3464 words (13 minute read)

THREE

The shift alarm resounds from her tablet. Wei sets her oatmeal bowl and coffee mug inside the vending robot’s replicator, hits dispose, and walks out into the corridor. Down in the atrium, she sees Tomas Ek setting up the quarters he has annexed. There’s an executive travel bed, a small desk with his own console built-in, and a large, plush chair. She watches Ek tap at the keypad atop the hovering trunk. It lights up, and in seconds, Ek reaches in and retrieves another replicated item; a vending robot of the Mr. Chef brand.

Fancy, Wei thinks. He must be important to somebody at UST.

She turns toward her workstation, opens the door, and takes her seat. Wei puts on her neural cap. She takes a deep breath during the login. It takes longer than usual, probably because she’s so distracted by Ek and Saito and their individual portions of bullshit. She closes and eyes and focuses, exhaling deep, and then the system boots properly.

Wei smiles at the relative peace of her normally boring pastoral console. She activates the viewscreen and begins scanning through the exterior station cameras. She sees stars. She sees the other moons of Saturn. She sees distant Jupiter, and the glint of Uranus. She sees nothing else. The exterior of the station looks as it always does, like a pair of metal tubes, crossing as a capital-T, with the atrium bulb in the center of the longer corridor.

No new damage.

Nothing to speak of.

Wei switches to the dock cameras, and scans through them. Docks 1 - 3 are empty, as they should be. Dock 4 has Henry’s patrolship. Dock 5 has Ek’s middle-life crisis. Docks 6 - 16 are empty, as they should be.

The viewscreen lights up.

“Ship entering sector,” it says.

Wei flips on the com.

“Welcome to Hyperion Station, please state your vessel name, cargo and destination.”

“Hello Hyperion,” a computerized voice replies. “This is Revelry, a ship bound for Novae Prime, Venus, carrying used biome-generation equipment.”

Wei nods. A robot captain is a sort of relief.

“Thank you, Revelry. Your credentials are confirmed. Proceed to dock 16 for inspection and toll.”

“Affirmative, Hyperion. Proceeding to dock 16.”

The com goes quiet. Wei watches the freighter slowly approach dock 16. It precisely floats into place and completes docking procedure without even a hint of variation from the manual. Wei actives Farrah and the other Angels and begins scanning and inspecting the ship. The cargo is clean. The equipment is only a few years old, and clean, well-maintained.

Nothing disembarks the ship. The robots don’t have to. They don’t need to stretch their legs or stop at a vending robot. They might not even have bodies, depending on the model. Some ships just have their captains built in, the only nods to generations of human captains in the semi-convincing digital voices they speak through.

After each Angel’s readings come back clear, Wei tracks the robots back to their charging stations and turns the com back on.

“Revelry, this is Hyperion,” she says. “Your inspection is complete. All systems normal. Please authorize your toll charge, and you’ll be free to proceed for Venus.”

“Thank you, Hyperion,” the ship replies.

Wei watches the toll indicator above the viewscreen. Transfer complete.

“Have a nice day, Hyperion,” the ship says.

“Thank you for visiting Hyperion. Please travel safe.”

The com falls silent again.

Wei watches the Revelry undock and gently push off from the station. The ship’s five-pack of fusion engines glow bright blue, and the freighter speeds off toward Venus. Wei switches the viewscreen back to the interior cameras. She sees Henry Saito practicing Tai Chi in the dock 1 - 8 corridor, but she’s mostly hoping to spy on Ek in the atrium.

“What if the equipment on that ship was stolen?” Ek’s voice asks behind her.

She turns slowly in her chair.

Tomas Ek is right behind her, peering over her shoulder. He has changed out of his navy suit and into an off-white seersucker. He’s holding another glass of white wine in one hand and a large tablet in the other. His lips are pursed in a way that invites a response, either to a question, or with a fist.

Wei chooses the former, for now.

“The ship’s credentials checked out, sir,” she replies. “Nothing to worry about.”

“Yes, but suppose those credentials were forged, Miss Parker?” Ek says. “Some illicit contraband would have slipped right past you, and this station. That wouldn’t look good for UST, or for you.”

Wei puts the console into sleep mode, reclaiming her brain’s full processing power.

“I’m very thorough on my credential checks, Mr. Ek,” she says. “And if they were forged, I would have found some additional indicators of impropriety during the robotic inspection.”

“Oh, then I suppose I’ll just take your word for it,” Ek replies.

The viewscreen lights up again.

“Ship entering sector,” it says.

Wei gives her brain power back to the system. Her eyes close on their own, blinking involuntarily for a moment, and then reopening. Wei hits the com.

“Welcome to Hyperion Station, please state your vessel name, cargo and destination,” Wei recites.

“That could have been a bit more welcoming, don’t you think?” Ek says.

Wei nods, deferentially.

“Go ahead and give it another try, Miss Parker,” Ek says.

Wei sighs.

“Without the attitude, please.”

“Welcome to Hyperion Station,” she says with a game show host’s affect. “Please state your vessel name, cargo, and where you’re headed today.”

She glares up at Tomas Ek. He sips his wine and raises his eyebrow.

“That wasn’t so hard,” he says.

Wei intensifies her glance, hoping that maybe lasers will fire from them, through the back of Ek’s skull.

A response comes from the com.

“Howdy, Hyperion, this is Donalbain. We’re loaded with medical polymer, and headed for that darling little globe known as Earth… San Francisco, specifically.”

“Hello, Donalbain, please proceed to dock 12 for inspection and toll.”

Wei watches the Donalbain coast toward dock 12, until she feels a tap on her shoulder.

“Don’t you think you should deploy the inspection robots now?” Ek prods.

“Actually, I have a system,” Wei replies. “I like to give captains a couple minutes of downtime before I head in there.”

Ek clucks his tongue. “Well, Miss Parker, our employer has the system, so please deploy the inspection robots now.”

Wei jumps to Farrah, rolls her from her charging station to dock 12.

She switches to Kate, moves her to dock 12.

Then Jaclyn.

Then Cheryl.

Wei pauses to take a deep breath. She reminds herself to breathe, reminds her heart to beat.

“Something wrong, Miss Parker?” Ek says. “Are you having a hard time with the neural shared-processing uplink?”

Wei shakes her head.

“No, sir,” she mutters. “I’m just fine.”

“If you think you’re going to short out this expensive equipment, I hope you’ll say something,” he continues. “The shared-processor program isn’t for everyone.”

“I’m fine,” Wei says, taking deep breaths.

She brings Cameron, Lucy, and Drew to life, and takes them to dock 12.

“All inspection robots standing by, Mr. Ek,” Wei sneers.

The Donalbain docks at 12, its loading ramp extends, and an overweight captain with a handsome face takes wide steps toward the room, as if he’d just been riding a horse. The captain gives his order to the vending robot and sits down on in the chair beside it.

Wei sends the Angels on their assigned tasks.

Farrah checks out the captain and cockpit.

Kate inspects the exterior and engines.

Jaclyn scans for radiation, rare elements, and life signs.

Cheryl buzzes through the corridors of the ship.

Cameron, Lucy, and Drew inspect the large sealed cartons of medical polymer.

“Everything’s normal,” Wei says to Ek.

Tomas Ek leans over her shoulder and peers at the viewscreen.

“Yes. It looks like you didn’t miss anything this time,” he says.

Wei sighs and turns off the com.

“Do you have a problem with the way I work, Mr. Ek?”

Ek looks down at his tablet and sips his glass of wine.

“A problem? Whyever would you ask that?” he replies. “As I said before, I’m a representative of UST, and I am bound by my employment to give this station a thorough inspection. It’s hardly a problem with you, or your ways for me to point out certain deficiencies in your methods.

“It’s business,” Ek says.

Wei takes off her neural cap and spins to face him. She stand from her chair and jabs at his delicate seersucker lapel with her finger.

“I spend 365 Earth days a year out here,” she says. “And you realize that without sunrises and sunsets, time has no meaning here. After a while everything starts to seem a little, I don’t know, relative. But one thing--no matter how bored or lonely or tired I feel--that I never fucking forget is how to do my job the right way.”

“I don’t think I appreciate your tone, Miss Parker,” Ek says. “Maybe the neural interface has stripped you of your courtesy and grace, assuming you were ever born with it at all.”

Wei bites her lip again.

“My apologies, sir,” she says through her teeth. “I’m very passionate about my work.”

Before Ek can speak again, she activates the com.

“Donalbain, you’re all clear. The ship is in good shape. The cargo is clean. Please submit your toll payment, and you’re free to head on to Earth.”

On the viewscreen, the captain nods and tips a hat that isn’t wearing.

“Thanks, Hyperion,” the captain says. “I almost wish something was wrong. It would be nice to put a face to that voice.

Wei feels warmth in her cheeks.

“Maybe next time, Donalbain.”

She waits for the toll transfer to complete, and then calls down to the dock again: “Thank you for visiting Hyperion. Please travel safe.”

“Will do,” calls the captain.

The Donalbain drifts from the dock, lights up its engines, and darts away from the station, toward Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, and then Earth.

Wei holds her gaze on the viewscreen, watching the ship depart.

Ek clears his throat, pointedly.

Wei slowly turns around.

“Since you’re clearly a self-aware individual, Miss Parker,” he says. “I wonder if you can tell me what I’d change about that interaction.”

Wei just looks at him.

“Search me.”

“Really?” Ek prods.

Wei feigns thinking by holding her thumb and forefinger to her chin.

“I can’t think of anything.”

“That’s disappointing,” Ek says. “Because this infraction was particularly concerning.”

“Infraction? For what?” Wei demands.

“Fraternization.”

“Fraternization? What fraternization?”

“You said,” Ek begins, cuing a recording on his tablet. “This:”

Ek’s tablet speaks, a recording of Wei saying “Maybe next time, Donalbain.”

“So what?” Wei asks.

“That’s not a very professional response, Miss Parker. You’re not here to meet a mister, are you?”

“Obviously not,” she replies.

Wei turns back to the viewscreen. The day inches by, with Ek always over her shoulder, recording, critiquing, nagging, and leering.

Another ship inbound.

This time it’s a casino transport bound from Neptune to East Mars Colony.

Ek cites Wei for failing to perform a tertiary headcount on the passengers.

Another ship.

A mining freighter from Mercury headed to Charon.

Ek cites Wei for not offering UST-brand hydration fluid to the crew.

Yet another ship.

Yet another citation.

Wei bites her lip so many times that she can taste iron on the tip of her tongue.

Then, as she’s watching the shift clock tick away her last minutes of hell, the viewscreen lights up.

“Ship entering sector.”

“Welcome to Hyperion Station,” Wei says, trying to maintain high energy. “State your vessel name, cargo, and where you’re headed today.”

After a bundle of fuzz: “Hyperion, this is Isadore, we’re bound for the Saturn Colony Gamma. We’ve got a whole mess of Plutonian ore.”

“Sounds good, Isadore,” Wei says. “Proceed to dock 7 and prepare for inspection.”

“You got it, Hyperion,” the ship replies.

Wei watches the Isadore move into position, and simultaneously brings the Angels out to begin the inspection. The robots scour ship, and for once, Cameron finds something in the cargo hold; an abnormal trace of ore. Wei looks at viewscreen. The ore is Plutonian in origin and composition, but its radiation readings are slightly above the normal allowable levels.

She turns toward Tomas Ek.

“It’s a little high, Mr. Ek, but that kind of extra radiation is usually just background pickup from storing engine heat,” Wei says.

Ek nods.

Cameron performs a level four scan, and returns with elevated tritium levels and traces of lithium.

Wei taps at the results on the viewscreen.

“Tritium from the engine. Lithium from the neutron blanket. It’s nothing.”

Ek nods again. “I agree, Miss Parker. Very thorough.”

Wei completes the inspection, notifies the Isadore, and collects the toll.

“Safe travels, Isadore. Thank you for visiting Hyperion Station,” she says.

The ship undocks, drifts, fires its engines, and zips toward the nearby ringed-planet.

The shift clock ticks away its final seconds. Wei takes off her neural cap, counts to ten and quickly recites the alphabet to rewire her brain, and turns toward Tomas Ek, who is once more fussing with his tablet.

“That was your best of the day, Miss Parker,” he says without looking up. “Just short of perfect, actually.”

Wei throws her head back.

“Short of perfect? How?” she asks. “I even took extra time to check out a low-level, non-threatening radiation reading. I did everything. Every. Fucking. Thing. Exactly as you’ve prescribed.”

“Mostly, yes,” Ek says.

He cues his tablet again. The speakers echo Wei: “‘Welcome to Hyperion Station. State your vessel name, cargo, and where you’re headed today.’”

Ek skips forward in the recording, and plays it again: “‘Sounds good, Isadore. Proceed to dock 7 and prepare for inspection.’”

Wei just stares at him, waiting for an explanation.

Ek looks at her, disappointed, and rolls the recording back to the beginning. He plays it again.

“Tell me you don’t need to hear it a third time, Miss Parker,” Ek says.

Wei shakes her head. “I don’t know what you’re getting at, honestly.”

“You failed to say ‘please’ at any point during your greeting,” Ek decries.

“I talk to the Isadore once a month. We have an understanding.”

“That’s all well and good, Miss Parker, but you and UST do not have such an understanding,” Ek chastises. “UST expects all of its team members to employ basic human etiquette at all times.”

Wei stands up from her chair. Her heart races.

“We’re in the middle of fucking nowhere,” she exclaims. “These captains and pilots are happy to talk to anyone about anything. They don’t need some pretentious station agent climbing on their last nerves with a bunch of fake chatter and time-wasting regulations.

“This is bullshit,” she adds for emphasis.

Ek looks down at his tablet and makes busy strokes with his free hand.

“This is neither professional, nor ladylike behavior, Miss Parker,” Ek says. “You’ll have to behave in a more civilized manner if you want to avoid a dire performance report. Since the moment I arrived here, you’ve been nothing but childish. You couldn’t even offer assistance regarding the arrival of the Aurelius, and now you’re speaking to your superior as if we’re drinking buddies carousing in some backwoods.”

“I told you that the Aurelius wasn’t listed on any roster I’ve been sent,” Wei argues.

Ek continues fiddling with his tablet.

“Of course,” he continues. “It makes perfect sense that you’d behave this way. They aren’t known for refinement in Montevideo--that’s where you’re from isn’t it? Mostly longshoreman and cockfighters down there, I hear.”

Wei jumps up from her chair; her fist is faster than her brain. Her balled hand collides squarely with Tomas Ek’s jaw, spinning his head a quarter turn, and sending him tumbling to the workstation floor. His tablet clatters down beside him.

She stands over him and gazes at her throbbing knuckle. A single bead of blood grows into a perfect globe, breaks loose, and rolls down the back of her hand.

Ek holds his jaw, whimpering, and cursing quietly.

“This will not stand,” he barks, now urgently inspecting his seersucker jacket for blood stains.

“You stand up first, and then we can see what else will or won’t,” Wei taunts.

Ek’s watery eyes emit a mix of fear and hate. He reaches for his tablet.

“You’ll never work for UST again,” he says, fumbling to enter the incident on the handheld screen.

Behind him, the workstation door slides open.

“Are you guys--,” Henry Saito hollers. “What’s going on in here?”

Ek scrambles to his feet and aligns himself with Henry.

“Officer, Miss Parker assaulted me without cause or reason,” Ek says. “I demand that you detain her immediately.”

Henry smiles at Wei.

“I’m happy to investigate what happened, Mr. Ek. That’s my job.”

“Investigate what?” Ek groans. “It was a clear-cut assault. Detain her.”

“Look, Mr. Ek,” he says. “I’m sure this isn’t the first time someone’s taken a shot at you, given your personality. And I’m sure that Miss Parker will do her best not to knock you out from now on. But I think we have something more important to address right now than a little scuffle.”

Wei smiles at Henry, and she doesn’t try to stop herself.

“More important?” Ek argues. “What could be more important?”

Henry leans against the door jamb.

“There’s a ship docked at number ten.”

Wei squints at Henry. “How is there a ship in dock 10? I haven’t sent a ship to 10 in three days.”

Ek fiddles with his tablet again. “I’m unsurprised that you’ve misplaced an entire ship.”

Wei steps toward him, both hands clenched.

“Whoa,” Henry says, stepping between them. “Let’s take a step back.”

Henry walks Wei toward her console and guards the small distance between her and Ek.

“After my Tai Chi, I continued my security checks on the docks, and when I got to 10, the viewscreen said it was empty, but when I opened the door, there it was, a cargo ship of some kind. It has seen better days for sure, but the paint job looks pretty new so it’s probably in working order.”

“I still don’t understand how the ship got here,” Wei says. “I would know if I docked a ship at 10, and I’d know if a ship docked at 10 were still there.”

“Maybe you don’t know as much as you think, Miss Parker,” Ek barks.

“Enough, you two,” Henry Saito says. “You haven’t heard the best part.”

Wei and Ek hang on Henry’s next words.

“The name that’s stamped on that new paint job,” he continues. “It’s Aurelius.”

Next Chapter: FOUR