by Tom Dillon
Birch Station glinted emerald against the void, with domes like soap bubbles pushing out against the vacuum of space. Each one was filled with vegetation. It was only the third time Vance had seen a station from the outside, and if he didn’t know better, he would have thought that it looked like a nice place to live. But the truth was that it was only nice for a fraction of a percent of the people aboard the space station, that most of the people aboard would never get a chance to enjoy those gardens.
“Are you sure this will work?” Ava asked from the cargo/passenger portion of the shuttle. She had spent the entire trip staring at the ragged hole where the shuttle’s controls had been torn out prior to its abandonment. No matter how many times Vance had assured her that his handheld had more than enough processing power to run the shuttle and its communication systems, she had remained skeptical. Then again, she had still climbed aboard when it was time to leave.
“Yeah, the docking protocols haven’t changed in ages,” Vance said, trying to sound more sure than he actually was. Even so, he checked the wires attaching his handheld to the shuttle, it would be pathetic to crash and die because the connection had jiggled loose. He sent a message to Remi, who had stayed back on Horizon station, informing her that they were about to arrive.
“And you’re absolutely certain that the chits you gave us are clean?” Ava asked Zero, who was sitting across from her, looking unconcerned.
“In the Guild we spent a fair amount of time in places that wouldn’t take Guild Credits,” Zero said. “Even though we were hunting down pirates, a lot of the groups we had to deal with weren’t much better. Not the sort of people you want to pass bogus chits to. Trust me, they’re clean.”
Then again, Zero hadn’t exactly left the Guild on good terms, but Vance didn’t want to have that conversation with Zero right then.
The shuttle drifted between two of the gardens to the gunmetal blemish of a docking platform. The handheld let out a series of beeps that he imagined were happy sounds of communication between the shuttle and the station. He wished he had taken the time to set up a full display, without context, those happy beeps could just as easily be indicating that they were going to be fired upon if they didn’t identify themselves. In the end, there was nothing to do for it, it was too late to turn around. On the principle that any action he took could only harm them and so more information would only increase his anxiety, Vance shut his eyes.
The shuttle thudded against the docking clamp, jarring him against his restraints. Vance let out a breath that he hadn’t realized that he had been holding. Out of instinct he reached to undo his acceleration webbing, but he was jerked sideways before he could work the latch as the shuttle was pulled into the docking area.
“Time to buy some supplies?” Vance asked once the shuttle was fully docked and it was safe to move around.
“Something like that,” Ava said.
“Take your time, but don’t be too long,” Zero said.
As she walked down the corridor, Ava wondered why she was always the one that had to do the dangerous things. Her annoyance didn’t last long, however. She liked being the one that everyone looked to. As she made her way through the station, falling back into the old pattern of finding the currents in the masses of people and letting them take her where she needed to go, she felt herself relax despite her plans. It was something about being surrounded by people, as much as she loved the freedom of living on Horizon station, it was too empty. They had talked endlessly about how to get into the gardens that encased the station, talked about how to sneak in, how to disguise themselves as maintenance crew, who they would have to bribe, the equipment they would need. But the discussions had amounted to nothing. The gardens were under too much surveillance, the maintenance crew was too small and too well paid, they didn’t know who to bribe, they didn’t know enough about the gardens’ security to know what they would need to circumvent it. Then Remi had come up with a brilliant idea.
Ava had to make a couple of stops before she was ready to infiltrate the gardens. By the time she made it to the station’s bazaar, Vance sent her a message confirming that the credit chits that Zero had given them were clean. Zero had been sure, but Ava hadn’t been able to help thinking that it was easy for him, waiting in the shuttle. Not that she was suspicious, it made sense, he wouldn’t get five meters in the station. The Guild knew his face and wouldn’t take well the news that he was less dead than advertised. Whatever the case, his chits apparently hadn’t tripped any alarms.
She purchased a watertight box that could fold down small enough to fit in a pocket. Then she found an autospoke booth; she had been wearing the same clothes since their arrival on Horizon and it showed. She fed in her measurements and authorized it to access her credits and a few minutes later received a grey and green outfit. After she was satisfied with the fit, she repeated the process for her crewmates, instructing the booth to deliver the clothes to the shuttle. From there, she went to a mini-spa where they cleaned up her skin, hair, and nails so that she wouldn’t look like she had stolen the clothes. When everything was done, she looked at herself in the mirror. She had arrived looking like a cross between a mechanic and a spacer, when she left the spa, she could have passed for a respectable middle-decks woman.
Vance was growing increasingly nervous as he made his way through the Chandlers’ district. Zero’s reassurances aside, the amount of money that Vance was carrying would make anyone nervous, except for Zero, apparently. He made his rounds from merchant to merchant, buying food, tools, spare parts, and a host of other things they hadn’t realized they needed until they were already out of reach of their old station. He passed Zero’s chits to the merchants, along with the docking receipt and had them pack everything up and send it back to the shuttle.
With the necessities taken care of, Vance headed out from the core of the station. The affluence increased as he headed towards the station’s outer level, evinced by better lighting, fewer people, and cleaner everything. He wasn’t going all the way out to the garden levels, but what he was looking for wouldn’t be available in the core. He had to switch tubes several times, but his handheld eventually found what he was looking for.
“Can I help you?” the clerk asked when Vance stepped into the shop, not moving to help him.
She was cute, and it made Vance aware of how he must look in his stained coveralls. He hesitated before answering.
“Yes,” he said. Her expression didn’t change and a moment later he added, “I need to buy a few fruit trees.”
“I see.” She looked past him and down at the data scrolling across her counter, as though she suspected that she was an unwitting participant in some prank. “They aren’t cheap.”
“I know,” Vance said. “I can afford it.” He walked up to the counter and handed her one of the chits that Zero had given him.
She turned the chit over in her hand several times before touching its edge to the counter. A series of windows opened and closed over the data feeds, too quickly for Vance to make out. Satisfied, she handed it back.
“Spacer, right?” she asked. Now more curious than aloof.
“Something like that,” Vance said.
“What sort of fruit trees are you looking for?”
“I really don’t know. Something more productive than decorative, I guess,” he said.
“I meant, what sort of fruit do you want?” she asked. When he didn’t answer, she asked, “Do you like lemons?”
“What’s a lemon?”
Ava had no trouble in making her way to the garden level of the station. There were no barriers or checkpoints, technically even the poorest grease-coated laborer could go wherever they wanted in the affluent outer spheres of the station. Of course, the truth of the matter was something else entirely. The sidelong glances and refusal of common courtesies made it difficult to stay long, but it was the economics of the situation that really kept most people out. Spending even a short time in one of the gardens cost a week’s salary back on Habitat station, and added to that was the cost to get there. One could get anywhere in the station through public corridors and lifts, but most of them only spanned a deck or two. Getting from the docks to the garden levels that way would take hours. Naturally, commerce had found a way around that, with express lifts, but a round-trip pass would cost another week’s pay. The end result was just as effective as staffed checkpoints, perhaps more so.
She found an alcove in the corridor and sat down. Above her a porthole bulged into space. She ignored the view and pulled out her handheld.
Progress? she queried Vance before pulling up a map of the station and its various transportation routes.
On track. ; Vance replied after a worrying pause.
After panning and rotating the map a bit, she found an express lift that would take her all the way down to where the shuttle was docked. It was expensive, but that was probably for the best. If things went wrong, it was expensive enough to bypass security. A few minutes of walking later she found herself at the entrance to the garden closest to the lift. A uniformed guard took the chit from her outstretched hand and held its edge against his handheld until it beeped happily, never taking his eyes from her. After the payment was complete he smiled at her and waved her in.
The Garden was another world entirely. The hard, deliberate surfaces of the station had been replaced by foliage that constantly swayed, never seeming to reach equilibrium. The air was different, too, warm and moist like a shower, but without the astringent edge of soap. For a moment she felt as though she were in a Sim, but the feeling of unreality faded as her brain began to accept her surroundings. That was when she noticed the colors. There were starbursts of yellow, blue, red, violet, colors that she could put a name to and more that she couldn’t, but her mind skimmed right over them. There was an entire spectrum of greens, some so dark that they could have passed for shadows and some so pale that they registered only as a green-tinged translucency. And everything in between. Surely a scene like she was seeing had given birth to the mathematical deity called infinity.
Ava glanced back to see the guard watching her. She moved deeper into the Garden, along winding paths that took her out of his line of sight. She pulled up a map of the Garden on her handhold and a moment had found what she was looking for, a kidney shaped outline that would almost certainly be a pond. She made her way towards it, stopping to admire the plants along the way. She knew that she was spending more time touching the leaves and sniffing the flowers than strictly necessary to throw off Security’s algorithms, but couldn’t bring herself to care, she was entranced.
As she neared the pond, she checked her pocket, the collapsible box was still there, waiting to be folded out into a faceted ball. She palmed it. When she rounded the final curve, her heart sank and she replaced the box in her pocket. The entire pond was covered with a clear composite, looking like a flattened soap bubble, rising just above the water. She walked out onto it, looking down to the fish and swaying seaweed between her feet.
She checked her handheld again, and plotted a circuitous route that would lead her to the exit. As she walked, she started to look at the information for the neighboring gardens, this time making sure to check for a pond that was open to the air.
Vance felt his handheld vibrating angrily in his pocket. The clerk, Basira, was telling him something about the uses for the limequat tree and he didn’t want to interrupt her. The handheld went still, then began to buzz again. If he waited much longer it would start making noise.
“I’m sorry, I have to take this, it’s my captain,” Vance said. Basira nodded and backed away a little. He checked the message, and it was just Ava checking on his progress. He tapped in a quick On track. and put the handheld back in his pocket. “Sorry about that, what were you saying?”
“I understand,” Basira said. “I was just telling you that the fruit from this tree will give you a tart juice that works well with lots of different kinds of food. Are you sure that you have a place to plant it?”
“It may not seem like much to you, but when your ship’s G’s change, it can cause a lot of damage to one of these.”
“I actually live on a station,” Vance said.
“Can’t you buy one there?” Basira asked, confused.
“It’s not much of a station,” Vance said. “It’s just a few of my friends and me.”
“Are you wealthy or something?” Basira asked. She was leaning over the counter towards him, her eyes wide.
“Or something. We found an old, abandoned station just drifting out there and we claimed it.” Vance wished he had Zero’s onboard systems, any cost would be worth it if could keep him from blushing at the attention.
“That sounds amazing,” Basira said. “Don’t you worry that something will go wrong?”
“Yeah, things happen,” Vance said. “When we first arrived, right after we sent our rented shuttle back, the power cut out. I thought that we were going to die out there.”
“I can’t even imagine,” Basira said, but the tone of her voice said that she was imagining it, and that it sounded fun.
It occurred to Vance that he could invite Basira to come with him, to leave Birch station. But he couldn’t do that to her. What she had in mind was a life filled with adventure and freedom. She was partially right, there was excitement and a sort of freedom, but the excitement often seemed to come in the form of worrying about things outside of their control and the freedom included the freedom to wear the same set of clothes every day. Basira might ; love it on Horizon, or she might resent him for having brought her there. Vance glanced down at his handheld, the screen blank.
“That’s the captain, I need to get going,” Vance lied. “Can I get you to have everything delivered to my shuttle? We’ll be leaving within the hour.”
The smile left Basira’s eyes. “Of course. The expedited delivery will be extra.”
“Not a problem,” Vance said. He handed his chit to her, and she charged the trees and delivery to it. He started to make his way back to the shuttle.
The second garden that Ava tried was farther from the lift, a few minutes’ walk, but it advertised its uncapped pools for kids to learn about sea life. She gave her chit to the guard at the entrance, who seemed less interested in her than the one at the previous garden, and walked inside. The garden was similar to the first one, but clearly not the same. There was less variety of vegetation, with the designer’s choices skewing towards sturdy plants that could stand up to the inquisitive abuse of children. It was still beautiful, but after the first garden, it felt faded.
Her map indicated that the garden was peppered with pools, and as she walked around, she saw them. Rather than capped bubbles of water, they were partially above ground, with transparent walls that reached up to her waist. She stopped and peered in each one. Finally, she found what she was looking for, a pond labeled ‘Freshwater Fish’. She didn’t stop, but made her way to the opposite side of the garden, where she dropped off a small device that Remi had designed, before doubling back to the freshwater pool.
She pulled the box out of her pocket and started to unfold it. It opened, accordion-like, until it formed a flexible faceted ball just small enough to fit under her jacket. Setting it on the ground beneath her feet, she rolled up her sleeves and reached into the water. She had hoped that she would be able to just grab the fish, but every time her hands came close, they fled. After a few failed attempts, she pulled out a tablet about the size of her finger and put it into the water. A few seconds later it popped with a tiny explosion that numbed her still submerged hands. She grabbed as many stunned fish as would fit into the collapsible box and filled the remaining space with water and capped it. Holding it under one arm, she did a quick check to make sure that she was ready, chit in one hand and handheld with a map back to the shuttle in the other. She pressed a button on the handheld. A moment later there was a resounding boom as the aural grenade that she had placed earlier went off.
She made her way to the now unmanned entrance, passed confused and worried parents. Her breathing eased when she made it out to the corridor. Then she was on the lift and speeding towards the shuttle. She lifted her jacket to take a glance at her stolen fish. Then the lift stopped.
“There must be some mix-up, this is a private lift,” she began when the doors opened, letting her voice trail off as her brain processed the fact of the grey clad security team waiting outside for her. She had been so close.
“Ava Kelstin. Put it down. Carefully,” the woman at the front said. All of them were holding stun pistols at the ready. Ava did what they told her.
As the security team entered the lift, Ava saw her chance and took it, rushing forward and under the arms of the closest agent. There were two more just inside the lift, too close together to slip through. Ava caught the one on the right with an elbow to the nose, knocking him aside, and she was past them and out of the lift. Her freedom didn’t last long, someone grabbed her shoulder from behind with a grip solid enough to stop her dead, her feet flying out from under her and her back hitting the decking hard enough to drive the breath from her lungs. She was dragged back into the lift.
They propped her up against the far wall as her diaphragm spasmed and she watched with a growing sense of breathless panic as slid shut. But the lift did not begin to move. While the team inspected the fish on the floor and checked her for weapons, Ava was able to breathe again, and they let her stand up. The woman who had spoken and seemed to be in charge stepped forward until she was uncomfortably close to Ava.
“You won’t survive another attempt like that,” the woman said. Her hand was resting on an unfamiliar weapon holstered at her waist. Ava nodded that she understood. “Good. We saw what happened. We have everything on surveillance. How do you plead?” the woman asked. As though anything Ava said could change their verdict.
“Guilty,” Ava said.
“We’re going to put you in holding until we find out whether the Garden wants to press charges,” the woman said.
“No!” Ava said, and the panic in her voice was genuine. “My ship is scheduled to leave soon.”
“And you don’t think they will wait for you,” the woman said. “Do you expect us to just let you walk out of here after an attempted theft?”
“Of course not. But can’t we work something out. I could–” Ava stopped mid sentence, a word short of offering a bribe. She didn’t doubt that bribery was possible, everyone had their price, but she doubted that she had the resources to bribe the entire security squad. She would need to get the commander to speak to her in private.
“You could what?” the woman asked.
“Could you contact my captain?”
The commander turned her back to Ava and began to talk. She was subvocalizing, with an implant in her jawbone translating it into voice for whoever was on the other end of the communication link that she had opened. When she was done talking, she turned to face Ava again.
“Captain Vance Arensen claims that he had no knowledge of the larceny and certifies that the rest of your business aboard this station was above board and on his orders,” the commander said. “He also said that if you are detained, he would leave you here.”
“So where does that leave me?” Ava asked.
“It seems that if we keep you for any length of time we will have to keep you indefinitely, as I doubt that you would be able to find work on a ship again after we blacklist your name,” the commander said. “Fortunately for you, this station has no desire to keep someone like you, we have enough mouths to feed already.”
“Thank you,” Ava said, sighing with relief.
“Don’t be so quick to say that. Captain Arensen made it clear that the fines will be taken from your future wages, and with the blacklist, you’ll be in his power. I don’t envy you.” The commander nodded to one of her subordinates, who pushed a button. The lift started to move again. “What were you planning on doing with these?”
“A man approached me on Habitat Station,” Ava said. “He offered me a lot of money for these fish.” It was at least partially true, or at least believable, the people who owned the rights to their genetic code, as well as the hacks that allowed the fish to thrive in space, weren’t too keen on sharing. The fish were worth more than she could imagine.
“Is that where you got the aural grenade?”
“Not directly, but he gave me the money and a contact on Habitat Station who could get it for me,” Ava said. She acted scared, which wasn’t difficult, she was scared.
The woman thought for a moment before speaking. “Since no one was harmed and you have paid your fines, you will not be imprisoned. However, you are required to leave Birch Station. Immediately.”
Ava nodded her ascent, and the security team split in two, one to take the fish back to the garden and the other joining Ava in the lift. When they reached the docks the security team ushered her into the shuttle and shut the doors so they could talk to an angry-looking Vance in private.
When the door opened and he reentered the shuttle, he said, “They’re kicking us off the station, we have to leave immediately.”
“I’ll prep things,” Ava said. A few minutes later they were on their way back to Horizon.
“How did it go?” Remi asked as soon as the shuttle had completed the docking procedure and its cargo door had opened into Horizon’s bay.
“Everything went to plan,” Ava said. “We got everything we needed. And like you thought, after I got caught they were in a hurry to get rid of us and we skipped the customs checks on the way out.”
Ava had to step out of the way as Vance came out of the shuttle, carrying a large black cube that he was having trouble lifting. He set it down unevenly, so that it clanged against the deck. After tapping in a code on a panel on the lid, the box opened to reveal still sloshing water. Zero had followed him out and pulled the lid all the way open. A half dozen fish were swimming in lazy circles inside.
“It took some doing, but I was able to drill through the bubble from outside the station without anyone noticing,” Zero said.
“Any problems resealing it?” Remi asked.
“Next time they do a low-level integrity check they might notice it, but that shouldn’t be for a while,” Zero said.
Remi smiled and went back to looking at the fish, then her smile faded. “These are koi.”
“Okay,” Ava said. “Does that mean something?”
“They’re ornamental fish, not good eating,” Remi said.
“Crap,” Ava said.
“I took fish from several different gardens, we should check the rest of the tanks,” Zero said.
In short order, they had pulled the other nine black cubes out of the shuttle and opened them. Six of them also had koi, but after checking her handheld, Remi determined that the remaining three tanks contained a mix of catfish and tilapia. Both of which were edible, the database assured them.
They hauled the three tanks of edible fish to the lift and took them up to the garden under the clear dome at the top of the station. The garden had several ponds in it, and Remi had prepared the one closest to where they had been planting, filling it with water and activating the interchange that would cycle water from the garden to the pond and back. They tried to gently pour the first tank into the pool, but once they had it tipped over part of the way, it fell the rest of the way over, sloshing the fish into the water. The fish didn’t seem to mind. They were able to get the other two tanks emptied into the pond in a much more orderly fashion.
“Let me get something,” Vance said, and jogged off, towards the compost bin. A minute later he was back with coarsely chopped food scraps. “You want to do the honors?” he asked Ava.
“Sure thing, ‘captain’,” she said. They both laughed. Everyone took turns tossing handfuls of the food into the pond, watching as the fish darted back and forth, looking for the tastiest bits.
“So what are we going to do with the koi?” Zero asked.
“Isn’t there a pond in the lounge?” Remi asked.
“I think so,” Vance said.
The four of them went down to the lounge on the deck below. Aside from the bay that took up the entire bottom deck and the garden that took up the entire top, the lounge was the largest room on the station, with one wall being formed by a transparent section of the station’s hull, giving a magnificent view of space. It was where they cooked and where they ate, where they spent almost all of their downtime, and just about the only place in the station where they would all be at once.
“How did I never notice this?” Ava asked. There was a pool in one corner, with large diameter clear tubes running out from it along the walls.
Vance and Remi both checked their handhelds, and within a few minutes the pool and tubes had been flooded with water.
“Does this hook into the potable water supply?” Zero asked.
“It doesn’t look like it,” Vance said.
They were all exhausted by the time they got the fish into the lounge, and then it was time to put the fish into the pool. One by one, the tanks’ contents were added, and the fish were quick to explore, swimming throughout the pool and into the tubes that ran along the wall. There was some sort of barrier at the end of the tubes, because the fish stopped there. It was amazing, Ava had never seen anything like it. The koi brought an ever-changing pattern of white, black, orange, red, and blue to the lounge. For a moment, everyone was silent. There was no reason to say anything, they were all home, and they knew it.