***UPDATE*** 2/2/2013: A revised version of this story is now online at Bradbury Quarterly. Enjoy!
Nick gazed out the window on Gemini Deck of the Big Lift, searching for the tether that attached it to Earth. The clouds swirled over the ocean, and the Florida coastline emerged like a gentle brushstroke. But the tether was too thin, and the Earth too bright, for him to see it. He could only take it on faith that it was still there.
He could hardly believe how far he'd come. Just a week ago he was at home on the panhandle. The flight to the Lift was only yesterday. Now he was floating inside an elevator halfway up to the Jefferson space colony. He had to hold onto a bar to stay in place, and had bumped into the padded walls repeatedly since waking up. It was too bad Dad and Perry couldn't come. Nick turned 16 in a week, and everybody thought go up to Jefferson to visit his cousins was a great way to celebrate. No doubt Perry would be having the time of his life. But money was tight, so it was just Nick and his mom here.
Nick had just finished the cereal bar he'd bought on Galaxy Deck. The air smelled of the leaves and flowers that surrounded him. He still ached from sitting in the airplane for so long.
Someone floated up next to him, a boy about his age. He wore a baggy shirt, and his hair stuck out everywhere.
The boy grinned and pointed out. "I can see my house from here."
"Very funny." Nick smirked. "What's your name? I'm Nick."
The boy turned to Nick, and his eyes bugged out. "Nick? No way! Holy crap, it's really you! It's me, Michael! I can't believe you're here!"
Nick almost let go of the bar. "Michael? Michael Shand? What are you doing here? I mean, here, of all places?"
"Me?" Michael glanced out the window. "I'm going up to see my dad. He lives up on Jefferson now."
"Oh. Wow." Nick drew away from the wall, and let himself hang off. "That's where he ended up, huh?"
"Yeah. It's been a while, so I'm kinda nervous."
"Your mom still hate his guts?"
Michael rolled his eyes. "Totally."
Nick remembered their divorce, and cringed. It was a wonder those two never killed each other. Sometimes it didn't matter what was going on; they would start fighting, even if Nick was right there. "I'm glad you still get to see him. Man, it's been forever. What's been going on since you moved?"
"Oh man, a lot. You know I got a stepbrother now? His dad's an airline pilot; my mom married him last year."
"Can't wait to meet them."
Michael glanced at the wrapper in Nick's hand. "Where'd you get that? I'm starving."
"Oh, it's down. Follow me." Nick tugged on the handle, launching himself downward. He grabbed a handle next to a round corridor on the floor, going to Galaxy Deck, and waved back up for Michael. "This way."
Galaxy Deck was the cafeteria. There were some vending machines on one side and a buffet on the other, and tables bolted to the floor and ceiling. It still made Nick dizzy. Michael was rolling around and trying to catch something to stop himself. Nick grabbed his collar and pulled him to the buffet. He got Michael straightened out, and Michael laughed to the girl behind the counter. "I'm still not used to this."
He looked at the selection, and ordered a cinnamon roll. He turned to Nick. "Yo, got any money?"
"You didn't bring any?"
"All I have is a card. It got declined last time I used it. When did you get so greedy, anyway?"
"I didn't--Okay, you can use mine." He dug his card out of his wallet and gave it to Michael.
Michael swiped the card, pushed the buttons, and the girl fed the cinnamon roll through the slot. He slapped Nick on the shoulder. "I'm just messing with you. C'mon."
The two grabbed onto a table, and pulled their legs under it to keep themselves in place. Michael started eating, and Nick heard his mom calling. She was waving at him from near the corridor. She pushed herself against a column and flew toward them. Nick saw her swing her arms like a swimmer, and wanted to tell her it didn't work that way.
She caught the table, straightened herself out, and adjusted her hair. "Lord, this zero gravity--you wouldn't believe how many times I've bumped into a wall this morning. It's a miracle I haven't broken something."
"Good morning to you, too," Nick said.
"Good morning, Nick. Who's this?"
"It's Michael," Nick said. "You remember Michael Shand, right?"
Michael waved. "How's it going, Mrs. Tallier?"
"Oh, of course." Her eyes flickered. "I didn't even recognize you. Look at you, you're huge. How's your mother?"
"Doing okay. She got married."
“I didn't even know. Are they around?"
"I think they're still in bed. We had a long trip last night."
"Us, too. I hope I see them later. Nick, could you get me some Pop Tarts? And some orange juice, too." She gave him five dollars. Nick wasn't about to fight it, so he pushed himself to the counter. When he came back, she was, naturally, talking about him. "Oh, Nick was so torn up when you left. Cried almost all day. I could hardly console him."
"Mom." Nick glared and passed her the Pop Tarts and orange juice.
"Aw, Nick, don't be embarrassed. He's your friend, isn't he? And thank you." She took her breakfast, and opened the Pop Tart packet while the bottle twirled in front of her. "So what are you boys up to?"
"We were just about to leave," Nick said. "Right, Michael?"
"Oh, yeah," Michael said. "I wanted to check out the arcade."
"Got your phone?" Nick's mom said.
"Right here." Nick pulled it out of his pocket. "Let's go, Michael."
"Sure." Michael got up from the table.
Nick's mom flipped the cap on her juice. "Have fun, you two."
Nick and Michael launched themselves from the table to the corridor, and headed up toward Spark Deck.
"Your mom hasn't changed a bit," Michael said.
"Yeah," Nick said. "What about you? When was the last time you saw your dad?"
Michael drifted silently for a moment. "Five years."
"Five years?" Nick turned to face Michael, and lost control. He spun around like a gyroscope. "You haven't seen your dad since the divorce?"
Michael grabbed Nick and straightened him out. "Like you said, my mom hates his guts." They were in the fitness room on Turbo Deck. There were treadmills and ellipticals on every wall. Nick was getting queasy. He rejoiced when they arrived at Spark Deck.
Every side of Spark Deck was divided into cells, each with a different set of games. Nick and Michael found an empty one with an augmented reality ping-pong table. Paddles and goggles were attached to the side of the table. Nick put his goggles on. A small white ball appeared above the table, along with the score counter. Nick served.
He couldn't stop thinking about Michael's father. How could they have gone so long without seeing each other? Had his dad avoided him? Was his mom keeping him away? Nick couldn't focus on his game like this. He was missing some very easy shots. Michael pounded him in a few minutes.
"You all right?" Michael said. "Let's play something else."
Nick had questions building up inside him, but he couldn't get them out. Instead he followed Michael over to a shooting game.
After the first stage, the questions finally died down. Now Nick was right back at ten years old, playing in Michael's basement, going on adventures through the neighborhood, or just staring at the stars on the roof. They died at the end of stage three, and laughed. Nick couldn't wait to get to Jefferson so they could share the sights there.
Just as Michael was about to decide whether to go with the X-Wing game or sword-fighting, Nick got a phonecall. "Hello?".
"Nick, we need to talk," his mother said, "and we can't do it on the phone. I'm still in the lunchroom. Bring Michael, too."
"Uh, sure." Nick told Michael. "Any idea what she'd want?"
"No clue." Michael rubbed the back of his neck. They went through the corridor, and Nick promised himself he'd play the X-Wing game later on.
He kept a grip on Michael's sleeve on the way through the fitness room. It was still too disorienting.
Nick's mom was still at the same table in Galaxy Deck, talking on her phone. "Hang on, they just got here." She lowered the phone. "Michael, I've got your mother on the phone. She wants to talk to you."
"Oh god," Michael said. "I knew it."
Nick's mom thrust her arm out. "Here you go. Talk to her. Tell her where you are."
"What?" Nick said. "What's going on?"
His mom had her eyes fixed on Michael. Michael just hung there like a dead fish.
"Nick, there's something I haven't told you."
"Well, go ahead," Nick's mom said, "spit it out."
"My mom's not here. I'm by myself. I ran away from home."
"That's right," Nick's mom said. "I gave your mom a call as soon as you left. I had to call back home and get Perry to look up her number. She's back home in Oklahoma City, and she is worried sick about you. Now, won't you please talk to her?"
Nick gawked at Michael It couldn't be true. Why would he do it? How?
Michael reached for the phone, but hesitated just before he could grab it. He drew his arm back. "I can't." He turned, and kicked himself off, and flew to the corridor. Before Nick or his mom could react, he was in the next Deck.
Nick's mom groaned, and put the phone back to her ear. "He ran off. I'm really sorry, I'll have to call you back." She hung up. "Nick, I need you to go find him."
"What just--" Nick stuttered for a moment. "I don't understand. Running away--that's not true. It can't be."
"I just know what she told me," his mom said. "You should have heard her, poor woman. This is the first they've heard from him in a whole week."
Nick floated there, trying to comprehend all this. He fought to piece it all together.
"Wait a minute." He spun toward his mother. "He said he was going to see his dad."
"He did? Oh god, she didn't say anything about that." She grabbed his pant leg. "Something's obviously wrong here, and you might be the only person on this thing he'll trust. Please, I hate to ask you to do this, but please find him."
Nick looked back toward the corridor. "I was hoping we could hang out together when we got to Jefferson."
"I know. But we still don't know how he even got up here. He could be a stowaway, and if he is, better you find him than some security guard. Please, Nick?"
Nick sighed. "I'll talk to him." His stomach growled. "I'm hungry."
"We can talk about lunch later. Just call me when you've found him."
Nick flew up to Gemini Deck and stopped to think. Where would Michael have gone? There were six decks, plus the control room. He had just left Galaxy, so he could rule that out. And Michael would have had to use a different corridor to get to the bedrooms. And he wasn't in Gemini. That narrowed it down.
Nick checked the fitness center, but he didn't see Michael among the treadmills.
Next, the arcade. Nick darted all around to make sure he scanned every cell. He banged his head on a wall at one point. Even when they were padded, they hurt like hell. But Michael wasn't here, either.
That left Crystal Deck.
Nick hadn't thought to come here all day. It was an exhibit on the history of space travel, depicted in statues and holograms. In the center was a glass column which showed a miniature of the Big Lift crawling from one end to the other. It was tiny, and had come a long way on a very long thread.
Down in the corner, he spotted Michael. He was staring out a window, toward the Earth. Nick approached slowly. "Michael," he said, "what's going on? You can tell me."
"You wouldn't understand."
Nick's throat tightened. "I guess I have some ideas. Really, I'm just wondering how you even get here on your own."
"Took my mom's credit card, ordered some tickets, rode a bus here. I told her I was going camping with some friends."
Nick opened his mouth, but couldn't say anything. That was awfully blunt. "Wait, you actually have a room here?"
"Yup." Michael pulled a ticket out of his pocket. "Not entirely legit, though. Had to use a fake ID. As far as the Big Lift is concerned, I'm 22."
"Huh." Nick scratched his head. "Wait, so, your card...?"
Michael's eyes narrowed. "My mom canceled it a few days after I left. I guess that's when it hit her I'd run away. Good thing I had enough cash to get me the rest of the way." He chuckled. "Good thing it wasn't the card I used to book this flight, too."
"Geez, Michael." Nick couldn't believe things at Michael's home were that bad. How could he and his mother act with such spite toward one another?
Nick knew what he had to ask next. "This about your dad, isn't it?"
Michael breathed in, and sighed. "My mom won't let me see him. Won't even let me write to him. I mean, okay, he wasn't the ideal father, but... I dunno. He's no monster. I feel like I've only been getting half the story."
"How do you know he's on Jefferson?"
"I found some of the stuff he's been sending me. Turns out Mom's been keeping it in the basement. Seems like he's turned things around. Why shouldn't I get to see him?"
"You're actually making sense so far," Nick said.
"Besides." Michael turned his back to the window. "Things have just sucked lately. My stepbrother hates me. My stepdad makes fun of the stuff I like. Nobody at school cares I exist. I just felt... stuck, like in a spider web. I just couldn't stay there."
Nick only just noticed the shadows under Michael's eyes. He wished he could have been there for Michael. "I think I understand. How can I help?"
Michael drooped his head. "I wish I knew. My mom's not gonna let me see him without a fight. There's probably cops up there waiting for me already. Or maybe a security guard will call up a pod to come get me."
Nick could imagine Michael's mother literally breathing fire over this. "You should tell my mom. She'll understand. Maybe she'll even try to help."
"She can't help me. You think my mom won't find a way to make her life a living hell? She's called cops on a neighbor's barbeque for playing music too loud. She'll probably, I dunno, have you two charged with kidnapping."
Nick cringed. He always did prefer to have Michael spend the night at his place, instead of the other way around.
But what could he do, without sending Michael's mother into a blind rage?
His phone rang. "Mom?"
"Hey, Nick. Just wanted to see if you found him yet."
He took a good, long look at Michael. He thought about his own dad. The trips they'd take to Pensacola, the trips to the beach, watching movies on Saturday nights...
"Sorry. Not yet."
Michael perked his head up.
"Damn," Nick's mother said. "His mother's furious."
"I don't know what to tell you. He's just slippery, I guess."
"All right. Let me know if you find him."
They hung up. He looked over at Michael's shocked face.
"Holy crap," Michael said.
"I know. I can't believe I did it, either." He wiped his forehead. "I guess you should lie low until we get there."
"Thanks a lot, man." Michael patted Nick's shoulder.
Nick looked toward the corridor. It was about time to meet back up with his mother. "We should probably split up before I start to regret this."
"Sure." Michael threw his arms around Nick. "I don't know what I'd do without you." He flew off toward Spark Deck, and turned back toward Nick. "We should totally play the X-Wing game later!" Nick waved back, and went through Gemini to meet with his mother.
She was just hanging up her phone. "Michael's mother again. She just won't stop calling." She sighed. "What am I supposed to tell her?"
"Sorry," Nick said. "I looked everywhere."
His mom stared at him for a moment, and a shiver crept up Nick's spine. Had she figured him out?
She let out a heavy sigh. "Come here." Nick approached, and let her wrap her arms around his head. "Nick, I love you, and your father loves you, and Perry loves you. I wish more than anything that we could all be together right now."
"I love you too," Nick said. She let him go, and he got his legs under the table. "I think he'll be okay. He's made it this far. He just--I think he just wants to see his dad."
His mother gave him that stare again, and she sighed. "Maybe you're right. I suppose we can look up his dad when we get there. He doesn't need to be kept in the dark like this."
"I guess not."
His mom stretched. "Oh God, the stress. Are you still hungry?"
"Well, I think they're starting to serve lunch. Let's eat."
Nick got a packed meal, and sat down by a window next to his mother. Now he ached from all the flying he had done in the past hour, and his head still throbbed from his Spark Deck accident. He hoped Michael was out of sight.
Nick couldn't shake the feeling that his mother suspected something. If she did, she never spoke up, and Nick didn't dare risk telling her.
His mom turned, and pointed toward a window. "Oh look, you can see the tether."
Nick looked. "Oh yeah, I see it." It was like a hair, barely there at all. But it glinted with the light of the sun, a clear line, pointing toward home.