Badger had followed her dreams to the water’s edge, one day at a time spooling out in front of her as though it was meant to be when in fact it was only dreamed of. Then she was stuck, stymied, as her dreams only showed the water’s edge, nothing more, for days, and her food began to run out.
On the fifth day, when she was trying to learn how to dig clams using her vision mods for extra information, she saw her first seaplane, and ambition bloomed.
Seaplanes were a great deal easier to follow than dreams. Badger went north along the coast, catching a crab or two and eating seaweed, chewing it for miles and miles as she walked. There were freshwater streams often enough. Sometimes she washed the salt and sand off her legs as well as drinking in them, but there was always more salt and sand to be had as soon as she started walking again.
Badger had eaten the last apple in her pack and was contemplating days of crab and seaweed when she smelled motor oil. She had smelled it before, when the army convoys came through, when they rolled up and her eldest cousin ordered his soldiers to salute her mother and her aunties and uncles and particularly her grandmother. It smelled lovely, greasy and tangy and promising. She walked faster.
When she came around the bend, there was a bay, choppy and white–capped and full of seaplanes, at least a dozen of them. Some of them had people swarming all over them, doing this and that. She couldn’t see at that distance. There were also people sitting on the beach not apparently doing much. It was those people Badger approached.
“I want to learn to fix your planes,” she said to the nearest one, a round–faced girl who looked to be a few years older than Badger. She had tidy blue coveralls and one thick black braid down her back.
“Hello to you too,” said the girl. “I’m Molly.”
“Badger,” said Badger, because she couldn’t see how she could convince them to let her learn without giving at least part of her name. The rest of it would put them off, or worse, make them take her away and question her, away from the lovely, lovely smells of motor oil. She would keep the rest of her name to herself.
“Have you fixed planes before?”
“No, but I like them. And I’ve fixed other engines and things.”
“Well, that’s a start,” said Molly.
“It isn’t either,” said the young man nearest her, crossly. “It doesn’t start anything at all. How do we know you’re not a spy?”
“Why would I want to be a spy? I’d rather fix seaplanes.”
“Well, mine isn’t broken,” he said curtly.
“Yi Xian, be nice,” said Molly.
“Why? Some kid comes in out of nowhere —”
“I’m fifteen,” said Badger. “I’m not a kid any more.”
“No, I suppose you’re not,” said Yi Xian wearily, “but you’re still not anybody we know, and you might be a saboteur.”
“I don’t think any saboteur would be brazen enough to just come announce what she wants to do,” said Molly. “And probably they’d train a saboteur so she’d know what we do.”
“What do you do?” asked Badger.
“Whatever we can,” said Molly, grinning.
Yi Xian scowled at her. “The important question is: what do you do? How far out do your dreams go?”
“Just days,” said Badger.
“Any advanced training?”
“Can you breathe underwater?”
Badger stared at him, transfixed. “People can do that?”
“You’ll be amazed what people can do,” said Molly. “We’ll poke around some more, see whether there’s anything you take for granted that we don’t.”
“We need action,” said Yi Xian. “We can’t afford dead weight.”
Molly rolled her eyes at him. “People can learn.”
“I want to learn to fix your planes,” Badger repeated.
“And people who want to learn are the best at learning,” said Molly.
Yi Xian drew her aside for a furious consultation. Badger waited, surveying the sand as though she was greatly interested in its particulars, though in fact it told her very little she didn’t already know about the bay, the weather, the wildlife. Not that she knew much about wildlife other than what she liked to eat. Her family had tried to stay as far from the wildlife as possible.
“But they’re not here right now,” she said softly.
“All right,” said Molly. “We’ll introduce you to Uncle Caroline when he comes. But you’ll be probationary, you understand? You don’t do anything to the planes without supervision.”
This seemed reasonable to Badger, and she said so. And then she watched the planes bobbing away with a kind of mute longing that made at least some of the pilots smile at her and come and talk to her, and they were nice, and when they found out that she wanted to be a mechanic, they were even nicer. Apparently a lot of people who liked the planes assumed that they would fly them, and there were not really planes hanging around getting rusty waiting for teenagers who had never flown anything to come and fly them.
Badger could understand that.
They even shared food with her, which was welcome, bits of mutton jerky stewed in with seafood and spices she didn’t recognize, and then as night was falling, Uncle Caroline arrived. He landed his plane on the bay with barely a skim of splash from the pontoons, setting the other planes bobbing, and jumped out in the shallows to wade to the shore. Everyone wanted to greet him at once. Badger knew how that worked with her mother. She held back to wait for her turn. Finally Molly managed to fit her in.
Uncle Caroline was a tall man with a long, lined, kindly brown face. Badger dipped her head, not sure how they indicated polite respect in this strange place. “I told Molly,” she said. “I want to learn to fix your planes.”
“So they will work better,” said Badger patiently. Molly laughed, but Uncle Caroline looked at her more closely.
“That’s good of you,” said Uncle Caroline. “Why don’t you want to fix our enemies’ seaplanes?”
“I don’t know,” said Badger. “Probably I do. It would be nice if everybody’s seaplanes worked well.” She thought about that and finally made her brain let go of it, though not before she’d issued an unconscious dreamy sigh. “Awfully nice. But why should I want to fix yours more? You tell me. Do they go ‘iaa’ more when they should be going ‘blarrr’?”
Uncle Caroline looked at her more closely still. “Well, I don’t think our planes really are the right answer. It’s who we are ourselves that should make you want to work with us instead of them. We give everybody a fair share of provisions, and we don’t mod people unless they want to be modded.”
“That sounds nice,” Badger agreed, thinking of the first mods she’d gotten when she was little and how she’d screamed at the new colors in her brain.
“Now tell me more about ‘iaa’ and ‘blarrr.’”
Badger felt a bit impatient at this. “You know what ‘iaa’ and ‘blarrr’ are. When the engine is working right, it goes all deep and throaty and blarrrrrrrr, you know. Blarrr. And then when it’s gone off somehow you get —” She hesitated before raising her voice through her nose to mimic it, but as well kill an alligator as a fish. “‘Iaaaa, iaaaaaaaaa.’ Like that.”
“You haven’t trained as a mechanic before.”
“No, my mum wouldn’t let me. I just tinker with stuff.”
“Mums,” said Molly cheerfully. “Who knows what they’re thinking. Mechanics stay behind the lines. I think she should have let you.”
“So do I,” said Badger, then shrugged. “But here I am.”
“What did she want, a bloody hero?”
“A leader,” said Badger.
“And you’d rather be off by yourself with the engines!” said Molly, laughing. “We can already see that.”
“Sometimes the strangest people lead us to peace,” said Uncle Caroline. “Sometimes the least expected.” Badger began to feel as though she shouldn’t have said leader, as though perhaps ordinary people’s parents didn’t think of that sort of thing. But it was better than saying the truth, which was “diplomat”; she knew ordinary people’s parents didn’t try experimental mods to make their teenagers high–ranking military diplomats.
But at least her modifications, while utterly failing in the field of diplomacy, seemed to have some use in dealing with planes. Uncle Caroline talked to her a bit more about the noises seaplanes made and how they felt when they made them, and it was generally agreed that Badger could stay.
Yi Xian did not take it too badly. Badger thought that she could see people shaping their opinions around Uncle Caroline. The ones who had decided they already liked her felt justified, vindicated, and the ones who leaned towards hating anyone new felt that there was a bulwark of approval between them and danger. Badger had not turned out good at reading people’s faces, as her mother and grandmother had hoped when they chose her mods, but groups she could read, almost as well as engines.
Molly was very cheerful about showing Badger her plane and letting her open hatches and peer at things.
“The first thing is, if you can fix what’s there, fix what’s there. We haven’t got factories for new parts, so we have to make do.”
“How did you build them without factories?” said Badger.
“We didn’t,” said Molly. “That’s what stealing shit is for.” She watched Badger closely, but Badger was too busy poking around in the wiring of the plane to pay attention to any felonies committed by her new friends. Molly eventually shrugged and helped Badger tighten a few bolts that had come loose in the poking.
“Let’s see, what other principles should I tell you? You’re awfully good at this. Oh, I know! Every plane is a balance of tough and light,” said Molly.
“And green,” said Badger.
Molly wrinkled her brow. “Are you from one of the communes north along the river? I thought they were mostly shorter and with funny colored eyes.”
Badger ran a hand along the wing, finding the place where the alignment was pulled awry. “No. What are you talking about?”
“The commune people. We get one or two who get fed up and come to us. They’re obsessed with greenness. Like, the planet and what the war is doing to it and stuff. Not that they’re wrong, but.”
“I don’t know about the planet,” said Badger patiently. “I just know about the green bits where the plane is okay. And the grey bits where it’s not, because it’s been knocked about.”
Molly put down her spanner. “The planes are blue.”
“Yes,” said Badger. “But on the other layer.” She grimaced. “Sorry, my mods are sometimes…”
“Oh!” said Molly. “I thought you said you didn’t do anything special.”
“I don’t. It doesn’t work. Well, it works, it just — it didn’t come out like it was supposed to.” Badger shifted away and stared at the plane some more. Molly took the hint and went back to showing her how things fit together, all the things that Badger had intuited but needed to go through, to feel comfortable and happy.
And once Molly stopped asking about her mods and just started using them, Badger felt more comfortable and happy than she had in her entire life. With Molly’s cajoling, Yi Xian even let her retune his engines. He came back from a fight ebullient, calling for Badger to take some of the credit for how well his plane had handled. No one had given Badger credit for anything good before. They took her off probation. She slept easily in the extra blankets they shared with her, and when she dreamed an endless series of waves and her mother’s face, she thought it was because she was as relaxed and peaceful as a child, to have a child’s dreams that did not range away in time.
She was wrong.
She should have known she was wrong because her mother had never been that kind of mother, not before the mods and certainly not after them. Her mother had always been the kind of mother who squinched her lips up and told her to try again and ignored the things she’d fixed.
So Badger really should have known, and she knew later that she should have.
She knew she was wrong when she heard the drones’ whine, farthest scouts farthest out. It was before dawn, and almost everyone was asleep in the lean–tos along the cliff wall.
Badger crept into Uncle Caroline’s tent. She awoke him with a hand over his mouth and a whisper: “They’re coming.”
He peered at her as everyone seemed to peer at her. Assessing. Confirming. “Who?”
“They sound familiar, so I think Republic.”
“Ah.” Uncle Caroline thought about it and said, “If I can’t hear the scout drones yet — that’s what you’re hearing?”
“If I can’t hear the scout drones yet, we may as well make all the noise we like in packing up.”
One of the others, a girl Badger didn’t know well, asked whether it wasn’t possible that Badger was trying to send them away from a good place needlessly, but Uncle Caroline pointed out that she was warning them early, far earlier than a spy or saboteur would need to, and the girl nodded and shut her mouth.
The others all had roles already in disassembling the camp. Badger watched for a moment and then saw where she could fit in. She started passing bags to the pilots who were taking off. By then everyone could hear the drones, and even some of the planes behind them.
Badger and Uncle Caroline were left with two pilots and three planes, one of which was not put back together from its adjustments the previous day, when the drones started snapping around them. Uncle Caroline set off a quick charge that knocked the drones back, then pulled Badger to shelter behind a rock with him.
But Badger could already hear the troop transport, and it was projecting a tall, beautiful woman’s image in the air for miles ahead of itself. “Rebellious peoples of the coastal region!” the image was saying. “Turn yourselves in and you will not be harmed!”
“That’s my mother,” Badger said to herself under her breath. The image could not hear her, but Uncle Caroline could.
“Don’t worry,” Uncle Caroline whispered. “I won’t tell the others.”
“Thank you,” Badger whispered back. “Hand me the needle–nose pliers.”
She finished the adjustments and nodded to Uncle Caroline. “Do you think it’s worth trying to talk to her?” he asked, his words barely audible over the noise of the sea and the war machines. “She’s your mother. Do you think…?”
Badger shook her head mutely.
“Right,” said Uncle Caroline. “Get in back, then.”
They were the last to take off. Badger didn’t have proper flight gear, so it was very cold, much colder than she’d expected. She curled up in the bottom of the seat and hoped for the best. There was more shaking than she’d expected. She wondered if she’d fixed the plane wrong, but the air was coming at them in choppy little bursts.
Badger had never been up in such a small plane. She had only loved them from afar. Perhaps this was what they were like always. She comforted herself with the observation that nothing seemed to be turning grey about the plane (though her modifications were not perfect in their assessments), and that Uncle Caroline seemed to be entirely comfortable, if rather focused.
The throbbing hum of the plane’s engine was rhythmic. Rhythmic was green. Rhythmic was good.
Badger fell asleep.
When she woke up, they were landing on a patch of what appeared to be open ocean, and she hoped that this was not because they had run out of fuel. But no, the chop and churn of the waves was not open ocean, not at all, though she could see no land ahead. Badger leaned out of her harness, peering down at the water. She followed the line of disturbance, wrenching her neck around.
There was a habitat behind them, bobbing on the waves like a soap bubble made of pale green glass and white plastic.
“It’s anchored to a sea mount,” she said aloud, and Uncle Caroline said, “Yes,” as though she had been speaking to him and not merely thinking with her mouth.
“Just a moment now, and then they’ll get it open and we’ll drive in.”
But Badger didn’t move. Her mouth worked involuntarily as she traced the shivering lines of grey down the tether to the sea mount. She waited to see them die down. They did not. The hab opened a mouth large enough to drive several seaplanes into.
“Don’t do it,” she said, but Uncle Caroline wasn’t listening, he was in the middle of a routine he knew well, pulling the plane into the habitat’s seaplane hangar. To her horror, Badger found herself in the middle of a fairly shallow pool of seawater, with the sunlight filtered through the green glass of the hab.
“But it’s only literally green,” she said. “It’s not really green on the other layer. We have to go. We have to go!”
“We do, we have to go down into the hab and meet the others,” said Uncle Caroline. “Get unstrapped, we can either wade or go in dinghies.”
“I’m not submerging in this.”
“Come on,” Uncle Caroline repeated, gentle with her though he had every reason she could see to be impatient.
“Not green,” said Badger. It was just like her mother all over again, just like her cousins, all the times she was supposed to be a diplomat. Her mouth worked, but she could not figure out what more words these people needed, other than to know that the sea mount habitat was not green, not green at all.
Uncle Caroline stopped. Molly had explained to him about Badger’s modifications, so he didn’t waste any time on metaphors, he just said, very quietly over the noise of the water, “Tell me where.”
“We have to go!”
Uncle Caroline said, “Look, Badger, even if we have to go, we can’t abandon the others inside the hab. We have to tell them about whatever you’ve —”
“Radio,” she said immediately.
“Badger. There are so many of them.”
“We have to get out, we have to keep going! It’s not safe in here!” She did not want to cry. So many times her cousins had made her cry, and she knew that crying did not make people listen more, it made them listen less. They focused on getting you to not cry by demonstrating their own rightness, rather than focusing on the important things you were saying.
The people with the seaplanes were not supposed to be like her cousins.
The endless series of waves in her dreams was no longer comforting.
“Do you know it’s not safe now, or is it just —” Uncle Caroline waved his hands incoherently. “If there’s just a chance that something might go wrong someday —”
“That’s always what it is!” said Badger. “We never get more than that! It’s always that!”
He didn’t seem to be listening and turning the plane around. She scrambled over the side and down onto the pontoon, slipping, one foot splashing into the water. Even when she got away from her mother and her mother’s plans, the mods were still causing trouble, not working as they should and working in other directions. She wished for the hundredth time that she’d gotten the diplomacy out of her mods that her mother had wished for.
Molly and Yi Xian came up in a dinghy, Molly grinning. “Come on, Badger, we’ll show you the —”
“No!” said Badger. “I’m not going any further into this. I can’t be in it when it submerges.”
Yi Xian looked at Uncle Caroline. “Is she claustrophobic?” Remembering his manners, he turned to Badger herself. “Are you claustrophobic? It’s okay if you are, the hab is really big. Once you stop thinking about it, it’ll be fine.”
“It’s not fine,” said Badger, jumping carefully into the dinghy. “The hab is — it’s not green, Molly, it’s not green at all, it’s grey and the anchoring is no good and it’s going to be bad and I cannot go in.”
“It’ll be all right,” said Molly, looking at Uncle Caroline. “Look, I don’t know how to explain it, but really, it’ll be fine. I know you’re used to trying to fix things, but —”
“It is not fine,” Badger repeated. “I need to get out of here in this boat if no one will take me in their plane.”
“I’ll take you in my plane,” said Yi Xian, and they all stared at him as if he’d sprouted a second head. “Well, look,” he said. “You can’t act like her mods are so great and rely on her mods and then ignore them when they get inconvenient. If we’re lucky to have Badger to fix planes, we’re lucky to have Badger to fix habs. Come on out in my plane and we’ll see about fixing the hab, Badger.”
“It’s full of people, hundreds of people,” said Molly, and at the same time Uncle Caroline said, “I don’t know if we have any of the waterfolk who are modded to be able to fix the hab’s moorings, and anyway if she has no experience with —”
Badger looked at Yi Xian, and she nodded to him quietly. He took the tiny oars and started rowing the dinghy towards his plane.
“Hey!” said Molly, still in the dinghy with them, and Uncle Caroline was yelling after them.
“Fuel quick,” said Yi Xian. “And then we’ll get her out of here and looking for a better place to anchor. You get the others strapped down.”
“There’s strapping down?” said Badger.
Yi Xian grinned. “You don’t think we’d make something like this without safety features?”
Badger took a breath. “Okay. Okay. And we’ll come back and they’ll evacuate. They’ll be all right until we come back and evacuate.”
Yi Xian’s plane was a beautiful, comforting green in Badger’s sight as they started the engine back up and picked up speed exiting the hab, maps and binoculars at the ready.