Tomas Ek turns up the volume on his tablet, trying to drown out the dialogue of sounds coming from the crew quarters. The song is “Perihelion Sunset” by Ganymede’s Space Cowboys. The small speakers do the song little justice, despite being cranked up to maximum volume. Ek struggles to operate the device, its screen cracked at some point during the struggle. He switches from the music function to his UST interaction platform. His finger hovers over the icon for the home office; an Earth office tower with UST’s “beyond the stars” logo overlaid.
He touches the icon, and his tablet reaches out into the depths of space, connecting through moon-based receptors, orbital satellite dishes, and ship-based towers, to Earth.
“Welcome Executive 112. You are being connected to the UST home office. Please enter your credentials.”
Ek mutters his passcode: “Kikai.”
The screen transitions, and Ek sees the UST office from the perspective of his own desk, a small aluminum table surrounded by other aluminum tables in a large glass-ceilinged room. His coworkers, some present, some remote via tablet, clamor and shuffle about and argue and laugh and stress.
Ek guides his virtual self, actually a small drone bearing his name badge, off of the surface of his desk and flies it toward the corner offices where his managers reside. Ek’s drone hovers before the door. The managerial door scans the drone, identifies it, and then a managerial drone emerges from its compartment within the corner office door.
Ek’s drone hovers in anticipation.
“Yes, Ek,” the manager drone asks. “What is it now?”
“S-sir,” Ek stutters. “A s-status update. W-we were attacked by pirates, but we have escaped, and on back on the Aurelius’s preset course.”
“Good, Ek,” the drone says. “Was any damage done to the ship?”
“Not to the ship, sir,” Ek says. “Just to myself and the other two.”
“Fine, fine,” the drone replies.
“S-sir,” Ek continues. “This project is turning out to be more complex than the initial briefings indicated, an--”
“I thought you were looking to move up at UST, Ek,” the drone interrupts. “Unless I misheard you.”
“N-no, sir,” Ek protests. “I am very motivated.”
“Then you must know that there will be hardships during this task, and that you’ll also be compensated appropriately for those hardships when you return successful,” the drone says.
“Yes, sir,” Ek replies.
“Make no mistake, Ek,” the drone continues. “We are counting on you to see that ship to its destination, and to relay any information you discover on the project back to us.
“Let nothing stand in your way.”
Ek tears his gaze from the tablet and looks down the corridor. The moaning has stopped, replaced with soft conversation.
“S-sir, the other two who are on the ship,” Ek continues. “They might be very helpful. And they might seek their own compensation. Am I authorized to offer them someth--”
“Ek,” the drone booms. “You are authorized to split your compensation with them if you wish, but UST has no contractual obligation to Mister Saito or Miss Parker, aside from her standing employment contract on Hyperion.”
“Yes, sir,” Ek says.
“Is there anything else, Ek?” the drone demands. “Or can we trust you to follow this project to completion?”
“You can t-trust, me, sir,” Ek replies.
The manager drone floats back into its compartment in the door, the compartment closes, and Ek backs away.
Tomas Ek guides his drone back to its base on his home office desk, and ends the tablet connection. He drums his fingers on the nav console, and stares out the cockpit window at the rapidly passing blackness. Ek turns back to his tablet, finds the icon for his Citizen Credit Balance--two nested ‘C’s enveloping a tiny model Solar System--and opens the app.
Again, Ek whispers, “Kikai,” and his financial records appear on the screen.
Tomas Ek; Current Balance: CC 3,542.
Ek shakes his head at the number.
He tosses the tablet onto the nav computer, stands up and paces the cockpit.
Muffled laughter seeps from the crew quarters, drawing Ek’s attention.
“I can’t split it,” Ek mutters. “I can’t.”
He looms over the tablet again, staring at his insignificant wealth.
More muffled laughter.
Ek chews on the inside of his mouth, his gaze glued to the number: CC 3,542.
Then, suddenly, the laughter is loud, audible. The door to the crew quarters opens, and Henry and Wei emerge, one after the other.
Ek claws at the tablet, hastily closing the credit balance app.
“Ek,” Wei says, walking into the cockpit. “How’s everything going up here?”
“Nothing,” Ek replies.
Henry gives the businessman a quizzical look.
“Fine,” Ek answers. “Everything is fine. I must have zoned out for a moment. Head injuries, you know.”
“Yeah,” Henry replies. “Sure.”
“Ek, do you know anything about the neural interface on this ship?” Wei asks. “I was in there a bit ago, and something was very strange.”
“What do you mean, strange?” Ek prods. “What does that mean?”
He steps toward her.
“What did you see?” he demands.
“Whoa,” Wei says. “Take a step back. All I was able to do was disable the inhibitor the pirates put on the engine. What was I supposed to see?”
Ek’s eyes dart back and forth.
“Nothing,” he coughs. “I was merely curious. Caught up in the mystery of this strange freighter. Just like you.”
“Okay,” Wei says, laboring the syllables. “I was only curious, too.”
“Hopefully none of us are secretly cats,” Ek says.
He chuckles nervously.
Then Ek offers a thin smile.
“Right,” Wei says. “I get it. Thanks, Ek.”
Ek gathers his tablet and hugs it to his chest. He shoves past Henry and Wei and scuttles down the corridor to the crew quarters.
“What got into him?” Wei asks Henry.
“Who knows? Jealousy?”
A piercing siren blares throughout the ship. The cockpit lights turn bright red.
“What now?” Wei says.
Ek emerges from the corridor, now leaning against the cockpit doorway.
“Is it the pirates again?” he asks.
“We’re trying to figure that out, Mr. Ek,” Henry replies.
Wei hunches over the nav computer and reads viewscreen.
“Incoming ship,” she says. “Where are we?”
Through the glass cockpit window, a larger freighter glimmers, advancing toward them.
“I don’t think they see us,” Wei says.
“It doesn’t look like they do,” Henry concurs.
Wei turns on the com, and hails the ship. She waits. The com returns only silence.
“What is it?” Ek cries.
“We don’t know, Ek,” Wei says. “They won’t respond. Why won’t they respond?”
Henry leans over the com, flicks it on and off.
“Unidentified freighter,” he yells. “You are on a collision course. Divert now. Repeat. Divert now.”
Nothing comes back on the com.
Henry looks at Wei.
“I’m out of ideas,” he says. “Actually--”
Henry Saito starts mashing at the Aurelius cockpit controls. Nothing is illuminated. Nothing responds. Nothing registers.
“We’re going to die,” Ek yells.
“We’re not, Ek,” Wei yells back. “Shut up.”
The freighter keeps advancing toward them.
The Aurelius continues its siren cries under deep red light.
Closer and closer, the freighter’s hull grows large, and looming.
Wei flicks at the com.
“Hello?” she yells. “You’re on a collision course.”
“Hold onto something,” Henry yells.
“If it hits us, I don’t think it will matter what we hold onto,” Wei replies.
Henry holds his breath.
Wei grips the nav console.
Ek huddles into the doorway, gripping at the door jamb. He shrieks.
The freighter moves forward, closing in, undaunted.
“Come on,” Henry mutters. “Come on.”
Suddenly, the freighter banks and twists, its nose tipping up away and over the cockpit. It glides before them, past them. As it travels over, the ship casts a dark shadow across the cockpit, broken up by the array of identification signals and landing lights, flickering yellow, blue, green, red. Soon, the freighter clears the Aurelius entirely, and its shadow peels away from the cockpit.
The emergency lights flip back to ambient yellow-white. The siren falls silent.
Fuzz blurts from the com.
“Hello? This is Galahad,” a voice calls. “Everyone okay in there? Didn’t mean to give you a scare. Just left Charon Outpost, and I might a little too tired. Didn’t see you in our path. Please confirm.”
“We’re fine, Galahad,” Wei replies, breathing heavy. “Thank you for the concern.”
“I’m usually a very attentive pilot,” the ship captain answers. “I should’ve booked the bigger room at Charon. But, UST only lets me expense so much. That’s no excuse though. I should have been more attentive, like I said. Of course, there’s not much out here to attend to either, save for old Voyager models, out of juice and adrift.”
“No problem,” Wei says. “It happens to everybody once in awhile. We’re just glad you caught a glimpse of us.”
“Ten-four,” the captain replies. “I’m surely gladder than you are. Apologies again for the distress.”
Ek mockingly mouths the captain’s last message.
Henry shoots him a disapproving look.
Wei shakes her head.
“Say, Galahad, about how far out from Charon are we?” Wei asks. “We’re having a few minor issues with our nav console.”
The voice on the com hums in thought. “I’d say five or six thousand klicks, with another twenty thousand to Pluto Outpost. If you need I could look at your nav console myself.”
“No no, thank you, Galahad,” Wei says. “We don’t want to be any trouble. We’ll take care of it at Charon.”
“Makes sense, friend,” the ship replies. “They’ve got a mess of spare components there. Should have you fixed up right quick. You travel safe now. Please to have not run into you.”
“The pleasure was ours Galahad,” Wei says. “Thanks for those swift maneuvers.”
The com switches off.
Wei looks up at Henry and takes a deep breath.
“Well, we may not know where we’re going,” she says. “But at least we know where we are.”
Henry walks over to the nav console System map, and traces their path with his finger.
“After Pluto Outpost, there isn’t anything out there that I know of,” he says. “Just frontier settlements, gas mines, divining combines, but nothing substantial like a colony.”
Ek steps forward, lowering his tablet to his side, puffing his chest slightly.
“Maybe you two should get off here, save yourself the trouble,” he suggests.
“Even if we had enough control over this ship to land it, we can’t let it chug along empty,” Wei says. “There’s something at the other end, and I want to know what.”
“Besides, Mr. Ek, you’d get lonely in this bucket all by yourself,” Henry adds.
“I have my tablet,” Ek says, holding it high. “I would be fine alone.”
“Then you’ll be more than fine,” Wei replies. “And I’ll know why this ship showed up empty at my station.”
Ek pouts and looks at the floor.
“It’s exciting,” Henry says. “Wherever we’re going, we’ll probably be some of the first human to arrive. Genuine explorers.”
“Yes. Some of the first,” Ek mumbles.
“What was that?” Wei asks.
“Nothing,” Ek answers. “If you need me I’ll be in quarters.”
Tomas Ek, wearing bloodied, fine suit pants, a dress shirt, and tie, turns and leaves the cockpit. He disappears into the corridor and then into the crew quarters. The door swishes shut behind him.
Wei and Henry hear muffled music flare up down the corridor. It’s another Ganymede’s Space Cowboys track, “Syzygy #2.” Wei taps her foot to the reverberant beat. Henry follows suit, and reaches across the nav console for her hand. She rolls her hand over, palm up, and Henry’s lands on top. They squeeze. Their eyes meet. Their faces move toward each other. Gravitation pull.
“Wait,” Wei says. “Do you think Ek heard us?”
They move away from each other. Their hands separate.
“No,” Henry says. “I mean, the music must be really loud.”
“Or the walls are thin,” Wei adds.
They smirk at each other.
“Either way, something is weird with him,” she continues. “I don’t know if he’s up to something or what, but I’m having bad feelings. He acted very strange when I brought up the neural cap. Cagey. I mean, what was that thing about being cats?”
Henry takes her hand again.
“He did get pretty messed up by Devlin and his goons,” he says. “That’s bound to affect a guy’s mood, especially when he wasn’t the pinnacle of cool in the first place.”
Wei caresses his hand.
“I still don’t like it,” she says. “Maybe we should take his tablet?”
“No, he’s just a scare boy in a man’s body, Wei,” Henry says. “He needs friends now more than anything else.”
“You really see the best in people,” Wei says. “How do you do that?”
Henry Saito laughs, and delicately traces her knuckles with his thumb.
“Well, if he’s secretly plotting against us,” Henry jokes. “I’ll buy you a Callistan brandy when we get back to Earth.”
“I think there might be some holes in your logic, Hank,” Wei replies.
“It’ll work out, one Wei or another,” he smirks.
“You’re disgusting,” Wei says.
“Then let go of my hand,” Henry says.
She kisses him.
Down the hall, “Syzygy #2” transitions into Mercurial Time’s “Runaway.” Tomas Ek lies on his back on the small bed, eyes on the ceiling, counting the rivets that hold the room, and the inner hull of the Aurelius together.
“This isn’t what I signed up for,” Ek says to no one. “UST has great benefits. UST is a path to happiness. What are you going to do, join the space marines? No, don’t take a chance, Tomas, don’t do anything that’ll push you. Stick with the middle-management position at the interplanetary corporation. Take the beaten path, Tomas. What could go wrong?”
Ek sits up on the bed.
“If those two had followed standard procedure, we wouldn’t be in this mess,” he grumbles to the empty room. “You drag me into a spooky ghost ship. Sure? I’m an idiot. That’s what you think of me. Then we get attacked by pirates and what happens, they decide that I’m the one to sacrifice. Did those two help me? Did you help, Tom Ek? No. You’re too busy being heroes and making googly eyes at each other. Leave me to get beaten within an inch of my life.”
He leans forward and turns on his tablet. His fingers dance across the screen, back to the Citizen Credit app. His profile opens again, and Ek stares at the balance in his account. CC 3,542. He bites down on the inside of his cheek and stands up on the bed. His hands ball into fists. He stares at the tablet screen.
Ek jumps down from the bed and rolls up his dress shirt sleeves. He knits his fingers together, stretches them out, but not enough to pop his knuckles. Then, he wipes his mouth with his forearm, and starts throwing punches into the air in front of him.
He stops for a moment, leans over the tablet, and turns the music up.
Then he throws more punches.
“3,542. Oh, how many homes do you own, Tomas? None, but I have a really nice new cruiser that’s sitting on the seventh fucking moon of Saturn.” “Runaway” transitions into Beach Tartan’s “Waters of Mars.” Ek keeps punching the air. Sweat rolls down his forehead. Salty liquid burns on his raw, wounded cheek.
“Go ahead and split your compensation with the other two, Tomas. Fuck what you want, Tomas. Just give those two, those two who let pirates beat you bloody, two-thirds of what UST gives you. Fair is fair. That’s the saying, right? Fair is fair. Fair like climbing inside the ship’s processor, Miss Parker. Fair like trying to steal this project from me.”
Tomas Ek stops punching the air, and looks up at the ceiling.
He turns quickly and gestures across the tablet.
He opens his UST confidential mailbox.
Inside, he opens an attachment that brings up the schematics for the Aurelius.
Tomas Ek pores over the drawings, making notes alongside them on the tablet:
Landing system repair access compartment in corridor behind cockpit.
Handle inside door jamb.
Empty when surface legs deployed.
Room for one.
Tuck in after landing.
Emerge when they’re off the ship.
Gather intel from orbit.
Return to Earth.
“Waters of Mars” transitions to Oculi’s speed anthem “Blast/Off.” Ek pops back up from the bed, shuffles his feet, and starts punching the air again.
“You never take of business, Tomas,” he says to himself. “Maybe not before, but things are changing.”
Ek punches his way from the end of the bed to the small porthole windows in the crew quarters. He looks out at Charon Outpost, drifting into the distance, into the infinity of a horizonless depth.
“Things are changing.”
Tomas Ek laughs to himself.
Outside the crew quarters, all Wei and Henry can hear is music.