by Joel Van Valin

Every space station has its dark secrets.

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I saw her again in the Decembrist Canteen, sipping a citron sour as she picked at her food, her light hair and sky-blue eyes standing out against the other, darker wayfarers. She had that hopeless melancholy familiar among the stranded, the neglected, the dispossessed of the station, who shuffle its corridors for months or even years—but somehow, I thought, it only heightened her radiance, as she sat there drumming her fingers against the fake ivory tabletop. This time the little girl was not with her.

"Hiya, remember me?" I asked, deciding on the instant that I was going to sit down there, I was going to talk with her.

She looked up suspiciously, then broke into a clear smile. "Oh, you're the man from the Information Ministry!"

"The name's Foresh," I said, extending my hand awkwardly across the table. "And where's your little girl... Melis?"

"Melissa," she gently corrected me. "And I dropped her off at a Children's Center for awhile. Heck, she'll have more fun playing with the other kids than standing in lines with me. But I'd like to thank you for your help yesterday..." She blew a strand of hair out of her eyes. "I did get my DNA card, so at least I'm an official person now."

That 'at least' made her sigh. I knew from her fair looks and strange accent that she must be from one of the small, isolated colonies established by independence-minded settlers from northern Europe or North America in the last century. And I could tell from her anxious expression and poorly made clothing that she was a refugee, recalling vaguely news about a bloody coup on one of those colonies, Superior, I thought. And she understood that I knew this, and had come to offer what I could: a little company.

"Oh," she said, looking up, "and my name's Heather. So what brings you to this lovely space station, For... Foresh? Are you going or coming?"

"Neither," I answered with a smile. "I'm meeting someone here." Her brows, which were a shade darker than her hair and drawn in a graceful arch, went up slightly. "Sure," I went on, "it's a popular place to hold meetings between parties on different worlds. No one really has to go through customs then, there's a lot less red tape. Anyway, I'm meeting a fellow from Foxheath, about drain pipes."

"Drainpipes!" she exclaimed.

"Honest to god. Foxheath, it's one of the rainiest colonies you can go to, a real jungle, and where I'm from, on Tarrymore, we have the right metals to make good, light drainpipes. So we're trying to work out a deal." I'd rehearsed the story so many times that it came out smoothly.

"Tarrymore," she echoed, her blue eyes, like two blue stones under water, taking me in. "That's one of the places I've applied for. I hear Tarrymore's divine."

"It's kind of dry," I said. "And not a lot happens there. A sort of sleepy, bedroom colony. But I like it."

"Sounds like heaven," she breathed, and again there was that melancholy.

A canteen waiter wheeled over to take my order; it recited the specials in a calm, unctuous voice that centuries of engineering had still failed to make sound human. I ordered corn and bean pie and biscuit, and Heather tapped her now-empty glass. "Huh, it's funny," she said. "Ordering from a robot." Now that I was getting used to her accent I could tell, from a soft slurring in her voice, that this hadn't been her first drink of the day.

We sat comfortably for awhile, looking on the parade of humanity that was passing before us: families on holiday, business travelers looking up at the clocks, lovers, kids bumming around the stars for the year. Station workers zipped by on quiet mopeds or in small cars, going about their everyday tasks oblivious to the strangeness of the place. And there were regulars like me, jaded dealers who knew the entire menu at the Sparkler Lounge or Deneb's Lair. But most were new to Alun Seritz and they wore looks of wonder, of exhaustion, of fascination, still a bit puzzled that there was no sky to look up into, no gravity but the whirling of the station. Most would stay only a day or two, appearing out of one transport door, going through customs and bacteriology, and vanishing through another. Fifty years ago it would have taken a year or more to travel by ship from one colony to another; now that it was only a matter of stepping through doors, space stations like Alun had taken on added significance: they were the only thing preventing pests like grasshoppers and wheat rust from spreading everywhere. And they were the only thing keeping refugees like Heather from going where they weren't wanted.

"This how I imagine the old airports were," she said, breaking the silence with her rather husky voice. "You know, on Earth."

"Airports," I said, leaning back and savoring the strange word. "Isn't that where they coordinated air transportation?"

"Yes, in the 20th and 21st centuries. They had docking bays and security, customs and bag checks, restaurants and hotels, just like Alun Seritz."

"Interesting. You sound like an expert."

"I teach history," she said, smiling demurely and teasing her hair back a little. "At a university. I mean, taught," she corrected, her expression faltering.

A recycling collections vehicle sped past, its large yellow bins adding a splash of color to the gray-white scene. Mani was driving. He caught my nod and waved at us.

"You know him?" Heather asked, looking at me quizzically.

"You're sharp," I said. "Yeah, I come out here pretty often, on this or that sort of business."

"I see."

The waiter rolled back with my food and another citron sour. She sat stirring it for a while, looking at me meditatively, while I pretended to be absorbed in cutting my pie into little bites.

"So you know about the ghosts then?" she asked, holding the glass to her lips but not drinking. Something had eased ever so slightly in her body posture, in the tone of her voice. But it changed everything. Suddenly she was not addressing a stranger in a canteen, but chatting with a friend on her own small-town colony.

"Ghosts," I said, wondering suddenly whether she was playing me. Then, seeing she was in earnest: "Well yeah, there's quite a local folklore here concerning ghosts. You know, travelers getting frightened by things tapping on their window in the night, objects that seem to move, a... a feeling of a certain presence in the room with you. The science folks have always brushed it off as people with nerves in a strange environment."

"And what about you, have you ever seen anything?" She was still looking directly at me, her hands clasped in front of her. It made me a little uncomfortable, but I was charmed at the same time.

"Well once, down in Warehouse 3, I... I thought I heard something moving near by, behind some boxes. Then I thought I heard someone call my name. I looked, but there was no one there, and when we checked the room surveillance it turned out I... was the only one in the warehouse that—"

"It called your name?" she interrupted. "Really? So it called you too..."


"A couple nights ago." I looked down and saw that her two hands were now clasped around one of mine. "I was in bed, and I heard this tapping... at the window. And I thought I was at... was home, and it was the rain. And then I drew back the curtain and almost screamed—there was nothing there! No world at all, no person, no rain, just the pitch dark of space. And then then I thought I heard someone call my name, very faintly and rather muffled, as if they were outside the station."

"Your daughter—"

"—was in the next room."

"The tapping," I said. "It could be space dust. You know, microscopic particles that—"

"It was a regular tapping. It was something tapping for a purpose. Something wanted in."

"Well it must be the ghosts, then," I said, throwing up my free hand and laughing.

"Yes, the ghosts," she returned. The color had risen in her cheeks—I could see it because of her fair white skin—and it seemed she had enjoyed telling her little ghost story. She saw me looking at her hands, still clasping mine, and then glanced up and smiled, as if daring me to say anything about it.

"The old space mariners used to talk about chamblins, ghosts that haunted the void," she went on. "It was believed they were the spirits of dead mariners, who had been lost in shipwrecks. Who were eternally wandering the airless, godless regions of space, looking for some human habitation, trying to get in from the cold..."

"Poor ghosts," I muttered.

"Yes, poor ghosts," she said, trying to smile, and suddenly she was close to tears. "Listen," she went on after a pause, "I'm from Superior colony. You know, that dreadful place where they just had a coup? Well, my former mate, Melissa's father, had a small part in the uprising. He's in prison now. We're not closed any more, our contract came up four years ago and we didn't renew it... but still he's my daughter's father. And he won't talk. And on Superior to get people to talk you sometimes take their sons or daughters and—"

"I understand," I said.

"Yes, and so I brought Melissa here. There was nothing else I could think of. We have false IDs because of course the authorities on Superior wouldn't let us—"

"Right," I said.

"And I'm trying to pretend I'm just looking for work, for a better opportunity, you know. But hell, what am I good for? We're a farming colony, a backwater. I don't have the skills to do anything but replace these robots here," she said, motioning to the strolling waiters. Somewhere in all this she had gotten her citron sour refilled yet again.

"What about history?" I asked.

"Ha! Well, turns out that history teachers are a dime a dozen everywhere else, no thanks ma'am. What they need are technology wizards. Me, I don't even know what a circuit is. I couldn't tell a boson from a bra."

"How long do you have?"

"Five more days," she said, sucking the air in as she spoke and downing the rest of the drink. The fingers of her left hand were holding the fingers of my right, and I felt them pull urgently. "Then they send us home."

"Did you talk to the Ministry of Refugees? I think you have a good case."

"Of course. But it takes time to build a case. And everyone else on this revolving hunk of metal seems hellbent on sending me back to Superior. It's impossible to get around them, they have every little corner of this place guarded and watched by surveillance, they have DNA scans and retinal scans and all these questions... You know the feeling, when you're not wanted?"

"Shh, calm down now," I said, for her voice had started to rise and some of the diners around us had looked up from their meals. At the other end of the canteen a large bearded man, surrounded by several others, stood up and shook hands with an older man wearing a hat.

I leaned over the table close to her and whispered. "There's other ways to do this, okay? You see that big man there, the one with the beard?" She nodded. "That's Marfu Nonnan. His business is shirts, and he owns stores all over—61 Cygni, Brikell, Earth. And he doesn't pay any tariffs on the shirts. You know why?" She shook her head. "Because he's a crook."

"They actually have crime here?" she asked, a touch of cynicism showing in her impossible blue eyes. "How? How could anyone possibly get away with anything?"

"Because he's on the board of governors," I smiled. "Of Alun Seritz itself. I mean technically, it's a sovereign world of its own. And a lot of other board members get anonymous gifts every month—less than the tariffs, but right in their own accounts."

"And what am I supposed to do?" she countered. "Go marching up to him and—"

"No," I said, and this time it was me grabbing her hand. "Don't go near him. I only mentioned it to illustrate... there are ways around things here. Nonnan isn't the only one who—"

"You," she said.

"Not exactly," I replied, leaning back and watching Nonnan and his party walk out and get in their own richly furnished shuttle. "But I know people. I... I'll put in a word for you. First thing tomorrow."

"You... you'll do this for me, honor bright? You're not just playing me?"

"Of course not," I said, giving her hand a little squeeze. "First thing tomorrow. I'll do what I can. You know, old Alun Seritz—Alan, he was called, he had blond hair like you—he wanted the station to be a place of peace, a place where different worlds could build bridges. Now they just seem to be building walls. Anyway, I've got to get some work done now. Where are you staying?"

"Not far, over in the Zanzibar quarter."

"Let's pick up Melissa then. I'll walk you over."

"Oh, you needn't bother. I know the way," she protested.

"Yes, but it's past 1900 now. It's night. This isn't quite the safest place, at night."

"You're kidding me!" she cried, looking about. "Crime rising at night in a space station? You can't even tell it's night except for the clocks."

"Old habits die hard," I said, my voice going low again. "There are fewer people out. And there's another reason why they say there's ghosts on Alun Seritz, you know. People like Nonnan, sometimes... they play pretty rough. Get kickbacks from thieves, muggers. It's getting pretty bad. And anyway, you're drunk."

"Okay," she agreed. "Hey, I am a bit tipsy. Which is a perfect excuse for telling you what a dark, handsome devil you are."

"And you... you remind me of an angel," I said, "with that blonde hair, those eyes. If you make it to Tarrymore, will you have dinner with me sometime?"

We kept up this sort of banter until we got the Children's Center, where we picked up Melissa. I asked the chestnut-haired little girl if she'd had fun with the other kids, what her favorite color was, that kind of thing; it had been a long time since I'd talked to a kid, and realized I missed it. On the way to their room Heather and I strolled with our hands locked, and it felt natural. The strangers we passed must have thought we were a family, and for some reason that made me feel good. And she was in good spirits as well. I don't think she believed I could do much for her, but just to have someone there, willing to help, gave her a lift. And every second step it seemed she was stopping to thank me. All the same, the bitterness was still there in the back of her voice, betraying the darkness of her position, the melancholy.

"You know," she said, as we stood in the elevator, "when people first pioneered space travel, it was thought we would leave all the tragedies of Earth behind... the poverty and murder and racial hatred and iniquity. But we've failed, we've failed. The shadow of our past comes to haunt us, even here."

"Yeah, it's not exactly paradise on Alun Seritz. But we do what we have to to get by, to make a decent life for people," I said, with an edge to my voice.

We got to her door and she unlocked it, and I said I'd stop by in the morning. Then, just as she was about to go in she rushed back, and kissed me on the cheek.

"Thank you," she whispered, one more time.

I went down the elevator, and a couple of corridors over, to where the more spacious suites are situated. Outside the Palmetto block I opened a small fire hose door, picked up the proton gun where Mani had left it. Then I walked into a shadowy alcove and waited. Soon I heard the booming voice of Marfu Nonnan, saying good night to his bodyguards. As he went to open his door I stepped out. I couldn't really miss—two shots to his heart, and the smell of singing hair and flesh. "Bastard assassin..." he choked out, before slumping to the floor. I walked quickly away, leaving Mani to return with his collections vehicle for the cleanup—another ghost for Alun Seritz's permanent collection.





Copyright © 2009 Joel Van Valin

A B O U T   T H E   A U T H O R:

Joel Van Valin is the publisher of Whistling Shade literary journal and the author of the fantasy novel The Flower of Clear Burning. His short fiction has appeared in Silverthought, Fifth Di, Alien Worlds, Writer's Hood and elsewhere. He lives in St. Paul.

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