Authors: Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Copyright © 2013 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
First published in
Edge of Infinity,
edited by Jonathan Strahan, Solaris, 2012
Published by WMG Publishing
Cover and Layout copyright © 2013 by WMG Publishing
Cover design by Allyson Longueira/WMG Publishing
Cover art copyright © Philcold/Dreamstime
This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental. This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Fifteen minutes late, I’m always fifteen minutes late, even though I live not six meters from the office. The nearest door is humble enough, with its cryptic sign:
L&R: Employees Only
L&R—Licensing and Regulation. Sounds so innocuous, yet everyone is afraid of us.
With good reason I suppose.
We’re in the main part of the space station, although intuitively, you’d expect us to be on our own little platform along with our ships. I suspect that back in the days before anyone knew how dangerous L&R could be, the office was near the ships, which were probably docked not too far from here.
Now we all know that one pilot misstep could destroy an entire section of the station, so the test ships have their own docking platform far away from here. And L&R remains in its original location partly because it’s safer here, and safety is very, very important.
I step into the office, and take a deep whiff of the bad-coffee smell of the place. It’s almost like home, if a bland white (okay, gray) office with industrial chairs can be home. I say hello to Connie, and put my bag on the back of my chair in the actual office section.
Connie doesn’t say hello. She never says hello. Just once I’d like a “Nice to see you, Dev” or a “You’re late again, Devlin,” or maybe even a three-finger wave. Or a grunt. I’d be shocked if I ever got a grunt.
Today she’s leaning over the counter, dealing with whatever stupidity has walked into the waiting room. There’s a lot of stupidity here, which should worry people, since we’re the last stop between them and sheer disaster. But most people never come to our little bureaucracy. They think it’s better to have someone else operate space-faring vehicles. Which, considering the stupidity that walks through our door, stupidity that has already had one year of classwork, five written tests (minimum score: 80%), 500 hours simulation, 300 hours hands-on training with an instructor, and one solo journey that consists mostly of leaving the space station’s test bay, circling the instruction area, returning to the bay, and landing correctly at the same dock the ship had vacated probably ten minutes before, is probably good.
And that’s just for the student license, the one that allows practice flights solo in areas inhabited by other spacecraft.
No automation here. There’s too much at stake, too many important decisions, too much that rests on those five-second impressions we get about other people—that feeling
This guy is piloting a ship? Reeeally?
that you can’t quite describe, but is much more accurate than some computerized test that doesn’t completely get at the complexities of the human emergency response.
Is it any wonder they call my profession high-burnout? The woman who had this job before me died when an actual pilot—a guy who had done supply runs from Earth to the Moon—decided to get a racer’s permit. He came in at the wrong angle, missed the tester’s dock completely, grazed one of our practice cargo vessels, looped, and somehow shut off the environmental controls—all of them—inside the cockpit. My predecessor somehow couldn’t regain control fast enough. She died horribly, the kind of death none of us want and all of us know is possible.
Here’s the key to this job: Get paid and get out. Once you’re promoted to my position, you got maybe five years ahead of you. You get paid commensurately—with the amounts going up for each six months that you stay.
Me, I’ve been at it three years now, and I can feel the wear. That’s probably why I’m always late. I struggle just to get out of the apartment in the morning, wondering what fresh hell awaits me.
Today’s fresh hell—all six of them—sit in chairs in the waiting room. They clutch a health monitor in one hand, and the small tablet that Connie gives them in the other. They’re told that the tablet will vibrate when it’s their turn, but really the tablet monitors everything that’s illegal to track through the health monitor—DNA, hormone balance, skin secretions. We find out if they have untreated genetic propensities toward schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, if they have too many genes for dementia and its cousins, if they have the markers for high blood pressure, diabetes, and all of those diseases we can treat but which would give our company a significant financial burden, particularly if someone were to suffer a stroke decades before the statistical likelihood because of the stress of our watch.
Yeah, it’s illegal, but we do it, because L&R always gets blamed for failing to weed out the defective ones. We also get blamed if someone goes off the deep end and flies a ship into a space station or just avoids the navigation plan altogether and heads out into the Great Beyond without enough fuel or oxygen or sense. Usually we can catch those idiots before they ruin a ship, kill their passengers or their crew or (worse, in the eyes of many corporations) dump or destroy the cargo.
All of this rests on guys like me. We’re supposed to find these nutballs before they go off the deep end, even if the deep end is five decades from now.
That’s why the illegal monitors. I’ll flunk someone’s ass for a violation they don’t commit if there’s any warning signs at all.
Let them sue. It’ll take forever to go through the courts, and by then, my six years of post-job liability will have waned, and someone else can take the blame for what I did. If they can figure it out. Connie and I cover our tracks pretty well, mostly because she doesn’t get paid as much, will work longer, and has ten times the likelihood of being successfully sued than I do.
Before I arrived, she’s weeded out four, probably sent them back for more training, trying to discourage them. Or maybe they weren’t qualified at all. Not for me to know or to care about, quite honestly. All I know is that by the time I arrive, ten bodies should have be in my waiting room, and I only have six.
Hallelujah. Maybe I can quit early.
And maybe pigs will fly out of my ass on a historic Saturn V rocket, singing the national anthem of the no-longer-existent Soviet Union. Yeah, I’m a space history buff. Yeah, that’s what got me into this job.
That, and an unwillingness to sleep in any bed but my own. I didn’t even want to do cargo runs, no matter how much the bosses begged me. You don’t get to be a Level One Military Pilot—something that happens to only a few of us—without job offers pelting you when you leave the service.
I did my time in zero-g. I did my time in danger zones. I signed up here in the hopes that my life would get quiet from now on.
Yeah, right. Quiet.
I didn’t think it through.
There’s nothing more dangerous than a nervous baby pilot on his test flight.
And by the time I figured that out, I had passed the job’s probationary period and I couldn’t escape. I’m stuck here until I Section out (and the tests for a Section 52 Waiver are too complex to fake) or until I serve my time.
I traded one government master for another, one danger zone for dozens, and one headache for countless nightmares, each and every day.
Okay, not countless. Today’s count is six.
Different sizes, different ages, different levels of ambition. There’s the pretty, youngish woman who sits at the edge of her chair, clutching the tablet as if she can squeeze it to death. She’s watching everyone and everything. She’s thin, in shape, and has her hair cropped short. Prepared for anything.
Three youngish guys, two muscular, one probably too big to fit into most cockpits. I’ll look at his tablet closely before I ever get him into our test ship. One older guy, salt-and-pepper hair, corded arms, lines around his mouth—probably a retest. Drugs? Alcohol? Health scare? Or maybe he let his license expire. Or someone ordered a flight test for the renewal, which would be odd.
One older woman, arms crossed, head back, eyes closed. She’s been through this before and she doesn’t want to seem too eager.
“Any wash-outs?” I ask Connie as quietly as I can.
“Already gone,” she says.
I grab one of the tablets behind the counter, then raise my eyebrows, asking without asking if someone has washed out because of the chemical components of his sweat or because of a genetic propensity to nervous disorders.
“Nothing that’s not on the reports,” Connie says.
The reports. We can’t wash candidates out if they have a doctor’s release or if they self-report the hypertension, the family history of mental illness, the time that they went off the deep end and threatened passengers with a gun. Okay, that would get them disqualified no matter what, but I’m always thinking these people are going to do something screwy like that.
“All right,” I say tiredly, already dreading the day. “Let’s get to it.”
I take the big guy first. I take him to our smallest cockpit, and he can’t fit into the chair. He asks for another ship, which I give him. His arms brush against the controls. He asks for his own ship, which I deny. We don’t give private ship licenses here. Those cost more money than anyone can contemplate and have a gold standard all their own. You think my job is high-burnout, you should see the folks who do the private license tests. The ships don’t work right half the time, the ships’ safety regs are usually out-of-date, and the controls are often screwy, sometimes not even set up for a co-pilot, let alone a flight instructor.
My job is crazy; theirs is insane.
I send Buff Guy to them, and pray he can’t afford the fees.
The other two guys are by-the-book. Standard mistakes—forgetting the visual check before entering the ship, not reviewing the safety equipment before starting—the stuff that everyone does, and no one gets penalized for, no matter how much I bitch.
As for the older guy, I was right: alcohol. Three years clean and sober. Hands don’t shake. Doesn’t use anything to keep the alcohol at bay. Has had genetic modification to get rid of the alcoholic tendencies, several schools to get rid of the behavior, but wouldn’t do anything that touches the brain because he wants to get back to piloting.
He was the only one so far whose visible nerves have no effect on his actual flying skills. I’d fly with him any day, and I tell him that.
He looks grateful. I think he actually is grateful, not something I get very often.
Then, the youngish woman.
She wears too much perfume. It’s some kind of floral fragrance, which would get her kicked out of her commercial flight test. That stuff sometimes interacts with the controls, particularly if it’s on a hand crème or something.