Authors: Allen Steele
“Did it ever occur to you,” I said, trying hard to remain calm, “that what's in my files may not be the truth? Or at least not all of it?”
“Why wouldn't it be?” Rain picked up her fork, used it to pierce the yolk of her poached egg. “There's no reason for anyone to lie.”
“Oh, yes, there is. Especially when it has to do with the
Academia del Espacio
.” I let out my breath. “Look, let me tell you about what happened to Jimâ¦”
Jim Truffaut was my younger brother, born a couple of years after our mother brought me into the world. She and my father had already decided that they wanted to have two sons, so genengineering assured them that I didn't have a sister instead. Since our folks were also fans of classic cinema, they decided to take advantage of our family name to christen us after one of their favorite French films. You can look it up if you don't catch the allusion; reference T
and go from there.
Skip forward eighteen years. Since my lifelong dream had been to become a spacer, once I graduated from high school I applied to the Union Astronautica. In the Western Hemisphere Union, this was the only way to get into space. My grades were good, and with my father's assistanceâwhich included a nice bribe to the local Matriarch for whom he'd done a few favors as a loyal Party memberâI was accepted into the
Academia del Espacio
, the UA's training school for its astronaut corps.
Jim didn't necessarily want to go to the stars, but neither did he want to live in Kansas for the rest of his life. The same Matriarch wrote a recommendation for him, and Jim entered the Academy as a plebe just as I was entering my senior year. But while I sailed through the program without much of a hitch, Jim had problems from the moment he set foot in the Academy. And let's face it: although social collectivism dictates that all men are created equal, the fact of the matter is that some of us are more equal than others. I had stardust in my blood, but Jim had to struggle every waking moment just to get through his classes.
I tried to help him as much as I could, and as an upperclassman I was able to do so. But the day finally came when I graduated from the Academy, with the attendant rank of Ensign First Class, and I had to leave my brother behind. Jim's poor grades had already caused him to fall back a semester; he'd been put on probation and was in danger of washing out by the time I was assigned to a Mars cycleship. My future was bright, but his lay in shadow.
I'd promised him, though, that I'd try to help him as much as I could, and see that he'd get posted on my ship once he graduated. Jules and Jim, off to conquer the universe. That was a promise I'd live to regret, because I'd just finished my first tour on the
when I received a coded communiquÃ© from Jim. His finals were coming up in two weeks, and he was having problems remembering vital equations he needed to know in order to pass. Could I help him in any way? Hint, hint.
I knew the written part of the exams like the back of my hand. I'd also learned, from idle small talk with fellow junior officers aboard the
, that the questions hadn't changed in at least five or six years. So, using a bypass that would circumvent Academy mail filters, I sneaked those questions to Jim, along with the appropriate answers.
Sure, I was helping Jim cheat. And I didn't feel much guilt about doing it, either. All that stuff I'd been forced to memorize was already loaded into every pad and comp I'd used aboard ship; the Academy only wanted its cadets to know them in the unlikely event of a system crash. So sliding him the answers to a redundant part of a written examâ¦where was the harm, in the most practical sense?
The harm was that it
cheating, plain and simple. The instructors who examined Jim's test didn't notice any discrepancies; however, as a matter of routine, the test was fed to a comp, which matched its answers against those given by other cadets in previous years. The comp immediately saw that two questions I'd gotten wrong during my finals were identical to those Jim failed to answer correctly during his. Given our relationship, this caused a red flag to be raised. And when the board of inquiry came to meâ¦
My eggs had gone cold by then, my bacon as brittle as a lie. The only thing on my plate that was still worth eating was the toast; I daubed some jelly on it only because it gave my hands something to do.
“I didn't have a choice,” I said, reluctant to look Rain straight in the eye. “Even being suspected of cheating on an exam is enough to sink a cadet.”
“And so you sold out your own brother.” Her gaze was remorseless. “To save your career.”
“That's what you were told?” I looked up at her. “That I finked on him?”
“Get it straightâ¦
I denied everything!
She blinked. “But I thoughtâ”
“Forget what you've heard. Do you honestly believe that I'd burn my own brother just to save my skin?” Before she could answer, I went on. “When I was called before the board, I stood before six Patriarchs and Matriarchs and told them that I'd never passed any information to Jim.”
“Then how did they find out?”
“Because Jim had already confessed. He was so scared, he told his advisor about what he'd done even before the board called him up. But they kept us from seeing each other, and so when I walked into the room, all I knew was that my brother was under suspicion.” I sighed, shook my head. “I figured that, if both of us denied everything, all they'd have was statistical probability, and that wouldn't be enough to prove anything. What I didn't count on was Jim fessing up.”
“So you lied to save your brother.”
“Uh-huhâ¦and my own ass, to tell the truth.” I picked up my coffee. It had gone lukewarm by then, but I slugged it down anyway. “Didn't work. With Jim's confession on record, they had both of us nailed. So they expelled him from the Academy and tossed me out of the service.”
“The Union Astronautica would do that?” She stared at me. “Kick out one of its own just becauseâ¦?”
“Yes, it would.” She clearly didn't understand. “Look,” I went on, leaning forward to rest my elbows on the table, “in a system like the one I grew up in, the rights of the individual matter less than the rights of society. Not much grey area in between. You're either right or wrong, with us or against us.” I raised a fist in a mock Union salute. “All hail the glory of social collectivism, and all that happy crap.”
“I can't believe that,” she murmured, her gaze falling to her plate. I noticed that she hadn't touched her food either.
“Wellâ¦sorry, but there is it. I've told you the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” Even though my breakfast had gone cold, I wasn't about to let it go to waste. I picked up a piece of bacon and nibbled on it. “You can believe me, or you can believe a UA file you've managed to hack. Doesn't matter either way. Morgan hired me, and that's what counts.”
Something I said rekindled her anger, because her eyes flared when she looked up at me again. “All that tells me is that you can't be counted on. Maybe you tried to save your brother, but you lied to people who trusted you to do soâ¦”
“And then you went further. You faked your identityâ¦twice, if I understand it rightâ¦in order to stow away aboard a Coyote starship, when you could have simply purchased a ticketâ¦”
“I did buy a ticket. Under another name, sureâ¦but I wasn't a freeloader.” She looked confused, and I went on. “When I was thrown out of the service, the government revoked my passport. The last thing they wanted was to have a former UA officer leave the country and take their secrets with himâ¦that's happened before, until they clamped down on it. That's why I had to sneak aboard the
â¦there was too much of a chance of having red flags go up if I'd tried to ship out any other way.”
“Uh-huh.” She remained skeptical. “And when you got caught, you hijacked a lifeboat andâ¦”
“Oh, for the love ofâ¦” Angry again, I tossed the rest of the bacon on the plate. “What kind of dreamworld do you live in? I'd hit rock bottom. At least Jim was able to return to Salina and get his life backâ¦he hadn't really wanted to go into space, so all he lost was a job he hadn't been cut out for in the first place.”
“Sounds like you've got a bone to pick with him.”
“We're not on speaking terms anymore, if that's what you're asking.” I didn't add that Jim had never bothered to apologize for ratting me out to the board, or that he'd told our folks that it had been my idea to pass the test answers to him. “After what happened, I had nothing left. I couldn't get hired by anyone else because, in the WHU, there
nothing else. You want to be a spacer, you join the UA. Orâ¦well, that's it. Nothing else. Unless you decide to play dirty.”
“Sure. You scrounge up what little cash you can, buy a phony ID and passport on the black market, and leave the continent on whatever suborbital freighter you can find. Then you land somewhere in Europe, hitchhike your way across another continent until you reach a spaceport where you can bribe your way aboard a ship bound for Highgate. Thenâ¦”
This was quickly turning into a rant. I pulled myself up short. “Anyway, please don't tell me about the virtues of a clean and honest life unless you've lost everything you once had, or had a brother who's a worthless piece ofâ¦”
“Don't you talk about my brother!”
That came as an angry shout, one that would have silenced the entire room if anyone else had been there. Rain's face had gone red; it was her turn to be pissed off. Past her shoulder, I caught a glimpse of the kitchen door easing open a crack as the landlady peered out at us. I looked back at her and shook my head ever so slightly; satisfied that the guests weren't about to start throwing furniture at each other, she eased the door shut once more.
“My apologies,” I said, keeping my voice as low as possible. “Didn't mean to offend you.”
Realizing that I hadn't meant any harm, she closed her eyes as she sought to regain control of her emotions. “Sorry,” she whispered. “I don't know whatâ¦I mean, you couldn't know aboutâ¦” A deep sigh, then she straightened her shoulders. “Look, maybe we got off on the wrong foot there.”
“I think so, yeah.” Finding nothing else to say, I looked around the table. “More coffee?” I asked, picking up the pot. “It might still beâ¦”
“Noâ¦none for me, thanks.” Rain's hands trembled as they found the napkin in her lap, brought it to her face. I was surprised to see that the corners of her eyes had become moist. “I justâ¦sorry, but something you saidâ¦”
“Forget it.” She snuffled back tears. “Didn't mean to bark at you like that. I justâ¦”
Whatever she intended to say to me, I didn't get a chance to hear it, for at that moment the dining-room door opened, and I looked around to see Ted come in. The captain spotted Rain and me, and quickly walked over to our table.
“Good. You're both up.” He glanced at our plates. “Sorry to interrupt. Just started?”
“Yeah, butâ¦” I glanced at Rain; to my relief, she'd dried her tears and put away the napkin. “I don't think either of us is very hungry. Why, what's going on?”
“Just got a call from Morgan.” Ted pulled back an empty chair, sat down. “Our ship's here. Came through the starbridge about an hour ago, and it'll be in orbit later today. We're to pack up and grab the noon gyrobus to New Brighton.”
“We're shipping out? Just like that?”
“Just like that.” Ted picked up a piece of toast from my plate and munched on it. “Hope you're ready to pilot that shuttle, because you're about to get your chance.”
“Yeah, sure.” After all the hours I'd put in on the tutorials, I could fly it blindfolded if I had to. “But what's the rush? I mean, don't we have to load the cargo andâ¦?”
“Cargo's already at the spaceport, ready to go aboard the shuttle once it lands.” Ted looked over at Rain. “Ready for this, sweetie?”
“No problem here, skipper.” I was amazed by how quickly she'd recovered. No clue on her face that, only a few minutes ago, she'd been on the verge of tears. Or, just before that, ready to belt me across the room. “Just get me to New Brighton. I'll handle the rest.”
“That's my girl.” Ted gave her a fond smile, then checked his watch. “Gyro leaves in a few hours. Go upstairs and pack your gear. I'll check you out of your rooms and call a cab.” He looked around. “Anyone seen Ash this morning?”
I was about to say that I never saw him before sundown when Rain supplied the answer for me. “Still in his room, I think.” She hesitated, than quietly added, “I doubt he's in much condition to fly.”