This piece is considered Flash Fiction. For more information on what Flash Fiction is and how it relates to the core project, see the Project Overview.
Belladonna Markova knew that Natalie would love the gift. It was hard for her to not reach out and open the small metal box perched atop her workstation to look at the gleaming crystal pendant contained within. She hadn’t needed long to decide to buy it when she had received a performance bonus for her work as a traffic controller.
An array of red indicator lights glowed on her workstation, casting both Markova’s face and the metal box in a hellish glow. A swipe of her hand on the workstation’s screen brought the display to life. A glowing green arrow creeped along a yellow line toward a green circle. The green arrow represented the latest contact assigned to Markova. For some strange reason, a tiny fluttering bird of doubt made its way through her mind.
Markova pulled out the small keyboard that was tucked under the desk. With a few keystrokes, a small box appeared next to the green arrow, listing some information pulled directly from the spaceship’s transponder. Or rather, it was supposed to be pulled directly from the spaceship’s transponder. Something in the data, however, made that fluttering bird chirp loudly, but Markova couldn’t understand the words.
The small black box caught Markova’s eye as she began rapidly typing on the keyboard. How could she present it to Natalie? Because of the long hours Markov spent in traffic control, Natalie typically went to work after her and returned before. Could she simply walk in, present the box, and watch her partner’s eyes glitter like that crystal would? It was simple, but sometimes simple was good.
The chirping of the bird led Markova to a long ship manifest. Vessels of nearly countless specifications filled the list, with each name highlighted according to the diplomatic relationships with the capsuleer alliance that operated this station. Some of those relationships had been forged in the crucible of battle, some in the boardrooms of commerce, and others out of mere convenience. A station needed food and supplies to feed the countless individuals who worked aboard it.
Something in Markova’s mind realized what was wrong: that yellow line didn’t make any sense. The green triangle was a few jumps out from the system containing the station, but if it really was a Viator-class transport belonging to the capsuleer alliance that paid Markova’s salary and maintained the station, why was it coming from that direction? Viators were used for high-value freight, and high-value freight shouldn’t be coming from that direction.
She knew what Natalie’s response would be, regardless of how she presented the gift. At first, her eyes would get wide taking in the beauty of the faceted crystal and its understated silver setting. Then she’d close the box, not daring to touch the seemingly-fragile piece of beauty. Finally, she’d insist that Markova return it. They couldn’t afford it. Everything they had needed to be earned and paid for; she wouldn’t allow either of them to be a debtor.
Natalie had grown up poor; neither her mother, father, or three brothers had been able to so much as read, living in the godforsaken slum of some station in Minmatar space, living on menial labor and crime to survive. When Natalie and her sister slipped through forgotten maintenance corridors and ventilation shafts to reach the upper levels of the station ad catch a glimpse of the stars, they had both been absolutely terrified by the infinite darkness broken only by a few pinpricks of light and a distant moon. Their parents had been terrified as well, not by the missing girls, but by the notion that the darkness would consume their souls.
The tracking screen flashed, and the green triangle grew closer to the green circle, shortening the yellow line as it approached. Markova grimaced. She pulled up the manifest. Ostensibly, the ship was chock-full of medical supplies: Pharmaceuticals, anti-fungal filters, and durable medical goods. It was appropriate for transport in an expensive ship such as a Viator. Markova began to wonder if there had been a new depot set up in that direction, or if the Viator had simply gotten lost. The bird was screeching now.
To the best of their knowledge, Natalie and her sister Natasha had not lost their souls to the infinite dark. The two girls used that first, terrifying vision as motivation: Both of them wanted to see those glittering stars again, and the only way they figured to get there was through hard work. Against the wishes and fears of their parents, they’d learned to read and write and cook. Of those three, cooking was what took them away from the squalor they’d grown up in.
Somewhere along the line, the women learned a great deal of business sense, and now found themselves the owners and operators of fourteen restaurants on this station, far away from where they’d been born. Natalie and Markova had met at one of Natalie’s restaurants, and their relationship had blossomed from friendship to love to commitment in a matter of months. Never before having a last name, one of Natalie’s most prized possessions was taking Markova’s as her own.
Markova snapped open one of the local channels, normally reserved for capsuleer chatter. Such channels were normally reserved for those immortal gods that piloted capsule-compatible ships, but a few years ago, another traffic controller had taught Markova how to catch a glimpse of them. She couldn’t use them to talk, and she could only see them for a minute or two before CONCORD’s protocols kicked her out, but a few minutes was all she needed. The channel was used for capsuleer intelligence, and no one reported the incoming Viator as hostile.
The man’s soft footsteps announced his arrival. It wasn’t her supervisor; his heavy and shuffling gait was immediately recognizable. Without looking back, Markova could sense the man move over her right shoulder, peering at the contact display. The green triangle was now yellow, matching the line, indicating that docking control had requested inbound information on the vessel in order to make a berthing decision. Time was running out. Markova needed to either ignore or silence that bird.
Depending on its configuration and equipment, a Viator could have several dozen to over a hundred crew members. But this station contained many times that number, not to mention the number of people in local space that depended upon this station and its services. No matter what her job title, the station’s safety was paramount. She had to protect it.
Her hand reached back to the keyboard, to enter the sequence noting the Viator as a potential threat. While she had no direct control over defense assets, her recommendation would go a long way toward the reception it would meet. Flagging it as hostile would ensure careful scanning and treatment.
A hand fell on her shoulder, heavy and oppressive. For the first time, she glanced back at the figure over her shoulder. The light in the control center was dim to reduce the controllers’ eye strain, but he seemed to be wearing a sharply-tailored black suit. She didn’t recognize him, but he’d clearly gotten access to the control center somehow. This was not somewhere most residents of the station could simply enter.
The spark of horrible coincidence ignited in her mind. Could the bonus she’d received for “exceptional service,” allowing her to purchase Natalie’s pendant, the Viator and its strange approach direction, and this strange man all be connected?
She took no changes, moving her hand to key in the alert sequence. The Viator had entered the system, and was mere moments away from entering warp to the station. As she did, the man’s hand, still incredibly heavy, tightened on her shoulder. She turned in her chair, catching his cold stare directly for the first time.
His eyes were unblinking, dark, and cold. With a deliberate nod of his head and no expression on his dark-skinned face, the man gestured toward the metal box. Only then did his lips spread into a thin smile. His grip loosened.
She thought of Natasha, and her struggle to get educated, to enter a world that was alien and hostile to her. She’d suffered and sacrificed to puller herself into something better than the hardscrabble existence her parents and brothers knew. She’d worked hard for everything she had earned, and took pride in being able to account for and afford everything in her life.
She thought of Natalie, and how much she’d love that pendant.
She thought of Natalie, and how much she’d hate what had made that pendant affordable.
Her hands moved toward the keyboard as the man’s soft footsteps receded from the room.