012 – Rusted Night

Zee immediately unbuckled her harness and straightened her skirt, feeling the heat rise to her cheeks. Too busy puking, Rice hardly noticed, but Zee glanced at Ben and noticed he studiously avoided looking at her, a flush rising from his collar. She blinked and jerked her gaze away, her muscles tensing. She stared at her hands clutched in her lap until she felt his attention diminish. But then a shadow fell over their row. Zee continued staring at her hands as she heard Ben clear his throat.

“Can I help you?” he asked the caster of the shadow. No answer followed, and Zee glanced up, curious.

A man stood over them. Hex panels covered his chest, fists, and feet, the heavy panels separate, not assisted by the pneumatics of a complete Hex system. The man stared at her, and Zee gulped at the glint in his eyes. “That’s an analog,” he said, nodding at her. The rush of anger dizzied her and tied her tongue. She stared at the man, feeling tears gather at the corner of her eyes.

When no one denied the accusation, the man continued speaking, “I’ll pay you one thousand credits to lease it for an hour.” The man’s boldness had attracted the attention of the other passengers. Some leaned over in their seats to get a better view, others looked away in disgust. Zee felt heat rise on her face and cold fear descend in her stomach. Her lease agreement did not prohibit sublets.

Next to her, she felt Ben tense, but Rice appeared over him. Rice wiped a chunk of puke from her lip and pressed a hand to Ben’s shoulder as she stumbled and climbed over both their knees and stood in front of the rude man. He stared at her, brow wrinkled in confusion, and she stared at him a moment before barfing all over him and his Hex panels. The man stepped back, wrinkling his nose.

Gasping between barfs, Rice said, “Why are you blocking my way to the toilet?” The man grimaced and shuffled out of the way. Rice stumbled for the head, and the man tried to wipe puke off himself as he moved back to his seat and pulled a towel from a storage locker.

Zee clutched her own trembling hands and glanced at Ben. His eyes had followed the rude man back to his seat and settled on the man’s back. He blinked and noticed her gaze, his expression softened. “Sorry,” he said in a low voice.

“For what?” Zee said, looking away. For the man’s rudeness? That wasn’t Ben’s fault. For the fact that she was an analog? Ridiculous. For treating her like a human, so she felt like a human? So when a man called her an analog and asked to rent her for an hour, she felt angry and ashamed? Zee gritted her teeth and blinked away tears to avoid smudging her makeup. She turned her head so he wouldn’t see.

With Rice still barfing in the head, she could look out the small cabin window, barely bigger than her hand and reinforced with layers of thick plastic. In the small view, she could see Terrace Tower as it rose from the Earth like a needle in the distance, it’s wide base lost in a glowing haze. Ahead of the ship, the ITG hovered in the distance, barely visible in the night sky except for navigation lights and the lights of ships that queued there.

Rice stumbled back to their row, climbed over Ben and Zee, and plunked into her seat. She groaned. “I think I puked up everything I possibly could,” she said. “Why, oh why don’t they just have Gates on Earth?”

“Because the change in velocity would probably kill us,” said Zee. “And in space, there’s a lot more room for error. The solid objects are fewer and farther between.”

Rice groaned. “I know that,” she said.

“Then why ask?” said Zee.

“It was rhetorical,” Rice said. She spat into her bag. The next handful of hours passed relatively quietly. Ben and Rice took turns being sick, and then fell asleep, exhausted from expelling the contents of their stomachs.

Zee reviewed her notes and the papers for their job on Helioset, Hexsuit maintenance. No one bothered them, but Zee couldn’t keep the tremble out of her hand as the rude man passed their seats to use the toilet. She kept her eyes glued to her notes, and tried not to remember sublets she’d experienced in the past. She only looked up when they had reached low earth orbit. The ship had been matching the Gate’s speed and now it approached at a relative crawl.

The pilot’s voice crackled over the public comm. “Looks like we’ve got a queue at the ITG,” he said. “But shouldn’t be a wait of more than a handful of minutes, and then we’ll spend a blip in the Broudian. After that we’ll have a short burn and adjustment before we reach Helioset in GEO.”

“A blip?” asked Ben.

“You’ll hardly notice it,” said Rice. Ben groaned. He turned to Zee. “We did maintenance on a Gate once. But we just replaced a few components. Spacewalk was cool.”

“I thought it was terrifying,” said Rice. “I’ll take a jungle in the Wilds over the dead of space any day.”

After waiting a few minutes in the queue, watching the shuttles ahead of them enter the ITG and then disappear, they reached the next in line to enter the Gate. On either side of her, Rice and Ben readied their puke bags. The pilots spoke to the Gate operators, their voices a low murmur on the public comm. The inside of the ring glowed briefly, illuminating the inside of the ship. Zee squinted as it got brighter and brighter. In the next moment, Zee felt the very atoms in her being tremble, and seem to flatten. Dizziness and disorientation scrambled in her brain. Then the light died. Zee gasped in relief.

Rice and Ben vomited into their bags at the same time. Rice leaned back. “Holy shit, that was horrible.”

“Welcome to geosynchronous earth orbit,” the pilot said over the public comm, his voice barely audible as the engines roared. “Home of the Tower Anchors, Moon Gate, Titan and Europa Gates, Carilon Space Dump, the Highest Museum, the Mining Settlement Belt, and Helioset of course. Prepare for burn.”

Read Chapter 13 – Helioset next.

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