Chapter Three: Hakon

The little man jerked his hand back as if Yasmin had caught fire.

Good.

I held my hand out to her and waited.

“Shall we?”

“I thought you’d never ask,” she said, instantly ignoring the trio seething at the table behind her.

We passed through the crowd in silence, moving with the ebb and flow of people.

Some dressed in the gray overalls that seemed to be the station uniform, but more people had changed into casual clothes, or seemed dressed for a party, silk and sequins flashing everywhere.

I glanced down at Yasmin. Her breathing was even, only the slight flare of her nostrils a clue as to her emotions within.

“Thank you,” she said softly. “I don’t often come out this way.”

There was a story there, but I could let it wait until later.

“You can pay me back by being my guide. Alcyon got a ping to go help Commander Serrup with some crisis and had to abandon me.”

She bit her lip but said nothing.

“I had the feeling it wasn’t an uncommon occurrence,” I continued, waiting for a response. From the moment I’d seen her, I knew this woman had secrets.

And secrets were what I was searching for here.

“I’m sure I wouldn’t know,” she glanced up at me, deliberately fluttering her long dark lashes. “I’m only a lowly fabrication technician. It would be impossible for me to hear the gossip is about how incompetent our station commander is.” Another flutter of lashes. “Completely, absolutely impossible.”

“That’s what I thought,” I said. “But seems like a lot of people for someone with, shall we say leadership challenges, to be in charge of.”

We had reached the far side of the open space, another cluster of replicators and beverage dispensers surrounded by high tables, filled with laughing, drinking, workers.

“It helps that expectations are low,” she said, a wry smile lifting the corners of her mouth. “Besides, we’re all pretty motivated to get our hours in. Or at least, those of us that want to get off of this place.”

I watched the groups of the table around us. Behind the laughter, more than a few had a hollow, desperate look about the eyes.

“Why would that be difficult?” I asked.

But before she could respond, her stomach growled and her cheeks burned crimson.

“Let’s get some dinner and you can tell me all about it.”

She shook her head quickly. “I’m fine, really.” She waved at the replicators. “I can pick up something later, closer to my quarters.”

“Well, I’m hungry,” I said, walking over to see what was on offer. It wouldn’t be the same as what was offered on the Kodo Ragir, but honestly, I wasn’t used to such rich food anyway. “ I can’t imagine you’d make me eat alone, would you?” I teased.

She sighed, and showed me how the replicators were set up. Fairly close to Imperial standard, slight differences in the options.

Not surprisingly, there were a number of dishes that I didn’t recognize. I started to click one of each.

At the end, Yasmin moved her thumb to the small block square and I caught her hand. “I’m hungry, I’m paying.”

“I doubt if you’re set up in the system,” she argued. “Did they take your print?”

I fought back a grimace, started deleting food from the order. There was no reason for her to pay for my curiosity or my appetite.

“But,” she continued, tilting her head to the side. “They may have set up credits on your card. Can I see it?”

After a moment, I realized what she meant, and pulled out the access card Serrup had handed me. She waved it above the screen and the total zeroed out, blinking green.

“Perfect,” she breathed. For a moment the intensity in her eyes took me aback, but then she blinked, and the strange look was gone. “Here, let me show you what’s good. If you’re still hungry, you can try the rest of it.” She shook her head. “If you really want to.”

“I should probably take that back,” I said, and slipped the card back in my pocket.

In the end, I ordered anything that made her eyes light up. Not exactly as much as the previous order had been, but maybe I didn’t really want a double order of perrs rado, given the way Yasmin’s nose wrinkled at the thought.

The replicator dinged and slid open to reveal a tray filled bowls of steaming… something.

“I’ll get this,” I grabbed it. “You lead on, find a table in this mess.”

All we could find was an unoccupied booth in the corner under one of the arches.

“Will your legs fit under the table?” she asked, running her eyes up and down my frame.

“Probably,” I grumbled, wedging myself in. “If not, I’ll find someone to volunteer theirs.”

I took a bite of everything, but made sure to push the small bowls back closer to her side of the table. If my food was free, I’d bet her’s wasn’t.

“So how come so many people are here? Shouldn’t they be working or something?”

Yasmin shrugged, swallowed another bite of the spicy vegetables. “Shifts run around the clock,” she answered. “A lot of people do their minimum hours, then don’t worry about it. Not my style, but I don’t have to worry about anyone but me. I want to get my hours in, take on as few debits against them as possible, and get out of here.”

Interesting. I thought about it. Not exactly slaves, more like indentured contracts, with the odds stacked high against ever completing them..

That was more than Alcyon would have told me.

“There’s got to be more to the station then fabrication labs and this.”

She leaned back, hands over her stomach. “For that meal, I’ll even show you my favorite place on the station.” She gathered empty bowls onto the tray, waited for me. “Come on, I think you’ll like it.”

In the lift I took a moment to study her. She was  interesting. Obviously smart or she wouldn’t have caught the design defect I’d deliberately introduced into the file.

But there was something hidden behind that careful smile.

The lift paused in its glide, changing directions from horizontal to vertical as it carried us through the station.

I shifted my weight as the faint scent of pholla trees filled the lift.

“Anything wrong?” she asked, a slight crease between her dark brows.

“Nothing at all.” Must have been something else. I’d only seen pholla trees on one mission, about as far from the Areitis Sector as I could imagine.

It’s been years ago, but the sweet, clean scent was unmistakable.

And impossible.

The minutes ticked by in the lift. “Where are we going?” I asked. “Seems like there shouldn’t be much this far from the central Hub.”

“All the way to the bottom,” she said. “Are you afraid of heights?”

Definitely interesting.

 The door slid open and we approached a heavily secured hatch. “Through there?”

“Not a chance,” she answered. “Secondary control room. I’m not even certain your card would get you inside.”  Her eyes flicked to the card reader, considering. “No, the observation dome is just this way.”

As we walked I could feel the slightest pressure in my inner ear as the deck’s artificial gravity adjusted to keep us upright, even though from my memory of what the hub had looked like, we were pointed down.

Relatively.

“Here we are,” she said and swiped open a door with her own card.

The dome before us was clear plexi, filled with the swirling muted pastels of the gas giant below.

Chairs were scattered through the room, all turned to face the breathtaking spectacle.

But no one was there but us.

Yasmin stood still, transfixed by the sight. “That’s Tocarth 5. No matter how many times I’ve come down here, watched it, I’ve never understood why they put this here,” she finally said, voice soft and wondering. “It doesn’t do anyone any good, doesn’t make a profit.” She shrugged, rubbing her upper arm. “Maybe the station architect decided there should be one thing of beauty in this place.”

She stepped closer to the plexi, and I watched her, as curious about her as I was about the station I’d been sent to investigate, then she wrapped her arms around her torso and shivered.

“Are you cold?” I asked.

She glanced over her shoulder at me. “I know it’s silly, station temperature is constant no matter where you are. But there’s something about looking into the Void that always chills me, just a bit.”

“Here.” I shrugged out of my jacket and wrapped it around her shoulders. It swallowed her, hanging almost to her knees.

“Thanks.” She walked up to the edge of the plex and pointed. “Do you see here? That swirl of purple and red?”

I stepped closer, watching the planet below, wondering what I was looking at.

“It’s a storm that’s raged for thousands of years, with no signs of slowing down. Everything we do, everything the corps have ever done, is a flicker of time as far as that storm is concerned.” She laughed quietly. “Well, if the storm was aware of anything.”

I watched it for a moment, streaks of what looked like white clouds swirling and crashing, with the violence of an alien ocean.

The silence grew between us and I glanced down to find her stifling a yawn.

“You said everybody worked around the clock here?” I carefully placed one hand on her shoulder. “When did your shift start?”

“More hours ago that I’d like to think,” she admitted. “But there are more places I could show you.”

“No, I’ll have my official guide do that.” If he’s ever off babysitting duty, I thought. “If you don’t mind, I’d like to see the workers’ quarters, then we’ll call it a night.”

She tilted her head, eyes narrowed. “I’ll show you the outside of my quarters,” she said dryly. “But that’s it.”

My face burned as I realized how she must’ve interpreted my words. “No!” I blurted. “I mean yes. The outside! That’s all I meant.”

She laughed, handing me my jacket as we left the observation dome and reentered the lift.

Moments later the door slid open and she bowed forward, arm waving in front of her in a grand gesture. “Our final stop of the tour will be the capsule section D4.”

Both walls of the hallway were divided into a grid, each square a little over a meter on a side, stretching on until the corridor curved out of sight.

A few steps from the lift, Yasmin rested her hand on the wall, and I realized the slight indentations in the surface that ran vertically between each column were a series of ladders.

I glanced down the hall again, calculating.

“These are all micro capsules? How many workers does the station hold?”

“Only a few thousand,” she said, shrugging “It’s not that there’s so many on the station, they just don’t have much space to allocate for workers quarters.”

That was interesting.

On a station this size?

They could have raw materials and fabricators stacked in a dozen cargo bays and still have plenty of room left over.

What did they need the extra space for?

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