The shuttle jolted as we hit the last hub before the Rim. Stars whorled and morphed back into pinpoints of light as we dropped out of folded space.
"So, where are we going?" I asked.
"Where do you want to go?" said Pax, sitting slightly ahead of me in the pilot's chair. A holomap appeared in front of the viewscreen, Earth at its epicenter, a golden cloud thinning out to faint sparkles at the edge the populated part of Milky Way.
"How about-" I closed my eyes, pointing toward the holomap- "there."
I opened my eyes, and a star system at the very edge of the map zoomed toward me.
Pax shut his eyes as he communicated to the shuttle's system through his neurolink. Then he looked back at me. "It's beyond the Rim."
"Oh. We don't have a permit."
Pax shrugged. "Let's pick somewhere else then."
"Well…" I stopped. There was something about the place that intrigued me. Because it was beyond the Rim, there was a good chance no one had been there, ever. It might be fun to step where no one else had stepped before….But I also had never disobeyed a law as big as this.
"I don't know, maybe we should try it."
"There aren't any Jumps that go there yet. We'll have to make our own, and it could be a rough ride in a craft this small. You sure about this?"
My breath caught in my throat; I just nodded.
"Okay, Everett," said Pax. "Just remember, when we get in trouble, it was your fault."
I punched his shoulder. My hand bounced back, pain shooting through it, as if I'd just hit a rock. Pax acted oblivious, absorbed in giving the shuttle instructions.
There was a small chance, but if we found new alien ruins, we might get a reward and be able to settle down for the rest of our lives. Then I wouldn't have to be a lawyer and I could paint instead. Having just graduated, I was already tired of law, with its neverending jargon and preoccupation with trivialities. Why I'd picked law was beyond me, except that it was 'what was expected of me'. Now I was a new grad with a degree in political science and I'd have to pick a law school soon. It was the last thing I wanted to do.
Bring on the adventure.
I wished we'd find some real live aliens, but that was almost too much to hope for. The United System of Free Planets had spread out into almost a fifth of the galaxy, but we had yet to discover intelligent life. We'd found signs of it though, on two planets, one called Avalon and the other so newly discovered it didn't have a name, just 3348. Since I'd been to Avalon before, I wanted to visit 3348, but it wasn't likely we'd run into it where we were going. Beyond the Rim…We weren't strictly speaking supposed to go there without a permit, but if we found some aliens, the government would have to overlook the minor fact that two law students had broken that particular law…
Kind of stupid law if you ask me. Who cared if more laws would give me more work to do -it just meant there were millions employed in the same kind of work, with me at the bottom rung.
The longing hit me, for something else, something beyond; I never wanted to go back to ordinary life again. I'd had enough of that in school. I wanted something wonderful to happen; even something terrible, my veins to pound with the power of raw experience. I wanted to peer around the edge of normal, into the abyss of the unknown-
The shuttle jumped; I was almost thrown out of my seat before the force field kicked in and pressed me down in the chair. The shuttle jerked again, then the stars smoothed into lines of liquid light and we headed into our own personal wormhole.
A thrill shot down my back; the metallic taste of adventure sparked on my tongue. I leaned forward, the force field reluctantly letting me move again.
"What do you think we'll find out there?" I said.
"Room to breathe. Like back on Roanoke."
On Roanoke, his homeworld on the Rim, it was pretty primitive. They didn't even have many bots yet, so they did most of the work themselves. I couldn't imagine actually enjoying hoeing the ground or fixing a tractor, but Pax did. In college he'd taken martial arts and marksmanship, anything physical.
"I'd like to find some inspiration," I said. "Some wild planet no one's seen before."
"Maybe you can paint it when we get there. Me, I'll be exploring."
"Not without me. I want to find the aliens."
It wasn't likely we'd find anything- we'd leased this shuttle for the fun more than anything. Everyone was preoccupied with finding the aliens, especially now we'd found the alien book on 3348, but it had taken 500 years of exploring space to find two extraterrestrial artifacts. All evidence pointed to their moving on centuries before. Still, we at least might find a new animal species or something. Land on a planet no one had stepped on before. Real explorers. Without a permit to explore.
I felt slightly guilty at breaking the law, but more excited than anything.
But for now, I had to settle in for a long ride.
"Want to watch something?" I said.
Pax shook his head, absorbed by the stars.
I sat back and switched on my neuro. The audio pulsed in my ears.
"In the news, Senator Gemini has broken the X/El slave org based on Rimworld Calliope. A spy from Gemini's network discovered a trade in men and women, who Rimmers used for pleasure or work. The slavers will be brought to justice, and the slaves eased back into society. Calliope will undergo extensive rehabilitation and then will be fully integrated into the System."
Images splashed across my eyes: a woman ran through corridors, shooting as she went, black-clad men collapsing in droves, stunned. She reached a room where a pathetic-looking group of people were packed like rats.
"It's all right now," she said. "You're free." Then a flashing button said: "Press Yes to experience Agent Hadassah's adventure! Try it now!"
I shook my head, and the image disappeared, to be replaced by a woman and man lying in the grass, butterfly flying over their heads. They wore sleek shimmering clothes and didn't have any tattoos or mods. They looked rather strange this way, alien. But the announcer said, "Don't they look flair! Natural is new again, and you have to try it. Take a look at You in it!"
A model verson of me appeared, the purple the holofigure wore contrasting with my red hair. Not interested in buying right now, I slid that image aside and popped up the Vid section. According to my mood and profile, the system selected a couple programs, and I chose Raincheck, about spies in the 21st century during the days leading up to World War IV. I was in the middle of a skychase over the first solar city when my com buzzed against the base of my skull. It was Delta, my sister.
"Hi, Dell," I said.
"Hi, Rett," she replied. Her face appeared, about two feet in front of me, her dark blond hair upswept, her silver-blue eyes sparkling. She'd never gotten many mods, mostly relying on her natural beauty. It's funny, Mom and Dad hadn't even done much genetic selection prior to her birth. Mine either, but she'd gotten the better part of the deal.
I asked, "How's it going at the- what was that camp called again?"
"Camp Mercury. Great- I've got a good group of kids, very enthusiastic about learning."
"Well, you're a good teacher."
"Thanks." She smiled, her dimples showing. "What about you? You're on your trip by now, right?"
"The one you didn't want to come on." I felt a little betrayed- she'd planned to come on this trip with us, then backed out at the last minute because one of her professors had asked for volunteers at Camp Mercury this summer. My sister, always the overachiever.
"Yeah, well, I'll definitely come next time. I don't want to miss another adventure with you guys. Pax is there, right?" I switched it on holo-mode, so Pax could see her too.
"Hi, Dell," he said. "How are you?"
"Good. So, where are you headed?"
Pax's jaw flinched. He never was good at deception.
I came to the rescue. "Oh, we're just going - well, where are we going? We haven't really decided yet. Out there." I flung my arm out toward the stars.
"We're going to the Rim," said Pax.
"Are you going to visit your homeworld?"
"Not yet. We're looking for more alien ruins."
"You mean the ones they just found, or new ones?"
She laughed. "It'll be like finding a needle in a haystack. It's really just an excuse for an adventure, isn't it?"
"It'd be nice if we found some though," I said. "You'll be sorry you didn't come along if we do."
Dell frowned. "What was I supposed to do- tell Prof Rensky I couldn't help out? She was short on teachers, so…"
"It's okay, Dell. You can come next time. Besides, it'll be fun to be just us guys for a change. And if you want, we can call you and you can come along as a holo and it can be like you're here with us." That last part might not work if we didn't want her to know what we were doing…
"Well, maybe. If I have the time. But I don't want to cut in on your male bonding." She smiled. I loved Delta's smile- it always seemed to come with the smell of cinnamon.
"It might be hard to contact you for a little while though. We're headed for a rough patch."
"A rough patch? You aren't taking a short-cut, are you? You know how dangerous those are."
"No, we're not. It's just…not the best route."
Her eyes narrowed. "There's something you're not telling me. You aren't headed past the Rim, are you? You talked about that, but I was never sure if you meant it."
In my heart of hearts, I knew she'd already found me out- she had a sixth sense about those kinds of things, especially having to do with me, since I was her twin. Still, I protested. "Why would we do that? There's plenty of places to explore that aren't past the Rim."
"Because I know you, Everett Copernicus Flynn. There's always been something in you that's- "
"An adventurer. I have it too, but you take more after Mom." With the note of sadness in her voice, a pang hit my heart. Mom had gone on an exploratory mission twelve years ago near the Rim, and she'd never been found. "You've been afraid to act on it, but now that you've graduated- you have this feeling of release. I know, I have it too. I'm just- "
"Taking it out in a more productive way?"
"Well, yeah. But you're working things out in your own way, so I have to cut you a little slack."
"You mean, you won't tell anyone?"
"Not this time. Just make sure the Corps doesn't find you- you might have to do community service the rest of your life to make up for what you did. And Rett- " Concern flitted across her face.
"Be careful. Who knows what's past the Rim."
I nodded. "I will."
"And Pax- "
"Keep my brother safe."
"I will, Delta." He pressed a hand to his heart, as if making an oath.
"Thanks, Pax. You are bigger and stronger than him, so- "
"Hey!" I said.
"See ya later, little bro." And her face blinked into oblivion.
For two days we jumped from one part of folded space to the next, each time moving closer to our target, the unknown world beyond the Rim. We ate, we talked, we watched vids. We played some games, but Pax would always get interrupted by the ship, which wanted to know which direction to take at the end of each jump. On the second day, it was about 2100 hours ET (Earth Time) when Pax stopped because he was tired. I was too, so we both drifted off to sleep while the shuttle drifted in space. It must've started again while I was asleep, because Pax was piloting when I awoke. I shook off the weird dream I'd been having- something about walking on clouds- and asked Pax where we were.
"We're almost there," he said. He brought up the holomap and showed me how we were on the edge of the Rim already. He tossed me a bag of pretzels and I took one out, warm and filled with cheese. I hadn't realized how hungry I was before I took that first bite.
"Anything happen while I was out of it?" I said, licking my fingers of salt.
"Nope. All systems normal."
"I'll get my own ship someday. It won't be a shuttle either. It'll be a real ship."
"With all the money we get after this mission, right?"
He nodded, grinning. "Right."
A moment later, the shuttle hit a huge bump. The force field yanked me back in place, holding me in a cushioned bubble, while the craft careened sideways. Then it decided that wasn't enough, and flipped upside down. The gravity in small crafts is wacky anyway, and who knows what kind of condition this lease was really in.
In front of me, upside down, Pax was struggling to regain control of the shuttle. He'd pulled up manual override and was punching buttons.
It didn't matter. We were spiraling out of control, and heading straight for a star, by the looks of the viewscreen. I only had time to wonder if this was the star we'd been aiming for, or a different one, when something hit us, or we hit something. It knocked us in a different direction entirely, and we spun out of control, the stars whirring like fireflies.