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Zero G Lindy Hop
A novella from Cheeseburger Brown
CHAPTERS 1|2|3|...
Zero G Lindy Hop, a science-fiction story by Cheeseburger Brown; illustration by Matthew Hemming

CHAPTER 2

The last sounds of loading reverberate away. The cargo capsule settles with a sad creak and a little rain of rust. Once liberated the corroded granules hang in the air, slowly spinning.

Tas winds the clock and pops the hatch.

She slips out, pushing her hair out of her face so she can look around. The spaceliner's hold is vast. Her mere Class Four tube is dwarfed by the scale of the monstrous cargo capsules belted into deep berths on every side: giant plastic pills of bedsheets, potable water, edible yeast primaries, disinfectants both custodial and medical, blue barbicide, scented napkins, anti-nausea spores, seasonal lapel pins and festive epaulettes for the crew, and even an entire row devoted to the full panoply of reproductive contraceptives and leisure aids.

The engines are close by, their rumble loud. The air is thin and cold. Tas can see her breath.

"Some fancy accommodations," she snorts to no one in particular. "Same old familiar; I ought to rather it I reckon because go again I've gathered it." She listens to Pop's old words echo away, then barks: "Alpha! Beta!"

The alpha and beta robots swing into action to untie, unpack, unfold. The roving glow of their busy eyes reveals the flaked and faded paint on the side of her capsule: FLYING CORBITALS FAMILY CIRCUS. And beneath that, simply: 12.

The beta is holding pieces of Mr. Magnificent in place while the alpha fastens the joints. Tas executes a lazy somersault as she floats past. She shivers then draws her arms in to hug her shoulders, causing her to spin. The fog of her breath trails out behind her in a swirl.

She comes to rest against the largest container of shampoo she has ever seen. Her fingers find frost but, curiously, where the huge capsule curves away from her she can see condensation on its edge. She kicks off laterally, brow furrowed. Wither the warmth?

She's startled by a voice: "Are you cold?"

It's a Lagrangian loader peeking out between cargo capsules, his long, prehensile toes splayed out against the dewey side of the shampoo. Tas shrugs as she drifts. "Hunkered against worse," she says from behind a cloud of hair.

"You're a fixer? You look like a fixer."

"Nop," she replies amicably. "Here to mount a show."

"Unscheduled, berthless? Otherwise you wouldn't be holed up in the hold, I figure, nor coming aboard mid-leg."

She nods, hair swishing in the freefall. "You reckoned it, Lagranger."

He gestures over his shoulder, deeper into the hold. "Care for a milk?"

The cargo crew is all Lagrangian -- skinny, long-limbed and almost translucent in complexion. They warm themselves around a fire in a barrel while the barrel is rotated in an ingenious apparatus contrived from an unwinched grappling nipple and a strategically parked microgravity forklift whose windshield scraper has been jammed at intermittent. Via periodic jerks the tethered barrel is swung around just fast enough to keep the combustibles from tumbling free. Still, a cloud of winking embers orbits the men like trained fireflies.

Tas smiles, welling up with fond memories of the Lagrangian acrobats she knew as a kid: never setting foot on a solid planet, never having a notion of down -- only acceleration, a liquid sum of competing motions. When she is introduced the Lagrangian loaders toast her with their milk.

"Need to milk up?" they ask her. "How're your bones for being so long on the road, Miss Planet Toad?"

She laughs. "Been spins and spins since planetfall, skinnies. I'd take a hot milk as quick as break a leg for master."

A sack of milk is pinched off for her, then pegged with a straw. She draws on it, eyes closed as the spicy, fermented milk steam fills her nostrils from the back, making her nerves crackle. "Now that's a proper milk," she says, licking her tingling lips. The loaders laugh as they float upsidown around her in the lotus position like tall, stretched-out Buddhas.

"What kind of a show do you put on, Miss Weller Dweller? Tell us, for your milk."

"Is it pornography?"

"Is it presented in the round?"

"Is it narrow niche?"

Tas laughs again. "Nop. Rather, it's nothing but a little Old Timey All-Robot Tap."

The loaders are very impressed by this and, since every Lagrangian at every orbit of every star seems to know every other Lagrangian, soon they are swapping anecdotes. It's bittersweet, because as much as Tas gets to share in the delight the loaders feel in hearing about their famous acrobatic brethren's adventures in the spotlight, she must also ride down into the somber, slower stories of how many of them fell to self-destructive behaviour and ruin upon returning home to the outposts where they grew up -- and had once escaped from.

A dollop of milk from each of them is poured into the ventilators, in remembrance of the cherished dead. The white globules seem to seek each other out and combine as they are sucked away into the echoing darkness of the shaft.

"What of the circus now, Miss Ground Hugger? Tell us, for the warmth of our fire."

Tas shrugs, letting twisting locks of hair drift in front of her eyes. She ducks slightly as the flaming barrel swings by, a few loose embers flitting free. She tracks them, watching until they've all winked out. "Gone," she answers finally.

The barrel swings past again. The loaders wordlessly make an offering of a dollop.

"There's just me now," adds Tas, gaze distant. She blinks and looks at her hosts. "So I reckon it's not all really over til I am." She offers a glum smile. "The show still goes on, skinnies. It ever do."

They cheer. Lagrangers love, above all, to be well entertained.

But suddenly their voices fail and their gazes drop. Confused, Tas turns her head to look where they refuse to. It's Mistress Glittervale and she looks aghast. "I'm amazingly aghast!" she cries. "I've been just freaking right out in search of you, Miz Corbital. Oh my accounts I'm so extraordinarily relieved to find you."

"Having some milk," explains Tasfoliana, holding up her sack.

"No no no, no no. You totally don't understand, Miz Corbital. Oh no. We're already two hundred percent behind schedule. I'm nothing but hugely obliged to so immediately show you to your cabin."

Tas blinks. "My what?"

"Your cabin, darling! You didn't think you were staying in the cargo hold, did you? Of course not? Naturally not? How hilarious would that be? We're not barbarians at Capsheaf."

"Wasn't reckoning on anything fancy. Don't go to trouble."

"Nonsense, don't be very stupid. I can't believe you're not and I wouldn't blame you at all if you were already calling the captain to complain about how fully appalling all this must be for you."

"...Usually just camp in my tube, see," finishes Tas awkwardly.

"Oh my accounts that would be just crazy! No no no, no no: you'll be insanely comfortable in one of our lavishly appointed cabins, Miz Corbital. You'll find yourself fully surprised and positively transported. We can and will match and exceed any comfort you might and certainly do long for. After all, you deserve it."

"Deserve what?"

Mistress Glittervale grins. "Why, anything at all!"

Tas frowns dubiously.

A trolley shuttles them through the airless, directionless spine of the spaceliner. Through the windows Tas catches glimpses of spidery engineering robots, their silhouettes and gleaming eyes plied briefly from the infrared gloom by the trolley's headlamp. Mistress Glittervale never stops speaking but, mercifully, much of it is lost beneath the engine's hum.

The trolley whines to a halt. "...And so that's why we were totally able to accommodate you in the finest fashion, comp cabin and so much more, by only jig-jogging the funeral ahead by simply a single rotation!"

Mistress Glittervale is grinning expectantly, so Tas says, "That's great."

She's whisked out of the trolley by her elbow, the walls of the tunnel sparkling with giant letters that say WELCOME TO THE FIESTA TORUS! in the Common Verbal Protocol with the translation in several popular dialects in smaller letters underneath. Tas can feel a weak gravity taking hold of her, drawing her down toward the letters. Her stomach lurches.

She copies Mistress Glittervale as she grabs a harness and lowers herself down to the carpeted platform of a lift poised over the mouth of a deep shaft -- a spoke, running from the spine of the ship out to one of its rotating rings. The lift begins to descend through the spoke, plunging Mistress Glittervale and Tas through shifting mosaics of glowing advertisements that gesture and wink and coo.

"Have you ever seen the Wonder optically, Miz Corbital?" Mistress Glittervale needs to know, touching Tas's arm urgently.

Tas shrugs from behind her hair. "Which wonder?"

Mistress Glittervale smacks her on the shoulder playfully and shrieks, "You're absolutely yanking my tether!"

Startled, Tas stares at her with wide eyes.

"Indi's Wonder, of course!" gushes Mistress Glittervale with her patented grin. "That's what this whole cruise is completely about: six years of mind-blowingly awesome anticipation out to the Wonder, then six years of fully unplugged celebration and all-go partying the total way home."

Tas falls off from absently rubbing at her smacked shoulder. "Did you say six years? This is a six year cruise?"

"No no," laughs Mistress Glittervale, waving her manicured fingernails dismissively. "No no no, completely not. Six year cruises went out with extended hips. This isn't a day-trip for also-rans, Miz Corbital: this is elite." She straightens proudly against her harness. "This cruise is all about no less than twelve full years in space, each of them more astonishingly superlative than the last. That's an iron-clad promise, and our barrister programme has certified that promise for liability purposes in most major jurisdictions."

Tas blinks. "But -- twelve years...what about their lives? And jobs?"

"Jobs?" sniffs Mistress Glittervale. "Oh Miz Corbital you are a card! Like I totally said, this is elite. Capsheaf passengers don't have jobs." She laughs.

"But they must get bored, nop?"

Mistress Glittervale shakes her head firmly, jewellery swishing and chiming. "They never, ever do," she tells Tas with utmost seriousness. "Never, ever. It can't be allowed. It could never be." She raises her sharp chin. "I fully am this cruise's Mistress Glittervale, and I didn't get all the way up here by allowing passengers to fall bored. Not ever."

"Oh," says Tas, furrowing her brow. She can detect a regular throb vibrating through her harness, getting gradually stronger.

"You don't totally believe me? Just you wait, Miz Corbital. Just you fully completely wait. I only ask that once you've experienced the positively award-winning fun of the Fiesta Torus you keep your head enough to highly remember that you've got a show to put on for me."

"I never forget the show," claims Tas.

"You say that now," replies Mistress Glittervale, watching her from the corner of her eye. "But you've never been distracted like this before."

The lift stops with a ding.

Doors yawn apart before them, admitting a booming pulse of music and a blinding sweep of coloured lights. "Welcome," shouts Mistress Glittervale with her arms spread wide, "to the Fiesta Torus!"

Tas has never seen the like. She stands beside Mistress Glittervale on a balcony overlooking a cavernous atrium nine storeys deep, a great oxygen tree standing in the core and surrounded on all sides by stacked decks of revelry -- in one quadrant passengers dance in a shifting mist of colour, in another quadrant they luxuriate naked in a gently swaying tidepool, in the next they cheer around a glittering wheel, clutching wager chits in their hands. Giant holographic displays flash and blink and spin, shining volumetric shafts through air that churns with the mingling of a dozen kinds of smoke. Passengers hoot and laugh and scream, a constant muddle of human noise peeking between blasts of overlapping musics.

Behind them, near the lift, a half-naked man is sprawled upon the intricately tiled floor. His clothes are torn rags, his body bruised. Between bouts of trying unsuccessfully to raise himself and sputtering wetly he looks up and catches sight of Mistress Glittervale, his eyes swollen and glassy and pink.

"Having a good time, sir?" she shouts.

He gives her the thumbs up and leers happily before collapsing, eyes rolling. A duo of white medical robots dashes over to crouch at his side. "You are safe," one assures him while the other prepares a stomach pump. "Do not panic."

With a shaking hand the man holds aloft an empty glass. "I was drinking whiskey," he coughs, wiping strings of bile from his mouth. "No ice."

He then goes into cardiac arrest. The medical robots dutifully resuscitate him.

Tas looks up to see that Mistress Glittervale is getting away from her. With an anxious scamper she catches up. When she looks over her shoulder the man and the medicals have vanished, replaced by a floor-to-ceiling holographic display and a garden of lewd statues. "The walls move?"

Mistress Glittervale nods without breaking pace. "Nothing keeps life fresh like everyday novelty." She points out one of her jewelled brooches as Tas jogs abreast of her. "My staff signal is guiding us now, naturally, but for the passengers the ship is fully a perpetual maze. That's a standard Capsheaf anti-ennui feature."

They pass a massage parlour that appears to be rotating away behind new sections of wall descending from the deck above. The sections lock together with clamps shaped like filigreed vines, then the entire assembly begins to slowly move back while an aquarium of people swimming with sharks takes its place.

Tas and Mistress Glittervale step over a shear in two moving floor plates and then turn down a spiral staircase, weaving their way around the bodies. The lower they proceed the stronger the feeling of apparent gravity becomes. On the eighth level they cross a square surrounded by alternating instances of restaurant venues and vomitoria. On the seventh level it's snowing.

"Marvellous, isn't it?" croons Mistress Glittervale.

Tas shivers. "I reckon you never know what's next around here."

"And that, Miz Corbital, is precisely the point."

The sixth level will give Tasfoliana nightmares, and the fifth level is worse. "Everything's fully consensual, of course," narrates Mistress Glittervale blandly. "The screaming woman is wholly a member of my staff, and the blood is not only scrubbed and potable but it's actually alcoholized."

Tas can't bear to look where Mistress Glittervale is pointing. She concentrates on her boots, and her effort not to step into anything awful or trip over a custodial robot's roving appendage, often hard to discern in the shifting, strobing lights. She chases Mistress Glittervale's hem down the next staircase, looking up only when a deafening boom concusses across the fourth level.

Tas cowers as glass balconies and storefronts shatter. Emergency klaxons wail just seconds before a second series of booms rocks the torus followed by the sound of shrieking metal. The floor bucks beneath her.

"Emergency! Emergency! All hands: the hull has been compromised by a rogue asteroid!"

A catwalk crumples, dashing falling passengers against the oxygen tree amid a slurry of debris both architectural and organic. A fireball roils out of a corridor, people screeching as they're scorched. The lights stutter. Medical robots are trampled in the chaos. The air turns black with greasy smoke and ash. Tas covers her mouth, hacking.

A man with a badly mangled arm staggers over to the stairs, leaning heavily on the railing as his wound splatters on the decking. Mistress Glittervale gives him a knowing nod. "How's the new pain working out for you, Tom?"

"Ah, Mistress Glittervale," he groans between gritted teeth, "it's excellent -- really, really excellent. Has a real bite! My nerves are positively on fire. Top notch -- just top notch!"

She grins. "I'm so glad you're totally enjoying things."

"This is just superb," he adds, gesturing at the destruction around him with the ragged remains of his splintered forearm. "I'd love to know where you get your ideas."

"Trade secret," she giggles, miming the act of zipping her lips closed and then tossing away an imaginary key.

"Fair enough," he agrees then adds more pensively, "I think I'm about to pass out from blood loss."

"Oooh!" smiles Mistress Glittervale. "Tunnel vision and everything? That's always a lark, isn't it?"

He nods wearily, skin turning grey. "See you on the other side," he mumbles, then drops into the rapidly spreading pool of his own blood. His leg gives a little kick and then he's still. A cadre of medical robots gather around him and set to work.

Mistress Glittervale looks over at Tas' shocked expression. "I completely know what you're thinking," she confesses. "And you're fully right. All things being equal I would've saved something with this kind of blammo for the return leg, but issues being as they are I've been absolutely forced to, you know, improvise."

Tas coughs. "It's not real?"

Mistress Glittervale rolls her eyes. "It's a distraction, Miz Corbital. It's entertainment."

Tas watches a swarm of desperate people clogging a gallery of escape pod hatches, beating away those would block the doors as they iris shut and prepare to blast free. Tas turns back to Mistress Glittervale. "But -- do they know? Do they know it's not real?"

"Darling, they don't want to know. That would completely spoil the thrill."

A succession of pops sound as the escape pods shoot away into space. In less than a minute there is no one left but those being tended by the medical teams. The fire suppression system douses the flames. The lights come back on. A robot with a carapace of yellow and black stripes strings up a line of fluorescent tape with words on it that read: THIS SECTION CLOSED FOR JANITORIAL SERVICE. He then proceeds to mop the floor.

Mistress Glittervale flashes her smile. "Come, Miz Corbital. Your cabin is this way."

Numbly, Tas follows.


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