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Rated: ASR · Fiction · Sci-fi · #2256846
Cruising into the future aboard the Empress Catherine
5900 words
prompt: the ultimate prank
written for the Thrice Prompted  contest.
* * * * * * * * * *

“It seems crazy that we spend half a day getting to Brazil, and then it takes only two hours to reach orbit,” Zhen marveled, shaking his head.

“Well, the plane ride from San Jose does cover ten times the distance,” Neena replied, with her typical emphasis on accuracy. “We’re only going to be about 500 miles up. And, it’ll take another half hour to dock with the cruise ship after the elevator ride. I know what you mean though, this whole trip seems unreal. I still can’t believe the company is spending so much just for a team-building exercise.”

The co-workers were seated in a plush passenger car that was climbing up to the transfer point where a booster rocket would kick in for the final portion of their trip to the orbital cruise ship. The thick carpeting and deeply padded chairs were far more luxurious than necessary for what was basically a bus ride. But orbital cruise passengers spent exorbitant amounts of money, so it was good business to pamper them all the way.

They’d flown to the Amazonas Orbital Lift Facility by conventional jet transport and then taken a tram from the airport terminal to the nearby elevator complex. The airline pilot had flown a circle around a cargo car that began its ascent just as they arrived. He’d made a point of how lucky they were to catch a glimpse of the elevator in operation, but Neena suspected that the timing was more than coincidence. Still, it was cool to see a vehicle carrying more than 20 tons of freight climb an almost invisible thread into the clear blue sky. Neena smiled as the fairy tale story Jack and the Beanstalk came to mind. All Jack needed was a magic bean!

The space elevator seems like magic to most people. Cables woven from Nanostruct fibers are anchored into solid bedrock and stretched taut by the centrifugal force of a large mass attached at the upper end. The effect is identical to whirling a jump rope around fast enough that it remains horizontal and doesn’t fall to the ground. The Earth’s rotation provides the force that whirls the 40,000-mile-long elevator cable straight out from the equator, and the elevator cars climb the taut cable into space. From high above the earth’s surface, it’s relatively easy to boost a payload to orbital velocity.

Space Elevator diagram

The ride up the space elevator could have been boring, if not for the excitement of their destination and the exotic view from hundreds of miles up. Neena had Glenn’s Guide to Orbital Cruising and a hacking.org article queued up on her XPad, but neither held her attention for long. The petite, dark-haired senior coder idly tapped through the first chapter of Cruising, which had a brief account of how the orbital cruise industry grew out of the breakthrough in materials science that made the space elevator practical:

With the advent of the space elevator, massive rocket boosters were no longer needed to escape Earth’s grasp. Simple electric motors could lift cargo into orbit inexpensively by climbing immensely strong cables made of Nanostruct fibers.

Early space tourists spent millions to stay in small Spacehabs that allowed a select few to experience weightlessness for a week or more. Many were enthralled by the experience, but many more experienced symptoms of sinus pressure, vertigo, and nausea that spoiled their trip. Some even filed lawsuits seeking refunds and damages.

Spin was introduced as the structures grew larger and began to serve dozens of guests at a time. The spinning Spacehabs gave a feeling of artificial gravity, making it more comfortable to eat, sleep, or shower. When very large, donut-shaped habitats were introduced to accommodate hundreds of guests at a time, they began to be called orbital cruise ships. The cost dropped from millions to tens of thousands as the economy of scale prevailed, and space cruising became more popular.

Space tourism eventually grew to resemble the cruise ship industry that still plies Earth’s oceans. First-class guests were wined and dined in sumptuous luxury, and the price of an ‘inside’ cabin dropped within reach of the upper middle class. Guests are now able to enjoy Las Vegas style gambling, dancing, and fantastically improbable musical shows in low-g theaters.

Time plus money, compounded by the visionary drive of entrepreneur Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, culminated in the giant cruise ship Empress Catherine. Financial analysts had been certain that the venture couldn’t break even, let alone turn a profit. But the project went forward, as much a monument to the ego of the world’s first trillionaire as a commercial business. The enormous scale of the enterprise, catering to thousands of high-dollar guests, eventually allowed it to recoup operating costs.

Neena’s group was scheduled for ten days of luxury aboard the ship considered to be the ultimate cruising experience. The cruise was both a bonus for an incredibly successful project completion, and a tax write-off for the cash rich software company. The ‘team building’ aspect of the trip was minimal, and the few group functions on the schedule were mere window-dressing to satisfy IRS requirements. Neena didn’t really care how or why, she’d been a space nerd since childhood and was elated to be going into space.

The term cruise ship was carried over from the ocean-going liners of Earth, but there was no external resemblance. The Empress Catherine could be best described as a rotating drum, with a diameter of 700 feet, a shell height of 500 feet, and a transparent domed ‘head’ extending another 100 feet from each end. The unusual shape is pleasingly symmetrical, but there are some peculiar right-angle effects that result from the design. The entire ship spins to give a simulated gravity due to the effects of centrifugal force, so guests actually walk around on the inside surface of the shell.

Cross section view of the Empress Catherine

The artificial gravity is strongest on the outboard deck, one, and decreases to zero at the central axis. The nine decks of guest cabins and crew quarters each have as much floor space as an entire ocean liner. The decks are designated as point six through one to identify their apparent gravity. The hollow space in the center of the drum, called the Zero-G Atrium, allows guests to experience the effects of weightlessness. It also has ten acres of park-like vegetation that provide a source of oxygen as well as fresh vegetables for the kitchens.

Fifteen minutes of gentle acceleration brought their passenger car up to a speed of almost 300 miles per hour. Another hundred minutes would bring them to the cruise ship transfer point 500 miles above the surface of the Earth. There, the car would be detached from the elevator cable and boosted to a speed of almost 17,000 mph to match the orbital velocity of the Empress Catherine. Cargo cars accelerate more quickly and reach higher speeds, but comfort is more important for cruise passengers.

“Look, the sky is getting black already, and the stars are so bright,” Neena exclaimed with delight, pointing out the window. “I know outer space officially begins at 60 miles up, but you don’t really get it until you see it for yourself.”

Fascinated, Zhen stared out the window without speaking for several minutes. Earth filled most of their view as they passed the 100-mile point, its beautiful blue tones set off by the inky blackness of outer space.

“It’s so beautiful,” Zhen finally murmured. “I never realized how thin the atmosphere is. Earth looks so fragile from up here. There’s almost nothing between it and outer space.”

“This car is shielded, right?” he asked anxiously, as the fragility of their position above the atmosphere was driven home.

“Yes,” Neena smiled. “There’s shielding, and there is more radiation in orbit than on the ground, but it’s not dangerous. In fact, the main reason for the cruise ship to orbit at 500 miles is to stay inside the Van Allen belt. It helps to shield us from the solar wind.”

Zhen was quiet for another few minutes as they watched the stars change from soft twinkles to brilliant points of light. Countless stars too faint to see from the ground were now visible without the obscuring atmosphere of Earth. The band of the milky way shone like a flashlight beam across the darkness of deep space.

“Why aren’t we weightless?” Zhen suddenly asked with a puzzled look. “We’re already as high as some of the weather satellites.”

“Technically, we’re still on Earth,” Neena said with an impish smile.

“What do you mean? Earth is way below us, isn’t it?”

“Well, think about riding in an elevator car in the Burj Dubai. You’re almost 1800 feet above the ground, but you’re still on Earth, right? This is just a scaled-up version of that experience. We’re not actually in orbit, we’re just standing on an incredibly tall platform. Sure, it’s rising, but right now we’re moving at a constant velocity. The force of gravity affects us just the same as if we were on a 100-mile-tall mountaintop. Even when we get all the way up to 500 miles, we’ll still feel more than 0.9 G.”

Zhen nodded his head as understanding dawned. He wasn’t a space geek like Neena and he’d never thought very much about the space elevator or satellites. He was intelligent, though, and very quick to pick up on new ideas. That quality made him a valuable team member and was the main reason that Neena had agreed to mentor him.

“So, we won’t feel weightless until we’re disconnected from the cable and boosted into orbit?”

“That’s right,” Neena smiled approvingly. “And then it’ll just be for a short time until we’re docked with the Empress Catherine. After that, we’ll feel the ship’s artificial gravity.”

They watched in comfortable silence for a while as the curvature of the Earth grew more pronounced beneath them.

“What do you want to do first?” Zhen asked casually.

“Everything,” Neena laughed. “I’ve always wanted to go into space. I even applied for the Astronautics Academy after high school, but I didn’t score high enough to get in.’

"Are you going to try the Zero-G Atrium? I can't wait to see what that feels like," Zhen commented a few minutes later.

"Of course," Neena replied. "It's supposed to be like flying . . ."

“Hey, guys, how’s it hanging,” grinned Rance, emitting an alcohol-tinged cloud of bad breath. “Are we still attached to the cable? Get it? Hanging on the cable?”

He grinned and waited for their obligatory laugh. A captive audience was one of the perks of management. Zhen gave him an uncomfortable chuckle and Neena smiled politely, but didn’t bother to speak. She tried to limit her interaction with Rance as much as possible. The older man soon moved on, apparently unaware that he’d spoiled their moment of awe.

“You really don’t like him, do you?” Zhen asked.

“We have some history,” Neena admitted. “It’s not a pleasant memory.”

“He didn’t . . .”

“No, nothing like that. He takes credit for other people’s work, is all. But that’s enough. He used me to get his promotion to management. I’ve never really forgiven him.”

“He stole your work?” Zhen asked incredulously. “How could he do that?”

“Rance was my mentor when I hired in,” Neena replied, emphasizing the word ‘mentor’ with air quotes. “Not that he ever taught me much. I thought he was being supportive by taking on most of the paperwork, but he altered the activity logs to make it look like he did most of the coding. I was totally focused on the project and by the time I woke up, it was too late. We had the most successful project of the year. I got a pat on the head, and Rance got promoted.”

A pleasant chime interrupted their conversation.

“Attention all guests and shuttle personnel. We will begin orbital boost in fifteen minutes. Please secure all loose items and direct your attention to the orientation video.”

Neena felt relieved, she hadn’t meant to be so candid with Zhen. He was just so attentive and easy to talk to that her defenses had slipped for a moment. Most men didn’t listen at all. She was aware of his attraction to her, and she was all too aware of his strikingly dark eyes and high cheekbones that hinted at a central Asian heritage. The tall, slender young man was certainly handsome, but he was also a couple of years too young. Neena had no desire for a complicated workplace romance. She left the idle train of thought unfinished and turned her attention to the video screen.

Neena was familiar with almost everything in the orientation video, but played it again to savor the total experience. Zhen watched it with nervous excitement, wanting to be fully prepared to avoid looking foolish in front of Neena. The junior coder had a bit of a puppy-dog crush on his mentor, but was even more in awe of her coding skills. The last thing he wanted was for Neena to give him one of the ‘looks’ that she reserved for useless deadweight like Rance.

Zhen had learned a lot from Neena in his first full year out of school, and he hoped to develop his skills even further. He found Neena’s somewhat plain face to be mesmerizing when it was lit up with the intense concentration of an all-night coding session. Zhen wasn't concerned by the age difference, but he was reluctant to act on his attraction without encouragement. He hoped the cruise might provide an opportunity to develop a more personal relationship.

The orientation video emphasized the difference between ship’s gravity and Earth gravity:

The simulated gravity of the Empress Catherine is produced by centrifugal force, so you may experience some initial discomfort as you adapt. These effects typically pass within 24 hours. The ship spins on its axis at three revolutions per minute. This provides a downward force of approximately one earth gravity on the outermost deck. The force decreases as you move toward the ship's central axis and the decks are identified by their G-force equivalent. Passenger activities are typically restricted to decks point six through one, except for excursions to the Zero-G atrium. Walking in the spinward direction, or anti-spinward direction will feel almost normal, but walking perpendicular to the spin may cause some disorientation. Please be aware that the floor will seem to move sideways under your feet when you walk perpendicular to the ship’s spin.

The orientation video also explained that time is completely arbitrary in orbit, and that the ship was designed to take advantage of that fact. Onboard clocks showed a twelve-hour cycle, but one end of the ship was always daytime, and the other was always night:

"Cruising on the Empress is truly a twenty-four seven experience, with our two main social hubs of dayside and nightside. Passengers can choose to have morning and evening on their own schedule by moving between the two. Additional dining and entertainment options are available on each deck for guests who desire a more conventional cruise experience."

Neena zoned out for a bit as she tried to imagine playing through a full twenty-four day, or partying for an entire twenty-four hour night. She was brought back to the moment when the video was interrupted again.

“Please return to your seats and fasten your seat belts. Orbital boost will begin in five minutes.”

The pleasant tone of the announcement was followed by an insistent chime. Most first-time passengers scrambled nervously for their seats, but a few experienced travelers lingered by the windows. Everyone buckled in at the more urgent tone of the one-minute mark. Rance was the last one to leave the windows, grinning at Neena and Zhen with a superior attitude of bravado.

The elevator car shuddered slightly as it released its grip on their thin link to the Earth. Small thrusters pushed it away from the elevator cable and the passengers experienced their first brief taste of weightlessness as their upward velocity slowed. The main booster fired a few seconds later, pushing them back in their seats and the elevator car became a space shuttle.

A thirty second burn at 0.5 G brought them within visual distance of the cruise ship. Everything had been carefully timed such that the Empress Catherine passed just ahead of the shuttle as it achieved a matching orbital velocity. Several smaller burns over the next thirty minutes brought the shuttle within docking range. Tiny thrusters rotated the shuttle so that its back wall faced toward the ship, and the floor pointed outboard. A final lateral push from the thrusters briefly matched up the shuttle’s trajectory with the docking platform as the ship’s spin brought the docking platform directly ‘below’ the shuttle.

Four flexible cables instantly shot out and clamped onto the shuttle. Two went straight out to the outboard corners to align the shuttle with the docking port, and two were attached to the inboard corners at an angle to counteract the cruise ship’s spin force. The shuttle passengers experienced a stomach-flipping lurch as they became subject to the ship’s spin and their floor once again became ‘down’. The velocity change was cushioned by the shock absorbing effect of electric motors that allowed the cables to unreel slightly as the shuttle ‘leaped’ before being reeled in. The process was similar to playing a game fish on a light line, but on a massive scale.

The clunk of the passenger shuttle being locked onto the docking port was followed by a final announcement:

“Welcome to the Empress Catherine! You will embark at deck point eight and stewards will assist you to your cabins. Please proceed carefully and use the handrails.”

As advertised, the walk to the cabins was unsettling. The lower ‘gravity’ of the point eight level made them bounce a little as they pushed off with earthly muscle memory. Zhen and Neena both stumbled when they turned a corner and took a step at right angles to the ship’s spin. Their laughter came out a little too loud and lasted a little too long as the stress and fatigue from the long day caught up with them.

“You wanna get a drink, or something?” Zhen asked.

“I’d really like to explore, but I’m beat,” Neena replied. “I have to lay down for a while. How about we meet up on the Dayside ring tomorrow morning?”

“Sounds good,” he agreed, his face showing a mixture of relief and disappointment. “We have a team-building exercise there at ten hundred. We can grab some breakfast first.”

Neena’s cabin was bigger than she had expected. The huge scale of the Empress Catherine provided plenty of space for guests. The layout was similar to any earthbound cruise ship, but with a real bathroom, and ample closet space. Neena quickly unpacked, and then paused to take a closer look at the lightly textured cabin surfaces. Although they didn’t seem very different from her own apartment, she knew from Glenn’s Guide that they were built up from plastic resins by 3-D printbots. The use of contrasting color and variations in texture gave a realistic appearance of different materials.

The cutting-edge technology had allowed the interior walls to be put in place with little waste, and with all necessary utilities already in place. Neena marveled briefly at the advances of modern life and then fell into bed exhausted by an extremely full day.

* * * * * * * * * *

That is the most amazing view I’ve ever seen, Neena thought, looking out the huge window at the Earth spinning in front of her. It was a bit disorienting to try to reconcile what she knew should be ‘down’ with the reality of the ship’s artificial gravity. She was sitting at a table on the dayside ring, facing a transparent dome that was nearly filled by the blue and white planet 500 miles below. The floor of the ring rose on either side of her to perpendicular, and then came together again almost 400 feet overhead. When Neena looked up, she could see the heads of other guests at tables that appeared to be attached to the ‘walls’ from her perspective, or hanging upside down from her ‘ceiling’. The image of a rolling barrel flashed through her mind. The dayside ring was like the inside surface of a huge barrel spinning in space, and she was looking out the open end.

It was actually the cruise ship spinning at three RPM that kept all of the tables in place. What felt like 'down' was actually outboard in the cruise ship's reference system. Neena and all of the other guests were held to the surface of the ring by 0.6 G of centrifugal force, and the transparent dome seemed to extend in front of them, instead of overhead.

The apparent motion was further complicated by the ship’s 100-minute orbit around the Earth. The Empress Catherine’s passengers could view the entire surface of the planet during a leisurely meal. The final complication was less obvious, but no less important to the full orbital cruise experience. The cruise ship had to rotate once on its minor axis each orbit to keep the dayside dome pointed toward Earth.

The KleckCo group had gathered under the dayside dome for their first morning aboard, enjoying what was popularly known as the ‘eternal brunch’. The buffet style feast was served continuously in several locations around the dayside ring. There were other places to grab casual fare, of course, but the team building exercise was scheduled to begin after a leisurely breakfast. Neena paused for a minute at the table where Rance was holding court with some of the younger employees.

“What about the Zero-G atrium?” she heard Gregor ask excitedly, “I’ve heard you can actually fly like a bird!”

“Sure, weightlessness is quite an experience,” Rance had agreed dismissively. “But floundering around in empty air gets old pretty fast, believe me. The nightside disco is a lot more fun.”

Neena decided that an empty table would be more fun than listening to Rance. Zhen soon joined her, and the mesmerizing view held their full attention for some time as they slowly worked on western omelets and waffles.

“Hi, I’m Roz Compton,” said a neatly turned-out fortyish woman. “Mind if I join you? We’re supposed to meet people we don’t already know.”

“Of course,” smiled Neena. “I’m Neena Gonzalez, and this is Zhen Borte. I’ve seen your picture on the org chart. It’s nice to meet you in person. You’re a senior manager, right?”

“That’s right, but for the next few days I’m just Roz. I’m glad to meet you as well, I understand that you’re one of the rising young talents that made this trip possible.”

“I try,” Neena said modestly, blushing a little with the unexpected praise.

“You do more than just try,” Roz continued. “You’ve been instrumental in several successful projects . . .”

“Roz! Great to see you,” Rance interrupted. “I’ve just been giving some of the newbies the inside scoop on cruising. I’d really like to get together with you and have a drink. I’ve got some ideas for the new project.”

“Neena, good to see you too,” Rance nodded dismissively, and moved on to schmooze with another senior manager.

“That was rude,” Roz murmured, almost as if apologizing.

“I didn’t know Rance was an expert on orbital cruising,” Neena commented.

“He isn’t,” Roz replied shortly. “He can find the bars and gaming rooms, and he’s a pro at hitting on women. Other than that, he doesn’t have much to offer.”

“Oh? I thought he had experience in Zero-G?”

“Hardly,” Roz snorted. “He didn’t even make it as a squirrel. As soon as he lost contact with the floor he panicked, and had to be rescued by the staff. I don’t think he’s gone below point six since.”

The team building exercise was perfunctory, at best. Even the rising young executive in charge seemed eager to adjourn and move on to more enjoyable cruise activities. Neena and Zhen made their way toward the elevators, but went through a graceful archway instead to get a look at the Zero-G Atrium. The floor that spread out before them curved upward on both sides, and was marked by pleasant paths that meandered through park-like greenery, but the real attraction floated in midair.

“Oh, look at that,” Neena exclaimed in wonder. “It’s beautiful!”

“They look almost like a cloud of butterflies,” Zhen agreed.

There were dozens of fliers in colorful suits weaving through the air in the cavernous atrium airspace. The 360-degree vista of green that surrounded them was impressive, but not nearly as impressive as the spectacle of human flight.

“The tan colored ones are the cheap rentals for noobs,” Neena pointed out disdainfully. “They have mostly rigid control surfaces and compressed air jets. They’re easy to fly, but aren’t very maneuverable. That’s why they’re called squirrels. You know, like flying squirrels?”

“Yeah,” Zhen smiled, “I saw that in the orientation video, but they put it a little more tactfully. The bright colors are the real flying suits. They’re mostly owned by experts who actually use the wing surfaces to fly. Those suits are called swallows because they’re so sleek and maneuverable.”

The pair stood in awed silence for some time, just taking it in.

“We have got to sign up for that,” Neena finally sighed. “I don’t care what it costs.”

* * * * * * * * * *

The idea for a prank on Rance came to Neena later that night when most of the Kleckco group gathered on the nightside ring for drinks and dancing. The nightside ring was physically a mirror image of dayside, but the vibe was completely different.

The Dayside dome was always illuminated by the bright glow of Earthlight, but Nightside was intentionally kept somewhat dark and mysterious. Softly lit bars, dance floors and gaming tables occupied the full circumference of the ring, and their dim illumination faded quickly into the darkness of the dome. Looking around the Nightside ring was a bit like looking out of an airplane at night, and seeing the bright lights scattered on the ground. And, in front of it all, the transparent dome looked out at brilliant pinpoint stars.

It was surreal to see people drinking and gambling at tables on the perpendicular ‘walls’, or dancing and laughing on the ceiling. Neena laughed at herself as she realized that she was hanging ‘upside-down’ from their ceiling!

The whole group went quiet when spotlights came up to illuminate aerial performers equipped with flight suits. They emerged from a door located at the central axis of the ship and pushed off into the empty space of the cavernous nightside dome. Small jets of compressed air provided motive force, and the control surfaces built into their flight suits allowed them to do intricate midair maneuvers. Neena was entranced. The display was somewhat like watching fireflies, but the luminescent performers created intricate patterns never seen in nature.

“Pfft, glorified flying squirrels,” Rance muttered sourly, spoiling the moment once again.

That’s when it clicked. She’d get Rance drunk, sneak him 'up' to the performers entrance, and push him out into zero-G in full view of all the nightside guests. He’d look hilarious floundering around in midair, and then ridiculous as the ship’s staff rescued him.

It took three days for Neena to work out the details and put the entire plan together. The worst part was pretending to bury the hatchet with Rance. Fortunately, his huge ego blinded him to Neena’s ulterior motives, and he was eager to pursue a ‘closer’ relationship.

The most difficult part was broaching the subject with Zhen. She needed his help, but they weren’t really close enough for her to ask him to take on this much risk. Neena felt a twinge of guilt as Zhen eagerly agreed to take part in the prank. It wasn’t really fair to take advantage of his attraction to her.

The ship’s computer systems were designed to accommodate guests rather than to lock hackers out. Neena soon found a path through housekeeping services into personnel scheduling.

This is too easy, Neena thought with disdain. They need a complete redesign of their security procedures. They don’t even delete old accounts!

A password reset for an IT tech who had moved on to another job gave her access to everything she needed. From there, it was just a matter of putting in the time.

Neena grimaced a little as she put the finishing touches on her code and clicked ‘save’.

I can’t believe I’ve wasted a whole day of this trip hacking into the ship’s security systems, She thought ruefully. But that’s just one more reason to get even with Rance.

* * * * * * * * * *

“How long will he be out?” Zhen asked nervously. “Maybe we should call it off and just put him to bed.”

He was having second thoughts, unsure that he wanted to go along with the joke.

“It’s no big deal, just a quarter-tab of Somnoral,” Neena reassured him. “Rance is a pretty big guy. He’ll be out of it for an hour or so, and then he’ll wake up normally. We have plenty of time to sneak him into the Zero-G atrium. And, he probably won’t even remember getting there.”

It wasn’t easy to maneuver the semi-conscious Rance, but the low gravity environment made his bulk less of a problem. The ship’s staff, well used to overindulging guests, simply shook their heads as the little group passed by and took the elevator to the ship's central axis. No one challenged them as they 'helped' Rance scan his E-pass and enter the Zero-G Atrium.

“Okay, so far, but how do we get access to the performer’s entrance?” Zhen asked.

“Please,” Neena rolled her eyes. “My Xpad isn’t exactly stock, and the computer systems on this ship are almost pathetic. The security cams are already experiencing a glitch that freezes the video. No one will ever see who climbs up with Rance. The access log will show that a tech who's not even aboard opened the door. And, to fully cover us, the glitch code deletes itself in 30 minutes.”

Rance woke with a desperate, flailing grab that encountered nothing. Neena and Zhen had carefully aligned his dozing body with the ship’s central axis, and then pushed him firmly out toward the dome. Air resistance stopped his drift after traveling a little more than thirty meters. The prank had worked out beautifully, with just enough time for Neena and Zhen to hurry back to the dance floor before Rance woke up.

Centrifugal force emulates gravity, but it requires that objects have physical contact to take effect. Once free of the ship’s structure, Rance was in an independent orbit around the Earth, an orbit that matched the ship’s trajectory, and it was spinning around him as they traveled together. He was in full view of the dancing crowd, but without a spotlight, no one noticed until he began to scream.

There was no gravity to create a reference point. No ‘up’ to anchor his desperate gaze. Everywhere he looked was ‘down’ and Rance was falling in every direction at once. The inboard lights were distracting, the 360-degree ring of bobbing heads was disorienting, and the slowly rotating starfield beyond the transparent dome offered no help. It was an acrophobic’s worst nightmare, falling forever without actually moving. There wasn’t even a blessed impact to end the agony.

Rance’s screams faded to awful rasping groans as his raw throat constricted. The noise didn’t completely stop, however, not even when the stewards secured his floating body and pulled it back out of the nightside dome.

Neena didn’t feel the expected sense of triumph. No one was laughing, and it took some time before the nightside festivity returned to normal. She felt a stab of regret as she registered the disappointed frown on Zhen’s face. She realized for the first time that his opinion of her really mattered.

“You said it would be a funny prank,” he said accusingly.

“I know,” she said quietly. “That really went sideways in a hurry. I had no idea Rance had such a powerful phobia.”

“And, I’m really sorry that I involved you,” Neena continued, placing her hand on Zhen’s. “I shouldn’t have taken advantage of our friendship.”

Zhen’s face softened at Neena’s genuine regret. He was very aware of her touch on his hand. She may have gone too far with the prank, but the shared experience might also be the beginning of something good.

“That’s okay,” he smiled, “The guy is kind of a jerk.”

* * * * * * * * * *

“Neena, we need to talk,” Roz said firmly, seating herself at Neena’s table the next morning without waiting for an invitation.

Uh, oh, Neena thought as she replied neutrally, “Sure Roz, what’s on your mind?”

“It seems very odd that Rance would choose to make a scene like that,” Roz dove right in. “He was known to be afraid of heights. In fact, I mentioned it to you just the other day.”

“Well, you know Rance,” Neena said, looking away from Roz’s steady gaze. “Always showing off. Maybe someone needled him and wounded his pride. Maybe he was drunk enough to try prove his courage.”

“I suppose that’s plausible,” Roz said doubtfully. “It’s not what he says happened, but it might satisfy the cruise line. They’d prefer that this goes away quietly, without an investigation, and especially without a lawsuit. It might be best for everyone concerned if I convince Rance to go along with that story.”

“There are a couple of things that don’t quite add up,” she continued. “The security cameras froze just before Rance made his entrance. There’s no record of him putting on a flight suit or climbing onto the performer’s platform. The door requires an access code, and there’s no explanation for how he could’ve gotten it.”

“That is odd,” Neena said noncommittally, focused on a bit of pulp in her orange juice.

“I don’t think Rance would have worried about the security cameras if he were alone,” Roz mused. “I think he had help, and the camera glitch was intended to protect someone else. Maybe even two someones.”

Neena couldn’t quite control her startled reaction and her ‘deer in the headlights’ look confirmed Roz’s guess.

How did Roz put all that together so fast? Neena wondered, feeling a combination of dread and newfound respect.

“It would take a very skillful programmer to hack into the ship’s security system using nothing more than a souped-up Xpad,” Roz said meaningfully.

Neena gave Roz a look of resigned surrender, not picking up on the faint trace of a smile.

“It’s actually quite an impressive feat, to penetrate their firewalls, modify the security code, and then erase all traces of the attack. A programmer who can pull off a stunt like that would be a valuable asset for Kleckco. If, that is, their talent could be channeled into more productive paths.”

“Of course,” Neena agreed with relief, finally understanding where Roz was headed. “Practical jokes are a cruel waste of time.”

“I’ll bet the hacker regrets the whole thing,” she continued earnestly, finally looking Roz straight in the eye. “I don’t think they’d ever do anything like that again.”

“Good,” Roz smiled. “I’m glad we understand one another. I’ve given the cruise line a proposal to revamp their security. It’s a small contract, but it should prove lucrative. And, under the circumstances, I think you’d be perfect to head it up.”

“Sure,” Neena grinned, accepting the penance. “When I’m done, even Rance won’t be able to get in!”

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