Liberty Station isn’t the largest outpost in the vast expanse of vacuum we call space, but for a boy from Old Earth like me, it’s the best duty assignment imaginable. I mean, my God, there are aliens! Blue-skinned Starlight Missionaries and tentacled Drakonusians. I think of my mother and father subsisting back home in storm-ravaged New Nairobi and all the sacrifices they made to get me here. I owe them everything.
On the mag train zipping around the station, I try not to stare at the Starlight Missionaries and Drakonusians. I don’t want to be rude, but before arriving here, I had never seen an alien except on the vids. A pretty Starlight Missionary catches me looking at her and the sky-blue polka-dots covering her face turn orange. I look away, ashamed, unsure if my gawking has embarrassed her or made her angry. I use my handheld to check the practical manual entitled: Aliens: How to Avoid Social Faux Pas. She’s embarrassed. I’m such a dirt-eater.
As the train slows at the engineering terminal, my stomach tightens into an icy knot. First day on the job jitters. I disembark and head for the crowded lift, taking it to the Core where all the exotic Drakonusian tech that powers the station is housed. I’m assigned to work on the graviton generator that keeps the station at .8 G.
I to get off at engineering control and enter a dim hallway filled with the hum of machinery and walk to a door labeled engineering control room. I bend at the waist to stare into the facial recognition scanner next to the door.
After a few seconds, the scanner chimes and a female voice says. “Welcome, Zane Iwu, you are clocked in at 0801 hours. Your tardiness is noted in your personnel file.”
Give me a break,” I mutter. “It’s my first day.”
The door opens, revealing a cramped room with the far wall dedicated to a screen displaying everything from life support to wireless coverage. Two techs lounge in chairs. Serene, who I recognize from my interview, swivels in her chair to face me.
Joe, it’s the earther.”
Joe looks up and mutters. “God damn earther.”
I offer a pleasant greeting, but Joe has already turned away and is sipping coffee as if oblivious to my presence. Serene stares at me.
You just gonna stand around, earther?” she demands.
Where’s Lars?” I say, naming the senior engineer. He has a Drakonusian name, but it’s unpronounceable for humans. “He’s going to walk me through maintaining the graviton generator.”
A pressure sensor on the generator was tripped. The drak already went down.”
Lars the Drakonusian,” Serene says, pronouncing every syllable with the precision usually reserved for talking to a moron.
Sorry. I’ve only been here for three days. I’ll – ”
You remember the way, right? From your interview.”
Yeah. Yeah, I do,” I say, heading for the maintenance access door.
The door opens onto a catwalk.
Go back to Old Earth, dirt-eater,” Joe calls.
The door slides shut behind me, and I mutter. “Co-workers from hell.”
The drone of machinery echoes in the dark vastness around me. Luckily, glowing yellow strips line the edges of the catwalk. As I near the graviton generator, I see a pool of light around the maintenance terminal and something that stops me mid-stride. I grab a handrail before I fall.
Oh, God,” I pull out my handheld. “Crap.”
No signal. Radiation from the graviton generator’s quantum containment field interferes with the wireless. Do I run back to the control room or try to administer first aid to Lars who is laid out on the catwalk, his many tentacles twitching? I have no knowledge of Drakonusian anatomy, and I doubt my hellish co-workers do either.
I dart to the senior engineer’s side. The stench of the purple fluid leaking from his head makes me tear up.
My breathing becomes shallow as I panic. Lars has been bludgeoned to death. I glance at the maintenance terminal built into the housing of the graviton generator, realizing I can use it to contact the engineering control room.
What the…” I say, my chest tightening.
Affixed to the housing next to the terminal is a foreign device with a digital countdown timer at 59 then 58 then 57.
A bomb…oh, man,” If that goes off the quantum containment field will fail, and the baby black hole inside the generator will destroy the station.
I inspect the device, confirming that it is a bomb.
It’s attached to the housing by magnets.
What the hell.”
I wrench the explosive free, it’s difficult because the magnets are powerful. Now I’m holding a bomb in my hands.
Through the viewport I look inside the graviton generator’s stark white interior except for a point of absolute blackness in the center, the baby black hole its power harnessed by physics and engineering that only the Drakonusians understand.
The singularity will set us free!”
The shout comes from behind me along with the clomp of boots against the catwalk. I turn. A man in a blue jumpsuit careens toward me with his hands outstretched. His eyes are maniacal, and his face is curled into a snarl. I reflexively swing the bomb, whacking him in the temple.
To my shock, he crashes to the catwalk and doesn’t move, and the bomb doesn’t detonate.
I race to the maintenance access hatch on the graviton generator next to the terminal and punch the button for the manual override.
Enter your access code,” says a computerized voice.
I mistype the code.
I retype the code. The hatch slowly opens with a deafening grinding of gears.
As soon the hatch is open wide enough, I hurl the bomb into the generator toward the black hole. The device spins through the air. My eyes feel as wide as galaxies.
My throat constricts.
I clench my jaw so tight my teeth hurt.
I wince in anticipation of being blasted into oblivion then the bomb disappears, passing into the event horizon. The black hole consumes the explosive, compressing it into virtual nothingness. Whooping with joy, I pump my fist.
I hit the button to close the maintenance hatch and lean my back against the housing of the graviton generator. Panting, I sink down to the catwalk. It takes me a few minutes to collect myself. My heart roars in my chest like a starship’s afterburners in atmosphere, and my breathe whooshes in and out of me like I just ran a record-breaking marathon time. I push myself up onto wobbly legs and lean against the graviton generator to steady myself.
Lars no longer twitches. I watch him, silently willing him to show a sign of life. The rise and fall of his chest or the flutter of his eyelids or more twitching. Anything. No movement, nothing. I conclude with a terrible sinking feeling in my gut that the Drakonusian engineer is indeed dead.
I turn my attention to my assailant, who appears just as dead as Lars. Dark blood smears his temple. I’m feeling nauseous, almost ready to retch, when the man feebly turns his head and moans. Relief crashes over me like a rogue wave, washing all my fear out to sea. I didn’t kill the crazy bloke. I didn’t kill him, and I saved the station from certain destruction. A warmth infuses me, starting somewhere deep inside my chest. I’m a hero. By God, the boy from New Nairobi just saved Liberty Station and everyone on it from being eaten by a black hole. I can’t wait to record a video message and send it to my parents. They’ll be so proud.
The crazy bloke moans again. His eyelids flutter. I realize I’m getting ahead of myself and march to the graviton generator’s control panel and press the button to communicate with the engineering control room.
Contact station security,” I say my voice tinged with excitement. My gaze shifts to Lars unmoving on the catwalk and, feeling a pang of sorrow, my tone turns deadly serious. “There’s a situation here at the graviton generator. Lars is dead.”
The speaker crackles and Serene’s incredulous voice comes over it. “What are you talking about, dirt-eater?”
Just send security,” I say. “And by the way, this dirt-eater just saved the station.”