Author: David Barber

This is the Ada Swann, limping into Vesta Dock on manual, which is illegal, but Perry won’t pay tug fees, so with automated systems off-line, she eases in the big ship by eye.

Dockside’s not handshaking your autopilot, Ada Swann.

“Maybe you’ve got a software issue,” says Perry, powering down. Previous owners had tinkered endlessly with the ship and she guessed these cascade failures were their doing.

No more cowboy spacer tricks, Ada Swann. Sort it out.

Later, making her way across the cavernous dock, a Jirt trotted beside her. “You got stuff need fixing, boss?”

Perry slowed, and encouraged, the tiny Jirt edged closer.

“Fix electrics. Fix machines. Fix—”

Dockside crew were passing and one aimed a kick at the creature. It squealed and darted away.

The docker shrugged irritably. “They’ve been warned to keep away. Don’t encourage ’em.”

Perry spent the morning trying to source obsolete electronics and came back in a bad mood. She’d gained a wary following of Jirt.

“These my Jirt,” one ventured. Perhaps the one from earlier. “Good at fixing broke ship.”

Jirt were fixers of things, all manner of things, this being their gift. Otherwise, a short, timid folk with faces cleft where noses ought to be, known for their feeble six-fingered grasp of money.

Perry had noticed their damp-rot smell when she piloted short-hauls on Pallas. Now it was here too, their shanties like weeds round docks and spaceports.

In The Weather Inn she sounded out spacers at the bar.

Opinion was unhelpful. What did she expect with everything routed through the pilot’s board?

“Get Jirt to fix it,” someone muttered.

Sometimes she heard an undercurrent of resentment, perhaps at the way she had come by the Ada Swann.

“Let `em on your ship, you never get `em out,” said another. “Like roach in the walls.”

“Anyway, spacers fix their own stuff, always have.”

“It’s the stink—”

“They like us,” a spacer confided to Perry, his prosthetic eye gleaming. “That thing with jokes, you know?”

One-liners pop flashbulbs in the Jirt brain. A glimpse of something cosmic. In exchange, they fixed stuff.

“Just keep a few jokes handy, like loose change for tips.”

“You’re not leaving here on manual,” the Dock Manager told Perry next morning. The woman gave Perry a hard stare.

Which meant dock fees until she went broke. Again, pull-out modules tested green, then crashed when put back. Perry set down her tools very carefully and went for a walk.

Out on the Dock, they’d cornered Jirt hanging round the Ada Swann. Trapped, the creatures darted about squealing in panic.

It seemed to Perry they had a lot in common. She swung wide the hatch.

“You’ll regret that,” a docker called after her.

While Jirt swarmed through the ship, chasing cables and peering at motherboards, one stayed close, stroking Perry’s hand.

Only humans were funny, it said. This being your gift. At least, that’s what Perry thought it said.

And when the Ada Swann glided out of Vesta Dock on autopilot, Perry knew she could never unravel what these Jirt had improvised. They were her crew now, their nest in an unused cabin, addicts huddled round old comedy shows, drunk on punch lines, the damp-rot odour thickening in anticipation of the moment the god seized them.

Perry would have to learn some jokes. This Jirt’s got no nose. Then how does it smell? Terrible.

Tell us how you do it, they pleaded sometimes, as if an accidental molecule in a flower might teach dreams; as if this was how opium poppies might feel, if they knew.