does--and that it have a very different voice and perspective from "The Beginning of Peace." There's no single, correct point of view that can properly tell the story of any given war and its effects, even when that war is imaginary. And in the future. In space.

I really like Ranna (if I'm being honest, Izak has a bit of my high school self about him... but then, so does Ranna), and I'd like to think her rescue came. Even though it seems so very unlikely, I hope she got the chance to have her own beginning, to have a life full of beginnings.

- Will Kaufman
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