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Fleet

Janet blinked, but I ignored it and stepped up beside Curtis as we hit the main stairway to the lower deck, coming out onto a catwalk overlooking a massive cargo bay almost as large as a football field. A few dozen people were already lining the catwalk overlooking the bay. Janet slapped Curtis on the shoulder and moved off to the side, finding us a place near the corner of the catwalk. I leaned against a pole and took the bottle Curtis passed me.

“Obstacle course runs are the most popular ship sport,” he said. “Tripps is one of our best runners, but on our last run out her best time got beaten by a third rate tech. Everyone knows he got lucky on the pulls, but Tripps can’t let it go.”

“Lucky on the pulls? What do you mean? Isn’t it just, like, a basic race?”

“Nah, man. We can do better than that.”

“You’re right about it being a timed run.” Janet cut in. “But we set every gravity projector in the bay to random. They cycle every five seconds, some of them stay how they are, some of them change.”

The lightbulb began to flicker. “Ah, okay. I got it. So it’s a timed run with randomly shifting resistance.”

Curtis shook wiggled his hand at me. “Mostly, but the switch isn’t just strength, it’s also orientation.” He waved at the walls. “Any of these might turn out to be the floor half way through.”

I looked between the two of them. “This is starting to sound a little dangerous.”

A new voice cut across them from behind. “Not just a little, Wade. It can be very dangerous.”

The voice was that of an eighty year old grandmother, but when I turned my eyes only found the lithe body of a late twenties woman. Story smiled, “They put the cargo restraint straps on random too. So the obstacles move.”

I smiled back at her. “Aren’t you supposed to be on duty?”

“I am on duty,” she said. “Someone has to get the cargo bay ready for the run. I just thought I’d come say ‘Hi’.”

“Thanks,” I said. “Have there been any big problems?”

A horn sounded over the bay’s intercom. “Oh, I should go,” she said.

She gave Curtis a friendly nod and barely looked in Janet’s direction. “Janet.” She said curtly as she turned to leave.

“Story.”

I caught Curtis’ eye and raised an eyebrow, but he quickly shook his head, passing me the bottle. I took a drink and counted to thirty. When I was sure Story was out of sight I relaxed, leaning against the pole. “You know what I like about hanging out with you guys? It’s never awkward, at all.”

Curtis snorted into the bottle of whiskey and Janet scowled. I met her gaze without flinching for several seconds before she shook her head. “It’s history.”

It almost looked like she wanted to explain, but I knew she wasn’t comfortable saying any more. I nudged her with my shoulder. “Shit happens. Let’s watch the race.”

Tripps stood in the center of the near end of the cargo bay. She wore a tight fitting latex outfit, like a gymnast or dancer and stretched long and lean. Another horn sounded over the intercom. Tripps rose, shaking out her limbs and settling into runner’s blocks. Cargo straps sprang loose all over the bay and half a dozen crates fell into the air. Several of the smaller cargo boxes flew into motion, falling hard across the bay toward the far side. Tripps tensed. The floating boxes shifted, hurtling in new directions. A third whistle sounded and Tripps lept into motion.

It was incredible. Tripps lunged forward, racing into the cargo bay at an angle to avoid two of the larger crates careening toward her. She jumped high, catching a gravity projection and flying sideways. The next gravity shift caught her on all fours, climbing a cargo net. From my vantage it looked like she was hanging sideways, but I could see the strain on her face as she fought gravity. The lights flickered and a dozen more cargo crates sprang loose and flew in every direction.

Tripps lunged from crate to crate, landing on the moving crates as easily as if they were the floor. I watched her move. The course was as much mental as physical. You had to be able to adjust to every change of orientation and flexible enough to fall in any direction. The gravity shifted hard and caught Tripps in the middle of a lunge. She slammed down hard, hitting the cargo bay floor. The box she’d jumped from crumpled as it hit behind her. She must’ve been under nearly seven G’s of force.

A heartbeat later the projections shifted and she skittered across the ground, leaping up at the far end of the bay and slamming a fist down on a control panel. A final horn rang, followed quickly by two more. The cargo bay erupted with cheers and applause. I took the bottle from Curtis. “That was pretty intense.”

“You should see the team games.”

“Teams?”

“Yeah, they add a ball, a center line, a couple nets, and slow the grav changes to thirty second spans. Four men on each side and few other rules. It gets harsh.”

“I bet.”

I stepped away from the railing and staggered. Lights shifted in my vision. Janet swore.

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