Garth Holloway III smiled and watched out of the corner of his eye as the first of his seven young charges began to shuffle through the access hatch from their visit inside the giant Truffa Station. A field trip to the museum on Truffa was a favorite. It got them off of Folden Station and allowed them to visit one of the other hundreds of Orbit Stations circling a now unlivable planet Earth.
The hatchway was a little chilly as the frigid cold of outer space was heated in the launch access tube by the giant air circulators, which provided heated air to the station.
Garth's slender, six foot two figure stood in front of the readout panel. He hunched his shoulders and shivered a little as he zipped up the front of his light green flight-suit, common attire to all pilots who flew between the Orbit Stations.
"All right, my young space pioneers," Garth's deep voice sounded. "I'm sorry to cut short the museum excursion, but we have to get going back to Folden."
"Ugh, thank God it's over. That Shuttle Simulation thingy was supremely boring, Garth. Why couldn't we have done a recreation that was more civilized, like sailing in an old ship, climbing a mountain or something? I love the rest of the museum, but that was a real dorkfest." Mavis Donner listlessly walked past Garth on her way into the bus. Her messy long brown hair fell in front of her glasses as she tightly clutched her journal-book under her arm. She wore the black jacket, as all of them did, which bore the Folden Station patch on the left chest area.
"I never got to try the astronaut food," Ethan Donner, Mavis's brother whined. "Garth, can you ask them for some samples?" Ethan's somewhat portly figure was close behind Mavis.
Garth continued to check the readouts of the bus's systems. "Uh, no Ethan. You had lunch half an hour ago. I think you'll hold till we get back."
"Oh for Pleiades sake. Thank you, Garth for not indulging him," Mavis rolled her eyes and shook her head.
"What's your problem?" Her brother Ethan looked at her with disgust. "You sound like Garth. Just get on the Beast, like a good little girl."
"Shut up, Pigbrain." She turned and scowled at him as she crossed the threshold into the Beast.
Yavi Avrum and Farhad Bakshire meandered through the access way side by side, their steps precisely in sync together. They both had their Pocket Pal computers open looking intently at the screen images.
Farhad pointed to her screen. "You see here? If the external booster temperatures on the shuttle's main engines were kept down to this level, Alex might have been able to save it."
Garth smiled at the two of them as they passed by. He couldn't help noticing that they could have been twins. They both had dark hair and deep olive skin tones, owing to their Middle Eastern genes. If it wasn't for the fact that Yavi was Israeli and Farhad was Palestinian, they might have been brother and sister.
"Yavi, Farhad, nice to see you guys. You have a good time?" Garth called after them, smiling, but not expecting them to even acknowledge his presence.
To his surprise they both turned.
"It was very interesting, Mr. Garth," Yavi began as she closed her computer.
"Yes, especially the Shuttle Simulation," Farhad continued. "It's really amazing how far we have come since then."
"All depends on how you look at it," Garth mused. "In some ways we've taken giant leaps backwards." He closed the panel having finished his work.
"Yes, I suppose you're right," said Yavi. "We'll see you on board. Come on, Far." She turned and entered the bus, as Farhad followed behind.
Garth turned toward the station entrance, looking expectantly for his three remaining passengers.
Jody Powers stepped through, his hands dug deeply in his jacket pockets. He was short for his age of thirteen, but his broad shoulders made him seem taller. His tight brown locks gave him an adolescent cuteness. Jody looked over his shoulder at Alex, who followed behind. "Alex, don't worry about it. You did a great job. I could never have flown that thing."
"Yeah, you could've, Jody. It wasn't that hard." Alex Andry, his sandy hair slightly mussed from wearing a spacesuit helmet in the Shuttle Simulation, entered the access way. He looked down at the Saint Christopher medal in his hand. "So much for luck." He said quietly to himself and put the chained medallion back around his neck and tucked the medal down his shirt.
Tasha Ono was right behind Alex.
"Ya didn't do such a great job, Alex. We were seconds away from being a fireball." Tasha challenged him then turned to Garth. Her straight jet, black hair moved in perfect unison as she looked up at him. "Hey Garth, where's Mizz Braidon?"
"She told you if you guys wanted to do this ride that she wouldn't be here to meet you. Remember?" He cocked his head and raised his eyebrows toward Tasha.
"Oh yeah, I forgot."
Garth looked at his watch "Come on, everyone, our window's coming up. Let's get back on the Beast and git on home."
Alex stopped and turned to Garth as he passed by the folding yellow outer airlock door. Jody and Tasha passed by and entered the Yellow Beast.
"Garth." Alex pleaded, "I almost had it under control. Just a few more minutes and I would have had the shuttle in orbit."
"Alex, history is filled with coulda, shoulda, and woulda. Don't think yours was the first shuttle disaster. At least no one died in yours." Garth put his hand on Alex's shoulder, moving him into the Beast.
Alex looked curiously at Garth's head. "Hey Garth, looks like you're getting a little grey around the temples."
Garth did a final check to the outside of the bus. "Why, thank you Alex. At fifty-five I think it makes me look rather distinguished."
"Listen, Garth. You don't have to worry about anything in back. I'll keep an eye on everyone. Especially Tasha."
"Not too closely, Alex." He turned to him. "I know how much you like to take care of everybody, but try and take it easy. Okay?"
"But Garth, you're gonna be busy driving, someone has to be in charge of things without Mizz Braidon here." Alex pleaded his case.
"I don't want you bossing everyone around, Alex."
"I don't do that, Garth. I'm not some little kid, you know. I'm fourteen, the oldest one here." Insulted and angry, he turned and stormed into the bus.
Garth tried to call after him, "For Pleiades sake... Alex! I didn't mean..." but he was gone. "You know I didn't mean to..." He muttered to himself, knowing he'd stuck his foot in it.
Don't worry, Garth thought as he watched him go into the bus. Alex bounces back quickly. And whether I like it or not, he's going to take care of everybody.
Garth ducked his tall frame through the door and turned to take one last look at the station. He pushed the switch against the wall and the hatch slid itself into place and sealed with a clunk.
Truffa Station was one of the early ones. A large doughnut-shaped torus structure slowly spinning for artificial gravity, it was cutting edge for the time. Built just before the Bio-wars in 2078, now in 2105, it seemed old and tired. Numerous retro-patches covered the surface in places where micro meteors had punctured its skin. Still, it survived, housing and supporting millions of people, providing a vital link among the hundred or so other stations strewn along various orbits around Earth.
In Docking Tube 7B, the Chrysler class transport from Folden station sat awaiting departure. Basically a school bus, defined by the yellow skin color, it was a medium-sized craft with two rows of double seats down each side. The driver occupied a seat in the forward left part of the craft. For all intent and purpose it was much like any Earth based internal combustion school bus from the twentieth century.
Large, round titanoplex beams held the vehicle in place until the sequencer would grab hold and accelerate it down the tube. Small plumes of white exhaust gas expelled from different parts of the tube making momentary Pssshhhhht sounds when they did.
The Yellow Beast, as Garth fondly called the bus, sat awaiting his final systems check before calling Truffa Control.
"All right, you little space munchkins; everybody in and strapped down? Let's get this Beast moving." Garth looked in the rear cabin view screen to make sure his young charges were safely seated and secured. He glanced at the panel checking that all the seat sensor lights were out. Jody Powers' light flashed, "Yo, Jody! You with us or what?"
Jody stared out the window not paying attention; the 'Secure Seat Harness' symbol flashed on the seat back in front of him. He jerked his head around at the voice. "Huh? What?"
"You daydreaming again? Just like in the Shuttle Simulation. Your harness, dumbo brain! Put it on so we can go!" Tasha Ono's usual abrasive manner shined through.
"Hey Tasha, you wanna' cool it? Just cause you had a lousy trip doesn't mean you can take it out on Jody and you know Mizz Braidon's gonna ask Garth how it went. You don't want him to tell her the terrible Tasha truth, now do you? Jody, buckle up so control will clear us and we can get outa' here. Okay?"
"Thanks, Alex... Sorry, Garth," Jody's soft freckled face looked up at Garth in the front of the bus. He fastened his harness and then glared at Tasha, who folded her arms in a huff and stared out the window, her straight black hair hid her pouting Asian face.
Tasha couldn't understand why Alex was so mean to her. She didn't do anything different than her mother did to her. With her hair still over her face, she shifted her eyes over to Alex so no one would notice.
He is really cute, she thought, but he was always so bossy and she hated being bossed around. It was just like in the Shuttle Simulator. Alex was the pilot and mission commander, so as usual he was in charge and everyone had to follow his orders. She smiled to herself when she thought about how he screwed it up and failed the mission. He sure got his.
Garth watched Jody's seat sensor and saw the light wink out on the panel. "Atta' boy. No sweat Jodes."
Ethan didn't like riding in the bus. He was already fidgety, because it always meant hours before he could eat again. He rummaged around on the floor bumping Mavis, and causing her pen to streak across the page of her notebook.
"Ethan! What're you doing? Get outa' my bag! You're like some drug addict," annoyed, she grabbed his collar and yanked him up.
"Hey Mavis, you got anything left in your box? I'm starving," Ethan's round face smiled, he was used to her being angry with him. The blinders in his food-starved mind prevented him from taking her seriously.
"You finished everything in my box, Farhad's box and Yavi's box. Now, will you just give it a rest till we get home? I'm sure you have a sufficient amount of reserve in your stomach to tide you over." Mavis turned away and tried to cocoon herself from him. She continued to write in her notebook/journal.
I am so sick of my brother. I wish he would just leave me alone for once. He is such a fat pigboy. So, where was I, oh yeah. The museum was so cool today. Except for the shuttle ride thingy. That was supremely boring. There were Digipix of old Earth from the 1980's. The air looked so clean and everything was so beautiful. Nobody wore enviro-suits or anything. You could feel the breeze on your face and in your hair. Climbing a real mountain would have been cool. I could have been the leader of the team trying to climb Mount Everest for the first time, like Edmund Hilary. We would get stuck in a terrible blizzard for days. The team would be running low on water and supplies. I'd venture forth into the blizzard and somehow miraculously find a hidden cache of supplies left behind by ancient Shirpas. My team recovers and I lead them to the peak in triumph. God, it must have been wonderful to live on Earth.
Mavis stopped writing and looked out the window. She could see through the Transway and out of the windows lining the docking tube. Other vehicles of different sizes and purpose zoomed by in one direction or the other. Some slowly crept past traveling the Transways that circled the planet. The Earth, visible beyond, looked so wonderful from above; she couldn't believe that below those clouds was a nearly dead world.
Garth held down the mike button and spoke into the headset.
"Truffa station control this is Folden transport with Route 7 clearance. Ready to depart." He released the button as the overhead speaker responded with a woman's voice. "Garth? Garth Holloway is that you?"
He looked up at the speaker with a curious brow, "This is Garth Holloway. Who's this?"
"It's Amy Rickles."
"Amy! For Pleiades sake, how are you? You were on Lunar, last I heard. What brings you back here?"
"More money, what else. What are you doin' driving a school bus? I thought you were working for Lockheed-Epoc Systems after the whole Fletcher thing."
"I was, but that was just one in a long line. This ain't such a bad gig though. Pretty easy and safe."
Farhad's ears perked up and he raised his head toward Garth upon hearing the word Fletcher.
"Well it's better'n scrapping the Junk Zone," Amy said. "Anyway, glad to hear you're okay. Give us a buzz next time you come around. Maybe we can get together?"
"Will do. Good to hear your voice, Amy," Garth replied.
"Folden transport, you are cleared for depart. Auto departure sequence commencing."
In the now airless vacuum that filled the docking tube, the Titanoplex beams separated themselves silently from the receptacles on the side of the bus as its Gravity Generators took hold. The bus now floated motionless in the center of the tube while the machinery that would propel the vehicle charged to full capacity.
Like a shot from a gun, the linear sequencer accelerated the bus to merging speed down the docking tube and out the bay onto the Route 7 Transway toward the Folden Station. The gravity dampers negated any inertia the sudden acceleration would have incurred. Without it, everyone inside would be splattered against their seats. With it, nobody felt a thing.
Even though the once white clouds were tinted brown, the Earth still loomed immense and spectacular against the stars as the bus matched speed with the rest of the commercial and private vehicles on their way to other stations in orbit or places on Luna. From up here, it was hard to see the inhospitable environment the Earth had become. Decades of runaway industry and ultimately, the Bio-Wars, had taken their toll on the old girl. Only the Polar Regions were livable without enviro-suits.
Garth checked the instrument read-outs making sure everything was running smoothly after the critical operation of launch.
"Okay, everyone, you can unbuckle and move around if you want."
Jody undid his harness when a chime began to emanate from his bag. He glanced down at his bag, grimaced at the sound, and then just continued to stare out the window pretending not to hear it.
Alex noticed the ringing and tapped Jody on the shoulder. "Hey Jode, your Pocket Pal's ringing."
Jody's head snapped around. "What... ?"
"Your computer, it's ringing," Alex pointed at his bag. "Aren't you going to get it?" He noticed Jody's detached state. "Are you okay?"
"Uh, yeah. Sure I am." Jody seemed a little dazed as he reached for his bag, pulled out the small electronic unit and opened it.
The Pocket Pals were small computers that most everyone carried with them. They did everything from receive messages to being able to access everything in their world and the graphic interface made it an important tool for education as well.
Jody apprehensively punched the small button on the keypad to stop the ringing. Text appeared on the screen. 'Do you want to review upload from... Your Mother'. Jody closed his eyes and winced a little. Painfully, he pushed the 'Receive' button. A picture of his mother popped on the screen, her face wearing parental concern as she began to speak. "Jody. You were so angry when we spoke last night. I was just so worried about you... Listen, I do care. It's just that..." Her image paused, looked down and then up again. "Your father and I..." He slammed shut the device, cutting her off, and then angrily shoved it back in his bag.
Alex had been watching over his shoulder, aware of the pain his friend was experiencing. He placed a reassuring hand on him. "Jode? You okay? Anything I can do?"
Jody shrugged his hand off him. "No, there's nothing you can do," He banged his forehead against the window, trying to hide the fact that his eyes were welling with tears. He muttered, low to himself. "Not unless you can talk to my stupid Mother," then to Alex. "I'll be okay. Thanks Alex."
Alex sat back in his seat, but continued to look at Jody.
In front of her Yavi, whose Israeli parents worked on Folden Station as agro-suppliers, turned around and watched her write. "Mavis, how come you don't use a Pocket Pal computer, like everyone else? Isn't writing with a pen much more harder," Her English was still a little broken, but much improved than when she first started with the class.
"Difficult Yavi, much more difficult... Because writing with a pen is fun... I just like it more. It's really personal. You know, like, it's all mine. Everyone uses a Pocket Pal and everyone's' writing is just a bunch of bytes in some chip memory. It has no personality."
"Yes, but isn't it easier and more efficient?"
"I suppose... Listen, when we get back I'll get you a notebook and a pen and you can start keeping a diary."
"Die-ary? What do you write in a die-ary?"
"You write about anything you want: adventures, the future, how you feel about something, anything. Who you hate. Who you like. And... boys," Mavis smiled shyly.
"Yes... Boys," Yavi giggled. "I think I would write about Alex."
"What about Farhad? Mavis rested her chin on the back of the seat. "I think he's kind of cute, too."
"Farhad? He's my best friend. It's different with him."
Mavis looked at the gold chain around Yavi's neck. Hanging at the bottom was a funny looking symbol of something she'd never seen before.
"Yavi, what's that?" She pointed to the gold symbol.
Yavi looked down and then rubbed the piece between her thumb and forefinger. "It's called a Chai. It means life in Hebrew. It's been in my family for years."
"I think it's really pretty. I like old stuff like that."
Jody stared out the window as the Earth passed by: North America was in daylight. What was it really like on the surface? He always wondered. It was always there, but so inaccessible. No matter where they were, whether on one of the Orbit Stations or in some vehicle it was always there; so big, so blue, so beautiful.
"Hey Alex, what do think it's really like down there?" Jody continued to look out the window.
"I don't know Jody. I've never been there. What's the point? We can't live on Earth anyway and if I could, I don't know where I'd live."
"What about from the old Digipix?" asked Jody. "What if you could pick a place from those. What then?"
"I guess I'd pick Colorado. I always liked the idea of snow. My grandma always used to talk about how fun it was... What about you Farhad?"
"That's easy. I would live right there," He pointed out the window toward the Mid-East region, which was passing below. "In Palestine, where my ancestors were from. It is where my roots are, and much closer to Mecca."
"What exactly is Mecca, Farhad?" asked Jody.
"Mecca is the holiest of places for a Muslim. The spiritual center of Islam and the birthplace of Mohammed, the prophet."
"It's kinda' like heaven for you and me, Jody." Alex leaned over and whispered to him.
In the driver's seat, Garth checked the auto-nav and adjusted the gravity regulators. Satisfied that everything was under control, he unbuckled his harness, rose and walked to the back of the Beast. "So, how's everybody doin'? Did ya have a good time at the museum?"
Tasha rolled her eyes at Garth's inquiry, which he picked up on and immediately went to her. "Tasha, what about you? What did you think?"
Exasperated by his choosing her, she nonetheless answered. "I think it was an incredible waste of time. Like, what was the point of the space shuttle, anyway? I mean, it cost a fortune, it cost lives and it barely did anything before they scrapped it."
"Well that's true, but you gotta' take little steps before you can stand up and walk," Garth answered.
"No, it's not." Alex chimed in, "For one thing it brought a lot of countries together and allowed them to participate in the program."
"That's my Alex, always the politician. And he has a point. It wasn't that long ago that Farhad's people and Yavi's people were sworn enemies. After the Bio Wars, when everybody was being moved onto the stations, their mutual need for survival brought them together. It's a funny thing when people are faced with death how their hatred seems to melt away. Anyway, back to the museum. Anybody else want to add something?"
"I thought the early freeze-dried food was kinda' neat. I wish I had some now." Ethan's culinary libido always found a niche.
"Ethan, you got a one Transway mind. You know that? Mavis? What's it like at home with him?" said Tasha.
"It's one long nonstop eating fest," said Mavis. "Mom and Dad are working two jobs trying to feed him. One whole agro-section has been dedicated to him with his name on a big banner..." She gestured with her hands, "over the field."
The bus burst out in laughter as Ethan, hurt, tried to defend himself. "Hey, that's not true! Mavis, you're supposed to be on my side!"
"Okay, okay. It's not that bad, but you must admit, you do eat a lot."
"I'm still growing," said a miffed Ethan.
"Yeah, growing out," Tasha jabbed.
Garth broke back in. "All right, all right, that's enough. Jody, what about you? What do think the lessons we learned from that time were?"
Jody stared out the window at the perimeter poles whizzing by and the other vehicles moving along the Transway. "I think... It must have been like the first settlers coming to the New World on ocean-going ships. Like you said, Garth. They just kept trying until they made it. If the first Mercury and Gemini astronauts hadn't kept trying, we wouldn't have Folden and Truffa Station, the Lunar Corridor or any of the Transways."
"Actually," said Farhad, "if we hadn't developed The Gravity Generator, the cost of space travel would have remained too high for any type of space travel."
"He's right Jody," added Garth, "It's the bottom line. It always has been... Something I'm all too familiar with. So tell me, did any of you have grandparents or family who were involved in building the Orbit Stations, the Space Shuttle or anything?"
"My, my Uncle died on The Fletcher." Farhad hesitated slightly and then looked down.
"He did?" Yavi was surprised. "How come you never told me that?"
"It's not something my family is very proud of."
"Listen," Garth began sensing that he might be dredging up a certain amount of unwanted memories in all the kids, "I'm sure all of us had families and friends who were affected by Fletcher the man as well as when Earth moved into the Orbit Stations."
"What about you, Garth?" Mavis asked.
"Me? Well, I don't talk about it much, but my brother Travis and I were signed up to be on the Fletcher." Garth looked down at the floor.
"You were gonna be on the Fletcher?" Jody said with surprise.
"Do you think your Brother and my uncle knew each other?" Farhad was excited at the prospect of a connection between his family and Garth.
"That was a big ship, Farhad. There were over fifteen hundred people on board. But I think it's possible they might've known each other."
"But if you're here, what happened to your broth... ?" Jody began his sentence, but cut himself off when he realized.
"Yes, Jody, there's no other way to say it. He died when the Fletcher exploded, along with everybody else. I was nineteen then. At the last minute I decided not to go, because of my parents." Garth looked out the window into the Transway and deep space beyond.
There was a collective silence in the group.
Garth jerked his head back around to the group. He didn't want the kids to feel self-conscious about anything, so he changed the subject.
"My grandfather also worked on Alpha Station until they shut it down."
"Your Grandfather worked on Alpha Station?" Yavi sat up in her seat. "What was he doing?"
"He was a cyber-physicist working on some new type of holo-driver program. He never even got to finish it. I was very young when he died, but I remember he used to tell me about how fantastic it could have been. It was going to revolutionize the world. I think everyone thought he was a little bonkers."
Farhad spoke up. "They put Alpha Station in the Junk Zone, didn't they? What ever happened to him?"
"He died without ever getting to see his work finished, but he always told us about how he left the block receivers on and secondary solar panels running in the station. And the computer would continue to absorb and store any information or signals that were beamed out into space. But that was a long long time ago. I'm sure the station's been dismantled by Scrappers and melted down by now."
Garth straightened his back and cocked his head as if he heard something. "What in Pleiades sake was that?"
A faint clanking noise emanated from beneath the floor of the bus and continued to grow louder.
"What's that clanking noise, Mr. Garth?" asked Yavi.
"I don't know Yavi, let's take a look." He went back to the front and sat down in the pilot's seat.
He began checking the instruments as he buckled his harness. "Come on you Big Yellow Beast, tell me what's wrong." He muttered to himself.
Everything looked okay. The panel lights showed all systems go, bright green. Still, he knew there was a serious problem as the clanking grew until it filled the cabin with a shattering sound.
Alex with his hands over his ears, shouted toward the front of the bus. "Garth! What is it?"
Garth calmly turned, "I don't know, Alex. Everything here reads okay."
What is going on here? Inside, he was panicked. Things like this don't just happen! Systems were made purposefully not to fail, but this was the opposite of everything he knew.
He turned back just in time to see arcs of electricity jump from the instrument panel in a shower of sparks accompanied by huge billows of smoke. Everything in the bus went crazy as the gravity regulators shut down and then went wild, sending the transport accelerating and tumbling out of the Transway lane into deep space.