Bunny walked carelessly beside Kansas, letting the older boy lead her to wherever they were going as she enjoyed the sights of the ship. Honestly, there wasn't much to draw her attention, the hallway uniform but for its branches, with either connecting halls or doors periodically spaced along its circular length. What she watched instead was the trail of lights that seemed to travel the hall endlessly above their heads, curving with the slight curve of the ceiling, each a distinct color of the rainbow. These lines of light were together for a while, but branched off down hallways and disappeared, or were replaced by a different color; the path they took was lit by red, burnt orange, and light orange strands that raced along beside the white luminescent bulbs behind screens.
"What do they mean?" she asked at one point as the yellow beam arched down a hallway to their left, leaving the array of reds and oranges that travelled with them. As they passed the adjoining hall, she spied a short entrance hall to a group of classroom doors, each standing open and filled with students.
"Well," Kansas started, glancing up at the ceiling, "each represents a different class group here at the Niven. See the red? That's my group's color – Red for senior pilot trainees. The dark orange is for the junior pilot trainees, and the light orange is for those who have just begun their pilot training. Yellow were for pilot hopefuls – did you see how it was blinking? That means that their class session is about to begin. Really, once your color starts blinking, you can pretty much guarantee you'll be late." He laughed, and turned around. She glanced behind them, too, to see a girl running as fast as she could up the hallway, glancing up once before turning sharply to follow the yellow light.
"What happens when you're late?" she asked curiously.
"It's up to the instructor; I know the few times I was late I had to stay behind to clean the room afterwards. One time I had to stand for the duration of class – the whole hour and a half – and another time I had last pick and last rotation of the simulators," he grimaced, "You learn to be on time."
She giggled, "When I'm late they have me clean, too! … or stand in the corner with a bucket on my head."
"A bucket?" he repeated with a chuckle.
"Yeah, I don't know why, either." He laughed, and she laughed along with him. "So," she asked as they continued, "Are we going to your class?" Her heart fluttered nervously at the possibility, glancing up at the red light line above their heads.
"No way! I wouldn't put you through that!" Kansas assured, "We don't have anything scheduled tonight – it's free roam. See, the lights will always lead to your classroom, if you have a class to go to at the time. We don't have a class scheduled, so instead it's leading any Red student to places we could further our studies or hone our skills unsupervised."
Her hopes for the night started sinking, "Like a library?"
He glanced at her sidelong, "Oh… if you wanted to go to the library we could go there…" he offered hesitantly, his reticence towards the idea heartening.
"Nope! Libraries and I don't get along well." she assured cheerfully. "So, where are we heading?" The orange light overhead branched off one way, while the red and burnt orange continued on, but not for much farther. Up ahead both ended, turning sharply to a door to their left. They stopped outside the door and Kansas punched in a number into a silver keypad. The door swooshed open, and Bunny's jaw dropped as they walked through. It was a videogame arcade, or something very much like it, with banks of lever-and-knob games and simulation rooms with high scores posted outside the door, giant tables set up with fully three-dimensional holographic strategy games and hand-eye-coordination enhancers.
"Oh! I completely forgot to ask!" Kansas exclaimed, glancing over at her with some concern, "Do you like video games? 'Cause if you don't there's a cool lounge area not too far from—"
"Where do we start?" she replied as if not hearing him, marveling at the array as her feet took her to a brightly colored holographic display that read 'START'. Without hesitation she reached out and touched the air as if pressing a button, and the game began. Lights, sounds, colors – this game had everything! It was like a three-dimensional version of whack-a-mole, relying on both rows, columns, and depth, except you didn't chase and hit moles, but colors of the rainbow that corresponded to your current ability level. Kansas stood by, cheering her on as one hand, and then both, activated specific light sequences. The game got harder once it figured out she was using two hands – it had dual lights come on in various places and she had to divide her attention to hit just the right ones, and then the whole area was alive with a mess of color and she had to chase only the rotating squares. The rows grew taller and she glanced over at Kansas, "Can I jump on this?"
He laughed, "Yeah, sure you can!" he cupped his hands in front of him and bent down for her, allowing her to use him as a step stool. She kicked off her shoes and used him to bounce up on top of the display, the light surrounding her now, and she punched and kicked at the now three rotating rectangles as they appeared and disappeared amongst the mess of lights, glad that her dress was free flowing from its empire waistline. Before long things had become too hectic – she couldn't catch it anymore, it just seemed to be spinning her in circles. Laughing loudly at the impossibility of the task, she spun one final time, slipped, and fell off of the stand. Luckily for her, she somehow managed to land on her feet, but the few backward steps it took to steady herself had her collide with someone.
Hands took her shoulders gently to ground her and, still laughing at the display of lights that spelled out her score, she turned to see who it was that caught her. She tried to ignore the small feeling of embarrassment welling up in her gut, the trepidation at the thought that what she just did was certainly not considered Princess-like, and readied an apology in case it was one of the school's teachers. But it wasn't; instead it was the tall and calm-eyed Tetsuya who she had accidently ran into, and she stepped back and hurriedly offered a small bow for the inconvenience. "Sorry! Please excuse me!" she pleaded gustily.
He smiled, "No excuse necessary. You did rather well up there." His blue eyes were kind, tinted with amusement – probably at her expense, but she really didn't mind that anymore.
"You alright, Bunny?" Kansas asked, coming around the side of the machine.
"Oh yeah, yeah!" she said, waving her hands as if trying to brush his concerns away. "What next?"
She jumped from machine to machine, mashing buttons and figuring out combos in character-based fighting games; nearly two hours went by in a flash. But just as her character finished punching and kicking his way to victory in a classing fighting game – 'speed coordination training game' – Kansas gasped appreciatively. She smiled and put her hands on her hips happily as her character danced, but a glance towards him deflated her in a second – he hadn't gasped at her, but instead at the giant holographic game board near the back-center of the room that had been lit up since they first arrived. She peered around him to look at it, glancing at a rotating scale at the top of the display that was tipped almost completely in one direction, and asked, "What is it?"
"Looks like someone's about to win," Kansas replied enthusiastically.
"Win what?" she asked, following him as he approached the giant display. One of Kiernan's friends – Faxon? – was playing on the side nearest to them, but with the display so huge and vibrant she couldn't tell whom he was playing against. There were several layers to the game; first, a rotating globe near the scale that was shaded different colors, then a series of views of what looked like outposts with little men running around and hiding or shooting at other little men. Faxon's gaze went from screen to screen, his fingers flying through a complicated-looking command board as he made anxious little noises every now and again. She tried to follow along with the action, but if she had to bet money on things, Faxon was losing. She understood that he was the blue side… and there weren't very many blue people on the screens. Or blue flags. "Is it capture the flag?" she guessed, watching as Faxon tried an attempt at winning back a fort that recently turned red.
"Something like that," Kansas replied.
"Hmm…" she considered, then looked over at him, "How hard is it to play?"
"Uh…" he considered, still engrossed in the battle, "I guess it depends on your background. The controls can be daunting to a newbie; my first game lasted only minutes, and that was against a computer. I was absolutely slaughtered!" he laughed, "but if you wanted to give it a go I could try teaching you."
She considered, "How long does a game usually last?" The blue forts were being taken over at an alarming rate now, with little blue people dwindling. The scales up above were tipped completely in the red's favor.
"It depends on who's playing, honestly, and what the goal is. Games can last from minutes to hours – these guys have been playing longer than we've been in here, if that gives you any idea." He chuckled, then pumped his fist in the air, cheering on the victor as the hologram switched views to show the last battle, blown up to huge proportions.
Bunny watched, a little in awe of how long the game had taken, as Faxon took up a smaller hand-held controller as his last blue guy fought for his life. It became like a fighting game then, one-on-one, and the amount of acrobatics and martial arts skills the little people did was dizzying; while part of her rooted for Faxon's little guy, being the last of his people and the underdog and all, she couldn't help but admire the red guy's moves. He was everywhere! He finally won, knocking the blue guy to the ground and pinning him there, the weapon trained on him, and Faxon put his controller down, signifying defeat.
She clapped with Kansas for the victor as red fireworks took over the display, the world melting away as a name was outlined in the sparkling simulated light: KIERNAN. Her hands slowed, eyebrows knitting together as she realized whom she was cheering for, but then quickly sped up again at double the pace of before. Kiernan had won, after a battle lasting more than two hours, and he had won with a good number of units left, having taken over all bases and finding some sort of "relic" item – or so the score board said. He did a really good job! And, maybe, cheering for him would somehow count towards an apology for earlier.
The screen faded completely, revealing his tall form standing at the controls opposite, one fist pumped in the air triumphantly, and she cheered louder for him, even when his blue eyes stared at her in shock. He glanced from them to Faxon and Tetsuya, then back to her, and she stopped clapping to smile at him nonthreateningly, but apparently she had done something wrong in any case. He went around the table opposite their side and went straight through the doors leading out.
She sighed gustily, her bangs flaring with the sudden breeze, and turned to Kansas, "Thanks for the games, Kansas, but I'd better go."
"Oh," he replied with some confusion, "Would you like me to walk you back to—"
She smiled, interrupting him as she started towards the door, "That's okay! It's just one giant circle, right? I'll find my way back. I'll see you tomorrow at breakfast!" The doors opened at her approach, "Thanks again!" she waved as they shut after her, cutting the game center away. She paused to take another deep breath, glancing in either direction to find out which way Kiernan had gone, and caught sight of him heading right, away from the red lights on the ceiling.
She started after him quietly, thinking he would probably dash off if he knew she was following him. As she walked, barefoot on tip toe, she grimaced at the occasional sound of her dress against the carpeted floor, at once realizing that she had left her shoes by the first machine and wondering if the soft click of high heels on carpet would be quieter or louder than the sound of her dress. In any case, she wasn't going back for them – there was no doubt that if she went back to grab them, Kiernan would disappear completely into the ship and she'd never find him. Up ahead he turned down a hall and she froze, wondering if he spied her out of the corner of his eye, but as he didn't double back and yell at her, she figured he was still unaware, if out of sight. Hiking up her voluminous skirts in both hands, she dashed forward quietly to the aisle and put her back to the wall, peering over the corner to see where he went. He was turning another corner; as soon as he had, she rushed forward yet again to peer around that way and found him punching an ID code into the panel beside a red-lined door.
She knew what she had to do.
She pulled her skirts closer and higher, so that the bottom brushed against her knees, pulled her hair forward over one shoulder, and quietly caught her breath, the number panel beeping in monotone with each of the digit inputs. As she heard the door swoosh open, she tensed, readying herself to dash in as soon as he stepped through, and only then considered the possibility that she could be running into his bedroom or the men's bathroom or another equally embarrassing place for a girl. But he was stepping through, so there was no time to really think about it – she sprang forward after him, her legs pushing her forward unsteadily. The first step was wobbly, the second awkward, the third had one foot caught behind her other leg and suddenly she was falling. "Eeeh!" she squeaked meekly as her balance fully gave way and she was rushing face-first into the room past the door.
She dropped her skirts in an attempt to use her arms to break her fall, but the fingers of her right hand caught her hair and pulled, trapping them in her long pigtails, and she fell unevenly. She squeezed her eyes shut and turned her face away, bracing for impact, but suddenly her outstretched left hand and her entangled right hand were caught and held firmly, stopping her forward fall. While her knees buckled and fell hard on the ground, jarring her, she opened her eyes and followed the hands holding hers up his grey and red uniform to his face. He looked shocked and concerned, his blue eyes wide and anxious staring down at her, and looking at them she knew she had been right. This was the real Kiernan, a person who reached out to help when he could have easily and blamelessly let her fall, not at all like that guy who yelled at her and made her angry. As his expression started to change, an eyebrow quirking and the concern disappearing from his eyes, she smiled up at him through her embarrassment.
He pulled her up to her feet and the door finally closed behind them, but he didn't let go of her hands immediately. His tone incredulous and deadpan, he asked "Did you really just follow me all the way from the game room?"
"Uh," she breathed, not quite knowing what to say,"…yeah, but - "
"… and then tripped over your own feet trying to race through the door?" his eyes flickered from hers to the door behind her, and all she could do was nod feebly.
He stared at her and she stared back at him, wondering if he would become angry or irritated again, but then she spied the sides of his mouth twitching as if he was holding back a smile. She broke away from him and crossed her arms, looking off to the side and tapping her foot in imitated frustration. "Yeah, yeah, go ahead and laugh," she growled, giving him her leave to laugh freely at her clumsiness; she'd seen it before – people wanting to laugh but feeling unable to because of who she was – and it was always better and friendlier after they laughed about her inelegance. … but looking away from him let her see the rest of the room, and in her awe she dropped her arms and took a few steps forward, looking out into space.
The entire flat wall was a window, giving her views of nothing but the stars above them. Her mouth fell open at the sheer dark black, then closed quickly as she shuddered, recalling the sensation of emptiness and loneliness from the previous day. There was no sun in the image anywhere, nor were there asteroids, or brighter stars of planets; but then, as she thought about the layout of the Niven and what she had seen from when she was out there the day before, she realized that the window she was looking through actually peered up, out of the plane of the solar system, and she got the uncomfortable, undeniable sensation of being off balance, as though she would fall again. She was standing on the wall looking up through the ceiling – she reached down and found the arm of a plush couch and quickly sunk into it, tearing her eyes away from the confusing scene and focusing only on the room to reorient herself.
It was a lounge, not too big, but not small, either; set up with red leather couches and armchairs in an array that encouraged conversation. One wall was the huge window; the opposite held pictures of previous pilot crews and a large display for what could be television. One connecting wall held a large picture of Earth suspended in space, the other had the door. Kiernan near to where he was, but now closer to the window, as if he had been looking out with her, but now those blue eyes were on her again, his expression guarded, waiting for her to speak first.