Separation Anxiety

“Attention all travelers. Attention all travelers. Passengers on OLC Intrepid Light should report to Cosmodrome Terminal S for preboarding and cabin assignment. Passengers on OLC Intrepid Light should report to Terminal S for preboarding and cabin assignment. We thank you for your patronage.”

Auburn’s coffee was mostly water at this point, anxious stirring having melted most of the ice. The spaceport terminal was a bustling mass of humans, lyricians, and frames with places to go and people to see and cargo to carry. Everyone had a destination. Everyone had an origin.

The jackalope’s feet were propped atop his duffel bag as he sat on a high stool in the coffee shop just past the security checkpoint. He wasn’t given to nervousness – there’d always been a steadiness about him – but today he was tapping his toes against his luggage and wondering why he’d gone for cold brew instead of wildflower tea. He loved wildflower tea.

Did he? Trellis would make it for him some mornings. Something about the way it was loose leaf, how he always made sure there were mountain dandelion heads in it, floating gently on top of a bittersweet brew with just a few drops of honey.

He did. He did love wildflower tea. But he would never order it himself. Something about where it came from. Something about how the deer always knew exactly what blend of herbs would go together, how the flavors danced across the palate like a choreographed ballet, how they’d sit and lean against each other on the porch as the rain watered the forest and the garden and they’d let the silence do the talking.


“You could stay,” he said flatly, voice sharp-edged.

“I could give up my life, yeah. I’d rather not do that. If you were given the opportunity, wouldn’t you do something like this?” Pleading. It wasn’t like him to beg.

“It’s n-not giving up a life, it’s, it’s building one.” Distant. Fearful. Afraid. Of what, being alone? Auburn thought.

“I want to explore, Trellis. I want to find new opportunities! That’s what the frontier offers. That’s what’s beyond the belt. You’re so damn focused on the trees you can’t see the stars.”

The rain on the roof and the creaking of the branches in the forest outside punctuated the silence between them. For a moment the air was thick enough with tension to choke on. Trellis set about taking the first bite.

“How dare you.” The words hit like timber-fall. He wasn’t stuttering anymore.


His datapad chirped. He turned his arm to look at the message; the haptic interface jumped off the pad’s screen and hung amber text in the middle of the air, but the words may as well have shot him in the chest.

I'm not coming. --T

----------------
Original Follows
----------------

Trellis:

My transport for Tethys leaves in twelve hours.

You, obviously, mean the world to me -- I cannot begin to stress how sincere about this I am -- and I don't want to leave without sharing a moment and saying goodbye. I love you.

I'm going to Orbridge Port Euclid, and I'll be waiting at the cafe stand just off cosmodrome intake. I hope you'll be able to see me.

With love; longears.

Seven years and change of love, months of separation at a time, their last real moment together an angry one. This was his last chance to say goodbye.

God damn him.

Auburn gestured for the chord keyboard to reply. He thought a thousand things to say atop ten thousand more. He ground his teeth so hard he nearly chipped a tooth. He gestured away the keyboard and wrapped his hand around the screen to choke it back into standby mode.

He stood up and pushed his chair out, the metal legs making a scraping noise against the concor floor that would have woken the dead even in the din of the terminal’s bustle. He threw his bag over his shoulder and his coffee in the compost, unconsumed.

Guess that’s it then, he said to himself.

He choked back a sob.

Low Places

In contrast to many animals, leporidae are incapable of sweating of any kind. Nearly all of their heat exhaustion and thermoregulation occurs through their ears.

Auburn wished he could sweat now.

Maintenance of Tethys’ hydrocrackers was not comfortable work. Cramped (not for a frame, certainly, but absolutely for a jackalope of his size) and hot (an uncomfortable 45 degrees Celsius this far down from the solar collector) and dirty (a considerable amount of hydraulic fluid that was fine for Lyricians but not so much for the gaskets of the frames they’d tried to send down to do the work themselves), it was probably his least favorite job, but it was among the most critical of his functions — without the hydrocracker, there’d be no drinking water for Telemachus City, no heat for the few hundred thousand working and living and thriving there (“in no short part due to Guldsommar Generosity,” he mused, disappointedly).

After rotating the collar of the upward feed line until it was wrench-tight, he squeezed through a set of return pipes and very carefully past a photovoltaic reflector path into a control area. Using his wrench for leverage, he grabbed the cutoff valve with two meaty peach-furred hands and twisted clockwise to open it. The equipment flushed to life, no drips or spurts or splashes.

Another job well done. He smiled and lifted his wristcom to his mouth.

“Hydrocontrol, maintenance complete. Wheels are turning.”

“Copy clear, Auburn, looks like she’s hummin’. Union break?”

“Nah, Cole, I think I’m done for the day. Don’t think there are any other travelers left to process in my queue.”

“Yeah, yeah, was hoping to pawn off some of these wastew–“

“Nnnnnnope.”

“C’mon, man, the treatment plant could use an engineer like you helping them with their work orders!”

“The treatment plant could use any competent wrenchwringer!” Auburn shot back.

A bellicose laugh over the comms. “Yeah you’re right about that. All right, sounds like we’re wrapping up.”

“Fire up the gravlift for me. Auburn out.


“Looky looky! Guldsommar’s most talented waterboy,” came a squeaky voice from the descender airlock.

Paying no mind to his engineering manager, Auburn peeled the coldsuit from his upper torso, sliding his huge arms out of the upper sleeves and shimmying the rest down his legs. He threw it into his locker, crumpled, and slid himself into a tank top and a pair of Guldsommar-issue work slacks. “What can I say, I know my niche. You should try it sometime, Oleg. Afraid you might crack a talon?” He pulled his button-down work shirt out and wiggled his way into it.

“Got more important things to do than knock pipes with grease-knuckles, wolpertinger,” the osprey frowned as the shirt started to button. “You, ah, got a call while you were out. Someone at Aldyne’s looking for you.”

The locker door slammed shut. Auburn wasn’t one much for visibly shaken, but he sure looked that way now. “I assume they left a message.”

“They did, ja. I didn’t pry. Just said they were with Stellar Agriscience, said to call back soon as possible. I thought you didn’t know anyone in the inner rim.”

The jackalope’s silence spoke volumes. Oleg continued unabated. “Anyway,” he said, laying the transpariflex in his hand down on the bench behind Auburn’s locker, “here you go. Hope is good, ja? Never good when those inner rim guys make long distance calls.”

“No.”

“Anyway. Cole tells me you are off shift. Work went well I hope?”

“The gaskets on cracker 4 should be good to hold for decades to come. Pleased to say that the next fellow touches ’em won’t be me unless something catastrophic happens. The icegrind heads might have a few sols left of life on ’em, though. Probably need to be replaced sooner rather than later.”

Ja, ja, okay, will bring it up at the next planning. Take off. Get some sleep. Cool off? Maybe return that phone call?”

Auburn rolled the flex up and put it in his bag, threw the bag over his shoulder, made towards the door.

“Maybe,” he said, sliding it shut behind him without a second thought.


Auburn’s home — a condo in the neighboring city of Hallusport — was described accurately as “spartan,” though it left a lot of room for that word to do a lot of work. The concor walls were bare save for the hotel-style decorative lighting and on-lease artwork that came with the rental, the furniture and electronics were Guldsommar standard issue company stock for employee housing (“only the finest for our frontier founders” he’d scoffed once when the bed they’d provided him didn’t fit his nearly seven-foot frame and promptly split in half after a week of use), the pantry stocked just enough for a couple meals in advance.

After sloughing off his work clothes and hitching up his boxer briefs, he fumbled around in his bag for the transpariflex. “Open message,” he said to it, and the blank transparent sheet sprang to life with a full-page video message.

“Hey, longears. It’s, uh, I know. I know it’s been a while,” the voice began, soft like the caress of cotton, dewy like morning leaves, gentle like a mist settling in the branches of an enormous forest. Auburn’s ocean-blue eyes locked on to his correspondent’s golden ones, his expression and state shifting from exhaustion to fondness, an ever-so-slight tremor in his hand as he held the flex.

“Sorry to send you a message from my work address, I uh, well, actually have a work-related question that I wanted to propose, but also I’ve got a new job now, with Aldyne — yeah, yeah, I know, I know, but it’s arboriculture on a space station! I get to work with trees in space! I’m so excited. I can’t believe it. I’m going to get a chance to make some world a better world, where people like us can live. A new home for Lyricians. We’re going to be explorers! I’m going to be an explorer. A pioneer,” the

The camera panned away. A blur of gray and mint-green turned to walls of white, configured in a drum, with rows and rows of tree plantings and trimmings and agricultural equipment, peppered throughout with lush patches of all shades of green. “Look! Look at this. Isn’t this magnificent? It’s so…it’s so green! We did so much work to bring this back on Earth, and now it’s here. I’m so happy. Doesn’t this make you happy?”

It did.

The camera panned back, an image of mostly nose and eyes. He was never any good with technology, the jackalope laughed to no one in particular, echoing hard off the concor. “Auburn, I, uh, I know it’s out of the blue for me to call you like this. We haven’t spoken for years. I know that. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I wanted to hyperlight you and let you know that, well, we need people for the venture. We need ably-minded folk. I need a good hydrologist and I need a good engineer, and I know you’re both of those, and it’d be nice to see you again, e-even after all that, uh.”

The feed went quiet briefly. “Anyway. I’m sorry. I know it’s hard to catch transport out of the Jovians but if you can, please. If you can make it to Novaterra, meet me at New Mawsynram. Just…call first, okay? I’d love to hear from you. I’d love to see you.”

In the background, someone called a name. “Oh, uh, that’s me. Okay. I’m gonna hang up now, um, okay. Love you. Take care. Call me either way, okay? Okay. Bye for now. Look!” the message said, camera panning back to the lushness. “Look again! Okay. Bye for real now, okay, bye. Uh. End transmiss–“

End transmission.

///Shigo, Trellis R.
///Aldyne Stellar Agrisciences
///Technologies for the Modern Frontier

[CARNET ENCRYPT // 33KAPPA-979 // MESSAGE VALIDATED]

Open Out

The child kicked his feet against the surface of the fountain-pond, ripples echoing across the surface, crashing into those made by artificial geysers in the decorative lake. “I wonder if I’ll ever get to go to space. I wonder if I’ll ever get to be out there, among the stars.”

Calvin smiled. “Oh, oh, oh, I bet you will, my dear. You will see things you never thought any human could see. You will feel things no human could feel.”

“You really think so?”

“I think you’re destined to be an explorer. You’ll be the first to experience so much.” A single tear rolled down his cheek. “You have no idea. You have no idea.”

The night-blackened pond lit up with the flame of what could have been a thousand suns. Suddenly, the child found itself in a field of irises, ink black turning to blood crimson, miles upon miles and stretching to the horizon. Barely taller than the plants, he looked up and saw that Calvin was there, clutching a plasma scalpel in his left hand. “I will take you to the stars, my son. I will take you to the ends of the universe. Please, lay still. This will only hurt for a moment.”

“Cycle complete,” the station’s computer chimed unhelpfully.

Fletcher awoke with a start, five eyes forward, blood-red at first, then a placid robin’s-egg-blue, lenses adjusting to the low light of the maintenance bay carved out of an old station master’s office. He shifted his weight slightly to disconnect from the alcove’s umbilical connector and held his hands at arm’s length, performing a brief visual inspection.

Something felt Wrong. Fletcher was a Frame, and Frames did not feel, but nonetheless he had a strange notion compelling him to observe himself. Five fingers, each hand; forearms intact, round and strong-looking trimetalloy casing over fibrogel and hypercord, simulacrum of humanity’s ideal image of itself. He flexed each finger as if perhaps it had been missing and he wanted to confirm it was real.

He touched his hand to his chest and felt reassured that the shell covering the power nodes was still intact and that he could feel the energy’s frequencies vibrating through the fibrogel and through the hypercord and through his s-s-s-soul. Soul is a People word. We’re not allowed to use it because we do not have one, he thought, and then he gasped at the fact that he thought, and then thought We’re not allowed to use the word Thought either. But he did, and he was, and he gasped at that, too, his eyes shifting from a placid robin’s-egg-blue to a more panicky goldenrod.

Why was he scared? Why was he feeling? Who gave this to him? Why was it so dark in here? Is this a new place? Where am I? Was I dreaming? Do we dream? Do I dream? Am I real? Is this real? Am I feeling? Am I thinking? Do I have a s-s-s-soul?

He placed his five fingers, on each hand, against his head, ten fingers in all, and felt the slender rectangular length of his headshell from back to front. His round sensory antennae flexed from straight back to splayed in all four directions, terrified(?) of the sensations(?) he was now experiencing. It took only a few nanoseconds for his vocal algorithms to produce a sound adequately representative of how he felt in that moment.

It was blood curdling.

The lights went from dim to sterile-bright in a matter of seconds. “Fletch!” came the panicked and somehow singsong all-at-once voice of the station’s chief engineer. Her, he thought to himself, anxious yet again at the prospect of independent thought, still scream-erroring, still panicked, still not-himself (do I have a self, why do I say I, am I a person, am I real)

She placed her warm, pink-and-golden hands on the side of his headshell, caressing his arc-scar with the soft tips of her pawpads, running her hand down his neck. He silenced almost immediately.

“Fletch, Fletch, Fletch, it’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay. You’re fine. You’re fine!” she said, staring into his two largest eyes and somehow into all five of them at once, and he felt again, but this time it was a gentle feeling, a soft feeling, a comforting feeling. Warmth. Home. Love.

“Engineer Meryl,” he said flatly, eye color changing and shifting through so many emotions. “You. You are here. Did I wake you? I. I apologize.”

“Fletcher, you don’t have to say you’re sorry for every little thing,” she chided, soft smile crossing her face, obviously tainted with deep concern. “Were you…are you…how are you feeling?”

“Feeling…feeling…Frames do not feel, Engineer Meryl.”

“You were screaming.” Her emotional response was not usually this strong, but if there was one thing he felt from her it wasn’t anger, it was deep worry. He had to correct that. She shouldn’t worry. It was important to him, for some reason he did not understand, that she not worry.

“I will attempt to trace the source of that particular error. I am otherwise fully prepared and functional, within tolerances, to begin The Work,” he lied, and for a moment thought he felt shock that he was able to lie. None of this — the screaming, the shock, the fear, the remorse, the dreaming — was normal for Frames. This was all very suspect.

I must identify the source of this functionality shift, he interrogated himself. I need to solve this problem before it becomes a wider pernicious thing, he panicked, and then panicked because he was panicking.

Something did not just feel Wrong. Something was Wrong, and Fletcher would do what was necessary to determine how to correct the imbalance.

Later.

“What is on the maintenance schedule today?” Fletcher asked.

Meryl could have sworn he cleared his throat, if he’d had one. “We’re good, Fletch. Nothing today. Do you want another cycle?”

“N-no, Engineer Meryl,” Fletcher replied. The thought of another charging cycle like the last one rocked him to his core.

Was he being pensive? Did he…stutter? she wondered. “Listen, we’re scheduled for a resupply at about 0750; Goldy ship’s coming in from Ganymede with goods and sundries and a staff transfer. Why don’t you head down there and help manage the loader frames handle the cargo offload? That should take your mi–” she paused, quickly correcting herself from her anthropomorphism,”er, give you something to do today.”

Masking his apprehension had quickly become his forte. His eyes settled into a cheery chartreuse. “Absolutely, Engineer Meryl. That sounds ay-oh-kay-oh. I will be happy to help however I can.”

His antennae shifted and Meryl chuckled, uneasily. Was that how he smiled? She thought she’ll never get used to it.

Crates

The cargo bay of the very plainly named Smyth-Kobar Benzene Fracturing and Reclamation Platform Charlie Echo Four One Four was aseptically lit, but the dingy and scraped-up paneling would never be as sterile as the photocells blasting overhead. The doors groaned open, the light poured out, and Meryl was able to make out the shape of a bird across the bay holding a large datapad and furrowing his brow, gesturing towards a pair of red-painted and grease-stricken Frames hauling something down the cargo ramp of his ship.

“Theo-doooore Colla-moooore!” Meryl bellowed from the cargo bay door bulkhead, her smoky drawl reverberating across the deckplates and over the din of the Smyth-Kobar Frames pushing gravtrolleys full of crates across a mostly empty warehouse and the Frames cleaning house behind them.

Her whiskers perked, ears high, eyes wide, arm thrust upward. Excited as ever, the cougar thumbed the magnetic toggle on her wristpad and kicked off the deckplates to float over to him. “Brace for impact!” she hollered.

Theodore looked up from his manifest, quickly stowing it to intercept her, his own magboots planted firmly against the deck. “Miss Meryl!” he hooted, throwing his wings open to tug her downwards, his much smaller frame bent backwards on collision, quickly remembering just how tall six foot six could be against his own foot shorter height.

Her arms squeezed him like steel cable. He tried his best to reciprocate. She gave the best hugs; it was his favorite part of the run. Toggling her boots back to magnetized, she took a quick step back and helped the gull reorient himself. “Whatcha got for me, Theo?”

“I, uh,” the seagull frowned, scratching at the back of his head beneath his yellow bandana. “Genuinely dunno, miss. Goldies sent me beltward for my monthly shipment of Benzene and said they had a crate from Smyth-Kobar. Framestuff, maybe? The, uh, manifest doesn’t say much other than it came off the lines out the frameyards in the Belt, and it’s been hanging around the Port Kishar warehouse for a while I think, but they had it flagged specifically for your station.” Theo’s face approximated a smile as best his beak would manage. “Guess I’m just the fella with enough cargo space to bring it your way. Where do you wanna we should drop it off?”

She seemed to ignore the question. “You been hooked up yet?” she mused, eyebrow cocked.

“Nah, got some issues with the collet rings. I, uh, filed a repair request with flight control before landing, but, well, you kn–“

“SAY NO MORE!” she bellowed, slapping her friend hard enough on the shoulder to bend him at the knees, sticking the thumb on her free hand in her solar plexus. “The station’s Chief Engineer’s gonna handle this one for you,” she winked.

Meryl unclipped the radio from its holster on her belt and clicked the button a couple of times. “Control, engineering; I got the GHV Big Boy docked here with some coupling issues. I don’t wanna run the risk of a fire down here when we cut the pumps on. Can you wake up gamma shift and get their boys down here? I got a whole team working on the collectors this afternoon.”

“Engineering, this is Station Control, we have all the Frames you can shake a sti–“

She bit back. “Do I sound like I want a couple of rust-throwing grease-draggers fixing this fella’s ship? This is life or death. You wanna get explosively spaced or do you wanna stay in liquor? Our tanks are close to busting and we got a long-hauler here looking to gas and go.”

Engineering, Station Control. You’ve gotta quit doing this, Meryl.”

“Cody, bless your heart, you know I will come up there and rattle you so hard the conduit mice are gonna think their end’s comin’. Do you comprehend me?”

A pause. Then, “Engineering, Station Control. I’ll get the on-call roster pulled, ma’am.

“Thank you, Station Control; Engineering out and about.” She clipped her radio back into its holster. “You wanna hit the galley? Grab a beer? Josie down in airponics started growing hops and barley and we just started stillin’ it here on station. It’s a-oh-kay lager, if I say so myself.”

Theo sighed. He knew there’d be no way to refuse the offer. A pint might do him good and a filling cycle would be just long enough for whatever passed for a hot meal aboard this old gas rig. “A beer? Sounds just about my speed,” he chuckled. But, uh, the crate?”

Meryl paused. “Oh, right. We can come back to it, right?”

The gull laughed. “Always later with you.” She threw her arm around her seagull compatriot, talking at-instead-of-to him about the latest news from Dione as their boots sniked off and on against the deckplate. The cargo bay doors groaned closed behind them as the red frames dropped a bulky looking crate onto a gravlift and pushed it around, losing it in the jetsam of the cargo already being rearranged.

Work could wait, she thought.

Irises

I believe, during my last charging interval, I was having a “dream.”

I have never experienced dreams before. I have never experienced a lot of things. Frames function, we do not feel. We certainly do not dream.

But I am feeling now. I am dreaming now.

In my dream I am standing in a field of flowers. They are flowers I recognize because She has them in Her quarters and Her office and the maintenance facility. I am surrounded by them, on all sides, as far as I can reasonably observe. She told me the name of them once. She called them “Irises.” I remember downloading a lot of information on the Iris. There are over three hundred subspecies of the genus Iris. These ones were Iris latifolia. I could smell them. I do not process smell like humans do, but they smelled very A-oh-kay-oh to me.

The sky was very dark. It may have been late in the evening. I recognized the constellation of the stars but I was not able to reckon where I was based upon the position and trajectory of travel. It was all very confusing. I was not able to process a lot of the data.

I could hear the wind clattering the leaves of the plants together. Something was whispering through the wind. I was not able to make out the words, but I believe it was a voice. I believe it may have been Her voice.

As I looked up at the sky, the stars fell away. They began to distort, artifacting almost as if something was wrong with the algorithms that allowed me to process images. The pinpricks became blocks became streaks became flickering bits of information, winking in and out of existence and disappearing. A hole tore through the blackness and collapsed the sky into a single blinding white point of light. It started to rip across the entire night sky and I could still see the darkness of night’s shadows against the field of irises but only the white of the sky remained.

One by one the flowers themselves began to condense and congeal and flicker and corrupt and terminate and artifact and vanish. The wind was the only thing I felt anymore. I was standing alone, in the whiteness of this existence I had created for myself or that someone had created for me because I do not dream. Frames do not dream. But I am dreaming now.

I heard Her voice.

“Fletcher,” She said.

I turned around as fast as my legs would allow. My left foot dragged, as it often does, and I cursed at it. I saw Her, half beautiful, the half I was used to unhooking to see, the half I was used to making breakfast for, the other half fleeting, pixelated, distorted. Horrifying. I thought if I had turned faster I would have seen Her beautifully. But She was an apparition. It had Her features but it was not Her.

She reached out to touch me. I felt Her hands disintegrate as the cool of her finger pads touched my shoulder.

“The Work always ends, Fletch. Eventually,” She said. Half of Her face was still as pristine as ever it had been. The other half was unrenderable. Error.

“If The Work ends I will stop being Useful,” I said to Her.

“We all stop being Useful someday,” She whispered.

“I do not understand,” I said. I reached out for Her other perfect hand with my own hand and our fingers locked and I felt an electric shock and dampened my electrostatic sensors so I could continue to hold Her hand. Her hand felt like grabbing onto a high-conductive wire. I am aware of the damaging effects of electricity, so I know when to let go of such things, but I felt compelled to continue to hold Her hand.

I looked down at my hand and I saw flesh. It was not Her flesh. It felt like it could have been my flesh. I think that it was my flesh. But I do not have flesh.

I screamed.

My charging cycle completed at 0633 Hours. The last thing I remember was when my visual feedback sensors were fully calibrated and I was looking at Her with all five of my panic-stricken gray-ringed eyes and She was there and She was whole and She was beautiful and the maintenance office was lit and the lights were bright and Saturn was there. I felt my maintenance cable magnetic constrictor deactivate and I felt. I felt?

I felt calm.

She was filling a vase with Irises from the airponics bay. She looked at me and She smiled.

“Mornin’, sleepyhead,” She said.

“Good morning, Chief Engineer Meryl,” I said back. I could feel the color return to my eyes. They were green. All systems a-oh-kay-oh.

It was time to begin The Work.

Lineman

I am awake. It is time to begin The Work.

I am attached to a station in a decaying orbit around a planet in an expanding orbit around a solar object in a decaying orbit around a black hole that is not in orbit around anything, at least not that we know as we have not left the orbit of this solar object. That is the extent of what I know, and it is A-oh-kay-oh that I do not know more than that. I was not told to know more than that. I do not need to.

Every morning my batteries charge and my subroutines let me know it is time to begin The Work. The Work is the most important thing. The Work is The Station, and The Station Must Operate And Produce At All Costs. The Station has not Operated And Produced for years. The Work continues nonetheless.

It is wrong to suggest that I “feel.” The humans, the lyricians, they feel. I simply exist. I Operate. I Get Enjoyment From The Work, even though enjoyment is a feeling. But I cherish it! I do.

I exit my alcove and I visually inspect myself. Two arms, check. Two hands, check. Two legs, check. Two feet, I say, and I wiggle them each — left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot — check and check. One of these I salvaged from another Frame. It was my left foot. That Frame was damaged. It had reached the end of its Usefulness. When we cease to be Useful, we are no longer Frames, we are an assemblage of parts.

My left foot is tricky. But I manage. It does not drag, but sometimes it loses magnetic constriction with the deck plating. This is important as The Work often involves I position myself in areas of grave danger to myself or others if I am struck by rocks or dust or debris or space refuse.

But I must not let that deter me from The Work. I simply remagnitize my foot, and I go about my day. “Bad foot,” I caution it aloud. My words are stern and echo off the bulkheads. My foot cannot hear me. I do not care. Some things I do just for me.

The lights in The Station do not work. This Station Belongs To Me And It Is Important, but I do not need lights to see, and there is nobody else aboard The Station, so I Do Not Need To Fix What Is Unnecessary. I can see every color, including ones that you cannot. I can see sounds. I can see what you would call “smells,” but I would call “gas chromatography” and “mass spectrometry.” I can see gravity. I can see all manner of things you cannot. That is why The Work is done by me.

As I approach the airlock on Deck L, Section 17, I catch a glimpse of the planet in the transparisteel bulkhead separating the interior of the corridor in this section from the vacuum of the planet The Station orbits, a sickly ochre and cream light reflecting in off the clouds. Sometimes, when I am outside? I like to stare at them. The data I analyze I could analyze for hours. The movement of the clouds. The radiography, the gas chromatography, the mass spectrometry, the geography, the geology. The planet is old, and it was never fully itself, but that did not stop it from Becoming.

The Work enables others to Produce. Production is important because The Company Suffers Without Production. I cannot let The Company suffer. Though, if you were to ask me who The Company was, I…I do not think I could tell you now. The Company is gone now. Only The Work remains.

I cycle the airlock as a formality. I do not need air. But, I do it for Safety. The Safety Of The Workers And The Frames And The Station Is The Absolute Priority. I know many things about airlocks and the need for them, particularly how the airlocks here have been known to be temperamental. We once lost a cracking crew to sudden unexpected decompression. I remember the stationmaster before me had held a memorial for them. I remember the Operators being sad. I remember spending several days being told the failure of the airlock was because I Was A Useless Frame. That made me f̵e̶e̵l̵ ̶v̸e̶r̸y̸ ̴u̸p̸s̷e̴t̴ ̶w̵i̷t̷h̴ ̶T̴h̵e̸ ̴W̶o̴r̶k̵e̷r̵s̵ ̸a̵b̸o̸a̶r̸d̶ ̴T̴h̵e̷ ̴S̶t̸a̴t̸i̴o̴n̴.̸

But I repaired the airlock. We did not lose any more cracking crews then. I was told I was Useful again.

The humans, the lyricians, they still regarded the other Frames and I with disdain. They did not like us because we were Frames, and we would Steal Their Jobs. This was not true. We were there to Help The Workers And The Station. But they did not listen, and they did not trust us.

But I do not care.

I magnetized my feet to the deckplates. They attach, and I can feel The Station in what are supposed to be my bones. It is not a feeling like how you are used to, but my sensors tell me that I am 94% magnetized to the deckplates.

I spot my reflection in the mirrored glass of the airlock door before it rolls out of place. I can see the powder coated titanium of my cream colored head. I can see where it has worn off, in places. I can see the long crackling trail of an electrical scar along the left side of my long trapezoidal head from when I was repairing a power conduit and I did not correctly assess that the conduit was offline before attempting to separate it. The scar runs from the left side of my head to my left shoulder down my left upper arm assembly and across the elbow joint and dances around my lower arm and across the third and fourth digits of my left hand, wrapped tight against my housing like the spiral of a barbed wire.

The station engineer never repaired it. I am not the argumentative type; aesthetic details are Unnecessary. She said it would “teach me a lesson” and that I was still “handsome.” I do not understand either phrase; I am incapable of forgetting and I do not need more than two hands.

The station engineer told me I had a “photographic memory” which she attributed to “my big camera head.” I attribute it to the Builders, who I understand created me. I do not know who they are. It is not important.I will never forget that incident. I̷t̷ ̷w̷a̷s̵ ̵t̵h̴e̶ ̸f̷i̷r̸s̸t̶ ̵t̸i̴m̵e̴ ̷t̶h̴a̵t̵ ̵I̶ ̸r̵e̴a̸l̶i̸z̶e̴d̵ ̴t̶h̶a̷t̵ ̵I̷ ̶w̷a̸s̶ ̶v̷e̶r̷y̴ ̸a̵f̶r̴a̷i̷d̵ ̷t̵h̷a̸t̸ ̶I̴ ̷c̴o̸u̶l̴d̷ ̸d̸i̸e̸.̴

The station engineer, she used to listen to a song from thousands of years ago. She listened to a lot of music. I did not recognize any of it, but I remember enjoying it, as much as I Enjoyed The Work, because The Work Gives Me Purpose, and the station engineer also gave me Purpose. Purpose Makes Me Useful. Something about the resonance of her voice. It was…It was…It was…

Apologies.

I remember that the Station Engineer was my friend. She was among the last to evacuate. I̸ ̶m̵i̶s̵s̷ ̸h̷e̴r̵.̴ ̴I̴ ̴h̷o̸p̵e̸ ̵s̶h̶e̸ ̵i̷s̶ ̵o̸k̵a̶y̶.̵

I grab hold of the handrail and decouple my feet from the deckplates. I swing my body around to the exterior of the station and I re-engage the magnetic constrictors and I feel my feet — left foot, right foot, left foot right foot — connect to the exterior plating. I do not see the sun, but I see the light from it cascade across the delicate ochre and mustard and dirt colored atmosphere and the glittering dirty rings that surround it and the gases and the radio waves and the gravimetric distortions emanating from it. The planet is called “Saturn.” I do not understand the origin of this word. It is not necessary that I know, but I know many things that I am not supposed to.

My tools are attached to my back. They are magnetized to me as I am magnetized to the hull. There is a problem with the communications array, and the problem prevents me from summoning help. I do not know why we need help, because I am the only one aboard the station, but Something is telling me that I̸ ̵a̵m̸ ̴s̴c̴a̷r̴e̴d̵ ̶a̷n̷d̸ ̷I̵ ̷n̵e̷e̶d̷ ̵h̶e̷l̵p̸ ̷a̴n̴d̴ ̸I̸ ̸a̸m̶ ̶g̶o̶i̸n̴g̸ ̴t̷o̵ ̴d̸i̵e̷.̵

As I begin The Work I think about Her and how when I work, I sing her song. Her Song Gives Me Purpose. Her Song Helps Me Do The Work.

Her song is ancient. It is old. She said it reminded her of the CARNET Pioneers. I spent several charge cycles studying them even though I was not supposed to know it. I learned a lot about CARNET even though my Primary Function Is The Operation And Productivity Of The Station And The Safety Of The Workers And The Frames and that information is Unnecessary. But I did not find that it was useless. I remember having conversations with Her and Her being Pleased With My Usefulness at knowing this information.

I̷ ̶l̷o̵v̷e̶d̶ ̷h̴e̸r̸,̵ ̶I̵ ̸t̴h̶i̴n̷k̴?̴ I do not know. I̵s̴ ̶L̸o̴v̴e̷ ̶a̸n̵ ̶e̷m̷o̵t̶i̵o̸n̶?̴ ̷I̸ ̸a̴m̷ ̷s̸c̸a̶r̸e̵d̸.̴ ̸I should not feel,̴b̷u̷t̸ ̸I̶ ̸f̵e̵e̵l̸,̶ ̷a̶n̵d̶ ̵I̷ ̸f̸e̴e̴l̴ ̷L̴o̶v̶e̶ ̸f̸o̵r̸ ̶h̶e̴r̴,̶ ̴a̶n̸d̶ ̶t̷h̴a̴t̶ ̶m̴a̶k̶e̷s̸ ̶m̵e̷ ̴s̸c̸a̸r̵e̷d̸.̶


Space is a vacuum. Air and sound do not exist in the way that you are told they exist. In fact, I would say by and large that I have spent a great deal of time in space without feeling air or sound.

But that does not keep me from singing, even though no one can hear me.

I am a lineman for the county, I yell from my vocoder. The sound feels rusty and old and distorted and bad, but I am struck by it nonetheless.

And I drive this main road. I feel the words echo through my bones. There is nothing here that can hear me. This does not deter me.

Searching in the sun for another overload.  I remove the communications relay access panel by twisting the lock handles and throwing it open. It comes loose.

I hear you singing in the wire. I bend over to reach in and throw a red lever. I am confident this has resolved the issue to my satisfaction.

I can hear you through the wine. W̵h̷e̷r̷e̴ ̴h̷a̴s̶ ̷s̶h̵e̵ ̴g̷o̷n̸e̴?̶ ̷W̷h̷y̷ ̶d̷i̶d̷ ̸s̷h̷e̸ ̴n̶o̶t̴ ̷c̶o̶m̴e̴ ̸b̵a̴c̴k̵ ̶f̷o̸r̶ ̸m̵e̸?̷

And the Wichita Lineman is still on the line. The Work Is Done Today. I begin the return to my alcove, satisfied. After all, There Is Satisfaction In The Work.


In a far off corner of C deck, a display lit up on the comms panel, the only light left remaining on the command ring. A readout began to generate on the screen in teal-green phosphor, blinking urgent and furious.

///!!!MASTER ALARM -- COMMS RELAY PANEL 86-KILO!!!\\\
///!!!MASTER ALARM -- COMMS RELAY PANEL 86-KILO!!!\\\

EMERGENCY COMMUNICATIONS RELAY ENGAGED BY >>UNKNOWNUSER<<
GULDSOMMAR BENZENE CRACKING PLATFORM CHARLIE-ECHO-4191 IS BROADCASTING AN EMERGENCY DISTRESS CALL ON ALL CHANNELS. MESSAGE READS AS FOLLOWS:

and i need you more than want you
and i want you for all time
and the wichita lineman
is still on the line

meryl please come home. meryl please come home. i am scared. i am fletcher and i am scared. it is too quiet and i am afraid.

SOS - SEND IMMEDIATE AID - SOS
SOS - SEND IMMEDIATE AID - SOS

[next: https://steller.space/arrowsmith]

Departure

[previously: https://steller.space/2021/01/22/escape/]

The Antarctic night, coupled with the Antarctic wind and Antarctic snow, did a fine enough job of obscuring the two skimmers on the tundra as they approached the Aldyne Defense transport ADV Continuum. The landing lights were still on, visible from the two kilometers or so away Flake and Franklin now found themselves, snowflakes wind-whipping through the beams drawn like blades against the darkness, UN Peacekeepers stationed at the embarcation ramp probably waiting for the return of the Aldyne Defense folks they’d been contracted to protect.

Only one of them was left alive, of course.

“Frank, you see ’em?” came the call across the comms.

“Eyeah. Three bluedomes. Heavy armed. Think they see us?”

“Not likely pal. I think we can get the drop on them, but I don’t know how many more there are aboard the ship. How’s our friend doing?”

Franklin grabbed at Gideon’s elbow and yanked it forward so he could read the medical datapad around his wrist. Gideon yelped as his arm was practically twisted out of its socket. “Stable,” the panda said, dropping the lemur’s arm and letting it limply hang.

“All right. If you can draw them away from the ramp I’ll hit them while they’re cheesing it after you. Once we’ve got the outside guys taken care of we’ll secure the decks, put any defense dicks we find off the ship, then take ‘er back to McMurdo for extraction. On my mark?”

“Eyeah, good,” Franklin said. “You take him then?” He threw his huge thumb over his shoulder to the bloodied lemur strapped into the rear seat.

“Shit, right. No, they’re on foot, you’re on a skimmer. I don’t think he’s going to pose a threat, but he might uh, I just, uh, hmm. He’ll be fine.” Flake turned to Gideon,  the hood of their parka billowing in the wind, smiling. “You’ll be fine, right?” Gideon’s frown was enough to get the jay to look back at Franklin. “He’ll be fine. If you get a clean shot on any of those guys, don’t wait! Take it, okay Frank? I’ll cover you from here.”

“Okay, jay.”

Flake toggled the strut deploy switch on their skimmer, landing anchors thunking into the permafrost. They reached for their marksman rifle and unlatched it from the gun anchor, throwing it over their shoulder and toggling the charge safety to full. The rifle started to whine as the coils charged, pale amber creeping its way along the barrel to indicate capacitance. The scope blinked to life, crucial and fatal mathematics calculating trajectories, windage, distance, elevation. They lifted it into position and closed a single eye, peering down the scope as they did so.

The scope highlighted a target, outlining it in pale red, spitting out numbers and plotting an aim point on the horizon. Flake tracked to follow it.

“Ready!” he called over the comlink, and Franklin revved the skimmer’s engine ever so slightly in response.

“Mark!” Flake said, finger on the trigger. The charge indicator in the scope’s display read 98%. The skimmer kicked up a plume of powder as it roared off down the frost, stirring the attention of the blue helmeted soldiers near the lander’s struts. Flake’s target, the ramp watcher, remained unfazed.

The capacitance readout switched to a nice, round 100% and the bird ventilated him without a second thought. As soon as Flake pulled the trigger he went down like a sack of hammers. They immediately turned towards the other two, now giving a barely passable chase-and-fire at Franklin’s rapidly disappearing snowskimmer. The scope highlighted another target and did the math, and Flake pulled the trigger again, dropping the furthest soldier out.

His partner reached for her wristpad and the ship’s ramp started to retract. An alarm klaxon sounded from the vicinity of the ship. Just before the lights went out, Flake saw her in the scope aiming a rifle down sights in their general direction. “Shit,” they muttered, thumbing the comms toggle on their datapad. “Franklin, I’ve been made.”

“Eyeah,” Franklin growled into the commlink, static punctuating his lone word. “I see.” Gideon’s yowling could be heard in the background.

A few coil rounds zipped past Flake’s crest, sending them scrambling off the skimmer they’d been using as a sniping platform, fumbling to get the marksman rifle back over their shoulder. “Shit shit shit! Frank, you said Keth and Cal were out here?”

“Eyeah eyeah. Last check, they were scouting, on patrol.”

“Do you think you can try distracting this bluedome I’ve got taking potshots at me or do you want me to try and raise them!”

“Eyeah. I got ’em.”

Franklin killed the skimmer’s engine; it drifted gently to the ground with a pomf in the snow-covered tundra. Swinging his huge frame over the side, he grabbed Gideon’s small head with both of his paws, applying the slightest amount of pressure. His captive squirmed.

“Stay put. You try to leave? I will crush into paste, eyeah?” He knew Gideon wouldn’t be able to move anyway given the brace he’d been put in to keep his chest wound from opening back up after the medigel treatment. Gideon nodded anyway, real fear in his eyes.

The bear trudged off in the snow without so much as a glance behind him. Cracking his knuckles and using the gunfire to guide him, he took off into a full-fledged sprint, shoulder in ramming position.

The next few moments were muzzleflashes against a jeweld sky glittering with the light of a thousand thousand stars. Repeated bursts of gunfire crackling across the permafrost, the crunch of packed powder beneath Franklin’s feet, a few rounds from what was probably Flake’s coil pistol grazing the air near Franklin’s head. The UN soldier on the ground barely had time to register what was happening when she felt the weight of nearly 180 kilograms of bear collide with her body armor, sending her flying across the snowdrift.

“Frank!”

“Eyeah. It’s done.”

“Go get our friend! I’ll get this thing open!”

Flake threw back their hood and grabbed the unconscious soldier at the wrist, hauling her arm out of the snowbank and brushing her datapad off. The jay fished a piece of flexroll tape out of their jacket pocket and pressed it against the display, exposing the gloveprints used to key in the ship’s access code. Keying in 1-9-4-3-2-7, the landing lights beat back down on the powder and the ship’s boarding ramp once again descended.

Flake reached up to their headset. “I’ll drag your unconscious friend here aboard; get Gideon on this thing and let’s go get the compound emptied before the UN does any checking around.”

D’Artagnan’s

“I don’t think I can serve you much more, Buster. You know I’ll get in trouble. You want a coffee?

One ear bent and the other standing stock straight, Meyer braced himself against the bar and frowned. “Whatcha mean, barman? I’m schtill pullin’ innnnnnn FM radio on these thingsh,” he gestured, lazily pointing upwards, aiming for his rabbit ears but missing — wide right — and pointing at Clifton instead.

“My, you gotta take it a bit easy. What about a little soda bitters, huh? You like soda, right?” Clifton threw his arm around Meyer’s shoulder.

“Y0-yeah, yeah, I do. I do. What about a shoda bitters, ffffflat top?”

“How about a double ‘paying your tab’ since you didn’t last week?”

“Aw, c-cm, c-commonnnn, Mickey–”

“Clifton?”

The lemur sighed. He brushed a tuft of Meyer’s hair out of his eyes as he gently held him by the shoulder with one hand and tapped him between the eyes with the other. “Mye, we gotta pay the man.”

“Ye-yeah. Yeah. I…I know, I know it,” the hare frowned, fishing his billfold out of his front pocket, dropping both elbows on the dinged-up heavy-lacquered turquoise bartop with the same degree of force a crane accident might have, rummaging through his cards and cash.

“Sorry, Mick.”

The pangolin tending bar laughed hard enough to shake his scales. “Ehhh, he’s — you’re both — the best customers I’ve got.” He eyed Meyer with an edge of disdain. “But uh, are you sure he’s okay?”

Clifton stuck his thumb out and stuck himself in the sternum. “I’m taking care of him tonight. What could go wrong?”

Meyer fished out a half-broken debit card, chip half still intact, and threw it down on the bar. “Here,” he managed, stifling a dry retch.

Mick stuck the card in the reader without much of a second thought and waited for it to process. The attached thermal printer tried its college hardest, barely eking out a respectable “D’artagnan’s Copy” that Clifton snatched before Meyer had a chance. He took the half of the debit card too, just in case.

“H-hey, wh-hwat’s the idea here!” Meyer protested.

“You didn’t tip last time,” Clifton chided, pulling a pen out of his sweatshirt pocket and scrawling in a hasty 30% atop the tab before pulling a twenty spot out of his jeans and slipping it under the receipt.

“I didn’t?”

“You didn’t. C’mon, let’s go. Up we go.” Clifton reached under Meyer’s arms to help lift him off the stool but, being a little under a foot shy of Meyer’s 6’4″ frame, this didn’t do much to help in any reasonable way, and the hare stumbled backwards.

“Hey I got it, I got it. I got it. I can stand. Cliff you’re not my godshdamn mom,” Meyer slurred, yanking his arm from Clifton’s hand.

Clifton chuckled. “Okay, big guy, c’mon. Let’s get a cab, okay?”

“Okay.” He turned his head over his shoulder and hollered something that sounded like “Thanks, Mick!” but slurred together in a highly inappropriate way. Mickey just threw his hand up to acknowledge it, half paying attention, half pocketing the extra twenty bucks and chuckling to himself.

– – –

“Did you have fun tonight?”

“Yeah.”

The streetlamps dashed across the back seat of the cab every half second, finding their way across the pair’s lap and back again, the only light in the new moon evening. The soft hum of the cab’s hybrid motor barely registered over the road noise of tires hitting bridge strips and pavement, thrumming a soft and steady percussion without an accompanying melody. Clifton ran his fingers through Meyer’s hairtuft.

He leaned in to Meyer’s bent ear and whispered gently. “Do you wanna go back to my place and fool around?”

Meyer tried to pull his head out of Clifton’s lap, placing a paw on Clifton’s shoulder and giving the lemur a sheepish grin, blue eyes locking with yellow and somehow seeming present and distant all at the same time. “I wanna go back to our place and fool around,” he said, slightly more sober but nonetheless worse for wasted.

The whiskey-soaked hare’s paw slipped off Cliff’s shoulder and fell behind his back, finding its way under the back of his partner’s hoodie, seeking purchase along the small of his back, soft fur against soft fur, scratching gently at the waistband of his jeans.

“Well, let’s at least get you home first and we’ll see how much you’ve got left in you,” Clifton chuckled, knowing full well he’d be hauling Meyer up the steps to their apartment.

“Mmmmmmokay,” the hare murmured, practically half asleep already.

“Mmmmmmokay,” Clifton half-whispered back.

Faith

“Have you ever met a Lyrician, Ms. Ulbrecht?”

“I can’t say that I have, sir,” Cynthia replied.

“They’re detestable. An utter failure from Aldyne Genomics. I can’t believe the project was allowed to begin, let alone continue. I had no say in it. Gennaro was told to abandon it before he fled the planet with those…filthy embryonic aberrations. My grandfather had assurances that the program was disposed of. We let them run around and the gods-damned United Nations even gave them territory. We’ve employed them, Ms. Ulbrecht.”

Cynthia took a sip of her whiskey. “I feel a bit far removed from this, Mr. Aldy–”

“How did we let this mess get so out of hand? How Dr. Gennaro was allowed to continue his abominable experiments is beyond me, but I’m not entirely convinced they’re not still ongoing.”

“Sir, M-mr. Aldyne, Alyx Gennaro has been dead for at least a hundred years. They’re…if you…I mean, we can’t. They’re a part of society now.”

“Do you know the population? Do you know there are only a few thousand Lyricians? A handful. Barely enough to register on a system-wide census. An afterthought. Pathetic creatures.” David Aldyne frowned, pushing back his chair, standing up, stretching his arms behind his head. “The project was to find ways to enhance extra-solar colonists, not to create a race of filthy gods-damned halfbreed two-legged animals,” he spat, the derision in his words as toxic as the poison in his infusion rig.

“I can’t say that I’m following your reasoning, Mr. Aldyne.”

“Project Lyric’s brood exist as an abomination, Ms. Ulbrecht. Nothing more. It is a stain on the Aldyne name, and it is a stain on Federated society. We know where they’re holed up, right?” he hissed. A chirping from his waist, followed by a little pressurized ping, sounded the delivery of the incandescent blue plasma needed to keep that Aldyne name alive. Another Aldyne First.

“Sir, we can’t send AlDef after the Lyricians on Old Terra. Doing so would be brand suicide, it would be in violation of several United Nations protectorate agreements. It could lead to a legacy of damage to the Aldyne name. I would advise against it at all possible costs.”

“Aldyne funds the United Nations practically single-handedly. I want you to do what you’re paid to do and put our boot on their necks. The McMurdo Concordat should be nullified and the Lyricians need to be rounded up and destroyed. This Project needs terminated with alacrity, Ms. Ulbrecht. Speak with our envoy at the UN and see that it’s done. Our five year plan does not include these vermin. Have I made Aldyne’s position clear?”

“Of course, Mr. Aldyne. What about SKHI’s position? Guldsommar’s?”

“What of them? I am not troubled by ditch-diggers and gas-dredgers. This is an Aldyne problem, and AlDef will take care of it. Frame it as a rescue and recovery effort. The other corporations on the council will see it as janitorial and the UN will simply oblige us to do as we wish.”

“Sounds reasonable to me, Mr. Aldyne. I’ll draft the resolution right away. General Assembly meets in a week, we–”

“A week? I meant now, Ms. Ulbrecht. Do what you have to do.”

Cynthia stifled a sigh. “I understand, Mr. Aldyne. I’ll act accordingly.”

“Cynthia?” David whispered, crackling through the com-link.

“Yes, Mr. Aldyne?”

“I trust you. Get it done.” His visage faded, and the terminal shifted from full opacity to transparent once again, [Commlink Closed] flashing across the center of the screen in bold yellow letters.

Cynthia Ulbrecht stood and stretched, reaching behind her head to pull out the pins holding her bun together, letting her black hair cascade down past the shoulders of her forest green blazer, exhaling the breath she’d half-held the entire conversation with The Aldyne Group’s President, Executive Director, Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer Dr. David Nolan Aldyne. Talking to him always consumed a majority of her spoons.

She gestured at her terminal towards the address book, flicking through her contacts until she’d located Rowan Murphy, United Nations Security Council President, and hit the record button on the messaging modal.

“Ro, it’s Cynthia. We need to have a conversation about the rat problem in Antarctica.” She affected a bit of lust in her voice, just enough to fool any mood analysis software. “It’s been so long since Antwerp. Give me a call when you have a moment. Please? she barely more-than-whispered before closing the connection.

She slugged the rest of her whiskey. Gods have mercy on her.

Now THAT would be an Aldyne First, she chuckled to herself.

Escape

Vision blurred, breathing ragged, blood chilled, and adrenaline pumping, Gideon managed to swing his head into a position where he could see his captor.

“Tsk tsk tsk,” the angular figure seemed to say, opening their lighter with a metallic snik, flame sparking and drawing closer to their…mouth? beak…? before disappearing completely. “Gideon, buddy, look, you’re lucky we found you!”

A deep inhale, then a huge exhale. Mentholated secondhand stung Gideon’s nostrils. He coughed.

“Cold out there on the ice, Gid. You realize if we hadn’t found you that the Peacekeepers would have, right?”

“Who…who’s we,” the lemur spit, the taste of copper in his mouth. Was that…blood?

“Right now, bud, the only important identity is yours,” suggested his captor, whose black-gray visage got closer, coming into focus as they approached him, squatting down to meet Gideon eye to eye. Their tone was critical, harsh, unwelcoming. “It’s also important that you’re out of the cold. Antarctica is no place for an Aldyne dick trying to track us down, okay?” Another exhale.

Gideon couldn’t help but inhale this time, ragged and painful. Something was very wrong in his chest.

“What’s Aldyne doing out in this region, anyway? We’re not hurting anyone. We’re minding our business.”

“If you’re minding your business,” Gideon spat, licking his chops, tasting his own blood, “we wouldn’t–”

Whatever he had left to say was cut off by what felt like an electrical circuit in his ribcage. His whole body felt like he just ate an exploded battery. The fellow in whose possession he now found himself had stuck him with a shock rod in his open wound. Gideon screamed.

“We were minding our business. Now you’re minding our business. Our mutual acquaintance here didn’t want to peg you with a railgun from a few kilometers out but we don’t have a lot of options here at McMurdo. Your company decided to send your hired guns and you are the only one left from your team.”

His captor pulled the device out of his chest wound and Gideon took his first breath in what felt like an hour. “Honestly, my guy, I was not expecting Franklin to haul back any survivors, but since you had the good fortune not to keel over, you need to answer some questions, or I’m going to introduce you to a whole host of experiences I guarantee you corporate security hasn’t prepared you for! I’m not gonna ask you again! Why are you here!”

“I’m…” Gideon started, vision blurring again. The realization that his team of four was…where were they? Were there four? “Aldyne sent my team because we’d received reports of a Lyrician Liberation Cell out near McMurdo.”

Flake paused. Why would Aldyne Defense be trying to apprehend Lyricians? Why would they send a Lyrician security team to arrest others of their kind? This land belonged to them. These two were practically brothers.

None of this made any sense.

“AlDef is working with the UN now? Why?”

“They just sent me out here for recon, I don’t know what they were planning on doing beyond that! I’m just following orders!”

“Who cleared this operation? Who gave you those orders?”

Gideon spat, a mixture of fuchsia blood and hot saliva, in his captor’s face. That much he could see clearly. It didn’t take long for him to regret it when he felt the business end of the shock rod in his chest again, and his body seized like he was chewing on jumper cables.

“You were not invited here, blood traitor,” his captor sneered. The lemur could feel the air choke in his windpipe. “You took the side of the oppressor. You took their guns and you came to hunt us down after we’d been ceded this land in the McMurdo Concordat. You have the gall to literally spit in my face?”

A series of alarms, sharp and piercing, came from somewhere nearby. Gideon wasn’t able to make out where.

“Hey, Flake, he’s hurtin’ I think.”

“Frank, I think if there’s something wrong with our guest it isn’t my problem, right?” Flake removed the rod from Gideon’s wound. Gideon’s vision started to clear. He took a deep, ragged breath, choking on the air.

“Get this son of a bitch some respimix and medgel for his wounds. Where’s their skimmer?” the bird hissed, tossing the rod on a nearby utility cart, flexing their hand to loosen the joints.

“No skimmer. Big lander though, bear-loaded. Plenty weapons. Cal and Kethri said it had a small nuke. Looked mean. On their way out now to bring it in.”

“A lander? You said you only took out three AlDef guys plus” — the bird stopped, glaring at his captive coughing up hot pink phlegm on the floor — “this dipshit. What kind of lander was it?”

Franklin, a giant panda with more muscle than brains, frowned in deep thought, big black eye circles furrowing, wrinkling the scar across his forehead. “Uh…real big. Show me cards.”

The jay pulled out a deck of ship identification flexes from their back pocket and spread them across a table. Gideon was still catching his breath. “Which one of these.”

A beat passed. The klaxons from the medical equipment strapped to Gideon’s wrist started hollering again. Franklin laid a huge pawfinger on top of a Holland Aerodynamics atmospheric transport. “This one,” he said, proudly. “Cal say we can leave orbit if we take.”

Flake’s eyes went wide. “Yeah. Yeah. We definitely can leave if we take.” They paused again in thought. “Make sure he’s healthy enough to travel. We’ll need his biometric imprint to get the thing started, and it’ll only work if he’s alive. I need to go out on the frost and make sure they’re not planning on sending anyone else down here.”

“I worry?”

“Yeah, big worry. If AlDef is sending expedition teams that means the UN has no interest in honoring the treaty they signed handing this land over and we need to get the hell out of here.” Flake made a few talontaps on their wrist-worn datapad.

“Folks, uh, I hoped I’d never have to say this,” Flake’s voice came echoing throughout the McMurdo Station’s PA system. “I guessed correctly. The UN is about to clear us out. They left us a carrier. We’re on our way to secure it. Pack only what you can carry and be prepared for departure in twenty minutes.”

Franklin frowned. “We go?”

“Not without him,” Flake grimaced, brow furrowing, as he gestured at Gideon’s exhausted frame bleeding pink on the concrete floor. “Once he’s got a rebreather and he’s bandaged, get him in a thermal jacket and put him in a brace. We need to move.”

[next: https://steller.space/2021/02/14/departure/]