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Steven O’Connor

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Zeb watched his father weave through the crowd, his blue jacket flapping, his travel bag swinging. More than once he disappeared from view and his mother sighed with relief each time his familiar shape re-emerged further ahead.

Zeb held onto his seven-year-old brother’s hand, so sweaty it almost slipped from his grip several times. Losing Spud would be the last thing they needed.

‘C’mon,’ his father called out over the heads of the people between them. ‘It has to be this way.’

‘What?’ his mother called back.

They’d already checked in his luggage. Only his fake-leather travel bag – overstuffed and old, its plastic ribbing exposed at one end – hung from his shoulder.

‘Where are we going?’ There was a plea in her voice.

But he was moving again and it took a moment to work out what he’d shouted back: ‘Surprise!’

Little River Spacedocks was overwhelming, a city under a vast, domed ceiling, complete with metro stalls, ziptech outlets and deluxe super-megaplus stores. All bursting with things to buy. Zeb spied every kind of ziptech imaginable, from Zeeplayers to ziptoys, and countless zip accessories. And so much more: hyperboards and hypergear (not the ordinary kind, these were designed for overspace conditions), Martian fashion outfits (what a laugh, as if an offworld  scene existed! though Zeb had to admit, the antigrav jumpsuits, with their many zips, chains, studs and hooks, were intriguing), and – both floating around and fixed to the floor – zip-installations, in case one’s Zeepad required uploading, downloading, recharging or, not a good thing, jumpstarting. All these businesses populated the crisscrossing lanes, byways and passages that opened at intervals to wide malls and flowed on into the space transport embarkation areas.

And everywhere, people, heading in every direction.

Many just visiting, Zeb guessed. Here to farewell departing friends and family members. Or greet them upon arriving home.

But then there were those actually preparing to leave, miners, administrators, executives … Or, like his father, one of the many security personnel suddenly required throughout the System’s outreaches.

They weren’t just leaving the planet. They were leaving their homes for a long time. Off-planet travel was not something that happened within short timeframes. It was usually measured in years, not months.

Zipcraft – coaches and smaller buggies, mostly – glided smoothly through the crowds, transporting crews and equipment. Less smooth were the hovering, flashing security bots complete with eFaces fixed at their centres, wearing brimmed caps. The bots meandered left and right and up and down, unexpectedly forcing their way through crowds, directing people as needed, scrutinising everyone. Zeb knew it was best not to pay them attention, lest they pay him attention back.

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