Chapters:

ONE

The viewscreen flickers as Wei Parker speaks her credentials.

“Station Agent number 6249. Passkey: Applesauce.”

She hadn’t realized on her first day that she’d speak her passkey aloud before every shift. That was three years ago. The meaning of the word applesauce is long lost to Wei Parker. The syllables no longer make sense.

“Login accepted,” speaks the screen. “Please put on neural cap and say ‘begin shift.’”

Wei ties her black hair back in a tight ponytail, and takes a deep breath. She lifts the wireframe helmet from its stand. The bands of crisscrossing metal are adorned with decals. One depicts the Rebel Alliance logo from the popular Star Wars series. Another features the astropunk band Death by Reentry. Wei’s favorite, though, is a Parker family photo, taken on Earth ten years ago, when her parents were still alive.

She lowers the cap onto her head, and the contacts coldly grip the delicate skin at her temples. The login process is quick. Wei has never been able to accurately describe what it’s like having a computer log into your brain. The best she could ever come up with is that it’s like a novocaine shot to the brain. Everything is still there. Everything still works. But if you don’t slow down a bit and adjust you’re liable to do damage.

“Begin shift,” she says.

Before Wei’s eyes, her spartan metallic console transforms into a technological marvel of viewscreens, lights and buttons. The eight-by-eight room of exposed girders and well-worn aluminum alloy becomes the usual pastoral grove. Trees, a few deer, birds, and the warm yellow sun she otherwise sees only briefly through porthole windows surround her.

“Welcome to Hyperion Station, please state your vessel name, cargo, and destination,” she says aloud, practicing the phrase and allotting brainpower for her personal use.

Wei glances up at the console clock. The first ship is due anytime.

She yawns, lifts her cup of coffee to her lips, gulps down a lukewarm mouthful.

The console lights up.

“Ship entering sector,” the viewscreen says, reading its own subtitles.

“I see it. Thanks,” Wei grumbles.

She reaches out and presses the com-button.

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

Garbled static, like a singer with a mouthful of marshmallows, crowds the channel.

“Hello Hyperion,” a voice replies, now clear as day. “This is Tunis, carrying research gasses from the Great Dark Spot. We’re tired and ready to get back to Kuiper Base to unload and grab some shut eye.”

Wei feels the neural cap pull resources from her as it accesses the station records, and then the records on the Tunis.

“Okay, Tunis, pull into dock 16,” she says, carefully enunciating through the brainpower drain. “There are vending robots, showers, and a Café Galactica right where you disembark. Inspection should only take half an hour or so.”

“Ten-four,” the voice replies.

On the viewscreen, Wei watches the large, rusting cargo ship inch toward dock 16. Tunis’ fine thrusters fire in sequence like a dance or laser light show. Wei enjoys the artistry and ballet of the ships slowly floating, rotating, engaging and connecting; somehow it’s vaguely sexual, and one of the few things she still loves about the job, other than the pay. Isolation bonuses can eventually buy a lot of friends.

The green light on her console notifies Wei that the Tunis is safely docked. She watches the captain, small crew of four, and one dog, a German Shepherd, disembark on the viewscreen. When she is satisfied that no one else is leaving the ship, Wei presses the blue button, labeled with an icon of a magnifying glass.

Immediately the beautiful park scene strips away, that aspect of her brainpower transferred to a small group of standard-issue inspection robots that she refers to fondly as Wei’s Angels. Everything slows down as the robots power-up and detach from their stations at dock 16. Through her neural cap, Wei sees through the eyes of Farrah, the undisputed best of the robots, as it scans the exterior of the Tunis for damage, radiation, leakage, and any unwelcome hangers-on.

Switch to Kate, inside the crew quarters, looking for misplaced cargo, stowaways, any one or thing to be trafficked.

Switch to Jaclyn, sweeping the cockpit for abnormal electronic signals, and doing safety diagnostics.

Switch to Cheryl, in the engine room, robotic arms gripping at the filters and coils, monitoring the radiation and efficiency levels.

Wei takes a deep breath. She’s panting. Sometimes the autonomic nervous system experiences a hiccup under a multi-process load. You can forget to breathe, but only for a second.

Switch to Cameron, Drew, and Lucy in the cargo hold, scanning man-sized gas canisters, and taking readings for any dangerous residues.

A series of green lights, starting with Farrah, and then Kate, Jaclyn, Cheryl, and on, indicates to Wei that the Tunis meets all standards and requirements set forth by the Global Interplanetary Shipping Commission, and her employers, Universal Space Transit. Wei recalls the team of robots to their charging stations, and sighs in relief as a sizeable portion of her mental energy returns to her control.

The pastoral embellishments reappear around her console, as she taps once more at the com.

“Crew of the Tunis,” she says. “The ship diagnostics are complete. Looks like you’re good to go.”

On the viewscreen, the captain looks up with a smirk and a mouthful of potato chips.

“You clean the windshield and landing lights, too?” he prods.

“What do you think this is, Sapp Brothers?” she replies.

“Nah, if it were, the food would be better. This vending robot is making cuisine from the 2100s. Disgusting.”

Wei smiles. These wry interactions are few and far between. So many robot-operated ships these days, so little personality.

“I’ll be sure to put in word that we’ve lost our five-star rating,” she says.

“You do that,” says the captain, winking at her through the screen.

The wink resonates through Wei. She doesn’t see a lot of people, let alone charming cargo ship captains.

“Say, captain,” she says over the com. “What’s say you show me how bad the food is here next time you pass through?”

The captain’s smirk turns dire.

“Oh, see, I’m flattered, but I’ve got someone waiting for me at Kuiper. I’m sorry.”

Wei nods, but seeing that the viewscreen is one-way, no one sees her.

“Tunis is free to launch as soon as you transfer the toll,” she says.

The captain nods and waves his toll pass before the receiver at the dock 16 door. Another red light turns green.

“You know,” he says. “There’s no telling what’ll have happened next time I come this way.”

Wei nods again, at the thought, which still supposedly counts.

“Until next time, travel safe, and thank you for visiting Hyperion Station.”

The morning hours--a term dictated by the Universal Space Transit employee manual, having nothing to do with relative time in space--pass quickly and without consequence. Wei checks out fifteen more ships. Seven running cargo. One science vessel. Four tour ships. And three government vehicles. All but one of the cargo ships has an AI captain. The science vessel is manned by six quiet types who can’t lift their focus from their tablets. The tour ships are veritable zoos of gawking vacationers who find joy in lining up for the bathroom… in space! And the government vehicles each bear high-security clearance registration, so Wei doesn’t even get to take the Angels through. All business. No details. No questions.

And once again, it’s lunchtime.

Wei removes the neural cap, once again thrusting her into the bland metallic room with a console and a viewscreen that greets her each morning. She turns her pivot chair away from the workstation toward the small UST-issue vending robot behind her. She reads through the list of available options, as if they’d changed between yesterday--or the days, weeks, and months before--and today.

She chooses the Idaho trout. It won’t matter anyway. This vending robot’s replicator doesn’t use spices. UST called the decision on blandness a combination of cost-savings and accommodation for a broad scope of palates.

Wei turns away from the vending robot, toward her personal locker. She waves her hand over the latch, and says the passkey for the locker: “Applesauce.” Password complexity doesn’t matter when you’re the only one on the station. The locker opens softly with an electric whirr. Wei digs through the pocket of her leather jacket, hanging inside, until she finds her tablet. She scrolls over the tablet.

No new messages.

No surprises.

Your order of Audubon magazine has shipped from Earth.

Something to look forward to.

Your move on 3D chess.

Something to keep the mind active.

Wei surveys the chessboard on screen and contemplates her options. The vending robot hums to a stop and says, “Meal prepared. Please use caution. Contents might be hot.”

“Might be,” Wei mutters, gripping the usually underheated container of nondescript food.

Wei shovels the trout, rice, and green beans into her mouth with the small spoon produced by the replicator. She moves her bishop to C4. She checks her messages again. Still nothing new. She puts the tablet away, and relocks her locker.

The lunch alarm sounds, and Wei chokes down a final oversized mouthful of her meal. She leaves the unused portion, container and spoon inside the vending robot’s replicator, then touches the dispose icon. The robot comes to life, and the replicator whirrs, and the food, container and spoon dissolve into nothing.

Wei waits for the robot to reset, and then she orders another cup of coffee.

Two cream.

No sugar.

“I’m sweet enough,” she says to no one.

As Wei takes her first sip, savoring the heat and body of the cup, the lunch alarm sounds again.

“I know. I know.”

Wei turns back to her workstation, unlocks it by uttering “applesauce,” and places the neural cap back on her head. She blinks hard as the system co-opts her brain’s processing power. The familiar garden scene and shining console appear again. And again, the viewscreen alerts her to the arrival of inbound ships.

Wei sends the science ship Artemis to dock 12.

She sends the cargo ship Silkroad to dock 3.

She sends the exploration vessel Amundsen to dock 8.

Wei brings out the Angels.

Everything is normal.

The Artemis’ captain is a patrician woman who says she grew up on Ganymede.

The cargo ship captain hurries to pee, and doesn’t do small talk.

The captain of the Amundsen boasts about her crew’s System-Record-tying speed run to the top of Olympus Mons.

She tells Wei that she has to climb the Martian Everest.

She tells Wei that there’s no feeling like gazing down on the Atlantis Colony from one of the highest points in the known solar system.

“All that red,” she says. “Peppered with lights and little people scurrying like ants. It’s indescribable.”

“You did a pretty good job painting a picture,” Wei mutters.

Soon, all three ships are on their way, and Wei is alone. She looks at the inbound schedule, and sighs in relief seeing a rare forty minute window without another toll.

That’s when the viewscreen lights up.

“Unscheduled ship inbound. Unscheduled ship inbound.”

Wei grunts.

“What the hell,” she says.

She pores over the scanners, trying to identify the mysterious ship.

“Oh shit,” she says, seeing a familiar insignia and callsign appear on the screen. “Oh fuck. Oh shit.”

Wei shakes her head and touches the com button.

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

“Well, hey Wei, whaddya say?” comes the reply.

Wei rolls her eyes.

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

“Oh, come on, Miss Parker,” the ship replies. “We don’t have to be so formal do we?”

“Unscheduled vessel,” Wei replies. “Please present credentials to dock. Vessel name, cargo, and destination.”

An audible chuckle clogs the com.

“Fine, fine. This is Henry Saito, captain of Sol Security Patrolship Columbo. Only cargo I have is me. And my destination is here, Hyperion, seventh moon of Saturn… for a routine security patrol,” the man says. “You happy? Official enough?”

Wei wishes it wasn’t official enough, but it is.

“You’re clear to dock, Columbo. Please proceed to dock 4.”

Another chuckle on the com.

“That wasn’t so hard, was it, Wei?”

“Just doing my job, Hank.”

“Where there’s a will there’s a Wei?” he quips.

Wei Parker turns off the com, presents her middle finger to the viewscreen, and bites her bottom lip. She slides over, opens her locker, and extracts her tablet. Wei scours the calendar. No. Saito usually shows up during the third week of the Earth month. He’s early.

She frowns, and engages the Angels. The robots quickly scan and check Henry Saito’s patrolship. The overpowered fusion engine is in working order. The ion and gatling cannons are recently cleaned and up to snuff. The exterior heat shielding and energy field generators are next to new.

Like always.

Henry Saito takes good care of his ship.

There’s nothing to delay the inevitable.

Wei watches helplessly as Saito requests a cruller and coffee from the dock 4 vending robot. She winces as the green light indicating the completed ship inspection illuminates. She sighs as Henry Saito catches a glimpse of the bright green light, smirks, and gazes up toward the dock 4 overhead camera.

“The Angels are done so soon, Wei,” he says. “I keep my ship, ship shape.”

“Looks that way, Hank,” Wei replies over the com. “You’re all good to depart.”

Henry laughs, sloshing his coffee in its cup.

“Nice try. You know I’m not leaving until I’m satisfied with the security and safety of this station. Sol Security wouldn’t be happy with me if I skimped on my responsibilities.”

“Nothing has changed since last month, Hank,” Wei protests. “And besides, you’re early. Why are you early?”

Henry takes a bite of his cruller, a big one, and gazes up at the camera. His cheeks puff out as he chews, rodent-like, on the oversized portion. He holds up his index finger at the camera, and shrugs his shoulders the way a young boy does when he’s playing off his rudeness for cuteness.

Wei shakes her head.

Henry swallows hard and smiles.

“I’ve got 16 docks to inspect, in addition to your workstation, and sleeping quarters,” he lists. “I imagine I’ll be done by tomorrow, or the day after tops. Would you get my usual cot out of storage?”

“It’s not going to take three days,” Wei says. “It never has before.”

“Well, I had a performance review last month, and it seems that I could be a little more thorough,” Henry replies. “Besides, it’ll be a real gift to spend some extra time with you.”

Bile rises in Wei’s gut. A gulp of acid burns in her throat.

“Let’s keep it professional, Hank.”

“Then maybe you should address me as Officer Saito,” he smirks.

Wei gnashes her teeth together and deactivates the com.

“Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.”

She removes the neural cap, returns her tablet to her locker, and opens the door from her workstation into the main corridor of Hyperion Station. Outside of her office, the station is equally bland and basic. The walls, floor, and ceiling comprise aluminum alloys and titanium plating. There are no windows. There are no artworks. Unless the Universal Space Transit employee guidelines, and on-the-job injury reporting posters count as artworks.

About ten steps from her office, a door on the left conceals her sleeping quarters, shower, and restroom. On the right, is the storage closet. Both rooms are roughly the same size as her office, eight-by-eight.

Wei opens the storage unit door and grabs Saito’s cot, a relic from missions in the late 22nd Century, made of two molded titanium rods and stretched Lunar cotton. Not the high-thread count stuff, but still comfortable considering. She takes the bundled bedding, shuts the door to the storage closet, and continues down the long corridor.

The hallway opens into an atrium, one of the most human-friendly spaces on the station. Wei looks up through the spacelight windows--a dome of thick glass and metal ribs like a spiderweb--to see Saturn’s rings, flowing like a frozen river in the distance.

At this distance, they’re almost as beautiful as the old photographs made them seem. Not just floating junkyards of rock and crystalline gas, but colorful bands of unknowable magic, filled with untold wonders, and potential. Each pocket of subzero methane and ammonia resembles a precious gem, rather than the harvestable commodity that they really are. Like ignorance, distance can make some things appear more beautiful than they are.

A shadow falls across her face, throwing darkness into the atrium that the station’s automatic light system negates with the warm glow of LEDs. It’s Titan, so near and so far, orbiting by. In seconds, the larger moon is clear of the sun’s distant glow, and out of sight.

Wei immediately wishes she was there, doing research or playing cards in the casinos. Though she would happily be on Rhea, or even Ganymede, if the latter hadn’t become so gentrified over the last ten years.

“Anywhere but here,” she whispers.

The door behind her slides open with a hydraulic whoosh.

“What, no welcoming committee?” Henry Saito asks.

“Here’s your cot,” Wei says, tossing the bundled bed toward him.

Henry catches the bed, and peers at Wei like a startled animal.

“What’s gotten into you, My Wei or the High Wei?”

“You’ve gotten into me,” Wei snarls back.

“Not yet,” he quips. “But maybe before I go.”

Wei sighs, and balls her fists. She turns around toward the corridor and starts back down the hall toward her office.

Henry’s boot-falls, and the rustling of his polyester uniform, alert her to his pursuit.

“The docks you’re here to ‘secure’ are the other way, Hank,” she barks.

“I know Glenn-class stations like the back of my hand, and I can start my security checks anywhere I please,” he rebuts. “It’s one of the perks of the job. Self-management.”

Wei clomps past her quarters and the storage room, and opens the door to her workstation. Henry follows, still holding the cot.

“I have work to do, Hank,” Wei says. “Just do what you have to and get out of here.”

As Wei sits down and redons her neural cap, Henry drops the cot and takes a leisurely stroll around the small compartment, looking at details that only someone looking for them would ever see.

Wei eyes the viewscreen. Nothing. Not a ship. Why can’t there just be one ship? She taps at the console, increasing the sensitivity of the station’s scanners. Nothing. Still nothing.

“Look, Wei,” Henry begins.

And Wei knows exactly what’s about to happen.

“Don’t, Hank,” she says, still staring at the blank viewscreen.

“No, we should talk about it, right? That’s what adults in the 23rd Century do.”

“There’s nothing to say that hasn’t already been said.”

“Well, I have some things to say,” Henry insists. “And I think it’s only fair that you hear me out.”

Wei spins in her chair, so quickly that her neural cap slips and crashes onto the console behind her.

“There’s nothing to talk about, Hank,” she states, flatly. “I was lonely. I had one too many Venetian bourbons. I told you that after it happened.”

Henry looks momentarily startled, no smirk on his face.

“Yeah, but you know that Venetian bourbon only lower inhibitions,” he argues. “It’s not like it makes you do things you don’t want to do.”

Wei shakes her head.

“I said I was lonely. I admitted that. I would have taken any freighter pilot or gas miner who walked through that dock door then. I’m sorry if it hurts to hear that.”

Henry hangs his head. He gathers his cot in his arms, and turns toward the door.

“This room looks, umm,” he says. “This room seems safe enough for now. Just let me know if you need anything. I’ll check a couple of docks before my shift ends. You know where to find me.”

Henry taps his foot as the door between their awkward conversation and an empty string of corridors slides slowly open. When there is just enough space for him to fit through, Henry turns to his side and slips between the retreating door and its jamb.

Wei hears him softly pad his way down the corridor, until his footsteps dissolve into the silence of Hyperion station. She turns back toward her console, repositions her neural cap, and tabs through the camera views on her screen.

There is nothing.

No one.

Just sixteen empty docks, three interconnected corridors, and a sad man walking slumped over in his uniform.

She switches to the exterior view, and again, there’s nothing other than the curved, metallic and glass structure of the station contrasted with pock-marked surface of the potato-shaped moon on which its sits.

On which they sit; Wei, Henry, and the station.

Drifting.

The next hours pass without consequence.

Ships come in with their captains and robots and cargos.

Ships go out just the same.

Henry Saito does not contact her, but she sees him on the viewscreen, poring over the dimensions and details of dock 1, 2, and 3. When the console alerts her, Wei removes her neural cap, takes the items from her locker, and walks down the corridor to her quarters.

She removes her jumpsuit, and sits on the foot of her bed-slash-sofa in her tanktop and underwear. Wei orders filet mignon from the vending robot. It tastes almost exactly like the Idaho trout. She turns on her entertainment viewscreen, settles on an old movie about alien warriors from Jupiter--from when the solar system seemed so big--and drifts off to sleep.

Next Chapter: TWO