The Unlikely Heroines of Callisto Station
by Marie Vibbert
Lottie wanted to break something. Because she hadn’t! She’d shaped the cafeteria tray perfectly, with an ergonomic curve to support her elbow. She hadn’t had access to screws or nails, so she cut tabs into the workbench and slots into the tray, but the creators of workbenches had clearly not thought ahead to the eventual need for a series of slots to be cut, so when she’d inserted the expansion tray—with minimal force!—the entire surface had broken. How was that her fault?
“We’re in this together,” Saravit said. Which was a lie. He was in with them, with those who cared more about toeing imaginary lines than creating a better work environment. How stifling it was to live in a closed structure, surrounded by the same hundred people day in and day out. Everyone knew everyone’s reputation and didn’t care to learn more.
Saravit waited for her to look at him before he continued speaking. “Tell me what happened. Start at the beginning.” He was saying all the things he would say in a regular session. This was not a regular session. Their regular sessions were in a semi-private cubicle inside the station infirmary. There was a wall of translucent pink that curved around Sara-vit’s little area. It was meant to be informal, to put the patient at ease. It reminded her of a nail salon waiting room, especially with the comingled scents of astringents and the sounds of nurses and doctors going about their business. Maybe it did set her at ease.
Today they were not in the nail-salon waiting room cubicle. They were in Saravit’s private bedroom, with the door closed. A gently tapered cube of a room, like her own, only with a built-in desk where the roommate bunk should be. It smelled vaguely spicy, like an expensive male perfume. Saravit sat on his bed: military corners, the blanket turned flocked-side-up for a softer look. A battered teddy bear sat near the foam pillow. Lottie sat in the room’s only chair, which swung out from under the mounted desk so she felt balanced on the edge of scissors.
Saravit’s fingers flexed where they were interlaced over his knee. He was moving carefully. There was a line like a separator between his thick eyebrows. “Lottie, you know why you’re here.”
It was unfair how he was making her start the conversation. A minor humiliation, an acceptance of guilt. The stillness was boiling in her. She stared hard at the depthless eyes of the toy bear. “Because people are afraid of me.”
“No. No.” Saravit leaned forward, blocking her view. His eyebrows had gotten even straighter, the line between them even deeper. “This isn’t about what other people feel, nor the equipment you damaged.”
“Ha! No one cared. No one dragged me to see you until I took apart the bench. Anyway, I didn’t damage it. Not really. It was already damaged; it wasn’t going to work like it was. Anyone could see that.”
“Could they? Dispassionately, how would you evaluate your behavior this week?” Saravit’s eyebrows normally tilted outward, giving him a sheepish expression when he smiled. The expanse between his brows was paler than the rest of his face. The crinkle made his whole countenance darker. She realized suddenly that he could perfectly play a tragic, brooding hero: someone who is found out later to be a vampire or to have sealed his rival into a chamber in his basement. The heroine would know better, but still fall for him.
Throughout graduate school, a gothic novel a week was Lottie’s main vice. In antique paper or digital copy, the heroines might have attacks of “nerves” but the symptoms were always gentle, passive: a weak cry, a faint. Her love had betrayed her or gone missing or died, but for the sake of his honor and her own reputation, she would make no greater sound than a kitten’s sigh.
Lottie was not a romantic lead, but neither was she the monstrous spinster hidden in the attic. “I didn’t hurt anyone. Everyone is acting like I hurt someone. I didn’t. I never would.” Yes, sometimes she felt like she was boiling and the only way to release the pressure was to turn something into a mess of itself, but this was not one of those times.
Saravit parted his large, thick-fingered hands. “You promised you’d come see me immediately if you stopped sleeping at night or felt restless.”
“There were no warning signs.” No, bad answer. That was an admission that there could have been. “I feel fine.” Lottie wanted to get up and move, but that was a warning sign. She stared hard at the ceiling. The insulation layer made it look like it had been dipped in marshmallow. How insane it was, that the station padded its ceilings and bolted down its chairs. If something happened with enough energy to disrupt the thousands of tons of inertial force that kept them spinning, bumping their heads or tripping on chairs would be the least of their worries.
Saravit made a long, slow groan, like a metal brace deciding if it was going to fail. He leaned forward, arms on his knees, and shook his head. His hair was bristly, black, showing flashes of brown scalp.
Lottie got the distinct feeling she’d missed something, made some confession without noticing. “I know when I have warning signs. How could anyone else know but me?”
“Lottie, the jig is up. You’ve been avoiding contact with your supervisor and the medical team. You lied to your roommate and piled sample containers in your bed so she’d think you were sleeping. Most importantly, I know you deleted all the security footage from the camera in your bedroom. Why would you do that?”
This was an easy area—the area of things instead of people. “I deleted the footage for your sake. The security AIs can’t make nuanced decisions. They would page you in the middle of the night when I’m just not feeling sleepy. It’s ridiculous that they’d bother you because a person stepped outside their rigid, unrealistic boundaries of ‘normal’ behavior. People get insomnia. For ordinary reasons. Caffeine, for instance. Or worry. The gravimetric project is at a delicate stage. We aren’t sure the initial experiments are reproducible. We need to isolate all sorts of variables in the redundant tests, and we can’t order new equipment for overnight delivery to Jupiter!”
Saravit wasn’t listening. He was waiting for her to finish talking. There was a flatness in his eyes. “A failure in any system on this station could result in the loss of life. Those cameras make sure there are no pinholes in pressure, no fires, and yes, no behavioral anomalies. Your neighbors say you were skipping rope all night.”
“That’s ridiculous. Who can jump rope all night long?”
Saravit’s eyebrows retreated. Like they were forgiving her. Like he appreciated the aesthetic value of her lie.
Lottie squirmed. “I only jumped rope that one time, and I was very quiet about it. I needed to burn energy so I would sleep. You’re always saying I need to sleep! I would have gone to the gym, but . . .” Lottie bit her lip.
His mouth tilted up on one side, joining his eyebrows in amusement. “But you hadn’t disabled the cameras there?”
She hadn’t disabled those cameras, because it would be a severe security breach to have no oversight in a public space. Shouldn’t there be credit given where credit was due? Lottie’s hands hurt from clasping them so tightly together, yet she squeezed them further, felt the creak and strain of finger-joints. “Don’t make me take medication. I’m in the middle of a breakthrough and I need to be sharp. I’m doing amazing things.”
“The truth at last. Mania can feel like it’s worth it, but it will pass, and you will do impulsive things you may regret.”
“I’m not a child!”
She shouldn’t have raised her voice. Also, she shouldn’t have stood. He was looking at her now, very seriously, like he was afraid of what she’d do. She hated that look, especially from Saravit. Other people gave her that look all the time, but not him. “Lottie, if administration finds out you’re not taking your medication you’ll be fired. Shipped off to Earth. Do you understand? The only way I can protect you is to get your levels back to normal as soon as possible.”
“Two more days.” Lottie dropped to the floor. The fabric of her pants tugged on the rubber nonslip surface. Saravit rolled his eyes and reached for her forearms, trying to pull her back to her feet. She pushed him away with her elbows, keeping her fingers clasped. “One more day? Just one!” He almost got hold of her, and she reared back. “I’m rewriting the entire security system! It will be smarter! Better for everyone!”
“Lottie, that’s not your job. Sit . . . be calm. If you can’t sit . . .” She pushed him again, and he let go, stepping back as far as he could in the small room, to the corner between the bed and wall, his hands raised. “You’re right,” he said. “People are afraid of you. They are afraid when you don’t sleep, and they are definitely afraid when you break your workbench.”
“It was too weak. It didn’t work right and I was angry at it and I’ll make a new, better one. I need to keep working while I have the energy.”
Someone knocked on Saravit’s door. He held up a hand as though warding them off. “You didn’t . . . did you stop taking your medication on purpose? Did you knowingly trigger this episode? Lottie!”
The knock repeated, and Facilities Manager Xiao Fung’s voice, muffled by the thickness of metal and insulation, said, “Vit? What’s the deal? You in there?”
Lottie had always feared Facilities Manager Xiao Fung. She had forearms as thick as Lottie’s legs, and her upper lip was permanently curled in a sneer, and she was always sitting next to Saravit in the lunchroom, which was where Lottie wanted to sit.
Saravit took Lottie’s hands and held them until she moved her eyes to his face. “Forget about her. Forget about the world outside this room. Did you stop taking your meds on purpose? Did you set this up because of a project?”
Lottie wanted to melt. She wanted to scream. She had been sitting still way too long. She tried to tug free, but Saravit was stronger. She let herself hang from his hands. He pulled her up, dragged her to the desk, and set her against it. How dare he keep her standing when she didn’t want to? She should be on the floor. She should be crawling. He pushed the scissor-seat with his knee, folded her into it. “Easy, easy,” he said.
It wasn’t easy. Tears and snot clogged her throat, making her gasp and hiccup. “There’s this deadline. It’s unrealistic. I had no chance of making it. Months of research on the line. You know how Dr. Izen gets. Her damn gravity grant. I thought if I stopped sleeping . . . sometimes I’ve done things; I’ve done things I couldn’t dream of doing when I’m . . . when I’m calm. So I took a dose of antidepressants and stopped taking everything else. And I took a stimulant. The lab workers all take no-doze, you know. I . . . it worked like I planned. I had it under control.”
The words helped. She opened her eyes to find Saravit had retreated again, to his corner away from the door. His hands were outstretched, as though to catch her.
The knocking continued.
“Lottie? Remember when we agreed that you’d respect my opinion if I said it was time to take a shot? It’s time to take a shot.”
She wanted to pace. Pacing was mad. There wasn’t room here, with the desk and the bed and two humans. Also, turning in spin-gravity always made one incredibly light-headed. Pacing wasn’t done. That was why she had to jump rope—it was stationary. You lived with this fear of turning, like life was a jogging track. With all these people not looking behind themselves, it was a wonder Saravit had time for her. The station should be full of paranoids.
Lottie climbed onto the desk chair, then the desk, then stepped onto Saravit’s back, onto the bed, onto the floor.
Saravit stepped sideways to block her access to return to the desk. “You need treatment, or you’ll lose your job.”
Lottie froze. Oh no. Oh no no no. Dropping forever, all the way back to Earth, a failure, a nothing. That wasn’t fair! She marshaled her strength to plead, “One more day.”
“It’s already been one more day than it should have been, and you know it. I’m sorry. You did an amazing job hiding this from me. I’m proud.”
Was he? He looked honest. She did trust him. But . . . fired? He kept his hands on her arms and set her back in the chair. “You’re a good person, Lottie, and a great engineer. You’ll figure this problem out on your own, the slow way. I believe in you.”
She knew what he was doing. Compliment her. Keep her still. Imply that she could figure out not just the research problem but also her emotional state. Now he kept one hand on her, a still hand, pressing gently, convincing her to stay in her seat, to be still. He opened his medical kit with the other hand. Lottie wanted to cry. She wanted to scream. She wanted her scream to tear straight through the metal walls like a laser bursting a balloon and spill all of them out into the void like frozen droplets of atmosphere.
And she knew that wasn’t right, to feel like that. Still she screamed, and she closed her eyes.
Saravit said, “I won’t do anything without your consent, but I need you to let me treat you. This isn’t good for you, being like this. There could be damage. To your heart, to your respiration, to your brain chemistry. Do you trust me to know what is safe and good for your health?”
Oh no. This wasn’t fair. She stood on the seat, but he rose with her, kept his hold on her hands, and delivered the second blow. “If we don’t trust each other, how will we work together? I have to trust you to keep your word, and you have to trust me to tell you the truth.”
It was true. She had promised to trust him. She remembered it even if she didn’t feel it in the moment. Lottie crawled back into the seat. Saravit let go of her wrists. She put her hands between her legs, where she could keep them from moving. He waited, hands still outstretched like she was a child on a ladder and might fall. “Yes,” she said. “I trust you.”
It went fast then. The official consent. The muscular-shot chemical that would trigger her neural implant to manufacture calm. She felt the prick, smelled the alcohol as Saravit put away his materials. She didn’t feel it yet, but soon she’d be exhausted. Just when she didn’t have time. The project still needed to be finished. In one day, the research staff would finish the battery of tests they were working on, and if she didn’t have the software worked out, they couldn’t start their next jobs. She would be blamed, but it wasn’t her fault. She’d been so close to done!
Her brilliant streak was being killed, her abilities curtailed. Did anyone have a right to murder something like that?
Her anger, however, was already fading into resignation. That was the worst part, like she was siding against herself.
Saravit rubbed her hand. “There. That wasn’t so bad, was it? There.”
She liked that. And she knew, like waking from a dream and remembering who she was, that she would also like falling asleep. “Are we done?”
“Tomorrow, first thing, we’re going to meet and talk. We need to decide what we’re going to do, as a team, if you feel you need stimulation to stay up longer or work faster. We have to balance that need with the needs of your brain chemistry. Self-treatment without my guidance is not the answer. Would you want Dr. Izen to work without your guidance when an experiment needs engineering input?”
It was unfair of him to put it like that. “Couldn’t I ever . . . be manic . . . in control? A controlled manic? For a day, maybe, or an hour?”
“I wish it worked that way. We’ll talk tomorrow in more detail. Meet me in my office at 0900. Are you okay to get back to your room? I’ve asked station security to stay out of your way.”
Lottie nodded, stood, and waited for him to open the door to the hall. In the morning, she would feel she’d made the right decision, and that it had been her decision, but right now she felt like she’d been punished for a crime she had not committed.
Saravit opened the door and wished her well like she had stopped by for a chat. She knew without looking—never look behind you in spin-grav—that he was hanging in the door, watching her go.
Station security might have been keeping a polite distance, but Xiao Fung wasn’t. With her hands on her hips and her legs planted far apart, she blocked the walkway in the up-traffic direction. Lottie would have to pass her, or risk breaking one of the most stringent rules of etiquette on the station and walk spin-ward on level two. All life on the station funneled through the two main corridors, the one downstairs and this one. People walked spin-ward on level one and anti-spin on level two.
Xiao was what Lottie’s mother would describe as a “fireplug of a woman.” Wide and low in the hips with a square face made squarer by her severe haircut. Standing like that, she resembled nothing quite so much as a road construction barrier.
Lottie’s room, her bed, lay ahead, past where the corridor floor tucked away behind the ceiling. Life on a ring station meant always feeling like you were walking up a ramp.
Lottie felt the future effect of the shot creeping on her, a cold presence. She lowered her head and tried to duck into the widest open space between Xiao and the wall. “Leave me alone.”
Xiao turned deftly in place. “I would love to. What were you doing in my boyfriend’s room?”
Perhaps Xiao’s years as a maintenance engineer had destroyed her inner ear. Lottie had spun in place once to find out what it felt like, and it had sent her straight to the deck.
Xiao swiped at her arm, but Lottie flinched out of reach and walked as briskly as she could without running. Xiao followed, growling, “He’s too nice to set boundaries, but I’m not.”
Every ten feet, the corridor had a depression painted a darker grey with a dark groove in the center for the emergency bulkheads that lowered to trap air if there were a leak. Lottie had a superstition about not stepping on them, a transplant of her childhood game of not stepping on sidewalk cracks. She hopped one, two. Xiao kept on her. “A birdie told me you’ve been acting crazier than usual. I’m thinking it’s an act, to get his attention. Saravit gives all he has to you patients, and you walk all over him.”
A technician stepped into a doorway to let them pass. A pair of conversing specialists—Dr. Zhang’s lab, closed-system farming—squeezed around Lottie and Xiao, oblivious and uncaring of their drama.
Xiao was the shorter woman, but her strong legs made up for Lottie’s stride. Also, she was remarkably good at slipping around people, even the person pushing a full cart that Lottie had only evaded by stepping on top of a pipe she probably shouldn’t have stepped on. (It flexed under her foot like an animal gasping.)
“Admit it. I’m not asking for more than that. You’re after my man. I don’t blame you. It’s not like you have options. Go ahead, be jealous. I can’t stop you. But off hours—”
Lottie tripped, she couldn’t tell on what; the corridors were kept scrupulously clean so it had to be air itself, a drag of the toe. She almost fell. Oh no. Perhaps the exertion was making the drug enter her bloodstream more quickly than expected. She sagged against a convenient wall, watching Xiao’s mouth working without hearing her words. How would she get out of this conversation? She needed to rest. The wall was comfortable, covered in safety foam. It gave gently, like the silvered wood swing on her front porch when she was a child. She’d sit there reading, pushing her father’s endless sari-fabric throw pillows off onto the floor like she was burrowing down to the wood, down to her deeper self, while her heart ached to join her heroines in their windswept castles. She always saw herself as the sidekick, the well-meaning friend, not the main character. She would make them tea and explain the decisions they ought to be making.
Oh no. This was the downturn. She was distracted and sleepy. Next came the depression, the longer analog to her short beautiful week as a comet burning. She hoped Saravit could get her through it quickly. Her first on-station depression had lasted two weeks. She’d hardly moved from her bed, skipping work shifts without telling anyone. It hadn’t seemed worth the effort. There had been disciplinary hearings. She skipped those, too. She was threatened with being reassigned as a janitor. That was how the university avoided paying travel vouchers for firing—demoted you to the worst possible job, with the worst possible compensation, and waited for you to leave on your own.
She hadn’t even shown up for the reassignment orientation. Julie started sleeping over at someone else’s room. Lottie never found out who or how they’d managed, since there weren’t any unused beds in the station. There were rooms that weren’t in use, yet, but those were sealed and airless.
One day the new station psychiatrist was sitting on the floor by her bed and asked her, “Are you okay?”
“No,” she’d said.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“Do you feel depressed? You’ve been depressed in the past, isn’t that right?”
Saravit nodded. “In a bit. I’m going to be here, if you decide you do want to talk.”
Xiao snapped her fingers in front of Lottie’s face. “Hey! Am I boring you?”
“I . . . I just got a shot and it’s making me drowsy. I’m not after your boyfriend, please leave me alone.”
Xiao opened her mouth to say something else, when a speaker overhead announced, “All security volunteers please report to your stations. Medical and maintenance crews prepare for an emergency procedure at Docking Bay A.”
Xiao looked up at the ceiling. “I wonder what the hell that is.”
Lottie didn’t wonder what the hell it was. She used what energy she had left to stumble blindly toward her bunk, where she fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.
* * *
Xiao Fung watched Lottie run away like Xiao was fuckin’ Godzilla. Yeah, that’s right, heaven forbid you talk to the lowly monster who fixes the toilets. What could you expect from a snot who destroyed her workbench rather than call maintenance? Bothering Vit at home like he was her personal servant. If it had been her home, Xiao wouldn’t say anything, but she sure as hell stood up for her friends.
Now wasn’t the time to let bullies take up space in her mind. She picked her radio off her belt. “What’s the story, Mason?”
Her chief electrician had ears all over the station. Sure enough, Mason’s gruff voice answered, “Ship in distress. We gotta let ’em dock. Probably boring.”
Xiao checked the corridor section number, in its usual place on the ceiling. “We got any repairs needed outside of maintenance hatch C-1?”
“I’m just asking! I’m right by maintenance hatch C-1, and I don’t have anything on my immediate schedule.” Actually, she was off-duty, but Mason didn’t need to know that.
“You’re going to EVA just to ogle these guys? I thought you already had a boyfriend.” Ha, ha.
Xiao jogged ahead two corridor-sections and into the maintenance airlock receiving room. “I have certain privileges as the lady who knows where all the trash goes, and one of them is the right to go outdoors whenever I damn well feel like. So we got something outside of C-1 or don’t we?”
“I’m looking; don’t wet yourself. Wish I were as easily amused as you. Let’s see . . . yeah, we got a winner! Remember that cable run on the exterior we lost throughput on months ago?”
Ugh. Yeah she remembered. Data trunk line—operations noticed when they couldn’t detect a toilet leak remotely after a smell complaint. Boy was that a job.
“Our temporary shunt is still out there, huh?”
Xiao went into the receiving room. She wriggled into a suit bottom and clipped her radio to it. “I was always going to fix that. Do me a favor, log my EVA and find a tech to run safety for me?”
Mason griped. Xiao didn’t care. Putting on a spacesuit felt like returning home. Her youth on Mars had been nothing but environment suits, all the time. Oh, they were hell, for sure. No one liked them. But now that she spent most of her time in shirtsleeves, the pervasive stink of old sweat and sweet coolant, the scratch of the netting was like putting on a well-loved pair of slippers.
She got the wiring kit out of the tool locker and hooked it to her suit. “I’ll trace it back to section C-81. That’s where we patched in again. The break is probably near the airlock. They usually are.”
Mason tutted. “Is there no task so boring you won’t use it to gawk at a spacecraft?”
“Boring?” Xiao huffed, shrugging into the top of her suit. “What if something goes wrong? You think of that?”
There was a sound like Mason taking a screwdriver out of her mouth. “I think I’ve got a gorgeous view of the ducts under administrative services. They’re complaining about the heat again. They should try putting their backs on the outer wall. My tits are about to flake off.”
Xiao jumped down to the airlock rather than use the ladder to the lower level. Some people wouldn’t do that, scared their tiny human body would hurt the station wall or something. Some people!
“The number-pushers still bitching about the cold? I changed the max setting on their thermostat.”
“Boss, I could light that office on fire, they’d still say it’s too cold. They know we’re in space, right?”
Xiao clipped her tether and cycled the airlock. With her thumb, she switched her personal radio off and flicked on the suit radio. “When they want fish for dinner, they know.” The doors parted on blackness. How could anyone forget this?
With a mad grin, she fell into the beautiful dark below. The force of the station spin sent her out on her tether, then yanked her back toward it as her inertial angle kept straight and the station swiftly moved. It was an expensive roller coaster ride, but it ran whether you rode it or not, and Xiao loved riding. With ease she timed the moment she could reach a handhold, assisted with a tiny jet from the EVA suit, and she was swinging across the ladder of handholds on the station’s exterior to the edge, where she could start climbing “up.”
For now, she ignored the cable run, climbing past it to the roof of the ring. The station spread out before her, a landscape of ash-grey ceramic and various metal and plastic patinas, all blushing pink from reflections of Jupiter, which dominated the view; the moon the station was named for was barely visible in the swirls and colors. The engineers and scientists could work on pie-in-the-sky money-making dreams for the niversity, but Xiao and her crew made the very real dream of a stable living platform come true.
“News on the rescue,” Mason interrupted her reverie. “These a-holes say they don’t have any EVA suits on board, can you believe that?”
Xiao stood on top of the habitat ring, hands on her hips, and craned her head back to watch a dark wedge-shape slowly creeping into view. “Well, that’s stupid,” Xiao said. “But not a problem for docking.”
“Nonstandard dock,” Mason said. “We’d save hours if they could fly their people over in suits.”
High above Xiao was the squat cylinder of the station hub with docks on either end. The station felt still, despite all of it spinning ninety-four meters per second, the two nearby arms that connected the ring to the hub were insane skyscrapers, making her deliciously tiny. Saravit should see this, she thought, and laughed at herself, because Vit got space-sick every time he so much as went to a view-port.
Tracking the arriving ship, she estimated she had a half-hour wait before it reached the dock. She sighed and looked for that damn cable, still thinking with a back part of her brain about how she’d describe the ship in distress to Vit.
* * *
Lottie woke, refreshed and blank, staring at the familiar pattern of braces and insulation over her head, and then she remembered who she was and what she’d been doing the day before, and she felt deeply, horribly embarrassed—like embarrassment was a liquid in her mattress, and her weight had pushed the liquid out, and it was rising, soaking her slowly from back to front.
She rolled over and covered her head. Had she really jumped rope in the hallway outside her room? How had she thought that was a good idea? Hiding her head did not make the shame pass nor allow her to slip back into the blameless world of sleep. Blue numerals on the wall unrelentingly informed her it was 08:13. She had to see Saravit at 09:00. She had enough time to shower before the appointment. Not enough time to waste crying about it. Saravit had this knack for picking times. Like he’d clocked her sleep cycle. Maybe he had.
Couldn’t she play the languishing damsel, touched with the haunting beauty of near-death? If she were ignored in her suffering, she could have the satisfaction of feeling herself ill-used.
No. If she didn’t go to her appointment, Saravit would be at her bedside at 9:05 to administer his advice and medication in full view of her roommate and nosy neighbors.
She felt sick, sitting up, even after a year of practice doing so in spin gravity. She was almost thirty years old. When would she stop needing to lean on someone?
Julia, on the bunk opposite, glanced at her and hurriedly returned her eyes to her reader. Lottie felt it like a slap. Julia was a nice roommate, but the nicest of roommates became an enemy to battle by millimeters if you let resentment settle in. “Julia? I . . . I’m sorry about . . .”
“Hm? Oh. No, it’s fine. Everything’s fine.” Julia spoke too quickly, in a false-bright tone.
Well, that would have to be revisited.
Lottie felt like a stranger visiting someone else’s room. Maybe they all were. Whose rooms were these? There wasn’t much to personalize a berth on a space station; possessions weighed one like anchors, costing as much to transport as another person. Julia had decorated her side of the room with delicate silk scarves her wife back home on Earth had painted with paisley fish and flowers. They were the perfect answer to maximum beauty per ounce, but they made Lottie’s side of the room look barren, with nothing other than a hologram she’d bought. It displayed a shelf of nineteenth-century novels in leather and cloth bindings with glints of gold. The emitter was a flat plate about the size and shape of a nail file, and it was designed to display on a shelf, but Lottie’s shelf wasn’t very wide, so the books were miniaturized to fit, which made them look like child’s copies. They weren’t books she had particularly read, either, though she sometimes entertained the idea of looking them up and downloading them to her reader, especially the one titled “Rented a Husband.”
Lottie reached through the imaginary book spines and picked up the wire basket she kept her shower things in. It wasn’t the right kind of basket. Everyone else used the same small carryalls that they must have gotten as a sign-on gift when the station welcomed its first employees. Her basket came from the dispensary’s excess stock. It was meant to lower French fries into boiling oil. Lottie was always doing things to save money that ended up making her look foolish. Her sonic toothbrush and moisturizer tube kept slipping through the holes so she’d had to line the bottom with a playing card, also purchased from the unwanted overstock. She didn’t recognize the game it was from—it had a picture of a woman holding two swords, and it was not big enough to cover the entire bottom, but if she put her hairbrush just right, it forced the smaller objects to stay over the card, and the bristles stuck through the tines, locking the brush and card in place.
She was stalling. The heaviness, the slowness, the lack of a desire to do anything would pass. Slowly, but they would. It helped knowing there was an end to this feeling.
The showers weren’t far, two sections down the main corridor. She could do it. She wrapped herself in the towel she had left hanging from her last shower, not wanting to bother getting her bathrobe out. The brighter corridor felt painful. She kept her eyes on the floor, found the bulkhead seams. One seam. Two.
The door to the shower room was kept open due to high traffic. A tasteful wall of frosted plastic hid the view inside. The floor was laminated in a realistic wood texture, like wide pine planks. Someone had decorated the showers of Callisto Station like Scandinavian saunas. Normally she found it a pleasant luxury. Today she was depressed, and the laminate seams on the “wood” benches advertised how far they were from the comfort of growing trees.
Only three hooks had clothes on them, which was good, she’d have a nearly private shower. She hung her towel and turned to the shower chamber holding only her basket.
Xiao’s voice hit her like an assault, amplified by the smooth walls of the shower. “Tough fuckin’ procedure, all right. After the fuckers figured out our spin velocity, even. They’re still at it. I’d still be watching but shit, a gal’s gotta sleep.”
“You’re the only weirdo watches ship docking like it’s porn.”
A slap, a laugh. They were supposed to conserve water for rinsing, but that slap had sounded wet. You weren’t supposed to stand around in the shower after rinsing. Everyone knew that. Why were Xiao and her friend hogging the room?
Except, of course, that the shower held six easily. The normal rules of decorum didn’t include trying to avoid someone.
Lottie was still standing there when Xiao and the other woman walked out. They froze on seeing her. Xiao scowled. The other woman was chief electrician Angela Mason. She had an unreadable expression. She was tall and very pale. She turned on the body dryer and shook her short hair with her fingers. “They’re going to want full repair crews when they finish docking. You stayed up all night for nothing.”
Xiao looked at Lottie. “You come here to shower or to stare?”
Lottie rushed into the shower room, feeling more naked even than ever. An older woman stood in the back corner, doing a slow, careful job of passing the rinsing nozzle over herself.
Lottie pumped two presses of soap into her hands and did her hair and armpits. There wasn’t time for much else, thanks to Xiao, who knew she was in the shower now and would try to capture her in another unwanted discussion. She would probably follow Lottie to the infirmary and get more ridiculous when she saw Saravit.
No. This wasn’t a book, Xiao wasn’t the villain with nothing greater on her mind than tormenting Lottie. She would be long gone by the time Lottie finished.
Except Xiao wasn’t. She was dressed and leaning against the wall by the exit.
Lottie got under the nearest dryer and hoped Xiao would go away. She didn’t. Lottie wrapped herself in her towel and picked up her toiletry kit. Xiao followed her into the corridor. Lottie asked, “Don’t you have a docking ship to inspect?”
“I got time. Medical staff has first round on these things. Just remembered I never got an answer about what were you doing in Saravit’s very private personal bedroom.”
Lottie wished she’d brought clothes to change into as Xiao had done. Instead she was facing her wrapped in a towel, carrying a ridiculous basket.
“Vit was upset and distracted last night,” Xiao said. “What did you do to him?”
If Saravit was upset, did that mean she was in trouble with administration? Lottie locked her eyes on the bulkhead for her room. She could count the steps. Spin-ward. She could break the rule, this time. It was short enough. She’d run to her door and slam it shut. Xiao would have to give up and go do whatever it was Xiao did when not being a beast. She started. Ten more steps.
“Hey!” Xiao said, but whether she objected to Lottie’s rudeness or direction wasn’t clear. Five more steps.
The bulkhead slammed shut. So did the ones fore and aft of them in the corridor, locking Lottie and Xiao together in an airtight chamber. She had only enough time to notice this before the lights went out.
* * *
Darkness crashed against Xiao’s eyeballs. Ghosts of bright points swarmed in her vision. Xiao snatched up her radio. “Mason, you there? Mason?!” Silence.
Xiao had gone blind once. The doctors said it was a nervous reaction, some cocktail of being dehydrated and going from a dark interior to a bright exterior too fast. Please not again. Feeling the radio, the rough grip pattern on the button, defined a density to the darkness, made her feel it wasn’t her. “Carmi? Lee? Is anyone on this fucking thing?”
Why weren’t the emergency lights on? There were supposed to be glow-strips . . . oh, right, this was the section they had to tear the strips and sealant up to fix the plumbing. Carmi was supposed to get them back on last week. She was going to kill Carmi. “Jake? Director Paz? Anyone?”
“The radio won’t work without power,” an eerie, creepy, set-her-hairs-standing-on-edge voice said, far too close and far too unseen.
Xiao touched the reassuring solidity of the wall. “It’s a radio. It’s got its own power. See?” She pressed the button that made a green light come on and held it out in vaguely the direction she’d heard Lottie.
Except it was a red light. Lottie looked even freakier in dim red light, hair hanging in her face and clutching her towel and that ridiculous fry basket. Xiao let up the button and felt better about the dark.
“It’s not the radio’s personal battery that’s the problem. The radio connects to repeaters in the walls. Those lost power.”
Who was this creepy engineer to tell her how a system on her station worked? Even worse that she was right. This wasn’t Mars, the corridor shielding blocked traditional radios. Xiao hooked the useless thing back on her belt and felt over her pockets. A flashlight or a screwdriver would come in handy about now. Hell, a scrap of metal with an edge would be enough.
Why the hell hadn’t she brought her multi-tool to the shower? Mason always did. Xiao got frantic, patting every part of her body. Maybe she could turn a button into a tool.
In her front pants pocket was a slender stylus with a light on the end, a gift from the people who sold the station its latest oxygen extractor. She must have left it in these pants days ago.
Thank you, laziness! The stylus cast a dot of white light on Lottie’s arm. It wouldn’t do much, but it would be better than continually pressing down the button on her radio. “Right,” Xiao said, “I gotta get to where there’s a functioning repeater so I can figure out who broke the station and fix it.”
Xiao played her penlight over the edges of the bulkhead behind her, the seams around it misleadingly promising cracks. The bulkheads would drop if there was a power outage; it was one of the station’s fail-safes. But what had shut down power so completely?
“Can you open it?” Lottie asked behind her.
What a stupid question. “Assuming this is a power outage and not a hull breach in the next compartment.”
“How would we know?”
This was great. She’d stayed up all night watching a stupid docking procedure—and was it her fault she cared so much about her chosen profession? Lottie sounding like a lost kitten got on her nerves. Grown women shouldn’t sound like that. Xiao tapped the bulkhead with the back of her penlight. “Sound waves don’t travel in vacuum. You knock, it sounds hollow, you got air.”
“I’m not sure I trust a test as subjective as that.”
Of course she didn’t. Xiao found the emergency release lever and gave it a yank.
Nothing happened. Xiao yanked it harder. And harder. And harder. She grunted, feeling the strain in her arm and pain in her hand where the handle bit in. She stumbled backward into Lottie. “It shouldn’t do that,” she said. Because it shouldn’t. The only reason for the emergency release to fail would be if there was vacuum on the other side.
Annoyingly, Lottie said, “Isn’t there a mechanical fail-safe in case of low pressure?”
“Yes, but this isn’t that. No way. I heard plenty of echoes while I was killing myself trying to get it open. You think after all these years fixing broken shit in space I don’t know how to test for vacuum?” Xiao pushed past Lottie to try the other bulkhead. She gave up after three tugs, huffing. “What are the odds both of those sections of corridor were breeched but this one wasn’t?”
Lottie’s voice was high-pitched, wheedling. “C-could it be an attack?”
Kid obviously watched too many pirate movies. “No one’s going to come all the way up here to steal stuff that’s cheaper on Earth. What, you think there’s some religious extremists got a beef with studying gravitation?”
“It could be a battle . . . ships firing on each other. We’re just the backdrop, caught in the crossfire. They could have punctured most of the chambers in the station!”
“If you don’t shut up with the hypotheticals, I am going to puncture a few chambers of my own. There is air on the other side of this bulkhead; that is a fact. The power is out. That is a fact. Stick to facts.”
Xiao wasn’t some Earth-raised newbie. She was a proud Martian. Her mom had been fixing pressure systems since before Jupiter was a place people went. Where were Lottie’s folks? Lounging under a blue sky in their shirtsleeves, Xiao would wager.
Lottie’s voice, still creepy, still too close, “Is there another way out?”
“I’m trying to think of one!” Of all the people to get caught with. Why couldn’t it have been Mason or Jake?
There were the bulkheads, sealed, emergency locked. There were the nonfunctioning damn emergency lights. There were the insulated interior wall plates. She could take those off, but the bulkhead walls went to the outer edge of the station. Cable runs and pipes punched through, but those were sealed all the way because what sense would it make to have holes if you were trying to trap atmosphere? What was that repair they’d done? Right. Toilet line. There’d been a leak in the pneumatic flush coming from the C section head that resulted in a pervasive stink in the corridor and the flush not working so well, either. They’d had to pull the whole wall and floor off. The waste pipes came in long sections; you couldn’t just pop a foot off. It had wound up being a gasket at fault. She remembered that. It wasn’t a fun repair, but once they got the old gasket out, it went pretty fast putting it back together.
No one on that detail had wanted to come back to the corridor section ever again, much less to do finishing, but shit, that was no excuse to leave the damn glow-strips off.
“What are we going to do?” Lottie plopped herself down on the floor. “I’m freezing, and I want to die.”
Was Lottie going to freak out on her? Xiao didn’t know how to handle that. “I told you I’m thinking. There’s a plumbing line under this floor, but it’s not big enough to crawl through.”
Lottie sniffled. “Well, can you connect to the data line that tells the door there’s an emergency?”
“If I cut that, it’ll default to locked down. That’s what it does when the power is out, which is the whole problem.”
She couldn’t see Lottie’s expression, which was good because it was probably scarier than her being a vague lump of damp hair on the floor, but Lottie was definitely either starting to cry or stopping. Her words had that stutter-and-hiccup quality. “I didn’t say c-cut it. I said access it. So we can send it a signal to open.”
“Send it a signal with what, your toothbrush? I don’t bring my tool kit to the shower.” Ugh. She knew exactly where the door control connected. If she had a screwdriver and a handheld signal box, she could do it. “I probably will, from now on.”
Lottie’s too-soft hand brushed Xiao’s. “Show me where the wire is.”
“And you’ll do what, exactly?”
“Send it a signal,” she said, with surprising firmness, “With my toothbrush.”
Xiao didn’t like letting an emotionally unstable research engineer near official operations equipment, but she didn’t see another plan coming to light. The air was already smelling stale around them. Xiao bit at a button on her sleeve until it came loose and then wedged it into two of the four slots on a Phillips screw head. She couldn’t budge the first screw, so she moved on to another. The second one went easy. Top-right was slippery. Wasn’t it always the way? She tucked one, then two screws in her pocket. She scraped her knuckles and dropped the button twice, but she finally got the third screw free. Then she broke the button trying to get a half a turn more on that tight bottom-left screw. “Fuck it.” She wrenched the panel down, using the stuck screw as a pivot. She stepped back and shined her light into the wiring. “It’s here.” Lottie squeezed between her and the wall. She’d knotted her towel on one shoulder like a tiny toga. “That smooth, grey wire that I’m shining up and down on. That’s the security network feed. It’s fiber optic. How you going to patch into that without an optical transmitter?”
The cable was a deceptively fragile-looking thing, like a flower stem against the same-color grey metal behind it.
Lottie snatched the penlight from Xiao without a word of by-your-leave. Xiao got a narrow flash of a face screwed up in concentration, and then the light was inside the wall panel with Lottie’s head. Now it was Xiao’s turn to ask, “What are you doing?”
Lottie grunted like she was trying to take a particularly recalcitrant dump. She had the penlight in her teeth. Light vanished and appeared as she moved, flickers and flashes. Oh. Of course. Having a source of light—the penlight—and something that could fine-tune it with vibration—the toothbrush—she was making an optical transmitter. That was . . . pretty clever actually. More practical than she’d have figured for a research engineer.
Lottie made an open-mouthed noise, “Ahhh-HA!”
There was a heavy clank inside the door. Xiao yanked the emergency release, and this time the bulkhead lifted, just a few inches. Xiao had to muscle it up enough for Lottie to crawl under, then she followed.
“Told you it wasn’t vacuum on this side.” The penlight danced over bulkheads. They were in another empty, sealed section of corridor. Fuck. All that work to end up in the same situation. Had moving up-spin been the right move? At least a few glow-strips were working in this compartment. She could see the ragged edge where the one on the right had been torn. She looked back at the bulkhead they’d raised. “Can you do that again, Nervy?”
Lottie crouched on the floor, checking the contents of her shower basket next to the glow strip. “Yes, I can, and don’t call me ‘Nervy.’” She looked up at Xiao, face all big eyes. “I don’t know how many times my toothbrush can emit the pulse before it runs out of battery.”
Xiao checked her radio. Still no answers, still a red light. They were on the second level, which was living quarters, kitchens, stuff like that. Downstairs were all the more vital places, where the gravity was Earth-normal. (It was barely lighter on the second floor. Some people thought they could feel the difference, but who didn’t feel lighter getting off of work?)
What was the nearest important place they could get to, that was likely to have emergency power and communications? The infirmary? She did mental math. Two more bulkheads to C stairwell, then eight to sick bay . . . or if they went the other way it was four bulkheads to a stairwell to . . . Ten versus eight. Either felt like crawling across a desert on her elbows. Was there another option? She turned in place, imagining the layout. “We’re only two sections from a maintenance airlock. The EVA suits have radios designed to work outside of the station. That should get us a direct line to command and some answers.”
Lottie took up a position by the bulkhead. And . . . stood there. Right. Clearly, she expected Xiao to interpret standing there as “yes, let’s do that, now open the panel for me.” Even Director Paz would be friendlier in this situation.
No time to gripe.
Two bulkheads exhaustingly raised and lowered—eight screws, two buttons broken, her fingertips sore, and her shoulder aching from wrenching the heavy bulkheads up, and at last they were in the airlock receiving room. Emergency lights were functioning in addition to the glow strips, painting the room with a semi-romantic glow. Xiao pulled the radio out of the nearest suit. “Control? This is Facilities Manager Fung. We are trapped and without power in Maintenance Hatch C-1. Control?”
Silence answered her. Xiao looked at the radio. There was a wee green light. There was even a reading of all the available signal bands. External Communications said “Receiving.” So did Internal Communications. Xiao looked at Lottie, who hung back against the line of suits on the opposite wall, watching her with scared, wide eyes. “Easy, Nervy. Doesn’t mean anything. Maybe they’re too busy to answer.”
“Or they don’t want to.”
“The fuck does that mean?”
Lottie flinched at Xiao’s words. Great, now she couldn’t raise her voice, either.
The radio crackled. Lottie looked like she wanted to leap on it. Xiao pressed send again. “Hello? Anyone there?”
“Yes! This is Haizle in Human Resources.”
Xiao squinted. “Haizle? What are you doing on the horn?”
“The power’s out! Do you know what’s going on?”
“Kind of hoping you’d tell us. We’re in Maintenance Airlock C-1.”
Haizle took a deep breath and adopted a story-telling cadence, “So I went into the communications room to talk to Ria because there was that ship docking, and I figured she’d get the scoop? But Ria stepped out to go to the bathroom and I was waiting for her when the lights cut out. I can’t get the door open. I can hear people on the other side, though. The rest of HR. All the consoles in here went black, too, and I thought there was emergency power for those, but this radio just made a noise and that was you and now you’re caught up.”
Xiao groaned. “Anyone else out there? Anyone not in the dark?”
Lottie, all giant eyes, said, “There ought to be dozens of people near radios. There are radios in the command center and emergency radios in the corridors.”
“Yeah, which means this isn’t just a power outage. Someone purposefully knocked communications out as well as the lights.” Maybe an EMP. What if the whole space station was now a spinning wheel of dead junk? How long could they breathe and stay warm without oxygen scrubbers and heating elements?
Xiao looked at the equipment around her. Four EVA suits, the tool locker, a janitor’s mop bucket. It would take something like fourteen bulkhead sections to open and shut to get to Operations. Eight now to get to the infirmary. Operations might be more useful to get control of the station back, but Xiao would rather head to the infirmary and make sure Saravit was all right.
Xiao felt a rising panic that maybe she, Haizle, and Lottie were the only people left alive on Callisto Station. “I’m going outside,” she decided.
* * *
Lottie wondered if Xiao had gone insane. You didn’t go outside. Xiao put the suit radio back in its sleeve. “You can stay here or come with, I don’t care, but I know I’ll travel quicker and have a better idea what is going on if I’m EVA.”
Lottie crouched on the floor like a terrycloth cavewoman. If Xiao left her here, she’d never get up again. It was slightly more frightening than leaving the station. “I’ll go too, then.”
“Have you ever done EVA?”
Lottie shook her head.
“Then you’d better stay here.” Xiao was moving, clipping things. She was sure and steady. She had a plan.
A heroine would go with. She would save the day and win the love of her coworkers, the forgiveness of management, the respect of HR. “I could help?”
Xiao paused, sighed. “Kid . . .”
“What if you need something like what I did with the toothbrush?” Lottie covered her face. What a stupid argument.
Xiao looked angry. She pulled another environment suit out. “Put your legs where legs go. I’ll help you in. You do absolutely everything I tell you and nothing I don’t, and we’ll get through this. Clear?”
Trembling in fear, but also grateful, Lottie nodded.
“I need you to say it.”
“Everything you say, nothing you don’t. Clear.”
“Okay. Good. Stick your hand in there.”
The bath towel bunched up. Lottie pulled her arm free, trying to tuck it down as much between her skin and the suit as possible.
Xiao was different, giving instructions. Lottie’s best teacher had been like this, calmly handing her the secrets of mathematics at the rate she could grasp them, like an unspooling rope ladder. Xiao hooked a tether from Lottie’s suit to a bar on the floor and then tugged it, reassuring them both with its solidity. Then she did the same for herself. She hit a big red button. Then she reached for Lottie’s hand. Lottie squeezed her fingers through the layers of two suits.
“Now we step off. Don’t jump, just step. Easy, like slipping into a swimming pool.”
It was not like slipping into a swimming pool. Lottie’s legs kicked over emptiness. Xiao tried to slip her hand free from Lottie’s grip. “No!”
“Girl, I need two hands, and I do this all the time. You really want to climb out one-handed?”
“Oh God,” Lottie said. Xiao stopped trying to get free. After a moment, Lottie was able to make herself let go, clamping both hands onto the bar her tether attached to.
“Now climb down. Just like a ladder. See? The next bar isn’t even a full arm’s length away. Get both your hands on the rung outside the lock so it can close.” Lottie let go for a millisecond, felt the ice of fear and latched on again.
Xiao was going to yell at her. Lottie swallowed the fear and grabbed the outside bar with her right hand and brought her left double-quick after. It slipped, but Lottie got a tight grip on her second try.
She felt a tiny trickle of mania, like a stimulant hit. Adrenaline.
Xiao wasn’t even breathing heavy. “Nothing to worry about. You let go, nothing bad happens. You drop to the end of your tether. Then, since the station is spinning, you fall toward it, back along the anti-spin side. If that happens, relax, let the spin do its thing. You’ll think you’re going to splat like a bug on the station, but you won’t. You might not even hit it. Mostly you get close and start drifting away again. So to recap: if you fall, relax and I’ll get you. Clear?” Lottie was having too much trouble breathing to respond. Xiao continued like she had. “Follow me. One hand at a time. It gets easier.” The edge of the wheel was only twelve feet away. It felt like a mile. Lottie had to talk herself up to each hand transfer. By rung four, she was doing great, hands slapping along too fast too slip.
“Easy, you’ll tire yourself out.”
Lottie could not imagine a way she wouldn’t!
“It gets better when we go around the edge.” Xiao hung off the corner of the station, pointing. “Hold here.” Doggedly, Lottie swung and clung, swung and clung, and then curled up so she could hook her elbow into the rung. “Good. Now we’re going to re-tether. Watch me. Pull out the second tether and latch it here, like this. Now you. The hook is on your suit here.” This part was pretty easy. Just pulling a cord, hooking a hook. “Good. Now unhook the old tether by pulling the tab. No, harder. Good.”
Lottie’s hands were wet inside the gloves.
“Now we’re going up over the edge. It’s going to feel like climbing up a ladder. Way easier, right? Your feet’ll have lower rungs to stand on, and every foot we go we get lighter. This’ll be the best view you’ve ever seen in your life!” Xiao lifted up, out of sight. Lottie felt bereft, alone, and really, really not cut out for this. Still, the allure of foot-rungs drew her up. It was easier. She looked down, but that was terrible—a wall ending abruptly on blackness.
Xiao reappeared. Strong arms pulled Lottie’s body up, over the lip, like she was a doll. Wow. No one had picked her up like that since she was little. She risked opening her squeezed-tight eyes. Xiao smiled at her, proud as a parent.
Xiao straightened from her crouch. “Would you look at that?” Xiao’s voice was breathy with awe. “Gorgeous, isn’t it?”
Lottie wanted nothing more than to rest at Xiao’s feet. She peeked.
Jupiter had every color in it, like thousands of potions swirling in unmixed tea, organic depths cut across by the black shadow of the far side of the station’s wheel. It wasn’t true that you couldn’t appreciate beauty while depressed. Lottie knew this was beautiful. She felt a soft, muted awe. She knew she’d remember it with warmer emotion.
She knew why Xiao loved coming out here.
* * *
Xiao had been focused on coaxing the scared engineer. When she followed Lottie’s gawping gaze, however, it was not the view she expected. The station was a dark cutout, the reflected Jupiter light making it a haunted house version of itself. “All of this should have lights. I mean all of it. There are system diagnostic lights, navigation lights for craft coming in . . .” Xiao lost her breath.
The ship that had docked the night before was brightly lit, a glowing mechanical tick burrowed into the main airlock on the center spindle. “Those bastards!” She pointed for Lottie’s sake. “The emergency-docking ship. It must have been them. Those absolute bastards. They must have done something to take out the whole power system, plant and backups and everything.”
Lottie got to her feet, arms out for balance like she was expecting the station to buck her off. “I . . . we can’t know that.”
“You seriously want more evidence than what we’re seeing? A strange ship docks, and a few hours later, all power on the station is gone but they’re still fine? Oh, we are going to Docking Bay A, I tell you that.” Xiao unhooked her tether to travel faster. She bounded over the “roof” toward the station arm.
Lottie gasped. “I . . . wait.”
Xiao paused and safety-tethered. She looked back at Lottie, who was toddling drunkenly along the roof with no tether connection. “Tether right now!”
Lottie stopped, wobbling, seconds from any random accident sending her floating away to her death. Fucking rookies! Xiao had to go back to her.
Lottie had re-tethered by the time Xiao was in arm’s length. “But you . . .”
“Do as I say, not as I do.”
Xiao didn’t have time to worry about this kid. “Stay here,” she said. “Don’t move if you can’t tether every fucking step. I’ll come back for you.”
For some unknown reason probably having to do with engineers, the access ladder was on the “outside” of the station support arm, so she had to squeeze around a corner over limitless space. If you looked at the maintenance ladder’s impossible height and thought about it like you were on a planet, you’d lose the heart to go on. Fortunately, she knew the spin-gravity dropped off pretty fast. Xiao climbed, the strain bleeding out of her arms and shoulders, and her legs lifting away from the station.
Lottie moaned behind her. Poor kid sounded like she was barely holding on to her lunch.
The enemy ship—because that was how Xiao thought of it now—was getting clearer as she got closer. It was an old-style Russian cargo ship. Dinky. Crew of eight, but you could cram more in there with no cargo. A lot more. They were common grunt-carriers at the shipyard back on Mars. No guns, usually. This one had been fitted with new engines and lots of patches and repairs, which made it resemble nothing so much as a compressed wedge of junk. She’d paid close attention to the problem of docking the pain in the ass. Its docking ring had a lot of seal-destroying jerry-rigs on it built for someone else’s custom dock. Xiao thought she’d seen every type of dock there was, and there weren’t many. Even the most egotistical, individualistic ship designer was motivated to make that part standard. She’d thought it was an interesting mystery—some early nonstandard ship still out there maybe? But now it had the air of a missed warning sign. It was designed not to dock: too small for the station airlock, and the modifications made parts of it too big. They’d used clamps and evacuation hose to mate the hunk of junk to Callisto Station.
Xiao was almost to the center cylinder, jumping vast sections of maintenance ladder one hand at a time. She didn’t worry about being spotted. Those cargo ships only had two docking cameras standard, and they would be facing a wall now. Would the people who welded scrap metal to their hull have the resources to add cameras?
Xiao was a ninja. Invisible. She hooked her tether as close to the airlock as she could and stabbed the inflated evacuation hose with a long-handle screwdriver. The first two punctures auto-sealed, but after the third she kept the screwdriver in and wriggled the hole big enough that air flew out, keeping the gap open and painting a visible distortion over the metal behind it.
Then she found a clamp that was holding a mooring and cracked it open. She kicked the compression-foam shim out from under another.
She was sweating heavily, and exhausted, but making good progress untying this Gordian knot.
Her radio crackled to life with an unfamiliar male voice. “Hey! HEY YOU messing with our ship! Stop that this instant or you’ll regret it.”
“Will I, though? What have you done to the director?”
“Stop messing with our ship!”
“Put the director on. I hear her voice; I’ll stop.”
“For fuck’s sake, your director is fine. Everyone is fine. We’re not here to hurt anyone. Be reasonable, stop what you’re doing, and we’ll talk this out. Meet me at the other dock.”
Lottie’s voice cut in. “Xiao? Xiao, I think you should listen to him.”
Xiao tried to find Lottie’s tiny form against the tilted landscape of the station. “Don’t you dare give comfort and support to the enemy.”
Lottie sounded like she was talking down a suicide. “I’m not. He can’t hear me. We’re on a private channel. I just set it up. Look on your display. Do you see the channel?”
Did the nerd have to keep showing her up? This was her station, and she was going to save it. Xiao got another clamp loose. She pressed her back to the station and set her feet on the enemy craft and PUSHED. Ugh. Too much inertial mass. She scrambled for something to use as a lever. Yes, they’d left an impact bar on one of the clamps that had been hard to close.
Lottie said, “Please don’t make them angry, Xiao.”
“Station crewmember, you are risking your crewmates’ lives. Stop or we start killing hostages. Do you understand? We have guns, and we have your people.”
Slowly, the ship separated, drifting gently away, a centimeter at a time. “Too late.” Look at that. Look at what she’d done! The pirate ship was floating inexorably away. She’d saved the day!
“Jesus Christ. We were going to steal some shit and leave. Now we’re going to have to kill people.”
Xiao let herself dangle in zero gravity and rest for a moment. She giggled. That was inappropriate, but she couldn’t help herself. She felt giddy. And tired. She felt like she could sleep for a month.
“You crazy bitch! I’m coming to get you!” Let him come, after her rest.
Lottie was coming up the arm, stopping every few rungs to re-tether. Wow that must be exhausting. She was almost to the top. She must not have stayed put at all. The enemy’s words were bouncing around in Xiao’s brain, turning her jubilation at having defeated him into sick awareness that this may not have solved everything.
Xiao radioed the enemy. “You want your ship back, I could get her. I’m here; I have jets. She hasn’t gotten far. You just gotta promise not to hurt anyone and to leave the minute I get it re-docked.” No answer. Xiao forced herself to count to ten. Calling too soon would smack of fear and desperation. What should she say? Act like she had the upper hand. Maybe point out that their ship was getting further and further away while they thought about this. Yeah.
Lottie hooked her tether a few rungs away and stopped, hanging there. “How could you do that? What are we going to do?” she flailed. “They’re going to kill us all. We don’t have any way to defend ourselves. Do . . . can you fight, in that suit? If they come out here?”
Xiao had been so focused on having a chance to be the hero. A next step would have been good to have. “Apparently some asshole is ‘coming for me.’ You go find somewhere to hide. I’ll stand my ground, take it like a woman.” Xiao set her jaw. “Maybe while they’re pummeling me you can come up with a better plan.”
“That’s not funny. Come on.” Lottie unhooked her tether and clipped it onto Xiao’s suit. Then she crawled back the way she’d come.
“Where are you going? Hey, don’t tether to another person. You don’t—”
“Infirmary,” she said. “I was supposed to meet Saravit at 0900.”
The sweat all over Xiao’s body flash-froze. Shit, Saravit. Had she just put him in danger? Lottie was making steady progress, spooling the tether line between them. In another twenty feet it would be at its limit. Xiao pushed off after her. “You know you’re late for that appointment.” It came out snarky and calm. Good. Heroes said things like that. They didn’t go blind with worry and curl up in a ball.
Infirmary. Yeah. It was a good place to regroup. It had emergency power and data lines. With any luck, Vit was safe. Not important enough to be in danger. Right? Whoever these guys were—pirates or terrorists or something else—they wouldn’t care about a psychiatrist, right?
If they were “coming for her,” would they squeeze out between their ship and Dock A? Or would they use Docking Bay B on the other end? How long did it take to put on an EVA suit? Assuming the assholes weren’t already wearing them?
Now she felt the prickle of being watched and followed, all too visible, exposed, naked. Not smart enough. Not strong enough. Not enough.
Quit crying, she silently snarled to herself, and it sounded like her mom, which made her want to cry more. Untethered, she let the station spin and Lottie pull her along while she looked back. No sign of figures coming out of Docking Bay A. Yet. Concentrate on reaching Vit. Save him, then save the rest. She turned toward Lottie again.
“Hey, Nervy! You’re going the wrong way.” Xiao hooked her feet into a hold-ring and pointed.
Lottie waved in acknowledgement and turned up-spin.
Well, if they didn’t get killed, she was going to have to be nicer to Nervy Lottie.
Copyright © 2021. The Unlikely Heroines of Callisto Station by Marie Vibbert