Chapter 1The shuttle docked with a clang of metal against metal. Trina didn’t jerk in surprise like some of the candidates. She’d chosen a seat toward the front and could just make out the pilot’s screen through a gap in the panel separating the two compartments. Their shuttle had been approaching the station for a while now, weaving among many other shuttles.She’d been watching the others connect for a short period then pull free and vanish out of view for some time. She knew exactly when their turn had come.Trina had met the candidates with her in the orientation training on her colony ship, but she wouldn’t call them friends. Everyone she had considered such would be continuing on to the colony or other spacer assignments. This shuttle was her last tie to that life.The gate hissed open, offering a glimpse of a large room on the other side, bigger even than the cargo space where she’d spent so much of her time on the colony ship. The ceiling towered overhead, and she could not see the full width from their position. Opposite them stood an interior wall on which she could see the tops of many openings above the gathered crowd. Some of the doorways seemed sized for people while others were wider by four times or more. This must have been where they transferred all kinds of cargo, not just spacer candidates.“Candidates, grab your things and get on out,” an unfamiliar voice called from beyond, making Trina aware of how she lingered in the entrance. “The shuttle must return to its ship.”The others started talking at once, asking questions as though unwilling to step free, but Trina knew the shuttle had a short time before the next would need this spot. She twisted to pull her bundle free and strode through the open door only to stumble.One second in the cavernous space, with what seemed like hundreds of voices echoing and pounding at her, cut Trina’s confidence. She hadn’t thought much about candidates from other ships. Their group of twenty seemed large enough for anyone’s purpose.Yet, who knew how many places had sent candidates? Judging from the sheer numbers, many. Without a high vantage point, she could not make a true estimate, but wherever she looked, layer upon layer of bodies stood between her and the internal doors she’d identified at first look.“Keep together for now. It’ll make things easier,” said a woman in the purple suit designating an instructor as she waved them toward one side. “Another shuttle’s coming in.”Trina joined the others, the woman’s meaning clear without her saying they should move out of the way, but they had no further instructions. Her only relief came in seeing how none of the candidates from her colony ship seemed to know what they should be doing.They kept walking along the outer wall, passing more shuttle hatches and stacks of cargo boxes. There never seemed to be a good place to stop.Finally, they came to a disorganized halt when the room ended in a wall.She moved through her group until she could brace against the metal curve. This wall stood too far from the engine to feel its beat, or so she thought until Trina remembered she lived on a station now. If it even had an engine, she doubted it would be of the same type or set off the same resonance.Her shoulders hunched, but she forced them straight, unwilling to make her discomfort visible to any observer. Instead, she distracted herself by observing the others.Not since coming onto the colony ship had she been in a space with so many strangers. She scanned those nearest, using an unfocused gaze so as not to draw attention.The candidates came in many guises, skin tone ranging from pale white to a deep bluish tinge nothing like her spacer friend Nishan’s dark color. Clothing resembled what she’d seen among the candidates from her ship except where it didn’t, some standing out as much as her own Ceric clothes did. Hair had as many variants in colors, styles, and lengths.The variety dizzied her at first. Trina wondered how she would figure out enough to blend in. How could this society work with so many differences?The urge to run back to the shuttle, to the safety of a ship she knew, threatened to overwhelm her, but that shuttle had already undocked. She’d find no comfort in sneaking aboard any of those now connected to the station.Trina sucked in a slow breath and narrowed her focus to just those gathered nearest to them.Little variation existed in that group. All twenty-three wore uniformly tan-colored clothing that lay close to their bodies, and whether male or female, their hair hung down in dark, black sheets. Every one of them stood out in contrast to her, thanks as much to their clothes and hair as to having deep blue skin.The next had fewer candidates than either hers or the blue-skinned ones, but these matched in both dress and overall look to those they stood beside.She shifted to see another further into the room. This one had a greater variety than the first or second, but in comparison to the room as a whole, they still had more in common than not.Her vision blurred then, calling up festival days on Ceric. There she’d seen the same mix of similar but not the same between laborers and polits. Even shafters wore colors and styles on par with the other classes, those shafters whose clothing wasn’t stolen from polit rooftops in the first place.With this realization, Trina could see how each collection must have held candidates from a specific ship. Every once in a while, there’d be someone like her who matched none of the others, but her group had clearly not been the only one told to stay together.The room started to filter in her perception, becoming something like her sister’s patchwork blankets. Each group made up a different fabric, but a fabric all the same. One composed of candidates.Relief washed over her.With so many candidates and so many differences, her own oddities would stand out less. She didn’t have to understand everything about this society because no one would. No one would question her background. No one would even know she came from a colony planet and not a ship like the rest, though some of these others could be from planets as much as she was. Nishan had even come from something not so different from a shafter’s life.A disturbance rippled through the candidates, raised voices bouncing off the ceiling to travel to their corner as a jumbled mess.Trina caught sight of purple-suited instructors moving through each section. They extracted one or two candidates at a time, who left to trail after the spacers.“They’re splitting us up.”Two others hushed the boy who spoke, but from the pinched look on the faces around her, Trina could see her shipmates all felt a twinge of what she had when the shuttle left.They’d counted on having each other to lean on. She’d left everyone she could count on behind already.Deluth adjusted the uncomfortable straps on his pack. He’d never worn one before. The satchel had come from a random collection, each of The Headway’s twenty-seven candidates using something different. Most were abandoned by colonists who’d hitched a ride, not that his ship did too much of that kind of commerce. They were traders.He shook off the thought.It didn’t matter anymore. He’d chosen the Spacer Guild as they all had. Whatever they were destined to be, the Guild would assign them where they were needed, as they had the spacers who ran The Headway. Orientation hadn’t covered methods of assignment, but somehow he doubted assigning candidates to their home ships was high on the list. Every spacer he’d met came from somewhere different.“Just look at them. Scared little bots all huddled against the walls. You’d think they’d never seen a cargo bay before.”Deluth followed Redel’s pointed finger to see some of the candidates had chosen a spot where the skin met the chill of space unlike his shipmates who’d marched to the very center of the room.“At least they have something to lean on,” he said, tugging on his straps. One of the group caught his eye. Smaller than the others, with dirty yellow hair and pale skin, she didn’t seem all that impressive. But her very stillness drew him to her, a point of calm in the chaos all around him.Redel slammed him on the shoulder. “Don’t fool yourself. They’re not in that place for comfort. Too close to the hatches. No, the instructors probably took one look at them, the tiny one especially, and arranged for them to be sent right back where they came from.”Now Deluth had a different reason to rub his shoulder thanks to his best friend and bunkmate since they left the separate dwellings of their parents at the age of six. “They don’t seem all that different to me.”Redel turned to stare at Deluth with a familiar narrowed gaze, one that usually ended with a rough and tumble to wipe away whatever they’d disagreed about. He hoped Redel wouldn’t try that here. He didn’t want to be the one sent home, and he didn’t think Redel would be foolish enough to chance it either.Before that belief could be tested, one of the instructors came to a halt next to them, his head buried in a screen. He glanced from the screen to each of them before reaching out an arm and snagging Redel. “You’re with me. A Pilot.”Deluth waited for the man to call him as well, but instead he faced a purple back as the instructor strode forth, Redel in tow.“Wait. There must be a mistake. We’re supposed to be together.” Redel jerked free and moved to stand next to Deluth.The instructor’s expression had a lot in common with Redel’s earlier narrowed stare. “Shipmates are divided into separate groups as much as possible. You’re here to make new connections and learn how to deal with strangers. Not to hang out with those you’ve known your whole life. You could be assigned anywhere, with anyone.”Something oddly like relief washed over Deluth. He’d miss his friend, but they’d come here to change who they’d been. If they stayed with the same folks, it would be much more difficult to become something new.The man waited for Redel to move, his scowl deepening. Then a whistle sounded loud enough to cut through the background murmur, and he shrugged. “We’re behind schedule. Your group is too big to split up completely anyway. I suppose you two together is no different than any others of this lot.” He poked the screen then waved both of them to follow.Redel linked arms with Deluth and pulled him along with a big grin. “I knew we should be together. Isn’t that right, bunkmate?”“Right.” If his response lacked enthusiasm, it was only because it had been a long trip. He was tired and cranky.His annoyance faded as he realized the same most likely caused Redel’s cutting remarks about the other candidates.They’d taken the test together, planning all the adventures they’d have once free of the strict rules that made up their ship culture. They’d been excited about meeting new people from other places.Pointing out those who were different in a sarcastic way didn’t match with anything they’d shared before catching the shuttle.Deluth held onto that thought as the instructor picked seven more candidates, but when they circled the edge, his focus changed to the girl. Would she be part of his group?No sooner had he considered the possibility than they turned toward one of the station doors.“Keep up now, and don’t get mixed into the others. You’re red, after all. Pilots don’t get lost.”Redel pushed forward until he walked next to the man. “Does this mean we’ve been chosen for that section?”Their instructor laughed. “Don’t get any grand ideas, candidates,” he said to the lot of them. “The designations are so you can mix and mingle, but will always know where to find your room. You have to complete all your training before you’ll be assigned to a division based on your primary aptitude. And you may serve in more than one over the life of your career. This is just the first step. No one would tolerate an untrained rookie pilot. They’d rebel and throw every guild member off the ship first. Too much at stake. And they’d be right about it too.”He hadn’t stopped to deliver this speech. With the last word, he stepped into a moving air stream and whisked away, leaving the rest of them to leap on after.Deluth tilted into the current to speed his movement, as did the rest. A feat of safety engineering kept them from slamming into each other as they adjusted to riding a pressure wave.He reached their instructor first. “Our room? We’re all in the same bunk?”The man raised an eyebrow as he shook his head. “No, you’ll be in the same section, and you’ll share eating and gathering areas, but each candidate has a separate room. I don’t know what it’s like on your ship, but things are designed to maximize your focus here. No staying up too late chatting after the lights go out.”“Our own rooms,” Redel said, coming up on his side. “Just like the single adults. But don’t worry. I’ll take the one right next door so you don’t have to be scared all by yourself.”Their instructor shoved them out of the air stream before Deluth had to answer. He fought to stay upright even as the others were pushed out almost on top of him. The man relaxed his grip on a handhold Deluth hadn’t noticed and joined them.“You’re Pilots, remember. Red’s your color. You get lost, find a red strip and follow it to the end. It’ll be your rooms…or you’ll have to turn around and go the other way.”Deluth scanned the colored strips marking various corridors, but one of the others found their color first. He joined the scramble to reach the section and see what would become their home for the next year at least.Trina tried not to show how nervous she felt as candidate after candidate was chosen and led away.The bells chimed two more times, but she had no idea what they signified. She did notice how the instructors increased their pace as they plucked a girl here and a boy there.A space that had seemed large when filled with students grew even greater with each group departing. She’d seen seven leave already, each numbering between ten and fifteen candidates, and she might have missed some in the crowds. There were many still waiting, but the choices had become slim.Something caught her attention, and she turned to see a tall, dark-haired instructor staring at her.He looked her up and down, then nodded as though he now understood something more than as a greeting.She tensed when he strode toward her, no longer sure she wanted to be chosen, at least not by him.“You are Trina of Family Menthak. From Ceric, correct?”She hadn’t heard any of the other instructors who’d collected from their group use names.“Come with me.”He hadn’t waited for her response when she’d hesitated, perhaps taking her lack of a protest as consent.The name, the absence of other students, and something about his manner sent a spike of panic through her. For one horrifying second, Trina knew it had all been a mistake. She didn’t belong; she hadn’t passed the test; they’d realized she wouldn’t be a good fit after all.The instructor had set off, assuming she’d follow in his wake. What else could she do? Her steps dragged, but she had no other place to go, and no good would come of finding a tunnel to hide in here.Trina stopped dead, her indrawn breath loud enough to attract an irritated look from the instructor.He stopped as well, one eyebrow raised in inquiry.Nishan had told her what the test did. It wasn’t her answers but how she’d answered the questions. The political officer said the Guild needed spacers like her, like Nishan, as well. People who’d grown up in the depths of a colony, who’d experienced the dark underside. There had been no reason to lie. No purpose for it when they had the option of imprisoning her for what she’d done.“Are you coming?”She’d used up the instructor’s patience, but it didn’t matter. Trina squared her shoulders and sped to his side. She wouldn’t be here if they didn’t think she’d be an asset. They wouldn’t have waited until the station.“Yes, I’m coming.”Instead of collecting other candidates and leaving the area as the rest of the instructors had done, he led her toward a group against the front wall. Other purple suits brought in one candidate at a time as well only to abandon them.Her instincts twinged, but she forced the worry aside. Whatever the plan, she could survive it. She’d proved often enough she had what it took to come out on the right side in the end, and she’d never been one to shy from hard work.“That’s the last of them,” her instructor said as she joined the others. “Good luck to you.”It took only a heartbeat to realize he’d been speaking to someone else. He wasn’t to be her teacher after all.She watched him stride away, a little lost despite her instinctive caution around him.“Can I have your attention please?”The man speaking had dark brown skin and stood a head shorter than the one who’d walked away, but he wore the same purple uniform.She might have been cast aside, but at least it was into the care of another instructor.“Thank you,” he said as the last of their group turned to face him.Though she appeared to be focused on their latest instructor, Trina scanned the other candidates’ expressions in her peripheral vision. They seemed equally wary of this separation.He coughed, clearly uncomfortable with the role he’d been given.“It’s not often there are so many of you, but we’ve shuffled some of the instructors to ensure you get the training you need.”Another candidate raised his hand when Trina would have bided her time until the information revealed itself.“Yes?”“Why are we here?”“Ah.” He coughed again. “All of you are from places where technological access was not universal.”She kept still, but many of the others nodded their agreement.“Your orientation scores show you may need remedial training in technology.” He held up a hand to stay the many questions brewing among the students. “Your candidacy is not at risk. It’s just that you would struggle with some of the training exercises and might not get the full benefit because of your weakness in this area. To ensure there will be no problems, you’ll complete a full technology assessment. Many of you will be sent into the standard rotation without any further delay once your skills are confirmed. For the rest, we have special training sessions to bring you up to the level of a standard candidate. We’ll be covering the same material, just not in the same way. You’ll be released once you’ve attained the necessary mastery.”Trina’s face stayed blank thanks to the practice of keeping her emotions from Fence when trading the polit goods she’d stolen for coin, but inside, she boiled over.Why had they not performed this assessment, and provided any extra training needed, in the orientation sessions back on the ship? Why not tell her this might happen? Why wait until now?Once again, she’d been set apart as if they could see her shafter background written across her face. She’d worried about blending in earlier. Now she knew she wouldn’t even get the chance.Whatever questions the others had asked, she heard none of it.Instincts had warned her, but she’d ignored them in favor of believing the spacer test infallible. No one thought to tell her because they’d never had a shafter among them. That the instructors identified her limitations, weakness as he’d called it, should have been a blessing. But Trina knew all too well how societies worked and how they treated those on the outer edges. She’d have preferred to struggle with the others than come in late but fully prepared.
For the Rest of the Story: