Another story from the late nineties, for this our Storytelling day. This one is science fiction. It made the rounds, it got bounced back. Looking at it now, I can see why.
Still, there’s a bit or two I like.
This isn’t Imperial Space, for the record. Or if it is, it’s before everything. If I had to give this a setting, I’d call it “Mycene Station,” which is a multimodular space station out between Mars and Jupiter.
That’s right. In the late nineties, I was writing space station stories. Because clearly, I didn’t think Babylon 5 was going to be distinctive enough in the marketplace.
My favorite piece of research of all time made it into this article, though. I actually called universities and talked to physics professors to make sure the soccer would work the way I thought it would. And what are the chances one could say that?
*** *** *** ***
“Is he going to be weird?”
Darrin took a deep breath. He looked at his daughter. Until three months before, his only child, and still his youngest child. “He’s not going to be weird,” he said. “But hunna, we have to be ready to help him… get used to things.”
Toni smiled and kneeled next to Dee. “Well, you have to remember Biron comes from someplace very different than Groverton or even Portland. There are a lot of things in Portland he’ll have never seen before. A lot of things he won’t know how to do.”
“Why?” Dee asked. The eight year old’s lip was pushed out.
“Because he hasn’t lived in a town or a city before. He’s lived in a habitat. It’s very different.”
“So why does he have to come here?” Dee demanded. “He’s gonna be weird, and then I’m gonna be weird ’cause he’s my brother.”
Toni took a deep breath. “Now look at you,” she said. “You’ve got something all over your face. Is that grape juice? Or did you have another ice pop when I wasn’t looking, huh?”
“Noooo,” the girl said petulantly. Toni took to cleaning her face with a cloth.
Good save, hon, Darrin thought sarcastically. He glanced at his watch again, and then at the arrivals. He’d wanted to pack the family and take a suborbital to Buenos Aires, but Toni had put a damper on it. “There’s no reason at all to waste the money,” she’d said. “What – we’re going to meet him off the shuttle, have lunch, pile into a suborbital and head right back to Portland? Not if I have something to say about it. It’ll be just like we met him.”
“It’s his first time on Earth,” Darrin had shot back. “His first time on a planet. Don’t you think he’ll want a friendly face waiting for him?”
“Sure,” she snapped. “That’s half the reason not to go. I’d hate to be the first impression he has of Earth.”
Darrin sighed again. The flight was running late. Given how tight their orbits were, and how restrictive their windows, Darrin had to figure the Suborbital had made it to Logan International Skyport on time. Which meant it was just the local express flight between Logan and Portland International Jetport that was delayed. He glanced up at the estimates on the wall – it still read the same thing. Baxter State Air Express flight 11656 service from Boston at Logan to Portland arriving 9:57 am ‘on time.’ Below the board was a clock that read 10:06. He sighed again and paced back towards the food stand. Almost without thinking about it, he got into the line.
“If you’re looking for coffee, I’ll take cream and two sugars.” Toni was half-whispering in his ear. He hadn’t heard her come up behind him.
He turned to her, and nodded. “Yeah. Where’s Dee?”
“I’ve got my eye on her. She’s watching the planes land.” She set a hand on his shoulder. “It’ll be all right, Darrin. He’ll get here.”
She half-shrugged. “Then we figure out how to fit him in.”
“You didn’t say that last night.”
“I was angry last night.” She leaned against him, slipping an arm around his waist. “I’ve been angry a lot, lately. I don’t like discovering my husband has a son. I admit it.”
“Shhh… it’s not like we’d even met at that point. It’s okay. Get the coffee, and try to calm down. Biron’s going to land soon.”
Darrin nodded, and moved forward as the line did. Toni stayed next to him, her neck craned around every few seconds to see where Dee had gotten herself to.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” the PA announced. “We apologise for the delay. Baxter State Air Express flight one one six five six inbound service from Boston’s Logan International Skyport is now arriving at gate two. For security reasons, no one without a ticket is allowed in the gate area. Those who wish to meet their parties can do so at the security doors immediately outside the gate area, right across from the snack cart. Thank you.”
“That’s him,” Toni said. “I’ll grab Dee. We don’t need coffee that badly.”
“Right. Darrin turned and stepped out of line. Toni moved ahead, half-dashing to the broad windows where their little girl was watching planes. Darrin walked up to the powered revolving glass doors. They only let you out of the area – if anyone stepped into them on this side they stopped moving and an alarm sounded. About fourteen other people had gathered, and they watched through the glass, up towards gate two.
People started to walk out gate two, heading for the door. They looked like all plane travellers – vaguely tired, with that sense of the unreal in their eyes. Darrin peered, looking for the face he’d seen in the e-mail. He wished again they’d had a chance to talk, but even when Earth and Mycenae Station were as close together as they ever got there was two hundred and fifty nine and a half million kilometers seperating them. The communications lag was over fourteen minutes. You didn’t have a conversation that way. Two women walked out of the gate… then an older man… then a boy – Biron? No. Too old….
“Did you see him yet,” Toni asked nervously as she walked up, hand firmly on Dee’s.
Darrin shook his head, watching. The thousand ridiculous ideas flashed through his head. There was a problem. The suborbital had done the impossible and been late. Biron had missed the suborbital and was still in Buenos Aires. Biron had gotten lost at Logan. The Earth’s gravity or atmosphere had made him desperately-
“There,” Toni said, pointing. “There he is!”
Darrin watched as the boy walked out of the gate. He leaned forward, almost scuffing the floor as he walked. His hair was sandy brown. He was tall for a twelve year old. Most children born and raised in space were tall, though Biron didn’t look abnormal. He wore a grey short sleeved shirt and matching slacks – Darrin assumed someone on board the Fitch had given him dressing advice, rather than let him hit dirt wearing a unitard or flight suit or the like. He was carrying a knapsack over one shoulder as he walked.
Darrin bit his lip as Biron stepped through the revolving door. “Biron?” he asked.
Biron looked up, biting his own lip, and nodded tightly. “Yeah,” he said.
“Biron… I’m Darrin Gillett. I’m….”
“Yeah, I know. Uh… hi.” The boy smiled weakly, without happiness.
“I – and this is my wife, Toni. I told you about her in the letters-”
Toni grinned broadly, stepping forward, her hands outstretched. “Hello, Biron. We’ve been very excited about you coming. Welcome to Earth. Welcome home.”
Biron blinked, and let Toni take his hands and shake them. Darrin half-smiled.
Toni kept talking, massaging the tension with cheer. “This is our daughter, Dianna. Dee, this is Biron-”
“You’re my brother?” Dee said with some shock.
Biron blinked at the eight year old, then looked down and nodded. “Seems so,” he said. “Seems so.”
“Well, I think Biron’s seen enough of airports and skyports for a while,” Darrin said, heart still pounding. “What say we pick up your luggage and go get something to eat?”
“Assuming it didn’t end up in London,” Toni said, grinning. “Sound good to you, Biron?”
“Uh… sure,” Biron said. “Whatever.” He looked disoriented.
“Right,” Darrin said. “C’mon. It’s down the escalator and towards the back.”
Toni knocked with her knuckle. The open door sounded hollow and wooden.
The voice was low, and full of congestion. “Yuh?” it asked.
“Can I come in? I brought some tea.”
Toni stepped inside. Biron had all the lights out. Rain was drumming against the window, shrouding the outside in more darkness. From the light in the hall she could see his bed – he had found the extra linen in the closet at some point, and had put four blankets over himself. She frowned. Doctor Lantz hadn’t said anything about fever. He’d moved his Grade Six soccer championship ribbon to where he could see it on the night table, she noticed. And the MVP certificate. “How you feeling?” she asked.
“Okay,” he said, looking at the wall.
“Really? Huh. You look terrible.”
Biron turned, surprised. “Wha….”
Toni grinned, setting the tea down. “Sorry – was that a bit blunt?”
“No…” Biron paused, his face suddenly tense, and he sneezed four times in rapid succession. He let his head fall back onto the pillow after the fourth. “No,” he said again. “Ma always made me laugh when I was sick.”
“Did she?” Toni’s grin settled into a smile. “Did she make you tea?”
“Yuh. Y’know, Dad brought me up a cup of coffee this morning….”
“First time drinking coffee?”
Biron nodded. “Heard a lot about it, but it cost four drachmas a kilo.”
“I didn’t think you grew it there. I’m surprised they grew tea.”
Biron smiled weakly. “We grow it, an’ Io grows it. Mars too, but that’s a ways. I guess they sell a lot of it to the miners and to the outer colonies. Lipton, Twinings an’ Celestial Herbalists all grow an’ ferment teasss…” a sneeze broke Biron’s words off, and Toni let him get through the latest sneezing fit.
When he finished, Toni handed him the cup, and he sipped. He blinked. “Wha….”
“I put a little lemon and some honey in,” she said.
“Honey?” he asked.
Toni blinked. “Um… well, it’s like sugar. It’s made by bees… it’s good in tea or-”
“Uh… right. Bees are a kind of stinging insect-”
Biron looked down into the cup. “You’re feeding me insect sugar?” he asked dubiously.
Toni arched an eyebrow. “Did it taste good or bad?”
“Good. But that was before I knew what it was.”
“Ohhh…” Toni’s smile quirked out again. “You didn’t tell me what you thought of coffee.”
Biron made a face. “Bitter. Dunno why the Deep Force guys liked it so much. They’re the ones who always talked about it. Mom’s restaurant served it to the high ups, too.”
“Coffee’s a big part of American culture,” Toni said. “And most of the NATO block, really. And since NATO makes up the Deep Force….”
Biron shrugged, losing some blanket. “NATO doesn’t mean anything to me,” he said. “The Deep Force is the Deep Force. Why is it so cold?”
“Cold? It’s just over fifteen and a half tonight. The rain makes it seem colder, though.”
Biron shivered. Toni pressed a hand to his forehead. He didn’t seem to have a fever. “How long am I gonna feel like this?” he asked miserably.
“Doctor Lantz said it took a week or two to get used to all the particles and dust and molds in the atmosphere. All this rain should help – it’ll scrub the air a little. Do you want some more decongestant?”
“Yuh.” He shivered.
“Okay – try to drink some more tea.”
“Bee tea?” he asked.
“That’s right. Bee tea.” She laughed. “I’ll be back in a couple of minutes.”
Toni smiled, standing. She looked down at him for a moment, then made her way out into the hall and down the stairs.
Darrin was sitting in the living room, holding the newspaper. “How’s he feeling?” he asked.
“About the same. He says he’s cold, but he isn’t running a fever.”
Darrin shook his head. “They ought to do something about this,” he said. “I mean, the kid’s here three days and he’s sick as a dog. They should be preparing them better up at that station.”
Toni snorted, shaking her head. “Should they import the dirt, disease, mold and pollution or just take all the air filters out of the air recycling system? Maybe we should work on what we breathe.”
“What we breathe is natural.” He waved his hand in front of his face. “Mother Earth made this stuff for us. People decided what was in Mycenae Station’s atmosphere. And you say he’s cold, too? Is he coming down with something?”
“Maybe. He’s pretty used to a constant twenty-two degrees up there. And not so much humidity-”
“Well, that’s another thing,” Darrin snapped. “They should vary the temperature a little. Cool it down at night. People don’t sleep well at twenty-two degrees.”
Toni arched another eyebrow. “When did you take up biology,” she asked.
“I don’t need to be a biologist. It’s common sense.”
Toni decided not to get into it. She bit her lip. “So, what did he say to you when you went up earlier?”
“Nothing. He thanks me and then he turns to the wall. He won’t talk to me.” Darrin sounded deceptively nonchalent.
“That’s so strange,” Toni said, pouring a glass of water. “He talks to me. I’d think he’d resent me. Replacing his mother and all.”
“You aren’t,” Darrin said, looking out the window. “Does he call you mom or does he call you Toni?”
“Toni. After I quashed that ‘Mistress Gillett’ stuff.”
“Right. You’re his friend. Me – I’m ‘Dad.’ And I’m not his mother. And because I live here instead of Mycenae station, they sent him here.”
Toni nodded, a touch weary. “Well, at least he accepts that you’re ‘Dad.’ Hang on – I have to go bring him more medicine. It’s been long enough since he took the enzimes before lunch. I hope he gets used to cheese soon.”
“Me too. Want me to bring it?”
“Do you want to?”
Coach Wallace leaned back, uncomfortable. “I hate this part of the job,” he said.
“What part of the job,” Darrin asked, smiling ever so slightly. Darrin was perfectly willing to let the corporate lawyer persona come out when it worked to his advantage.
“Look, let me say first that I like Biron. He’s a nice kid. And he works hard.”
“But?” Toni asked. Wallace was one of her collegues in the school district. He taught civics to fifth graders. Most of what he did was run different sports programs.
Coach Wallace shrugged helplessly. “But I can’t use him. There’s no way he could make the Middle School team.”
Darrin’s eyes narrowed. “Biron’s been playing soccer since he was seven,” he said. “You’re telling me he’s not good enough to play with kids his own age?”
Coach Wallace sighed. “It’s very competative,” he said. “Look, the soccer program’s our most popular. We have kids – local kids – who’ve been in the program for five years now. They’ve really been pushing. And it’s paying off. The Bantams have a shot at the county championships this year – maybe even the states. You’re asking me to take a kid who can’t even pass-”
“Can’t pass?” Darrin demanded. “He was MVP of his school’s playoffs! He was on a championship team-”
“Then he isn’t trying,” Coach Wallace said. “Or else he’s lying to you. He can’t make a simple kick without hooking it. Or he overshoots and goes out of bounds. Or he undershoots and it just rolls where it can be taken. He’s got hustle and he knows position, but he can’t handle the ball.”
Toni’s hand clenched. “Of course he’s hooking right now,” she said. “He learned how to play on a rotating space station. A fast rotation. His field was on a level that rotated close to forty meters a second. For God’s sake – his field was curved. Rotation approximates gravity but it doesn’t work exactly like it, and at that speed the coriolis is fierce. When he kicked the ball, he had to know where it would end up on that moving field. He had to know what direction it would bounce when it hit the moving floor. He had to-”
“Whatever. You’re the physics teacher, Toni – I’m not interested. If you really want me to keep him, I will, but he’ll sit on the bench the entire season. I can’t afford to screw up.”
“This is the summer league,” Darrin said. “The school leagues don’t start until late August.”
“Well sure – but right now we’re jockeying for position. The summer season is when we get to train for the real thing. The Bantams need to know each other perfectly by the time the interschool league kicks in. I put someone who can’t play in the middle of that, it’ll breed tension and it’ll lose valuable training time. I’m not going to throw the season for your kid.”
“He just needs time and practice,” Toni said. “To learn to adapt. Sports and soccer mean a lot to him, Carl. He doesn’t know anyone his own age-”
“Then he should get out more. I’m sorry, Toni. Let him try out next year. I’m not going to throw a championship so your son can ‘practice.’ I’ve spent too long building this program to reach this point.”
Darrin narrowed his eyes. “Well, it’s your decision,” he said. “We can’t stop you.”
“It must be really sad, though.”
Coach Wallace blinked. “What?”
“To have so much of your own self-respect bound up in whether or not a bunch of thirteen year olds go to the championships. That’s really pathetic. Come on, Toni. I need to make some phone calls.”
Coach Wallace’s face burned. “Sorry not to be of service,” he said.
Toni stood up next to her husband. “I’m sorry too,” she said. “I’m sorry your ego is more important than the welfare of the students. And if I have any say in this school system, you’re going to be sorry too.” She turned and followed her husband out the door.
Darrin rubbed his eyes, cradling the handset between shoulder and ear. “Look, I’m not saying cancel any committments. But I think it’s about time we pulled funding out of grade school athletics and put it into academics. No. No, I don’t want to hurt schools. I don’t care, Ted. Listen, academic achievement is America’s future. That’s what Concordance should be promoting. Hey, when I was a kid we had a bloody good athletic program with a few soccer balls and goals. You never played shirts and skins? No, we didn’t have a girl’s soccer team….”
Toni stepped back from Darrin’s home office door. She rolled her eyes and walked back to the living room. She used to love the summer days he could telecommute while she was on break from school. They’d have lunch together, they’d talk about their days with each other. It was a connection. Now? Toni wished he went into the office more often – she didn’t like seeing the negotiator, the shark in their house. She didn’t like Dee hearing it.
Of course, the shark wasn’t usually involved in their personal life. In their family. She wandered to the top of the basement stairs. The lights were on down there, which meant Biron was probably down there again. He didn’t usually like to talk when he was down there, so she walked through the living room to go upstairs.
His door was open. He hadn’t been very comfortable with doors that didn’t recess into their own housing, and he hadn’t gotten used to them just yet. Toni glanced downstairs, then walked in, looking around.
The room was still very neat. Biron hadn’t ever fully unpacked. In a way, it was like he wasn’t admitting he lived here. Not yet. Well, that wasn’t surprising. The only personal effects he had out were his soccer awards and a pile of five gold coins on the corner of his desk.
There was a datapad on his desk – it was one of Darrin’s spares from work. Darrin had brought it home after he got his son set up with an account through their home service. Biron had used it to mail his friends back on Mycenae Station – the fees were kind of high to be sending e-mail over the uplink to the relays, but Darrin hadn’t ever said a word about them. It was on, the text glowing amber on black. Toni always kept hers set to black text on white, to look more like paper. Darrin had told her all of Mycenae Station had been set up this way.
It was a letter, naturally. One he looked like he was composing to ‘firstname.lastname@example.org!public.myceane.net!~uplink.nortam.net’ She didn’t touch where it rested, but she glanced over the smooth plastic screen.
…able to send me letters once a week sucks, Ethen. I guess I can understand it, though. I’m lucky Gillett’s letting me send these once a day. I guess it costs like half a drachma for each, and even that’s just because he’s got me routing it through Concordance. He might have me put it through another relay to mycenae.concord.net instead of mycane.net itself. Save more money, though I guess it would take longer to get there, so I don’t want to, much.
I hate this place, Ethan. Doc Lantz told me to climb down into the basement (the lowest level of the house) when I felt homesick, because the outside lights don’t get in so much and the sounds and feels are more like on a station. I do it, but just because it’s quiet and because Gillett doesn’t go down there and play ‘daddy.’ It’s nothing like Module Electra. Nothing. It’s wet, and even when it’s hot outside it’s cold down there, and it smells. It smells like dirt and muck – like wandering around the three quarter G crop fields on Module Iphigeneia. It smells like something old and rotton’s down there, like the pile of rotting grass Toni keeps in a pen like an animal, just barely in the woods. She says it turns into fertilizer. It’s hot inside, like it’s burning up, and more of those insects are in there. I got bit again yesterday. No one here thinks it’s a big deal to have living creatures flying around sucking your blood and living off you. But then, they eat meat too.
Speaking of which, Gillett says he’s going to have me start cutting the grass in a week or two. He says it’ll be good for me, and give me exercise, and he’ll pay me to do it. Do you know why the Earthworms have grass, Ethen? Because they think it looks good. It’s all around the house, and they water it when it doesn’t rain and they give it plant food, and Toni doesn’t even really use it for fertilizer much. They just want it there. I hate grass. And I don’t want to be told to get exercise. They won’t let me play soccer and it doesn’t work anyway, and I can’t go running anywhere because it’s not like they have running paths on Route One like we do. I just don’t….
Toni looked at the text a long time. She was tempted to page down – to see what the rest of the letter said. But she didn’t do it. She took a deep breath instead and stepped out the door. Still no sign of Biron, which was good. She walked through the small hall, past Dee’s room and into the master bedroom. She rummaged through the drawers, looking for her exercise tights.
Biron looked up from the corner as the stairs creaked. He was sitting tucked between the furnace and the wall, just down from the hot water heater. It was cozy, although he’d seen some creature that was all legs and exoskeleton creeping along the wall and had killed it in a panic. You couldn’t get away from crawling things down here. He held his breath until he saw slender legs. Toni. That was okay.
“Biron?” she asked. Biron watched her swing around the landing into the basement. She was wearing an oversized tee shirt over silver/grey tights, with a cloth around her head.
“Yeah?” he muttered.
“There you are. I was just about to go running, and I wondered if you wanted to come along.”
Biron blinked. “You can go running?” he asked.
“I can do almost anything I want,” Toni said, grinning wickedly. “It’s amazing, really.” She put her hands on her knees and leaned closer to Biron’s nest, having seen him.
“I – well, I mean, there’s a running path?”
“There are plenty of paths around here. I run along the side of the road out to the highway and back. Want to come?”
Biron blinked again. “You don’t get in the way of foot-traffic?”
“Foot traffic or traffic traffic,” she said, grinning again. “I’m pretty good at staying out of the way. So you want to?”
“Sure,” Biron said, pulling out of the nest. “Let me go change.”
“Sure – you might want to wash your face, too.”
Biron nodded, and started up the stairs. He always ran the first five or so, then slowed down. He still wasn’t used to them – it seemed harder to climb stairs Earthside – the gravity didn’t let up as they made their way up higher, the way it did back home. So it seemed like you got heavier, not lighter.
“Right – I’ll meet you out front, okay?”
Biron felt a flush of annoyance, then nodded. He didn’t like it out there – it seemed unnatural. The Earthworms might not have much control over their habitats, but it was still better than the chaos of outside. It wasn’t a natural way to live. But he had to go out there sometimes, and if she was really going running, he wanted to be involved. Getting to his room, he changed into his running unitard – shorts that blended up into a tank top, the straps going over his shoulders. He pulled on the sneakers Gillett had bought him – he hadn’t bothered to bring his running shoes from Module Electra Earthside – and shuffled down the stairs, pausing only to scrub his face in the restroom. Going downstairs was still weird, but not as weird as upstairs.
Toni was waiting outside, rubbing some sort of cream on her face and hands. She held the tube out to him. “Put this on before we go,” she said.
“What is it?” Biron asked.
“Sunblock. We don’t want to get a sunburn.”
“Sun… burn.” Biron squeezed some of the cream onto his hands and started rubbing it onto his face and shoulders. “So you can burn yourself just going outside?”
“Yup.” She started stretching out for the run.
“Amazing. You know, it’s not like you couldn’t build habitats down here.”
“We have. They’re called malls. No one lives in them, though. Not yet, anyway.”
Biron stared at her, and decided she was kidding. “I mean it,” he said. “Why would you want to live in this?”
“We like it this way.” Biron snorted. “No, it’s true,” she said. “We could live in the city if we wanted, but that would mean living far away from trees and grass and nature. Living in a small town in Maine means we can live on our own land, surrounded by nature. We can develop and encourage it any way we like.” Seeing Biron didn’t believe her, she shrugged. “Ready to run?”
Biron nodded. Toni nodded as well, and turned. She pushed a button on her watch and then began running, Biron following.
She was good, but out of practice. Like the people who never left six tenths gravity trying to run in one point one. He felt himself get tired fast – he hadn’t run but for soccer tryouts in close to a month – but he ran through it. His muscles remembered how to do it. They remembered running kilometers in level forty. Biron loved running where it was hard, during the months when there was no soccer and the other kids were playing basketball or football. Biron was a soccer player. He stayed in shape during the off-season, and practiced.
It was a strange way to run. They ran up the gravel driveway to the dirt road, then down to the end of it to where Maxwell Hill Road sloped down. She then ran down the steep hill, and Biron followed, pacing her. She was out of practice – they were going slightly slower than his in-condition pace. There were woods and streams on either side of them. Biron could hear occasional crashes and the whistles of some kind of animal. There were a couple of other houses, each a good distance away from each other. Biron could see some kids near one of them, watching.
“You’re good,” Toni said, half out of breath.
“I used to run every day. The last three months I ran level forty.” Biron had his pace now, though he wasn’t very used to talking while he ran.
“Level forty? What was that?”
“The bottom level of Module Electra,” he said. “Heaviest gravity, and the longest path. It was one and a quarter gee, right on the button. That was where you went for strength and endurance. Even with my time off, my body’s conditioned for it.”
“I’m impressed,” Toni said with a grin. “You ought to consider track, you know it?”
Toni nodded. “You didn’t have track at Mycenae Station?”
“I’m from Module Electra. Mycenae Station was… well, it’s like you saying you’re from Earth, not from Maine.”
“Really I’m from Portland,” Toni said, laughing and trying to catch her breath. “But I see your point. But you didn’t have track at Module Electra?”
Biron fought the urge to correct Toni again. It was on Module Electra, not *at *it. But it could be worse. Most Earthworms called it Electra Module or just Electra. If they even got the name right. “I don’t even know what it is,” Biron said.
“Running events. Races for sport. That kind of thing.”
“Oh. No – no we didn’t. There wasn’t room for more than two lanes on the running paths – the running lane and the passing lane. Hard to have a race that way. When we tried to beat each other, it was for time.”
“Huh. Well, we have tracks of eight or nine lanes, where racers line up and try to beat each other to a goal. And it seems like you’re not having trouble adapting to running. You’re outrunning me.”
Biron kept going, thinking. “It’s really sports?” he asked.
“Yup. At the Olympics and everything.”
Darrin knocked on Biron’s door gently.
“C’min.” The voice sounded sullen as always..
Darrin opened the door. “Hey there,” he said. “You got some mail.”
Darrin handed the envelope to Biron. The Deep Force insignia was in the corner, with ‘Here is the information you requested‘ along the bottom.
“Oh. Great. Thanks, Dad.”
“Sure.” Darrin paused. “Aren’t you a little young for boot camp?” He grinned self-consciously, to try and show he wasn’t serious.
“Yup,” Biron said. “Right now.”
“Oh. But you want to join later?”
“When I’m eighteen, yeah.”
Darrin blinked. “Well, that’s your choice,” he said. “Don’t you think you should be targeting college, though? I mean, the Deep Force doesn’t have a lot of advancement for high school graduates, assuming you even get in-”
“I’m just figuring stuff right now, Dad. Besides, this way’ll get be out faster.”
“Out?” Darrin stepped inside.
“Mm-hm.” Biron looked down at the desk, not facing him. “Y’see, you sign on, and if you get in, you’re in for four years. Now, I’ve got space experience, so they’ll post me in space. Just makes sense. So I’ll get back out there almost immediately. And since I’m a citizen of Mycenae Station, they’ll send me there when I’m done.”
Darrin swallowed against the sinking feeling. “And do what?” he asked. “I mean, four years of Deep Force isn’t much training to be on a space station. You won’t have a bachelor’s degree, so the corporations won’t touch you-”
“I’ll get by. I’ll probably be trained enough to be a maintenance guy, or I’ll get a job in a store or as a janitor, or I’ll operate one of the rides in Module Helen or something. I’ll get enough to get a room somewhere.”
Darrin shook his head slightly. “Biron – I mean, if that’s what you want, that’s fine but… but there’s so much better ways to do that. Go to college – get a job with a corporation and-”
Biron snorted. “And spend another… what, five to ten years here?”
Darrin rubbed his eyes. “It’s not so bad, Biron. You’ll get used to it, I….”
Biron snorted again. “I’m trying to write a letter,” he said. “Okay?”
Darrin sighed. He nodded slowly. “Okay,” he said. He started to turn, when something bright caught his eye. He paused, and looked at Biron’s desk more closely. “Are those real gold coins?”
Biron nodded. “They’re decadrachma,” he said. “Some of the belters have some really choice strikes, so there’s gold and silver coins all over the station. Mister Carter – Ethan’s father – gave me these five as a going away present. Since it wasn’t part of Mom’s estate it didn’t get tossed into sending me here.”
“Deca… so even face value they’re worth fifty drachma? That’s a lot of money-”
Biron nodded. “It’s my bankroll,” he said. “For when I get back.”
“But… between the value of the metal and the value of the coins… look, if you want I can invest those into something that’ll appreciate more than the value of the coins themselves. Give you a real-”
“No,” Biron said, eyes flaring. “This is my bankroll. I don’t want it turned into Earthworm money. I don’t.”
Darrin held his hands up. “Okay, okay. Sorry.”
“Can I finish this now? Please?” Biron looked half-ready to spring, his eyes daggers.
Darrin looked down. “Sure,” he said. “Take your time.” He walked out the door.
Biron jogged up to the head of the driveway, where Toni was digging a trench with a hole. “Hey,” he said. “Ready to go?”
“Mm – can I beg off today,” she asked. “After yesterday’s rain I’ve got to fix my ditches.”
“Ditches?” Biron leaned over, looking at the trenches. They were long cuts in the sides of the driveway, leading down culverts to where a brook was flowing down through the woods.”
“Mm-hm,” she said. “All this was swampland before we moved here,” she said. “I dug a channel that made that brook, and made up some drainage ditches that protect the driveway. See – down there, and there?”
Biron peered along the driveway. “You made a brook?” he asked.
“Sure. I have the summers mostly off from school, so I have the time to do a lot of projects in the woods around the house. I’ve got some paths through them too, and the garden of course. If you want I could show you….”
Biron shook his head, staring into the woods. “Not right now,” he said. “You can do this? I mean, you don’t get in trouble?”
“So long as I don’t interfere with our neighbors,” Toni said with a laugh. “The first time I tried this I drained right into Sean Paltrow’s car port.”
“No, I mean… doesn’t the town…?”
Toni walked next to Biron. “It’s our land,” she said. “There are laws, and if I wanted to burn or log it all out I’d need permits and that sort of thing, but for the most part the town doesn’t have anything to say about it.”
“We thought we were being wild when we reorganized the furniture,” Biron said. “We never even considered changing the walls or the decks.”
“Well, on Module Electra you couldn’t do much without making drastic changes.”
Biron nodded. “Besides, the Achea corporation owned everything. They leased Module Electra to the town council, and the council sold renters’ permits to the property managers. We just rented from them. I don’t think they’d have appreciated us digging holes in the deck to drain the water lines.”
Toni laughed. “Probably not.”
“Anyway – I’m going to get running. Did you find out anything about track programs?”
Toni nodded. “The program’s already started, but there’s a meet in three weeks. Anyone in one of the age groups can enter it – it’s strictly local. I think you can slide into the track program after that.”
Biron nodded and set his watch timer. He then started down the dirt road to Maxwell Hill Road. It was a humid day, the sun beating down and the sweat not evaporating off Biron’s brow or arms. Running was harder on days like this than it ever had been on Module Electra. They never let the moisture rise this way. He breathed the hot, wet air in and tried to ignore it.
Running down the hill and around the bend in Maxwell Hill Road, Biron watched as one of the neighbor’s houses came into view. The small pack of kids – four of them – were playing some sort of game with plastic guns that shot water. Biron kept running, ignoring them.
One of the bigger boys – about Biron’s own age – saw Biron and pointed, saying something to his friends. They laughed. Biron’s face flamed, but he kept running.
The bigger boy started to run, hunching forward like he was almost falling, his arms swaying back and forth like a gorilla’s, his feet scuffing the ground. It was a bad imitation of a spacer’s gait. Biron saw that and slowed to a stop, turning and walking back towards them.
“Whoooo,” one of the other boys said. “Look out, Rob – you’re in trouble now.” They laughed.
“You got a problem,” Biron snapped.
The bigger boy – Rob – stood up straight, pushing his chest out a bit. “I don’t got a problem,” he said.
“What’s your problem,” Biron said, stepping off the road onto the lawn.
“Get off our property, Spacey,” Rob said. “We only let real humans in here.”
“What do you mean?”
“He’s not worth your time,” one of the other boys said to Rob. “He can’t even kick a soccer ball. I saw him try out.”
Biron’s eyes flared. “I was MVP of my championships,” he said.
“They don’t play soccer in space,” Rob half-shouted. “You’re a liar! Why don’t you just go back to your spinning coke can!”
“I’m trying,” Biron said, stepping forward, leaning a bit lower. “You don’t think I want to stay here do you?”
Rob scowled. “You’re not good enough for fresh air,” he snapped. “We should make you wear a space suit when you’re outside. Bet it’d be just like home.”
“Oh, fresh air,” Biron snapped back. “This stuff. Oh yeah, you’re right. We don’t have this. Our corridors are always the same temperature instead of getting either too hot or too cold all the time. We don’t have humidity that jumps up for no good reason and makes you want to die. We don’t breath dirt and eat dirt and roll in dirt and call it natural. And we sure never rigged up our air recyclers to dump water on our heads randomly. You’re right, we’re not good enough for your miserable, ugly planet. We have to make do being clean and comfortable all the time!”
“Shut up!” Rob said, cocking his hand back. “I’ll pound you, Spacey!”
“Big talk, Earthworm. Why don’t you wallow in your dirt first? I know how much you love it.”
“A fight?” Darrin demanded. “You got into a fight with the neighbors?”
Biron didn’t say anything. He just kept looking down.
“Look at me when I talk to you,” Darrin shouted.
Biron snapped his head up, flushed and scowling. His eyes burned, one of them already swollen and darkening.
“I don’t believe this,” Darrin snapped. “We have put up with a lot of crap from you, young man-”
“You’re breaking my heart,” Biron said, looking down.
“You shut up,” Darrin shouted, slamming his fist on the table. Biron jumped and looked back at him. “We’ve put up with your moaning and your whining, and we’ve been quiet about it. Between your mother’s death and you moving to Groverston we’ve tried to be understanding. We’ve tried to give you space, and give you time. But so help me this has got to stop right now!”
“Don’t tell me you care,” Biron shouted. “Don’t tell me you suddenly started caring!”
“Biron,” Toni said sharply. “That-”
“How could I care?” Darrin bellowed, spinning away and throwing his coffee cup to the floor, shattering it. “When was I ever given a chance to care?” He whirled back. “I never knew you existed until I was told you were being sent here. Your mother never told me you were alive. Your mother never told me I had a son! How do you think that makes me feel, huh? How do you think it made Toni feel to learn her husband had a son he never knew?”
Biron blinked. “Don’t you talk about my mot-”
“I never got to hear your first words, or see your baby pictures, or play soccer with you. I never got to send you Christmas presents or birthday presents. I never even got to teach you anything important to me! Jesus, Biron, how dare you sit there and accuse me of not caring? Ever since you appeared in my life I’ve tried. I’ve tried to talk, I’ve tried to be supportive. I’ve argued with coaches and I’ve let you sit in the basement like a monk for hours at a time! And what do I get for this? You’ve already got your master plan. I get maybe six years, and then you’re taking the first ship out of town and I’ll never see you again. You’d rather be a janitor and live in a cube for the rest of your life than have anything to do with me or my world. Well damn it, you’re half Earthworm too!”
“I’ll never be an Earthworm,” Biron shouted, spinning out of his chair. “I hate this place and I hate this weather and I hate you .” He ran out of the kitchen, through the living room and up the stairs to his room.
Darrin watched him go, shaking. Toni watched him, trembling herself.
Darrin turned away, half-sobbing, and hunched over the sink. “You know why I got involved with Rita in the first place,” he said. “God damn soy.”
“Darrin,” Toni said softly, rising.
“I ordered a salad at this place in Module Menaleus. Four stars, according to Traveler’s Information. I wanted a steak but it was forty-five dollars. They don’t herd meat up there. It’s all imported from Earth. So I got one of their specialty salads, and there were bricks of flavored soy curd all over it. I told them to take it back. And Rita storms out of the kitchen, chef’s hat on her head and she throws it in front of me, says its a signature of hers, and that I was bloody well going to eat it. If I didn’t like it she’d give me a steak.”
“And?” Toni asked softly.
“It was incredible,” Darrin said, staring in the drain. “Best salad of my life. She watched me eat the whole thing. We spent the week together, whenever I wasn’t in meetings with Achea corporation or the Station Administrator’s office. It was like making love to a forest fire. She either laughed at you or screamed at you, but it was incredible. And it was for just a moment, and we both knew it.”
“Why?” Toni asked. “Why not for longer?”
Darrin looked at his wife, his eyes red, his shoulders slack. “Because I’m an Earthworm, Toni. I love the Earth. Mycenae Station impressed me, but I can’t imagine living there. The ceilings in most of the modules are just two and a half meters off the floor. The air all smells the same. There isn’t any rain and no one keeps plants except in these little planter things at the corners where some of the corridors met. And she loved Mycenae. She’d been there for sixteen years. Her parents had emigrated. She had lived in Module Electra the whole time and she’d worked and studied her way up to being sous chef at Beta Three Thirty’s at Module Menaleus.”
“She was a Spacer, and you were an Earther,” Toni said.
“Right. So we didn’t pretend. We just burned as hot as we could. We kissed goodbye in Module Menalus’s tram station. She didn’t even see me to Aulis Port Authority. It was… one of those things you’re supposed to remember bittersweetly. One of those adventures you have when you’re young.”
Toni nodded, moving behind Darrin and putting her arms around him. “And protection?” she asked.
“She was on six month sterility. I had been health screened before I left. They’re health screened monthly up there. It was safe. Except she lost track of dates, and her sterility had degraded.”
“And she had a boy you never knew about.”
“Yeah.” Darrin sighed. “And she died, and they sent him to me. And he hates it and he hates me.”
“Twelve year olds hate pretty easily,” Toni said.
The voice was soft. The two turned. Dee was standing at the corner of the living room, looking around.
“Yes, princess?” he said to her.
“Biron’s crying,” she said. “And you were yelling.”
Darrin nodded. He looked at Toni.
“I’ll check on Biron,” she said, letting go of Darrin. He walked over to his daughter and picked her up. Toni watched him go to her. Watched his quiet care and love, and wondered how that could ever bridge a two hundred and fifty million kilometer gap.
Biron looked up at the knock. “Yeah,” he said horsely.
“It’s me,” Toni said. “Can I come in?”
“Yeah,” he said, turning away.
Toni walked in carrying two mugs. “I brought you some tea,” she said.
Biron looked up at her. His eyes were red, and not from the fight. “Bee tea?” he asked quietly.
“What else?” Toni quirked a smile, and Biron almost echoed it. He took a cup.
Toni sat down. “Did you win the fight?” she asked.
“Sort of. They tried to stay on their feet. We don’t fight like that, and it’s easier to tackle than it is to stay upright.”
Toni nodded. “Is that how you fight your dad, too?”
Biron blinks. “Huh?”
“You don’t stand up and punch. You hit the ground and bring him down to you? That’s a different kind of planetfall, isn’t it?”
Biron sort of laughed. “Planetfall. Me tackling Rob’s legs. Me dragging Gillet down to screaming. Me being thrown from the sky to this bloody place. ‘Sall the same thing, isn’t it?”
“Maybe it is. So why don’t you like him?”
“He wants to be my father. Wants me to be like a kid on the vids, all happy endings and finished homework and ‘mowing the lawn.'” Biron put his face in his hands. “He’s nothing like Mom was. She was funny, and she didn’t take herself too seriously, and… and I’ve lost her. Lost everything of hers. Lost my whole life. I planetfell.”
“Maybe,” Toni said, putting an arm on his shoulder. “Maybe you did. And you’re right, it’s pretty dirty down here. The question is, are you going to lie in the dirt and cry about it? Or are you going to start picking yourself back out of it?”
“Well, you could start by giving your father a chance. Just a little one. Try finding out who he is instead of deciding that he’s not your Mom. You know, Dee thinks he’s a pretty special father.”
“So were you, once.”
“Whatever happens, you’re stuck here for six more years, minimum. No one’s going to pay to send you back to Mycenae Station. So you’d better start finding things to like down here.” Toni’s voice was soft, in contrast to her words.
Biron looked over to her. “I like you,” he said.
Toni smiled ever so slightly. “I like you too,” she answered. “So, there’s a start.”
“Toni! Toni Gillett!”
Toni turned at the voice – she was trying to make her way through the crowd, to reach Biron. It was Anton Wallace. She bit down a scowl.
“Yes, Coach,” she said as he got closer, squinting in the sunlight.
“That was incredible. Second in the hundred meters, first in the fifty and way out ahead in the thousand meters! His time was better than half the high school team’s! How-”
“He trained. Excuse me.”
“Toni, I was watching some vid of sports at Mycenae Station.” Coach Wallace was staying with her, trying to block her progress. “It was incredible. They tear all over that field, and the ball keeps hooking, especially on the higher kicks, and it hits the ceiling on the high kicks and bounces down-”
“Well, they only have seven and a half meters to play with,” Toni said. “Excuse me, please.”
“I was thinking – if I started working with Biron… you know, one on one and stuff… well, we could get him aiming better. With that kind of endurance and speed-”
“Goodbye, Coach,” Toni pushed past, and headed for where Biron was sitting with several other kids.
“…incredible,” Rob Mallory was saying to Biron. He was the boy Biron had gotten in the fight with. “You just ran like it was nothing. You almost sprinted the whole kilometer.”
“Nah,” Biron said, blushing. “My sprint’s fast.”
“It was cool,” Rob said. “Do they all run like that in space?”
“Nope. Only the runners.” Biron grinned.
“Right – hey, is pool weird in space like soccer is? My Dad just got a table.”
“Dunno. I’ve never even heard of it. You mean swimming?”
“Nope! Cool! I suck at it, so we’re even. Want to come over later and try it?”
“Oh – sure.”
“Cool. Your Mom’s here. I’ve gotta go.”
Biron blinked and watched Rob leave. He turned and looked at Toni.
Toni shrugged. “I don’t think he knew to call me your ‘Toni.'”
Biron blinked and grinned. “Guess not. Dad was here too, wasn’t he?”
“And your little sister.”
“Huh. Mom never came to my games. She didn’t like that sort of things.”
Toni smiled a bit. “We’re kind of a sports family.”
“Hey there,” Darrin said, walking up, holding Dee’s hand. “Nice race, Biron.”
“Thanks,” he said, smiling a bit.
“Got something for you,” he said, fishing in his jeans pocket. He held a small silver coin to Biron, who took it.
“Hey,” Biron said, startled. “This is a Tridrachma. From home.”
Darrin nodded. “I got ahold of a few around town. And my buisness is sending me more. I have a deal for you. I’ll tell you it over dinner if you want.”
“Deal?” Biron followed, Toni behind him.
“Right. The way I see it, every quarter you do B’s or above in school, I’ll put ten drachma into an account of yours on Mycenae Station. Though the branch office. I’ll match it with a decadrachma that I give to you. If you’re going to bankroll, we might as well do it right.”
Biron blinked again. “But my chores-”
“Those will give you a ten dollar a week allowance. That’s separate. That’s part of being in the house. This deal’s for schoolwork. Now, do exceptionally well in something in school or elsewhere – like winning the thousand meters – and we’ll throw in some Tridrachmas or something. And this deal goes up in value if you decide to go to college.”
Biron snorts. “And stay here longer?”
“Hey, I’d rather see you stay here another four years and get to Mycenae Station with a career.”
“I’ll think about it,” Biron said, though Toni could see he was trying not to smile. “No promises.”