When a misfired practical joke gets him kicked out of school, Rick Luban thinks he has nowhere to go but down. Instead, he gets a second chanceand a whole new lifewhen he signs up for a career in asteroid mining.
But life in space proves more challenging than Rick expected. Competition is intense and the harsh realties of space allow no room for error. On his way to a brighter future, Rick faces ever more demanding tests, as well as the very real dangers of sabotage and murder.
About the Author
Charles Sheffield (1935-2002) was a mathematician and theoretical physicist by training. His doctoral work was on Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity. Dr. Sheffield worked as chief scientist for the Earth Satellite Corporation, a Washington, D.C.–based firm that specializes in the analysis of data gathered from space.
The author of thirty previous science fiction novels, including Cold as Ice and The Ganymede Club from Tor, Sheffield lived in Silver Spring, Maryland, with his wife, author Nancy Kress.
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By Sheffield, Charles
Tor Science FictionCopyright © 1997 Sheffield, Charles
All right reserved.
At sixteen, Rick Luban's life was about to end. He didn't know it yet. He thought he was all set for a good time.
The first period had gone no differently from usual. Mr. Hamel had been teaching high school for thirty years--forever, in Rick's eyes. Hamel looked like an old turtle, and like a turtle he had developed his own survival techniques. Nothing got to him; not talking in class, or eating, or farting or sleeping. Gross and direct rudeness or violence, too much even for him to ignore, he passed up the line at once to the principal's office.
Hamel's rule: No fuss, no muss. And if that meant no work and no learning, too, he would settle for it. He usually reached that understanding with a class before the end of its first week.
"Test today." Hamel took no notice of the half-hearted groans. Failing an Act of God, biology tests in his class came every Tuesday and everyone knew it. "Read the questions, mark the answers. You have forty minutes."
More out of boredom than anything else, Rick put on the earphones attached to the desk and slipped the written sheet of questions into the reader.
"Question one," said the voice in his ear. "Five point credit. One of the animals on your screen belongs to a different class from the others. Indicate which one. For assistance on the biological definition of class, or for name identification ofany of the animals shown, touch the empty box."
The TV screen in front of Rick was divided into six rectangles. The first was empty. The second through sixth showed an ant, a butterfly, a mosquito, a spider, and a caterpillar. They were all in color, and all moved in natural settings.
Rick saw Dim Willy Puntin, Puntin the Pumpkin, reaching out to poke the icon of the caterpillar. It certainly looked grossly different from the other four. Rick snorted to himself. That was just like Hamel, trying a trick question. Rick had hardly been listening to the lesson about larval insect forms, but even a five-year-old knew that caterpillars turned into butterflies; and insects all had six legs.
Rick reached forward to touch the icon of the spider, at the same moment as Juanita Cesaro, two seats in front of him, removed her headset. She raised her hand and then stood up.
Hamel left the raised podium and moved over to her at once. Rick eased the earphones away from his head. Juanita was dim, but she was hot stuff. Half the boys in her year--including Rick--had been through Juanita; but you'd never know it from seeing her in class. She always sat demure and quiet, doing so poorly in every subject that her teachers all had trouble passing her. She never caused trouble.
"These." Juanita waved her hand vaguely at the headset, television, and reader. "Not working."
Hamel came around the desk and leaned over to examine the television picture. He was very careful not to touch Juanita, and careful to stand so that this fact would be apparent on the classroom videocamera recording.
Wily old turtle. No sexual barassment charges for you. Rick could see the empty box and the five icons on Juanita's screen, just like on his own. Another clapped-out reader, it had to be. The readers were junk, breaking down all the time. Even when they worked they would only handle one size of page. School was too cheap to buy decent stuff. Not like the school the phone company ran. That place had great equipment, but it was just for kids whose mothers or fathers worked there. His mother had got herself fired for drugs six weeks after she started with them, so Rick had only been to company school for a little while. That was back in first grade, but he still remembered it well.
Hamel had apparently made up his mind about the reader. He was glancing thoughtfully around the class, finally gesturing to a girl at the back. "Belinda. For this period I want you to change seats with Juanita."
Rick had expected that action, well ahead of the teacher's taking it. Belinda Jacob was one of three people in the class who could read well enough to handle the test from the printed sheet, without using a reader at all. So see what reading does for you, Rick thought, as the two girls changed places. Not a damn thing. Belinda was Hamel's star student. She had probably been halfway through her own test before she had to move--and now she was forced to start over, while Juanita would get the benefit of her right answers.
Rick grinned to himself as he settled back to listen to the rest of the questions. Unless Hamel went to the trouble of noting the point where the two had changed over, which wasn't at all likely, Juanita for the first time in her life was going to score--on a test.
* * *
The broken reader was all that the first period could offer to relieve the boredom. That was predictable with Mr. Hamel. Dullness was the rule. What Rick and his friends had been looking forward to for a week was second period. They were supposed to get a new civics teacher then, right out of training.
"Willis Preebane, his name is. An' if I can't have some fun with him, I'm losing my touch."
Screw Savage was speaking. Any one of the three might have offered the same statement, but Screw had special credibility. He was a school legend. Two years before, by a mixture of near-inaudible insult and off-videocamera dumb insolence, he had made a new teacher take a swing at him on her very first day. She had been fired on the spot. Screw was provided with a groveling apology from Principal Rigden. His parents had sued school and county anyway, and been paid a hefty out-of-court settlement. Now Screw tended to get high grades without ever doing homework or handing in tests.
"But we'd all like to have first go at him," Screw went on, "so we do it fair, an' draw lots."
Rick and the other two were walking between classes, heading for Room 33 with Screw Savage leading the way. The corridors were their usual confusion with backed-up lines in front of the metal and plastique detectors. Hoss Carlin, walking next to Rick, took a step to his left and reached out to brush his fingers over the breasts of a girl walking the other way. She slapped his hand away, but she turned to give him a big smile and said, "See you tonight."
"Watch it, Hoss," Rick warned. "You're in deep shit if they have that on camera."
"Nah." Hoss jerked his head upward. "Checked already."
The ceiling videocamera for the corridor was ruined, lens broken and body a shattered hulk. It was like this all over the school. Every time a corridor camera was repaired, within a day or two it would be smashed.
"Anyway," Hoss went on. "Jackie'd be on my side if they did see me. She'd tell 'em I was swattin' a wasp off her tit or somethin'."
The three youths were almost at Room 33. Most of the class was already there, standing waiting outside the locked door.
"Mebbe Preebane's not as dumb as you think, Screw," Hoss said. "He knows at least that much. Lockin' the door stops us givin' him a welcome."
"So one of us has to get real inventive once we're inside." Savage turned around, three toothpicks sticking up from between the knuckles of his closed right fist. "Short one has first go at Papa Willis. Who wants first pick?"
"Me," Hoss said, and grimaced with annoyance when the toothpick he pulled was full length. "Lucky with women, unlucky in the draw. Go on, Rick. You got one out of two chance now."
Rick plucked the toothpick from between Savage's first and second finger, and grinned when he saw it was a fragment only an inch and a half long.
"Lucky bastard." Screw opened his hand to reveal a third, full-length toothpick. "You get Preebane all to yourself."
"Aha!" The voice, thin and with a definite lisp, came from behind Rick. "And do I hear thomeone taking my name in vain?"
Rick turned and stared. The man waddling along the corridor was too good to be true. He was pale, short, and grossly overweight. He had watery blue eyes in a pudgy face, and he sported a flat, gingery-brown moustache that looked as though it had been poorly dyed and pasted above his full upper lip.
Preebane's very appearance was an opportunity to have fun. If Rick didn't get in quickly, some other class joker certainly would.
In fact, it was already happening. Rick heard a whisper, deliberately loud, from among the group of waiting students: "Quiet now. Here comes our new PE teacher."
Preebane, heading for the classroom door, paused uncertainly. After a moment he decided to pretend he had not heard the comment. He unlocked the door and waved the students inside. Rick, contrary to his natural instincts and usual practice, went to sit in the middle of the first row. Preebane, belly wobbling, moved to stand beneath the videocamera right in front of Rick. He beamed directly at him.
Rick gazed back and waited for inspiration. He, who usually had a thousand ideas for baiting teachers, suddenly found his mind a blank. Goaded to physical violence, Willis Preebane looked like a man who would drop dead from the exertion before he could land the first blow.
And that voice. "Good morning. I am Mr. Preebane, and I want to welcome you to my class on introductory civics." Or rather, it was "Mr. Pweebane," and "my clath on intwoductory thivicth."
"I told Pwinthipal Wigden of my appwoach, and she agweed with it completely. Begin by forgetting evewything that you have ever been told about the Conthtituthion."
"Done," said a girl's voice from the back of the room, followed by a loud male whisper, "Hire the handicapped."
The others were starting without Rick. He could feel Screw and Hoss glaring accusingly at his back. And still his brain was empty. It was an enormous relief to hear the click of the PA system, right above his head, and a voice saying, "I am delighted to announce that we have been paid an unexpected visit by Congresswoman Pearl, who as I am sure you know serves on our Board of Education. All students and teachers will please assemble at once in the main hall."
Principal Rigden didn't sound delighted to Rick. She sounded ready to shit bricks. But the interruption would give him time to think. He stayed in his seat until everyone except Mr. Preebane had left the room, then he moved out and held the door for the teacher.
Preebane nodded his thanks. Rick closed the door; was careful not to lock it; and hurried after the rest of the class ahead of Preebane. He caught up with them as they were filing into the hall.
"What about some action, dipshit?" Screw Savage didn't wait until they were seated. "If I'd known you was goin' to just sit there like a dried-out dog turd, I'd never have held any draw. You can't hang old Willis out to dry, what the hell can you handle?"
"His dick." Hoss stood on the other side of Screw. "He's done it too much and softened his brain."
"Don't you believe it. I know what I'm doing. And it's something special." Rick glared at both of them. "But I need a little bit of help from you. You have to go sit down near the front."
"And where will you be?" Screw sounded suspicious.
"Right at the back. Near the door. The classroom's not locked, Screw. I was last out, I made sure it was that way."
"Ah!" The other two understood at once.
"What do you want us to do?" Hoss asked.
"Wait 'til the principal is ready to introduce Congresswoman Whats-it. It should get real quiet. Then you drop something."
"Hell, I dunno. Anything. Anything that makes a decent noise."
Hoss dived into his pocket and came up with a handful of change. "This? People will scrabble around after 'em, too."
"But the Rigger will have my ass in a sling for interrupting her."
"For dropping money and losing some? Don't think so. Anyway, if you're going to help, get going. I can't wait much longer. Have to find a seat near the side door."
Hoss and Screw nodded. Rick turned at once and started easing his way against the main flow of students. The seats at the back, usually filled first, were today half empty. Everybody wanted to see Principal Rigden wriggle and grovel, the way she always did with Board of Education visitors. Rick sat at the end of a row he had almost to himself, close enough to the open door for a quiet getaway.
He waited impatiently while the stage filled with the senior teachers. Willis Preebane was up there with them--that was surprising for a new and junior staff member. The honor didn't seem to make him comfortable; maybe because his ass would hardly squeeze in between the arms of his chair.
There was one student on the stage, too. Daniel Rackett. As valedictorian (vale-dickhead-torian, as Hoss usually put it) Danny would be called upon to say something to welcome their guest. He didn't look comfortable, either. He was peering at the headset that was supposed to read his speech into his ear. From the expression on his face it wasn't working right. Even from the back of the hall Rick could see his Adam's apple bobbing up and down.
Finally Principal Rigden appeared, smiling broadly and leading a large, red-haired woman in a green pantsuit. They moved to two empty chairs at the front of the stage, Congresswoman Pearl sat down, and the principal turned to face the students. "I would like--"
There was the clatter of two dozen small coins falling onto the wooden floor. Some of them were still rolling when Rick quietly rose and slipped out of the side door.
The principal would speak, then Danny Rackett, then the visitor. Rick probably had at least half an hour. But that wasn't long for what he had in mind.
First he headed away from Room 33, keeping his eyes open for working videocameras. The contraceptive dispensers were down by the cafeteria entrance. They needed a student name and ID code before they would operate, but Rick was prepared for that. He entered "Daniel J. Rackett" and "XKY-586", waited as the valedictorian's ID was confirmed, and took the packet of three condoms. He did it twice more. Nine should be enough. If anyone checked today's records, Danny would get quite a reputation.
The corridors were deserted as he hurried back toward Room 33, opened the door, and slipped through. The trick now was to disable the classroom videocamera without being seen by it. The cable ran along the ceiling, well out of reach. Rick scaled the open door and balanced precariously on top of it. He had no knife on him--anything that might form a weapon would never get past the school entrance--but his nail clippers were enough for this job. He crouched on top of the door, reached up, and delicately snipped the thin grey cable.
He lost his balance as he did so and had to jump, but he landed easily. And finally he could close the classroom door. There was no way of locking it from the inside, but he felt a lot safer once it was shut.
He blew up eight of the condoms and tied their ends. They formed great balloons, a couple of feet long and nine or ten inches wide. He taped them all around Preebane's desk, stepped back, and surveyed his work.
It was a start, but it was not enough. He could imagine Screw Savage's sniff and critical comment: "Kindergarten stuff." He had to try for the rest.
Rick went to the door, opened it, and looked along the corridor. He had no idea how much time had passed, but everywhere was still silent and deserted. He left the door unlocked and hurried along to the washroom at the end of the corridor. He placed the end of the remaining condom over a faucet, held it in position, and turned on the water.
It took forever to fill. Rick put in as much water as he dared, until he was sure that the thin skin would burst under the weight. At last he tied off the end. The bloated condom had become amazingly heavy. He cradled it in his arms and headed back to the classroom.
The most difficult part still remained. Somehow he had to balance the monstrous condom right above the door, so that it would burst as the door swung open. And he had to get out, himself, after the trap was set.
It sounded impossible. Rick puzzled over it, increasingly sure that he was running out of time, until at last he realized that he was trying to solve the wrong problem. He didn't have to leave the room at all. There was going to be total confusion after the door was opened. He could hide behind the desks at the back of the room, and leave when the excitement was over.
He spent ten nervous minutes arranging a harness of tape around the condom, then placed thumb tacks through the ends of the tape. Finally he dragged a chair over to the door and lifted the condom into position. He pushed the pins into the wall and made delicate adjustments. When the door was opened, its rough top had to just scrape the bottom of the condom enough to break it. But the condom felt so distended and tight, he was almost afraid to move it now.
At last he realized that he was doing more harm than good. The changes he was making were loosening both the pins and the tape. He returned the chair to its original position and forced himself to retreat to the back of the room. He found a place which allowed him a narrow view of the door, with a very small chance of his being seen.
And then he waited. And waited.
What could be going on in the hall? There was no way to know how long Congresswoman Pearl would decide to speak. Certainly, Principal Rigden would not dare to interrupt a visitor who was a member of the Board of Education. Suppose that she went on right until lunch time, and the class did not return to this room?
Rick's legs were stiff and his knees sore from crouching on the hard floor when at last he heard the sound of footsteps clattering along the corridor. He tensed. He had not been able to lock the door, as he had originally intended. Maybe Preebane would notice that.
Apparently not. The metal handle on the inside was turning. The door opened its first inch and Rick heard Preebane's voice saying, "After you, Aunt Delia. I am weally glad that my clath will have you--"
The door swung open. Rick had one glimpse of Willis Preebane, ushering a large, green-clad figure ahead of him into the room. Then the giant condom, scraped by the top of the door, burst with a soft, subdued plop. Water deluged down.
Rick, peering through the narrow slit, had the sudden feeling that the flood had decapitated Congresswoman Pearl. He could see her red hair, sodden with water, lying on the floor.
Then he heard her scream. She clutched at her head. The hair beneath the wig was revealed as short-cropped and grey.
Behind the congresswoman and Preebane, crowding now into the doorway, came Rick's whole class. They were buzzing with excitement and delight. Delia Pearl's secret would be all over the school by lunch-time. Rick saw Screw near the front, standing open-mouthed with astonished glee.
He felt a huge satisfaction. He had promised; and he had certainly delivered.
Copyright 1996 by Kirkwood Research, Inc., and Jerry Pournelle
Excerpted from Higher Education by Sheffield, Charles Copyright © 1997 by Sheffield, Charles. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Far and away the most believable and interesting near-space milieu I've seen in years.