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Excerpt: Growing Up Weightless by John M. Ford

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Out of print for more than two decades, John M. Ford’s Growing Up Weightless is an award-winning classic of a “lost generation” of young people born on the human-colonized Moon.

Matthias Ronay has grown up in the low gravity and great glass citadels of independent Luna—and in the considerable shadow of his father, a member of the council that governs Luna’s increasingly complex society. But Matt feels weighed down on the world where he was born, where there is no more need for exploration, for innovation, for radical ideas—and where his every movement can be tracked by his father on the infonets.

Matt and five of his friends, equally brilliant and restless, have planned a secret adventure. They will trick the electronic sentinels, slip out of the city for a journey to Farside. Their passage into the expanse of perpetual night will change them in ways they never could have predicted…and bring Matt to the destiny for which he has yearned.

With a new introduction by Francis Spufford, author of Red Plenty and Golden Hill.

Please enjoy this free excerpt of Growing Up Weightless by John M. Ford, on sale 9/27/22.


1

Hating the Earth was easy.

It was always there to hate, a filmy blue eye hanging in the black sky, winking side to side. Even on that high day of the month when the eye was shut, a blue halo, a crust of dirty air, stared on. It asked to be hated, sending its people who thought Luna’s land was ugly and her cities strange and her gravity comical, sending its message that Earth was the source of all the life in the Universe as if nobody had ever been born on Luna or Mars or the Frames, never mind the Far Worlds, sending its stupidity and its lies. It was full as a pimple of trash and stink and jealousy, spitting them all by shipfuls at Luna, hating Luna for not being another piece of Earth itself, refusing even to call the world by its proper name, as if “Moon” meant “owned,” as if gravity made property: what was there to do except hate it back?

Matthias Ronay sat in his best coldspot, looking up at the blue eye and hating it until his jaws hurt. Then finally he looked down, to the Lunarscape under the eye, and felt better for what he saw there.

Matt sat, suspended, between two walls of the Copernicus A Port service building: two broad, smooth concrete slabs, a couple of meters apart, sloped at thirty degrees off the vertical. Between the walls was a network of structural glass rods, each as thick as Matt’s thumb; he sat comfortably nested in the net on his folded jacket and a cheap Betacloth chair cushion, about two-thirds of the way to the roof, the floor some ten meters below him. He faced a strip of glass that was the whole reason for being here.

The clear glass strip was fifteen decs wide, and as high as the whole wall. It was left over from the building days, meant to give light and view to the construction crews after the outer shell was sealed. At the bottom was an old cylindoor, bolted now and caulked tight. There were similar leftovers all over the city. The glass was just as strong as the crete around it, the sealed door as safe as a blank slab. No one would bother with busting vacuum just to replace them. And with that Matt was entirely pleased.

Because for all that it looked on the nasty Earth, the window also opened directly onto the A Port.

The three-day-wonder shuttles from Earth dumped their trash on the little pads at C Port. B caught the system ships from Mars and the Frames and the Jovian moons; those were good ships, sometimes beautiful ships, but they only went out and back. Home traffic, suborbital hoppers and Big Dippers back from the water run, came down at Old Landing on the other side of the city; they were important, Matt knew, but they went nowhere at all—another Lunar city, a comet, nowhere. Copernicus A was the real starport, where the MIRAGE-drive ships on the Far Worlds trade sent down their shuttles, or landed themselves. And then took off again, to go where the strongest telescope could not find the Earth in the sky.

The watch on Matt’s wrist trembled. It was time.

The beacons around the pad lit white, red, blue. A service buggy ran for shelter under the crete pavilion where the crash vehicles waited, just in case of the impossible. Strobes on glass-rod towers flared upward, spilling a little light from their metallized-glass bowls, but casting no beams in the clean Lunar sky.

The TECHNET said the ship was the Eau Claire, a real free trader, no home port, last stop Burgundy, eighty parsecs out. Matt wanted to grab his slate and read her data live: but if he touched the net Matt could be located—He could find Matt as easily as whistling a note. He didn’t know about this place, and He wouldn’t. Matt was not going to heat his own coldspot.

The ship came down.

Eau Claire was a pipe-racker, eight fifty-meter lengths of tube making two # signs one atop the other. Four flare cylinders went through the junctions; they were burning hydrogen in oxygen, their exhaust bells blasting against gravity with flares that were nearly invisible, except for the dust they tore up from the surface as the ship settled down. Inside the tubes, four meters across, were crew quarters, controls, storage for delicate cargo. Less-sensitive goods were hung outside, in small pods and cases along the tubes, and big containers in the central square.

The ship seemed to be coming down at an off angle. Between two breaths Matt played it out crashing, in a burst of dust and debris and burning gas; and, alert as no one else in the city could have been, he would grab a suit of plate from the public lockers, rush to the site, aid in the rescue . . . earn the gratitude of Eau Claire’s master and crew. Earn an offer of a job. Earn his ticket to go.

All he needed was an offer. Matt was past his hundred and fifteen thousandth hour, old enough for an offer. With a promise of work, by Lunar law he could leave his parents, leave the sight of the blue planet, get out, gain orbit, grab outworlds, go.

Then the ship touched the pad. Matt shook with imaginary shock of landing, and the play burst like soap film.

He wouldn’t really want to light out that way, Matt told himself, as the starship’s engines shut down, the clouds of dust collapsed. He wouldn’t, he said in his head, want to win his ticket in the wreck of a ship, in a master’s disaster. He told himself that three times over.

Ramp slots were opening around the pad, trucks crawling from their tunnels. Along the pipes of the ship, windows blinked as the crew moved from landing to loading stations. A twin-racker would have a crew of about forty.

Room and work for forty ought to mean enough for forty-one, Matt thought. But he had asked the question, asked it more than once since reaching the hour of Go. One master had just smiled and shaken her head. One had shown him all over his ship, given him a piece of white coal from Saint Alexis (he had traded a third of it for two slate memory modules, but the rest was carefully hidden). The third had called Him. There had been no reason for that; it was a lawful question anywhere to ask for work, but—

Matt’s father had been in a meeting (as if He were ever anywhere else). Not that He had said anything; no long careful argument this time, no explanation of why He was right and Matt was wrong. Why should He? It had gone His way, and Matt had learned something. Matt had learned that he wasn’t going anywhere, not this way. So He just let the silence beat in Matt’s ears like the pound of blood in a small dark room.

In another forty thousand hours there would not have to be any sort of promise from a third party. Matt could survive that long. He could last that long breathing vacuum, if only he could get out of sight of the Earth.

And everything Matt had ever read or seen or heard told him that people did what they had to, to survive. Even He couldn’t argue around that.

Matt put on his jacket. He tucked up the pillow for his next visit, stepped off the support rod and skipped down the inner wall, barely touching the crete with his soft-soled boots, brushing the glass rods as he dropped between them. He hit surface with a light bouncing shock and ran between the walls.

The space between the walls got dim as Matt left the window strip behind. He came to his exit: he unducked, grabbed a glass rod with both hands and killed his momentum in a full-circle swing over the bar. At knee height, a half-meter square of plain gray plycore covered a hole in the inside wall. Matt went through.

He came out in a very dim room, a vacant retail space on the top concourse of the building. There were some Beta dropcloths piled and draped, a box of bolts and fasteners, an unmounted light fixture. At the front of the store, light leaked in a fine white grid around the edges of ply panels.

Above the loose lightbox was an open spot in the ceiling. Matt jumped into it, caught the edge of the glass-channel suspension grid and swung inside with no more sound than a door closing. Careful to touch only the grid, not the glass-foam panels, with fingers and elbows and knees and toes, he crabbed his way past lights and cables and ducts to the space above a toilet room. He listened: no whumph of toilets or hum of sinks, not a grunt, not a cough. Matt tipped up a panel and dropped through.

He whacked the dust off his jacket and slacks, walked to a sink and blasted his hands clean in the ultrasound. He looked in the mirror: in a corner behind him was an empty camera bracket, a pigtail of wires. Eventually there would be a pickup installed, and Matt would have to find another way to the cold. Which he would.

Matt went out onto the concourse. The building was A-framed, walls sloping up to meet in a long skylight. There were walks along both sides, a gap down the middle that looked down past two more decks to the transit level. Air vines curtained down from railing to railing. To Matt’s right, the floor ended in a circular space, a stairway spiraling down the center, a curved band of window giving a general view of the three Copernicus ports.

A few people were standing by the window, looking out; they began to walk away, their step confirming them all as Lunars. The last person spotted Matt and waved. Matt knew him: Gordon Tovey, one of the Transport supervisors. He wore a ten-pocket Beta vest over a high-collared shirt in Transport red, red jeans tucked into heavy boots. The vest pockets were stuffed full of gear, still more hardware clipped and looped to his belt and jeans.

Tovey said “Hello, Ronay the Younger.”

It was what he always said. He meant nothing by it, and Matt had decided it was all right for Gordon to call him that: it wouldn’t always be so, but when the time came the explanation would too. “Hello, Gordon.”

Tovey pointed out the window. “Surely you didn’t miss the big one.”

“Pickup to con-down.”

“So what did you think?”

“Think?”

“Of the ship.”

“Oh, well. She came in a little off, true—but pipe ships don’t handle all that smooth, especially doubles. And her last stop was Burgundy—”

“That right?”

“TECHNET. Which probably means from Dvor before, and maybe Churchill or Ananse before that. She may not have been anyplace airless in—oh, five thousand hours at least.”

“You do spend a little time on the net, don’t you?” Tovey said, grinning.

“Oh . . .”

“Don’t suppose you’d like a job?” Tovey said suddenly. He was not grinning now.

Matt felt his guts drop away. He could feel His hand in this, and if so it led to a bottomless well of plots—if He knew about Matt’s coldspot—had always known—and this would be just how He would close in, from a dark corner—“Have you got a job?” Matt said, trying to sound eager.

Tovey scratched at his ear. “Usually do; Tracks ’n’ Packs isn’t much of a star role these days. Not like starships, anyway. I keep saying, there’s not such a difference between ziplines and tracks, eh?” His smile seemed a bit awkward. Matt held his own face rigid. Tovey said “Any rate, I heard you were past your one-fifteen.”

“Yes.” And who told you that? “I’ve got to think about it, Gordon.”

“I don’t see any reason to hurry.” Tovey pressed at his ear again, pulled a picsel from a vest pocket. “Tovey, go ahead. . . . Oh, doesn’t it always? Details. Put ’em up.” Matt could see the face on the palmsized screen change to a technical-systems display. There was no sound; Tovey was sound-wired, the audio running up an implanted fiber-optic pipe directly into his auditory nerves. He could hear private and clear over any amount of background noise. “Oh, put a spitwad in it and hold your breath. I’m coming.” He snapped the picsel shut, said to Matt, “Want to see the mess I’ve just tried to get you into? Quick, before that starship’s crew finds out what we’ve shoved under their goods?”

Matt did and knew he couldn’t, but he checked his timer just to confirm. “I’ve really got to be someplace, Gordon. Maybe sometime else?”

Tovey shrugged. “Next ship, next disaster.” There was no malice in it, and it cut Matt open.

Matt said “Really. I have to go.”

“I guess you do,” Tovey said seriously, then “If you’re late, blame me.”

“Thanks, Gordon.”

“Arigato, but I meant Tranny, not me personally.” They both laughed. Tovey said “Would you tell your father—”

Matt froze.

“No, wipe that. Think about the job, though, eh?”

“Sure. And thanks.”

Tovey went to the stairwell rail and jumped over it. He could get away with that: he had a job to get to. Nobody would give him hardpoints for risking himself and spooking the Slammers.

Matt took a long step to the edge, looked down. Tovey had landed three decks down and was loping off to wherever his mess was. His work.

Matt had been tempted for a vac-tight fact. Gordon Tovey had the freedom of Luna: the run of the tracks and tunnels, Tycho to Tsio and all stops and stations. Transport ran the well buggies that loaded and unloaded starships; a Transport load super was the first person a ship captain saw live on landing, the last before lighting out.

But if it was the freedom of Luna, it was the freedom of only Luna, the freedom to work under the Earth. Tidelocked.

It was, and this killed it deader than a soap sphere in vacuum, the freedom to take orders from Himself. And there the matter ended.

Matt jumped the rail. A deck and a half down, he drifted by a Slammer team, two adults and two kids. Matt knew what they looked like before he saw them, because they all looked alike— what Tani called a gestalt, all the bits streaming as a whole. They had cameras and sunshields and THE EARTH’S ROUND AFTER ALL! shirts of Beta over their linty weed clothes. They had a stuffed plush Ango and a Name the Craters game card. Before they left they would have a pocketful each of degaussed tickets from Transport and hourly suit hire and a Skyhook match and the theatre or the ballet or the orchestra (choose one), and at the Port Duty Free shop they would each get a glass sphere of Lunar soil and vacuum, the adults a bottle of Authentic Moonshine white whiskey.

One of the kids gaped and pointed at Matt dropping past, and he grinned and waved and did a back-flip before landing just right on his feet. Matt had seen their cameras, as he knew he would; that was all right. Sometimes you had to be careful—a news disc might get on the channels—but these were just going back to the Earth, and what happened to them there Matt could not even slightly care. If you were trying to live and run cool on Luna, knowing the difference was everything.

He was skambling now; a light-footed run with knees bent and head down, ducked and tucked. The idea was to put all your power into forward momentum, none into vertical lift. You had to be Lunar to do it right. It drove the Slammers crazy when you skambled by them, so of course you weren’t supposed to do it, and you did it every chance you got.

Matt riffed up a chart in the slate of his brain. He was in the A Port Surface level. He had to get to Ruby’s place on Sokoni plus seven. There were three thousand meters of travel tube between Port and Sokoni Tower; they had wanted the landings far out for some reason.

For a long time Matt had walked the distance, thinking it must be cooler than a railcar. Then he discovered there were cameras in both—and few enough people walked that when the sensors warmed to somebody in the passage, someone always took a look. In the cars, if you kept quiet, you might run the whole city unseen.

Matt had quickly come to understand that things didn’t always play as they ought. No Lunar in the blue eye’s sight expected things fair. It was when things played completely backward that he wondered about the world.

Matt slowed down as he came to the travel concourse. It was always full of offworlders; no place was hotter. He was traveling at a nice smooth walk when he got to the rail gates.

There were instructions in six languages for Slammers; Lunars knew the system. About a year ago Transport had put up signs in Sympla, the icon language they used on starships. The ship people liked it, so it must work well, but Matt wondered: didn’t they talk on ships? In stories they talked, of course. In stories they explained things to each other that real crew would be black vac dead for not knowing, or else they explained them to planet people who had no business aboard except not to know things—space Slammers. What were they like, without a spit of gravity to hold them down and together?

It was a relief when the story ships got into trouble: then they didn’t talk so much. Or they said useless things like “Another hit like that and we’ll lose cooling in the MIRAGE cases!” when any idiot could see the cracks and the clouds of boiling wet-N; but then you could just flip the sound off and enjoy the story pure.

Matt reached into the inside pocket of his jacket. Lining the pocket was a sort of envelope, made of double-layer foil with a thumbnail circuit panel wired in. Ruby, who had made them for all the team, called it a Faraday Pocket; a-eyes couldn’t see through it. Matt flipped his Transport tag out just before he went through the gate, and it passed him. Rubylaser had warned him not to forget. He never forgot.

With the tag read he was warm, gated and dated precisely located, a hot spark on the lines. All He had to do was look. Let Him.

Between the gate area and the train tube was a spinney door, a frame of layered plates that would whirl in to seal tight if vacuum broke on either side. Older Lunars sometimes took a long arching step through spinneys—the guillotine gavotte—just in case, though Matt had never in his life actually heard of a serious decompression.

The tube was a broad oval, cut through the regolith with electron guns; the curved walls were still of burnstone, smooth and slightly glassy. The passenger platform was a slab of white crete notching the tunnel’s corner. A glass wall ran the thirty-meter length of the station, dividing platform from train tube, doors marked off by strips of red-enameled metal. At the upline end, big digits counted down to the next train: 48 seconds.

At 30 seconds out a chime rang to wake up dozing passengers— that was clearly explained on the signs, but some Slammers never saw anything—as happened now: a fat man, two stuffed shopping bags hung from each hand, heard the bell and was touched off like a racing mouse. He practically leapt through the gate, the bags rising under thick-legged thrust, oscillating on the heavy slack couplings of arms; by the time he reached the platform he was a hurtling chaotic system, an insoluble n-body problem.

The fat Slammer saw the end coming, the glass wall rushing up on him. He tried to kill his velocity, tried, Matt saw with some surprise, like a Lunar, crouching and scraping his shoes on the crete, and he almost did make it—but there was really a lot of mass times velocity squared there, and he didn’t handle the whirling baggage right, and space just ran out on him.

Slam.

The man bounced off the glass, and again off the floor, a wavefront of shopping bags expanding from the impact. They were still in flight when the train filled the tube, train doors mating to platform doors and sliding open. The fat man tried to get up and grab his property at once, and managed neither.

Matt looked at the train and the time and the struggling Slammer, and then at the few other people on the platform. The Slammers were hustling into the cars, trying to see the accident without looking at it. Most of the Lunars hadn’t seen it to begin with, it happened so many times a day. A small, yellow-haired woman in a blue coverup and sticky sandals was kneeling, putting books back into a Beta sack.

Matt gathered up the nearest bag. It was full of food: wrapped sandwiches, liter flasks of Pepsi Musato, two entire boxes of Cadbury’s Rego Crunch bars. Matt and the woman in blue came up on either side of the fallen man. “Careful, sir,” Matt said, and they got him on his feet. A chime rang, and the woman waved and kicked the crete hard; she sailed into a car just as the glass doors closed. The train slid out.

The fat man stared after the train for a moment, shook his head, and said “Thank you, thank you so much. Can you tell me when the next train to the Hub is due?”

Matt pointed at the countdown clock. “About 500 seconds.”

“Ah.” The man pulled back his left sleeve. There was a long black case strapped to his forearm: a tasset computer, time digits showing through a window in the closed lid. “I have to be on a long-distance train at 1400. Do you think I’ll make it?”

“You ought to,” Matt said, “sir.” There was only one train from Copernicus Hub at 1400 today, as Matt had excellent reason to know.

“Ah. Good. My luggage is already supposed to be on there, you see, and I’d hate to have to run after my dirty socks. Especially as you’ve seen how I run.” He smiled. Matt smiled too, trying to imagine the cubage of the man’s luggage.

The next train pulled in. “This one will get you there,” Matt said, and almost hung back, almost went to another car, but voidit he wanted to know. He followed the Earthman aboard.

Matt said “It’s three stops to the Hub Transport Center. We’re on Surface level here, but Hub will be sub-2; the TranCity trains leave from Surface . . . that’s two decks up. There’s a lift. And you can get a cart for this . . . your packages.” Pause. The man was listening carefully. Matt tightened his chest and said “How far are you going?”

“The end of the line. Tsiolkovsky.”

Breath. “Are you an astronomer?”

“Astrophysicist. My name is Yuri Korolev.”

“Oh! I’ve heard of you.”

Korolev’s eyebrows went up. “Oh, of course. The crater, on Farside.” He smiled. “The big fat one.”

“No, sir. I mean, you, sir.”

“That’s very kind, young man. . . .”

“Matt.”

“Thank you, Matt, but I’m certain—”

“You wrote about MIRAGE tracing by Avakian shock. It was on VACOR TECHNET.”

Korolev laughed out loud. Matt held still for a moment, feeling sweat on his ribs, and then Korolev reached out, clamped Matt’s hand in both of his and shook it. Korolev’s hands were strong, and surprisingly fine-boned for such a big man. “Matt, sir, I am so delighted to make your acquaintance. You must excuse me: I have a son, you see, just about your age, and he is about as interested in celestial physics as . . . as the far side of the Moon.”

Matt nodded for want of anything better to do. Korolev had said Moon, yes, but he’d called it the far side. Not the dark side.

The train stopped at Verne Center. No one entered their car. The doors closed.

“Do you live here, Matt? Copernicus, I mean? I haven’t been to the Moon before, you see, and I really don’t know how much you people travel.”

“I live in Copernicus. I’ve been to some other cities. Tycho, and Da Vinci/Crisium.”

“To Tsio?”

Heartbeat heartbeat. “No.”

“Ah. Well, I shall be there for . . . let me see, you’d say seven hundred hours? A month, on Earth?”

“A skyday.”

“I see,” Korolev said. He seemed to be filing the word away. “Well, if you should happen to be in Tsiolkovsky during that skyday, you will say hello to me? Pozhalasta?”

“Da gospodeen.”

“Muy bueno. I have hardly been on the Moon two days, and already I am amazed by . . . no, I am not saying that right. After fifty hours here, I find Luna amazing.”

Matt said “We call it the Moon sometimes,” which was only true. Korolev hadn’t pronounced it right—“Loona,” like “lunatic,” not properly with a short u—but he seemed to mean well enough. Through the car window, burnstone and cables shockwiped to glass and platform, and the sign for Sokoni Tower. “This is my stop, sir. Nazdrovye.”

“Zero noise, Matt.”

“Next stop for you, sir. Luna e irrashaimase.”

Korolev waved as Matt got off. Matt waved back, and then left the station, fast as he could.

He tumbled up a ramp and was in Sokoni Split, the triple-height traders’ zone, shopcent souk and streetfair all in one and outside of time. There were tables and tents and kiosks, crosstalk pitches and pleas crackling in the air, which smelled of food and incense and drifting pine from the Core beyond. There were openframe openstores, built of glass rods and modular connectors, that ran up and out as they pleased, dangling draperies and ladders—there was no rule that you had to make it easy for Slammers to get in; a couple of stores were hung from under deck 1, accessible only by an easy jump that no Slammer would ever try.

Copyright © 2022 from John M. Ford

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