The shuttle fell through the layers of the atmosphere. Blue and Gold flames licked across the view ports from the friction of entry. Jonathan Honor forgot to breath as he watched the flames dance around his window. He slid one of his tan gloved hands across the view port, feeling as though he might actually touch it through the glass. Instead he only managed to temporarily remove the faint reflection of his dark hair and blue eyes.
When the flames cut out they were replaced the multicolor swirl of gasses that made up the second layer of the gas giant’s atmosphere. It was like looking into a thick gold and red fog. Jonathan could still see the shuttle’s wings but only barely. The eddies of the gasses just in front of the wing, where they were being parted and pushed away by the craft itself, fascinated him. The man in the seat next to him spared only a glance out the window, then went back to tapping out messages on his small business computer.
A serene voice played through the cabin, “We have entered the atmosphere of Andora. Our course takes us across the rim of the Scilian Downdraft, so expect some light turbulence. We’ll be arriving at Good Hope in a little under three hours.” As he looked around Jonathan could see the eta slide across the display of those who had brought projected screen computers. A slight twinge of envy made him frown as he rubbed the point on his belt where a computer of his own would have been if he had one.
Far in front of him he noticed a woman wearing the pale blue uniform of a spacer guild member enter the cabin. She moved from row to row, entering polite conversation with the passengers and taking note of any pressing needs they might have. When she made it to his row, she placed a steadying hand on the luggage bar and leaned in to speak to him. “Are you doing okay?”
Jonathan smiled up to her, “Yeah, this is grand! I mean, do you see this every time?” His excited tone seemed to penetrate the businessman’s bubble of working solitude earning them both a scowl of disapproval.
The woman looked sheepish for a half second, but soon grinned back at Jonathan. “Well, not every time, but it is why I like these colony runs. Interstellar Navigators don’t get much time out of the navigation pit unless we’re in atmosphere.”
“So you’re a navigator? You must have been everywhere!” He said.
“Hah, I wish. I’ve got a destination list a mile long, and I’m adding new places faster than I scratch the old ones off. But, yeah, I’ve been a few places.” She smiled as she talked. “This is your first time traveling more than a light-year right?”
The fourteen year old nodded, “The deliverer guild is all in-atmosphere. It’s our sister guild, the courier guild, that handles deliveries in space.”
“You know, if it’s that interesting, you can change guilds at sixteen…” She trailed off.
He smiled and looked out the window. “No, I mean this is just… amazing. But I’ve got something even better waiting for me. I’m going to join Kokkusawa!” He said.
She whistled and raised her eyebrows, “Kokkusawa!? Wow kid, didn’t know I was talking to a prodigy.” She laughed, “Well it was worth a shot. Good luck with the apprenticeship. Keep up the fight!”
The businessman was outright glaring now, but he couldn’t defeat either of their smiles. Jonathan went back to looking out the window as the navigator moved on to the next row. Three hours and he’d be arriving at his new home. He knew he should probably get a nap before they arrived, but there was no way the excitement was going to let him sleep.
Jonathan watched in awe as the shuttle slid out of the clouds and into the bubble of atmosphere that housed the colony. All around the outside clouds of red and purple roiled and twisted, constantly shifting along the edges. In the center of the open space rested the colony of Good Hope. It’s shell of dark blue and bright white panels shone brightly, back lit by the station’s lights. It had the shape of an old time ocean going vessel, long with a v shaped bottom. A main control tower jutted up from the center of the colony vessel.
As they got closer it’s scale became more apparent. It had been one thing to read about it being a mile long, entirely another to experience that fact. The control tower was soon looking less like a tower, and more like a vertical city all it’s own. The sparse dots that had surrounded it like a swarm of insects slowly came into focus as the vehicles of hundreds of people going about their business in the colony.
Their shuttle glided alongside the behemoth vessel for a while, allowing Jonathan to get a good look at the walls of the colony. Seen up close the bright panels had signs of wear and degradation around the edges. Where at times there was an opening people could be seen sitting from open doorways, or hanging from long suspension lines as they did maintenance on the outside of the colony. After a few minutes the shuttle pulled up rising towards a dome to one side of the tower city.
They slowed as they came into their approach, a short runway hanging off the side of the ship lighting up for them. The cabin voice returned, “We are coming in for a landing. Expected forces five Gs, please harness yourself appropriately.” Jonathan checked his harness, ensuring it was tightly in place. The cabin lights flickered then turned green to signal the start of the landing sequence.
Landing was a rough process, more than he could have been prepared for. Almost as soon as the wheels of the shuttle hit the runway the port’s force web caught it. The small force webs within their harnesses kept them from feeling the full forces of the battle going on between the shuttle’s momentum and the force web that was attempting to stop it. Still Jonathan felt himself being pressed back into the soft seat with an incredible force. A moment later their momentum was under control and the force disappeared. As one the passengers leaned forwards gasping for breath.
“I hate landings.” The businessman said between gasping breaths.
“We have now arrived at Good Hope Colony Spaceport. Please wait while we establish a connection with the terminal.” A long, white, shrouded walkway slid out of the wall of the spaceport and slowly drifted towards the shuttle. After a few long minutes it found the shuttle’s exit hatch, several long tubes along it’s outside spun clockwise securing the two together. “Our connection has been established, please proceed in good order to the exit hatch. And remember, polite behavior makes the experience more enjoyable for everyone.”
They all set about unlocking their harnesses and removing them. People stood and moved towards the exit, milling about somewhat after the shock of landing. A few people slid around the crowds to talk to their friends, but they were careful to stay out of the way for those that were looking to immediately get off. For his own part Jonathan found a place in the line exiting the shuttle.
The co-pilot stood by the exit hatch, personally shaking the hands of people as they passed by. A woman in a business suit slid past the disembarking passengers, coming from the other direction. He only caught a brief look at her as she passed by the co-captain and headed straight to the cockpit. It only took a few minutes for the slowly moving line to meander out into the terminal.
A staff member was walking up the line, quickly performing a cursory retinal scan and a medical scan. Looking around he realized that the uniform was standard across all the staff, a powder blue dress that came down to the knees, white stockings, blue heels made of solid plasticine. Their makeup was all immaculate as well, with blue eye liner, lipstick and nail polish. When the woman working the scanner got to him he could see that she was more of an older teen, seventeen or eighteen, than an adult. She took the scans quickly, quietly thanked him for his patience and moved on to the next person in line.
As he got a good look around he realized the spaceport was really rather empty. Rather than being swarmed with people, small clumps gathered here and there. Other than a few groups greeting people as they came off the shuttle, most of the people seemed to be business people meeting with members of the port worker guild. All four of the info kiosks were empty, allowing him instant access. “Kokkusawa Apprentice Dorms.” The kiosk gave him a quick map overview, drawing a route for him. “Thanks.”
“You’re welcome.” The automated voice replied, surprising him.
He was thinking about the supposed route he needed to take as he walked out of the terminal and got his first ground side look at the colony. The terminal exited to a small business park that rested just below the towers. Even craning his neck all the way he couldn’t quite see the tops of the towers. To his left there was a collection of low buildings, on his right the surface seemed relatively level with only a few buildings all the way out to edge of the colony. According to the route he needed to turn left here. The dorms were on the underside of the vessel, but the route down had looked convoluted. For a while though it said to stick to the surface, so he set off towards the buildings.
The reality of the surface streets was far different from what he’d imagined. People milled about in impressive numbers in this region, at least a thousand were within his direct view. Bright lights just off the street level lit everything from below in shades of white and blue. Occasionally a building would have graffiti scrawled across it, but it wasn’t like the signatures left by disaffected teenagers back on Earth. Each instance was a mural or work of art in it’s own right, calling out in brilliant colors to be viewed. There was a staggered street market with service workers in short skirts and mini tops hawking their wares or services to anyone passing by.
One of the shops sold tattoo nanites, another a colorful selection of artificial lifeforms to keep on your personal computer. A few had personal computers of all kinds of colors and models, with prices ranging from impressively cheap to downright exploitative. One caught his eye that sold personal computers with custom artistic details already applied. As he got further in he started to notice that each street seemed to have it’s own specialty. The busiest streets had food vendors, though which caused the other was anyone’s guess. His stomach growled to him reminding him that he needed to eat. A familiar smell stopped him in his tracks, and he followed it to a small stall selling backed potatoes.
“What can I get for you kiddo?” The older teen standing at the stall said. Jonathan stopped for a moment to take him in, he was tall and thin as a rake, wearing a downright scandalous mini-skirt with long fishnet stockings and stiletto heels. Even his top was little more than a band of cloth to cover his pecks. “What’s the matter, you haven’t seen a service worker before?”
“Ahh, I’m from Earth,” he explained with a mild blush.
“Oh, how cute. Just off the shuttle are you? We don’t have to worry about the big freeze around here, so you’re going to have to get used to seeing people wear a lot less.” He said.
Jonathan adjusted the collar of his coat suddenly realizing it was terribly warm here. “Do you take ret scans?” He asked, as he salivated at the sight of a tin wrapped potato cooking on the grill.
“I don’t have a reader… although, that looks like a Deliverer’s Guild uniform, you coming here to join a company?” The salesperson asked.
“Yeah, I got an apprenticeship at Kokkusawa.” Jonathan told him excitedly.
“Kokkusawa, huh. I know someone at Kokkusawa, I can just bill it to their tab.” He grabbed a flat wooden fork from a small bin on the side and used it to maneuver an uncooperative potato onto a plate. He handed the plate and fork to Jonathan, “My name is Mikael, sweetie. What’s yours?”
“Jonathan,” he replied and blew on the potato to cool it off. “Jonthan Honor.”
“So tell me, Mr. Honor, do you know the way down to the dorms?” Mikael asked with a wry grin.
“I saw the map at the information kiosk, but honestly I can’t remember it very well now.” Jonathan said.
Mikael turned his grill off, “In that case, how about I give you the gawker’s tour of Lower Good Hope and drop you off at the dorms afterward?”
“Won’t you get in trouble for losing sales?” Jonathan asked.
“Ha, nowhere near as much trouble I’d get in for letting you wander off lost. Trust me, my aunt would kill me. I’ll survive a reprimand, and sales have been good lately. I think I can afford a bit of time off.” Mikael gave him a quirky grin and waited patiently for him to finish eating before guiding him out into the city.
After a few minutes of walking they came to a plaza with cafe’s lining the outside and single massive tree growing in the center. “This is De Garo’s plaza. Named for Lorn De Garo who was responsible for doing the chemical survey of Andora. Life in the lower quarters pretty much revolves around this place. Stay here long enough and you’ll meet everyone who’s anyone around here.” Mikael made grand gestures as he talked, like the spokesperson from a tourism ad. Jonathan felt impressed, the buildings here were visibly different, many built or at least faced with brick and stone rather than the pretender steel that everything else was made of. The strains of amateur love ballads saturated the air from musicians wooing girls and setting the mood for couples enjoying the plaza.
Mikael took him down what looked like a series of side allies next. Eventually they exited on a surprisingly quiet street. The street looked out on the edge of the vessel. A series of platforms hung over the edge for observers to get a better feel for the view. Despite the silence, there was at least a hundred people on the street. Some were drawing or painting, others writing. A few of them even seemed to be just meditating as they basked in the incredible view of the gasses swirling around them.
“The view here draws in all sorts of people. Sometimes I come up here and just watch it all go on around me. Someone once told me the winds across the outside edge are in the range of a hundred-fifty miles per hour.” Mikael said. Off in the distance a large ship floated serenely into the cloud bank disappearing in a few moments. “And their goes our main industry. They’ll go a ways out to find the really good stuff and trawl the clouds for industrial gasses.”
“And they do this every day?” Jonathan asked.
“Nah, they only go out once a week or so. The total need is filled so the manufacturing guild doesn’t pay for more than a couple expeditions a month. The other times it’s usually privately funded and looking for more exotic gasses. But it pays well, kept this place floating for the first fifty years pretty much single handedly. These days we’re a lot more self-reliant around here, so there’s even less need for them to keep going out.” Mikael explained.
Jonathan nodded, but something caught his eye. He turned to look up into the sky, such as it was. Far above his head there was lonely patch of blue sky at the very top of the bubble. “Wow… What’s that?” He aked, pointing towards it.
Mikael followed his finger to where he was pointing at and laughed. “The contained atmosphere has moisture gathering at the top. That’s why it’ll rain every once in a while. There’s a sun mirror in synchronous orbit with us, it transmits down sunlight through the clouds even if it’s not much. The sunlight hits the very top and passes through the moisture and oxygen giving us a small area of blue sky. Anyways enough science lecture, this is our next stop.” He pointed to a small circular alcove.
Mikael pushed him in then crammed himself in behind him. A wave of Mikael’s hand brought up a holographic console, and with the press of a button they were sliding downward in a transparent tube. The interior of the colony was it’s own mass of wonders. White and Blue cargo containers were lined up in semi-ordered rows, sometimes just one, sometimes as much as four wide. Each row was stacked nearly to the rafters. Cloth bridges and long flat sections of metal connected stacks to each other. As the elevator got lower he could see people milling about, entering and exiting containers, going about the typical activities of life.
“People live in those?” Jonathan asked, more impressed than ever.
“Yeah, I live in that one.” Mikael pointed to a section of containers almost hidden from view. “If you aren’t from the guilds or have some real credit to throw down on a place, you tend to wind up here. The original cargo containers brought to the city were designed for use as building materials, so they’re surprisingly cozy.”
“Am I going to live in one of those?” Jonathan asked, perhaps a bit too excited.
“Nah, you’re a guild kid. The guilds all have their own housing, usually as part of their overall complex.” Mikael ruffled his hair.
Jonathan huffed at him, but then they passed below the level the container city was on. Immediately below seemed to be workshops set aside for making or fixing things on demand. Partway down the elevator stopped, and the wall behind them rotated to the other side of the elevator. Mikael herded him out of the elevator and into a long narrow corridor. It was kept in surprisingly good repair, with a working a holographic directory on the wall ahead of them. “Come on, this way,” Mikael started off down the corridor. To their left.
Jonathan got a quick look at the directory, to confirm their location then hurried to catch up to Mikael. “So do you come down here a lot?”
Mikael just shrugged, “Sometimes. It’s not my favorite place in the world, but it’s a place.”
They passed by a lot of closed doors and even most of the open ones only opened to unlit rooms. Jonathan caught a few of the name plates that boldly announced the purpose of each room. “High Pressure Cleaning”, “Gatherer Maintenance”, “Android Repair”, the last gave Jonathan a moment’s pause. “You guys have androids around here?”
“Not in any significant numbers, they’re mostly used on the collection ship and it just left.” Mikael said. His eyes caught on the door and lit up. “You want to see what’s going on, I could probably get us a peek inside.” Jonathan didn’t need to say a word, the naked hero worship in his eyes was enough. Mikael rapped on the door a couple times and they waited.
After a long while a blond woman in disheveled overalls opened the door, “Yes?”
“I was just giving my friend here a look around the colony and we noticed you guys were in Android repair. Do you think we could take a peek inside and see what goes down?” Mikael asked easily.
“I don’t know…” she said, “Shanky, there’s some people here want to see you work.”
“I’m coming, I’m coming,” another woman said. When she appeared behind the first woman they were almost startling in their differences. Shanky was at least a head taller, her figure full and her pixie cut hair pitch black. Though at least they wore the same basic overalls. “Mikael! Didn’t expect to see you here, come on in!”
“Oh hey, Shanky, if I knew this was your place I’d have just come on in.” Mikael said throwing an arm around Jonathan and guiding him in.
The room was white walled with a gray floor but the walls were hardly barren. A wide array of tools of many different shapes and colors covered the wall. Jonathan’s eyes instantly locked on an older model android sitting against a nearby wall. It’s gold and maroon husk informed that it was a construction unit, but even so it had the unique sleek and trim look that separated androids from more basic robots.
“Is that a model A-24?” Jonathan asked.
Shanky grinned and walked over to it, “Well it’s an A-23 technically, but the regulator was jury rigged from a 24 so it looks more like one of the 24s now. She’s been having trouble lifting more than a few hundred pounds, I’m thinking back problems.”
“Those are kind of rare for 23s aren’t they? I mean it’s a lot sturdier built than the G-2s or the A-28s that they’re making these days.” Jonathan leaned over the android to get a better view.
“Uncommon but still possible. Out here on the colonies there is also a lot more overuse and people are quicker to order them to do things beyond their specs.” Shanky leaned in to point out a few of the problem parts.
For his part Mikael just stood at a distance watching the enthusiasts get down and dirty. “I take you aren’t as excitable?” He asked the blond.
“No.” She said. After a few seconds it became clear she wasn’t going to elaborate further.
“All right stand back,” Shanky said surprising him.
“Hmm, what’s going on?” Mikael asked.
“We’re going to watch her do some spot surgery on the spine,” he positively beamed.
“Oh great…” The blond rolled her eyes and turned to a small workbench pointedly ignoring the proceedings.
Shanky took a seat in a large chair, a holographic interface building up in front of her. As she tapped a few buttons robotic arms slid down from the ceiling and positioned themselves around the android. The bindings on the android moved, quickly flipping it over to allow access to the back. One of the robotic arms turned and connected to a tool on the wall, gently lifting it out for use. In this case it was a large socketed opening. She removed one bolt at a time from the androids back casing until it was only lightly resting in place. The other arm grabbed the edge and removed it, placing it on a nearby table for use later. The first arm replaced it’s tool and both grabbed long gun-like extensions.
Jonathan couldn’t tear his eyes away as they came back over the droid. The larger extension lit up indicating it’s invisible laser was active. There was a squealing of metal from the android’s spine as it expanded under the heat of the laser. The second came in perpendicular to the first. A massively zoomed in view could be seen in the chair’s interface as the view skimmed across the metal of the spinal connectors. For a few moments they found nothing. Mikael was even starting to wonder if the diagnosis had been correct when the view came to a stop on a trio of small faults in one of the last two vertebrae. Shanky crowed out in victory.
The smaller laser fired in a visible green beam melting away the metal while a tiny cup extension caught the drip. After a few seconds it went up to change extension again. The view zoomed in further to show a single frayed wire that had been hidden under the scored housing. A tiny blade cut away the wire on either side of the fray. Wire extended out to a length that could replace the damage the base of the arm which it grasped then cut off. It held the wire under the large laser until it began to wilt then placed it in the hole in the wire. Holding it in place the edges melted together, prompting it to deactivate the heating laser.
It changed back to the laser attachment and poured the still gooey metal back into place on the vertebrae. The other arm placed a blocky extension over it, acting as a temporary mold. Shanky reclined back in the chair and looked over, “Well, how was it?”
“Incredible!” Jonathan replied. He looked at the walls again, “Are these all robotic extensions?”
“Most of them. There are a few hand tools for when I just want to wail on something, but the big stuff is all for the arms.” Shanky grinned to them.
Mikael gave them a few more minutes to chatter on about the details, then nudged Jonathan. “We’ve still got to get you to the dorms, remember?”
“Oh right,” Jonathan agreed. “Thank you again for letting me watch. This was great!”
“No problem, try and stop by from time to time. There aren’t many enthusiasts around here. Even within the guild,” she said. The blond gave a belabored sigh in response to the not so subtle jab.
“All right, I will. Bye!” Jonathan followed Mikael back out into the hall.
They walked along in a comfortable silence for a few minutes.
It wasn’t more than a few minutes later that they wandered into the Kokkusawa complex. A man dressed in a tan uniform and wearing a pair of thin framed glasses sat behind a large desk in the center of the main room. From the look of things he was comparing a pair of ledgers and moving some transactions off to fit by themselves. “Mikael, what brings you here?” He asked. “Or rather, is that our newest recruit there behind you?”
“I found him topside a little lost, figured my aunt would prefer it if he found his way here.” Mikael said.
“What do you mean it arrived two hours ago!? Where is he!” A woman shouted from the other room.
“Then you two had better go in now, I’d hate to see what she’ll do once she gets worked up.” He said looking back down at his ledgers.
“That’s not worked up?” Jonathan whispered to Mikael.
“Nope.” He answered. The older boy guided him into the side room the shouting had come from. The woman he found there surprised him. Even with her hair teased up into a tight bun on top of her head she still wasn’t more than an inch or two taller than him. Her hair was mostly brilliant orange but creeping lines of stark white were beginning to invade it.
“Aunt Margret?” Mikael tried to catch her attention.
“Not right now, Mikael, I’m busy.” She said.
“Looking for the new guy, right?” Mikael asked.
“That’s right.” She repeat, then stopped. “Wait, how did you know that?” She finally turned around to see both of them. “Oh.”
“Well, I think I’ve done my good deed for the day. I’ll be out of here.” Mikael made good on his words and slipped out before anything more could be said.
The woman fumed at her nephew for a moment longer then turned to face her charge. “Jonathan Honor, I presume?”
“Yeah, that’s me.” He said.
She looked him over for a moment then opened her desk and pulled out a small transparent rectangle with a black dot in the center. She passed the bit of plastic to him, “this is a computer slip, it’ll get you any personal computer at the black level. You’ll have four days to square things away before you’re thrown onto the duty roster, getting a personal computer and familiarizing yourself with it is priority number one. Out here things can change in seconds, a sudden gust from the Great Barrier and we could drift five miles off course in a moment. A storm changes direction and we may need to ground everyone immediately. Never neglect your physical conditioning, on any given day you may be running more than riding. But as I was saying, your personal computer is your only chance of keeping up with the changes, and that can mean life and death out here.”
He took the slip and nodded as she spoke, making mental notes. “My name is Margret Gwain, that’ll be master Gwain to you for a while at least. Our first year apprentices room with our Journeymen, it solves a lot of problems with hazing and fraternization before it even begins. In you’re case, that would be room C. The dorms are across the foyer and up the stairs.” She shooed him from the room then quickly went back to making and taking calls.
With only a moment of confusion he followed her directions and quickly found and ascended the stairs. To his surprise rather than being rooms simply designated in order, each rooms letter was written on it with some kind of black marker and they weren’t in any particular order. He passed rooms X, F, G and A before even going halfway down the hall. Room C as it turned out was one of the very last rooms, sharing the honor with room H which was across the hall from it. He knocked briefly, but got no response. He cautiously opened the door and walked in.
Inside he could hear the shower running in the attached bathroom. One bed had a uniform strewn across it along with a bevy of rider’s gear, while the other had the luggage that was supposed to be delivered to him on it. Divining which one was his he sat down on the bed and let himself relax from the excitement of his day. His eyes begun to scan the room, taking in the environment suit that marked his roommate as one of the elite Stormriders who assisted with search and rescue on top of their delivery duties. Then his eyes fell on the picture of her with her parents on either side.
Wait, my roommate is a girl? He thought. Realizing the shower had stopped running he instinctively looked towards the bathroom door. It opened before he could realize what was about to happen and she walked out completely naked except for the towel draped around her neck.
A scream filled the room.