Jet Skylar, Space Cadet

by on November 2nd, 2010
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“Who’s that?” Rom Harford stood at the window of the observation deck and peered down at the dock. Watching new students arrive was the only entertainment Institute candidates were allowed while in port, and everyone’s eyes are fixed on a long black hovercar that had just landed beside the thin stream of passengers waiting to board.

His new friend Deck shrugged. His red hair, cut in a crew-cut like Rom’s, stood on end, and his face was flushed with excitement. “Must be her.” When Rom looked blank, he added, “You know, Jet Skylar? Oh, I forgot. You’re not into pop culture.” He rolled his eyes in mock disbelief.

Rom might not be into pop culture, but watching the tabloid channels was his mother’s only form of entertainment. He vaguely recalled vid clips of Jet Skylar, pampered only daughter of the governor of the Three Planet Federation, posing in some fabulous evening gown or tiny swimsuit. There had been trouble too. Mostly minor stuff, like speeding in her one-of-a-kind hovercar or sneaking her friends into the Governor’s Dome. Rom’s lip curled. He despised richies like her who didn’t have a clue what life was like for real people.

“What’s she doing here?” he asked.

“Didn’t you watch the news?” Deck said. “She’s coming with us.” He laughed at Rom’s look of disbelief.

“Must be nice,” Rom muttered as a trio of security guards cleared the ramp for a massive cartload of baggage. As the baggage moved away, the limo hatch opened. A trio of aerial cams circled the dock, despite the Institute’s ban on them, and Rom guessed they were feeding live to some gossipy celeb channel.

“Jet Skylar, space cadet,” Deck breathed. “And in my humble opinion, the finest space-time curvature in the Federation.”

“Obviously she thinks so too,” muttered a female voice behind them.

Rom didn’t turn his head, because his gaze was fixed on the loading ramp. The crowd had parted, and he had his first clear view of Jet. He had to admit it was pretty spectacular. Her space-black hair sparkled with tiny rhinestone stars, and she wore a shiny silver jumpsuit that looked like a cadet uniform shrunk three sizes. She moved with confidence, and although Rom expected arrogance, she was laughing as she handed the ship security guard her ID and stepped forward for her retina scan.

“She won’t last a week,” Rom predicted as she and her baggage rolled up the ramp.

“But at least things’ll be interesting while she’s here,” Deck said.

As they continued to watch, Deck filled Rom in on how she had passed the entrance exam and been accepted as a student at the Institute of Space Sciences. In vidfeeds, she had gushed about how excited she was and how she couldn’t wait to start her studies. Then suddenly her father, the governor, announced that she was deferring her enrollment.

“Everyone figured she got bored with it or that someone clued her in on what life as a cadet is really like,” Deck explained. “Anyway, that’s the last we heard of it until yesterday, when she had a news conference to say she’d be boarding the ship here at Avalon. Didn’t you watch NewsNet?”

Rom shook his head. He hadn’t wanted to see more interviews of parents saying how proud they were of their children and how much they would miss them while they were off training to become starship captains. They reminded him too much of his own mother, whom Rom pictured sitting on his bunk at home, wiping her tears on the stuffed curinga bear he had left on his bed.

“Only one person qualified from this planet,” Deck explained. “But a bunch of richies are boarding after their parents treated them to a nice, long vacation at Cosmo Cairo.”

Rom was surprised to hear anyone from Avalon had qualified. Most of the planet was occupied by the Agrarians, a religious sect who had chosen to return to a low-tech, farming lifestyle. The sect didn’t produce many aspiring starship captains. Rom felt a flicker of admiration for the brave soul who was venturing into a life so different from his childhood. He probably wouldn’t make it. The Institute’s attrition rate was greater than fifty percent. But at least he would have traveled the stars.

Other than the Agrarian communities, the planet contained only a series of resorts, from quiet communes for study and contemplation, to the latest, flashiest hangout of the rich: Cosmo Cairo. Rom had seen photos of the pyramid-shaped buildings, and the spa advertised some sort of mummy-wrap beauty treatment.

Exactly the sort of place where Jet Skylar would feel at home. Rom scowled. He wasn’t here to play space cadet like these spoiled brats. He was here to earn his ticket off a mining asteroid that had already burned out the rest of his family. He didn’t have time for rich kids’ games.

“I’m going to my cabin,” he told Deck. “I want to watch the class on 3D coordinates. See you at dinner.”

Deck murmured goodbye without glancing away from the window. Rom made his way through the group of students and hoped nothing would delay the ship’s departure. Avalon was the last Federation stop on the ship’s schedule, and Rom couldn’t wait to leave the Three Planets’ region and venture into real outer space for the first time.

As he exited the elevator on the cabin level, Rom almost collided with a wall of muscle. “I’m sorry, sir,” it said, “but this area is closed.”

“What?” Rom backed away until he could glance up at the seven-foot human monolith. “But my cabin’s this way.”

“I’m sorry, sir, but this area is secured.”

“Let him pass, Kobner,” a light, female voice said. “He’s not here to get pics for some tabloid channel, are you, Cadet?”

“Candidate,” Rom corrected automatically. None of them would officially be cadets until they processed in at the Institute proper. He turned to see the speaker and blinked, momentarily confused. He had just been watching her from above, and now here was Jet Skylar in the flesh. Silvery, curvy flesh that he would like to examine more closely if he could just tear his gaze away from her brilliant green eyes. Color-enhanced, he told himself, but it made no difference to the way his stomach tumbled as she moved closer. She was even more stunning up close, with a perfect, plastic doll face that had no doubt been sculpted by the finest surgeons in the Federation.

“Jet Skylar.” She held out a hand.

Rom liked that she didn’t assume he knew who she was. He mumbled his name.

“Pleased to meet you.”

Rom heard a squeak from behind her and saw her baggage cart rolling towards them. After Jet passed through security, the crew must have whisked her through some VIP entrance, he realized, so that she bypassed the crowd upstairs waiting for a close-up view of her.

“I’d love to chat, get to know a fellow candidate,” she emphasized the word, “but the captain has informed me I’m in violation of the ship’s baggage policy and will have to offload a few of my things.” Her tone was amused, not petulant as Rom would’ve expected. “Now, Kobner, let the nice boy go to his cabin.”

The giant stepped aside, and Rom edged past him. “See you around,” Jet called after him.

Once in his cabin, Rom glanced around at the sparse mementos he had brought with him and couldn’t suppress his satisfaction in knowing Jet Skylar was being forced to follow the same rules as everyone else, maybe for the first time in her privileged little life. Maybe the experience would prove too much for her, and she would leave now.

Rom tried to concentrate on the class he planned to watch but finally gave it up and wandered back up to the observation deck. It was almost dinner time anyway. The crowd had thinned out, and he found Deck playing a video game with a couple of other candidates.

“Had enough of 3D coordinates?” he called out when he saw Rom.

“Yeah. Just itchy to leave, I guess,” Rom answered. He joined the students still at the window and watched a security guard wheeling Jet Skylar’s overloaded baggage cart back to the black limo. Trunks and suitcases were stacked haphazardly, and Rom wondered how hard it was to leave behind that much stuff.

“Whatcha watching?” Deck asked. His video game had ended, and he rejoined Rom at the window.

Rom shrugged. For some reason, he didn’t want to tell Dec k about his encounter with Jet. “Just wondering when we’ll leave.”

The trickle of arrivals had stopped, and the loading ramp was empty except for a pair of Institute security guards.

“Chacko says we’re waiting for one more.” Deck tipped his head to indicate the tall, blond candidate who had begun another video game.

“Maybe he won’t show.”

“She,” Deck corrected.

“Whatever. I just can’t believe I’m this close-” Rom held up thumb and forefinger, almost touching, “to going into outer space.”

“I know.” Deck grinned. “Sure beats working the mines.” Rom nodded agreement.

Chacko called Deck back to the video game, while Rom stayed at the window. He knew he should do something more productive, go back to his cabin and work on his studies or socialize with his fellow candidates, but he remained glued to the window as if on guard. How long would the ship wait for this final student? Surely not overnight.

The dinner chime sounded, and the room began to clear. Deck motioned for Rom to join him, but Rom waved him on. He had just seen motion on the loading dock and hoped it was the Agrarian everyone was waiting for. If she boarded now, the ship should be on schedule for departure in-Rom consulted his wristcom-less than two hours.

An air taxi had landed on the ramp. The door opened, and a lone figure emerged. The candidate, presumably female as Deck had said, wore a long gray tunic over matching pants, and a head covering with a veil masked her features. She carried standard-sized flight gear and moved smoothly through the ID process. Not bad for an Agrarian, Rom thought. As she past the retinal scan, she glanced up, just for an instant, at the observation deck, and Rom caught a flash of brilliant green. Odd, he thought. Maybe green eyes were common in this part of the Federation. Anyway, she was on board, and the ship should blast off on schedule.

Rom felt his shoulders relax as he left the observation deck to join the line in the dining hall. A couple of stragglers took their places behind him, and just as they reached the food, the Agrarian appeared at the end of the line. Rom watched her for a moment, but she kept her head lowered. He shrugged mentally and forgot about her as he took his tray to his table.

“Our last Federation meal,” Deck announced when Rom plopped his tray on the table.

“Less than two hours to blast-off,” Rom agreed.

The excitement that had bonded the two travelers while they had both waited in the asteroid Osso’s tiny, dilapidated spaceport resurfaced, and they shared a grin. Deck held a hand up, and Rom slapped it. Once they left, Rom had no intention of returning to the Federation until he was a starship officer. One day, he’d fly back and let his mother show off her space officer son to all the other miner moms. Then he’d whisk her off to some low-grav planet with clean air, and neither of them would set foot on Osso ever again.

Rom had finished his dinner and was waiting for dismissal when Lt. Biljoe, the officer in charge of the candidates, stood up. His wristcom had chimed halfway through the meal, and he glanced at it before he spoke. “I trust you all have had an enjoyable dinner,” he began. “For those of you just joining us, welcome. There will be many more such dinners to come.”

A couple of candidates groaned, but Rom actually thought the food quite good. Maybe not for someone like Jet Skylar, used to the best of everything. Although he didn’t see her in the dining room, not that he’d looked, he assured himself. Maybe she had eaten in her cabin. Was that even an option? Or maybe she had already had enough of ship life and disembarked before the ship could leave port?

“The crew will be performing a routine inspection of the ship,” Lt. Biljoe continued. “Candidates, remain at your table pending further instructions.”

Routine inspection? Deck raised an eyebrow at Rom. There had been no inspection at the previous two port. A few students’ wristcoms chimed with incoming messages, and rumors began to buzz around the room. Special troops had boarded the ship to seize the governor’s daughter. Departure was delayed. Jet Skylar was missing. The ship might be stuck in port for days. No, the ship couldn’t be held more than twenty hours without a warrant.

The lieutenant sat unmoving at the head table and ignored the buzz. Finally the dining room doors opened, and two guards in the deep red uniforms of the governor’s elite guard took up posts at either side of the doorway. Rom hadn’t heard the chime, but Lt. Biljoe glanced at his wristcom and stood up. “Candidates, report directly to your cabins. Guards will be conducting an ID check. Anyone found in an unauthorized area will be ordered to disembark immediately. Dismissed.”

Loudspeakers repeated the officer’s instructions as the candidates filed out of the dining room and towards the elevator bank that led to the cabins. Stiff red uniforms lined the observation deck and watched the students pass. So, at least some of the rumors were true, Rom thought. If Jet Skylar was missing, the search would be over soon, along with her candidacy. It wasn’t like she could escape her father’s troops on the ship. He shrugged. She could always buy an asteroid or something to make herself feel better.

In his cabin, Rom tried to read, gave up, and called up a space pirate vid. The program stopped periodically when messages appear to remind everyone to stay in their cabins. Rom was half-asleep when a new message appeared: a 10,000-credit reward for information on Jet Skylar’s whereabouts. His first thought was that the girl must be better at hiding than he had thought. Then he thought about the money. With 10,000 credits, his mother could buy a used hovercar and take a long health-spa vacation to cleanse the impurities of the mines from her lungs.

Rom heard footsteps in the hall, and a fist pounded on his door. He slid it open. The two guards at the door asked for his name and ID and then used a portable scanner to verify his retinal print. They nodded and moved on without another word.

By morning, the ship still had not left, and the reward had increased to 20,000 credits, enough for a small condo on a backwater planet. His mother wouldn’t have to wait until Rom graduated. A meal was delivered to the cabins, and Rom paced the room after eating his. He wanted the credits. How could Jet Skylar hide aboard a ship? The engine and cargo areas would be easy enough to scan for any sign of life. If they were clean, then she had to be among the passengers. Or crew. He dismissed that idea as unlikely. Any crew member leaving the ship would have been documented, and he doubted Jet Skylar could pass for any of the weathered spacepeople he had seen so far.

Which left the passengers. Rom recalled Jet’s vivid green eyes and the flash of green he had seen when the Agrarian boarded. It didn’t make sense. He flung himself on his bunk and stared up at the ceiling. What if Jet had used some sort of device to fool the retinal scan? Rom had never heard of such a device; retinal scans were supposed to be foolproof. Did Jet have a secret twin or something? He mulled it over but could make no sense of it.

A low rumble shook the walls of Rom’s cabins. It was the ship’s engines, firing up for take-off. Rom bolted upright. Either the governor’s troops had found Jet Skylar, or the governor could no longer hold the ship in port. He glanced at his vidscreen. The message offering the 20,000-credit reward was still active. As he watched, another message appeared, ordering candidates to report to the departure lounge in thirty minutes.

Rom thought fast. If Jet Skylar was somehow posing as the Agrarian girl, she would probably wait until the last moment to leave her cabin, in order to minimize the chance of detection. He called up a map of the ship to query her cabin number and realized he didn’t know her name. Deck would. Somehow he always had all the latest intel. Rom texted him and in moments had the answer: Magda Lopine. He checked the map. Cabin 236.

Once the hall had mostly emptied of candidates, Rom stationed himself where he had a clear view of Magda’s cabin. He pretended to fiddle with his wristcom whenever anyone walked past. Finally Magda’s door slid open, and the gray figure slipped out. Rom fell into step behind her.

“Jet!” he called out softly.

She didn’t turn around; she was too good for that. But she froze, just for an instant, and Rom knew his suspicions were correct. He hurried to catch up with her and grasped her shoulder. “I know who you are,” he whispered.

In a flash, the girl’s posture changed from meek Agrarian to high-wattage intensity. She glanced up and down the corridor and pulled Rom into an empty laundry bay.

“Shhhhh!” Jet hissed.

“How did you–? Where’s the Agrarian girl?”

“I said shhhh!”

“They’re looking for you,” he said when she remained silent.

She shot him a look that said he was an idiot. “What’ll it take?” she asked.

“What?” Rom blinked.

“What will it take for you to keep quiet until this thing blasts off?” she prompted.

Rom thought for a second. He had not considered this angle. He could turn her in for the 20,000 creds, but he might get even more from a richie who wouldn’t miss it. He hesitated.

“Come on, whatever you want,” she urged. “I can pay you at the next port. I’m not going to lose my chance when I’m this close.”

“To what?” Rom asked.

“To escaping. To leaving the Federation behind and becoming a cadet.” She said the last with the same dreamy-eyed enthusiasm Rom had felt since early childhood.

“You really want this, don’t you?” Rom realized.

“You have no idea.” Her green eyes appeared even more vivid when they were the only part of her face he could see above the veil.

Twenty thousand credits. A condo for his mother. He closed his eyes and opened them to find Jet’s eyes fixed on him. He could actually feel her willing him to make the decision she wanted. Needed. He could imagine how he would feel if he came this close to his dream and someone snatched it away from him. He sighed. He still didn’t think a richie like her had a particle’s chance of making it through cadet training, but he couldn’t take away her shot. She’d earned that much.

“All right,” he sighed. “I won’t expose you,” he promised. “On one condition.”

“Name it.” Jet raised her chin, and Rom could tell she was braced for some sleazy proposition.

“Tell me how you did it.”

Jet shrugged. “It was easy enough. I just tracked down a girl around my age who had never applied for an ID, bribed her to give me her birth certificate, got an ID in her name, took the Institute exam as her, accepted the position, took the physical, came up with an excuse to be on Avalon when the ship landed, and boarded as Magda Lopine.”

“That simple, huh? What did it cost you?” Roth asked. “The birth certificate,” he prompted when Jet looked blank.

“Oh, that. Two cows,” she said. “Don’t laugh. It means a lot to them.”

“I’m sure it does. Okay, so you boarded as Jet. How’d you get out to board again as Magda? The luggage,” he realized. Jet nodded. “But what about the retinal scan? How did you manage it?”

“Both IDs have my retina pattern,” she explained. “The system checks for matches, but there’s no cross-check for duplicates.”

Rom shook his head. “You thought of everything. So now you’re Magda Lopine instead of Jet Skylar?”

“Just until we’re out of Federation space. I’ll start classes at the Institute, and Dad’ll have to pretend he’s the proud papa.”

There was a small silence. “I’ve kept my end of the bargain,” Jet said. “Will you keep yours?”

Rom thought wistfully of the reward he could claim, but he didn’t hesitate. “Sure. Anyone that wants space almost as badly as I do deserves a shot. One suggestion: keep your eyes down. They’re a dead giveaway.”

Jet nodded. The final call for the departure lounge sounded, and the screen set into the wall displayed a ten-minute countdown to blast-off.

“Shall we?” Rom gestured, and the two of them hurried up the elevator and slipped into the remaining seats at the back of the lounge.

Jet squealed in excitement as the engines roared into full power, and the ship began to move. All around them, students shouted the traditional spaceperson’s cry in Old Earth languages, and Rom and Jet joined in: Ad Astra! Ad Astra! To the Stars!

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