Story Excerpt


by Kristine Kathryn Rusch


They assembled in the Third Level Mess Hall, the one designed for first-years. The furniture was tiny, built for small bodies, and the walls had painted murals of cats and dogs, the comfort animals kept in the arboretum wing and not allowed on this level. Still, Nadim Crowe knew, a lot of tears got shed beneath those murals, hiccoughy tears, the kind that little kids couldn’t hold back if they wanted to.

He thought the murals cruel, but then, he thought sending little kids to boarding school while their parents gallivanted across the Universe equally cruel. Last year, he’d volunteered down here until the sobs got to him. Then he’d requested a transfer, which had sent him to the medical wing, and that turned out to be infinitely worse.

Why he’d decided on the Third Level Mess as a meeting site for the two teams was beyond him. It went into that category of his existence that he filed under It Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time.

Of course, he hadn’t thought that through until tonight, while he was waiting for the others to arrive. Before that, he’d only thought about the competition. He had had a lot of prep to do, and that meant doing some of the prep here, in the Third Level Mess.

A week ago, he’d tampered with the Third Level Mess’s security system, shutting down the audio and video tracking just to see if anyone noticed. He’d kept the environmental controls on and boosted the emergency warnings, just in case something bad happened here while the security system was off. The Mess was all about little kids, after all.

He had chosen the middle of Ship Night, when (in theory) no little kids would be using the Mess. He’d kept the system down for three hours just to see if anyone noticed.

They hadn’t, which disturbed him and relieved him in equal measures. He didn’t like that it was so easy to tamper with the security systems on the Brazza Two, but at the same time, it made this little dare easier.

And he knew that the systems in other parts of the ship, systems that monitored kids his age, were better designed. The adults didn’t think that little-little kids would meddle with security systems, but the adults knew that teens did. He supposed if any of the little-littles had successfully screwed with a security system, they would have been moved to the gifted track immediately.

He had no idea how the gifted track worked for the littlest of kids. He hadn’t been on the ship when he was really little. He had arrived at age nine. Unlike most kids, he’d actually requested his berth. He’d already been old enough to know that anywhere in the Universe was better than a landlocked life with his parents, so why not go to the best possible school that had the added bonus of being in space as well.

The fading bruises, two broken ribs, and evidence of other badly healed broken bones had convinced the Fleet’s school administrators that Crowe had been right about his parents. His tests—off the charts when it came to mathematics, science, and technical aptitude—convinced the administrators to send him to the most prestigious school ship in the Fleet.

He never would have cried underneath these murals if he had arrived here when he was young enough to eat in the Third Level Mess Hall. He would have celebrated.

Tonight, he was the first to arrive in the Third Level Mess, and he was jittery. The Third Level Mess was mostly dark. Five dim overhead lights failed to properly illuminate the space. Four of the lights were in the mess’s four corners, leaving pools of darkness over the tables and the back area.

The fifth light—the brightest light—was off to his right. It shone over the long rectangular counter designed for the adult staff to serve the little kids their food. When he’d volunteered here, he’d wondered why there was a serving station. In the other messes, the students were monitored by computer and actually informed when they took a food item that didn’t fit into their regulation diet.

He’d asked his question and was told that computer diet controls caused most of the little-littles to melt down. Instead, it was better to have adult assistance, so when a child did break down, he did so with someone nearby who could soothe him.

Crowe had seen a lot of soothing here, much more than he had experienced at home. He’d also seen a lot of unhappy children. Because of that, he knew, most people on the Brazza Two avoided the Third Level Mess.

No one monitored this section of the ship after dinner either. He had double- and triple-checked that himself when he had come here in preparation for the competition. He had gotten the idea, and before he had even told Tessa about it, he had gone to the three main competition sites—the mess, and two different ship bays—to see if the competition was even possible.

It was—just barely. It would take some luck and a whole bunch of skill. That was what he loved about it, and that was why he was so very excited.

In the last fifteen minutes, his team had started to arrive. Ten of his friends, sliding in one at a time, some of them fist-bumping him as they passed, others just hovering near the bench beneath the mural, which provided the only truly comfortable seating. The bench was at adult height, probably because whoever built it had had some kind of brain fart and forgotten that this room was for little-littles.

As the team arrived, Crowe stood with his hands behind his back, deliberately mimicking Captain Mbue’s favorite posture. She impressed him. She had been the captain since he’d started here. She was no-nonsense. When she gave her annual do-your-best speech to the various classes, she meant it. Some of the other teachers and staff on the ship treated the students with barely concealed condescension, but Captain Mbue seemed to believe each word she said.

When he became captain—a real captain, a captain of a DV-Class vessel—he would treat his entire crew with respect, from the oldest to the youngest. He would do his best to be exactly like Captain Mbue.

And tonight, he was going to captain a ship. If he pulled this off, no one on the Brazza Two would be the wiser. Or if they found out, they would think him brazen but brilliant. He hoped for the first, but he would take the second.

The question was whether or not he would still run the mission if Tessa failed to show up.

Tessa Linley, the most gorgeous girl he had ever seen. She was luminescent, with dark brown eyes that perfectly matched her smooth unblemished skin. She wore her long hair in tiny braids that fell down her back most of the time, but when she was working hard on something delicate, she would wrap those braids around the top of her head like a crown.

He had no idea if she knew that half the competitions and challenges he had thrown at her had been because he wanted to see her marvelous brain at work and because he wanted to spend more time with her. He had yet to impress her, although he had won two of the past three challenges he had made to her.

None had been as elaborate as this one. They had come up with it together. They had found some redundant systems in the Brazza Two’s security protocols. Thinking they had happened on something the more experienced engineers had missed, Tessa and Crowe had asked one of their instructors if they could begin the process of removing the redundant systems.

He had laughed, which surprised both of them. And then he had complimented them on their observations.

But, he had said, those systems exist for a reason. This is a school ship with the best and brightest in the Fleet on board. We’ve learned over the years that no matter how hard we try to keep you students intellectually stimulated, you’ll still venture out on your own. And one of the things you’ll do is tamper with the systems. The redundancies make sure that the tampering and the damage from it are at a minimum.

Crowe and Tessa said nothing to each other for days after that, but slowly they realized that they both had come to the same conclusion: they both decided to investigate the redundancies, to see what the “best and brightest” had tried before Crowe and Tessa had even thought of boarding the Brazza Two.

That, combined with the fact that the Brazza Two had followed a part of the Fleet to a nearby Scrapheap for some major learning opportunity for the officer candidates, had captured Crowe’s imagination. Not only did he want to best the students who had come before him in the accelerated youth program, he also wanted to visit that Scrapheap, and he knew he wouldn’t be allowed to.

Only the officer candidates, those in their twenties or older, with decades of schooling and experience behind them, were allowed to go. And they would be supervised every moment of the visit, which sounded like torture to Crowe. He loved working on his own. And that, combined with the other strictures, had given him an idea.

Tessa then refined it.

And like almost everything they came up with, they decided to turn it into a competition. Unlike their other competitions, though, this one required the help of others. Together, Tessa and Crowe recruited half of their class.

Tessa sidled up beside him. He knew she was there before he saw her. The scent of her jasmine soap always preceded her. She leaned against him, her soft skin warm against his, and he felt a jolt of lust.

He took one step away. He didn’t want to be distracted by his body right now.

“Wasn’t sure you were going to come,” he said softly.

“And miss this? Are you kidding?” she asked. She stepped forward just a bit, probably so that she could see his face in the dim light.

He could see hers, bright and eager and shining with excitement.

“You do a head count?” she asked.

“Not yet,” he said. “I was waiting for you.”

She punched his arm lightly. “We don’t have a lot of time. You should’ve been ahead of this.”

“You’re the one who’s late,” he said.

“I’m not late,” she said. “You were early.”

“Still want to do this?” he asked, deflecting. Or maybe just deflecting the thoughts from his brain.

Maybe that was why he didn’t win every contest he had with Tessa. Part of his brain was always busy controlling his body so that she wouldn’t know just how much she affected him. Another part of his brain monitored his every word so that he wouldn’t say something stupid. That part of his brain usually failed, especially as he got deeper into the contest and focused on the task at hand instead of his mouth.

Fortunately, Tessa didn’t insult easily.

She didn’t forget, though, either, and she often brought those comments back up, usually in a teasing way, but still. He found his missteps horribly embarrassing.

“If I didn’t want to do this,” she said, “I wouldn’t be here. What I’m not sure about is whether or not we can finish before everyone gets up. I don’t want to come back to a welcoming committee.”

He bit his lower lip. They had discussed this problem earlier, and then she had said it didn’t bother her.

“It’s a possibility,” he said. “A good one. That’s why I’m asking you if you want to back out.”

She let out a half laugh, and her eyes sparkled. She was so beautiful when she was smiling that it took his breath away.

“Are you kidding?” she asked. “It’s been ages since we’ve done anything remotely exciting. I’ve been looking forward to this for weeks.”

“So have I,” he said, feeling a spike of energy running through him. “So let’s get to it.”

She nodded, then started a head count, whispering the numbers under her breath. He counted with her, mentally making note of which team the people present were on.

His team had gathered together near the mural wall. Hers was scattered around the room, huddling together in twos and threes. That one simple fact buoyed him. It meant his team was more cohesive than hers.

“Looks like everyone’s here,” she said.

Not only were both teams in place, but each member was the correct member. Once, he’d initiated a competition with Tessa, and half the people he’d handpicked to participate had sent someone else in their place. It had been a last-minute competition, though, and he really hadn’t prepped anyone.

This time, he’d been running virtual drills with his team. He’d designed a three-part program that simulated what he thought would happen. The first part got the team to the docking bay. The second part was stolen from the flight simulator that first-year pilot training instructors used, and the third part was sheer guesswork.

Tessa had warned him not to do anything like that—you’ll get caught and then what will you say? she asked; I’ll say that I was using my imagination just like they encourage, he replied. But he hadn’t gotten caught. And not only had he maintained the interest of his team in the adventure, he’d also made sure they were as prepared as they could be.

“Okay.” Tessa clapped her hands together to get everyone’s attention. It was 10:30 p.m. ship time. They weren’t even supposed to start until eleven.

But Crowe had no problem with starting early. The earlier they left, the sooner they would return. If they managed to get back before four a.m., they were less likely to be caught.

Tessa had probably impressed that on her team; he certainly had on his.

“This is your last chance if you want to back out,” Tessa was saying—to everyone, which kinda annoyed him. He didn’t want anyone to back out, and he didn’t want to remind them that backing out was an option.

Everyone was watching her. He could see faces half-illuminated in the dim light, all of them focused on her with great intensity, which also irritated him. She was his friend, not theirs—although that wasn’t true. Tessa somehow managed to be everyone’s friend, even though she was closest to him—or so he hoped.

“There’s a chance we could get caught,” she said. “A good chance, really. But as I told you, or rather, as I told my team, there’s safety in numbers. They might punish all of us, but not as severely as they’d punish one of us. So you’d be helping out in more ways than one if you stay. Besides, this’ll be fun!”

Her voice rose with that last bit, and it actually sounded like fun instead of something scary and dangerous.

A bunch of people closest to Crowe smiled. He couldn’t see the other faces clearly enough to know if they were smiling, too.

He needed to take this over, though, before she scared them all to death.

“Those of you who’ve been in competitions before with me and Tessa know the drill. We’re going to have the computer start a thirty-second countdown. As soon as it hits zero, it’ll say Go! and you go. You know where you’re supposed to be, so you run there.”

Or, he thought, his team knew where they were supposed to be. He had no idea if hers knew.

“You should have instructions from me or Tessa, so you should know what to do,” he said, not looking at her in case she’d failed at this for the first time ever. She used to be the most organized one of the two of them. She wasn’t any more—he learned that lesson soundly and had started to beat her at her own game.

“If you don’t know exactly,” Tessa said, lending credence to the idea that she hadn’t prepared as much as he had, “follow the other members of your team. My team is wearing a slash of lime green along one cheek tonight, so if you see someone with a slash across their face and you’re part of my team, follow that person. Someone will put you to work.”

He hadn’t thought about color-coding his team, but that was only necessary for this part of the competition anyway. He had hardly given the front part of this any thought at all, because that wasn’t the part that interested him.

The competition really didn’t start until the teams got on board their respective ships.

“Remember,” Tessa said, “the point of this is to have fun, and maybe learn something along the way.”

Crowe disagreed: he thought the point was to learn something and maybe have fun along the way, but he stayed quiet. Tessa was better at rousing the troops than he was.

“So, ready?” Tessa asked. “The countdown starts . . . now!”

Apparently that was her computer command, because the androgynous voice started counting backward from thirty.

Crowe moved slightly away from the door. He had instructed his team to let Tessa’s go first. A few competitions ago, some of the team members had gotten trampled in the opening stampede, and that had cost him precious time (not to mention a long and convoluted explanation in the medical wing).

Besides, he hadn’t just tampered with the security systems here; he’d also tampered with the door commands on the docking bay entrance his team was going to use.

The tampering wasn’t as extreme as the tampering here—ship security would definitely have noticed any major changes to the systems in the docking bay.

All he had done was prep the redundant systems to operate more efficiently if given certain commands. He had figured, if he had gotten caught, that he would tell his teachers or security that he had been trying to improve the system. He’d been given permission to investigate the redundant systems, after all.

The computer countdown hit three . . . two . . . one . . . Go! and Tessa’s team took off so fast that they nearly trampled each other.

“See ya, sucker!” Tessa said to him as she raced by. He just smiled. She should have seen that as a warning that he had done some prep, but she hadn’t.

Or maybe she just didn’t care.

She was on her way to the secondary docking bay. It was closer to the Third Level Mess than the docking bay he had chosen. She probably thought the proximity would give her team an advantage.

But there was a lot that could eat up that advantage, including getting in, working the ship, and getting the bay doors to open. His team had worked through all of the scenarios he could think of, and he still worried that those hadn’t been enough.

The sound of her team’s shoes slapping against the floor receded. There was no laughing and giggling and catcalls, like there had been on some previous competitions, so she had done some work with her team.

“Okay,” he said when he could no longer hear Tessa’s team. “Let’s go.”

His team gathered around him, and they walked to the docking bay. No running at all. They even took the Third Level elevator to the First Level. Nothing wrong with students touring the public area of the ship. He’d learned that long ago. And if they weren’t acting like they were doing something wrong, then no one would think they were, either.

Two of his team members—Omar and Erika—already had their personal computer screens up, on clear holographic mode. They were the ones assigned with tricking the redundant systems so that the team could get into the docking bay undetected—at least for a few minutes. Long enough that they would be able to get to the ship he had chosen.

Two other team members—Igasho and Sera—were going to scrub the identities of the entire team, effectively removing them from the security system, the moment the group entered the docking bay. He’d learned that trick by studying what students had done before.

The system was set up to catch that little maneuver, but he’d tested it (like he had tested everything), not with his own profile, but with the profiles of some of the kids one year ahead of him. He’d set up the scrubbing to look like it was accidental—a glitch in the system. And he’d deliberately chosen candidates who had no real technical expertise. These were the kids who liked the arts, who focused on languages or ship culture or Fleet history, such as it was.

There was no way those kids had the ability to scrub their own profiles, and they didn’t have the wherewithal to hire someone (or bribe someone) to do it for them. If ship security didn’t look too deeply at the scrubbing, no one would figure out what had happened.

So far, no one had looked to see if the scrubbing was anything more than a system error.

And Crowe had learned how long it took the system to recognize it had been spoofed and to solve the problem.

The fastest the scrubbing had been repaired had been seven minutes. The fastest it had been reported to a human had been ten minutes—and that had been on the same student. It had been an outlier, but Crowe used that figure as his figure.

He’d tested the team in their simulation. They had to move fast to the ship, and get inside within six minutes. That way, when their profiles returned to the system, they wouldn’t be in the middle of boarding a ship they had no right to be on.

They hadn’t done it physically—they hadn’t done any of this physically—but they knew what the stakes were, and at least according to some of his instructors, virtual drills created brain muscle memory as effectively as actual drills created actual muscle memory.

He was counting on that.

The elevator door opened on First Level, and the team headed en masse to the docking bay entrance. Once inside, they’d run to the ship. Out here, they laughed and joked like kids on a walk, except for Omar and Erika, who were in the middle of the circle, mostly protected from the security imagery—so that the system wouldn’t flag their behavior (any of their behavior) as suspicious.

The corridor was wide enough to accommodate four across, the ceilings high, and the floor made of a material he’d always meant to look up, designed to help anyone who had not yet adjusted to the peculiarities of the Brazza Two to maintain balance and stability. This flooring vanished on the main levels, but was part of the entire area around the docking bay, something Crowe had noticed, but didn’t yet understand.

They arrived at the fifth entrance into this docking bay. This particular entrance had the most minimal security because it was the furthest from any access point. It also led into the part of the docking bay reserved for the less frequently used ships. No outside ships ever docked here, and no small ship in active use docked here either.

Crowe had spent nearly a week looking up each small ship in this area, its specs, its foibles, and its capacity. He knew he had an inexperienced team, so he wanted something easy to pilot. He also knew that the ship had to be large enough to handle ten, and with portholes big enough that the team could see the Scrapheap with their own eyes.

He also wanted a ship that could handle the distance to the Scrapheap rapidly, with minimum fuss, and could handle the one maneuver he was most afraid of on its own.

Bringing the ship back to the Brazza Two and docking in the same spot required piloting skills beyond anyone in this group. While all of the small ships attached to the Brazza Two had an autopilot function, not all of the autopilots worked well.

Most of that was by design. The Brazza Two didn’t just train gifted students in their early years of study and scholars who would eventually train aboard a specialty ship; it also trained pilots, engineers, and the entire officer corps. They all needed small ship experience, and not all of that experience could come from simulations.

Many of the small ships in this docking bay were training vessels with certain features disabled or removed. Crowe needed all of the features of a Fleet vessel to work well, just in case his little crew did get into trouble. He needed to be able to activate a part of the ship or give it over to the computer or contact someone on the Brazza Two, ask for help, and then be able to implement that help.

He hoped nothing would go that seriously wrong on this little adventure, but he also knew that hope wasn’t something a commander could count on.

Captain Mbue had said that on more than one occasion. Speaking to his class, she had added, Hope should give us the wings to pursue the experience that will then enable us to make the best decisions for that particular moment. Optimism and hope built the Fleet. Experience pilots it. Adventure keeps it moving, ever forward.

She had never mentioned creativity in any of her speeches, but Crowe liked to think that creativity was part of the Fleet as well. Maybe one of the most valuable parts.

Certainly, his creativity had helped him catch the attention of every single one of his teachers. They always gave him assignments far beyond anything someone his age should do. And they praised his non-standard way of approaching each problem they gave him, telling him they had never met anyone who thought like he did.

He hoped they would have the same reaction to this adventure. If they caught him.

The fifth entrance into the docking bay was also the smallest—a single door. The eleven crowded around it and waited while Adil took point. He was slender and small, having not yet hit his full growth, which Crowe believed might make him even more valuable down the road.

Right now, Adil had to unlock the entrance. Crowe was suddenly breathing shallowly. He wanted to unlock the entrance. He had done every single thing in the simulation, so he knew what the crew would be up against, and some things he did better than others.

Like opening doors undetected.

Only his time had been fifteen seconds slower than Adil’s time. And nothing Crowe could do in the simulation made his time faster than Adil’s.

That was how Crowe had made the assignments anyway. The crewmembers who did the jobs the swiftest while being the most accurate were the ones who got the jobs.

That didn’t stop him from shifting from foot to foot. Each passing second felt like an hour.

He hadn’t thought about this, about the way it looked when eleven kids crowded around a door. If he had given that part thought, he would have had the scrubbing of their digital signatures begin sooner.

Adil finished in record time (even though it didn’t feel that way), and the door slid to one side, just like it was supposed to. The crew walked in, with Igasho and Sera remaining just outside the door as they finished the scrubbing.

Or, at least, Crowe hoped they finished the scrubbing. Because this was one part of the plan that they had no way to check.

Igasho entered first. His black eyes met Crowe’s, and Igasho nodded. Igasho believed it was done.

Then Sera stepped inside and shouted, “Go!” just like she was supposed to do.

The crew ran for the first time, everyone heading for the scout ship that Crowe had designated as theirs.

His stomach tightened, and he was still having trouble breathing. He’d checked and double-checked the manifest all day, just to make sure that the scout ship was still in place.

The ship had the uninspired name of Br2 Scout3. Apparently school ships lost scouts in training so often that the scouts’ names were simple.

This scout had been in service for almost a hundred years and was on its last legs. It hadn’t been used much at all, which was one reason why Crowe had targeted it. He knew no one was paying a lot of attention to it.

He’d run a diagnostic a few weeks ago, piggybacking on engineering’s standard small ship diagnostic. So technically, he hadn’t run the diagnostic at all. He had just added Br2 Scout3 to the list, and the engineering department had run its usual check.

The ship came out clean. Although that did mean that someone paid attention to it and it might have vanished in the last few days, even though it remained on the manifest.

He scurried around some of the other smaller ships—a runabout, an orbiter, a few tiny ships that were little more than pods—following his team.

He was the one in charge of the scout ship, and he had to get there when everyone else did, but he had a stitch in his side from his uneven breathing.

He was a lot more nervous than he’d expected to be. This entire mission was a lot more real than he had ever imagined, and he was beginning to think they were in too deep.

If he hadn’t made this into a contest with Tessa, he might have backed out right here.

But he had, and his pride was going to keep him moving forward.

The team arrived at the ship with two minutes to spare. They were all gathered around the back end of the scout. This ship had a cargo door, like many of the military vessels.

Usually small ships were coded to the pilots and bridge crew of the larger vessel they rode in, but not training ships. Training ships had entry codes for each class that was supposed to train inside.

Crowe had investigated which unit was using what type of training ship at the moment. None of them were actually training on scout ships in classes right now, but the classes on the scout ships would start up in a few weeks.

Fortunately for him, the instructors for that unit were already preparing—or maybe they had never changed the entry codes. He had dug into that part of the shipboard computer, using an instructor identification he had borrowed long ago. It wasn’t the only instructor identification he had borrowed in his time here—he rotated through them when he needed to.

He’d actually burned three of them on this trip. If the team got caught, he wouldn’t be able to use those identifications again.

His mouth was dry and his heart was pounding. He stepped up to the back control panel, hidden to the left of the door. Usually this part of a scout ship was opened in the ship’s tiny bridge, but there were redundant systems in all of the Fleet’s vessels.

Every type of ship had extra ways to enter. Ships that went off on their own without any back-up, like scout ships, had several redundant entry points, so that no one could get locked out in a strange environment.

He opened the control panel with shaking fingers, wishing he had more control over his body right now. He didn’t want his team to know how nervous he was, although they could probably guess.

Maybe they would chalk it up to adrenaline. Or maybe they were just as nervous, and even more excited.

No one said anything. He could hear some ragged breathing, but that was about it.

The panel revealed a triple-coded entry, just like he’d expected. That calmed him. He had to type in a pattern with his fingertips. The ship would then identify him as a student in the Brazza Two. In the past, the ships had to confirm that someone was in the program that was going to use the ship, but so many records weren’t kept up that the instructor corps abandoned that system and just put regular student records in place.

They figured there were other ways to prevent students who didn’t belong from getting on the ships.

And those ways were the ones that Crowe had discovered, overridden, or planned for.

He had planned for this one. The ship asked him for the class code. He’d found that about a week ago. He swept his forefinger across the flat-screen pad four times, then placed his entire hand on the screen.

Nothing happened.

Was he going to fail at this, lose this competition, because he had underestimated the access code to the ship he needed? What would Tessa say about that? She rarely teased him about his failures, but this would be too rich to ignore. She would—

Metal against metal squealed, followed by a rumble and a series of small clicks. Five of his team members stepped backward. They had been too close to the back end of the scout ship—the end that was slowly opening like a cargo ship door.

Just like it was supposed to do.

He let out a half-laugh, catching it before it became an exclamation of joy. Still, he couldn’t keep the smile off his face as he nodded to his team.

He gave a one-finger symbol—index finger up, and then pointed at the dark interior. He stepped into the darkness first, even though a captain never went first. But he wasn’t a real captain (yet), so screw it.

He wanted to run, but he knew better than that. Instead, his boots caught on the ramp, making banging sounds as he walked up it.

Lights came on around him the deeper he went into the ship.

His team—his crew—flanked him. Once they were all inside, he nodded at Maida, who would be his second in command on this journey. She grinned at him, her round face and green eyes filled with joy. He had picked Maida for this one because her scores on all of the tests they had done in the simulation were the closest to his.

She was the only other person who had managed each test along the way. Everyone else had failed at least one.

She walked over to the interior control panel for the door and the environmental controls and pressed it, shutting the cargo door and making sure the environment was suited for the team. Proper oxygen mix, proper temperature, full gravity.

Still, they would grab environmental suits as they passed through the armory on their way to the tiny bridge. In a couple of the simulations, things had gone so badly awry that the fake crew needed environmental suits.

Even though those simulations were outliers, they happened. And Crowe was cautious enough to prepare for the worst, and hope that it would never come to pass.

He glanced at the crew. They were smiling at him, the nerves gone—so far as he could tell. Maybe they were all excited about this part of the mission.

In his estimation, this was the most dangerous part to them and their future careers with the Fleet. If they got caught at this moment, without having achieved their objectives, they’d join all the ignominious previous students who had tried to get a ship out of the docking bay.

Those students often lied about the reason they were leaving. Most of them were fleeing the school.

Crowe wasn’t, and he figured he would have the simulations to back him up, but he still hated this part.

He led his crew out of the cargo area and into that narrow armory. The armory was empty; it wouldn’t be stocked with weaponry unless the scout ship was going off on its own for real. But environmental suits had to remain with all ships at all times.

Still, he felt a thread of relief when he opened the uniform storage and found dozens of suits in various sizes hanging from pegs, just like they were supposed to be.

Apparently he hadn’t entirely believed that the suits would be here.

Everyone grabbed a suit, then spent a few uncomfortable minutes sliding it on over their clothes. Crowe’s suit was newer than the suit he had in his dorm room, and it took him a moment to figure out that the suit operated by touch-command. He left the hood down, and the gravity in his boots off.

He didn’t wait for anyone else as he headed to the tiny bridge.

The Br2 Scout3 was a mid-range scout ship—or so its specs said—designed for regional exploration. The Br2 Scout3’s standard crew could expect to be on board for weeks, maybe months, as the exploration went on.

That meant there were two levels on the ship—operations and residential. He wasn’t interested in residential; the crew wouldn’t be onboard that long. But operations had to have a fully functional engineering section, weaponry and defensive capabilities, and a bridge big enough to handle a minimal crew that, Fleet regulations stated, was five people at one time.

The bridge was on the opposite side of the ship from the cargo bay. So he jogged in that direction, a little surprised at the time it took. The simulation had estimates that seemed to be wildly off.

Of course, the simulation didn’t take into account the equipment left in corridors from the Br2 Scout3’s last mission, or the way that the sharp angles of the Br2 Scout3’s design slowed down anyone scurrying across the ship.

The Br2 Scout3 was just barely small enough for a crew of ten to run it, although crew complement said that this ship needed a minimum of thirty, should the ship be gone for longer than a day or two.

He finally reached the bridge and was relieved to find the doors open. He had planned for four minutes of struggle with the control panel so that his crew could get into the bridge. He wouldn’t need those four minutes, which was a good thing, since he had already wasted them and a few more getting there.

He wondered how Tessa was doing. He hadn’t heard any sirens or notification of a lockdown, and he would have, since the Br2 Scout3 was still on board the Brazza Two.

So she hadn’t been caught.

The others of his crew joined him, environmental hoods down, looking a little flustered and sweaty from their own jogs across the ship. Maida reached his side.

“Ready?” she asked in a tone that told him she thought he was having second thoughts. If one word could sound like a shove in the back, that ready was it.

“Yep,” he said, and stepped inside the bridge.

He had expected something small, but not something this claustrophobic. The ceiling was low, the lights old and a bit grey, the way that lights from a century ago had been made. The bridge was designed like half a bowl, with everything leading to the lower level down front. That level included a wide variety of screens, which could be toggled together to form a holographic representation of space itself.

He had thought that sounded exciting when he’d first found out about the design of this type of scout ship. He’d thought the bridge would seem vast. But now it seemed a little cheap, and the downward dip just looked like a hazard rather than a design feature.

Maybe that was because of the equipment. The equipment had been updated, but it looked grafted on, like a bandage over a particularly ugly wound.

The consoles were too large, for one thing, all of them a little too square for the design. The captain’s chair, standard in larger ships, had been removed here. In fact, in order to make room for the extra equipment, every single chair in the bridge was gone.

He felt a little dizzy and then realized he’d been holding his breath. Not that it mattered. He hadn’t tested with modern up-to-date equipment. His simulation had been based on the older ship, the design that Br2 Scout3 had been built to, not the one it had been upgraded to.

“Wow,” Adil said from beside him. “This thing has an anacapa drive.”

He was looking at the anacapa container, near the navigation controls.

Crowe cursed under his breath. He didn’t want to be anywhere near an anacapa drive. He thought he had picked a ship without one.

He’d studied the drives enough to know they were unpredictable, and the last thing he wanted was one of his people messing with the drive and getting them all in trouble.

“We’re not touching it,” Crowe said. “In fact, we’re not even opening the container. The first thing I’m going to do when I get to the controls is lock us out of the anacapa.”

“No need,” Maida said. “None of us want to touch it, right, gang?”

The entire crew chorused their unwillingness to touch the anacapa drive. He felt some of the tension leave.

This was why he had picked these ten people. They were like-minded. They believed in the same things he did. They had that risk-taking attitude that he liked. Only they weren’t reckless in their risk-taking. They took calculated risks.

“All right,” he said. “I’m holding you guys to that, mostly because we’re behind schedule as it is. Stations, everyone.”

They all had assigned places and tasks. Navigation, shields (should they be necessary), and, most importantly—at least to him—recording the mission, not just on the ship’s system, but on separate systems.

The crew was heading out to see a Scrapheap for the first—and maybe only—time in their lives. They needed a record of the visit.

“Here we go,” he said.

And they all descended on the bridge, ready for the challenge of a lifetime.


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Copyright © 2018. Joyride by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

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