Rice closed the hatch behind them. The rusting metal and plastic of the shuttle’s interior vibrated as the turbines and magnets hummed to life. They made their way down a few levels on the huge, spherical ship. Squaring her shoulders, Zee avoided the collective gazes of a group of Hexers they passed. She clutched her wrist and the built-in tab that marked her as an Analog. “I’ve already loaded our gear,” Rice said. They hurried to their seats.
Pausing, Zee stared at the five-point harness on her seat. Rice shuffled by her, taking the seat on one end of the row, nearest the tiny window. Gritting her teeth, Zee sat quickly and Ben sat on her other side. She struggled with the harness, pulling her skirt up on her thighs to buckle the harness belt between her legs. Blushing furiously, she placed her hands in her lap and avoided looking at either Rice or Ben.
The engines roared, drowning out all sound. Zee stared ahead, still avoiding looking at either of them as Rice handed her an ear band. After sliding it over her head and into her ears, Zee turned it to the correct frequency and stared at her bare knees.
“Pilot says we’re about ready for lift,” Ben said over the comm channel. “Are we go?”
“Yeah,” Rice said.
“Yes,” said Zee, but she couldn’t keep the tremble from her voice. She gripped the armrests.
Ben paused. She looked up at him and his gray eyes were unreadable. He flipped his comm to her private channel. “Takeoff’s bumpy,” he said. “Breathe or you’ll pass out, okay?” She nodded minutely, eyes wide. Ben switched channels and spoke to the pilot. The roar of the engines built, and the ship shuddered and moved, hovering over the landing pad. Zee’s ears popped as the cabin pressurized.
“Five beers on Ben barfing first,” Rice said, grinning and leaning back in her seat.
“You’ll pop first,” Ben said.
“What do you want if I do?” asked Rice, humor in her voice.
Ben paused. “Write the job report,” he said.
Rice rolled her eyes. “Deal.”
The ship shuddered again. Magnets locked in place and turbines whined loudly. The ship shot into the air. Zee screamed at the force of it, and the passengers were flung back into their seats. She struggled to breath like Ben had told her, but the acceleration seemed to be pressing against her chest and throat. Five minutes later, blackness began to creep into her field of vision.
The shuttle vibrated and shook. She closed her eyes and gritted her teeth, struggling against the invisible force of gravity intensified by acceleration. Just when she thought she couldn’t take it anymore, the acceleration decreased. Zee gasped, her vision returning to normal.
Next to her, Rice groaned. “Congratulations, Zee,” she said. “You survived your first five minutes at five Gs.” She turned and barfed into a bag.
“Ha,” Ben said, his voice weak. “I win the bet.” He sat forward abruptly and reached for a bag in the seat pocket in front of him. He opened it with fumbling fingers and puked into the bag. Zee grimaced. A moment later, he spat and pulled the bag from his face. “Hate shuttles,” he said. He turned to Zee, his eyes watery and skin gray. “Are you okay?”
“Yes,” said Zee. “I almost passed out, but I feel okay now.” The acceleration decreased further, and the roar of the engines decreased, becoming a low hum outside the spherical shuttle. “Settle in,” she said. “We’ve got a six-hour flight to the Pacific Gate.”
“Shit,” groaned Rice. “If having a business liaison doesn’t mean we rank the America’s Gate, what’s the point?”
Zee turned a level gaze towards her. Rice’s skin had paled, and she clutched a puke bag in her fist. Zee raised an eyebrow. “Please remember you work for a maintenance company,” she said. “Simply leasing a business liaison will open doors, but not Gates. You would not have obtained this Helioset job without me. You would not have obtained the Kola—”
“Yeah, yeah,” said Rice, waving a hand.
The public comm crackled over the low roar of the engines. “We’ve reached our cruising altitude,” said one of the shuttle pilots. “You are now free to release your harnesses.”
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