Johnny Cochran dropped his magcycle down the far side of the massive tube, the gripping the handlebars has as it bobbed and dipped. The main launching tube of the mass driver threw off erratic magnetic fields as it warmed up and prepared for its next launch which made using maglev vehicles nearby difficult at best and downright dangerous at worst. Every couple of years some idiot thrillseeker misjudged the fields or his vehicle’s ability to compensate for them, or worse didn’t shy away from the tube before it launched and the sudden magnetic spike threw his ride like it was a toy. Regardless of what happened it ended with a dead magrider in the streets of Kalteisen and a brief period of tighter security around the mass driver that made it harder for all the other magriders to make good time.

Of course, the ones who didn’t meet that fate were the smart ones, and Johnny prided himself on being one of the smartest. There wasn’t a thing they could do with spaceport security that he couldn’t deal with. And like all the smartest magriders in Kalteisen, he knew the fastest way across the city was to run along, above or below the section of the Cochran Mass Driver that cut through the northern half of the spaceport. It was dangerous, sure, but it also cut almost twenty seconds off the time it took you to make the east/west run from Gaffer’s Rock to Canal Street. No one raced seriously without hopping the CMD Superhighway.

Besides, the mass driver was a Cochran and they stuck by their own.

But today it did seem to be playing favorites. He was having a hard time keeping the maglev output on his cycle optimized, not an easy task in any situation and made doubly hard by the facts that one, he was running alongside a gigantic electromagnet and two, the area surrounding the mass driver wasn’t intended as an access route. Keeping an eye on the shifting magnetic fields was hard enough without having to dodge support struts, antenna broadcasting keep-away warnings to autonav programs – helpfully disabled on his own magcycle – or the random junk that seemed to accumulate in any out of the way place in a major city on any planet.

Yet even though Johnny struggled he could see his cousin Pat a few hundred feet ahead bobbing along at top speed, threading his way through obstacles along the path of least resistance so fast you’d think he’d never even heard of wind resistance. Sure, he was two years older and he was in the military but that didn’t exactly lend itself to getting lots of practice magcycling. The Space Forces did make extensive use of magnetic drives but Patrick was in the Biocomputing Corps.

A little voice in the back of his mind pointed out that the ability to think twenty eight  times as fast as the normal human might have something to do with Pat’s performance but Johnny did his best to ignore it. He’d always been the better driver ever since he was old enough to be trusted with a cycle of his own. No way he was loosing just because Pat had some new hardware in his skull.

The Mass Driver fired every twenty minutes, barring maintenance or technical problems. Trying to keep a magnetically driven vehicle on course while the Mass Driver was engaged was suicide, it was big enough to throw fifty kiloton containers from ground to orbit after all. That was quite a feat, even with the nothing but relatively low Martian gravity and thin atmosphere to deal with, and it required a huge amount of power to make it work. Piggybacking on all that electricity as it primed the launcher was part of what gave magcycles the speed that made it an effective short cut.

Unified Field Theory said that the closer two magnets were, the stronger their attracting or repelling power. And on top of the mass driver was not the closest point to its magnetic drivers. If you drew a square through the circular tube so that each corner touched the circle of the tube, the magnets would be at each corner of the tube. There was enough junk sticking out of or scattered around the mass driver that  you couldn’t get close any of those lines of magnets, though.

Not until the last two miles of it, that is.

Johnny spotted the support strut he had been looking for coming up fast and dropped his magcycle off the top of the mass driver’s length, the autonav system running in his helmet heads up display – but not connected to his bike! – protesting as he momentarily strayed away from the strongest magnetic fields in the area. Then he fired the emergency compressed air thrusters to spin it almost exactly a hundred degrees and latched almost directly onto the magnetic line that ran through the mass driver at about eight o’clock.

Now he was hanging onto the side of his cycle for dear life and struggling to keep it in a more or less straight line as it hummed along, his head closer to the ground than his feet, knees clinging to the bike, front electromagnet pulling him forward towards opposite charges in front of him, rear electromagnet pushing him away from like charges behind, the autonav once again happily pointing him towards the strongest magnetic sources.

And that was all he had to do for the next fifteen seconds. There was nothing along this stretch of the mass driver – no support struts, maintenance buildings, diagnostic antennas, spaceport walls or random debris high enough to clip his head. In fact, there was just enough time to glance out at the spaceport itself and catch the sight of a Combined Orbital/Deep Space military drop ship coming down on one of the farther bounce pads like some kind of flying whale, graceful despite its bulk. He wondered if it had come for Pat. He was shipping back out in a day or two.

The walls of the city were coming up on them again. The mass driver was one of the oldest structures still standing on Mars, when it had been built there hadn’t been a city, just a spaceport and a preliminary settlement twenty miles away. Now the three were almost one and the same.

Since the Cochran Mass Driver was both a valuable resource and something of a historical landmark, not to mention still privately owned, the city had been forced build around it. Getting through the  the city walls, which held in the atmosphere suitable for human habitation, was the single most dangerous part of running the mass driver. Sure, there was the danger of loosing your helmet or suit integrity in the thin Martian atmosphere, or worse when diving through the vents that filtered pollution our from the city’s atmosphere and forced it into the world at large.

But the biggest danger was still the physical barriers humanity had to maintain between their living area and the more hostile world outside.

The wall of the city rushed up at them quickly. Pat was still at least twenty feet ahead, effortlessly bobbing his bike back and forth to take best advantage of the fluctuating magnetic fields around the mass driver. Johnny had gained some distance by taking the straight shot along the side of the tube but not nearly enough. The next hurdle would be going through the vents.

No one had ever come up with a scheme that would let Mars retain a breathable atmosphere so settlements on the planet were still enclosed. But buildups of toxic gasses from industrial processes that couldn’t be reprocessed into anything useful weren’t allowed to stay inside the biospheres and were instead vented out into the atmosphere. When Kalteisen had built around the mass driver the architects had apparently figured why not kill two birds with one stone and positioned vents in a ring around the mass driver tube. The Cochran Trustees hadn’t been happy about it but eminent domain left them with little in the way of legal recourse.

Magcycle racers loved them because not only did they represent a sizable shortcut by letting you through the city walls but they could kill you in three separate and exciting ways. Getting through them safely brought a corresponding level of admiration from other racers.

The first hurdle was catching them when they were open, since leaving them open all the time defeated the purpose of enclosing the city. Johnny could see over Pat’s shoulder well enough to tell that, for better or for worse, they were closed at the moment. They opened every few minutes, for about a minute at a time, but waiting for the vanes of the vent to snap open had changed the outcome of more than one race across the city.

Come in to fast and you slammed into the wall and an exciting new life as a cripple, best case. Come in to slow and gutsier racers would beat you through.

Pat suddenly slowed down, the front of his bike kicking up slightly to increase its wind resistance and it’s magnetic fields suddenly reversing polarity on the autonav readout. It was the maglev equivalent of kicking on the brakes and it was also a good time to pass. Sure, the shutters on the vents were closed but that didn’t mean you couldn’t speed up. It just meant it was risky.

But Patrick was a savvy magracer too, he kept his bike bobbing back and forth, its magnetic polarity fluctuating rapidly and always in opposition to Johnny’s so that the two magcycles repelled each other whenever they got close. Even when Johnny tried doing a complete loop around the launch tube to shake him off Pat managed to cut him off and push him back, nearly shoving him clear of the mass driver entirely and sentencing him to a fast meeting with the ground of the Martian desert.

They were less than a mile out when the vents to the city snapped open and started spewing out clouds of dark vapor into the world outside. Both racers kicked their magnetic drives into high gear and shot towards them, jockeying for position forgotten.

Those clouds were danger number two. The whole point of opening those vents was to pump all that toxic air out but the clouds only really cleared up as the vanes were closing again. By then it was too late to sneak through the vents. But the vents were barely tall enough to let a magcycle and its rider through if the rider crouched low. Since the smog clouded a driver’s ability to see it was easy to clip one of the vanes on the vent and spin out, pancaking onto the wall, the mass driver or the ground and giving the local EMT teams a new story to tell at the bar that night.

But, as he had with just about every other problem on that run so far, Pat plunged through the clouds without hesitation. It was hard to hear through the thin atmosphere but it didn’t sound like he’d wiped out, not that Johnny really had any time to change anything if he had. A split second later he kicked his magcycle up just a fraction, flying up at an angle through the vents in what experience and other magcyclers had taught him was the safest way to clear the hazard. For values of safety, of course.

Almost as soon as his brain processed the fact that he’d once again timed things perfectly and wasn’t going to paste himself all over Kalteisen’s outskirts he had to deal with third and final complication of reentering the city as he had. Gravity was rapidly cranking back up to normal.

After all, human bodies don’t function right in low gravity and Unified Field Theory, correctly applied, made keeping one G of gravity a simple matter of producing enough power. Not all local governments could afford to keep Earth standard gravity within their confines but Kalteisen could and did as a matter of public health. So as soon as Johnny was back inside the walls of the city he started falling, and fast.

Which was good, since for the racer speed equals opportunity. Patrick had been out on deployment for nearly a year and before that he’d been in training. He didn’t know the neighborhood as well as he once did.

The old Chinese restaurant on the corner of Laughlin’s Way and Straight Street had added in a new and outrageously powerful “back-up” generator two months ago. It ran all the time and gave new life to the rumors that they were connected to the Triad somehow. And gave it an outrageously powerful magnetic field bounce off of, cutting a loop off the route they’d used last time they raced. And it was nearly half a block away from the old route.

Johnny bounced his magcyle just enough to point it in the right direction then, instead of grabbing onto the local maglev relay that would pull him into the official “lanes” of traffic that crisscrossed the city he matched polarity with it and shot skyward in a long parabolic arc that took him towards the restaurant.

Too late he noticed Pat’s magnetic field on his autonav, not running down Ender’s Way like he should be but instead hovering just over the Chinese place! As Johnny dropped towards him Pat’s bike suddenly bounced up and matched polarities with his, sending Johnny hurtling off course. He caught a relay over Laughlin nearly a block out and wound up making Canal Street long after Pat, not only loosing the race but posting a time of 7:23, a personal worst.

Johnny broke the seals on his helmet and threw it to the ground in a flurry of cursing that fought to be heard over Pat’s laughing. Finally Johnny got a grip on his temper and said, “How did you do that?”

Pat threw one arm around Johnny’s shoulders and thumped him in the chest with the other, the impact mostly lost in the padded, airtight suits they wore for racing. “Simply strategy, Johnny my boy! Know the terrain and you’ll win the battle.”

“Not that! Well, okay, that too.” Johnny fumed for a moment. He probably should have guessed that Patrick would think to scout out the ground before the race, they’d only been promising to do this for the last two months, since the family learned his cousin would be getting leave. “But how did you bump me like that? You jumped straight up then pushed straight down again. I’ve never seen anybody that good at straight mag repulsion flying by the seat of the pants, it takes a nav program or something.”

Tapping one finger against his temple Pat said, “What am I again?”

Johnny groaned. “A biocomputer.”

“Exactly. Overclocking at 28X is good for more than just fast reaction times. And there’s other perks, too.” Pat gave his bike an affectionate kick. “While I can’t do a direct gel interface with this thing I did rig some modifications in the controls to suit me better.”

“You what?” Johnny stared, openmouthed. “That’s cheating!”

You upgraded your magcoils while I was gone,” Pat said. “It’s the same thing. I just tweaked out my bike in a different direction. Face it, Johnny Boy – you lost.” He turned Johnny back towards his bike and gave him a little push, then hopped back on his own magcycle. “Now as I recall, this means you owe me some Chinese!”

Johnny snorted and snatched his helmet up off the ground. “I’ll get you for this next time.”

“Dream on!” Pat snapped his helmet into place and then made his way back towards the restaurant they’d just passed over at a much more leisurely pace.

Eight Months Later

“Are you Mr. John Cochran?”

Johnny set aside the old balancing gyro he’d just pulled of his bike and looked over the top of the seat. An unfamiliar man wearing a ComODS dress uniform and a grim expression stood there. The drab gray almost let him vanish into the concrete walls of the garage and made the glimmering silver oak leaf that denoted his rank stand out all the more.

“I’m seventeen and I don’t have my citizenship papers yet,” Johnny said, dragging himself to his feet as a feeling of dread started to build in the pit of his stomach. “No one calls me mister anything.”

“Sorry. My mistake.” He took a few steps into the garage, his flat topped, black brimmed hat held in front of him like a shield. “Actually, your mother asked me to come out here and talk to you.”

“Is this about Pat? Because I can’t think of any other reason for a ComODS major to come out here and talk to us.” Johnny folded his arms over his chest and glared. “We’re not the important Cochrans, you know.”

“Yes, actually.” A ghost of a smile cracked the man’s stern face. “There are thousands of Cochrans just descended from Zachariah Cochran. Only a couple hundred are involved directly in running the mass driver. Everyone in the family is different. I served with several Martian Cochrans over the years. They all gave the same speech and it was true every time.”

Johnny cocked his head to one side, surprise warring with his other emotions briefly. “Yeah? Well. So why are you here?”

He glanced down at his hat briefly, then up to look Johnny in the eye. “I regret to inform you that your cousin, Captain Patrick Cohen has been declared missing in action.”

“Missing in action?” Johnny felt some of the tension relax. “Then you’re looking for him?”

The major didn’t break eye contact. “Son, he’s been declared MIA because we no longer intend to actively look for him.”

“Why not?” Johnny demanded, coming around the bike and stopping almost toe to toe with the uniformed man.

“Captain Cohen was on a deep space deployment when his vessel went missing. I’m afraid details beyond that are classified.” The major, who’s uniform had the name Williams over the left pocket, put a hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “Son, deep space is huge. We could look for your cousin for decades and never turn him up.”


“Listen for a minute, son.” Major Williams turned and walked around the garage, looking at the tools, parts and programming equipment that made up a magcycler’s workshop. “Your mother tells me you two were close. Not just his closest living family but real buddies.”

Johnny nodded slowly. “Our dads worked space traffic control, they were buddies. Died when the Braggadocio wrecked in Katleisen Synchorbit. Pat’s mom… didn’t live long after that. So he lived with us.”

Williams nodded. “I remember that fiasco. Mr. Cochran, I know you’re probably never give up on finding your cousin. Honestly, we never will either. That’s part of what makes MIA cases so difficult. You never know when to give up hope. Every commander who takes a vessel through deep space keeps his ear out for signals from missing ships. But right now you need to focus on the family you’ve got left. If Captain Cohen is still alive out there he’s tough enough to make it until we can rescue him.”

“Yeah?” It took a lot of effort but Johnny managed to keep his voice from trembling. “And what guarantee is there that you’ll really keep looking?”

Major Williams ignored the question, instead poking at a half rebuilt maglev coil on the workbench. “You a racer or just a tinkerer?”

“A racer,” Johnny said suspiciously.

“Any good?”

He drew himself up defensively. “I’ve run the CMD Superhighway in under three minutes. Crossed the city in 7:09.”

Major Williams raised his eyebrows. “Better than good, then. So, here’s something to think about. No one has more time to sift through deep space background noise for traces of lost ships than fighter pilots flying battle space patrol on boring escort missions. A lot of the same skills you’ve gotten pulling stupid stunts on that bike will be useful as a pilot. If you absolutely have to look for your cousin, that’s the best way to do it. Just talk to your mother before you sign up. She’s already had enough holes punched in her heart for a couple of lifetimes.”

“There’s always been Cochrans in the military,” Johnny said before his brain caught up to his mouth. When it did a split second later he added, “But I’ll talk to her. If I were to sign up, wouldn’t I need a recommendation or something? Pilots are officers and that means the Academy, right?”

“Did you really make it from Gaffer to Straight in under 7:15?”

Johnny patted his magcycle. “Want to see me do it again?”

The major snorted. “You’re right under a major synchorbital space station and a military shipyards and the security there likes to watch races on the slow nights. If you’ve done it less than six months ago odds are there’s still footage of you doing it floating around. That’s really all the recommendation you need for the fighter program.”

“That’s all?”

He shrugged. “That and decent scores in math, science, physical ability and the rest. You plan to take a shot at finding your brother?”

“Yeah. Can you think of a better reason for taking a job that could get you killed?”

“This from a magcycle racer.” Williams laughed. “Well, greater love has no man than this, I suppose. Best of luck, son. Best of luck.”

Fiction Index



“Do you approve of the citizenship exam in its current form?”

Elizabeth thought about that question. It didn’t seem wise to disapprove of an exam she was currently taking, but she was also being monitored for truthfulness. It was probably best to answer honestly. “No.”

“Interesting. Do you disapprove of a particular part or the exam as a whole?”

At the moment what she disapproved of most was talking to a blank speaker in a wall. With no tone of voice or expression to judge by she couldn’t get any feel at all for how the interview was going, whether she was doing well or not. It put her on edge, although she wasn’t entirely sure that wasn’t the point.

The ideal of total fairness was elusive in the citizenship exam, current thought put as many layers of anonymity were put between examiner and examinee as possible. Even the voice coming from the speaker was filtered to nearly expressionless neutrality and she knew that her own was likewise altered to the point where the person interviewing her had no idea of her gender, place of birth or age.

It still seemed a little silly to her. But at the same time, Elizabeth knew that if she were to test for her citizenship without all those safeguards her odds of achieving success would drop dramatically. That wasn’t her real problem with the exam. “Giving someone the full rights of citizenship just because they reach a certain age seems foolhardy to me. What’s the difference between being born in the United States and outside of them?

“If foreign nationals become citizens by first being green card holders and then taking the citizenship exam, then the children of citizens should receive green cards at birth and test for their citizenship as well.” Elizabeth leaned back in her chair, stared up at the featureless metal ceiling and wished there were something more interesting to look at. “The people are the government of this country, we should check that they actually know how to govern before entrusting it to them.”

The voice on the other end of the speaker was silent for a moment. “That’s an interesting way to put it. Of course, that idea is hardly a new one. But at the same time, there’s a lot of room for discrimination if we were to test everyone.”

“Somehow, I doubt this process leaves much room for that.” Her sarcasm was lost on whoever was on the other side of the speaker, filtered out by legions of computer subroutines. But she found it therapeutic.

“It doesn’t seem that way, no,” the voice conceded. “But there are a lot of places prior to this where things aren’t so strictly monitored. Even now, it can happen here and there. And the process of signing up for your citizenship exam can be full of complications as well. It was bad enough when we only had national and ethnic difficulties to contend with. When you throw in interplanetary rivalries, not to mention interstellar ones, the potential for discriminate is just too great.”

“If it’s such a bad idea, why have any kind of subjective testing in the citizenship exam at all? I’m sure the process could be automated fairly painlessly.”

“To go off of your previous point, what makes you assume that governing is something that is objective, and not subjective?” the voice asked. “I think I’d enjoy exploring that question at length but the time for this interview is almost over. But consider this. Citizenship comes with benefits and responsibilities. The clearest benefit is the protection of the government. So is being part of governing  a benefit or a responsibility? And if it’s a responsibility, should people who have enjoyed the benefit since birth naturally assume a part of the responsibility at some point? Just something to think about.”

There was a click from the door of the interviewing room. The voice came back once more. “You’re now free to exit to the lobby. Someone will be with you shortly.”

Elizabeth got up and stepped out into the brightly lit lobby of the United States 21st Circuit Courthouse on Outer Centauri Station. It was nearly 1400 and she had been awake since 0400, but she didn’t feel very tired. There had been plenty of time for sleep on the long flight out from Mid Centauri syncorbit and the early flight had been mostly empty, so catching up on her rest hadn’t been a problem.

Fortunately the irregular sleep schedule hadn’t hindered her during the written portion of the exam. She felt less confident about her performance during the interview but it was such a subjective thing she wasn’t even sure how a good interview might have gone. With a sigh Elizabeth plopped down on a bench and looked around.

Unlike the much newer Middle Centauri station, Outer Centauri was a relic from humanity’s first push into deep space. Most public buildings she had been in were full of creeping vines and small bushes bred for maximum leaf size and the greatest possible rate of photosynthesis, natural machines dedicated to turning carbon dioxide into breathable air and usable compost as fast as possible. However, the nutrient frames necessary to sustain those plants had to be purpose built into the structure. The Circuit Court building was far too old for such an apparatus, making do with ferns, large and small, growing out of pretty much every place a home for one could be found. She fidgeted with the leaf of a fern growing next to her bench and did her best to ignore her nerves.

Deep space stations had complex and incredibly redundant biospheres designed to sustain human life even in the face of a catastrophic failure of many of their most technologically advanced systems. The contrast to her own life was stark. If she failed the citizenship exam here she wouldn’t have another chance at what she wanted. The exam could be retaken, but not for another year. By then, she would be too old-

“Elizabeth O’Sullivan?” Her thoughts were interrupted by a tall skinny man with the posture of a long time deep space resident. He kept the fingers of one hand resting lightly against the wall and his knees bent, ready to propel himself in whatever direction necessary if there was a gravity fluctuation. Elizabeth stood and crossed over to him and held out her hand.

“I’m pleased to report you passed, Ms. O’Sullivan,” the man said as he shook her hand. “Congratulations.”

“Thank you very much,” she said. “Are you the person who conducted my interview?”

“I’m afraid I can’t answer that,” he replied, his expression suggesting he didn’t think that made sense any more than she did. “Is there anything else I can do for you today?”

“As a matter of fact, yes.” Elizabeth pulled a tab out of one pocket and held it up. “There was a little datawork I was hoping to get filed while I was here in the Courthouse, if I passed.”

“Of course.” He led Elizabeth down a short path between the shrubbery to a small console. It was a jarring sight, and not just because it was nestled between a pair of rather tall bushes to give privacy from the desks and clerks on either side. It was common knowledge that the government still used strictly physical interface equipment, even though almost no one else did. Or, you might say, because no one else did. The very archaic nature of physint equipment theoretically made it more secure. Still, it was odd to see, especially considering why she had come.

The clerk motioned for Elizabeth to have a seat on one side of a desk in a sleek metallic chair. A display folded up and exposed a touch board which he quickly began tapping on. “What kind of paperwork were you wanting to file?” He asked with a smile. “Voter registration? Information request? Or perhaps an action in small claims court?”

Elizabeth knew what a person sounded like when they were humoring her. She was hearing it now. She also knew exactly what to say to wipe that smile off of his face. “I’m here to sign up for the United States Combined Orbital/Deep Space Forces.”

The smile disappeared but he wasn’t shocked like Elizabeth had expected. His expression became blank for a moment, and then got a little sad. “I see. You realize that there are certain pieces of information I’ll need from you?”

Elizabeth held up the phys tab again. “I’ve heard. That’s why I brought this along.”

The clerk nodded, taking the tab and carefully slotting it into his desk computer. “This may take a few-” He stopped as the screen changed. Apparently it hadn’t taken that long after all. After a few moments of looking things over, he cleared his throat. “It looks like everything is in order. Would you come this way please?”

Elizabeth stood up and followed along behind him. They didn’t go back towards the lobby but instead stepped further into the building, following a path into a long hallway, free of the normally ubiquitous plant life, and through a door into what appeared to be the equivalent of a space station’s deep computing core.

Most modern computing was done wirelessly in a very decentralized fashion. But the really number intensive calculations still needed concentrated, high end processing power to pull off. Things like artificial gravity, atmospheric regulation and Hawking generators still needed the close, careful monitoring of dedicated computer subsystems. Elizabeth had never thought that government computing might have similar needs. She wondered if the system she was seeing was the US Government’s primary computing node on the station, or whether this one just served the courthouse. Given the fairly paranoid level of security most governments showed towards their digital records, she was willing to bet this facility just served the courthouse, which made it’s size seem a bit excessive.

As they moved down into the core Elizabeth saw signs that hinted at why the area might be so big. In at least three different places she saw people working to maintain systems that were at least fifty years out of date and appeared to be hooked into the core by mysterious, complex sequences of strange equipment that might have been better suited to Frankenstein’s lab than a modern computing center. The courthouse was obviously using a lot of obsolete equipment still, whether for security’s sake or bureaucratic necessity she wasn’t sure.

The whole room was circular and it looked like all of the clerk’s desks formed a semi-circle around the top. Elizabeth followed her clerk through a series of stairs, catwalks and ledges holding various kinds of equipment down to the ground floor of the core and from there into another office.

A man in the drab blue day uniform of an officer in the U.S. ComODS Forces leaned on a desk there, facing towards the back wall with one hand tapping a command on the desk’s touch screen over and over. He held a diagnostic readout in his other hand and a panel on the wall behind the desk was open and more old-fashioned cables ran from there to the desk. He didn’t look up as Elizabeth and her escort came in.

“Be with you in a second,” the officer muttered. “Trouble with the old networks.”

Elizabeth glanced at the nameplate on the officer’s desk. “Have you tried flushing your desk processor’s mothergel, Captain Rainer? I’ve heard that standard model Gallagher desk computers made in the last decade or so have a bad tendency to develop a memory if it isn’t swapped out every so often.”

The captain finally turned around to look at them, slightly surprised. “That’s right. But we don’t exactly have the budget to swap out something that expensive every couple of weeks, so I have to run diagnostics before I can authorize the substitution. Have a seat ma’am. What can I do for you?”

“I’m here to enlist, Captain.”

He didn’t look at all surprised. “And I’m guessing you want to join the Biocomputing Corps.”

“Yes, sir.” Elizabeth nodded. Her escort handed the captain the data tab she had given him before.

The officer took the tab and set it aside, pulling an adhesive label out of a printing slot on his desk and tearing it in half. He pressed the adhesive side of one half of the label onto the tab while he spoke. “Very well, ma’am. If you’ve been brought this far then you’ve already produced documentation showing that you qualify for admission to the testing phase of the program. While officially biocomps are so rare we can’t afford to turn one away, they’re also expensive enough to build and train that we want to make sure you actually qualify.”

Elizabeth settled into the chair at the captain’s desk. The room had more in common with the blank, sterile interview room she’d been in a few minutes ago than the artfully arranged green lobby she’d just left. The significance wasn’t lost on her. This man was another hurdle along the way. “Do these tests include calling ahead, taking me the long way around and seeing if I can basic computing problems in nearly obsolete computer equipment?”

Rainer paused in the middle of attaching the other half of his label to a device she wasn’t familiar with to give her a hard look. “As a matter of fact, they do. Turning the human brain into a top of the line biocomputing system, whether civilian or military, is a huge investment of time and materiel. And a ComODS biocomp gets more than just the ability to think forty times faster than the standard human with machine precision – you’re going to be at the heart of a warship. So forgive us if we test you in any way we can think of, at any time we want.”

The captain’s tone suggested he was anything but apologetic. He waited for a moment, as if expecting a reaction, then continued. “It’s going to be a long, hard, ugly process. You may wash out, with nothing to show for the time and effort you put into the program but two years spent away form home and a really nice haircut. You may wind up with your brain rewired to smell colors. There’s a very small chance you may become a permanent vegetable. But we need you, so that concludes the mandatory scaring you to death part of the interview. Regulations state that you have twenty-four hours in which to consider whether you want go through with this or not.”

“I’ll keep that in mind, sir,” Elizabeth said.

The captain eyed her for a minute then, apparently resigned to the fact that he hadn’t managed to run her off with a frightening speech, grunted and slotted her tab, label and all, into the computer rig on his desk. As she had expected, Rainer’s computer trouble had magically cleared up an he had no trouble getting the data to load. The captain perused the files with the eye of an experienced paper warrior. “Math aptitude looks good,” he murmured. “Good IQ, high emotional resiliency profile.” He frowned. “What’s this?”

“That’s a gel processor cleanup routine I wrote,” Elizabeth answered. She knew exactly which file he meant as it was the only one he hadn’t mentioned so far, other than the basic biographical data that you would expect to find on any kind of job application. “It enhances the performance of older systems by as much as forty percent when part of a proper maintenance routine.”

“Older systems?” The captain asked, curious.

“Aging systems are at the heart of any peacetime space navy,” she said. “More time is spent maintaining them than developing new systems. Am I right?”

Rainer winced and nodded. “True, although I recommend not mentioning that fact until you reach a position of seniority. And you should probably refrain from ever using the word ‘navy’ except as an insult.”

“Right,” she murmured. “Interservice rivalry.”

“That aside, why did you include it here?”

“Because it’s a part of the application process,” Elizabeth said blandly. “Although it’s not part of the stated requirements. Another one of your tests, I presume.”

“No reason denying that,” the captain said with a shrug. “What I’m asking is how you knew we’d be looking for it.”

Elizabeth sighed. “There’s a lot of different places you can find out,” she said, wiggling a bit further back into her chair in an attempt to keep blood moving. “I’m guessing that there’s some bad advice seeded out there by people like you, and presumably you make sure there’s one or two real sets of guidelines for the test out there, too. Then all that information proliferates through planetary Internets. But in my case it was possible to skip all that data sifting by finding a retired Master Sergeant that had worked to set up the program, then retired. He told me that, at the time the program started, prospective applicants were expected to show initiative in addressing computing issues, and it was likely that that requirement was still in place. Twenty-five years is apparently a very short time in the world of military regulations.”

“And did it ever occur to you that his giving you that information might be prohibited?” Rainer asked darkly.

“No, actually, but it did occur to him. So I pestered him into looking it up, and he was only supposed to keep quiet about aspects of the program which were not made public.” Elizabeth shrugged. “Requirements for applying to the corps was made public, so it wasn’t off limits. I would suggest that you adjust the regulations if you want to maintain the mystery requirement.”

“Yes,” he said quietly, making a note on his computer screen. “So it would seem.” Once he was finished with that, Captain Reiner deposited the tab into a plastic envelope and pressed down on the molecular seal, creating a nearly impossible to duplicate bond that would ensure the documents weren’t tampered with. Then he put the other half of the label into a file. “From this point out you are BioComputing Cadet Candidate St. Claire. By law, you are forbidden to tell anyone of your identity in the BioComputing Corps or even to mention that you have applied. If you mention either of these facts to anyone you will be immediately disqualified.”

“I understand, sir,” Elizabeth replied.

Captain Reinter tucked the envelope away in a drawer. “I’m not really sure you do, Cadet Candidate. But you have twenty-four hours to think about it.”

“I’ll see you tomorrow then.” She got down from the chair and sketched something like a salute, then headed for the door.


Rainer watched the door slide closed and sighed, then stood up from the desk and began closing down computer console. It was time to move back to his regular office. He glanced over at the clerk, who had watched the entire interview quietly from one corner of the room. “You going to come stand as witness when the paperwork’s signed, Sam?”

He sighed and shook his head. “She’s twelve years old, Brian.”

“First biocomp application?” The captain asked, pausing as he collected the diagnostic equipment he’d been using.

“How can you be so calm?” The clerk demanded.

“Like it or not, she’s an adult under the law,” Rainer said. “She passed her citizenship exam and has all the right, privileges and responsibilities that entails. She can join if she wants. And we can’t make a biocomputer out of the brain of someone much older than her. They just won’t be resilient enough.”

Sam shook his head. “Craziest law I’ve ever heard of, when a person not even in their teens can be declared an adult and have their head chopped open. What is this country coming to?”

“People have been asking that since it was founded. At one time kids were locked away from the rest of society for twelve years before they were given any idea how the world really worked.” Rainer slapped the clerk in the back. “Besides, the operation is done by nanotech. No bone saws involved. Come on, I’ll buy you a drink.”

“I think I’ll need it more tomorrow. Do you think she’ll come back?”

“The smart ones always do,” Rainer said sadly. “The smart ones always do.”

Fiction Index