The day of the breach started like any other in the massive spinning cylinder of the colony ship named Peerless. The semester had ended with top grades for 15-year-old Allison Taylor. In five years she would find a fresh start at distant Meridian VI. For now, at least she had escaped Earth.
It was noon, with the starship interior fully illuminated. The floor stretched up and curved overhead. Lengthwise, the visible sections of housing, work, and play seemed to adorn the interior like pieces of a child's game glued to the inside surface of a perfectly round tunnel. It was beautiful in its way. A view that, after all these years, was no longer dizzying.
Allison turned toward the arcade where the walking path split. Her best friend, Melissa Stone, followed. The semester had ended with solid grades for both of them. It was a good day. Things were finally going exactly right.
Allison glanced ahead and froze.
There he was. In the arcade. Bryan Ketch.
Melissa bumped into her. "Hey, give a girl a warning before you--"
"Um... let's go to..." Allison's mind raced. She scanned the area for another destination--any destination.
Melissa cocked her head. "What is it?"
Allison applied the full force of her will toward not glancing at the arcade--an effort that failed.
Melissa grinned. "Oh, I see..."
Allison's cheeks burned. Not that it should matter. She'd never felt uncomfortable around Bryan before. But now, for no reason at all, she was embarrassed and unsure. The inertia-powered Ferris wheel loomed 200 meters up-spin in the M. Scott Peerless Memorial Park. She turned to Melissa. "Let's do the wheel."
Melissa planted herself, her eyes gleaming. "Allison," she coaxed, touching Allison's arm. "He likes you. Let's go talk to him."
Allison's eyes widened. "No!"
Melissa stepped closer. "You're not fourteen anymore. I know you like him, so say something to him. If you don't,"--she looked over her shoulder, then back--"I might have to tell him."
Allison's stomach clenched. "What?"
"You'll thank me later." Melissa slipped her wrist through the crook of Allison's arm and urged her in.
Stumbling forward, Allison whispered, "Don't say anything."
Melissa patted her hand. "Don't worry." Then in an embarrassingly public tone, she called, "Hi, Bryan!"
Bryan turned, smiling--a really cute smile. When he spotted Allison, his expression froze.
Allison cringed inside, but she held her forced smile. "Hi." Though she wanted to say more, her mind was racing away, taking with it her ability to speak.
Bryan's hands searched clumsily for non-existent pockets on his bright red training suit.
"So," Melissa chirped, swinging her arms, "what are you doing?"
Allison stood petrified. She worried about her hair. She thought of her stubby, bitten-down nails. She wondered if her face was lopsided. Melissa threw a playful jab into her shoulder and Allison responded with a blurting, goofy laugh.
Now she wanted to melt.
"Hey, let's ride the Inertia Wheel," Melissa suggested. She glanced at Allison and with the eye away from Bryan flashed a stupidly-exaggerated wink. Allison tensed. Melissa pushed on, unconcerned, unhampered, and all around interfering and the three began strolling toward the park.
All the while, only one sentence formulated in Allison's mind--'Melissa, I'm going to kill you.' She stumbled dumbly along, avoiding eye-contact with Bryan, gazing down the length of the hollow, cylindrical Peerless.
In mid-sentence, Melissa bounced to a stop. "Oh, I forgot! I promised to take Sarah's brother to music lessons in...oh, no... ten minutes! Gotta go!"
Allison spun. "What?!"
"You guys go. I'll drop him off and catch up in twenty minutes--tops!"
She bounded off, leaving Allison alone on the walkway with Bryan.
Murder is too good for her!
She tried a smile that felt more like a grimace. What now? And was she actually holding her breath? Get a grip. You can go ahead and breathe now.
Bryan shook his head.
Allison's heart pounded. "Um... we don't have to go to the park if you don't want."
"No." Bryan shrugged. "It'll be fun. I was only... Melissa's acting weird."
"Yeah." At least she was uttering words now. Still, what to say? I think you're cute? Um... no.
She sucked in a breath. "She's trying to set us up."
Allison braced. If Bryan laughed, or if he looked appalled...
Bryan sputtered, "Greg!"
"Sorry. It's because of Greg." He looked up, inclining his head. "I uh... I told him... he must've... he said he wouldn't but... I'm gonna kill him!"
The suspense was agonizing. "Told him what?"
He smiled, a pathetic, embarrassed and really adorable smile. "I told him I thought you're, well, kind of... yeah, uh... cute, I guess."
Peerless appeared to be spinning the wrong way, stop and then spin again, leaving Allison in the same place, with everything confusingly different. Did she hear what she thought? It couldn't be. And that's why he was acting nervous?
Bryan raised his hands in surrender. "Hey, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to... I mean--"
"That's all right," she said abruptly. She didn't want Bryan to recant. Though she was dying to say the same thing to him, she knew Melissa would advise against it. It would be better now to flirt. Let's see, she thought nervously. Melissa had given her tips. Act confident... She giggled and swung her shoulders a little. "It's a nice thing to say."
Show interest. "Did you change your hair?"
Bryan grinned. "A little."
"I like it." Be fun. "Come on." She touched his arm. "Let's go to the park."
They walked off, the weight of her crush lightened, and everything seemed a little clearer. Bryan was once again the guy she knew since they left Earth.
Bryan laughed, and looked directly overhead. "Have you been to the hub yet?"
Allison shook her head. The hub stretched the length of Peerless, right down the middle space, the nerve center of the ship. "No and no thanks."
"Oh, I would love it. It's completely weightless, like freefall!"
Her brother talked that way. It must be a guy thing.
The park was empty. They boarded the inertia-driven Ferris wheel. As they gently rose and fell, she noticed the soft stubble on his chin. He had wide blue eyes and deep dimples.
Okay, maybe I won't kill Melissa.
When the Ferris wheel reached the top again, she peered out over the homes, over the industrial section, all the way to the crop terraces on the far end and the main observatory near the center of the outer bulkhead, the facility her mother managed.
"What classes are you taking next session?" she asked, hoping they would have some together.
Before Bryan could answer, the lights of the entire cylinder flickered. A surreal moment passed. Power on Peerless was constant. It never fluctuated--ever.
She grasped Bryan's hand. "What was that?"
"I don't know." He squeezed back.
They ascended again, eyes wide, and felt a distinct whoomp!
Allison's neck tightened.
They reached the top again, and a deafening bang followed by a violent shake slammed them sideways. Allison felt dizzy; everything was spinning. Then she realized--she was spinning.
She had no time to react. With a metallic groan, the Inertia Wheel twisted off its axle. Allison saw the ground rush toward them. She tightened, bracing herself.
"Allison!" Bryan yelled.
Stars filled her eyes--sickening red and white splashes--and then... had she been unconscious? She couldn't tell. Now she lay crumpled beneath a heap of bent, jagged metal. She turned her head. Bryan was next to her, unmoving.
The lights flickered again.
"Bryan!" she yelled, reaching. No response.
Red emergency lights flooded the vessel. Sirens blared.
"Bryan!" she screamed, shaking him.
A new sound rose, muddying the sirens--a roar, climbing to a high-pitched screech.
A gust brushed her face.
The spin of the ship had always maintained a steady breeze. It never varied. But this--Allison hadn't felt real wind since Earth. Now a gale rose and shrieked through the park.
With a deep chill, Allison realized its meaning--hull breach. A big one. And the ship was losing air.