Chapter One: If Bubbles Had Bones
The Flip of a Coin
Chapter One: If Bubbles Had Bones
Captain Haleola Kitewhetu stared hard at her first officer, sure he was about to pass out.
“Dave?” she asked, low enough that only he could hear.
“I’m OK,” he said. “I can do this.” He swayed momentarily but stayed on his feet.
At the opposite end of the long aisle, the double doors opened and the music swelled. Every head turned, and the audience stood en masse to see Tagata, resplendent in a sleek white gown, standing there on her father’s arm.
Dave swayed again and Haleola reached out to steady him.
“Did you feel that?” he asked. “Something with the gravity…did we just lose spin?”
Haleola chuckled, and kept a hand on his arm. “The station is fine. You’re fine. You’ve been planning this for three years now and postponed it twice. It’s about time we got to the actual wedding.”
Dave wobbled three more times before Haleola pronounced them husband and wife, but his knees never actually buckled. Tagata, forever poised, caught him the third time and positioned herself under his arm so she could support him.
The reception was low-key and classy, obviously Tagata’s doing. If Dave had been allowed to plan they would have been sitting around watching the live feed from whichever teams were playing for the world cup that day, eating whatever greasy food they could poke with a toothpick.
“Not quite as big affair as your wedding,” came a voice from Hal’s right and significantly over her head. She turned to see a face that was vaguely familiar, leaning slightly and smiling down at her.
Haleola did a quick calculation in her head. An image of the seven dwarves flashed through her mind, stopping on Doc. Her brain recalled an image of the dwarf named Doc stepping in something unpleasant and saying “ick.”
“Dr. Ikabe,” Haleola said, stepping back so she wouldn’t have to strain her neck to make eye contact. She searched her mental files, but the only information she had was that he was a friend or business associate of her late husband.
His skin is so very dark, she thought as he began to make small talk. Jacques’ skin was almost that dark, but his nose was different. She wondered whether the doctor was actually a relative, or just a business acquaintance. Not a relative, no, but it was both business and friendship, just not a close one…
“Are you a friend of Tagata’s?” she asked as her brain moved ahead. He is so very dark! I don’t think he’s African-American or European, but I’m pretty sure he’s from Earth. I wonder if he’s African? I wonder what nation? Is it one that recognizes our sovereignty?
Haleola managed to keep up her end of the small talk as Dr. Ikabe told her how he knew the bride. Her brain was off and running on completely irrelevant details. Earthlings had that effect on her. Should I be able to tell where he’s from just by his physical characteristics?
She’d tried that for herself more than once by looking in a mirror. Sure, the family legends said she was descended from the love child of Elvis Presley and a hula dancer he met while filming Blue Hawaii. But looking at herself in the context of Earth, where she’d never been, she thought there was something more Asian to her look than Hawaiian. Her skin was certainly darker, but that could be from a different branch of the family.
I should do a genetic scan. It would be interesting to know. And—
“And who is this vision of loveliness?” Dr. Ikabe asked, gesturing to Haleola’s left. She glanced to her side to see her yeoman, Ajaana, had materialized there. Haleola had long suspected that the young officer was secretly an agent from some far future where teleportation was a reality. Either that or she was a ninja.
“My yeoman, Ajaana Abels,” Haleola said. The doctor and the yeoman exchanged the obligatory pleasantries. “Am I supposed to be somewhere, Yeoman?”
“You need to make a toast, but that should be within the hour,” the yeoman said in a businesslike tone. “You’re expected at your niece’s school at two. There is time for some polite mingling, and no need to rush, but you won’t be able to stay for the end of the wedding breakfast.”
“I was wondering about that,” said Dr. Ikabe. “I have been to many weddings, but this is the first wedding breakfast.” There was laughter across the room and all three of them turned to see what it was. All Haleola could tell was that it centered around the groom, and was already dissipating. Dave was funny, but he wasn’t that funny. “And on a Tuesday?”
“Oh…the Tuesday thing is a math joke,” Haleola said. “But please do not ask me to explain, because I don’t understand it. Something about today’s date.”
“The wedding breakfast is an old English tradition,” Ajaana explained. “Although neither of them are English, and the tradition is no longer popular, I believe there was a personal reason for them to choose that particular theme.” Ajaana shrugged. “I’m not sure exactly what it was.”
Haleola was just glad Dave finally had a life at all. She liked her first officer well enough, but too many times she’d found him lurking about the bridge or spontaneously touring the engineering bays when he was supposed to be on down time. He was much more interesting, and much more relaxed since meeting Tagata.
“So I’m officially at the wedding, then officially at an elementary school today…does my schedule include me doing anything that is actually related to the operation of the station?”
“No ma’am,” Ajaana answered, her tone perfectly even and serious. “During the ceremony we were boarded by pirates, and you have been relieved of your command.” Ajaana blinked, but showed no other signs of exaggeration or concern over the dire developments. “After your appointment with your niece’s class, you will be required to abandon the station, or be forced to walk the plank.”
“We have a plank now?” Haleola asked.
Ajanna finally cracked a smile. “It’s being installed tomorrow, I believe.”
Haleola stayed for exactly eighty-two more minutes before following her yeoman to the axial corridor that led them out of the rotating section. “Are we on time?” she asked, buckling herself into the right side of the O’Reilly, the Captain’s Yacht, as Ajanna, already strapped into the single pilot’s seat, began to power up the small vessel.
“We’re a little early,” she said without turning around. “Would you like to take the scenic route?”
“Yes please,” Haleola answered. “Let’s check up on the new neighbors, shall we?”
Soundlessly, the yacht exited the pod bay and swooped out into the nothingness outside the station. The yeoman’s excellent hand guided the yacht in a slow loop, feeling almost as if they were flying through air currents and not the vacuum of space. A small squad of drones, in formation around the patrol ship that was controlling them, turned their attention to the O’Reilly. A moment later, they fell into formation and nodded in deference to the Captain’s Yacht. Ajaana steered back into the station, between the disparate sections, where only the crew were allowed to roam. Of course, strict rules didn’t deter certain hotshots from attempting the run themselves.
She wondered whether Ajaana had once been one of those hotshots. Over the years, only about a dozen had got away with it without being caught and prosecuted. The yeoman’s record was spotless. Either she was a true law-abiding perfectionist, or she was very good at concealing any wrongdoing.
Haleola suspected the former. Then again, there was that ninja angle…
She caught a glimpse of Earth, a hundred thousand kilometers away, so distant that it seemed to be an object in space, not a body around which they orbited. She had never thought of it as “down” although she knew others did. Earth was an entity to negotiate with, or, more accurately, a collection of entities that never could agree on anything. Earth was a source and a destination for thousands of commuters, tourists, miners, scientists, and other folk who passed through the station.
It wasn’t home.
Haleola had been born on the Chʼil Awoshí Station, affectionately known as Tumbleweed. In fifty years, it had grown to ten times the size she remembered from her childhood.
She felt herself being pulled gently to one side as her yacht moved laterally, the yeoman engaging the thrusters with expert precision to take them around a large manufacturing bay and out to the opposite side of the station.
In the distance, a huge coin floated, a disc with nothing anywhere near it to let her eyes determine a size.
“Is it spinning yet?” Haleola asked.
“No Ma’am,” Ajaana answered. “They are scheduled to join up in eleven days.”
“Most new construction starts to match spin at least a few weeks out. Why are they waiting so long?”
“I don’t know, Ma’am.” Ajaana brought the craft to a near-stop while they were still within the framework of the Chʼil Awoshí. “Would you like me to do a fly-by?”
Haleola considered that. She was curious, and as Captain, she had the right. But still, it was poor form. It would be a sign of mistrust, and trust was of utmost importance in the running of a station that included more independent entities than Earth had nations. “No. Not today,” she said. “They’re still up to spec?”
“The latest report is two days old. It’s on your desktop,” Ajaana said, nudging the yacht forward slowly. Haleola opened a link and found the report. As she scanned it, Ajaana moved them back into the framework of the Chʼil Awoshí Station. Discworld, off to her right, was turning slowly, awaiting its new member. Ahead in the distance was the Thanos-Psomas Block, unfortunately dubbed the TP Roll due to its radius and circumference bearing a supposedly unintentional resemblance to a roll of toilet paper.
Around her, the framework of the Chʼil Awoshí was mostly rounded, a series of Hoberman Spheres that had grown over time, being added to in an uncoordinated fashion as the needs of the inhabitants changed and more and more groups, some corporate, some from Earth nations, joined Tumbleweed. It was sweet chaos.
The TP was too small for a pod bay of its own, so the yeoman sidled up to the nearest docking point and secured the craft. “Shall I accompany you or wait for you?” Ajaana asked.
“Neither,” Hal said, unbuckling herself. “Take the O’Reilly back to central command. I’m walking my niece home today.”
“Very good ma’am,” Ajaana said as Haleola flipped herself out of her chair and over to the hatch. She waited patiently for the airlock to cycle, yawning purposefully so her ears would pop.
“Welcome to the Thanos-Psomas Block Captain Kitewhetu!” said a slim young woman in a bright green jumpsuit. She was followed by a man, Haleola guessed in his mid-thirties, who simply smiled awkwardly but remained silent. They both floated in the microgravity, the woman with one hand on a hold and the man with one foot slipped into a convenient strap. “There isn’t any gravity here in the hub, but you’ll find the handholds convenient…and…”
The woman trailed off as Haleola tilted her head just so, letting only the corner of her mouth turn up slightly as the slip of a girl tried to lecture her on how to maneuver in microgravity. She wondered whether the woman was teaching the kids that microgravity was the same as no gravity.
“Thank you. I know the way,” Haleola said, launching herself at a respectable pace along the access hall until she reached the downtube closest to her niece’s school. The woman in the green jumpsuit spouted nervous chatter about how honored they were to have the Captain herself visiting until they finally reached the school, nestled in a nice residential section with a very Earth-like feel. At least, it was what Haleola imagined was Earth-like. The clouds painted on the ceiling were very cartoonish, but the street was lined with real trees and the simulation of gravity was one gee. There was even a slight breeze in the air.
“Captain Kitewhetu, always a pleasure,” said the principal, extending his hand. Haleola went through a shortened version of the usual greetings and introductions. She’d been there many times before.
The window to her niece’s classroom was covered with tissue-paper flowers. Haleola took advantage of the cover and peeked through. She recognized the dad who was up at the front of the class, presumably telling the children about his job. He worked for one of the support companies that contracted with something in engineering, she wasn’t exactly sure what.
An outburst of laughter came from the side of the classroom. It wasn’t the polite kind of laughter that would be appropriate for a classroom presentation; it was the jeering kind that usually followed some muttered comment by a bored student with no sense of respect.
Haleola spotted her niece. Lumen was sitting in the front right, as always. She inclined her head ever so slightly, just enough to show disapproval but not give undue attention to her unruly classmates. The dad who was talking to the class gave the slightest indulgent smile while the teacher motioned for the class to quiet down.
“Next we have a special guest,” the teacher announced when the dad was done. “Lumen’s aunt, Captain Haleola Kitewhetu is here today!”
Most of the kids strained their necks to see her come through the door. A few looked genuinely bored—the ones who had seen her do the career day talk in third or fourth grade—and some were feigning boredom, pretending to be unimpressed.
Lumen stood next to her. “This is my aunt Haleola. You know her as Captain Kitewhetu. She’s been in charge of the Chʼil Awoshí Station for six years. Just like me, she was born on the station. Our whole family was.”
The ten-year-old was very well-spoken for her age. She sounded just like a teacher. The class applauded politely as Lumen finished her introduction and sat down.
“Who here knows just what it is I do?” she asked, her usual beginning when speaking to schoolchildren.
Several hands shot up. She called on the most enthusiastic-looking. “You’re in charge of everything! Like a king!”
“No!” interrupted a boy sitting behind Lumen. “It’s…it’s…it’s…” Haleola considered chiding him for interrupting, but something in Lumen’s posture gave her pause. Her niece was smiling encouragement, nodding at her classmate as if she wanted to reassure him.
Haleola noticed one of the adults in the room, not the teacher, had been hovering close to the boy. The woman took a tiny step forward, then stepped back again, a look of concern on her face.
“It’s…it’s…it’s like a division! Like sharing!” he blurted out.
Haleola nodded. “Both of your answers have merit,” she said, smiling in what she considered was a child-friendly manner, although her brother told her she scared the baby when she did it. “I am in charge of the station. But Governor Odwalla is in charge of the occupants of the station.”
She went through her usual spiel, taking questions and trying to be encouraging even when the questions were repetitive or didn’t make sense. The “It Boy” as she thought of him was surprisingly insightful, although it usually took a long string of stuttering before he could get out the words. In between questions, he practically hovered in his seat, seeming to be barely able to contain himself. More than once, Lumen reached out to put her hand over his, and he calmed down.
“But why does it look like that?” asked one girl, sitting uncomfortably close to a small knot of students who were doing everything possible to demonstrate that they weren’t paying attention, while doing nothing disruptive enough to merit chastisement.
“Look like?” Haleola asked, puzzled by the question. They’d been talking about how new parts of the station were added on, and how Hoberman Spheres were designed to be built and moved compactly, but then could expand to any designed size.
As she was trying to figure out what the girl meant, she felt a sudden pull to the left and forward. It wasn’t a jerk, just a temporary feeling that gravity had suddenly turned sideways and diagonal. She shifted into horse stance with knees bent as most of the children grabbed their desks, which were attached to the floor. Whatever maneuver the Chʼil Awoshí just performed had definitely not conformed with the stated expectation that any adjustments to the station’s orbit or tumble would be non-intrusive to the daily workings of the population on board. She glanced at the back of her hand, but there was no message signaling that she was needed on the bridge.
“It’s…it’s…it’s like if bubbles had bones!” the boy behind Lumen shouted excitedly, seemingly unperturbed by the momentary shift in gravity.
Haleola placed one hand on the desk as another, smaller movement disturbed their sense of up and down. Several items rolled off desks and fell to the floor. The movement subsided.
She glanced at the back of her hand again. Three yellow dots, the last of which was blinking.
It was time to go.