In which Malacandra begins his summer writing project, bringing you the further adventures of Marilee and the Macraes one thousand words at a time
You don't need to be brought up on space travel to make a good spacer.
That was certainly true of me - and if I sound like I'm flattering myself to call myself a "good spacer", the figures turn out to back me up. I'd notched up plenty kills as a Sidewinder pilot before I ran into something I couldn't handle, and that was a huge ambush that was set up to kill my boss. And even if we count that, I'd put some of my bad performance down that day to sheer guilt, realizing I'd spilled secrets that let Macrae in for an assassination hit. Of course, if I'd known then what I knew a little later, that Macrae was a couple of steps ahead of the game and he had some great help right on hand -
Anyway, before then and since I've always made out just fine as a combat pilot, and if I needed a little luck once in a while to see I came out all right, you could say the same of just about anyone. And I came from Qudira, where we barely knew that space even existed, let alone that there were ships that flew in it, much less that there are a couple of thousand worlds, no one of them more than a month or two away, and all of them teeming with human beings or some other funny creatures that might not pass for human even in a poor light, but stack up all right next to them in every area that counts.
Take Tom for instance, who looks kind of like a very big cat drawn by someone who doesn't draw cats too good, beginning with not knowing what colour they're meant to be. If he stood upright on his hind legs he'd tower over me, but when he does stand upright he mostly slouches, and he's just as happy on all fours. The amount of flesh he packs around the middle, you'd think he could barely move, and for sure he mostly doesn't hurry any place he's going - but when he does hurry, you maybe better worry. His reflexes were hot-wired by the Great Designer so he can pluck a fly out of the air without killing it, and he likes shooting with a handgun - and he can plink clays with one, without even looking like he's aiming, just a mite better than I can manage with a shotgun.
Tom's been quite a favourite with the boys on Ususor ever since he got here, and all the more since he got some seniority and, instead of being the hottest trainee in the squadron, he had a whole string of combat successes behind him and was put to licking the new recruits into shape. A lot of the ones we started out with were disaffected escort pilots like me - trained, experienced, proven successful, but getting ground down by the sheer lack of hope and what seemed like an endless supply of pirates, assassins, and general nuisances. Later, though, Macrae started getting fresh recruits trained from the ground up, not least from Scots that lived on Ususor or over in Gerete, one jump over.
Gerete's high-tech, considered as a whole planet - about as far as they go for a place that doesn't have a one-world government - but a lot of Scots look to live the simple life so far as they can, though most of the employment is in heavy industry and they have to be able to turn up for work, at least. As for Ususor, even a tractor is an unusual sight once you get away from the spaceport, and while everyone’s used to the idea that an aeroplane might turn up now and then with supplies or visitors, for the most part things get done the old-fashioned way. The gentlefolks like it that way, and – as I now know – they bring enough wealth in from their off-world property that they can treat the whole planet like a giant holiday home. The folks on both Gerete and Ususor seem to like it just fine that way.
Still, if the Ususor Scots like the simple life, that didn’t stop quite a few of them making mighty fair spacers once we started getting them trained up for it. Macrae kept the training facilities tucked away in the highlands, strictly in clan territory – and on a world where most people get about on foot or by horse and cart, a few score square kilometres is plenty big enough to park a bunch of training vehicles, landing strips, and all the necessary backup, away from prying eyes. Of course, plenty of applicants flunked the early training, but they got their fair chance and they flunked out non-fatally and with no disgrace. Macrae was quite clear about that from the start.
“This life isn’t for everyone,” was his usual opening speech. “Many are called, few are chosen, and there’s no way to tell who’ll make it and who won’t until they try out. What of it? Ye were good sons and daughters of Clan Macrae before ever you tried out, and a few marks on a pink form somewhere don’t change that one iota. There’ll be a lot of you go to your homes again a week or two from now. Go in the knowledge that you tried and found out it wasn’t for you. That’s not ‘failure’, that’s learning that this is not the way your life needs to go. There’s plenty else you can do that’s good for you, for your folks, for Clan Macrae.”
And when the Macrae says that, it’s not just empty words. Every poor crofter scratching out a humble living on his quarter acre counts as much with the Clan Chief as the toughest spacer with a thousand kills to his name. That’s why Macrae can count on hundreds of willing volunteers who’ll gladly walk through fire for him at a single word.
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