She left because she could. She was reallocating her projects when the overseer hurried up the aisle of engineers, flushed and breathing heavily, and stopped at her design desk.
"What's this about you not doing the Supplication drive job?"
She tilted her head to the news screen, which had shown commentary about the Empress' edict all afternoon. It took him a moment to understand.
"But this is the Kingdom! And you can't be ninth generation! The company hasn't been around that long."
She hooked a finger into the high collar of her Khanid Innovation livery shirt, pulling it down and touching her throat, the scar of the Prime Mover logo branded there. Letting go, she held up the fingers of both hands, flashing them once: ten. Then she held up both index fingers, curved together like the pincers of a Malediction hull: twelve.
She pointed to the mark at her throat again with ritual gravity, then flicked her hand away, fingers spread and arcing. Turning away from the overseer, she made her way to the door.
She took nothing with her. Her design work wasn't her own, and nor were her tools; the shortcuts and libraries that any designer built up. She had precisely two assets: herself, with all she knew and understood; and an embedded microchip which showed that -- until 14:00 this afternoon -- she'd been contracted to Khanid Innovations as the property of Prime Mover Inc, an old Empire breeding and development programme which specialised in technology agents and was proud of the pedigrees of its products.
When she reached the port station which had been designated as the gathering point, she accepted a disposable overall and sent her clothes back to Khanid Innovation.
Rens was full, so when her crammed humanitarian flight docked she was processed through a station in Hek. She heard soon afterwards that Hek was full, too, and that for security reasons there were Resettlement Board stations being set up off the main trade routes.
Her acceptance interview was... brief. So many people to get through, and she'd come from a desk job and appeared, broadly speaking, healthy and functional.
"A spaceship designer, huh?" The smile was dry. "Not much call for those in the Republic..."
It wouldn't be the last time she heard that sentiment.
"Welcome to the home of our people. Welcome to the Republic."
The speaker's voice was warm, but weary. He sat perched on a desk at the front of the station common room that was now their temporary classroom, his feet swinging in a fashion which she couldn't imagine being approved by any education board, even a Minmatar one.
“I'm Kendri Musal of the Wanpari clan of the Lanfor-Hek branch of the Krusual. Thirty-four years ago my mother was in the same position you're in now. My Amarrish is what I learnt from her. I'm told it's not how a Holder would speak, but maybe that's no bad thing. Between that and a bit of Modern Standard Matari I think we'll get along.
"As you know, we've got a lot of people coming through at the moment. My employer's given staff some time to help out with basic language and culture classes while you're processed here, but my day job's as a designer for Boundless Creation, not a teacher, so I'll be following the notes and giving you some of my own thoughts on them.”
It took her a moment. She'd read the corporation name often enough, but she struggled with the lilt of the spoken language. Once she understood she watched him closely.
"I'm here to talk to you about cultural concepts in the Republic. If you haven't lived in a tribal society before, some things will take a while to understand."
He told them about tribes and clans, repeating his introduction and showing them his tattoos. He related what each signified, even the one that signified that getting drunk among designer friends could have consequences. He said a little about the Parliament, the Tribal Council and the Sanmatar; enough about the services the Republic provided, and how to access them; but spoke mostly about the different types of clan, and how she and her classmates – who he called “the Returned” -- might find clans.
At the end he stood up from the workdesk -- a bigger but simpler version of the design desks she'd used back in Khanid -- and waved his hands at it as he walked behind it, bringing up images of ships and stations.
"That's the required culture unit. I'm a starship designer, though, and since we have a few minutes before your next helper's due I'd like to show you what makes my engine sing."
He flicked away the golden Apocalypse, the lumpen Dominix, the broken-winged Raven. Away the mythic birds and heroes. Away, even, her beloved Zealot, flawed and gorgeous.
"Matari design. We joke about it. Rust and duct tape. 'When it works, it's done.' But Matari design is the most exciting space for a designer to work these days. Why? Honesty. Limited resources. Challenges. Survival. Because it matters.
"And that's a cultural concept for you: 'lin'. That's the 'When it works, it's done.' It's using whatever you've got to make something that does what you need to do. A scepter can be a cudgel. Scaffolding and an engine can be a ship.
“Another concept for you is 'dorel': the extras, the things that aren't necessary, that don't make the ship go faster. In our work we want to avoid those. We can strip away all the dorel until there is only what we need, or design with only the bare necessities in the beginning.
“Lin is the line of necessity. If you stop there after that first necessity, though, it's also the line of laziness and mediocrity. So the next concept is to take the necessary and make it better. To make it efficient, robust, repeatable... but also coherent... elegant.
"So the third concept for today is a response to the question 'does it all have to be butt-ugly, and beautiful only to people who like skeletons?' Sometimes the design goes beyond mere function. Sometimes, even working as frugally as we do, the whole work has beauty. And there's a quality to that beauty which we call 'ra-lin'. It means true line. We all argue over what the true line is. But more and more we're finding it and claiming it as ours.
"See? Look at this." He'd zoomed the display, stroking into the underbelly of the Rifter, his hands parting its folds before them. His finger extended, arcing back and forth at two points under the join in the dual chassis. "Here. In a design all of lines, here are the curves. They're sections of a circle -- the simplest curves for us to produce -- and their function is to carry the flow between the flux coil and each engine. They're curved because they need to be for that, but sitting right there they're useful, effective, and right...”
For a short moment he paused to gaze at the model of the ship, then he spun it as he again addressed the class.
"Many of you come to the Republic with all the physical dorel of your lives stripped away. Many do not even have the basics yet. I ask you, as you make your ways with us, to consider the lin and the dorel you bring in your minds and hearts as well. You have new starts here. Find what's real: make it also beautiful."
She didn't want to live on planets again. Her world was space: the things people carried with them and the bubbles they built around themselves. Her world was tritanium, unstable in atmosphere, product of no-atmo refining and zero-gee foundry work. She wanted to design in amongst it all.
When she worked out that the batches of new migrants would be despatched to planets for their resettlement proper she made her own plans. Boundless Creation was the only game on station, so Boundless it would be.
She tried to use the teaching desk, and discovered how hard it was to do real design with tools meant for simple display shows. To get a real desk she needed a job: to get a job she needed to show what she could do with a desk.
She contacted the designer from Boundless Creation, her voice harsh and halting from unfamiliar use. At Boundless they hot-desked around the clock -- space on station was too valuable not to -- but sometimes a worker was ill or away. Then they remembered there was a spare desk in vacuum storage as a backup in case of a failure. They pulled it out, ran it up for her, gave her some simple jobs.
Being back at a desk was right. It wasn't her desk, not customised with her code and shortcuts and tools, but it was so far superior to the classroom demonstration table that she felt a lump in her throat and a tightness in her chest.
The work, though...
She'd taken a job from the pool, designing a support girder in the sweet spot of weight and strength. The formulae were sweet, but the product was a thing of such massive ugliness that when she left, in despair, she locked herself in the tiny facilities cubicle and cut lines into her thighs: curves, with the angles just so: of power, grace and subtlety.
Boundless offered her a contract. At her employment medical check-up they asked about the cuts. She told them they were cultural. They didn't ask any more.
She'd missed her first prayerday on station through not knowing the day. Her idea of time lurched when she realised that: there had been no bells to call her in, no hour of service to mark the change from one week to the next.
By the next week she'd read the notices and worked out the station room bookings. She found the service she wanted, dressed in clean station-issue gear and snuck out with the early risers in her dorm, leaving the other shifts still sleeping.
When she got there, she nearly backed out.
She'd come for quiet dignity, a time to contemplate the harmonious curves of the arches and volumes of the space while the sonorous voice of the priest washed over her. What she found was rabble: greeters -- Matari, mixed -- their faces glowing, welcoming new arrivals in; noise and singing, people crying for salvation, small children screaming with red faces and snotty noses, a priest in converted station livery vestments, a room all low and angular, with floor tiles lifting in the corner by the kaffek urn.
She found no beauty here, no peace. This was banal; embarrassing.
With an aching sense of loss she realised that she shared nothing with these people who believed. They were seeing through the things around them to some idea of them that existed in their minds. She couldn't do that here.
She forced herself to stay, to see what they would do with it; to see them. It wasn't enough.
She labelled it dorel, and did not go back.
Sheet tritanium comes in six standard sizes and five standard thicknesses.
She had her own share of a desk now. In easy reach she had a number of standard templates, beginning with the standard sheet and bar sizes of tritanium.
We can reshape tritanium into almost any form we desire, but that takes energy and time. We could use that energy and time instead to build more things. Wherever we can, use the standard components.
Almost all design companies said that. Few meant it like Boundless Creation did.
There were two plate sizes on the new Storm hull: big ones and small ones. When she'd worked on the Vengeance there'd been... what, 237?
She learnt the process dance, the ways to fabricate from bar and plate. She toured the factories and came to know the machinery, how movement mattered and the momentum from one part of the process could be harnessed for another action.
The ideas swirled, hinting at an elegance that faded as she tried to draw it. She reached for it on her first project, knowing she had to do something different but not knowing what it was. Again and again, she failed.
Her supervisor -- she thought of her as the overseer, but the woman insisted on being called by name -- spun up some ideas on her desk, tiny braids flying as she turned to make her point.
“If I put the power pack here, instead, the mass will damp the vibration of this arm. That means the gas vent is longer, sure, but overall we'll use less conduit. See?”
She saw, and at the same time she was heartsick for ways she knew; ways which were slipping from her.
In her working files she saved image after image of curves, bellied and breasted, smoothed and made perfect under her artist's touch. She searched for these in Matari work and made a library of all the arcs she found: underneath the Rifter hull, in the 'wings" of the Wolf and Vagabond. They became her charms slipped in among the lines and reused building blocks she was still learning to see as lin.
Her project was known on the worklist as Sail, and in the kaffek room as “the Flying Wingy-Bit”. She wasn't cleared to work on military craft. She still had a lot to prove. Coming from the workshops of the enemy, she might, perhaps, never build warships again.
She dreamed of large machines crushing Vengeance hulls and turning out strange creatures made of pipes and panels; inhuman, uncaring, alien.
She had to wait until the cuts were healed for her next excursion.
She opened a station account.
With the money from her first pay she bought a sketch pad and a one-night pass for the cheapest class of station room.
She picked up a man at her language class. Aging too quickly after hard years mining; his dark hair flecked with white; his skin the gunmetal sheen of Vengeance plates.
She wanted to feel his flesh in her hands, to know the complex curves of scapula and concave buttock. He assumed she wanted something else. She did not correct him. She watched, coolly, the system of him functioning: of armatures and cladding; lever arms and pistons; the flows of mass and energy.
While he slept she sat there, naked, her fingers stroking her sketch pad with impression after impression of the stranger's curves and the lines of the bare room and bed. Bilateral symmetry of back and thighs. One arm thrown out to the side: a Caldari touch to the composition. Always the contrast of the curved living form and the straight mass-produced items around it.
Her team leader -- younger, Republic-born -- watched for a long moment before he pushed the button that would call the supervisor.
Her hands moved confidently above the sketch desk, pulling lines and masses into shape, resetting their qualities with quick movements of her thumbs, rotating the image.
Sail took a new form, sculpted and smoothed, the formulae underpinning it dancing in response. This, this was the vision and now she saw it clearly. She dropped notes about the performance advantage she expected from that placement, the production process to get that arc and the way the offcuts would go to form the mounts.
The detail would take months. The vision was clear and real before her.
The supervisor bustled down the row of workdesks, picking out the team leader with an enquiring eye. He inclined his head toward the desk he'd been watching.
“Thought you should see this.”
The supervisor eyed the work as she approached, then gently moved her hands into the now-still workspace and turned the design, pulling up the notes, asking sharp questions which were answered as sharply. At last she paused, called up a command interface and placed her left thumb on the desk surface.
“Do a production model for this one.”
The team leader nodded his understanding, and the supervisor, still watching the ship hovering in the workspace, murmured one word approvingly to its maker -- "Ra-lin" -- before turning on her heel, her braids again flying, and striding back down the aisle.
The other drawings -- she knew them so well -- she selected their filenames. Delete. Confirm.
She'd stay, because she could. She had her work here. She'd find the line.