Hella is a planet where everything is oversized—especially the ambitions of the colonists.
The trees are mile-high, the dinosaur herds are huge, and the weather is extreme—so extreme, the colonists have to migrate twice a year to escape the blistering heat of summer and the atmosphere-freezing cold of winter.
Kyle is a neuro-atypical young man, emotionally challenged, but with an implant that gives him real-time access to the colony's computer network, making him a very misunderstood savant. When an overburdened starship arrives, he becomes the link between the established colonists and the refugees from a ravaged Earth.
The Hella colony is barely self-sufficient. Can it stand the strain of a thousand new arrivals, bringing with them the same kinds of problems they thought they were fleeing?
Despite the dangers to himself and his family, Kyle is in the middle of everything—in possession of the most dangerous secret of all. Will he be caught in a growing political conspiracy? Will his reawakened emotions overwhelm his rationality? Or will he be able to use his unique ability to prevent disaster?
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I was in the shower.
I like the shower.
I like the way the water floats down.
Mom says it comes down faster on Earth, but I like it this way.
I close my eyes and feel it running down my skin and for a while I can forget the noise in my head.
It's not noise, not really. But sometimes it is.
My phone chirped.
It was Mom, so I had to answer.
I went voice-only so she wouldn't see where I was. She probably knew anyway. She says I spend too much time in the shower. But she doesn't understand why I need to feel it.
"Come home," she said.
"Jamie broke his leg playing soccer."
I didn't know what to say, so I asked, "Did it hurt?"
Mom said, "It's only a green-stick fracture. They're setting it now."
"So why do I have to come home?" I wanted to finish my shower.
"Because Captain Skyler is here."
"But why should I come home?"
But she had already rung off.
It didn't make sense to me. But there's a lot that people say that doesn't make sense to me. So I dried off. I don't like the hot air blasts, but they get me dry. I pulled on a blue longshirt and shorts and headed across the quad. The gym isn't that far from the summer pods.
Captain Skyler was sitting in the main room with Mom. They both looked serious. I can recognize that expression, even without the noise. They stood up when I came in. I still felt damp. It was the air. Hella's air is wet.
"Where's Jamie?" I asked.
"He's still in med bay. His dad is with him. Stand up straight." She turned to Skyler. "I told you. He's too small."
"Half a size, maybe."
"He's three months too young." Five Earth-months and ten Earth-days. But I didn't say that out loud.
Captain Skyler ignored her. He studied me. "You passed your field-readiness tests?"
"Yes, sir." Didn't he know that? Captain Skyler always knows everything. Sometimes I think he has the noise too. But he says he doesn't.
"You know how to operate the surveillance gear?"
"I know how to operate everything, sir." He should have known that too. So why was he asking me?
"Ride-along leaves 0700 tomorrow. Mission briefing is 0630. You'll be in tractor two with me."
I stared at him.
"Did you understand what I said?"
Mom didn't look very happy about it. She must have been arguing with Captain Skyler before I came in. I think she must have lost the argument.
I should explain that. There's this rule on Hella. The way it works, everybody works. Even me.
Because I have the noise.
It's not noise, but I call it that. Because sometimes it feels like that.
Back on Earth, the way Mom tells it-I don't know this from my own experience, I was born on the twelfth voyage-but back on Earth there are too many people and not enough jobs. So every job has lots of people fighting for it.
But here on Hella, there are too many jobs and not enough people. So the rule is that as soon as you're old enough to hold a hammer, you're a carpenter. I don't know what a hammer is or what a carpenter does, but that's the rule. Jamie was eighteen Hella-months older than me, and he'd already done sixteen ride-alongs, four times as a driver.
What the rule means is that everybody has to learn as many different jobs as they can. I'm certified for Class-3 Child Care, Class-2 Farming, Class-2 Emotional Maturity (that's since the noise was installed), Class-3 Food Service, Class-3 History and Civics, Class-3 Data Management (that's the noise, of course), and Class-3 Health Maintenance.
That last one is mostly about keeping things clean, but it's the most important certification of all. You aren't allowed to advance in any other category beyond your current Health Maintenance Certification, so you always have to upgrade that one first. The rule is that if you don't take care of the colony, you can't expect the colony to take care of you.
There's a whole list of Certifications, nearly a hundred. Nobody has ever been certified in more than thirty items. I used to say that I was going to be the first, but Jamie says that the older you are the harder it gets.
Mom wasn't through arguing. "He doesn't have outer gear," she said.
"I can wear Jamie's," I said.
"It doesn't fit you."
"Yes, it does. I tried it on."
"When Jamie ordered new. His old gear is too tight for him now. But it fits me."
"You're too small."
"No, I'm not."
"It'll be too loose. And the backpack will be too heavy."
"I'll be in the tractor. I'll be sitting. And if I'm in the tractor, I won't need the gear, will I?"
Hella is only a little dangerous. On a scale of one to ten, with ten being instantly fatal-like the surface of Luna, where I've never been, but I've read about it-Hella is only a three, which is equal to some parts of Earth. It's safe to go outside without protective gear if you stay out of the sun, if you keep your breathing steady and shallow, and if you don't drink any water you didn't bring with you.
That sounds scary, but it's a precaution. Humans haven't been on Hella long enough. We can vaccinate ourselves against all the things we know are out there and all the things we think are out there, but we can't protect ourselves against all the things that might be out there that we don't know. And there aren't a lot of volunteers to beta test new infections. So we have rules. Don't sniff the flowers. Don't eat anything. Don't let a bug fly into your mouth. Don't get scratched or bitten.
"There's only one way to settle this," said Captain Skyler. "Go try it on. Let's see if it fits."
Jamie's gear mostly fit me okay, except it was loose in the shoulders and baggy in the crotch, but Captain Skyler said if we tightened a couple straps it would be okay. The helmet needed a little adjustment too. And I had to wear the suit for fifteen minutes so it could calibrate all its bio sensors, because you have to establish a primary baseline for optimal survival, but the Captain was satisfied with the fit and that was the important thing.
Then after that, both the suit and I had to go through a routine decontamination. Decon works both ways. We don't want strange bugs coming in and we don't want any of our Earth bugs getting out. As curious as we are about the way that Terran biology will interact with Hella biology, we're still taking it slow and careful. We don't want to discover the hard way what happens when staphylococcus marries Hellacoccus. Nobody wants to be the asshole who betrays the First Hundred, even though they weren't really a hundred, only eighty-seven. They landed forty Hella-years ago. Fifteen more pilgrimages had followed the first one. We're not doing too badly, although we're nowhere near what all the initial projections had promised-because we're being meticulous and methodical. That was the mantra.
Anyway, I got scrubbed inside and out, so did the suit-it came back in a sealed bag, with a green tag that certified all its tools and appliances were working in high confidence. I wished I could have done it myself, but you have to be Class 9 to work on outer-gear, and I wouldn't be that for a long time yet. I wouldn't put the suit on again until just before boarding, and that would be in a decon chamber. The suit also came back programmed with my personal color codes, seven stripes making a gradient of blue. So it was officially mine now.
After dinner, I went to see Jamie. He was staying overnight in med bay so they could buzz his broken leg and make the bones heal faster. He looked annoyed. "This was stupid, huh?"
"I took a bad fall."
"You don't fall."
"This time I did." There was something he wasn't saying, but he didn't want to talk about it. Maybe later.
I pointed at the splint, with all its little colored lights blinking red and yellow and green. "Doesn't that noise make it hard to sleep?"
"I can turn them off. I just like knowing that the buzzbox is doing its work."
"Does it hurt?"
"Nah. But Dad made a big fuss. He pissed off the staff. He wouldn't let the robots set it without a doctor supervising."
"He wants it done right."
Jamie made a face. "I don't need him to micromanage-"
"You're his only kid."
Jamie reached for my hand. I let him take it. I don't like being touched. Jamie is the only one I let. Not even Mom. He gave it a squeeze. "Hey, Squirt?"
"Do me a favor?"
"It's your first ride-along. Don't get killed."
"They'll put you in a middle car. That's the safest place."
"Don't talk too much. Don't say, 'Oh, wow. Look at that!' And you're going to want to. But whatever it is, they've already seen it lotsa times, so don't annoy them. Just do it the way you've been trained, and you'll be fine."
"And don't stress out. There's nothing for you to screw up. The monitors are recording everything, telemetry is total, and mission control will be sniffing every little fart anyway. You're redundant. This is just a test-to see if you can handle going outside. So it's not about the mission, it's about you. Don't screw it up."
"Okay. I won't."
"Does my gear fit you okay?"
"Yeah, you look like a big wrinkly toad in it."
"Mom sent you a picture, didn't she?"
Jamie grinned. "Have fun. Watch out for booger-jacks."
I don't know why Jamie says that. There's no such thing as booger-jacks.
Hella Colony is almost forty years old. ThatÕs in Hella-years, of course. Over one hundred Earth-years old. Some people argue that we should count either from when the first robot probes touched down or from when the first humans landed. But the Hella calendar actually starts with the day the Charter was signed by the First Hundred. The Norteamericanos wanted that day to be May 5 or July 4. The French arrivals wanted July 14. The Brits wanted June 15 and the Chinese wanted October 1, but theyÕd settle for January 1. Unfortunately, the Hella-year is eighteen months and three days long, so the Earth calendar just doesnÕt work here.
Eventually, to make everybody equally unhappy, the First Hundred decided to start history with no cultural baggage left over from the past. They signed the Charter on Summer Solstice Day, which falls on the fifteenth of Darwin. All the months are named after great scientists, each representing a different field of study. I was born on the eleventh of Curie. Jamie was born on Mendel 22. Mom's birthday is the third of Turing. We go through the calendar twice, alternating years of male scientists and female scientists. The three days at the end of the year are always dedicated to someone who didn't score a whole month, a different person every year.
Some people are still arguing about which disciplines should have months and which people should be represented. Mom says that's a good thing. It keeps them from arguing over more important issues.
We have over 7,300 people in the colony, split half-and-half between immigrants and here-born. There have been sixteen pilgrimages from Earth. Approximately one every three years. Hella-years. A pilgrimage costs over nine billion caseys, so the funding corporations spread their investments across seven different livable planets. Hella is the most Earth-like so it's maybe the most promising. That's one reason why the expansion has been so slow and cautious.
There's another reason why the expansion has been so careful. Nobody knows what surprises might be waiting for us outside the fence. Nobody wants to be the first to find out. Impatience can be fatal. Too many people learned that the hard way. The best it gets you is your name engraved on the Big Black Wall. And there's a lot of empty space on that wall-so everything we do has to be meticulous and methodical. Help is a long ride away.
Hella wasn't supposed to be named Hella either, but that's what the First Hundred started calling it, and it stuck. There's an official name, but nobody uses it, not even on official documents. I looked it up. It's a silly name.
Hella is nine percent bigger than Earth, but it doesn't have as big an iron-nickel core, so it only has ninety-one percent of Earth's gravity. That means the magnetic field is weaker too, so it can't deflect as much radiation from the primary star. But because the Goldilocks zone is a lot farther out, about 250 million klicks, it sort of balances, and that's why Hella has an eighteen-month year. But the lesser gravity and the greater oxygen levels make it possible for everything to grow a lot bigger. Hella bigger. Even people.
So that's how it got its name.
Marley Layton is a Hella-year older than me. A smidge more than that. Her parents came out on the ninth voyage, mine came out on the tenth. Marley was born here. Mom popped me out two months before docking orbit. So Marley acts like sheÕs better than me, like it counts extra being here-born. Except sheÕs not truly here-born. She was grown in a bottle-one of the first bottle babies after the human wing of the nursery was opened. Pregnancy is supposed to be easier in lighter gravity, but I never heard anyone say it was easy, so thatÕs why they imported the nursery.
Jamie says that Marley was grown in a bottle because none of her three moms wanted to carry her for 280 Earth-days. Like they knew ahead of time what she was going to grow into. But me, I think she's the way she is because her family always told her that she was special and made such a big thing of it that she believes it's really true, and that's why she acts the way she does, everywhere.
Marley is also a half-meter taller than me. Taller than everyone almost. She'd be bigger than that, except they finally turned off her growth hormone. Her primary dad calls her a "Hella Dolly." I guess that's supposed to be funny. That's something else I looked up. That's silly too.
When there's nobody around to see-except the cameras, which nobody looks at unless there's a reason-Marley bumps into me, hard. She hits and punches too. Mom knows I don't like her, but I don't think she knows why. She keeps telling me I have to be nice because her dad is a third-term administrator and we need him to be friendly to us. I don't understand, but Mom says it's important, so I try to keep out of Marley's way as much as I can.