I did unbelievably well to get here in the first place. And I'm younger than most of the rest. And I'm female.
That's what I keep telling myself, at least. I'm one of fifty, from all the English-speaking nations of the world. So why do I feel so completely useless?
Well, for a start, I've dreamed of the space program since I was very, very small. Other kids read their parents' magazines too, I've no doubt. Women's magazines, for the help columns, or the male version from the top shelf for the pictures. I did read the women's magazines, but I also swiped my father's copies of National Geographic, and absorbed their reports on the setting up of the lunar base. Hooked, I tracked down earlier copies than that, with details of the early space stations, and even back as far as the Apollo rockets. Who won last year's Cup Final? I couldn't tell you. The tenth man on the moon? Charles Duke, Junior.
When ISO unveiled the FTL drive five years ago, I couldn't believe my luck. I'd thought that everything practical in terms of spaceflight had been done, at least for my lifetime. All of a sudden the door opened. With faster than light travel, we could explore the galaxy now. And I was going to be one of the people doing it. My parents' bemusement notwithstanding, I determinedly began to do everything I thought would prepare me for a career as an astronaut. I was nine years old.
Even then, I didn't expect to get a chance until I was much, much older. I wasn't naive enough to think they'd take children. That only happens in sci-fi shows. I simply couldn't believe my luck when I saw the announcements for the summer school at ISO USA. Selection by competitive exam, evidence of physical proficiency also required.
Three weeks later I sat in school, gaping at the hardest exam paper I had ever seen. At least I recognised most of the words in it. The others, those who'd decided it would be cool to spend the summer in the States, didn't have my years of background reading. The vast majority simply walked out. I'm more determined than that. I've always figured that not every real problem has a solution, and impossible questions are sometimes the best ones to ask to find out how someone's mind works. I hoped against hope that I was right this time. There weren't a lot of answers on the paper I turned in, although there were a lot of outlined ideas for solutions.
I must have written something they liked. Because here I am at the ISO USA training facility. Out of however many thousand entries they had, they picked me.
I know I'm in trouble after three minutes of the first session. The only thing we were told we had to do before we arrived was to prepare a six minute talk on something we considered appropriate. I thought about that one for a long time, and eventually decided to do something I thought nobody else would think of. The problems of multilingual communication in space travel. Because it's interesting that the requirements for this particular summer camp state "English first language". I can only presume it's a specific FTL communications problem, because I never did find any information on problems other than those you'd expect down on Earth. There have been a number of space programs involving people with multiple different first languages, though, and I wrote my talk based on how different programs had handled it. I was rather proud of myself, at the time. Now I'm desperately glad that my surname doesn't begin with an A, so I have a couple of days to make it sound a lot less childish.
The first talk's given by a tall young Australian who apparently has no nerves at all. He announces that his speciality is mathematics - these people have specialities? - and that he's going to talk about Tring's theorem of hyperdimensionality.
And then he does. In detail, with examples, and suggestions for refinements and applications. I haven't understood a single word since the preamble. Three people ask questions when he's finished - two he answers quickly and clearly, and although I don't understand the answers either, the questioners obviously do. The third is pompous and long-winded, more of a statement than a question. He listens, a slight smile on his face, and when his questioner has finished, says, "That's rubbish."
"Can you prove it?" one of the instructors sitting at the side asks.
He simply picks up a pen and heads for the whiteboard.
"No, no, not now. Very interesting, Mr Alouita. Mostly impractical, but very interesting. We'll discuss this further at another time. Thank you."
Things don't get any better. I'm now three days into a fortnight of physical activities I'm truly incompetent at, academic tests I don't even understand the questions for, and the weirdest computer-based co-ordination tests you ever saw. And it all seems so, well, pointless. For instance, I have no idea what relevance my skill at martial arts has to the FTL program. My room-mate, however, is fairly dancing round the room in anticipation. Karen is an expert in a martial art whose name she clearly expected me to recognise. Pretty, vivacious, popular, she's everything I'm not. If she wasn't so genuinely nice to me, I'd hate her. As it is, I content myself with feeling inadequate and totally out of my depth.
Karen clearly realises something is wrong. "Hey, you'll be fine. It's an aptitude test, not the Olympics. Plenty of others won't have done it before. You'll be one of the crowd."
And I might have been, too, if it hadn't been for Wade. Most of their physical challenges have the same format. They start with a quick check to split the group into Those Who Can and Those Who Can't. Those Who Can get pushed to see just how good they are, while Those Who Can't get shown the basics, to see how well they pick it up. Then we're paired off, one from each group, to play instructor and student. I've been sneaking looks at Those Who Can, while the rest of us attempt to learn how to fall without causing ourselves major damage. Karen really does know what she's doing, but once again the stars of the show are Wade and Alouita. Even to my inexpert eye, those two are streets ahead of the rest. What they're doing is way beyond simple self-defence. So no surprises when it's Wade called out by the instructor once we're all back together again. He's to throw one of us mere mortals, now that we've allegedly learned to fall properly. The instructor looks down the line, and picks me.
I step forward automatically, fighting the urge to run and hide. At least it's Wade - he's a mere five inches taller than me. But I've just seen him fighting like something from a Bruce Lee movie, while I've had ten minutes practice my entire life. From all I can remember right now, it might as well have been ten seconds.
Wade looks at me and turns to the instructor, shaking his head. "No, sir."
No? I'm that useless?
Wade goes on. "She's scared, she's tensed up, and she doesn't know what she's doing. I won't hurt her."
Frankly, I'd rather be lying unconscious on the floor after he beat me to a pulp than standing out here, in front of everyone, being told I'm so hopeless I'm a hazard to myself.
The instructor thinks a moment. "I see. So how are we going to rectify the situation?"
"I'll take her," says a voice from behind me. Male, tenor, Australian accent. Oh, fantastic. Alouita. Just what I need: the other one of the dream team on my case.
The instructor nods his approval, and the two of us are assigned to a mat in the far corner of the hall. I'm still nervous as hell, and it must show.
Alouita sighs. "Look, I'm not here to hurt you. In five minutes Don's going to flatten you - do you want my help or not?"
He's not at all what I'd expected. For a start, he's a good teacher. He picks up straight away on what I'd misunderstood first time round, runs through it with me slowly twice, then raises his eyebrows in a question.
"Do it," I say, feeling, if not confident, at least happier than I had been. It's all over in a flash. A quick spin, and I'm lying flat on my back looking at the beams in the ceiling. And it didn't hurt.
He helps me to my feet. "I think you're ready." It's at least partly a question, but if I don't trust him on this there'll be another big red cross next to my name for this morning's session. I nod, swallowing hard, and he raises his voice. "Don? Your turn."
Smug doesn't even begin to describe this guy. "Okay, princess, watch and learn," he smirks before I'm flat on my back again. Princess? If I had one ounce of martial arts talent, I'd flatten Don Wade where he stands. Sadly, that's not an option.
Alouita hauls me to my feet again as the bell goes for the end of the session. "You did fine there," he says. "I'm Jason, by the way."
"Kate," I manage to his back as he leaves. No, he's not at all what I expected.
"So tell me about Don Wade," Karen insists at lunch. "What did he say to you?"
I pull away. "He's a jerk. The world revolves around him. He's not worth your time."
"No? Pity." She looks wistfully across the canteen to where the object of her interest is holding court near the dessert cart. Alouita's there too, just out of the group, arms folded as he listens with a half-smile.
"And it just keeps getting weirder." We're joined by a couple of Karen's friends - she seems to know everyone already. "Tomorrow's assignments are up. Would anyone like to nominate why they care if I can shoot straight?"
I have to check this out. With a quick apology, I make for the crowd round the noticeboard, work my way to the front and yes! Finally, something I can do!
Because I can shoot straight. My fellow students, it seems, spend their free time learning martial arts, taking college level academic courses, and reaching amazingly high levels of competence on computer flight simulators. Me, when I don't have my nose buried in anything I can find about the space program, I'm at the rifle range. I've spent hour upon hour practising slowing my heartbeat, controlling every twitch of every muscle, focusing solely on aligning a series of circles by eye so perfectly that more often than not I can put five shots through a hole the size of my fingernail fifty metres away. Very few people understand the attraction, but I love it, and I'm darn good at it, too.
Don Wade turns out to be not so good, and he's livid at finding himself with Those Who Can't. Even more so to be paired up with me as his instructor. 'Relax, be still, and focus' isn't his style at all. He's trying far too hard, face screwed up, tense, fighting it, and his shots are going all over the place. I'm so tempted to let him completely screw up this one, but the question of precisely why they want to know if we can shoot straight is still bugging me. What if they don't care - they simply want to see how we react to the situation? Maybe I've been paired with Don for a reason. It's a given that I can shoot better than he can, but maybe they want to see how I help him.
I take a deep breath and put my hand in front of Don's rearsight. That gets his attention.
"What the hell - leave me alone!"
My hand doesn't move. "Look. You have two choices. You can carry on like this, which, frankly, is complete rubbish, or you can listen to someone who can put you right. That would be me. So which is it?"
It's all I can do to keep a straight face. Don Wade, one of the leading lights of this camp, forced to choose between humiliating failure and learning from a girl.
Not failing wins out. I spend ten minutes sorting out the multitude of things he's doing wrong, getting him to stop trying to hold the rifle still and instead let it settle down on its own, and eventually he does start hitting somewhere near the centre of the target.
My turn, and I simply can't resist. "Now you watch and learn," and I put my five shots right through the centre. From Don's expression, he may finally be realising I'm not just here to make up the numbers.
Alouita shows up as we're collecting targets, just failing to look nonchalent. He displays his target. "Not bad for a first time, hey?"
It isn't bad - in fact, for a first time, it's stunningly good. But not as good as the one Don's holding. His eyes widen in total disbelief. "You did that? You said you were a lousy shot!"
Oh, Don would just love to be able to get one up on him. But for all his faults, he's basically honest. "Not mine. This is Kate's."
Jason's face is a picture, and I take pity on him. "I've done this before. A lot. I take it you haven't?"
"No. I'm a demon with a paintball gun, though. You ever try that?"
I nod. "I tried. I'm not so good when the target doesn't keep still. So, is there anything you can't do? Tell me you're going to flunk mental arithmetic this afternoon?"
"Maths? Oh, I don't think so," he retorts cheerfully, and I can see him watching for Don to rise to it. Don just glares and walks off. He's had about enough of being second best for one day, and from Jason's expression, unless he's also a maths genius, he's facing it again.
"That was unkind. Is winding him up really a good idea?" Don may be a jerk, but I'm not at all convinced it is.
Jason grins, unperturbed. "One, Don needs to learn the world doesn't revolve around him. Two, it happens to be true. And three, rumour has it we start on flight simulators tomorrow, and Don's made quite sure everyone knows how good a sim pilot he is." The grin's gone, replaced with a look of total determination. "This isn't just any summer camp. They're looking for a new jump crew. I plan to be on it." This isn't the easy-going Jason Alouita of a few moments ago. This guy is altogether colder, harder, and I really don't want to be in his way. "If there's a Don in every college in the States, that's a whole lot of candidates. I figure this is my one chance to get noticed."
Since I haven't laughed in his face and I'm still listening, he carries on. "Did you ever try researching into the FTL program?"
"Yeah. There's almost nothing published but press releases, and they don't tell you anything. I found the names of a few documents, but the contents were always classified."
"I don't mean the technology. I mean the people."
I frown. "Apart from Adam Tring? No. Nothing has names on."
"As far as I can tell, Tring's their only jump-pilot. I've found articles about talented military types, NASA and Air Force pilots mostly, joining the program. But they've all left again, very quietly, after a few months. Tring's the only pilot who's ever mentioned for actual flights."
"They can't find another jump-pilot in the US military, so they're looking for kids? I can't see it." Jason scowls at the mention of 'kids' and I hastily qualify it. "I'm fourteen. And not the youngest here."
"Tring's twenty-two, which makes him seventeen at the time of the first FTL jump. As far as I can find out, he was the original jump-pilot. But he didn't graduate college until the following year. Why would anyone use a seventeen year old summer student - even a genius like Tring - as the pilot on that test unless he was the only one capable of flying it? I think they've found you have to start young. Hence us. If we don't work out, maybe they'll try younger still. They've done almost nothing with the FTL program so far, despite all the hype. Supply runs to Mars, that's all. If they don't start delivering results soon, it'll be abandoned."
"Abandoned?" I repeat stupidly. It's one of the wildest conspiracy theories I've ever heard - but it does fit the facts. Tring can jump his ship from Earth orbit to Mars orbit in under ten minutes. Why hasn't he gone anywhere else?
He's clearly considering something, and appears to decide in my favour. "You know that co-ordination task we keep getting - the one with the coloured lights you have to make circle? Can you control the green one?"
However could he know that? There are twenty-odd lights on that test. I know he's never watched me. The controls never work the same way twice, we don't get instructions as to how they do work, and I've had the most appalling fights to trying to get the pattern to something even remotely like what we're told it should be. But that green light is the one I really can't control. It twitches occasionally, but apart from that, nothing.
"I've given up on the green one. I don't think it's controllable. I just concentrate on the rest."
"The first night they gave us that task, I had everything circling except the green one. It was down in the corner oscillating like crazy. You never saw a bunch of senior types try so hard not to look excited! Next time I'm on there, there's a whole set of different guys up in the observation area. I didn't get too good a look, but I'll swear one of them was Adam Tring. I can make that light circle with the rest now, and every time there's a group of people watching me."
He's obsessed. He has to be. "So one minute you're telling me you have to beat Don to be the one selected, and the next you're giving me the answer to what these tasks are about? I don't get it. It doesn't make sense."
"Oh, it does. Don can also circle the green light. If it ends up as just him and me being selected, I'm going to go insane. You want to be on the FTL program? Get that green light to circle."
Co-ordination tests are for the evenings. Before that, we have a maths test. It's just as well that they warned us about ignoring strange lights and sounds beforehand, or I'd have assumed it was a fire alarm when the siren went off. Not to mention the multicoloured strobe lighting, or to top it all off the rotating disco balls complete with vintage 1980s music. Throughout it all, the quickfire mental arithmetic questions just keep coming. There's a whole lot of trigonometry in there, and some truly horrible simultaneous equations. I try to ignore everything around me, not worry too much about questions which are surely impossible to solve in your head, and just get all the simpler questions right.
As the lights come up after half an hour, I look at what I've written in some horror. Great white spaces with the odd number here and there, hardly the sort of paper I'd hope to be handing in. It's far from the only one looking like that, although some do have a whole lot more ink on. As far as I can see when I put my paper down on top of his, Jason's has no gaps at all. That's okay. I realised on day one here that being pretty good at sums no more makes me a great mathematician than being pretty good at playing the guitar makes me a great musician. I'm going to get the things I can do right, and not worry about the rest. I'm somehow unsurprised that he appears to be one of the geniuses for whom the impossible questions aren't impossible.
It's an entirely different test that evening - something I suspect is designed to test reflexes - so it's not until the next day that I'm sitting in front of a screen again. Decision time. Do what I've always done, stick to my 80% success rate - or listen to Jason and spend my allotted time on a single spot which I've never been able to control? What the hell - he has no reason to lie to me. I'm no match for him in almost everything else we've done. And I do seem to be playing peacemaker between him and Don rather more of the time. They don't spark half as much when I'm around - Jason doesn't seem to feel the need to wind Don up, and if he does, Don tends not to react if I don't. If those two are going places, they will need somebody to fill that buffering role. Why not me? And the coordinators already know I can get 80% on this one. I've got nothing to lose. Just for once, I'll take the male approach to exams.
Dancing spots appear on the screen as usual, but this time I play it differently. I get one spot showing doing what it should be, and then simply ignore everything except that wretched green one doing a miniature random walk in the corner. Concentration is one of my strong points. My world consists solely of a single circling red dot on a screen, and a recalcitrant green dot whose path is starting, slowly, to come to the centre of the screen, to lose the jagged change in direction, and finally to follow its red counterpart. It's a little ragged, more like a child's freehand attempt than a mathematical definition, but it's unmistakeably a circle.
It's only as the screen freezes after my five minutes are over that I realise there really are only two dots on there now - I have no memory of the others vanishing - and that there are a number of people observing me with an unusual amount of interest. Not that the supervisor is letting anything slip - 'well done' is the only comment I've ever had from him, and true to form I get it again this time.
It's the final set of talks this afternoon, and as luck and alphabetical order would have it, Don Wade's last of all of us. There's been an astonishing mix of subjects - everything from Jason's advanced pure mathematics, to Todd Hamill on waverider aircraft design, from Tony Harper on zero-g medicine, to me on the language barrier. Some have been better than others. I'm happier with mine now than I was at the time, because it's occurred to me that even a team of geniuses needs someone who can communicate with the rest of the world. My talk may not have been the most technically brilliant on offer, but I'm fairly sure everyone in the room learnt something from it.
Don stands up, and announces his talk. 'Supersolvents and their uses.' It sounds innocuous enough - but I know Don better than that now.
He starts off comprehensibly. A brief discussion of current research, some of which I even understand. Then, he goes on to deeply technical stuff. This isn't school chemistry. I'm fairly sure this isn't even college level. The instructors are sitting forward, listening hard, even the scientists frowning in concentration. I'm out of my depth yet again, and so, I suspect, is everyone else in the room.
He gets to the end and asks for questions. And it's Marco Vieri with his hand in the air - Marco, who's always been vociferous about his dislike for chemistry. Marco, Don's constant partner on the flight simulators.
"Did you know that Matthews' paper contradicts you on the availability of target sites in the molecule except at impracticably high temperatures?"
If Marco thought that one up for himself, I'll eat my notes. Don planted him. Typical - and very clever - but why?
"Yes. It was wrong. That paper was based on incomplete research."
"Son," says the chemistry lecturer, "Clive Matthews may be an independent researcher, but he's one of the most respected names in the field. Accusations like that are inappropriate."
Don turns to him, not angry, or upset, or defensive, but wearing a smile of pure joy. "Clive Matthews is my pseudonym." And he sits back down, as every jaw in the room hits the floor.
Something's certainly changed. All of a sudden I find myself paired up much of the time with either Don or Jason, or sometimes it's the three of us. After the pair of them come out of an advanced martial arts session sporting a black eye apiece, they're not partnered with one another again. I don't dare ask either of them what happened.
This second week, the whole atmosphere's different. Everyone's off doing different things; individually, in small groups, called to something at short notice, left to play in the simulator room. Then, suddenly, we're all called in for a lecture on ways of reducing noise in radio transmissions, or 101 ways not to damage a spacesuit, or whatever. Some of these are followed instantly with the sort of 'what did I just say' test to give you nightmares for a week. Others are never mentioned again.
I'm repeatedly called for 'voice comprehensibility tests' where we read something into a microphone, it's electronically distorted and played back to us, and then we have to read it in such a way that the distortion leaves it still comprehensible. If you're male, you do this once and are never asked again. I've done it nine times in two days. I can only presume that they like listening to me sing. One thing I never thought would be useful here was my music training.
Three days before camp ends, Jason comes into lunch late, his eyes shining. "I've been learning to drive! Man, that was fun."
"Big deal," Todd snorts. "Sixteen and can't drive - someone must have felt sorry for you."
I hold my breath, but Jason's too excited to take offence. "Legal age is seventeen where I'm from. It was great! I wish they'd let me put my foot down, though. And it explained a bunch of problems I've been having on the simulator."
Todd shuts up, fast. I can almost see him thinking: but I've seen this guy on the driving simulator. He's unbeaten in the head-to-heads. He's top of every ranking table. And he thinks he's been having problems? How good can he get?
Me, though, I've learnt to read him a little better. Jason will never, ever, go after anyone who's struggling. The cocky, the over-confident, or anyone who goes after him, though, the gloves come off. He's never had a problem with the driving simulator. And he'll never have to take stick from this particular critic again. Or so I believe.
"Think they'll put me in a real plane, then?" Don leans across the table, for once in a non-antagonistic mood.
"I dunno about that. I was thinking of having a crack at some of your times this afternoon," Jason retorts, deadpan.
Don opens his mouth to reply, thinks about it, and stops. Jason is, by any standards, let alone those here, a truly hopeless pilot. I've yet to see him land the simulator successfully, takeoffs are dicey, and he's crashed out of every head-to-head I've heard about. We're in a competitive environment here. Five days ago, beating Jason at anything was worth serious bragging rights. These days, if a plane's involved, nobody even mentions it. In the air, Don's the man to beat, and while it has happened, it's not frequent.
"Mind if I join you?" It's another of the American crack sim pilots. Tony Harper - tall, broad-shouldered, built like a linebacker. Don, who gives everyone nicknames, calls him 'Tiny.' I'm stuck with 'Princess.' Jason doesn't seem to have one - I do wonder whether the black eyes had something to do with that. Anyway, 'Tiny' he isn't. Quiet, soft-spoken, he's usually seen deferring to the plethora of alpha-males around here. I've been partnered with him a few times, and it hasn't been a success. Both of us do better playing second fiddle.
"Don, there's a new simulator on line. Want to come try it?"
They're gone. I look at Don's barely touched plate. "Let me see. Lunch which finishes in ten minutes, or simulator which will be there all day. Simulator wins every time. Pilots!"
"I'm telling you it's set wrong!" Don's raised voice is annoyed enough to get my attention. My concentration gone, I turn round to see him facing off with the supervisor. "It's totally unstable. It flies like a brick! What's the point?"
"The point is to see whether you can fly it." He refuses to rise, much to Don's annoyance. "If you choose to believe that all planes are stable and aerodynamic and this is a waste of your time, that's your choice. But I'll tell you for free that you're wrong. Everything here has its purpose."
Don sighs dramatically, but he goes back to the simulator. And I sit there thinking hard. That's the closest thing to 'this one matters' that we've heard from an instructor yet.
Jason clearly thinks so too. "He said that about a flight simulator? How the hell am I going to get up to scratch on a flight simulator Don can't fly?"
"Don did get the hang of it eventually - get him to show you?"
I don't dare tell him that I followed Don on the simulator, asked for his help, and that he spent half an hour patiently coaching me until I could at least take off, fly level and land again after a fashion. I can live with Don's style of teaching, though - he's precise, insistent that you are equally careful, and clearly relishes being in a position of superiority. As soon as I've said it, I know what would happen. Don would be only too happy to teach a struggling Jason at something Don's good at and Jason cares about. They'd be at war within five minutes.
"I won't give Don that satisfaction." Jason looks around the room. "Hey, Tony! How'd you get on with the new simulator?"
Harper's been sitting alone nursing a mug of coffee, but he joins us readily enough. "It's weird. It's got no stability at all - you have to keep balancing everything all the time. For a start -" He stops himself, both eyebrows go up, and he asks, "no offence, but why do you want to know?"
"Rumour has it they're interested in who can fly that thing. You think you can teach me?"
Tony's eyes widen. "Frankly, no. But I'll give it a try if you want. Now?"
Jason gets up. "It needs to be before I realise I'm voluntarily going near a flight simulator. If anyone asks, I went to the gym."
Nobody does ask. Deep in the notes on interstellar radiation we were given earlier, I don't even register when Don's little clique of pilots decide to take the argument they're having to the simulator room.
It's all perfectly quiet in the common room after that. I don't think about the time until I realise there's only five minutes until they'll turn out the lights in a not-so-subtle hint that maybe we should be thinking about sleep. Neither Jason nor Tony has returned, and Jason's maths notes are still strewn across the desk where he had been working. They've been a long time for a simulator session, and Jason simply doesn't abandon the minimal notes which are all I've ever seen him write. I gather up the sheets of paper, taking a curious glance at notation I don't even recognise, and head for the simulator room.
Tony's sitting at the new simulator, hurling it round what seems to be a hideously complicated obstacle course. He doesn't look at all happy, and there's no sign of Jason. I've turned to leave him to it, when he says, "There's no way I could have stopped him. It was all over before I'd even moved."
"What was all over?"
"The fight." He glances down at what's in my hand. "Oh, no - you mean Jason hasn't come back yet?"
"I haven't seen him since he went out with you. I don't know anything about a fight. What's happened?"
Tony pauses the sim, takes a deep breath, and gets his thoughts in order. "I guess we'd been in here about fifteen minutes when Todd came in with Don and Marco. They started off arguing over climb rates on simulator one, then they noticed that it was Jason trying to fly this thing. He was struggling big time, and Todd and Marco started sniggering, then making comments, noises, trying to distract him. Nothing new - they've done the same to me every time I've gone near that fast jet simulator they think they own."
"Not Don?" I interrupt. Don can be a real prat and he's certainly not above winding somebody up, but I hadn't thought of him as malicious.
Tony shakes his head. "Don was embarrassed, if anything. Jason on a flight simulator's far too easy a target. Anyway, I think I was noticing it more than Jason - he's no pilot, but he sure can concentrate. He'd finally got everything set up, lined up to make the first turn, and Todd walked over, reached past and knocked half the controls off. He and Marco stood there laughing, and Jason swung round, grabbed Todd by the arm, and just threw him across the room. He certainly broke his arm, I'm guessing a couple of ribs as well. I grabbed Marco before he could join in, Don ran for help, and Jason just stood there."
"A very interesting account, Mr Harper," a quiet voice says from the doorway behind me. "I'm so glad you realised you had seen what happened after all."
Tony's face goes a deep shade of scarlet. "Uh...Chief...I..."
"Never mind," the newcomer says. "I'd have preferred it if you'd spoken up right away. This time, I'll let it go. Don't let it happen again." He doesn't wait for an answer.
Tony lets out a shaky breath. "That's Anderson. He's who came to sort out what had happened - I guess that's obvious, huh? So who did I just send home? Todd and Marco - so be it. Jason? Don? It works every time. I try to help someone and it blows up in my face. See you tomorrow - I hope."
The following morning, everything's different again. The wake-up call goes off as usual, but under the door are two brown envelopes. One has my name on the front, inside is a card with a single letter on it. 'G', and a slip of paper with 'Room 4, 09:30.' Suddenly I don't feel much like breakfast. Where I'm from, 'G' is about the lowest grade you can get. Karen does her best to cheer me up, but her envelope contains a 'B'. What can she say that would help? She has an excellent grade, and I'm a total failure. In the end, she leaves me to wash the tears away and goes down to breakfast alone.
I trail into room 4 to find everyone else already there. Marco's sitting right at the front, teacher's pet position, looking rigidly forward. Todd's looking anywhere but at him, arm in a sling, and standing sufficiently uncomfortably that I suspect Tony's right about the broken ribs. Tony himself just looks miserable, and Don looks furious with everybody. Jason is at least there. I'm reassured that they didn't send him home instantly, but with that expression on his face there's no way I'm going over there to speak to him. The rest of them show a varying mixture of optimism, pessimism, and plain confusion, and I'm not the only one with tear-streaks.
As I sit down in the least conspicuous place I can find, Anderson stands up at the front. It seems that the last couple of days are going to involve smaller groups going off to various of the facilities involved in the FTL program. As I'd suspected, the groups start with 'A' who are off to the project control centre. 'B' are going to Canaveral - Karen looks less than delighted to be in the same group as a very subdued Marco, but I get an encouraging smile as the lucky few leave.
By 'E', I'm not even looking to see who's been selected. My dreams are gone. Jason was completely, hopelessly wrong about that co-ordination test. I should have spent my time at the shooting range destroying Don. And listening to Tony yesterday only made it look as if I'd been involved in the debacle.
"G," calls Anderson finally. "You're staying here for the next couple of days. We have a lot to sort out."
I look around. Jason. Tony. Todd. Don. All I can think is that Todd's suing for assault, and somehow I'm implicated.
Anderson turns to the man at his side. "You can take Mr Hamill now. His taxi is waiting."
As Todd leaves, Jason steps forward. "Chief, this is my fault. Don't punish them because I couldn't hold my temper."
Anderson looks nonplussed, and then startled realisation dawns. "This has nothing to do with last night. I hope that all of you will have plenty of time to visit all of our facilities. Right now, we need these two days to organise your acceptance into the program. You four are the most promising candidates. I'm offering you places on Project G-Force, and I hope that you and your parents will agree that you should continue your education here, with us."
Parents. From what my friends say, most of them want a child who's bright, hard-working, motivated, athletic, and never gets into trouble. Being offered a place on an ISO summer camp would be a bonus, and as for their eldest being offered a place on the FTL program, they'd be shouting it from the rooftops.
My parents, on the other hand, will be horrified. They're what you might call fundamentalist ecologists. I do agree with them to a certain extent. We should be a whole lot more careful about what we do to the environment. But to abandon all technological research, all basic science, everything without an immediately obvious positive environmental impact, and pour that money into cleaning up the mess we've already made, just seems short-sighted to me. We still need cleaner fuel sources, for a start. They won't invent themselves.
To me, FTL flight is worth researching purely to see if we can do it. To my parents, it's a waste of time and money. I had to grovel and beg to be allowed to come here for a fortnight in the holidays. Finish my education here? Dad will never agree. ISO's FTL program is counter to everything he believes in.
Anderson listens calmly to my incoherent, stammered explanation as to why I can't ring home and ask my parents to sign his forms. He lets me regain some composure, asks a few more questions, writes down the names of the magazines which Dad's written articles for, and dismisses me with the reassurance that he will sort it out.
My colleagues don't seem to have the same worries. Tony, already eighteen, is busy signing his own papers. Jason's feeding the last of his into the fax machine.
The fax? I can't ring my parents, but faxing them would be even worse. I know it must be the middle of the night in Australia, but it still seems bizarre to me.
"You're going to let them find a fax in the morning? Wouldn't your parents want you to ring? They won't want you to stay?"
Jason swings round, looking...embarrassed? Jealous?
"My guardians at the orphanage will be only too happy to get rid of me. They'll have no interest in being woken up at four a.m., though."
Oh, heck. I guess it was jealous. He has no-one who cares enough for him to ring. Suddenly my parent problems seem trivial. At least I have parents. He doesn't have anyone.
"Jason, I'm so sorry. I had no idea." I think of my own family. Of aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents. I'd assumed that with his Mediterranean name and looks, he had an extended family to match. I have to stop making assumptions about people like this.
He shrugs it off. "They've been dead a long time. You couldn't have known. I haven't exactly advertised it." The tone is positive, as are the words. The face is set and emotionless. "Do me a favour, guys. When Don gets back from telling his perfect family in person, forget you know."
"Don wouldn't get on your back about that." Tony's right, I'm sure of it.
Jason grimaces. "No, he wouldn't. He'd carefully avoid it at all times. That would be worse. It's not an issue for me. You've heard how he talks about his family. He wouldn't understand."
Heck, I don't understand. I can't imagine being that alone. I don't agree with my parents a lot of the time, but at least they're there for me to argue with.
"Okay." Jason's back to brisk and cheerful. "My parents are dead. Kate's don't believe in basic science. Don's are as perfect as he is. Tony - make us the set."
"Divorced, remarried, second families. They'll be glad I'm doing what I want. And relieved about the scholarship. I'd like to believe it'll be in that order. I'll ring when they're in this evening."
"My name is Chris Johnson." Everything about this man screams 'medic', from the carefully reassuring manner to the shape of the glasses. "I'm the doctor who will be overseeing the medical aspects of Project G-Force."
We all sit up straight at that one. "What medical aspects?" demands Don, our self-appointed spokesman. "I thought we'd all passed the tests for being jump-compatible."
"You did." Johnson's calm and unruffled, just the sort of doctor I like. Some people you know instinctively you can trust. "You are all physiologically capable of withstanding jump. However, fast, long, potentially interstellar jumps need more than natural suitability."
He produces a clear plastic box about an inch on each side, and we all crane forward to see. Nestled inside is a tiny silver and gold wafer; a few millimetres across, slightly rectangular. Fine black tracing of microcircuitry covers the surface, and wires almost too thin to see connect to dozens of junctions around the edge.
"What the hell is that?" Jason squints at the thing.
"That's an implant, and a very sophisticated one." Tony gives the doctor a long, astonished look. "A brain implant."
Don recoils. "Two words. No. Way."
The doctor doesn't flinch, or look shocked, or attempt to discuss it with him. All he says is, " Project G-Force involves cerebonic implants. If you want to withdraw, you are at liberty to do so."
Don looks from one to the other of us. Jason is wearing an expression of utter determination. Tony looks fascinated. Me, I'm terrified at the thought of them putting something in my brain, but it's outweighed by how badly I want to do this.
Don wants it too, I know. Despite the arrogance and bravado, he wants this as badly as any of us. He looks up defiantly. "Does Tring have one of these?"
"An earlier model, yes."
"And it does what?"
"As you've doubtless heard, jump messes with the chemical balance in the brain. This implant sends signals which correct any imbalance. In effect, it cancels out the false messages which jump sends."
"Neat." Tony's impressed. "Where does it go?"
The doctor puts his hand to the back of his head, just above the hairline. "Right at the top of the spine, connecting into the brainstem." He reaches out, and a second, slightly larger, boxed implant joins its friend on the table. "This one goes a little lower, connecting directly into the motor nerves in the spinal cord. You may want to wear your hair a little longer afterwards. There will be scarring. The operation is sufficiently delicate that we need to have a completely clear view."
"Hold on," Jason says, "what does this one do?"
"This is your link to the jump-drive, or the jump-comm. Direct neural link."
"Whoa!" Don's gone through knee-jerk rejection to a scientist's pure delight in new technology. "Does it really work?"
"In candidates with the innate ability to use it, yes, it works." This time, he looks at Tony. "For you, the jump connections will be inactive. We still plan to implant the second chip, though - we're working on some other things it may be useful for."
They operated on Tony first. Jason second, and yesterday it was Don in there. Reverse size order, as Tony pointed out. His theory is that the smaller you are, the more complicated it is, so they're doing the hardest one last. I get to be operated on by surgeons with three operations more experience. Regardless of that, I wish I'd gone sooner. It was bad enough when there were three of us in here waiting for news. The following day, just me and Don, was pure torture. His idea of reassurance is to pretend to be fine. That doesn't work for me. I needed to talk about it, and he wouldn't go beyond 'it'll be okay, stop worrying.' Even being alone yesterday was better than that.
I've been told they're all doing well. The best chance of success is to keep us asleep for several days, to ensure there's no movement which could jar the connections loose before natural healing has locked everything in place. They've done this all many times before with a very high success rate - though there was a stony silence when Jason asked why all these success stories were no longer with the program. Chris Johnson tried to reassure us that it was for entirely different reasons, but I wasn't completely convinced. We do know, at least, that they're not dead or crippled. Most have returned to their old careers in the military, and that means that nothing too dire happened to them.
I know it sounds mundane, but I'm hungry. Nil by mouth for the last twelve hours, and I've had enough of waiting. I want this to be over. They should have come for me ten minutes ago. Does this mean something's gone wrong with one of the others? Is it going to be cancelled at the last minute? I've screwed my courage up as far as it will go, and now I need everything to happen before I lose my nerve completely.
I jump almost out of my skin as Chris Johnson comes in. "Ready, Kate?"
"Yes." My voice is far too high. "Why...why are you late?"
He smiles reassuringly, and I immediately feel somewhat better. "Horrendous traffic jams, that's all. Two of the OR nurses were stuck for a while on their way here, so we moved everything back a few minutes. I'm sorry nobody came to tell you. Let's go get you ready."
I stand up, relieved to find that my legs will carry me. This is it. If - when - this works, I'll be well on the way to fulfilling my life's ambition. We're going to go out there and explore the galaxy. Humanity can finally reach for the stars, and I'll be on the team leading the way.