“They’re ready for you, Captain,” says the voice interface of the Orbiting Transfer Station. The glass in front of me is opaque, and I can’t see into the holding room. My heart sprouts wings and beats them wildly in my chest, but I steady my hand, and tap to open the door. The floor under my feet creaks as the station lists from the force of the invisible matter outside. I feel the change in a surge of queasiness. The station finds itself and is still, but the swell stays in my stomach.
In all the worlds, this is where I meet myself.
It began as an otherwise routine day on the self-navigating and operating Orbiting Transfer Station (OTS) Neblina, in the orbit of the moon. That normally meant that while OTS did all the work, I read novels and played 1980s pop through the emergency speakers, roller-blading down its corridors in my reflective safety suit, with half an eye on the status lights. That day, however, I couldn’t blade because of the strange density of mass that appeared to beat on the hull and would have thrown us off-course if not for OTS’s dynamic capabilities. I’ve been through a few storms up here, but this was strong enough to feel on the bridge.
I was re-reading “Eleven Kinds of Loneliness” when OTS alerted me to a distress call. The passenger shuttle was functional, with fifteen passengers on board, including a child and a senior, flown by a competent human crew of one. It had to have come from a new territory planet. By its trajectory, it was directly underway to us. OTS calculated that at its current speed, it would reach us in just about one lunar day. I took my feet off the control panel, leaned on the receiver, and responded.
“Received Mayday. This is the OTS Neblina. Please state your name and situation.”
The female voice responding sounded oddly like my own, captured and replayed through something denser than time.
She said, “This is Commander Xu Jia Wei of the RSS Da-Tai. We need assistance with CO2 scrubber failure.”
“No shit,” I laughed. Abuse of emergency comm by a bored navigator carries penalties, but I know InterExPol have bigger problems. “Try me again. Who are you?”
“I am Commander Xu Jia Wei of the passenger shuttle Da-Tai. Our vessel’s engine is functional, but two of our scrubbers are malfunctioning. We are underway to your station for victualling, and temporary shelter, while we repair or await replacements.”
I’d seen clips on my feed of the civil war unfolding on Vestia, a second generation colony. Someone uncovered the identity of the saboteur on the pioneer crew who nearly cost them their lives, back in year one. Now, whole families, neighbours, were thrown against each other. Despatches beyond Vestia’s system were delayed, so I had no idea how many refugee ships managed to flee, if at all. I would later wonder why I never asked, but then, I just assumed that was where they had come from. Because the Commander’s message presented an even bigger question.
What didn’t make sense was that I am Xu Jia Wei.
I’d spent almost thirty orbital phases alone in the sixty metric ton self-navigating and self-operating station, hoping nothing happened that would need my actual involvement beyond authorising OTS’s recommended actions from the bridge. Responding to a distress call is the first rule of navigation, and it necessitates human interaction, especially when refugees are involved.
The thing is, I didn’t just win the corporation’s reverse auction as the cheapest human contractor willing to spend a good part of the prime of their life alone in the OTS Neblina. I won on the impressive list of Astro-geology degrees and operating licences… which I cloned from the employment file of a former team leader, when she gave me her access to the HR system to approve my vacation days. On that job, I was the team’s Communications Professional, qualified by virtue of a MPhil in 20th Century Literature. The job was essentially as a sensitivity reader of bot-generated investor announcements and internal messages to voting directors, and occasionally whispering sweet nothings to angry clients experiencing delivery delays.
What I’ve been trying to avoid saying is: there is no galaxy where I am remotely qualified for this job, and Commander Xu is going to see it the moment they see me on the bridge. Even if they aren’t really me. Which they couldn’t possibly be.
OTS Neblina is the galactic equivalent of a tax haven, funded by our once-could’ve-been nation, and owned at arm’s length through a shell company majority invested in by our sovereign wealth fund. Recent years saw the opening of deep space to mining expeditions for what we used to call rare earths, until irony archived the term. The only trouble with shipping space-mined ore is the eye-watering Earth import tax. Trans-shipping it somewhere in the orbit of Earth, such as its Moon, takes enough of that problem away.
Shuttles from deep space mines dock to unload refined ores or mineral aggregate. For a cut, OTS will either sinter the feed—not unsimilar to pressure-cooking—into handy little bars, or blend grades of ore for a higher or lower quality product. More importantly, this tweaking tags it as the final value-adding link in the process, which by the Space Mining Act of 2040, makes it Earth D.O.C if you will, and not subject to extra-terrestrial commodity tax.
There’s only one catch, but one that affects me somewhat considerably. For this to work for all interested parties, the OTS is not supposed to exist. Naming it a transfer and not a trans-shipment station was ballsy enough. Acknowledging its existence, and with that, the fact that nearly all the signatory nations to the Worlds Trade Organisation use it to launder their haul, would be acknowledging the emperor’s nakedness, with one hand in the jar. Consequently, I can’t exist either, as long as I’m up here. Ample supplies, a secure comm line but with minimum actual contact ensures it, and I never had a problem with that.
Why was I so eager to hump out alone, to a station I wasn’t at all qualified to operate, for a fund that pretended I didn’t exist? Because I shouldn’t. I should have been dead.
I neglected to tell you about the otherwise routine day in the week of the anniversary of Mum’s passing. It’s not unusual for me to have spotty sleep, or to snarl at OTS around this time. But that week was worse than ever. In the day, it felt like something was slowly unscrewing my head, in order to chew at what was left. OTS knew this, without consulting my bio-monitors.
OTS addresses me Captain, being the only human on board. What I really am is Supercargo, babysitting an autonomous station smarter than I am. I have an IQ of 151 (that, at least, I didn’t have to lie on my job tender). For its capabilities, OTS’s operating system is authorised for the highest band of machine intelligence, which by the Singapore Convention is capped at sixty percent of the current highest human IQ. This ship is smarter than me by a whole ten points. I’m just here as the commercial rep of the corporation, and to react to situations where IQ alone isn’t enough. Such as having fingers to push manual controls, in the event of electronic failure.
Originally, OTS communicated through a voice interface, which on factory-default was a somewhat coy feminine voice. After our twenty-fourth orbit, I uploaded samples from my great-grandmother’s favourite ITV show. Now, OTS questions my every interference in an unmistakable warm wryness.
It said then, “I would rather we listened to what Commander Xu has to say, Captain.”
I spun in my chair. “This is surely a joke, and I have other things to do.”
“Such as performative appreciation of the dulcet musical hallmarks of the 20th century, perhaps?”
“Were you always like this, Otis?” I smiled, and it went for it.
“Logic allows that Commander Jia Wei and Captain Jia Wei can be identical, without being the same.”
I should have muted OTS too, when I muted the comm line with the Da-Tai. I could feel my head pound through my jaw, but I set my teeth, and crawled inside myself to think. OTS responded by playing “You are the One” by A-ha.
The comm link with the Da-Tai was still open. The red distress signal flashed despite our acknowledgement, likely due to my flaky response. I tapped the call button.
“RSS Da-Tai, RSS Da-Tai, this is OTS Neblina, over.”
The line crackled to life in an instant. The voice that answered sounded exactly like mine.
“OTS Neblina, this is RSS Da-Tai, we read you.”
“You have permission to dock for victualling, temporary shelter, and repairs; always without initiating approach to the bridge. Do you copy?”
“We copy and affirm. Thank you, Neblina.”
“Now, tell me who you really are, lady, or however you choose to identify.”
“My name is Xu Jia Wei. I am a commercial shuttle pilot, deputised for command of this voyage.”
So that was how she wanted to play it. At least she was a civilian pilot. Time was that I’d wanted to be a shuttle pilot too. Time was that I blamed my mother for smothering my self-esteem in questions, and for nudging me on the artistic paths she wished she’d taken herself. I pointed to our closeness to explain my reluctance to leave town for flight school. Imagined hidden dependencies and dramatic scenarios where she would hold me back, and so I didn’t. When she died, I told myself it was her death that threw me off my non-existent course.
In the silence of the space between our words, spiders scaled the internal walls of my head as it spun around. I looked at my control screen and saw that OTS was furiously recalculating its course. Something outside was pushing hard against it, willing it to be anywhere but where it needed to be.
“Alright. If you are who you say you are, then this should be easy. What’s the first prize you won at school?”
I was laughing. It was laugh, or feel the tiny hairs rising on the back of my neck. When the Commander echoed the laugh at me, I heard an almost-recognisable edge of a smile.
“I don’t recall exchanging childhood memories this soon was an Earth norm, but perhaps I’ve been off-system for a while. All right then, if you really want to know. Nothing is classified if you query deep enough, anyway.”
The line crackled for what couldn’t have been a second, but in that second, I re-lived the entire memory.
“A dance competition, when I was 8. I remember I got the date wrong by a week, and Mum had to sew overnight to finish the costume. It was an ‘80s themed dance, and she altered a large grey sweatshirt to make a dress.”
“Bullshit. Look, you dock, you help yourself to the supplies you need, but don’t ever call this line again. Out.”
I smashed the comm button even though that didn’t make any point, since it was a digital tab. I pushed out of my chair and left the bridge for my berth without a word. OTS didn’t respond, nor did it follow me through the corridors by triggering the lights along the way.
Commander Xu can’t have known the intimate memories of my childhood. There had to be another explanation. An explanation that didn’t point to her being me.
I didn’t realise I was sitting on my bunk in the dark until OTS spoke through the speakers above me.
“We have an incoming recorded message from the Zone Guard, Captain.”
“Read it.” I closed my eyes, pressing thumbs in the sides of the sockets, as deep as I dared.
<<Magnetic storm detected, passing the Earth’s Moon. Expect elevated solar winds at gale force. Recommend cease all port calls, and loading and discharge operations. Except emergency response.>>
“The shuttle will nonetheless dock as expected, Captain, it being an emergency. The human child and a senior on board heightens their priority.”
I’d almost forgotten about the high-risk passengers. The main control screen flickered for a split second.
“Copy,” I murmured. I didn’t open my eyes.
It happened ten years ago, which, yes, feels like ten years, not yesterday. Because lost time in a life alone is as vast, empty and consuming as a black hole.
“Have you left the office? Train’s in forty-five minutes,” Mum had said on the phone.
Did I notice then, that she was tired, or did that only come to me after?
“We just declared force majeure from the flooding at an asset. I can’t leave now.”
“You were supposed to pick up the nian gao from the restaurant while I met your cousins.”
“Could you collect it, and head home first? Use my ticket code. I’ll get the girls and take your later train.” I squinted at my screen at my workspace, and didn’t notice the pause.
“It’s the eve of the Lunar New Year,” Mum said.
“Hence the flood, maybe? Look Mum, I can’t just leave. I have to talk to these people.”
I never heard the sighs, but I felt the acceptance in her voice when she said she would.
Did she feel the impact, when the light rail train—that should have been my ride—took the wrong branch from an electronic failure, and drove off the track?
Somewhere in the pattern are traces of my actions, in the outcome of my life. But up here, with an operating system for company, our existence plausibly denied by the people who employ me, no one is looking. When no one is looking, I don’t have to look either, at myself.
I opened my eyes. My berth was still dark. That was when it occurred to me. I had assumed the RSS Da-Tai departed the planet Vestia. But where had it really come from?
“Okay, Jia Wei,” I said on the line, “Tell me, do you think Mum will still be alive if you’d just left the office and picked up the damn nian gao like you promised? Would that change anything, or would it have happened anyway? On the train, or by some other means?”
The screen flickered off and on again in the time it allowed me to blink. There was a faint electronic bleep in the background. Quiet and low enough in pitch almost to ignore, except when the silence across the line made it deafening. It sounded familiar, like something I’d heard somewhere. A hospital, perhaps?
A drawing of breath, and she said, “You are mistaken. My mother is alive. She’s the senior on board with us.” The senior on board. And the child…
It was like she read my mind, “Funny you mention the nian gao. My daughter recently celebrated her second lunar new year, and she’s had her first taste and loves it. It’s harder to come by now, but I get it at the same restaurant, down the street from my office. If we’re ever back on home leave together, I’ll take you.”
My brain expanded and split my skull. The beep continued, between my ears.
“You can be anything you want, Wei Wei.”
“I want to fly.”
“Flying will take you far from me.”
“I’ll always have you.”
OTS sends me a gentle nudge through the feedback pad on the side of my glasses, and my mother’s voice vanishes, like perfume on the breeze. The pain in my head recedes down the back of my neck like spider, with prey stowed for later. I take thin breaths as I listen to OTS’s report. In spite of the storm, the visiting shuttle has safely secured her moorings. The passengers were in the crew mess hall—only used once, for a photo op before launch—and two visitors await me in the guest lounge. I check the light again, and but communication connection was down.
“They’re ready for you, Captain,” says OTS.
When I was in junior college, and becoming a pilot was near enough as a believable dream but far enough to hold onto without any real plans, I wrote English essays for a university student, who taught me how to drift on her vintage Nissan. Right before the car drifts, you feel the weight shift, and the car—and you—succumb to the pull of the power. In that moment, until you take back control and execute the moves as you planned, you have no control at all. It’s in that moment when you feel free, and limitless. Almost free of responsibility, as you await the outcome.
But you cannot take hold of all that power, and push the vehicle into exceeding itself, without first letting it exceed you.
The two people in the room extend greetings, but their faces are suspended in polite restraint.
“Where’s Commander Xu? Where’s my mother?”
The masculine-presenting individual in a flight suit steps forward. His colleague, in medical scrubs and a surgical mask, was in close step.
“Mx Xu, we are from Zone Guard. We boarded your craft in light of exigent circumstances. Your vessel was observed drifting in the magnetic storm with all navigational lights off. Your asset command says they lost communication with you for twenty hours.”
“I didn’t lose communication. I was speaking with Commander Xu.”
They look at each other discretely as they can, and back at me, concerned. I’m not sure for whom.
“Do you have a relation in the storm’s path, too?”
“No. No relation. I mean, it’s only me.”
Instinctively, I retreat from the advance of the medical officer, although their eyes form reassuring crescents. We still don’t understand the full effect of these storms on human bodies, they’re saying. For my safety, I will be placed on home leave until the storm stabilises. With full pay. I’m nodding, I hear their words, but I’m listening for the thin electronic bleep that now finds its way back into my head like a probe. And I’ll have a case against my employer too, one of them says. It’s not fair labour practice for me to have been out here so many phases. Alone.
Their voices fade to the background, joining the noise of things I once thought important. Like needing to stay in the office, that Lunar New Year’s eve. I don’t simply listen to the bleep. I lose myself in it. If only I could drift along its length, grasping in spaces were nothing dwells but possibility.
Eliane Boey is a Chinese Singaporean writer with speculative stories in/coming in Clarkesworld. The Penn Review, and Weird Horror. OTHER MINDS, a book of her cyberpunk and SF horror novellas, will be published by Dark Matter INK in September 2023. She can be found on Twitter @elianeboey and Instagram @author.eliane