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Rise from Dirt: Dirt and Stars, #3

Rise from Dirt: Dirt and Stars, #3

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Rise from Dirt: Dirt and Stars, #3

498 pages
6 hours
May 7, 2018


Dirt is for heroes.

"Kevin Killiany's delightfully immersive writing sucks you right into the characters, their situation, their location, and their lives. A most compelling read." ~ Keith R. A. DeCandido, Author of Novels in "Star Trek," "Supernatural," "Sleepy Hollow," and More

Mara Duval, a spacer born on Tombaugh Station, came down to Earth prepared to endure six weeks of exile on the disease-ridden, war-torn wasteland that spacers call dirt. Instead, she discovered the Space Service's stranglehold on access to space is built on lies, and people who deserve to be part of humanity's reach for the stars are denied their birthright. Mara got the word out, and for her crimes was "disappeared" without warning.

But the Space Service desperately needs people to explore and colonize the outer worlds, young people who can be molded in the spacer tradition. To attract national attention, they launch the first Boot Camp competition: a months-long contest, with the top twelve finishers earning a coveted spot in Space Service Junior Officer Training. And because of Mara, Boot Camp is open to everyone.

Jael Alden has always known her future lies among the stars—but decades of Space Service discrimination stand in her way. Boot Camp gives her a chance to take the Space Service head on, to make one of those spots her own. She doesn't care the contest will be rigged against her, designed to make all minority challengers fail. Jael has wanted the stars all her life—and she's willing to risk everything to prove the best will always rise from dirt.

EVOLVED PUBLISHING PRESENTS the third book in this critically acclaimed, timely, young adult science fiction adventure that's sure to keep you riveted. [DRM-Free]

Books by Kevin Killiany:

  • "Down to Dirt" (Book 1)
  • "Life on Dirt" (Book 2)
  • "Rise from Dirt" (Book 3)
  • "For the Stars" (Book 4) [Coming Fall 2019]

More Great Sci-Fi from Evolved Publishing:

  • "Star City" Series by Edwin Peng
  • "Noah Zarc" Series by D. Robert Pease
  • "Panhelion Chronicles" Series by Marlin Desault
  • "Uploaded" Series by James W. Hughes
  • "Whitewashed" Series by Adelaide Thorne
  • Two Moons of Sera by P.K. Tyler
  • The Silver Sphere by Michael Dadich

May 7, 2018

About the author

I was raised in the heart of Florida in the 1950s and ’60s, growing up in a pink cinderblock house in a community hemmed by orange groves against the edge of a swamp and the shore of a lake. I didn’t read anything not assigned by a teacher until the summer of 1967, when an injury—the outcome of an idea that looked good at the time—laid me up for several weeks. In an effort to keep me sane my mother brought me armloads of books from the library, which I used to build forts… until the red-and-yellow cover of Have Space Suit, Will Travel lured me into looking inside. To my surprise, I read it—twice—and was hooked. In later years, I read and loved mysteries, fantasies, and historicals, but my reader’s heart first imprinted on YA science fiction. I left Florida for California in 1973, and wandered a bit before settling on North Carolina’s coast. Along the way I became a husband, a father (three times), and in 2013 a grandfather. I’ve had a half-dozen careers in those forty years, working in education or mental health. These days, when I’m not writing I’m teaching English at a community college. Oh, did I not mention writing? I began in 1967, right after I started reading, and—if you overlook thousands of rejections and thirty-three years of practice—was an immediate success. Since my first sale in 2000 I’ve sold three novels, a half-dozen novellas, and thirty-one short stories. I’ve also co-written or co-edited nineteen role-players’ resource and rule books. My writing is fueled by two questions: “What happened?” and “What if?” The first motivates my exploration of lesser-known history, and the second drives my speculations about how our world would be changed if we had chosen differently. From those two streams my stories flow.

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Rise from Dirt - Kevin Killiany

1230 / 18 April 2022

Unless the Space Service decides to go against thirty years of safety protocols just for me, I’m going to spend the rest of my life living on dirt.

The last sentence of my journal’s final entry—written 22 November 2021.

It was hard to remember who I was then. And I had to remember how I’d been, what I’d believed was right, before I’d spent six months trapped on dirt, alone and surrounded by people who never dreamed of space. Because now I was on a United States Space Service base—surrounded by Space Service personnel and living under Space Service protocols. I was, in a sense, home. Which made it essential I shed the behaviors, the language, and the habits of thought I had fallen into among dirts. Remember that I am a spacer.

Operations Support was able to reconstruct most of your data, said the Office of Special Investigations agent seated across from me. We had them load all your personal files onto that noteputer.

I pulled my eyes from the words I thought I’d never see again to look at the OSI agent. As far as I knew, OSI Agent Sinclair had neither first name nor rank. His eyes were gray, and his brown hair was gray at the temples, but other than that his face was just average. Beyond his status as an earther, a member of the Space Service born and raised on Earth, nothing suggested he was anything remarkable at all. But four Space Service enlisted—crewmen first class in duty uniform—had escorted me down several empty halls and delivered me to him with a formality that suggested he was in charge.

We were sitting opposite each other in the middle of a heavy wooden conference table surrounded by wooden chairs padded with what I hoped was not leather in a room as forgettably nondescript as everything else I’d seen in the past ten days.

I’d traveled twice in windowless aircraft—planes, not suborbital ballistic hoppers—since OSI Agent Voigt had taken me into custody. The second flight lasted two hours and sixteen minutes, according to a bulkhead-mounted chronometer. That aircraft had generated an unsettling drone, a vibration that burrowed into my bones. The earther petty officer in charge of the crewmen escorting me had said the drone was caused by props, but didn’t explain the term. No one had told me where we were going, and the few areas of the base I’d been allowed to see so far lacked even basic signage—certainly nothing that indicated the base’s name or location.

Thank you, I said after what I realized had been several seconds of silence.

That unit is one of ours, recycled, Agent Sinclair said. Your issued equipment could not be salvaged.

Of course not. In my rage and grief, I’d done my best to destroy it—slamming it against brick walls and smashing it against concrete floors again and again until I thought there was nothing left. But Operations Support—responsible for Space Service education, communication, and intelligence—was apparently capable of resurrecting files from dead computers.

Agent Sinclair smiled thinly, his first expression since he’d appeared in my featureless world.

That’s a field model—the shell and internal protections make it heavier than you’re used to—though perhaps not as heavy as the old Dahlquest your aunt gave you. His smile was fractionally broader. I noted that he referenced the increased weight rather than inertial mass. Plus, everything you input is automatically backed up on the nearest OSI server. No need for backup discs.

I didn’t quite smile back. Making those stupid video-disc backups had docked me here.

I had been irrational. I’d confessed that to the two OSI agents who had interviewed me in Washington, and I admitted it freely to the two OSI agents who had interviewed me wherever my first aircraft ride had taken me. I’d been afraid; more than afraid. Having been sent down to dirt alone, I had been terrified of losing everything if my station computer failed so far from civilization. I knew I was being foolish. I had not even alluded to my childish fear in my journal because I knew how it would make me look.

My station computer couldn’t interface with its primitive dirt counterparts, making proper backup files impossible, so I’d improvised. I aimed a dirt video recorder at my noteputer’s screen and shot videos of every music file, every home video, every book—everything I thought I might want to remember from my old life. It was tedious and stupid and pointless. I knew that. But phobias cannot be reasoned with. Later, when I learned I would never return to space, I’d smashed my computer and everything else that reminded me of what I’d lost.

Except I’d forgotten about my backups. And ten days ago I’d been reminded of something else I hadn’t quite understood from my briefings before leaving Tombaugh last September: Making unauthorized copies, particularly on a medium accessible to anyone outside the Service, violated very serious regulations.

It is good to know that every word I type here will be properly backed up on centralized computers.

Let’s walk.

I rose when Sinclair did, and we paralleled each other along the table to the door. He gestured for me to precede him, so I stepped through expecting to find my waiting escort but found the hall empty. With another gesture he indicated the direction opposite from where I’d come.

The hall was wide enough for the two of us to walk side by side a comfortable distance apart. He was of course broader and denser than me in every dimension, and about 180 centimeters tall, nine shorter than me. In dirtspeak, he was five-eleven, and I was fractionally over six-two.

I distracted myself by wondering whether fluency in arcane measurements like feet and pounds and Fahrenheit would be useful serving in the Space Service on dirt, or mental pollution I’d have to unlearn. I shied away from the recurring fear that my rash actions might have cost me the right to serve in the Space Service at all.

Your journal was fascinating, Sinclair broke into my thoughts. Impressive, in fact. As a first draft it’s remarkably cohesive, if informal, but, more importantly, it’s unflinchingly candid and—if I may say—in places courageous.

I nodded, letting him know I’d heard and understood his oblique reference to my attack, but did not invite further discussion.

What particularly interested me, he said after a few moments, was the way your opinion of we dirts evolved.

You’re an earther, not a dirt, I corrected

Inner ear problem. He tapped the side of his head. I’m not leaving the planet.

But in all other respects you qualify for the Space Service, I said. That makes you a spacer born on Earth.

True. But just like you, I’m grounded by a medical condition. Sinclair shrugged slightly. It’s better we think of ourselves as dirts. Saves disappointment.

I did not speak, considering that perspective.

Agent Sinclair left me to my thoughts, silently guiding me through two turns and a double door that opened into what appeared to be a reception area—as empty as the hall had been—with two broad windows and glass doors that led to an area I had not seen before.

I could see an open body of water—a pond—and a relatively unstructured arrangement of trees and other plants through which paths of fitted stones wandered, and tables similar to those in Pembroke’s open-air eating area. In the near distance, a dense wall of trees—tapering cones I tentatively identified as conifers, another bit of dirt-specific knowledge that might be useless. Beyond them was nothing but blue, sunny sky devoid of water vapor. My hat had been left in DC, and I was still uncomfortable with direct sunlight and open skies, but I did not think Agent Sinclair would find that relevant. When the OSI agent held the door open, I stepped through. He chose a path seemingly at random and set a leisurely pace that accommodated our differing strides. He seemed content to simply stroll while I looked around.

This place seemed slightly warmer than DC, and the air was definitely drier. While being escorted to my quarters on the evening I’d arrived, I’d noted the sun setting behind a long row of gray-green landforms I was reasonably sure were tree-covered mountains, which meant they lay west of the base. The sun was at thirty by seventy degrees relative to our course which—given that it was not quite 1100 hours, and given that the sun rose in the east—meant we were walking east-northeast.

Agent Sinclair stopped when I did and watched me turn slowly to my left. Empty horizon above trees until I reached three hundred degrees relative—west-northwest. Then buildings. With the exception of a single tower, they seemed built low to the ground—though their lower portions were hidden by vegetation—and everything painted in muted tones that blended with the terrain around us. Beyond the tower was the long row of gray-green mountains.

Navigation? he asked.

Not having points of reference is unsettling, I confirmed. Whenever I am in the open environment, I try to establish landmarks and determine bearings relative to the magnetic field.

Landmarks, Sinclair echoed. You have been acclimating to Earth.


Earth. Earthers on Tombaugh routinely used dirt in casual conversation. The official, Space Service designation was the Latin Terra and, though it’s seldom used in conversation, that’s what I’d expected dirtside Space Service personnel to use. But if Earth was preferred, I’d grown accustomed to using it at Pembroke.

Agent Sinclair resumed our aimless stroll. Do you know why Commander Tenafly required you to keep a journal? he asked after a few dozen steps. By now you realize your account would not have matched the public narrative.

That did confuse me, I admitted. Since the commander was raised on Earth, she knew what I would encounter. Perhaps not precisely, because I’m not sure where she grew up.

Modesto. Agent Sinclair pointed toward the southwest. Roughly two hundred and fifty kilometers in that direction.

I looked, but of course only saw the mountains.

The theory that seems to make the most sense to me, I said, has to do with her role as an educator, specifically training potential Space Service officers.

In what way?

I’m not sure. But the only other plausible option was a test of my character, and that seemed excessively egocentric.

Agent Sinclair chuckled. I confess what I found most intriguing was that friend of your cousin’s, Jael Alden. He pronounced Jael’s name jah-el, the way it is spelled, not in the distorted fashion her family preferred. What did you make of her?

I wrote about Jael in my journal, I said, echoing Agent Sinclair’s pronunciation. She was a remarkable person, more so than anyone else I met, and she was completely unlike anyone of her race whom I met or heard of.

Agent Sinclair let me walk a few steps while I gathered my thoughts.

My field is engineering, not genetics, I said, but I think she represents a significant aberration. I’d be interested in how rare she is. Based on my limited observations, she is unique.

But there were other black students at Pembroke.

None with her dynamism, I said. Her determination and focus were as exceptional as her intelligence.

There are outliers in every population, Sinclair said. Individuals who fall so far outside the norm as to be statistically meaningless.

Outlier, I echoed. Yes, I imagine Jael is a statistically insignificant outlier.

We had circled the pond and were heading back toward the building when Sinclair spoke again.

I think you were right about Commander Tenafly’s purpose in having you keep a journal. As a dirt in the Space Service, I can see your observations providing raw material for a series of modules educating spacers on how to interact with dirts.

Such training would have made my early days less stressful, I said.

I’m glad you see that, too. Sinclair smiled again. I want you to continue your journal. Everything you observe about earthbound Space Service personnel. Or anyone else you encounter during your stay. You could also recount interesting observations and experiences from your time living alone on Earth. I think anything you write about life here on dirt could potentially be very useful.

An earther crewman waiting just inside the glass doors escorted me back to my quarters. The new computer Agent Sinclair had given me was already set up and running, so I sat down to begin this entry.

My every keystroke on this refurbished noteputer is being preserved elsewhere on an Office of Special Investigations computer for later study. I have no doubt Commander Tenafly will incorporate anything useful I write into Operations Support instructional modules. Knowing that everything I write could conceivably be used to train future Space Service officers adds an extra layer of responsibility to the task of writing this journal. I’m also a little self-conscious about my grammar and spelling, which does not encourage spontaneity or speculation. Perhaps that will fade with time.

But spontaneity and speculation are not vital to this journal. It’s most important that I be honest and thorough. Also, writing as I am for Commander Tenafly and a potential audience of Space Service cadets, I have to take particular care in what I say and how I say it.

Because more than anything else I want the Space Service to rise to its full potential—and I have a duty to do all I can to make that happen.

2100 / 20 April 22

I will not die on dirt.

The officers who witnessed my collapse during the inquiry on 13 April determined my terror was a rational extension of the conviction I was being condemned to a fate similar to Mara’s—specifically, a lifetime of exile ending in a lonely death. This prompted Captain Ottaway to provide me an abbreviated but compelling overview of refined vaccines and updated medical safety protocols. Reconsidering in light of this new data, I concurred with his assertion that there was no danger of quarantine and was able to resume breathing. In retrospect it was an impressive demonstration of emergency education.

On the assumption my terror represented a probable norm, Captain Pedersen ordered the rest of the special task communication cadre to complete a training module on the medical and procedural advances that ensured future safety. Though it was not explicitly stated, it was implied that the module’s purpose was to update the cadre on the Space Service’s efforts on Mara’s behalf.

Given this manipulation of our assumptions, I now believe that the reason given in October for our intensified physical training—that Mara’s regimen had led to unexpected health benefits—was a similar misdirection. Tombaugh Station’s Space Service Junior Officer Training has been preparing cadets for duty under Earth-standard gravity since sometime before 11 October 2021. Reconsidering the SS-JOT curriculum for the past nine months in light of what I have learned in the last seven days, I have formed a working hypothesis: Mara’s excursion to dirt was sanctioned as preliminary research into the practical considerations for an SS-JOT mission to dirt’s surface. Probability approaches one that she and her parents were unwittingly manipulated into sacrificing Mara in this manner.

I find this disturbing.

At 1600 today, Commander Tenafly opened the afternoon cadre with a question: How did I become an earther?

You passed the Space Service Qualifying Exam and successfully completed the assessment and training process, Gustav answered promptly. Then he frowned. Several other cadets appeared uncertain.

Very good. Commander Tenafly nodded. You answered the surface question, then realized there was a deeper question you did not know how to answer.

Two questions, Emma said. How you came to take the SSQE, and the nature of the assessment and training process.

Point taken, Commander Tenafly acknowledged. For now we’ll focus on the first question. As baseline, you each know the process through which you chose to become Space Service officers and earned your place in JOT, but do you know why and how early that process began?

Age twelve, Candy said with certainty. Our first formal personality evaluation. After that, our training became more focused on our divergent aptitudes as individuals.

I was peripherally aware several cadets nodded, but did not break my focus on the commander to identify them.

You are eight years too late on both counts, Commander Tenafly said. You were all coded for special attention during your initial citizenship evaluation.

That is a misnomer, I stated flatly. Qualifying for resident status does not confer any form of citizenship.

There were four seconds of silence while the commander regarded me with an evaluative expression.

Fatima, correcting a superior for employing a colloquialism you have heard, and used, your entire life is significant, she said. Any thoughts on what it indicates?

I considered.

I am upset, I reported. I am experiencing an emotion in the anger, frustration, and resentment spectrum. I do not believe I am at liberty to discuss probable causes.

I agree on both counts. Take no further part in this discussion until you have processed your feelings and are certain of your self-control.

Yes, I concurred.

My point, Commander Tenafly said to the other cadets, "is that your development and choices have been monitored and analyzed your entire lives. You’ve been presented with options and opportunities unavailable to young people who scored differently. None of you was forced to become a JOT cadet. You all self-selected to be trained as officers. But your experiences shaped your decision.

Do you believe there’s a similar process on Earth?

There are billions of people there, Nathan said. Even if you only consider whatever fraction of that resides in the civilized areas. Any comprehensive evaluation process for that many people would be impossible to administer.

Difficult, yes, Marc countered, but not impossible.

Bear in mind that Earth does not have a central authority responsible for the equitable administration and operation of the entire planet, Commander Tenafly said. With the opportunities of an entire planet potentially available to earthers, it is difficult for us to motivate young people to put forth the years of effort necessary to qualify for the Service, especially since the price of acceptance is giving up everything they value or regard as normal.

But— Ramona began, then appeared to realize why her objection was invalid. They don’t know what’s up here.

What? Andrew asked.

In the early days of space exploration, Commander Tenafly explained, the Space Service looked for candidates who demonstrated individualism, imagination, and willingness to take risks. The result, predictable in hindsight, had been several costly and fatal errors. To improve everyone’s chances of survival, the Service methodically stripped space of the romance and excitement that attracted unstable dreamers. For six decades they have disseminated little more than dry data on where we’ve gone and what we’ve done. She nodded acknowledgment to Ramona. From Earth’s perspective, the people who go into space simply disappear.

A transcript of the next several exchanges is not necessary.

Because I had been briefed 13 April, I knew the commander’s purpose, and observed how Commander Tenafly guided the conversation by maneuvering cadre members into asking questions, thus creating the illusion the cadets were taking the initiative. Some reacted visibly when Commander Tenafly referenced the resultant personnel shortage as a matter of course. While this shortage was the subject of many rumors and speculations, the Space Service had never officially acknowledged it. She was thus able to mask her briefing on how the Space Service monitored and controlled all data to and from Earth—including private communication between contractors and their families—to dissuade interest on either side, and she presented the haphazard nature of Earthside recruiting methodology as the response to the cadets’ inquiry.

So, once identified by standardized evaluations, Candy summarized thirty-four minutes of questions and answers, "potential candidates are offered training that will prepare them for the Space Service, but they usually disqualify themselves before they turn eighteen?"

Why do almost all of the ones viable at sixteen disqualify themselves in the last two years? Gustav asked.

Because limited legal agency at age sixteen creates opportunities for bad choices, Commander Tenafly clarified. And most of the qualified candidates never consider the Space Service.

This would not be a problem if training was made mandatory at sixteen, Candy said.

"But ours isn’t mandatory," Andrew pointed out.

But maybe theirs should be, Marc said. You can’t ask them to commit to space if they don’t understand all the options—and there’s no way to make them want to learn on their own.

Actually, there might be, Commander Tenafly said. And it relates to the greater autonomy given American children when they turn sixteen.

And from that point she again maneuvered the cadre through a thirty-minute exploration of options until they concluded that something similar to the Edwards Base program—of which they had not yet heard—offered the greatest probability of success.

To what degree have my own life choices been similarly manipulated?

Cadre session is over, Commander Tenafly said at 1800, but based on the maturity with which you addressed this issue, I have decided to introduce a topic that was originally scheduled for next week. There will be no discussion until tomorrow’s cadre—at which I expect to hear your own thoughts, suggestions, and objections. While a prohibition against informal conversation amongst yourselves would present an unfair burden, you cannot mention this topic in the presence of anyone not in this cadre. Do you understand and commit to comply?

We each in turn repeated the commander’s instructions and stated we would comply. I was aware of Candy watching me intently as I spoke.

Then, in four sentences, Commander Tenafly laid out the premise behind the Edwards Base project—now designated Boot Camp, a name reflective of an Earth military tradition—and told us a proof-of-concept model for evaluating its viability was in development.

"That’s what had you bursting a valve with Tenafly, Candy said when we were in the school corridor, which was otherwise unoccupied after instructional hours. You knew about this."

Marc and Ramona asked How long have you known? and How did you find out? almost simultaneously.

Don’t violate security, Andrew added unnecessarily.

Realizing we would soon reach the end of the corridor and be among the general population, thus precluding further discussion, I stopped. The others also stopped.

The response of those cadets who refused to look at Mara’s initial message intrigued me, I summarized, mindful that some of my information was not for general dissemination. I began extensive research into anti-earther prejudice. My database searches and interviews with the cadets in question attracted the attention of Operations Support, which in turn led to my being debriefed in detail on 13 April.

They thought there was a leak, Marc said.

Yes. So, what happened? Dinah asked.

I am not at liberty to discuss specifics.

Which means you can discuss generalities, Candy said.

I considered.

It was determined that I did not represent a security leak, I said. It was further determined that I would be an asset to a program to directly train and evaluate potential earthers. I was informed I would be sent to dirt.

And? Candy prompted.

I collapsed in panic.

After a moment of general silence, Emma said, That must have been incredible.

On the contrary. I found it very unpleasant.

Shifts in position and looks exchanged indicated I had misunderstood Emma’s observation.

Obviously your reaction told them we needed a crash course on realistic dangers on dirt, Gustav said. So, are they sending all of us down?


Are they sending down any of us in addition to you? Marc asked.

I do not believe I am at liberty to speculate.

"But there’s no rule against us speculating," Ramona pointed out.

And Commander Tenafly specifically stated there’s no prohibition against informal discussion amongst ourselves, Nathan confirmed.

"So, if there was going to be a Boot Camp, Candy said, and if we were going to be a part of it—what should it look like, and how should it work?"

The conversation among the eleven of them continued until 1845, when maintenance personnel reminded us that students were not allowed in the school section unsupervised.

Thursday, April 21, 2022

At least we now know no one watches our house. No one who netlogs, anyway.

Even the most gossipy spacer watchers had not picked up on the fact Mara had been picked up. They all noticed she was gone, of course, but several netlogs were reporting as fact the explanation Jael and Lije gave to their fellow Pembrokians (mostly Melissa Montrose): in preparation for her as-yet-unspecified role as an earthbound spacer, Mara was receiving unspecified training at unspecified Space Service facilities for an unspecified period of time.

Mara, was a semi-public figure—as in there was nobody else Melissa Montrose’s space girl netlog could be referring to—but the rest of us minors were only identified with vague descriptions, because child-protection laws are something even creeps take seriously. Lije, being eighteen—and the son of someone a lot of people seriously disliked—was always mentioned by name, usually not nicely. Some of those hate sites (semi-illegally because she was a semi-public figure) published Mara’s name—usually as part of witty speculation on how she and Lije managed to kiss and do other stuff with him being over a foot shorter than she. Seriously. (Is everyone a twelve-year-old?)

Easter, i.e., the day after our opening shot against the Space Service, had been pretty subdued. Not that it’s normally a party-type holiday. Mara had been interested in a Mara-esque way. Turns out religion in space is—as far as Mara knows—private family stuff. She’s never heard of a church or temple or mosque on any station or colony—though there were common multipurpose facilities and group could reserve. She’d added inquiry into structured worship organizations to her list of 400+ things about Earth she was studying simultaneously.

Mom says Mara learning everything she could in no particular order must create a terribly confusing and constantly changing worldview. Dad said Mara did learn things in particular order—she was too methodical not to—but it was her order, which she had no obligation to explain to us. Plus, he added, the world is constantly changing and terribly confusing to all of us no matter how we viewed it. I gave points to Dad on that one.

No one knows what Mara’s world looks like now.

Anyway, today was the first day of what may become a new Alden/Duval family tradition. Fed up with the pretentious Rock Creek Athletic Club, Jael had taken me up on my suggestion she do all her getting-in-shape-for-space training at the Y. Which led to me having to admit that, despite any impression I may have given (without making like any actual claims), I hadn’t been going to the Y. So on a bright and sunny midmorning halfway through spring break, we went together to sign up.

The ambidextrous Y, both M and W, was another post-Reconstruction building built to look 200 years old while taking up half a block that hadn’t existed thirty years ago. Very stately. A freestanding sign just inside the front door explained that the broad staircase to our right lead to studios for dance, yoga, aerobic, whatever classes on the second floor and the business/administration office, counseling services, support groups, and general purpose rooms on the third. It further advised anyone interested in any of those things to peruse the wall-mounted rack overflowing with brochures and photocopies of brochures.

A laminated, handwritten sign taped to the official sign’s frame instructed all visitors and prospective members to report to the gym manager’s office, which was to our left.

The gym manager was a friendly, semi-hunky lady (as in if she’d been a guy she’d have been a hunk) with a long, thick braid of black hair named Soledad Ramirez (the lady, not her braid). She invited us to sit while she carefully read the required documentation Jael and I presented: notes from respective physicians and parents stating we were fit enough to exercise and had permission to join the Young Women’s Christian Association. The reading took a few minutes because she’d stop to chat whenever anyone with a question stuck their head in her open door, but neither of us minded.

Miss Ramirez gave us what she called the ten-cent tour so we could look the place over before signing anything. In the half-basement (as in half-underground, with windows for watching pedestrian ankles) were the separate locker/shower rooms (with adjacent segregated exercise facilities for young Christian men and women who did not want to associate with the other gender). The second and third floors had, as advertised, offices, studios, and general-purpose rooms of various sizes.

The first floor was a cavernous gym—like maybe a hundred feet on a side and a twenty-foot ceiling—with weights, machines, mats, gymnastic bars and beams, and more machines. Way in the back corner were punching bags (two of the uvula kind and two of the duffel-bag kind) and a real boxing ring, complete with bell, just like in the movies.

Aside from the boxing ring, the Y defied every movie cliché by being clean, brightly lit, furnished with well-maintained equipment, and populated by friendly people who did not look at all like gang members. Not only that, there were no abandoned hallways, sealed-off floors, rooms people were afraid to enter, or questionably dark places for romantic trysts, violent assaults, vengeful ghosts, or mysterious portals to other dimensions. I found that reassuring.

After our tour, we signed contracts promising to only come when we were sober, obey the rules, respect other members, and not be stupid with equipment. Then each of us paid for a year’s membership. (Which, I pointedly did not point out to Jael, cost less than a month at the RCAC.)

What about classes? Jael asked, not even glancing at the rack crammed with random brochures. I want to work on my balance and flexibility. Stamina and strength as well.

Me, too, I said.

What have you been doing? Miss Ramirez asked.

It’s been almost a year since PT in school, Jael said. I was taking yoga and judo at Rock Creek, but it wasn’t a good fit.

Heard of them. Mostly federal office workers, right?

Like our dads, Jael confirmed.

And my mom’s with the Department of Ed, I added.

"Can you tell her to do something about those cheap lunches they feed mi niñita?" Miss Ramirez asked.


I joke.

Miss Ramirez— Jael began.

Soledad, she interrupted. "Forget the name tag. Only small children, sales clerks, and payasos I need to keep in line call me ‘Miss Ramirez.’"

"Payasos?" I asked.

"Harioli," Jael said helpfully.

Clowns, Soledad translated. Sometimes you’ll hear old timers call me Mrs. Conway. But last year I shed two hundred useless pounds and went back to my maiden name. What about you?

Oh. It took me a second to realize she wasn’t asking me about my divorce. PT at Franklin—a year ago.

Miss Everett still teaching judo?

I nodded.

She got me into it a few—thirteen—years ago.

You teach judo here? Jael asked.

Women’s self-defense Monday and Wednesday nights, Soledad answered. Weekday afternoons I keep an eye on everything, and on Saturdays I’m a personal trainer—body building, appointment only. Which explained her being built like a hunk. I can help you with your strength—and get you started on your own stamina routine—but for balance and flexibility, Contrology is what you’re looking for.


A mix of physical therapy and gymnastic exercises put together by a German named Pilates, Soledad explained. If you’ve got Wednesday nights free, Emerson runs the best beginners group.

Jael looked at me. I knew she had Wednesday meetings with her secret lawyer. She’d change that schedule if she had to, but I didn’t have anything to change.

All we have are Tuesdays and Thursdays, I said.

Emerson’s intermediate class meets on Tuesdays, Soledad said. You can come by then, four-ish, and show her your yoga. She might have a space for you.

I nodded, not mentioning my yoga-less-ness, and said, Tuesdays for Contrology, Thursdays for strength, and stamina both days. I glanced at Jael who nodded agreement. Four-ish works best until school’s out.

What can we start with now? Jael asked.

Soledad looked at me in my sweats, then back at Jael in hers. Now? Free weights.

Don’t you coach on the machines, too? Jael asked as we made our way toward the second weight area—the one in the back near the boxing ring. I thought machines were supposed to be more efficient.

Yes and no, Soledad said. They’re good for proper form, but with weights, you choose how much you’re going to challenge yourself, mount your weights on the bar, and then lift. It’s more visceral, more real. Mentally and emotionally, weights push you to do more.

Jael said nothing, but I knew she didn’t think much of self-motivation rituals.

Then I saw Monica’s Marlon. He was one of a small pack of jock types—broad shoulders, thickish necks, thicker biceps, and short, boxy haircuts—that had taken over the weights area. When we got

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