by Julian Stuart
Edited by Hal Y. Zhang
Copyedited by Chelle Parker
3133 words — Reading time: around 15 minutes
Station is singing on the all-hail when I come out of shadow. The radio is bad, this far out, with the geiger from the rocks cutting through xyr voice, but I can always hear enough to know. That’s why xe does it. Nothing else sounds like xyr voice, not geiger, not cross-chat, not even any of the other Stations that take turns reminding us worker bees that there’s an order and a pattern to things.
We have four folks who are the voices of Station. I hear xey get chosen because there’s something in xeir voices that makes the hive of us sit down and pay attention. Whatever it is, it works: You hear Station and your brain relaxes, no matter which of xem it is. Xey’re all supposed to be interchangeable. Xey aren’t.
Okay, everyone picks favourites. That’s what people do.
I picked xyr before I even knew I had. The thing is: Sometimes you hear someone and you know things about them.
What I know about my Station is… not a whole lot. Dunno xyr name, xe’s only ever just Station; it’s protocol. Xe doesn’t know my name either, unless xe looked it up. Xe knows my callsign, though. Xe’s singing it now.
It’s more than the codes xey’re all supposed to use, in the lukewarm voice xey all affect — xe’s the only one who sings, matching the numbers to the notes in the scale as xe sees me come into scanner range.
“816-514-3521 — juliet juliet plane, I see you there.”
I thumb the transmit button on my throat mic.
“816-514-3521, copy, Station,” I say. “Juliet juliet plane.” I’m right on course, due east of Station’s sun-north and aligned to xeir horizon.
“When you gonna sing it back to me, 3521?” Station says. I can hear xyr smiling.
“Ain’t got the voice for that,” I tell xyr gruffly, but I can’t help smiling back.
“I missed you,” xe says, in xyr rich voice. It makes my own throat choke to hear it pointed at me. “Wondering when I’d see you back on map.”
“Found some good stuff.” I turn myself slightly sideways in my chair and press my arm into the back. It feels almost like I’m sitting next to someone. “Enough to buy you something pretty.”
Xe chuckles. “Sweet-talker.”
“It’s all true,” I protest, not very hard. “I got full holds. Can I come down?”
“Come on home,” xe says, like a blanket around my shoulders.
The thing I know about Station is that xe’s the most beautiful person I’ve never seen.
Xe has to be. All us rock jockeys out here, hopping from asteroid to asteroid in our little tin cans, we’re scrawny. These ships don’t have enough pull to their grav units to give us more than will keep our dinner from floating back up our throats, so we all look the same — just enough muscle to hold our bones together. We breathe thin air and eat beige food and look at rocks all day and talk to ourselves, if we talk at all. Not much to keep a body going.
Station…. There’s a weight to xyr voice, a size, a power my lungs don’t have now if they ever did, and I just know xe’s lush and solid and big like a planet I could put my landing-strut ass in orbit around.
Xe sings like it’s just what xe does with breath in xyr lungs, and I know a lot more about crystal matrix formation than I’m ever gonna know about love, but…. It’s dark out here, and xe sings my callsign so it means something.
It takes hours for my drive to coast me in; I catalogue my holds, send in my manifests, and guess at the value. I wasn’t lying to Station. It’s gonna be plenty. I’ll make my quota, my dock fee, and enough for whatever I want.
Station sings in the background, calling in xyr ships, and I stare at the list of available resupply goods in a daze.
Then something snaps my attention back to my radio — xe’s calling me, going through xyr list of active trajectories, handing off all us little moving dots to whichever Station is on next.
“816-514-3521,” xe sings, and if you can sing something patiently, xe’s doing it.
I fumble my transmit button on. “3521, copy. Chart’s still good. I’m here.”
“Know you are, sunshine.” I get xyr straight to my ears, but someway or other, xyr voice hits me in the chest. “See you soon.”
I listen to xyr until xe signs off; I know xe treats everyone kindly, but xe doesn’t call anyone else “sunshine.” I hold that closer than I probably ought to while my ship cruises steady and the stars slide over my viewscreen, waiting for the next Station’s calm voice to give me my docking orders.
Once I’m docked and hooked up, with the hoppers going and the numbers scrolling in, the dock team kicks me out while they’re refuelling me and cleaning my air scrubbers. I pay for a shower with actual water — endlessly recycled, but it’s long enough and decently hot. When the vacuum dryers have reclaimed as much moisture as they can out of my hair, I stuff it back in its no-nonsense spacer ponytail and try not to notice how much greyer it is than it used to be.
Then it’s down to the concourse to pick up the consumables I ordered: a couple of flats of the slightly less industrial-grade cafmix — why not, it was a good run — and the usual three-week supply of whatever flavour of nutritional stew is going.
The food’s the same in dock as out. Nobody has the money to have anything else sent up, not for the likes of us, and dock rations are the same foil packs I take six boxes of; but if you like people, there’s a space where you can sit and eat at long tables with whoever else happens to be there.
I haven’t had a real conversation with anyone but Station in weeks. But I don’t know any of the dozen people here, every one of them skinny, scruffy spacedogs like me, some in green dock-staff jumpsuits.
I wonder how the work is. Whether they all know each other. Whether they know Station.
None of them could be xyr, the only one I’d want to sit down next to. The reediness of their voices gives them all away.
I’m tired, and my legs hurt from being in dock gravity. I take my boxes and I head back. I’m not scheduled to leave for a few more hours yet, but there’s nothing else I want, here.
I’m halfway through my airlock tunnel, the on-shift dockhands’ voices echoing in the corridors behind me as they call out instructions and cautions, when it occurs to me what I do want. I jog up to my lock and fire the boxes into the first free storage bin, spin on my heel like a drilling cadet, and point myself straight back out. My brain is whirring like a mainframe, and I spit out my shopping list at the spare parts depot at a speed that makes the stockhand blink.
“You rebuilding a whole board?” they ask.
I grin, knowing I look slightly unhinged, but this idea is a star in my chest, and I couldn’t care less what they think of me. “You could say that.”
It costs me a fair bit, especially to get it all off the shelf instead of ordered in advance, but they have everything I need and I’ve got about as much in my account when I clear dock as when I arrived. I don’t mind. I’ve got nobody to impress. Station doesn’t care about my money; xe’d be on twice my pay anyway. That’s not what xe likes me for.
I don’t know what xe does like me for. It’s not my face, it can’t be my tuneless voice, and it sure doesn’t seem likely it’s my sense of humour. But maybe, I think as I file my purchases away and submit my course back out to the same little pocket of asteroids I was at, xe could like me for the same reason I’m out here.
While I wait for Nav to review my chart, I start sketching. There were plenty of jobs back home for a kid who had steady hands and understood circuitry, but if you didn’t want to be stuck at a salvage yard forever, you learned to repair, and then to build. They don’t send anyone out here who can’t rewire their whole ship by hand on one tank of oxygen. So it’s only a matter of the twenty minutes or so it takes Nav to sign me off to have a circuit diagram I’m happy with, and the five minutes more it takes them to give me my takeoff slot for me to tweak it to fit the tiny board I bought.
It’s a good sign that they booked me in so fast. That means there’s nobody headed where I’m headed, which means my rocks are still mine. In this business, “alone” just means you don’t have to share.
The Station who launches me is the third in the rotation, fresh onto xyr shift. I do a little math. My Station might just come on before I head into shadow, but probably not.
Oh well. I save the diagram to my personal folder. I don’t need to hurry this.
For two weeks, I sit out in the shadow, with only the grinding and whirring of my mining equipment for company. I eat my stew and drink my cafmix, I sleep, I prospect when there’s something new to look at, and I file intentions on a couple of new rocks. They sit unsent in my messages folder. Not even the relay ships make it out this far on the regular. It’s all right. I’m doing well this run, and there’s probably a couple more trips’ worth out here. And when I run out of prospects, I pull the parts I bought out of storage, throw them in the welding chamber, and slowly piece them together.
I could build this thing in thirty minutes if I had to. With the time I have, I make every weld perfect, each solder-join surgical. This board is the most flawless work I’ve ever done. When my eyes get tired, I scoot to the other side of the living module and work on the code that I need to flash to the chip. It should be boring. But I think about Station, and the star in my chest smoulders.
I snap the tiny battery into its socket just before my last hold reports as full. I know my work is good, but I still hold my breath as I click the switch on. From the little speaker, a tinny but surprisingly loud electronic tone modulates through ten notes, pauses, and restarts.
I don’t have the ear to judge if it’s music, but it’s a tune. And it’s the tune I want.
Xe’s going to laugh. I love that laugh.
I switch the board off and tuck it into the breast pocket of my launch suit.
My cargo computer beeps, calculating our weight. We’ll get off this rock easy and clean. Then it’s just a matter of getting around it and back into range, and then…. I fit my earpiece back into my ear and discover that I can’t stop grinning.
It might not be xyr, I remind myself. I might not hear xyr at all, this run.
But I might.
It might be, as soon as the geiger hiss clears, that I hear xyr singing.
It might be, I think, as I pilot my ship up and over the cold grey surface of the rock; it might be, as the wan and distant sunlight makes my nose view camera skew briefly darker; it might be, and the sensors tell me there’s no other ships within shouting distance, so I speed up and ease myself into my charted course back home, hit commit on the autonav, and the hiss of the rocks goes louder, and then quieter, and then — louder?
I have a split second to realise that something is wrong before the meteorite rips through the module ceiling, the overhead light panel, and my right arm.
Everything’s pitch-black, howling, whirling chaos. Only muscle memory gets my oxygen hood over my head, and only adrenaline gets it fastened before my fingers go numb. Grav’s down. Half my instrument panels flicker back on and give me just enough light to know that I can’t look at my arm if I want to stay conscious.
It missed the bone, so I have worse problems. I grab the reinforced tape out of the crisis bag on my belt and wrench the cover off the nearest storage hopper as I unbuckle my harness. Four pods of cafmix and I soar up towards the ceiling. One pod sticks there and then bursts, crumpling in on itself as it’s sucked out into vacuum.
That’s the spot, marked now with a splotch of brown. I push the thin sheet of metal flush against the ceiling panel, let the vacuum pull it tight, and tape it in place.
There’s a parallel hole in the floor; two storage holds there between me and outside, so it just sucks at my gloves like a draining sink until I slap a piece of tape over it, too. I think the whistling stops, but my ears are ringing too badly to tell.
I can’t move my arm anymore. It’s so dark, and I don’t want to think about whether the dark spots across my vision are real, sailing in shifting liquid shapes through the air, or if I’m about to pass out.
I can’t pass out. I have to tell them what’s happened. I have to tell Station.
I can’t hear anything. I can’t—
A burst of static. Maybe a voice. Then it’s gone.
I look up at the metal taped clumsily to the ceiling, and remember where the communications rig sits on the outside of my hull, and I want to vomit. Another burst of static, too short to parse.
And then one of the dark spots drifts too close and bursts, wet and red, across the front of my suit. Even in the eerie blue glow of my instrument panels, I know what it means.
I can’t stop the animal whimper that squeezes out from between my gritted teeth.
Most ways to die in space are fast, so fast you don’t even know. Or so slow you have time to say your goodbyes. Why did I have to pull a way that was too short to be any use, but just long enough to hurt? God, it hurts—
And my ship. Cruising unpiloted, no fuel to change course. I can’t just leave it like this — what if the tugs can’t catch me and bring me in, what if. My nav system panel is still off.
A sick chill comes over me, and my panicking brain goes as blank as the screen, and I know. I can’t stop whatever is going to happen. I won’t be able to, in ten hours. I don’t know if I have ten minutes.
All I can do is try to tell Station.
But xey can’t hear me this far out.
The clouds over my eyes are starting to sparkle, and I’m so cold, colder than the life support systems can compensate for. I fumble at my breast pocket. It was supposed to be a surprise. It was supposed to make xyr happy.
Well, my ship won’t take out half the dock this way, maybe. It’s a strange kind of love, but it’s all I can give xyr now.
I tuck the sharp-edged board into the band of my throat mic, press the little speaker to the pickup, and thumb the switch on. Obedient as programming can be, it fires straight up and plays its ten-note tune over and over into the empty dark.
The same one xe sings to me, the one I could never sing back to xyr any other way:
The pain’s getting distant. The song’s fading too. I know it’s not the battery.
I let my eyes close, and the whole universe drifts away.
And then — sudden, brilliant light, like some cosmic eyelid opened and I’m looking straight into the sun. Is this the afterlife? I can’t have been that good—
I blink my bleary, dry-as-dust eyes, and the sun resolves into an LED panel pointed at my face.
A voice I’ve never heard before says, “They’re alive!”
They sound surprised. I am too.
The air smells like clean machine oil, and for one crazed moment, I wonder if they could spare some of that for my aching spine, which has definitely been lying on a very hard surface for too long. Something else is squeezing my arm, which feels numbed but present, and this isn’t my ship, and it’s all approaching being way too many questions when the voice says, “Stay still. We only just got to you in time. Station sent a mayday.”
“Station,” I whisper.
“We got your ship grappled,” the voice says, and a friendly brown face floats into my field of vision. “Hold on, okay? We’re getting you back. Xe made me promise.”
“On my life,” my rescuer says cheerfully. “You wanna ask xyr?” They thumb their throat mic. “Station, this is 6384, I got 3521, they’re here— Of course.” Then they pull their headset off, lay the mic band over my throat, and fit the bud into my ear.
As soon as it seals, I can hear xyr humming. “Station,” I breathe, through a throat that’s trying to close.
“Hello, sunshine,” xe says, and I’m crying before I can stop myself.
I can’t speak, but I can hear xyr murmur, “That was the cleverest trick I’ve ever seen. I knew it was you coming in. And there had to be something wrong if you couldn’t talk. That’s why I like you best, you know. You always talk to me, 3521.”
I sniff my airways clear. “Tosha.”
“What’s that, sunshine? Say again.”
I swallow, and my voice comes out a little stronger. “Fuck protocol. My name’s Antosha. Tosha, if you like.”
“Tosha,” xe says, round and rich like I’ve never heard anyone say it before. “I’m Celadon.”
“I, uh.” I don’t have enough blood left in me to blush. “I— Celadon, I.”
“I know, sunshine,” xe says. “You sang me a song.”
“Can I.” My head is spinning. “Can I come down?”
“Come on home, Tosha,” Celadon says, and it’s a song all its own. “Come on home.”