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Dandelion: Chapter 3, Pt II

[Beginning | Continued from Pt I]
Getting her big confession off her chest left her feeling…lighter, somehow. It helped that the twins, once they’d accepted it, were throwing themselves into helping her with their usual limitless enthusiasm. It was a slow and easy walk down Mount Messier, and Walker was setting a gentle pace so the Rangers could talk among themselves.
“So are you gonna go for doctor or nurse?” Nikki asked. “I mean, I know folks are probably gonna ship back up here if they need a surgeon or whatever, but—”
“I guess I’ll see which one calls to me more,” Amber said. “I mean, I’ll have barely started my apprenticeship by the time I go down there. It’s gonna take years before I’m qualified either way.”
“You’ve definitely got the brain for it,” Roy said. “I don’t think I ever saw you read the same book twice.”
Nikki chuckled. “And you can barely read a book once. You’d be a terrible nurse.”
That of course offended Roy’s pride, and he leapt to defend his ability to do absolutely anything well. “Nuh-uh! Nurses have to move folks in and outta bed, right? Gotta be good and strong for that. And I’ve done dirty jobs, I could totally change folks’ clothes, clean ‘em up…”
“Roy, I think your ideas about what nurses do might be a couple hundred years out of date,” Amber told him.
“Whatever!” Roy snorted “I could still do it!”
Amber and Nikki met each other’s eyes, and wordlessly agreed not to humor his competitive instincts any further.
“I wonder how quickly you’ll go?” Nikki mused instead.
“Pretty quick, I hope…” Amber said. “I mean…I don’t mean, uh—”
“Relax, dork,” Nikki gave her a gentle knuckle in the arm. “So you’re eager to get on with it. We get it. We’re not completely useless meatheads, y’know.”
“I mean, I guess you’re right…” Roy said. “Seems kinda dumb that we spent all our lives flying here and me and Nikki aren’t gonna live down there…”
“Somebody’s gotta look after the launches and stuff,” Nikki reminded him. “And we’re good at it! Hell, we’re about the best at it, too!”
Amber nodded. She’d recently visited the pair when they were at work on the outerdecks maintaining Dandelion’s huge launches, and the gravity out there had been oppressive. With it being bit over two Gs at launch level, she’d felt like there was a second, invisible Amber sitting on her and dragging on her arms. Just standing up had been exhausting, so how the twins, their dad, or the hundreds of other outerdeck engineers managed to work full day shifts was beyond her.
Seeing Roy casually hang one-armed from a launch’s ceiling while he inspected behind a panel, easily pulling himself this way and that, was impressive enough. Watching him fling himself through that opening and up into the launch’s guts without so much as a grunt of effort—using just that one arm, and with the other hauling on a heavy-looking tool-kit, no less—that had been enough to drop her jaw.
It wasn’t surprising in retrospect—all outerdeck engineers were functionally monkeys, in her experience—but seeing what that meant up close was another thing entirely. They weren’t even in the deepest gravity, either. The outermost decks were just over three Gs and the outrigger pods were even worse. Amber knew she couldn’t stand in such oppressive gravity, but she had no doubt Roy could handle it.
For once he’d been clothed head-to-toe in a launch engineer’s safety clothing: boots, pants, a tough long-sleeved shirt, and stout work gloves. He couldn’t have been comfortable, though. His work shirt had been completely drenched through with sweat, and his face had been ruddy from the work. Nikki hadn’t been much better off herself, as she’d been tending to the tools and staging all the incomprehensible equipment Roy was ripping out and replacing.
Even so, Amber had watched them work for a long while, and at no point did either of them show any signs of slowing down. At all. Amber couldn’t say the same, and she didn’t dare sit down for fear she might not be able to stand back up. It had all been worth it, though, just to see their faces when she unveiled her gift—a massive beef and broccoli stir-fry with jasmine rice, their favorite.
She was going to miss them terribly.
“I guess it’s also, like…I know this ship,” she said and looked around at it. As stunning and weird as the biodeck was, she’d seen the same view every day for fourteen years, and from pretty much every angle. It wasn’t that she was bored of it, exactly, but it was familiar. “I don’t know what it’s going to be like down on Newhome. That…calls to me. I mean, imagine being the first human ever to climb a new mountain!”
“That would be pretty cool,” Roy admitted wistfully.
“Or building a town from the ground up…” Nikki added. “Imagine building someplace brand new for people to call home…”
“Are you thinking of coming with me now?” Amber asked, half-jokingly.
Roy stopped in his tracks and gave her a serious look for a moment. “…Nah,” he decided. “I mean, it sounds cool, but there really aren’t many people who can do what we do. DANI needs engineers like me and Nikki.”
“We fit up here,” Nikki agreed.
“We’ll still visit, though! And I’mma climb that mountain, too!”
“Of course you will!” Amber grinned. “But I’ll have climbed it first.”
“Atta girl!” Nikki gave her a hug, then gestured to pick up the pace by trotting ahead a short ways. “Come on! If we get back down to the lake before the rest of the troop, we can go for a swim!”
That sounded like heaven. It was certainly all the encouragement Amber needed, and she was moving even before Roy. Naturally he immediately went charging past her, which turned into a race, which turned into the twins vanishing around a bend in the path, then coming back for her…
And when they got to the lake, the water was cool and refreshing.
All in all, it wasn’t a bad way to finish Turnover Day weekend.
Home, however, was a different matter. It took hours to get back to the city and line up on Sagan Plaza, receive one last inspection and some words of encouragement and praise from Walker, and then…that was it. Their little adventure was done. Dan and Petra McKay turned up to take Roy and Nikki out for dinner somewhere, and all the other Rangers went home with their parents or whatever…
Amber’s parents didn’t show up. She walked home alone.
She was totally safe. The city wasn’t like cities back on Earth, which if the movies and stuff were to be believed had been full of muggers and other dangerous people just waiting to jump out at a lone pedestrian. They were probably exaggerating, but nobody ever got mugged on these streets. The militia responded instantly to any disturbance, because DANI saw all, heard all, knew all.
That sounded a lot more sinister than it was. Probably.
The shadows were long, now. The sun lamps were all the way down at the ship’s far end, and fading from daylight mode to moonlight. The heating was off too, cooling the air, slightly. Amber had no idea how accurate Dandelion’s simulated day cycle was compared to the real thing, but it didn’t feel wrong to her. She walked past bustling bars and took a detour through the park as she headed home, past the lingering scent of extinguished barbecues.
The city was dense, tightly packed to fit as many people into as small a footprint as possible. There was only a finite amount of space on the biodeck after all, and it all needed to be used efficiently. Even the luxurious features like Mount Messier and the lake were there for practical reasons of training and recreation, to take the pressure off a hard-working populace.
The towers and skyscrapers around her were so tall that the curvature of the ship’s hull narrowed the gap between them to mere cracks. Only the open park spaces and widest avenues enjoyed much “sunlight.” Down at ground level, the lighting came from shop hoardings and street lamps that, combined, gave the streets a cozy feel.
She stuffed her communicator into her ear. They’d had it with them but turned off over the weekend, but now that she’d been dismissed, she could use it for something other than emergencies again.
“They forgot me again, huh?” she asked aloud.
Sure enough, DANI’s soft voice was sympathetic in her ear. “I am afraid they are engaged in another argument. I tried to remind them to come for you, but—”
“But they told you to shut up?”
“Yes.” There was a momentary pause, and when DANI started his next sentence, he was using exactly the tone of voice she’d predicted he would. “Amber—”
Amber stopped dead in the street and aimed a glare down the street toward the huge painted ship’s emblem at the front of the biodeck. Behind that enormous metal wall was DANI’s central data center: In the absence of one of his avatars, it was the closest thing she could get to looking directly at him. “I told you, I don’t want to raise a complaint.”
“I will respect your autonomy,” DANI replied diplomatically.
Satisfied that was the best she was going to get on the subject, Amber started walking again.
“They’re my parents,” she explained.
“I am aware.”
“And I love them,” Amber added belatedly.
“As you say.”
“DANI…” Amber sighed. “As you say” was DANI-speak for “Whatever.”
“Forgive me. For what it is worth, I am quite sure they love you, too.”
“They have a funny way of showing it,” Amber muttered, and scuffed her boot irritably on the pavement. “Can’t even come to fetch their own daughter…”
“Would you like a drone taxi?” DANI offered.
“No, thanks. I’m fine walking.”
“As you wish. But I stand by my assessment. I am perfectly certain they remain married only because they think it is what is best for you.”
“Great. They put up with each other because they think that’s what I need?” Amber shook her head. “Idiots.”
“I know, I know…” She scuffed the other boot for balance. “But you make them sound like idiots when you put it that way.”
“That was not my intent.”
“I know, you were just trying to be reassuring.” Amber sighed and straightened up again. She could at least hold her head high for her walk of shame.
One of DANI’s little drones finally showed up, zipping down from rooftop level to buzz along beside her. It projected a holographic avatar for him, which strolled at her side with its hands behind its back.
DANI’s avatars interested Amber. He’d carefully chosen a slim and dapper appearance, with a thin chin and boyish face. Cute, rather than handsome. Maybe he wanted to seem harmless and meek, to try to offset some of the awesome power he held. Or maybe it was just one of those personal quirks he was so proud of. Either way, everybody knew what DANI “looked” like.
“I stand by it,” he repeated. “They are enduring a marriage they both hate out of love for you. That they misunderstand your feelings does not change their intent.”
“Idiots…” Amber muttered, though DANI’s opinion made her feel a little better.
He “walked” with her in comfortable silence, all the way down the straight length of Herschel Road and into Keplerton, where her parents lived on Aldrin Avenue. It was a wide road, cheerfully lit by fairy lights strung between the venerable beech trees that lined it on either side. Apparently somebody had hung them up there in the early days of Dandelion’sflight, and they’d become a local landmark.
DANI tutted as he noted that one of the strands was dark. Knowing him, it would be repaired within the hour.
She stopped in front of her home block and stared up at the lit windows on the top floors for a moment. “DANI?”
“Yes, Amber?”
“Could you stick around while I deal with this?”
He nodded solemnly and dissolved his avatar. The drone whined up into the darkness above and vanished among the fairy lights. “Of course.”
Amber took a deep breath to steel herself, let herself in through the front door, and finally put her pack down with a relieved sigh as she stepped into the lift. Home was the top two floors of the block, the fifth and sixth. It was a simple arrangement—the laundry and stuff were on the ground floor, then each pair of floors above that was a two-story apartment big enough for a family of four.
Fortunately for the neighbors, each apartment was soundproofed. Amber didn’t hear raised voices until she stepped off the lift and was confronted by their door.
“Have they been shouting at each other this whole time?”
“Yes, indeed.”
Amber sighed and took her earpiece out; the apartment was fully equipped to let him hear and help her. DANI unlocked the door for her, and the robust conversation within stopped instantly.
Jade and Alan Houston were standing in the middle of the kitchen, both wearing expressions that were either agitation with each other or embarrassment at being caught. Or both. Amber gave them both a carefully blank stare, then walked between them to put her pack away in the cupboard under the stairs.
“I’m home,” she said.
“Uh…welcome back,” Alan said after a second.
“You walked this whole way?” Jade asked.
Amber stowed her pack and returned to the front door to take her boots off. “Yup.”
“Why didn’t you call? We would have come and—”
“You knew exactly what time we were supposed to get back to the plaza,” Amber said. She wrenched her left boot off and put it away without looking at her. “And DANI tried to remind you.”
“We, uh…we got to talking about—” Alan began, but the moment Amber had the other boot off she brushed past him and headed toward the stairs.
“I’m tired. I’m going to take a hot bath.”
“Amber—” Jade began.
“You two have fun discussing whatever.”
She trotted up the stairs, counting under her breath. She was nearly at the top when she heard a muttered, quiet comment in a bitter tone of voice from her mum, a sharp retort from her dad—and just like that, the argument was back on. A little quieter now, maybe, but…
“Oh, for the Authors’ sakes…” she muttered, and tried to tune them out. “Hey, DANI, could you run a bath for me?”
DANI’s voice spoke from the wall console. “Certainly.”
“Are you quite sure you would not like me to talk with them on your behalf?”
Amber ducked into her bedroom to grab her pajamas and her favorite scented soap. Her mum had a bad habit of using it up if she left it in the bathroom. “No, thanks,” she repeated firmly.
“As you wish. Your bath is nearly ready.”
“Thanks.” Amber wasted no time getting out of her trail-stained and sweaty Ranger clothes, which went into the laundry hamper. She laid her pajamas out on the bed, grabbed her favorite fluffy towel from the top shelf of her wardrobe, and wrapped it around herself for the short trip to the bathroom.
She had to hand it to DANI; he knew exactly how to draw the perfect bath. It was covered in a pillowy cloud of bubbles, and hot enough to make her hold her breath as she lowered herself into it. Therapeutically hot, but just shy of hurting.
She sank until her ears were submerged and lay there for a while, listening to the muffled sound of water and her own breathing. It went some way toward relaxing her, at least. After a while she sat up, squeezed most of the water out of her hair, and scrubbed at her face as she listened carefully.
“I don’t hear an argument any longer. Have they stopped?”
“They have moved to separate rooms,” DANI explained.
Amber nodded and grabbed her hair care basket. She was never able to properly look after her dense curls in the field on Ranger weekends, and she wasn’t looking forward to the minor pain she was about to endure, but…well. Better that than the agony of having a giant dreadlock to deal with later.
“How’re the McKays?”
“They are enjoying dinner at Sorrentino’s. Roy has just spilled red wine on his last remaining white linen shirt. I shall need to remind him he’s due for a fitting.”
Dandelion didn’t technically have an age limit for drinking alcohol as was common on Earth, though under-eighteens needed a parent or guardian’s approval. That hardly stopped anyone, of course, but as long as people kept their cool, nobody made much of a fuss, and DANI didn’t grass to parents except in serious cases.
Amber hadn’t been impressed by alcohol herself when she’d tried it—beer was too bitter, wine added flavors to perfectly good grape juice that she didn’t enjoy, and she had no idea why anybody would torture themselves with spirits. Her one evening of sampling different drinks had quickly resulted in her getting giggly and falling asleep. It had been fun, but she hadn’t really seen the point.
“He never could handle alcohol,” she observed. “All that clean living I guess.”
DANI chuckled. “Now his mother has told him to ‘stop whining.’”
Amber smiled. Petra McKay had the best awful sense of humor.
“Would you like to send them a message?” DANI asked.
“No. I don’t want to bring them—nngh—down.” Amber grunted as she encountered a particularly difficult tangle, and realized she was going to need help. She gave up, set the basket aside, then lay back and shut her eyes to enjoy the warm water for a little while longer.
Sometime later—she wasn’t sure how long—DANI got her attention with a polite beeping sound, and she realized the water had become tepid without her noticing. A quick inspection of her hands found them to be pruned and wrinkly beyond belief.
“Did I fall asleep?”
“You dozed.”
With a sigh, Amber heaved herself out of the bath and was surprised to find she felt refreshed and awake. Feeling she ought to try to at least have some kind of a positive relationship with her parents, she rinsed quickly, dried herself off, changed into her pajamas, and took her hair basket downstairs toward the sound of movies.
Jade was curled up on the couch with a glass of wine in hand, watching something soppy and heart-warming. She gave a strained, sad smile and made room.
“How was the mountain?”
“It was fun, mostly,” Amber said, sitting next to her. “I fell and grazed my knee—”
“And my hair’s a mess,” Amber added, “but apart from that, it was great.” Her mum nodded, grabbed the brush, and set to work. “I told the twins about my apprenticeship.”
“You’re still going planetside?”
“How did they take it?”
Amber sighed. “I made Nikki cry…”
“Nikki? Crying?” Jade’s brush stopped for a second. “That must be a first.”
Amber nodded. “Roy’s eyes watered up, too. They’re…supportive. You know how they can be about these sort of things.”
Jade nodded. “You’re lucky. I wish I’d had friends like those two.”
“Mm.” Amber nodded. She shut her eyes and enjoyed the sensation of her mum’s fingers working their clever magic all over her scalp.
“I know they’re special to you,” Jade said after a few quiet minutes. “I don’t think you ever said why you’re willing to go down there and leave them behind.”
“Amber, if it’s because of your father and me—”
“Mum…I really don’t want to talk about that right now,” Amber said, mentally adding an “or ever.” She’d already said everything she was going to say to them about their endless fighting. There was no point in saying it again.
“So it is because of—”
“I said I don’t want to talk about it!” Amber snapped. “Please.”
For a second she worried she’d gone too far and ruined the moment, but after pausing for a second, Jade heaved out a huge breath and kept brushing.
They sat in slow and comfortable silence as Jade methodically brushed, combed, picked, and pinned all the tangles and knots out of the thick, curly hair they shared. Finally, she made a satisfied noise and put the tools back in the basket.
“There,” she announced. “Done.”
Amber nodded. Her head felt lighter somehow. And cleaner.
“Thanks, Mum. I’d better say good night to Dad. I have school in the morning.”
They traded cheek-kisses, and Amber left her to her movie.
It was funny, in a way. She liked both her parents well enough on their own, but they brought out the worst in each other, and there were times when she found herself hating them collectively but loving them individually. Which made no sense, but…
Her dad worked from home, but his office was always open to Amber. She knocked anyway and slipped inside when he called back, “Come on in, Mon Bijou!”
It meant “my gem” in French. Every dad needed a nickname for his daughter, Amber had been named for a kind of gemstone, and Amber’s dad loved to play around with old languages, so…
He wasn’t working right now. He was playing a single-player videogame of some kind, which he paused before half-turning his chair as she entered.
“Look, Amber, I’m really sorry—”
“Dad…” Amber sighed and sat down in the comfy armchair. “Let’s not start.”
She really, really wanted to tell him she didn’t need an apology, she just needed a good reason to believe it would never happen again, but he couldn’t possibly give her one, so there was nothing to do except not have that conversation again.
“What’re you playing?” she asked instead.
“This? Oh, it’s a twenty-first century classic shoot-em-up.”
“That sounds…violent?”
“It is. Not for young eyes, sorry…How was rangering?”
“Good!” Amber said, pleased to get onto more pleasant subjects. “It made me feel a lot more confident about being a colonist.”
Alan nodded. Like the twins, he intended to stay on the ship when they arrived. He was an engineer, too, of a different stripe—an agricultural engineer. His job involved trotting all over the biodeck to maintain, certify, and repair the systems and machinery that kept their crops growing. Funny how a man so scatterbrained and irresponsible in his family life could be so successful at a job that carried such enormous responsibility. Maybe he expended it all at work and came home on an empty tank.
“I don’t suppose you had any luck talking the twins into joining you?” he asked.
Amber smiled, “They were tempted for a second, I think, but they’re right. They fit too well up here, doing what they do. I can’t take that from them…”
Alan rolled his chair back from his desk and turned to face her completely. “You never have been totally happy here on the ship, have you? Ever since we first told you that yours is the generation to settle Newhome, you’ve been…restless.”
Amber shrugged. She drew her feet up onto the chair beneath her and curled up comfortably. “Is that so weird?” she asked. “I mean, if you’re going to dangle something like that over me my whole life…”
“No, it’s not weird. I’m actually immensely proud of you,” Alan said, to Amber’s surprise. “There’s a lot of people out there doing everything they can to dodge what this mission is all about. And sure, the ship will be an important part of the colony for decades, but…”
“But there won’t be a colony if nobody goes down in the first wave.”
“You’re…really proud of me?” Amber asked. He’d never said that before.
“Absolutely.” He smiled, though there was a sad undertone to it, and slid forward off his chair to kneel next to hers and give her a hug. “You’d better go to bed. Don’t you have school in the morning?”
“Yeah…Bonne nuit, Papa.”
He smiled and waved her goodnight. “Toi aussi, Mon Bijou.”
With her duties thus tended to, Amber padded past the couch, traded good-nights with her mum, trotted up the stairs, and flung herself onto her bed to think.
She wasn’t tired, really. Her little nap in the bath had woken her up, and she lay back to stare up at the glow-in-the-dark star stickers on her ceiling. Her dad had put them up there for her nearly ten years ago, carefully matching them to the constellations of Earth’s northern hemisphere.
She’d once wondered which one was Newhome, only to learn that Newhome had been too faint to see with the naked eye from Earth.
“That wasn’t so bad in the end.”
DANI, as always, was happy to pick up a conversation from nowhere. “I confess, I was not listening. Privacy, you understand.”
“Thanks. Um…is dad okay?”
“As far as I know.” DANI sounded perplexed. “Why do you ask?”
“He said he’s proud of me. I just…that seemed…I don’t know.”
DANI simulated a “Hmm…” and a thoughtful pause for her benefit.
“You couldn’t tell me if there was something wrong, huh?” Amber hazarded.
“That’s correct. But no, I do not think there is any cause for alarm. If I had to guess, I believe your father is becoming acutely aware that his little girl is growing up and plans to leave home soon. That is a traumatic time for a father.”
“I’ll be here for at least a year…” Amber pointed out. She rolled aside so she could pull the blankets out from under herself and wriggle under them.
“The future is intimidating,” DANI said. Amber thought about that as she stared at her stars some more.
“I guess…” she said slowly. “But isn’t that the point of an adventure?”
“You long for adventure?”
“I don’t know. I guess so?” Amber said, stifling a yawn. Her bed was far too comfortable. “I mean, what is an adventure?”
“Classically, the hero leaves home and is thrust into the unknown, where they face and are transformed by a series of trials and temptations.”
“The ‘leaves home’ part sounds nice…” Amber admitted with a sleepy mumble.
“I’ve always felt it was a metaphor for life. Leaving home and being transformed by the world is normal, for humans. At the end of the cycle, the hero often returns home only to find that it is no longer the same to them. Sometimes they no longer fit comfortably there; sometimes they find they finally understand and are at peace.”
That was about all the reply Amber could muster. She thought she said something more, maybe. Or maybe it was a dream that crept up on her as she fell asleep.
She did hear DANI wish her good night. Her dreams were filled with heroes.
They were back at school the next day. She genuinely enjoyed it. She’d read once about how school had once been structured back on Earth, and it sounded awful as far as she was concerned. School on Dandelion wasn’t about sitting down in ranks and memorizing stuff, nor were there standardized tests or grades. The educators who’d first designed the shipboard curriculum a hundred years ago knew that people weren’t all identical robots—everybody learned differently, had their own interests and talents, and looked at the world their own way, so the system was designed to reflect that.
It was structured like a game. There were missions, and trials, and challenges to face, and a sophisticated points system that let students and teachers alike track how they were progressing. Nobody could progress without covering certain essential basics, but the real fun was in confronting the higher-tier challenges and earning the rare achievements.
In Amber’s case, it fed her passion for mathematics, history, languages…and people. As she’d gone through life and shown more interest in some subjects over others, DANI had taken note and helped her teachers supply her with an education that suited her individual tastes. Mostly that involved giving her books to read and then write a short report on. Other kids learned working skills in the workshop, or practiced their cooking, or played around with chemicals and lasers in the labs…Amber read. A lot. She guessed she was about halfway through the school library.
After a weekend of hiking and doing ranger-y things in the woods, followed by the depressing reality of her home life, about the only thing she felt up to at school today was curling up in a corner and reading.
She’d picked a book about The War.
From what she’d read, Amber got the impression that pretty much every era in human history had a “the war,” a defining event in people’s lives, the big conflict that completely tore up the status quo and echoed through the generations to come…until the next “the war” arrived. Until then, every other conflict demanded a qualification. Some nickname like “the Vietnam war” or “the war on terror” or “the Martian-Belter war” to distinguish it from the current the war.
But this “The War” had capital letters. And in the nearly four hundred years since its armistice, nothing had seized its crown. Its terminology remained fixed in modern language: The Great Madness, OGRE teams, the Long Exodus…the Bullet From the Black, the Nighttime of Reason, and the Seven Minute Slaughter.
Then there were the Alt-Human colonists of the Jovian moons, divided into their specialist gene-strains: Apostles, their Shepherds and Knights, the Brutes, Adepts, and Nomads. They’d come in-system at the very height of the war, bearing the New Book, which in turn had kindled the Dawn of Humanity…
And ultimately, barely, with the human species teetering on the very edge of self-inflicted extinction, they’d brought peace.
Dandelion was their doing, too. They’d seen the solar system for what it was, a single tiny basket in a much bigger sky. They’d built the ship from the wreckage of the old order and sent her off with their fond hope that she would never return.
Amber had to admit, it was enthralling. She felt kind of guilty about that, considering The War had been two decades of abject misery that had claimed billions of lives and left the human race a splintered fraction of its former glory…but it really made for a gripping read.
At least, it did until she was interrupted by a huge, looming shadow.
“Hey, Amber.”
Amber lowered her U-tool and looked up. “Why is your shirt ruined?”
Roy chuckled at her and thumped down into his favorite extra-big beanbag. His shirt at least wasn’t completely torn apart, but it had picked up a couple of rips and a burn mark. He looked pleased about it rather than irate, so it must have been something fun or worthwhile. “You hafta ask?”
“Well, I figure you might learn some restraint eventually…”
“What?” Roy laughed. “I like to play hard! What’s wrong with that?”
“Ignore her, she’s being a troll again.” They looked up as Nikki joined them. She was almost looking better groomed than her brother for a change.
“You have a mountain of sawdust in your hair,” Amber told her. Nikki grinned and flomped down next to her.
“That’s what little friends with clever fingers are for,” she said.
Amber rolled her eyes but obediently dug in her bag for a comb and began the process of getting little flecks of wood out of Nikki’s hair, which was fortunately a lot more manageable than Amber’s own mass of curls. Nikki’s was straight, and she wore it in a short and easily cleaned pixie cut. That was kind of the point; it would constantly get scorched, matted, caught on stuff, or covered in paint otherwise.
“What were you making?” Amber asked as a shower of woody particles fell on her knees from the first pass of the comb. “Did you just chip up a whole log for fun?”
“I made a rolling pin on the lathe!”
Baking was one of Nikki’s few classically “girly” hobbies. Then again, all her hobbies involved making a mess. It didn’t seem to matter to her whether she wound up covered in flour, eggs, and chocolate; in sawdust, solvent, and glue; or in mud, sweat, and blood. She didn’t view it as a successful day unless she went home with something staining her clothes.
Roy immediately looked hungry. “Ooh! What’re you gonna bake?”
Nikki shrugged. “I don’t know yet. Sweet potato pie, maybe? Oh! Or maybe that recipe of gran’ma’s, the peach and goat’s cheese puff pastry with honey.”
“Wouldn’t that be expensive? The goat cheese in particular…” Amber asked.
“Throw off my macros, too…” Roy pointed out, though it looked like it caused him physical pain to admit it. He knew a lot about food—in fact, about the only time Amber ever saw him open a book was to delve into the arcane worlds of nutrition and anatomy. On Walker’s insistence, and a few hints from DANI, he’d also branched out to studying bush tucker and how to preserve food, because everybody was supposed to have a “colony skill” at Newhome, even the spacers.
He’d also taken to raising chickens in their community green plot, “for the eggs.” But mostly he studied exercise, nutrition, and the role it played in keeping his body in top condition. It was amazing how much he ate, actually. He’d even talked DANI into giving him an increased allowance of natural beef credits, one of the few commodities onboard that was tightly rationed rather than being left to market forces.
As long as he remained diligent with his studies, work, and training, Roy was allowed an extra three hundred grams of prime-grade hamburger every other day, and a large steak every week. That part especially made Amber super envious.
“Ugh, you and your macronutrients again!” Nikki complained.
“What? I’ve got the Olympic qualifiers comin’ up in like six months, and the regional meet in a few weeks. I gotta make weight!”
“Don’t give me that line, lil’ bro.” Nikki rolled her eyes. She was the older by about twenty minutes, and calling him her “little brother” was a long-standing joke between them. “You’re already as big and dumb as a bus, and you’re so fatyou’re in the adult super-heavyweight bracket!”
“Naw, muscle’s way heavier than fat! I’m too ripped!” Roy lifted his shirt and pinched up the thin skin clinging tight to his powerfully corrugated midriff. “See? Ain’t any on me!” He blew out his breath and rippled his eight-pack abs, just for fun.
Amber giggled internally. There was almost nothing Roy enjoyed more than harmlessly showing off. Outwardly, of course, she always pretended to be tired of it, but secretly…Well, he wouldn’t have been himself without that particular quirk.
“Fine, but there’s no way you’re gonna blow weight. You won’t even need to cut!”
“Naw, I’m already twelve kilos over!” Roy boomed. He raised his arms and flexed his huge biceps until the seams of his ragged shirt tore. “See? Biggest on the ship I bet!”
Okay, maybe it did get a little tiresome…
Both Amber and Nikki rolled their eyes. “What-ever!” Nikki snorted. “You’re not gonna miss and you know it. You can afford some of my pie, you big meathead!”
“Nuh-uh, because I don’t wanna worry about cutting too much weight, gotta keep super lean! Plus I want to fight Kyle ‘fer the gold; he’s almost as good as me!”
Kyle Findale lived out in one of the farming towns clear on the other end of the biodeck, and in many ways he was Roy’s doppelgänger, the yin to his yang. Amber would have guessed that would make them bitter rivals, but they got along like a house on fire. Heaven help the McKays’ home when Kyle eventually paid a visit.
“Whatever. You’ll still eat my pie,” Nikki predicted.
Roy’s stomach growled, and he looked down at it with a scowl. “Traitor,” he muttered, and gave his belly an accusatory poke.
“So…you’re going to blow all that money on one pie?” Amber asked. “Are you sure you want to do that?”
“Oh come on, live a little! I haven’t had that peach pie in years.” Nikki sighed fondly. “I really miss—”
Whatever she was about to say next was drowned out by an alarm.
The school building had a few alarms. There was the one to mark session ends, the fire alarm—they’d all heard that one a few times, in fire drills—but it was also tapped into the ship-wide alarms. It wasn’t the hull-breach. If that alarm ever went off, it would basically mean everybody was already dead, or doomed.
This one, though…this one held the silver medal for dreaded sounds.
It was a mournful, all-encompassing whoop that bounced and echoed strangely around Dandelion’s cylindrical interior, and above it was DANI’s voice, ear-punchingly loud, with a resonant kick of bass to really sell the urgency of the situation.
Amber noticed almost unconsciously how the twins had surged to their feet the instant the alarm sounded. She was still sitting listening to the announcement when Nikki grabbed her arm, hauled her up, and hustled her toward the emergency exit. It took her a few seconds before DANI’s words sunk in and made sense…
But when they did, something cold dropped right down her spine.
Did you enjoy it? As I said at the beginning, we intend to publish the entire story free-to-read over the coming months. That said, if you're impatient…

You could order the eBook from Amazon, and skip the wait. There's a hardcover and paperback version available too. It's also available from Indiebound, Barnes and Noble, and can be ordered at any local bookstore by ISBN: 978-17358787-0-6 for the hardcover, 978-17358787-2-0 if you prefer paperback.

In any case, we're simply happy to share the story with you, and we think you'll like it very much indeed. And if you'd like just a little bit of a tease…things get really interesting at the end of chapter three…
Anyway. Thank you very much for your attention and time. It means a lot to me, it really does.
Thank you.
submitted by ctwelve to HFY


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