I’m planted in a pleasant little office sipping coffee, trying to shake the hairy marshmallows out of my head. The drug is wearing off.
Still, to my eyes everything looks like a set of ghostly watercolors, some real, some imaginary, all running together into a gooey mess on a dirty canvas. I blink hard. I rub the smooth surface of the desk in front me with my hands, feeling the tips of my fingers drag against the plastic and listening to the burpy sound it makes. This is reality—I know because I can feel it with my fingers and hear it with my ears and see it with my eyes.
I think the coffee is hot. I feel the fluid flowing over my tongue and splashing against my cheeks and streaming down my throat and I’m certain that yes, indeed, it is hot and it is real. Is it burning my mouth? I don’t feel no dangling skin inside there but I got to be careful; pain is kind of an abstract to me right now.
Off in the corner of the room is a small sink. Probably for the med techs to wash their hands before inflicting some nastiness on guys like me. The water is much better up here in the offices than down where I live. I always carry a flask in my thigh pocket. I pop up and fill it, although I’m a mite wobbly and need to steady myself against the sink. I hold the flask up to the light: nothing floating in the water. Almost perfectly clear. Beautiful. I know someone who’d like a sip of this.
The door opens and in walks the doctor; I slip the flask back in my pocket as I sit back down. It’s Doctor Surya Kapoor. I smile when I recognize him. He’s a slender man with a dark, wide-eyed face always fixed in an expression between for interest and amusement. He and his wife—herself a medical doctor—are Shacktown’s best known couple. And of all the people in Shacktown, they’ve always been the kindest to me. I was with them when Pops left.
Dr. Kapoor holds out his hand and smiles. “Ah so very, very nice to see you, Straker,” he says.
I try to look normal, ignoring the galloping colors, as I stand and take his hand. “Hi Mister Doc. Me too, good seein’ ya. I didn’t know you was working for the Corps.”
“Oh, you know, I take what work I can get these days. Working for the Corps is very exciting, really. I enjoy it very much. Their methods of psychological testing are, shall we say, somewhat intense for the test subject. But they tell us a lot about candidates in a very, very short time.” He looks at his pad and smiles. “As you no doubt know!”
“I’m still coming down from it,” I say, taking another sip of the coffee.
Dr. Kapoor looks at his wristy. “Oh my yes, well, the drug should be metabolized by now, or it will be very shortly.” He sits down on a chair across the desk from me and clasps his hands together. “So, what was your impression of the tests?” he asks.
“The first one was terrible,” I say. “The second one was annoying. The third one was worse than the first.”
“Yes, yes, I see. Well, I have to tell you that I helped design the tests. I know they are not pleasant and I am very sorry. But the data we get is, well, quite thorough.”
“So did I pass?” I ask, hopefully.
“Oh yes, yes I think so. The data is being crunched by the computer right now but,” he winks, “I designed the grading algorithms too. You’ll pass.”
“Thanks Doc. Good to know.”
“Just by way of explanation…the first test was designed to watch you panic,” he continues, his right hand meandering as he speaks. “Sudden and dangerous things can happen in space, so we need to know what you’ll do. The helmet captured increased activity in your sympathetic nervous system during the event. That’s what causes the increase in heart rate and respiration—but in your case the disruption did not penetrate into your reasoning areas. You recovered quickly.”
“A pair of scissors in my eye,” I say. “Ouch. Hard to forget.”
“Yes, yes traumatic I’m sure. The second test looked at how you deal with people. It’s an important skill when you are isolated with a crew for long periods. It also served as a break between the first and third tests. The last test was a combination of how you handle isolation, how you think in an emergency, and you physical and situational awareness.”
“I thought I was going to die.”
“You were able to stop your fall; very impressive.”
I drain the now-tepid coffee and put down the cup. Seems like mumbo-jumbo to me, but I need the job. “So what now?”
“You will receive a physical examination. Mrs. Kapoor will be your physician. But first I just want to ask one question.”
“Shoot,” I say.
“Why do you want to join the Corps?”
I cogitate on that for a second or two. “Well for money, mostly,” I say.
“There are easier ways to make money, Straker,” he replies, his gaze steady and serious.
“Well, I guess I…I just want to get out of here,” I say. And that’s the truth. I hate Shacktown. I hate everybody in Shacktown, but for Mister Doctor and Missus Doctor and a couple of kids. And excepting for them, everyone hates me right back.
“Yes,” he says, nodding grimly, “I suspected it was something like that. I can’t say I blame you. Life out here for most people is hard. For you, well, I can’t imagine.”
“I been thinking about Pops lately,” I say, still a little stoned and asking the question before I can stop myself, “why do you think he did it?”
“Oh, my…” he says. The doctor tilts his head thoughtfully and waits before answering. Then he says, “I’ve asked myself this question many times. I thought your father was a good man. He fooled me too. He fooled Missus Kapoor. I assume it was for the easy life that the money would buy. I believe he must have had psychological issues also—issues that he kept well hidden.”
He seemed rock solid to me, but then I was just a kid.
“His issues may have started when the Cedar Seastead was taken over by the Alliance for Peace. When your mother was lost. He couldn’t help her; all he could do was save himself and his son. I’m sure it was a traumatic time.”
I’ve read about the old seastead back on the Marble. It’s where I was born. Now it’s part of the AFP—the Alliance For Peace. Pops was off on a trip at the time. They put my mom in prison, but not before she was able to bribe the right people to send me to Pops.
The doctor and I sit in an uncomfortable silence for a moment. I don’t know what to say and neither does he. I ain’t never thought about the effect of my mother’s capture on my father. But I don’t want to think about nothing that would let me forgive him. Dr. Kapoor lifts his eyebrows, puts his hands on his knees, and looks at me with a sad smile. “Well, I think your reasons are as good as any. I was hoping to hear that you wanted to go for the adventure, because it will be an adventure!”
I smile back. “I could use some adventure. Been stuck in Shacktown most my life.”
“Yes, yes, and now you will journey very far away, if you are in the crew.” He stands. “Well, we must keep moving. You need to get your physical. Very nice to see you again Straker, and good luck!”
We shake, he leaves, and I wait for his wife to come. The drugs are completely worn off now and there’s not much to look at in this sparse little room. But I don’t have time to get bored before Missus Doctor opens the door. Her name is Venecia Kapoor. Since both of them are doctors in their fields, folks have come to call them Mister Doctor and Missus Doctor.
“Hello, Straker,” she says. She’s a stout woman with a quiet, intelligent way about her, and a professional reputation that goes way beyond Shacktown. Besides her history with me and Pops, I’ve read about her in some of the magazines on the net. It’s cool to see someone you know on the cover of a big blog magazine. She leads me to an examination room, and we make small talk as she does the usual: blood pressure, checks my heart, urine sample, EKG; all that. Then there’s that part with the rubber glove that I don’t much care for.
There’s a knock on the door. I get my coveralls zipped up and Missus Doctor says come in and the door cracks. A woman peeks in, someone I don’t recognize. She says she has to run a quick errand and asks if Missus Doctor can look after Alia for a few moments. Missus Doctor says sure.
I ain’t seen Alia Kapoor for years. We played together when we were little, but stuff happened and we grew apart. In high school, she was very beautiful and athletic, and she cracked everybody up with her wicked sense of humor. Her lips were the kind that always seemed curled into a mischievous smile. She liked playing tricks but she hardly never got punished on account of the teachers thought she was funny too. But she was gone the last year of school. Rumor had it that she had gotten sick, couldn’t come to school no more, and as she is wheeled over and parked in the corner of the room, I can see that the rumors were true.
Whatever she’s got, it has devastated her. She leans to one side of her chair, her mouth open, her eyes glazed over looking into space, a blanket covering her legs and feet. She has lost all that athletic glow, reduced now to just skin and bones. “Hi Alia,” I say, trying to make conversation as I’m rolling down my sleeves after multiple needle jabs. “It’s been a long time.”
Alia don’t answer. Missus Doctor looks up from her pad, shakes her head and gives me a resigned smile. “She can’t hear you.”
Oh geez, I think to myself. And I think I’ve got problems. I’m curious but I ain’t gonna ask Missus Doctor. She’s got enough on her plate. How come it’s always the nice people that get screwed? I just can’t figure it. Only the Good Die Young, as the old song goes. Which means it’s stupid to be good, and good to be bad. Yup.
Missus Doctor reviews my medical history with me and then, finally, the tests are over. I’m glad to get out of that little room and take my seat back in the lobby alongside a couple of other candidates. Now I’m waiting again. I spend part of my time reading from my wristy, part of it resting my head against the wall, rewinding those weird psychological tests my mind although I’m trying not to.
Finally, the agent walks in; everybody looks up. “Straker Yuuta,” he says, looking at me. The other candidates drop their eyes to whatever they were doing. I stand and follow the agent down the hall to a large back office.
People are buzzing around coming and going, studying a set of large tabletop displays in the center of the room, which are complimented by a set of illuminated films on the walls. Displays show columns of numbers, orbital tracks, wireframe drawings of spaceship structures. I hear snippets of conversation over the din, words about food inventory, fuel purity, the state of a bad batch of mechanical parts that have been giving them trouble. Also a lot of talk about schedule. The agent and I take seats across a desk at the side of the room. He studies a pad resting on the desk in front of him.
“You actually stopped your fall during the third test?” he asks. “I didn’t think the simulation would allow stopping. It’s the first time I’ve seen anybody do that.”
“Hurt like anything,” I say. Does he think I cheated somehow?
“Hmm,” he grunts, and goes on reading. After a couple of minutes, he slides the pad to the side and looks at me. “Well, I can’t fault your coursework or your written test. Your physical exam went OK. I’m not sure about your psych tests—you can make what you want from them, but nothing stands out as a red flag. The algorithms say you’re within acceptable ranges. I frankly don’t understand those things. But…”
Here it comes.
“Here’s the thing, Yuuta. There is a lot riding on this mission. It may be the most important one yet, although we won’t know for sure until the ship gets closer to the target. Trusting someone named Yuuta on a mission like that?” He shakes his head. “I have a responsibility here. I just can’t, I mean…” He stops there, mid-sentence.
I know what he’s going to say; why don’t he say it? I’m all set to bitch and threaten, beg even, just as I figured I’d have to. I rehearsed that in my head for weeks knowing that this moment would come eventually. But he ain’t even looking at me. He’s looking past me and off to his side, eyes open in wide circles. Then, suddenly he stands. What’s going on? I wonder.
I turn and look where he’s looking. A sleek, mature woman in a black Corps flight suit strides in, concentrating on a pad alight with messages, bustling through the room with a trajectory towards an adjoining office. The stripes on her sleeves mark her as a ship’s captain. A commander is following her in lockstep, talking to her in urgent but quiet tones. He looks over our way, then taps her on the shoulder. She stops and looks up from her pad. The commander whispers in her ear, and they both look towards us, first at the agent, then at me. The woman’s face is thin, with bright eyes framed by deeply wrinkled lids and short wisps of gray hair. Her eyes linger on me just a millisecond longer than I would have expected. She takes a few steps towards us.
“Good cycle, Captain,” the agent says, nodding. “I was just…”
“The boy is in,” she says flatly.
“Uh, yes but uh do you know who he is? We both have to think about the investors. And with all due respect Captain, it is my job to, to…” The agent stutters and stops again. Now this has got to be the most interesting bit of body language I ever seen. The woman stands poised solid, one eyebrow up, her light eyes fixed on the agent. She says nothing more. The pale skin of the agent’s face flushes to a vivid red. “Of course Captain. As you say.”
The woman pivots and marches on without another glance or word, her short gray hair pushing a little breeze my way as it whips around to catch its owner. The commander catches up to her and they both leave the room. Wow. She ain’t somebody to piss off.
“Spaceman Recruit, it’s all you qualify for,” sighs the agent as he sits back down in his chair, scratching his forehead. “It’s for the asteroid ship Allgood.”
“I’ll take it,” feeling an involuntary grin stretch my face.
He shoots me a look that says I can’t believe I got to give this slot to the likes of you. But then he gets business-like. “Next cycle, oh-six hundred sharp, muster at the embarkation port, no excuses. You’re allowed one small personal bag, no more. Everything else will be provided. As a recruit you’ll receive indoctrination and training en route. The contract particulars will be messaged to you, and you’ll need to read, agree to and sign the ship’s articles before tomorrow.”
“So where is she going?”
“Afraid I can’t say,” he says as he pokes at the pad with quick, precise movements. “Truthfully, I don’t even know. Briefing on the mission won’t occur until you are in flight. Nobody knows where she’s going until you’re under way. All I know is, it’s big.” He moves closer and lowers his voice. “Wouldn’t want Nifty Jim to get there before us, would we?” He holds up the pad for me to sign.
I sign and nod. “Copy that.”
The Corps has become more and more secretive on account of increasing tensions between the colonies. Of course they don’t want Nifty Jim to know anything. Nifty Jim means Malapert and Malapert means Alliance. The AFP ships are faster and better just like everything else they got. It ain’t all casinos and swimming pools, it’s way bigger than Malapert: it’s an empire.
The only advantage Shacktown has is the Big Scope. It can see farther and better than anything else in the solar system. Shacktown can spot juicy stroids quicker, analyze them better, and put together a mission before Nifty Jim even knows what’s coming. I’ll bet he’d do most anything for a little info. But I’m trusting Marshal Baumann to keep his trap shut.
* * * * *
After all that, I’m starved. I’m back down in the cold corridors, headed towards Corr D and the main cafeteria. I feel the hum of the sidewalk through my boots as I lean on the handrail, watching the people and the wall graffiti sliding by, feeling victorious that I will be leaving this hell-hole. I see a mother hen with a clutch of a half-dozen noisy little chicks pecking around for scraps when I’m reminded that there’s a couple of kids I want to see. I get off the sidewalk at the junction to Corr D.
I hear the sound echoing loudly against the rocky walls well before I even enter the corr. I walk a short ways and take the turn into the Children’s Home cave. There’s an area out front where kids are allowed to play—where I played not too many years back. The place smells like a mix of construction paste and sweat.
I sit on the ground, propping my back against the wall, and just watch for a few minutes. It’s not long before I’m recognized; the volunteer minding the children spies me from across the chamber. I don’t recognize her, but I know she recognizes me because she gives me the look. I just stay fixed where I am. They can kick me out if they want but I ain’t gonna leave until I see who I came for. It’s not long until they spot me too.
“Straker,” comes a boy’s voice. He runs towards me with his ball in his hands. He’s about the age I was when Pops and I left Earth, with a mop of curly black hair and a mind that questions everything, his dirty white uniform shirt half in, half out of his shorts. Both of his parents died a couple of years ago when a hole opened up and leaked out all the air back in what used to be Corr F. I was one of the older kids at the Home at the time, on my way out.
The folks at the Home knew I was running with a gang of toughs and they didn’t want me around no more. A little break-in here, some shoplifting there, taking opportunities when they popped up. It was a way to get by. I ain’t proud of that. I was bad but I was never a bully; never roughed nobody up, never. I figured out on my own that I was headed down the wrong path, moved out, got a job, and tried real hard to get respectable. Still trying.
Anyways there was a leak and some people died, but Mason and his twin sister survived and came to the Home. They were so small and pitiful; I couldn’t help but feel sorry for them. I shared my rations and my water and before long they started to like me. Which is good and also bad. Don’t want to get too close but can’t stay away neither. “Hi Mason,” I say, squeezing his shoulders. “You playing soccer today?”
“Yea,” he replies, breathlessly. He turns back towards the others. “Hey Macy,” he yells in his impossibly high pitch, “Straker’s here!”
She splits off from the others and runs towards us, leaving her four-square game, chalk still in her hand. “Whatcha doin’ Straker?” she asks, her mop of hair just as thick as Mason’s but neatly arranged into a pony tail, her uniform primly tucked into her shorts.
“Well,” I reply. “I’ll tell you. But first I just happen to have a little something here for you two to split.” I reach into my thigh pocket and pull out the flask, still full of clear water.
“Wow!” says Mason.
“Double wow!” adds Macy, her eyes wide. “That’s the best! It’s like, it’s so clear, so clear that you can’t even see it hardly!”
“Drink up,” I say, handing the flask to Mason. “Remember, you have to split it.”
Mason takes the flask from my hand and holds it up to the light. He considers the fluid carefully, then holds his index finger at a point on the flask. He looks to his sister, who nods in solemn agreement that yes, indeed, that is the half-full point. Mason hands the flask to his sister, who drinks heartily. “I’m learning tunnel soccer,” he says. “They want me to play goalie but I want to run.”
“Goalie is a tough position,” I say. “it’s hard on Earth where they play in big open fields, but it’s even harder in a tunnel.”
“I want to learn to run up on the ceiling,” Mason says.
“You’re gonna fall!” declares Macy, now done with her half of the water, licking every precious drop from her chapped little lips, handing the flask to her brother.
“Not if I run fast enough, I won’t,” replies Mason.
“Just you be sure you practice that in an actual soccer tunnel,” I say. “You will fall if you trip. You gotta have smooth walls.”
“See?” says Macy to her brother, hands on her hips in triumph. Mason is drinking. He shrugs without answering.
“Listen,” I say. “I need to tell you guys something. I’m going on an excursion. I won’t be back for a few months.”
“What?” says Macy, her face furrowed in concern. “Where you going?”
“I lost my job today, so I took a new one. I’m going to an asteroid. On a spaceship.”
“Wow, that’s the best! A real spaceship!” says Mason, handing the empty flask back to me.
“Really?” asks Macy. “So you won’t come see us no more?” Her face is turning puffy.
That’s what I was afraid of. Their reaction; my reaction to their reaction. I ain’t crazy about leaving them neither. I stand up. I hug Macy and stroke her head. “Just for a few months. Then I’ll bring you a treat. Better than water even.”
Macy buries her face in my shirt. “I’ll miss you,” she says.
There’s that feeling again. I pull away from her. “I’ll send you messages from the ship. Just remember I’m your friend for always.” Mason is standing by himself, looking dejected. He never was as talkative as his sister but the pain and insecurity on his face is plain to see. I pull him in to the hug too, and for a while the three of us stand there locked together in silence. I know how abandoned they feel; it’s exactly how I felt. First their parents, now me.
They look so small and unhappy as I look back, walking out to the corridor. My gut feels like there’s a jagged rock punching through. But I keep going; I have to. Like Old Tanner says, life is a crap sandwich. The sooner they learn that, the better off they’ll be.
* * * * *
“So, I was told you got in,” says Marshal Baumann, pulling back a chair and sitting down at the table with me. “Congratulations.” His casual jumpsuit looks freshly washed. His badge shines on the left side of his chest as he leans forward in the chair, expectantly.
“Yup,” I say, washing down the last of my sandwich with a gulp of flat soda. It’s been a long, trying day and all I want to do is eat and hit the rack. Everything is going to change for me tomorrow and I need to get an early start. But now here’s Baumann again, his scrubbed face smiling at me from across the table, like a bright red wart that won’t go away no matter how much you cut on it.
“Well, that’s good Straker,” he says, “very good. When is the launch?”
“We sally early tomorrow,” I say. “I gotta hit the sack in a bit.”
He nods. “Oh, of course. Of course you do. I just wanted to remind out about our little agreement.”
“I ain’t forgotten. But I gotta say, the Corps seems mighty concerned with keeping things secret from Malapert.”
“Of course they are! We in government respect that. But we do have a job to do, and that means we have to watch and make sure everything is on the up and up—keep everyone on a level playing field. You understand that, don’t you Straker?”
“Yup, I get it,” I say, “But you promise to keep everything secret from Nifty Jim and his people, right?”
“Nifty Jim?” he says, with a dismissive chuckle. “I would no more tell Nifty Jim than I would tell the man in the moon!”
It’s stuff like that remind me that Marshal Baumann spent most of his life on Earth. The man in the moon? Just one man? Ain’t we all men in the moon? Dumb. Baumann looks around furtively, then once satisfied that nobody is watching, pulls out a medication bottle from his pocket. He hands it to me. “What am I supposed to do with this?” I ask, studying the bottle. “Don’t need no pills.”
“No, no, and keep your voice down,” says the marshal, pushing my hand with the bottle down out of sight. “Put your own medication in there. It’s not the pills that matter, it’s the bottle itself. It has circuitry inside; it’s a communication device. I’ll send instructions to your wristy. The file will by encrypted, use the key ‘all is good’, spelled out as one word.
“Allgood, all is good. I get it.” The bottle looks completely ordinary. Somebody went to a lot of trouble to make it. I put it in my pocket. “Hope you don’t get me killed,” I say.
He shakes his head and gives me a friendly smile. “Oh Straker, nobody is getting killed. And you won’t get caught anyway. Once you’ve got the run of the ship, there will be plenty of opportunities to transmit. Just remember, a new life is waiting for you. When you get back, we will set you up and you’ll never have to come back to this godforsaken town again.”
“Yea,” I say, nodding. “No inquest, right?”
“Told I’d handle it,” he says.
“OK,” I say, “I reckon that’s it then.”
We shake hands. Baumann stands and looks around one last time. “Good luck, Straker. And remember, you’re doing the right thing,” he says, as he adjusts the color-coordinated handkerchief in his jacket pocket.
“Yea,” I say. The marshal walks off. I feel like I’ve made a deal with the devil but it’s kind of a way of life here in Shacktown. I snarf down the last of my dinner and leave also. My quarters are about 10 minutes away by foot, down Corr G, then turn left and into a narrow, darker passage and through the door to the bachelor’s quarters. Cold rock walls, small rooms, bunkbeds, nasty common hoohouse. That’s a bathroom in earthspeak—the kinda room where you sit and do your business and then say hoo that was a good one and then you clear out for a good long time on account of the airflow is just short of suffocation. No roommates since the last guy got a job at a blast furnace and moved to Tycho. He was smart.
I pack up a personal backpack with all my stuff—which ain’t much—and putter around for a bit. I read the stuff that’s come to my wristy and sign the ship’s articles specifying the agreement. When I’m finally ready for bed, I do what I always do to keep the demons away: pick up my little guitar and play it until my eyes become heavy. I play until my mind is clear and calm and ready for sleep.
In the morning it will be next to me on the bed like the lover I’ve never had.