They posted the course qualification scores on the big board in the dining hall, because that's how the University did it back on Skytouch, and the Casiquiare was, through and through, no matter how many klicks from home, a good Vessel of the University, and Sophie was, through and through, a good student.
She had been born on the Casiquiare while it was under way, to nominally professorial parents, the three Drs. Bell-Orozco, which maybe gave her a bit of an edge when it came to admissions. And sure, maybe a lot of her coursework was in ship-operations-adjacent topics, such as "Vsl 372b: Applied Independent Studies (Path Navigation)", which they couldn't teach back at the University's main campus, because it didn't fly. But she'd suffered through and triumphed over the School of Engineering core curriculum just like anyone else. Right up until they posted her exam scores, if you had asked her what her purpose in life was, she would have said: "to learn". Maybe "to be the best", if Miri was listening.
"To fight" hadn't entered her head. And yet there was, under her name and at the top of the list, the course name "Arm 101: Theory and Practice of Core-Powered Humanoid Systems" with an accompanying mark of 98%. Someone had written, in an unfamiliar hand, "See me. — B. A.-H."
She skimmed the scores of her classmates. Mostly zeroes? Seth, 28%… Lia, 32%… Miri, 19%… 19%!? Her lifelong academic rival and sometimes romantic it's-complicated simply didn't get scores that low. Ever. It didn't seem possible. She'd have to see if they were all right.
"Yes, it's possible," they said, looking up from their bowl of lentils and yogurt. "And you're looming. Don't loom, it's rude. Sit."
"Apparently theory doesn't count for much," Miri continued, "when it comes to Armours. I went downstairs and had a talk with Dr. Astra-Hammersmith as soon as I saw my score, of course. We may yet come to an agreement on the criteria for practical solutions to the Musa-Gleiss constraints. That whole question seemed rather subjective to me."
"I think I bombed that one," Sophie said. "Thought of a fourth class about five minutes after 'tablets down'."
"Oh, no, if you had the three others, you were probably mostly correct. The class-4 solutions are a red herring, because they only converge at densities so high that the small-window approximations for swarm behavior break down in favor of simple anyon mechanics."
"Oh, so you won't see that outside of a star."
"Precisely what she said, actually. But I was arguing that class-2 solutions would be impractical to realize as well, due to dynamic instability… Anyway. The thing is, the written part of the qualifying exam only counts for 20% of the total. Even if she comes around and sees sense on the Musa-Gleiss solutions, I might get re-marked as high as a lofty 21%," they said, pronouncing the the number with audible scorn. "But the majority of the score is the practical component, and, as much as it pains me to admit this to you, Sophie: I just… I just couldn't do it!"
Miri's eyes closed up tight.
"Miri, are you… are you crying? Oh hell. Is it okay if I hold you?"
They nodded through the sniffles.
Sophie went around the table, sat down next to Miri. She hugged them close, they melted into her shoulder as they had a few times before, and she stroked Miri's long hair, being careful of the ribbons and bows that they favored as accessories.
"What happened? I saw part of your practical exam out the window while I was waiting to take mine. You looked like you were moving just fine."
"I don't know! It wasn't a matter of endosymbiotic nano strains. Mine are fine for Piloting as far as anyone knows. But once I got hooked up and was supposed to be in control, it felt like, like, like, something was pushing me! And not like Path or ambient nano pushes back, that's just until you establish control, right…"
"Right." The stuff could surprise you, but ultimately, it was machinery, built by the ancients for human use, and you simply learned how to program it. She'd never believed the propaganda seeping out of Civis that it had a will of its own.
"This got worse the more control I had! I kept going around the test course until it felt like everything was spinning and wouldn't ever stop, so I hit the emergency signal button, just as they were going to shut me down anyway. So that was the practical for me."
They were always so together. This wasn't usual for Miri Bell-Cerulean, not at all.
"That's really rough, Miri. I'm so sorry, I had no idea — didn't feel like it was fighting me. She's not going to let you re-take the practical?"
"She didn't recommend it, and it was unpleasant enough that I wouldn't even want to, but that's not why I'm crying! I could have dealt with failure. You know, in theory! I'm good at lots of things!"
They sniffled again, still clinging to her.
"But you and I, we've always been each other's… foils? At least that. Well-matched. Any subject we were in together, I knew that you were the one to beat. You made me better. I hope I made you better. But you finally beat me for good. You beat me at something I can't do, and I wasn't expecting our paths to diverge so soon. That's why I'm crying."
"Hey. Miri, I'll still be here. We'll still be in most of the same classes, and that's if I do this. Don't read too much out of one qualifying exam. You know I'm not going anywhere, right?"
They didn't say anything for a moment. Stood up, smoothed their skirt down, took a deep breath.
"You will, though. I know you, Sophie. You've never settled for less than the best, you're the best on this ship at this, and you'll go talk to Dr. Astra-Hammersmith, because you're you, and you can't not. And then someday…"
With that, they picked up their tray and left.
The Casiquiare's Armour deck was a few stories down, not far from the machine shop and the swarm-condensate lab. It was lit dimly, mostly with movable worklights, and the part nearest the door was crammed with components with odd shapes and strange glowing colors.
"Dr. Astra-Hammersmith?" Sophie called into the gloom.
"Up here," a voice boomed from a huge shape further in. "Oh hell, hang on, just let me get the cockpit open."
There was a click and a hiss, and a more human voice called to her, "On the left. The one with the access stairs. Unplugging myself now."
She climbed the movable access stairs to find herself face to face with a compact, lean woman in a black pilot jumpsuit. "Doctor?"
"You the Bell-Orozco kid?"
"Sophie." She extended a hesitant hand.
"Yeah, all right. Just call me Bryn," the pilot said, and grasped Sophie's hand briefly before turning to fuss with some external controls on the Armour. "Don't stand on ceremony much here. I know, I know, Bells are always polite, but my climbline ain't got manners and I'm too old to learn. Or that's my excuse, anyway."
"You wanted to see me?"
"Yeah!" The pilot turned back to face her. "Here's the deal, kid, ship's full of dud third-years except for you. You pretty much aced the qualifier exam. That doesn't happen often. I want to convince you to sign up for Armour 101, and really the whole Armour track. Be tens of meters tall with titanium skin. Learn to be the indomitable sword and shield of the Ascent Nation. See the spiral from outside the Casiquiare for once."
"Yeah, about that. Doc— uh, Bryn." She wasn't planning to be down here long enough to get used to calling a professor by her first name. "My focus is esoteric materials, not war machines. I took the exam because I was curious, but I've got a graduation plan—"
"Very Bell of you, the planning. Not a bad thing!" She slaps the plating on the Armour. "This baby was a collaboration between a half-dozen climblines: Carpenter, Thornthorpe, Morian, Anza, my own Astra, and guess what, your Bell. Avionics, mostly, that last, and they're amazing compared to the junk I learned to Pilot with. Fiona did good work."
"Fiona… Wait, you don't mean Dr. Fiona Bell-Orozco?"
"Yeah! I actually first knew your mom when she was Fiona Bell-Lombardi, before she married Rika and Tommy, but yeah. You know they used to call her the Radar Witch? Ask her sometime."
Sophie shrugged. "Well, I can tell her you said hello, if you like. She and Tommy will probably insist on inviting you for dinner. It's a small ship, so you might not escape her. But she'll also be the one most disappointed if I don't graduate on time, so…"
She moved to leave. Bryn held up a hand.
"So here's the rest of my pitch: Armours, on top of being an unbelievable triumph of integration engineering, are chock full of esoteric materials, and powered by literally the most esoteric materials we know about: most esoterics are the swarm breaking the usual rules of matter, but Cores are something the swarm builds to break its own rules. We don't understand 'em yet, but someday we will, and personally, I think we're not getting there without a bunch of different perspectives."
Sophie opened her mouth, closed it again. Bryn was making some points. Or maybe laying out some bait. But it was, admittedly, appetizing.
She said, "So one of my moms built this thing's radars. Say, hypothetically, I was to say yes. What would I be doing?"
"By broader spiral standards, this beastie's already obsolete. So you'd be working on the next generation. Two bays down. Skytouch University's newest and best, slowly coming together, pure custom and glorious, and I would love to have newer Bell avionics expertise in it, maybe even newer Bell swarm songs to go with it. You know how it goes. 'Every generation…'"
"'…we rise higher.'" The oldest Ascender proverb there was. It was a transparent appeal to sentiment, but Bryn wasn't actually wrong.
She was looking for some kind of escape, now. The challenge of Armour, reframed for her this way, was almost painfully intriguing. But Bryn had to answer for a certain transgression. "You made my… you made Miri cry."
"Ah hell. The third-year who was down here before you? Ribbons? About this tall?" She gestured, hand below chin height.
"Sophie, I wish everyone who took the exams qualified. Hell, I could retire early. Miri knew the theory about as well as I could have hoped, but within the realm of the safe and ethical, there's just no way that someone like them could pilot. Or most people, for that matter. Doesn't mean they're not going to be a fine esoteric materials scientist, or that we wouldn't be lucky to include their expertise in the next generation."
There was one more thing between her and a 'yes' she hadn't imagined saying a day earlier, but it was a big one. "Would I have to fight?"
"There are plenty of non-combat applications to keep us busy, and we've got no reason to go looking for trouble. But, kid, if the Casiquiare ever comes under fire, fates forbid it, we'd all have to fight. You know that. We should use every advantage we can give ourselves, you know? Armours are one hell of an advantage."
"Dr. Astra-Hammersmith, I…" Can't just change my life to embrace this seductive new line of study. Can I?
"Look, Sophie, take some time, think it over. You've got a week to file a course schedule anyway. Then I'll see you down here, start of next week. Not too early, please." She winked.
Yellow alert. Might be bad. Might be nothing. But Sophie Bell-Orozco, student, Pilot, and crew of the Casiquiare, was in the cockpit, where duty met fear, and theory met practice.
"Bryn here. Additive Inverse, go for launch."
"Siara here. Vicious Cycle, go for launch."
Sophie took one more look around. She was finally beginning to feel what Bryn always told her, that Armour really was in the best of Ascender traditions.
She knew the radar array geometry, because it was based on a design of her mother's, and they'd gone over it dozens of times together for this new iteration. The mag rifle slung over her back was Bloc salvage, adapted and vastly improved by her father. The case for her other mother's just-fabbed prototype esographic imaging goggles was mounted to a convenient structural element, adorned with the handwritten admonishment, "if you break it, please bring the pieces back — xoxo Rika".
Miri, too, was with her. It'd still been hard on her, this change, hard on them too. They weren't exactly rivals any more. They didn't see each other as much. But the Armour had six of Miri's novel hypercapacitors down near the Core providing ample burst power for all the thirsty subsystems, and Sophie had the lingering memory of a soft kiss, days ago, for luck. "You never know," they'd said, "when you're going to need it."
"Sophie here. Thesis Statement," she said. "Go for launch."