O'Malley had grown skilled at drowning.
No one ever believed her when she said it, as though she would lie to a customer.
"How'd you learn to weave?" they would ask.
"I learned how to drown," O'Malley would reply, fingers twisted in some aspiration device or another, searching for a sealed latch that would mark the existence of saved breath. "And then I got good at it."
If the seal were broken, or the helmet too old or too new to have a final aspiration-box in place, there was no point in continuing the conversation. Luckily, most of those who arrived at O'Malley's doorstep came from superstitious families who made certain their ships or suits had death recording boxes with enough breath in them for her to tease out a thread or two.
Superstitious dispositions didn't stymie suspicious looks, though. Customers surveyed their shared world of recycled air and sometimes asked where the water was, as though it were some sort of 'gotcha' and drowning couldn't be done dry. It was true her walls and table were pounded metal. The nearest bath used dust.
Few noticed the water coalescing under her feet or dripping down the corners of her store. Customers were always too distracted by the way her cybernetic netting shivered and twinged and reached towards them. The weakest ran from it, unnerved by the sighingshush, shush, shushof breath-based weaves shifting and slumping against the wall.
The net didn't actually have a voice but it was old and contained multitudes of final moments. Working as a single woven unit allowed it to almost gasp and certainly to grasp at the living. Not everyone understood the type of thing they were asking for and fewer still were willing to learn more than what was necessary for the purchasing of a handkerchief or tapestry for their remembrance walls or family crypts. People and ships had no use for bodies but breath—that was small enough and precious enough to endure through the ages. If preserved well, anyway.
Most customers also had the good sense not to stomp their engine grease-stained shoes on her chair but, then again, most of them were over the age of twelve.
"Where'd you learn how to drown?" the child asked, sitting prim with their reddish seaweed hair plaited to one side. "The baths is miles away."
"Are miles away," O'Malley corrected, squinting into a green box. She had magnification specs on and if she looked up she'd send the child a good picture of the back of her skull. O'Malley doubted this conversation would end in a sale regardless but she had had more than her share of frustrated parents on her doorstep over the years. Looking down and keeping this one safe from nightmares was the path of least resistance. "Do you have an aspiration device or not?"
"I'm not here for that."
"Are you here looking for water, then?" That was almost a tease but there was a bluish hue to the child's rich brown skin and an iridescent stretch of webbing between their fingers. They came from water stock, no doubt about it; O'Malley always knew, called it like-calling-to-like even if she was fully human. "You know as well as I do that the only pool is miles away and the nearest baths aren't the wet type."
The child wrinkled the bridge of their flat nose and sighed. "I'm not here for that, either."
O'Malley shoved her glasses on top of her forehead and twisted her chair around in a careful circle. "What do you want?"
The child looked delighted, wiggled straight on the commandeered chair and said, "I want a boy's voice in a music box!"
"Cheeky." O'Malley waved her fingers and the netting next to the child tangled slightly in their braids. "Truth, now. I don't have time for games."
"I want to learn."
This was not uncommon. Many skilled communities still selected their students based on traits long proven to be irrelevant. Electric-based jobs allowing only students who were naturally attuned to currents or mechanical worker selecting the overtly-brawny. O'Malley had none of those qualms, but she did set a steep price to keep the most vulnerable at bay. So when parents with little money and wringing hands came by saying, Teach my daughter, teach my child, she provided the cost. None stayed long after that.
"I think it's beautiful." The child had turned away from her and was twisting their fingers into the spaces between the netting behind them. O'Malley tried not to watch too closely or to shout careful!
Instead, she slid her glasses down onto her nose to see the copper-colored blood vessels in the child's hands and the wave patterns in the voices that made up the net. Sometimes O'Malley liked to imagine that that specific corner weave of sound, that final aspiration, was her mother's. It wasn't; this most curious corner had been woven by her mother's, mother's, mother. Still, the vibration in those strands waved and pulsed like a loving hello. "If I teach you," O'Malley ventured carefully, "what would you give me for it?"
"What would you want?" The child wasn't looking at her; they nudged the netting and it rippled like a disturbed pond.
"If I said your voice?"
"Take it, my brothers speak for me anyway," the child said, clearly unimpressed with their lot in life.
O'Malley tipped her head. "Don't you care about being able to go on spacewalks? Suited?"
"No." The child shook their head. "I never go outside anyway."
O'Malley didn't point out: just because the child didn't go out at twelve, didn't mean they'd never want to.
The last words the child ever spoke aloud were, "My name is Leira."
O'Malley put them in a box so she could isolate them, pull the strands of sound and inflection out one by one and remove the slow, noisy heartbeat of the colony ship around them. Leira would never have to worry about her own memorial even if it was finished decades early and could fill a room.
Payment didn't always come posted to O'Malley's account. For every Lordship and Captain, there were dozens of Ma'ams, Mxs, and Sirs with modest means and grieving hearts. This was the first thing O'Malley pressed upon Leira.
"You never turn someone away because you think you can make more with someone else."
Leira, who ate tinned rations most days, was peering out the shop door to watch the merchant shipments traverse the hall. The child nodded, of course, but didn't look back as O'Malley sorted through a box of old ship parts for what she could sell and what she could return to their latest customer.
"Do you understand?" O'Malley glanced up from the box to watch Leira's silhouette until they answered by turning around and drawing their fingers to their forehead and then away again, pinky and thumb popping out in their ever impertinent, why?
"You think of your own ma or cousin coming to you hat in hand, that's why." O'Malley snorted and bent back over the box. She found a switch case, part of the inner heart of a small engine; if it worked she’d cover a month's rent with it. Then there were two panels of conductive glass that were mostly whole. This wasn't the worst box-of-junk-payment O'Malley had ever received. She hoped Leira paid attention to that as much as they paid attention to merchant brats and more practical lessons.
Leira's fingers were thick and clumsy but they were getting better at extracting specific sounds from practice boxes. O'Malley tapped a stylus against her lips and made a mental note to make a few more. While any sound could be woven, who would pay for a tapestry of Marketplace EE^ Deck 7? Further, no customer would pay for a loved one's voice on a handkerchief if the harvester was too hurried or too inattentive to pull the pattern properly. It was always better to learn on boxes of shops and engines than on family.
O'Malley had started packing things up by the time Leira finally stopped sighing in the doorway to sign, Future you ship?
"What?" O'Malley took the box of sellable items and dropped them lightly on the floor just shy of her chair. The box might have been plastic but there was always water pooling underfoot around her and just a drop would ruin a sale.
Leira had walked over while O'Malley was turned around and had wrapped their hands around a freestanding aspirator. They placed it over their mouth, black eyes glinting with mischief as they danced a circle with it on. They stopped under O'Malley's stare and then slid their palm forward from the side of their head to jab at O'Malley, future you?
Future you ship—will you go to a ship. Probably. Now old enough to want to wander, Leira spent half their lessons sneaking onto O'Malley's wall terminal to look up downed ship coordinates. They seemed to think that if O'Malley were weaving the last sounds and voices, she also had the rights to whatever might have been left behind.
"No, I won't."
Leira was right, in a sense. Nearly half of the sound boxes came with stories of ships marooned in unstable asteroid fields or places marked contaminated by EMP-emissions that thrummed a deadly heartbeat ever after. Others were accessible only to the desperate or foolhardy. O'Malley could have claimed rightful salvage but she never did.
Leira rapped blue-tipped fingernails on the table to get her attention. Why, why, why?
Each repeat was sharper and increasingly annoying. Leira always wanted more and was too nosy to pay a wick to danger.
O'Malley leaned against her elbows, a hand flat like the surface of the water, the other hand a fist with index and middle finger extended to swirl down below. Drown.
The why'sgave way to what'sand O'Malley chuckled. It was little wonder Leira was confused—who drowned in space? The answer was: O'Malley could and almost had once. She would never forget the way the air turned into watery soup from a malfunctioning humidifier, choking her as it rose up to her nose in the head cap. She accepted only large ship travel after that. Though she kept the suit in her back room—there was no way to rationalize the sale of a defective suit and the thought of salvaging it gave her the shivers; what if the defect carried over?—she never wanted a second spacewalk.
She jabbed a thumb to her chest and swirled her fingers again before cuffing Leira and shoving a second box across the table to them. "Go on, give this crap back to the family. Dream of plunder another day."
Leira was flirting. O'Malley saw it from halfway across the market. Leira had bound their thick hair into a knot at the base of their skull and their hands fluttered delicately around signs instead of being pulled in curt teenage pique as they so often were nowadays. It was special to see Leira's sharp teeth glint like pearls as they said their glad to see you'sand something else O'Malley didn't catch.
It would have been even better if the merchant's son put in any effort at all. Sure, O'Malley had never understood the drive to couple-up, but she understood it even less here. The boy smiled; how could he not? And he watched Leira with all three of his bright blue eyes...but he missed Leira's hands and all their meaning. He also chattered, one-sided, never asking for Leira to write anything down or answering any of the responses Leira offered. Disgraceful.
"Leira!" O'Malley called, putting her pocketbook away after selling a pipe and two old-fashioned candlesticks. "Time to go."
O'Malley should have left them: two teens, somewhat disconnected but interested in each other. It felt silly and cruel to leave them to it but, then again, O'Malley figured it was probably silly and cruel to stop them.
"Jonlyn's not listening, you know." O'Malley tilted her head to see Leira's response: two fists dropping along her sides. "Of course he canbut he isn't."
Leira huffed; even without the ability to speak aloud, there were plenty of sounds they made and O'Malley deemed most of them peevish.
"I'm only thinking about what's best for you." She wasn't, not really; she was just being meddlesome and Leira seemed to agree. They gave O'Malley a look of scorn, tilting their chin up as though to make themselves taller, then stomped down to their parent's deck as soon as they reached a transition junction between small markets and personal lodgings.
"Well, goodbye, then," O'Malley called, kissing her fingers and waving in snide dismissal.
Leira returned less than a day later, kicking up the water O'Malley had incidentally called onto the floor and gurgling out a laugh with the gill-like filigree that was unconnected to their vocal cords.
"You just here to make a mess, then?" O’Malley’s hands were thick in the middle of a new box. This one had six voices, six dying breaths, and it was hard to remember to look up to see if Leira had anything to say.
Leira didn't seem to mind, picking up practice boxes and meandering around to collect the small loom O'Malley had given them. O'Malley had several different looms, although she could have managed with only one and segmented-off areas for smaller works. Instead she had one for handkerchiefs, another for large projects, and a medium-sized one that looked like an upright cupboard when she wasn't using it. The one she had given Leira was twisted, old, and carved from gray-green driftwood barely longer than Leira's arm.
No response. O'Malley returned her attention to plucking out the base fragments of a particular moment. On the recording, there was a gasp, a perfect vocalization of air escaping the esophagus as something metallic ground against the side of a now lost ship. She was able to pull at the beginning easily enough; it was as the clamor rose that it became difficult. That was O'Malley's favorite part: the flaws, the filtering of air and sound that stuttered like a needle scratching diagonal across a flawless straight line.
O'Malley jumped when Leira dropped their loom on the table. She nearly growled at it, reaching to snatch it back to safety before it tumbled—but it was fine. Leira wasn't trying to break it. They waited, sharp teeth peeking over their lips until O'Malley's color returned in her cheeks. Then they signed, carefully direct as though they had tried several times before, How learning?
"You?" O'Malley tried to clarify, and Leira shook their head. "Me?" A nod. "My mother taught me." Leira made a swooping gesture with a hand, face twisted with annoyance. O'Malley knew it had to mean 'and'?
"My mother's mother taught her, etcetera!"
An eye-roll. Some things became universal and O'Malley wished the petulance of teenagers wasn't one of them. Mostly, she didn't want to answer, but she put her glasses down on the table and picked up the loom. "My ma said that one of our mothers, long ago, sank into the sea," O’Malley said it all very blandly, as though it meant nothing. "That when she was pulled up again, the sea had sunk into her bones."
This time, impatience won out as Leira picked up O'Malley's order screen and brought up a notepad. She wrote: that has nothing to do with breath weaving.
"Doesn't it?" O'Malley brushed her black hair from her face and leaned more comfortably into it, elbow on her table. "That's how the story goes, anyway. How else do you get an idea for weaving sound and air except by drowning?"
Leira considered this for a long moment then typed I'm not your daughtervery carefully on the screen.
"I'd say not." O'Malley hummed with humor because someone like her never said you're more than enoughand gender hardly matters. Instead, she handed the small loom back to Leira. "Get to work or it won't matter whose child you are or aren't."
There were reasons people believed suits needed a voice to function. Old Wives said that if a suit were breaking down then speaking up might jolt the life support. Hushed breathing, certainly, might do it too—but would anyone want to chance it when there were fantasies attached to voice-connection and the world and fallible circuitry? I'm alive, spittle and cries said, I'm not circuits, keep me breathing, please.
It was a claustrophobic lie.
No one wanted to admit that it was more about how unsettling was any suit drifting silently. Distance in space was a funny thing, a mirage making ships and colonies seem but minutes away. Between the constant stream of personal monitoring data scrolling up the text-feed of a visor and the booming broadcast text of merchant vessels and government announcements, a plain text transmission from a single suit didn't stand a chance. Singleton messages bounced, unheeded, into stars and gray static. A voiceless person could die before anyone noticed they were having trouble. It was so easy to be overlooked in the endless black of the void.
When an escape pod came within spitting distance of the colony and stopped, nobody paid much attention. Most of the time, a second ship would follow and nudge it close enough to the colony that it'd eventually be collected, or another ship would tow it directly into the collection port. This time the first ship that pulled close to the pod stopped too, its lights flickering before landing on a solid, frightening, red.
The ship was compromised.
Leira stormed into O'Malley's workspace, throwing six physical credits and a broken aspirator onto the bench next to her largest loom. "Careful!" O'Malley stood, swooping to collect the mess before it found some water and rusted. "Just what—"
Leira grabbed her hand to get her attention and then cradled them together, swaying them as if they were a ship. O'Malley stared down at their hands; Leira's were flecked with what felt like blue pebbles, her own were turning grey and soft. "Yes, there's a ship—there's lots of ships."
Leira let go, a grunt building in their gill-like sides as they threw a hand out in frustration and went to rattle and clatter along the room. The netting reacted—it always did around Leira—shushing and reaching from its hanging place as though to sooth them. Leira brushed against the wall, barely out of its reach.
"Yes, fine, I know. It's your boyfriend's ship."
Leira whirled, the braid in their hair slapping their shoulders as they shook their head, no.
"Fine, your not-boyfriend's ship." O'Malley might have been kinder about it; she knew no one would give Leira a suit, not even if Leira could speak. The error causing the shutdown was still unknown so connecting one suit to another might transfer the contaminant. No one threw good tech--or lives--after bad, not without good reason...or a higher profit margin, at least.
Leira grabbed a screen. They had long since learned that if they didn't want O'Malley to play dumb, text was the answer. You have a suit.
"And I'm not giving it to you." The suit was broken. O'Malley had tried to get it fixed but no one had been able to find what was wrong with the humidifying portion of the air valve—or with anything else for that matter.
This time Leira didn't try to sign or write. They simply stood there, staring wet-eyed at O'Malley and mouthed, Please.
O'Malley hit the ship without a sound and reached behind her to feel the woven tether that was keeping her attached to the colony. Nothing O'Malley wove was conductive, her spacesuit fancy electronics hummed at base minimums, so even when they got caught—and they would, she knew—death would hopefully be off the table. Whatever had stalled this ship wasn’t going to hitch a ride home with her; she didn’t have any receptors open for it to jump to or electronic drives to hide away in. Even her propulsion unit was disabled and her tether devoid of the usual wires, sensors, and seals.
No one on the ship noticed her hitting it; she was too small to move anything bigger than a table, after all, but even her furious voice transmission went unnoticed for far too long. "For fuck's sake, Jonlyn, if you don't answer in fifteen seconds I'm leaving."
When he turned up at the window, all three of his eyes were wide and his mouth dangled, dumb with disbelief. "Go on, get a suit on," O'Malley said because he was too slow and condensation was starting to pool on her visor. "I didn't rent this for a joy walk."
The tether snapped. O'Malley almost didn't believe it at first. She had been tugging them along one hand over the other with Jonlyn hanging useless at her shoulder and then, all at once, the tension evaporated in her hands. "No," she said because the rope was created from voices and it wasn't only her and Jonlyn that would be lost to space but also the last moments and memory of every person that made up the line.
"That's it, then?" Jonlyn said like he had expected as much and was comfortable with the idea of suffocating somewhere between his old ship and the colony.
Of course, his helmet wasn't filling with water. O’Malley had thrown her own, defective, suit in a closet and locked it up but the rented one apparently was broken, too. The odds of such a coincidence would have been astronomical if they weren’t so annoying. Already the water was crawling across her face, tickling close enough to O'Malley's ears that it seemed to whisper there nowand what did you expect? It left her dark hair clinging to the glass.
"Can anyone hear me?" They were too far for that, O'Malley knew. Her cheap rented suit was not designed for distance communication. She had to be right outside the windows for any connection to engage. Up until now, that had seemed like a bonus to this fool’s mission. "Hello? Hello?"
She wanted to try to tread water, to reach out and be able to pullsomehow. Liquid seeped past her lips when she breathed and it tasted of salt. She tried to lunge for the tether again but her gloves hit nothing but air. If she pushed off Jonlyn she might have been able to make it, trade his life for her momentum...
Water was obstructing her vision, turning the colony into a gray-blue swirl. She thought, will Leira weave me? She hoped, let me be with the rest. But she hadn't gotten to that lesson yet. Leira didn't know how to add to the net.
Someone grabbed her hand.
O'Malley shrieked, shaking her head in a useless attempt to move the water from her eyes. "Leira!" Jonlyn shouted and O'Malley choked, sputtering into her speakers.
It wasn't until the water spilled out onto the metal collection deck below that O'Malley could see again. She was on her knees, head bowed and hair dripping as the helmet spun across the floor. Leira pressed Jonlyn into a corner as though to whisper in his ear. When O'Malley looked up, she saw Leira's face bright with joy and laughter in the suit O’Malley had locked away. One arm still wrapped around Jonlyn, Leira turned and looked Mallory over with care before spelling safein the air.
O'Malley spat, heaving herself up onto her feet before signing an emphatic, Yes.
Sara Fox is an information specialist and a ne’er-do-well often found wandering in airports both local and abroad. Their stories generally dabble around fantasy coming of age and emotive scifi with LGBT+ characters.