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Joyride

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. READ MORE

 

Stormdiver

by Nick Wolven

In the old days Ju had thought it was cute, the way Priya got about big storms.

This was when they lived in Denver, just outside Tornado Alley, where the only weather you had to fear was a white-out blizzard and a dump of snow. But in summers the family traveled east to Myrtle Beach, or what remained of it: old condo towers on a crumbled shore. And it was something, sitting in those glassy rooms, high above the blue sweep of ocean, watching the Atlantic hurl its weather up the coast.

First the gray clouds would thicken, deepening to slate. Then came a slam of windy pressure, a thick clatter of bursting drops. And soon the world would be tossing and roaring, rain machine-gunning, waves flashing, and they’d crouch under blankets and play shipwrecked sailors, watching the riot of water on glass.

Hurricane zone. They were on the edge of it, there, in South Carolina, receiving the tail ends of downgraded storms. Ju explained to Priya how a storm was like a living thing, born of the union of warm water, cool wind, fed by pressure differentials, whipped and steered by the planet’s rotation. A storm had a life cycle, ending in landfall, a slow decline over solid ground. It was technical, mathematical. Like a science experiment.

Priya listened with wondering eyes. Storms were beyond science, for her. They were mysterious, mythical—great godly beings that came howling from the sky. In childhood, she would put her hands to the windows, yearning for something at the heart of those giant cycles of pressure and vapor, a message carried by a spirit who spoke in the whooping voice of wind, whose couriers were waves and rain, who came ashore as a harbinger of ruin, but also, one imagined, as an emblem of awe.

*   *   *

Ju’s shuttle docked with a thunk of pressure-clamps, the flight drones clicking and twittering as they leapt into their disembarkation routine. He grabbed his bag and felt for the guide-bars, remembering the long-ago skies of childhood, his sister’s girlish rush to bright windows, funnels of vapor over distant Terran seas.

Davies was waiting outside the hatch. Though waiting, Ju thought, wasn’t quite the right word. The project leader lurked, blocking the exit, so close that Ju nearly ran into him.

“Kid.” Davies put a hand on Ju’s shoulder, reaching with the other to grab his duffel. For reasons Ju could never remember, Davies had always called him “Kid,” ever since their training days in the NOAA Offworld Observatory. He was a squat, sturdy, dark-skinned man, with the curiously flattened appearance of a gingerbread cookie.

“Whatever you do,” Davies said, “don’t go out there. Not yet.” He pulled Ju to one side. “We gotta talk. Hustle-hustle.”

With Davies, that weird phrase, hustle-hustle, could mean anything from a private tête-a-tête to a bookkeeping scam. Ju peered down the curving corridor to the check-in gate. A group of touristy-looking people from a private transport were fumbling black gearbags, getting used to the local gravity.

“Can’t this wait?” Ju said. “I just locked orbit. I’ve been in transfer for seventeen days.”

“Ha! Tell me about it.” Davies pulled him to the wall, out of sight of the check-in crowds. “I’ve been counting the seconds. Hell, I’ve been waiting for you here half the morning. You wanna see what I’ve done to my nails?”

Davies held them up, showing the bitten tips. Ju knew that in Jovian time, a full day was about ten hours. Which made the daylight portion five, which made half a morning an hour-and-a-quarter. Not terribly long. But Davies was that kind of project manager. Always in a snit.

“You couldn’t have beamed a message to the shuttle?”

“Beam—? No, I couldn’t beam a message! Kid, we’ve got a crisis on our hands.”

“Crisis?” Ju leaned out from the wall. The new arrivals were bickering with security, making a fuss over their equipment. Davies yanked him out of sight.

“It’s your sister, Kid.” Davies held him till the last visitor had passed through check-in. He dragged Ju down the corridor, waving a badge, rushing him through security. “She got here early. And she brought her whole damn crew.”

*   *   *

Dido Station was one of three general-purpose structures that swung around Jupiter in a low orbit, a hard metal ball in a cloud of field potentials. The science decks were located in the upper hemisphere, concentrated in the middle-outer band where gravity was roughly half Earth-normal. Ju bobbed behind Davies past offices of cloud surveyors, particle physicists, Hsiao-Ghaori Field assayers. In the cluster of offices outside the drop bay, Davies dragged him into the management suite and slapped on the privacy lockdown.

“Kid, I thought you said you talked to her.”

The project office was an example of the interior style Ju privately thought of as Elite Science Moderne: a cluttered sprawl of computers punctuated with spots of whimsical color—a deflated balloon Jupiter, a nickel-plated model of a G-H dropship, a still of the starchild from 2001, with Davies’ face in place of the bulbous head. Ju shoved aside a stack of reprintable paper and settled on a ledge next to a decorative moldfarm; Davies rested his squat bulk on a desk. READ MORE

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