Paddington Pin tried not to vomit as he steadied himself in his hammock. His stomach was revolting again.
For thirty seven years he’d worked in the bowels of whatever hunk-of-junk transport ship would hire him, preferring the freedom of the black to being landlocked under Earth’s suffocating atmosphere. It was a modest life, hidden away from the eyes of important people; but after all these years he was proud of his humble accomplishments.
He was a master laborer, a mechanic and engineer-in-a-pinch. He’d successfully battled transition sickness more times than he could count, and had clawed his way out of some damn hairy situations that would turn the stomach of even the sturdiest officer.
He was, what his ex-wife used to call, “A stubborn sonofabitch.” And yet, here he was, losing his lunch in a hammock that swayed against the shuttering of the Tian’s ancient reactor core. As much as he hated to admit, he was losing his stomach for a life adrift.
Pin balanced himself by grasping a rusty rail that ran down the wall of his cabin. Then he pulled his knees to his chest and clipped his gnarled toenails again, feeling somewhat victorious when a dry husk of one flew into the air and disappeared somewhere on the metal floor below.
“Got you, you yellow bastard,” he said through the coarse hairs of his salt and pepper moustache.
He chuckled to himself, brushing the hairs with the back of his finger. Scratchy, the little mouse called it.
She was Emma to her people, but he called her Mouse for her habit of travelling inside the walls, coming and going from above and below deck as she pleased. It was a habit that made her father, Captain of the Tian , eternally angry.
Pin would have been fond of the girl for that alone, but he also saw a lot of himself in her. Eight years-old and already she had a mind of her own. She was sensitive, with a ripe curiosity that escaped most people. Even an old mariner like Pin could see the girl was special. The other kid, Adam, on the other hand, was as thick as they came.
As Pin attacked his other toes he remembered the first time Emma had surprised him in his work bay. Someone topside had dropped their guard and the Tian had veered off course and out of range of the satellite beacons that held its trajectory between ports. And when someone topside lost their guard, it usually meant a call down to Pin to come up with the fix.
The Captain needed him to extend the ship’s transmission range, which required welding additions to the antennae. Which meant leaving the ship. Which he didn’t like.
Not that he was scared. Nothing much scared him anymore. But it was cold in the black. He felt swallowed by it. It chilled his soul in a way that was indescribable to anyone who’d never faced the sheer magnitude of their own insignificance. But it was his job. It was his place.
Pin remembered where he was when the girl had first appeared. He’d just finished taping the seam along the rivets of his helmet because he didn’t trust the seals of the ancient space gear anymore (and certainly not the long-forgotten corporation that had manufactured it). He was about to step into the anti-chamber to begin the countdown to doors-open when he heard a scratching sound behind him.
He turned and scanned the bay, but he saw no one. Then he heard it again: scratching behind the east wall.
Bending down to peer into a long grate, Pin strained to see through the smudges in his visor. Had they picked up a stowaway while docked at Valhalla? That was the last thing he had time for. Then grate popped open and surprised him and he lost his balance, falling onto his back and flailing his limbs like a turtle.
“Who’s there?” he asked frantically, unable to flip himself over for the weight of the bulky suit. “Who is it? Show yourself, you yellow bastard—”
He heard a giggle and stopped moving.
A pretty little face pressed up against his visor, nose squishing flat as blue eyes peered inside the helmet to get a look at him. The girl laughed again and pointed through the glass dome.
“Why are you wearing that?” she asked matter of factly.
“I have to wear it to go outside the ship,” he answered equally measured.
“Because, you can’t breathe in space, that’s why.”
“Because, there’s no oxygen.”
This is going nowhere, he thought. “Look, kid, just roll me over.”
“I can’t. You’re too fat.”
“No I’m not, and yes you can. If I roll this way, and you push the canisters at the same time, I can get onto my front. Okay?”
“Okay,” the girl said, getting to her knees and pressing her palms against his oxygen tanks. “I’m pretty strong, actually.”
“Yeah, well, we’ll see about that. Ready?”
Pin rolled and the girl pushed and then he was on his stomach. From there, he pushed himself onto his knees awkwardly and pulled himself to his feet by grabbing a chain that hung from the ceiling of his work bay.
He breathed in deeply and steadied himself. Then he looked down at the girl, glad to have his status as the adult back.
She wore a plain white ship’s dress that was filthy with dust, and ship’s sneakers. It was clear to Pin that she wasn’t a stowaway but a topsider— a passenger of some importance by the looks of her.
He sighed and grabbed the girl by the arm, dragging her over to the communicator. “Now I have call up and get you back home. You got parents on board, girl?”
She didn’t answer, so he clicked the communicator and waited for someone to pick up on the other end.
“Bloody waste of my time,” he muttered, scowling down at her through his visor, now foggy from the hot breath of his earlier exertion.
The girl struggled to pull away, neither of them noticing a small wooden box with a brass clasp tumble from her pocket and slide under Pin’s work bench.
“Please, mister. Don’t call my father,” she said. “He’ll lock me in my quarters if he catches me in the walls again. It’s boring. It smells, and there’s nothing to play with.”
“Sounds like the right place for you,” said Pin. “Dangerous to be climbing through the walls like a mouse.”
“Mouse?” She stopped struggling for a moment.
Pin forgot that children as young as her were rarely born and raised on Earth anymore. Young lungs couldn’t take the smog and little eyes couldn’t stand the UV. Those with money grew up on ports until they were old enough to work them. Those without means were often deported back to Earth for a short and brutal adult life.
He looked at the girl’s eyes, fierce with inquisition. It occurred to him that not only had she never seen a mouse—or any animal for that matter—she had likely never seen the green of a grassy field, felt the wind’s cool breath on her cheeks, or had her face warmed by the sun’s hot rays.
“What’s a mouse?” The girl asked, eyes wide.
“Doesn’t matter,” Pin answered flicking the communicator off and then on again, desperate for someone to pick up and get this girl away from him.
“Why?” The girl asked, pulling at the reflective scales of his space suit.
“Because they don’t exist anymore.”
“Because when cities ate up all the land they ate up the animals with them. Because humans didn’t think mice were worth a worry.”
“They lived in walls?”
Pin sighed deeply then broke the seal on his gloves, pulling them off with a hiss of compressed air. Then he peeled the tape away from the seam around his helmet, twisted it clockwise, and pulled it off his head.
He sucked in a breath of stale, recycled air before turning his attention back to the girl.
“They lived anywhere they wanted to. See, they were small critters. So small, they could fit right in the palm of your hand.”
“Wow,” whispered the girl, eyes wide with wonder as she inspected the size of her own palm. “What did they look like?”
“Some were grey, some brown. All covered in fuzzy fur.” Pin put his hands to his head and poked his fingers towards the ceiling. “Their ears stuck up like this and their front teeth stuck out like this.”
He puckered and pressed his teeth out, making a sucking sound and moving his nose up and down quickly.
The girl laughed at the impression and he laughed along with her. Then the communicator buzzed and he straightened.
“Ship’s porter here,” a static-y voice said.
The girl pulled at Pin’s leg again and shook her head, whispering, “Please don’t tell the captain.”
“The captain?” Pin said. “Why would I tell the captain?”
“He’s my father.”
“Your father’s Captain LaFarge?”
All of a sudden, Pin felt even sorrier for the girl. Captain LaFarge was a real hard ass. He’d never imagined the man had children.
Pin hesitated. He didn’t like trouble, and this felt a lot like trouble. After a moment, he pressed the communicator and moved in towards the rusty speaker grate.
“It’s nothing, Porter. False alarm,” he said and clicked it off. Then he looked down at the girl. “You run along now, back how you came. And I’d appreciate you not saying that we met, or I could lose my job.”
“Okay,” said the girl crossing her index finger twice across her heart. Moving back towards the grate, she paused and called back, “See you tomorrow!”
“Wait, what’s that you say?”
“See you tomorrow,” the girl said again. “I want to hear more about mouses and Earth and all the other animals. Bye!”
“I don’t think that’s—” Pin started but the girl was gone. “I’m a very busy man!” he called into the grate as her little sneakers slipped out of sight around a corner.
Hanging his head he slid the grate back into place, stopping short of re-fastening it. Then he pulled it away, leaving it off altogether. He didn’t imagine he’d see the girl again, not all the way down there, but just in case she decided to pay him another visit, he would keep the chute open. For her safety, of course.
The rest of his toenails now trimmed, Pin removed his uniform and lay down on the still swinging hammock. He wrapped himself in his musty old blanket and stared up at a stain on the ceiling.
He found if he focused on the single spot, his stomach settled, so he often watched it until he fell asleep.
He remembered the girl had not visited him the following day as she’d promised. And he remembered that, despite being relieved, he was unable to concentrate on his work that day. Every few moments he’d find himself glancing at the open grate, half expecting her to surprise him again. But she was never there when he looked.
It would be another four days before she appeared again, and when she did she all but ignored him. She pushed through the grate like a rocket and routed about the little work bay like, well, a mouse.
“Where is it? Where is it?” she muttered to herself before finally turning towards him. “Have you seen it? I can’t find it. It must be here.”
“Calm down, girl. Have I seen what? What are you looking for?”
“My box. My treasure. Have you seen it?”
Pin had seen it. He’d found it under his oily bench and wondered if it belonged to the girl. He moved towards his jacket, which hung on a hook on the wall, and reached into the pocket, pulling out the wooden box with the bronze clasp.
“I polished it up in case you came looking for it again,” he said as he handed it to her.
The girl snatched it away and held it close. “You didn’t look inside, did you?”
Pin shook his head.
“It’s a secret treasure. It’s a treasure just for me. Promise you didn’t look?”
Pin ran a finger across his heart like the girl had done days earlier and she smiled and let out a long sigh of relief. Then she sat down and leaned her head on the palm of her hand as though intent on hearing a story.
“Go ahead and tell me about sky,” she said. “That’s what I want to hear about first. Adam told me his old uncle Danforth said it was blue, but I told him his uncle was playing a joke on him. It’s not blue is it?”
“Don’t know how blue it is these days, but the last time I saw it it was blue,” Pin replied flipping an oil drum onto its side to sit on.
The girl was stunned. “But, that’s impossible! How can people see through it?”
“It only looks blue from far away. When you’re standing in the middle of it, it’s, well, I suppose it’s see-through. Like the glass of my space helmet.”
“Does it get smudgy?”
“In a way. Gets smudgier by the day, in fact. But not like from fingerprints.”
Their conversations went on like this for weeks: Pin doing his best to explain the natural world to a girl who had never seen it, and could never truly understand. After a while he wished he could take her to Earth to let her see it with her own eyes. But the planet had so decayed since he was a boy he doubted it could ever live up to the visions he’d put in her head.
Perhaps it was okay for fantasies to brighten the darkness of real life. It was only a matter of time before she discovered how ugly life really was.
The stain in the ceiling was starting to blur as Pin fell into sleep. His stomach had calmed and it felt as though the Tian had settled into an easy current again.
The reactor had calmed and he could hear its hum now. It was a comfort to him in the night, like hearing a mother’s heartbeat in utero. He let it soothe him.
Then a strange smell drifted through the air and he opened his eyes.