Tila folded her arms around the guardrail and rested her chin on her wrist. She worked it back and forth, feeling the small bones move aside under the pressure. The cold metal burned against her bare forearms as she let her mind empty and her legs swing free, and she stared unseeing into the mid-distance.
The noise and activity of the marketplace below her failed to penetrate the bubble of isolation she had willed around herself.
The market was unusually busy today. Traders and merchants mingled with the residents of the New Haven free port as well as visitors from neighbouring communities.
New arrivals trickled into the market from the nearby docks. Travel by ship was the safest option. Everyone else had to make the journey between the communities on foot. They would have moved in larger groups for safety, but once you were outside the secure New Haven perimeter the tunnels and corridors were still dangerous.
Tila heard and ignored the approaching footsteps. Not many of the people she knew would take the time to seek her out here, perched high above the market. She suspected she wasn’t worth the trouble, not unless she was in trouble. She only knew two people who would bother, and the footsteps were too heavy for Ellie.
“Hey,” she said when Malachi was close enough. It was just a word. Enough to acknowledge but not welcome another human being. There was no warmth in it.
“Can I sit down?”
“If you want.” She dug her chin into her arm again and swung her feet back and forth together.
Malachi sat cross-legged on the floor next to her and leaned back against the same railings through which Tila spied on the bustling crowds below.
“So…” he said.
“So, Ellie told me what happened between you and my dad yesterday,” said Malachi.
Tila dropped her gaze to the marketplace, not really focusing on any particular detail. “You know it bothers her when you don’t get along with him.”
Tila mumbled something inaudible.
“I said, what’s that got to do with her? It’s not like he’s her father.”
“Wait, are you mad at Ellie, or at my dad?”
“Isn’t everyone mad at me?”
Malachi shuffled around to face the same direction as Tila and dropped his legs over the side of the gantry too.
“No, but you don’t make it easy sometimes. Look, you know what Ellie’s like. She wants everyone to always get along. It’s hard for her when people don’t.”
“By people you mean me.”
“She cares about you. Even my dad cares about you really.”
Malachi sighed. “But he has to care about everyone else as well, and—”
“And I don’t?” she challenged, looking at him for the first time.
“No one’s saying that. Well, some people are, but he’s not. It’s just, you know, he has to look at the big picture and manage all the little details at the same time, and you don’t.”
“But it’s not like I don’t care.”
“I know. I think he knows that too, but you don’t… I don’t know, you don’t blend in.”
“You mean I’m not welcome?”
“No, no, no. Not at all! Wait, that sounds wrong. I mean you are welcome but you never seem to, uh, commit to the people here. You drop in and out when it suits you.”
“Well, why should I commit?” She gestured angrily, taking in the whole market. “This isn’t my home. I don’t have anything keeping me here. But I still do my part. I work hard and I help people.”
Malachi nodded. “That’s true, but you’re more like a hired hand than a resident.”
“I don’t take advantage of anyone. I work hard and fair.”
“I mean you act more like a visitor than one of the family. That’s all I’m saying.”
Tila fell silent. She knew this was the crux of it. Eventually she said, “But I’m not one of the family, am I?”
“Neither is Ellie,” Malachi pointed out. “She doesn’t have anyone else either but she’s part of the family. She’s a part of the community. She joins in.”
“Everyone only loves her because she’s cute and harmless.”
“No, they love her because she cares, and she gets involved. Without those things she would just be…” Malachi searched for a word.
Tila looked at him for the first time and managed to suppress the involuntary smirk that threatened to break her dark mood. Ellie could do that, even when she wasn’t around. “Annoying?” she offered.
Malachi laughed. “Maybe. That’s one word for it.”
Tila worried her chin against her wrist again. “Well, she is annoying sometimes.”
Malachi smiled to himself. She wasn’t wrong. “But you love her anyway, right?”
Tila threw back her head in defeat. “Fine! Yes. I love her even though she can be annoying.” She threw him a look. “Just like you!” She curled her legs up on the floor beside her and climbed to her feet. She offered Malachi a hand and helped him up. “I’m sorry,” she said, squeezing his hand.
Malachi squeezed Tila’s in return. “That’s all I wanted to hear. Now let’s go and buy stuff.”
“Good one. With what?”
“Let’s go and pretend we can buy stuff.”
The market occupied an old tiered arena, so it was wider at the top than at the bottom. It was like being on the inside of an inverted pyramid.
The lowest part, which attracted the most people and the most popular traders, was also the shortest way to travel from one side to the other.
On this occasion the shortest way was not the fastest way. The market was packed, and Malachi and Tila found it impossible to move from stall to stall without shouldering their way through the throngs of buyers and sellers.
“How come it’s so crazy in here today?” Tila said.
“You didn’t hear? Some trading vessel had engine trouble while transiting the system. Luckily there was someone here with the skills to repair it.”
“Let me guess. Your dad?”
“And the best part is that everything they had on board was still fresh. It would have spoiled by the time they reached their destination so he made a deal with them to accept the food as part payment.”
“Looks like everyone else heard about it too. Anyway, you didn’t hear about it, your dad just told you.”
“I guess so.”
“So why didn’t you just say so? You’re always so coy about what you know, Mal. If you know something, say it. You should be more direct.”
“Because that always works out so well for you?” Malachi teased.
“Shut up,” she said affectionately.
“So, anyway, they get cheap repairs and we get a shipment of fresh food.”
“Just one of the many benefits of Juggernaut life,” Tila said sarcastically.
“We sure do have it good.”
They waded through the crowds until they found shelter in the lee of a stall selling used clothing shipped in from Commonwealth planets.
“Do you know where they’re docked?” Tila asked as she unconsciously brushed the back of her hand along a scarf of synthetic silk.
“Bay one. It’s the biggest bay this close to the market.”
“Ugh. That’s where they sell all the junk.”
“Yeah, scraps of cable, engine parts, whatever fascinating equipment they have that can fix the AG units.”
“Yeah, junk. Anyway, artificial gravity units are quite important out here. You know, what with all the space and all.”
“Yeah, but it’s not like you can eat them.”
“Finding new and exciting food is not the most important thing.”
She dropped the scarf and held up a finger to make sure Malachi listened her to her point. “Yes, it is!” she corrected him. “It is the most important thing, especially around here. Think about it. We might get all the potatoes and processed algae we can dream of but basically, we only get what no other planet wants.
“You forgot mushrooms.”
“Ugh, mushrooms. Look, the only real meat we get is from the rat farms. Imagine what Commonwealth planets get to eat! When was the last time you ate fruit that was even close to fresh? I mean, how is it we can travel between stars but still can’t preserve a strawberry?”
“I know, I know. Our priorities are all wrong!”
“Strawberries are not even that big.”
“I don’t think size is the problem they are trying to solve, Tila.”
“It’s still important,” she said.
The crowd thinned and they struck out again.
“I remember grapes,” Malachi said wistfully. “They were so, sweet, and juicy…”
“And they would burst in your mouth like a… like a… flavour popping.”
They sighed together over sweet childhood memories until a voice intruded.
“You two are always talking about the things you remember from planets. When are you going to show me?!”
“Ellie!” said Tila.
Ellie folded her arms and waited for Tila to continue. She tried to look angry, but the effect was spoiled by the flow of people constantly bumping into her which made her lose her balance and then apologize for being in the way.
“Aren’t you going to say sorry?” Ellie finally demanded when she could steady herself once more.
“Oh, the party. I’m sorry, Ellie, but he just… you know, gets to me.”
Ellie pointed at Malachi. “Not to me, to him. It was his father’s party you ruined.”
Tila stiffened. “Ruined?”
Malachi quickly stepped in to defuse the situation before it could escalate any further. He might have already had Tila’s apology, but he knew she took a while to cool down properly.
“It’s okay, Ellie. We’ve talked about it. She’s apologised.”
Ellie glared at Tila some more until Tila was kind enough to attempt a contrite expression. Then the cloud passed from Ellie’s face and they were friends again.
“Well, good. I’m glad that’s settled. Are you looking for the food delivery? It’s this way.” She turned and led them on to Docking Bay One.
“What was that all about?” Tila whispered to Malachi when Ellie was out of earshot.
“She’s just looking out for me. She would do the same for you.”
“I know, but it’s strange watching her be angry. It’s like being threatened by a kitten.”
When they reached the docking bay the crowds were too deep for them to pass. This rare opportunity was not to be missed. Tila could feel the anticipation in the recycled air.