On a world without stars, he took to the sea.
It's really not all that surprising. That was what you did. It's in the blood. Twelve generations of Washburnes scraping a living, plying the polluted seas of Caradoc. Sometimes for life, half-poisonous and mutated as it was, sometimes for treasure, sometimes for salvage. There were Washburnes on both sides of it; some doing the running--guns, liquor, livestock--and others doing the chasing. Not that that a Washburne would ever turn a brother, or cousin, or niece in. No, far more likely they'd end up brawling in the thick mud of the docks, and then in the pub together drinking til the wee hours and cursing each other's names the whole time.
He'd been born from one saline sea into another, and before he could walk, he could sail.
"Boy's got saltwater in his veins," his gran would say sagely, scraping the bowl of her pipe out with a penknife no longer than his smallest finger. "You mark my words."
He thinks it must be true, and not only because Gran--the last word on all things Washburne--says so. Out there, he's bigger than his body, part of all of it; the gears and levers and rods, the waves hissing smooth over his hull, the lightless depths that support him. It makes sense in the exact way people don't.
He's seven when his cousins Bardem and Griffeth challenge him to a race; Punter's Point and back. His cousin Henry tells him not to do it. He's too little to take the boat out alone, too inexperienced. He'll wreck her, and then Gran will tan his hide. But he looks out at those waves, calling his name, and he just can't say no.
By the time he rounds the Point, his arms and legs shake from the strain, but he's four lengths ahead of Griffeth, and it's all smooth sailing. He's coming around Gilly Rock when his intakes suck up a jellyfish or something, and he blows the portside engine. Griffeth sails past with a grin and a shout, and he's crying by the time he nurses the boat into the dock. The whole family's come to see the show. They're on the shore, waiting, and he wishes he could just die then. But Griffeth and Bardem and the Johns--Red and Tall--come and grab him, and hoist him up and carry him out.
The whole family cheers.
"By God, that was a race!" Gran claps him on the shoulder when the boys put him down. "What're ye crying about? You done the name Washburne proud, boy!"
"But I lost," he protests.
"Psht! Back luck and happenstance," Gran says. "Point is, you sailed like you were born to it. You sailed like a Washburne, and even with your engine blown, you still brought your ship in. S'not always about winning, lad. Sometimes, it's about learning to lose like a man."
They take him to the pub, the whole great mess of them. He's put up on the bar and given his first beer, a thick and creamy stout that tastes like chocolate.
"Here's to Hoban!" they cheer. "He's a Washburne, through and through!"
His cousin Evangeline is a schoolmarm, a landlubber, and they all tread careful around her, as if it's something they'll catch. From her he learns that the sailors used to find their way by the stars. He's working at one thing or another for the family by now, and he thinks about this sometimes, when the navcomp chirps its one-note song, and his eyes burn from smog and hours of squinting at the displays. It's Evangeline that teaches him the names of the constellations, and shows him pictures.
It's a marvel. Suddenly, Blue Sun is more than something you buy at market.
He whispers their names to himself, his own private lullaby: gas giant, supernova, nebula. Supergiants. White dwarfs. Pulsars.
He's careful to keep it to himself, though.
When the Sleater's Skiprunner goes aground in the Flattops, losing all hands, Gran's only comment is: "Chasing the stars, no doubt."
When he's sent to paint her front stoop, and he spills whitewash in the flowerbeds, Gran gives him an absentminded clout on the ear and growls, "Quit stargazing, you great lump."
The Washburnes are supremely uninterested in anything that doesn't float, drink, smoke, or screw, and he'd almost rather die than disappoint Gran.
Evangeline downloads star charts from the Cortex at her school and slips him the print outs. He hides them under his bunk, the way his uncle Thomas hides skin books, and with just about the same sense of shame. She invents errands for him too, slips of stolen time in which she teaches him piecemeal about trajectories, interstellar distances, the different levels of atmosphere, the effects of friction.
At fourteen, he can put together, take apart, and pilot just about any boat on Caradoc, which is pretty much what he spends his days doing. At night, he dreams of sailing a different kind of ocean, on a different kind of boat.
He's taken to mooching about the docks--the other docks, as Gran says, and the family thinks that he's in love. They're not entirely wrong. It's just not Jonas Blake's girl Amara, the stevedore, that he's got his eye on. He knows all their names. He knows how they move, the noises they make when they're happy, and when they're not. When no one's looking, he closes his eyes and runs his fingers over their skins. Smooth, textured, pitted. Shiny or dull.
And he knows he's going crazy.
He finds excuses to not visit Evangeline. The next time the family has one of their big bonfires on Pig's Head Point, he throws in all his charts and books, and blames the smoke for the tears running down his face. He starts spending way too much time with Tobias and Niall and Silas in the pub, drinking until it no longer hurts and--maybe--he can sleep without dreams. He loses his virginity to Brynn Price, the fastest girl in the village, and then spends three hours after throwing up in a ditch on his way home. He learns to juggle. He laughs. He jokes.
And he tells himself that he's happy.
He comes home after three weeks out on a fishing crawl to find the brochure on his bunk.
"It's for you," his ma says, without turning from where she's shelling peas in the sink.
"But... Ma. Flight school?"
His ma raises one eyebrow in the way she has. "Are you saying you don't want to go?"
"I don't... I can't... I..." For the first time, he's without words, floundering.
His mother takes pity on him. She dries her hands, and comes over to him, prisoning his face between her two hands. "You can. And you will. I'm your mother, darling; did you think I wouldn't know? Shhh." She puts a finger over his lips when he tries to speak.
"Your da and I have put aside a bit, and I've made sure to put by some of what you made working for the family and such. Evangeline's given some, and Karine, and Molly and Wicks, and Doyle and Sarah. It's not much, but it'll do. And there'll be more. Enough. But you're making yourself sick, Hoban, and I'm not having it. I don't want a drunk for a son, no matter how hilarious. I want you. My brilliant pilot. So you're going to go, and I don't want to hear another word about it."
It feels like his heart is beating like the turbines on a Firefly, but he can't let himself believe it. Not yet. "But Ma..." His throat's so tight, his voice only comes out a whisper. "What will Gran say?"
His mother's face hardens. Gran's never liked his mother, who's not from their village. The feeling is mutual, though his ma usually will hold her tongue as long as she's in the old lady's house. "You let me take care of Gran," she says grimly.
"Wash?" Zoe's voice precedes her into the cockpit.
Without taking his eyes from the viewport, he reaches backwards and she comes into his arms. Soft, warm lips brush his hairline and then his mouth. "Hey, lambie-toes."
"You all right?" Her hand roams through his hair, along his jaw, up his shoulder. A part of him wants to close his eyes and abandon himself to her touch, but he just can't seem to take his eyes off the stars.
"Yeah," he says, pulling her down onto his lap.
In the end, it was near a month of shouting matches and hurt feelings, and a schism that threatened to divide the whole damn town, but in the end, his Ma had her say and her way. He'd gone to flight school.
And now here he is. With Zoe perched on his lap, on his boat, sailing smooth in the ocean of night.
"Yeah, baby; I'm doing just fine."