(5) Exile

Day 1

My Love,

I’m not dead. I realize of course what a taboo that word is, but to say I’ve taken the “Grey Path” is, well, rife with implications and misunderstandings. I have taken the Grey Path—at least in the old meaning.

“The Old Meaning.” The disadvantage of our people is the shortness of memory. Our species has long suffered from that affliction, having been bred necessarily through an immediate preoccupation for survival. But how at odds with our beginnings is our future. The only way to advance the latter is to understand the past, and our short-term survival needs have always compromised these thoughts of advanced longevity. It isn’t fair, almost as if we’re constantly teetering on the brink of a higher understand we were never meant to achieve, only to be cast back to our basal form by higher powers.

But I’m rambling, and well do I remember the impatience in your eyes when I attempted these discussions. It isn’t your fault. I was always focussed on this philosophy, and you the needs of our family. Both were necessary, but I feel I’ve done you a disservice. Obviously having the energy to even expend on these thoughts is a luxury—impossible were it not for your constant vigilance to our collective. We are personifications of these aforementioned contradictions, codependent interlocutors which could not exist singly, for while the primal needs are most obvious, the higher goals alone served to allow the transition from villages to functional civilizations.

No doubt it was a form of this contradiction that caused the downfall—an inability to comprehend a world in which our survival instincts were not only no longer necessary, but a burden. Even the elders wouldn’t discount the evidence of the past, having used the relics to benefit our own. Were it not for the artifacts, our prosperity would have been hampered, limited to that of our competitors. Yet we feared to lose what we had found, and forbade seeking additions to that which kept us alive. Mere maintenance is insufficient, and prone to collapse. You know the council would never have sanctioned it, so I had to leave.

I know you’ll never forgive me were you to learn the truth, but know that I share the pain which I caused. To stay would have been a self-indulgence, and we all deserve more. Take care.

Liza

(4) Stalk

Lilly lay in the grass, sighting the tree line. Thermal imaging was of limited effectiveness during the day, but foraging in the night was far more difficult. So she waited, looking for anything anomalous. It had been years since any of the Mauds had dared make a move, but her mother’s disappearance was highly suspected to be a result of an opportunistic raid. It had been the final reason to institute a village-wide mandatory carry. In truth, Lilly was hoping she’d see one, to take blind revenge.

But she never did. The biting ants grew to be intolerable and the dipping sun threatened her objective, so she crept from her hiding spot and into the woods. She paused, eyes wide in a bid to allow more light. As she grew accustomed to the darkness, shapes became clear, and no immediate danger presented itself. Masking her silhouette against an oak, she finally attended to brushing the unwelcome guests from her thighs. Her attire, however comfortable for field work, was not ideal for heavy brush, and made even more cumbersome by the full-length silver-grey jacket father had insisted she wear. The cloth itself had no thermal properties, didn’t breathe well, and hampered her stealth. But it protected her from abrasions, and father had insisted, so she obliged. It had been another possession of mother, and mother was taller than she, so the jacket’s length presented some navigational hazards.

Lilly’s prize preferred the stream banks, and while they grew in more accessible areas, they were less plentiful than those which grew within the woods, not to mention they tasted different. It was an unusual type of very specific taste, and only her mother could tell the difference, but that wasn’t the point.

A sound. Lilly immediately shouldered her rifle and crouched. She peered through the optics, both eyes open to maintain her periphery, just as she had been taught. She held her breath to remain silent. She heard it again. Something fell to the forest floor. It was not a sound a man would make. It was a squirrel, dropping pecan fragments. Lilly exhaled in relief, stood, and resumed her task.

The leaves crunched softly beneath her feet. The season had been drier than usual, and it hampered her movement. She shuffled, walking toe to heal, minimizing the impact of each step. She changed gait at random, introducing variables to her stride. She knew how to stalk. Every hunter, however novice, learned through trial and error.

The sound of running water had grown steadily louder. She hadn’t recognized when she had started to hear it, but now it dominated the background. Freed from the burden of silent movement, Lilly assumed a more natural and efficient stride, until the brush parted and she was walking upon saturated soil. Her feet squishing in the muck, Lilly scanned the bank. The inner curve of the stream bore a marsh of rushes, but the outer bank was steeper and dominated by the telltale clumps of tubular leaves. She squatted and began her harvest, using thumb and knife to sever sprigs of the younger and shorter leaves. As a bonus, she harvested some nearby succulents—the kind with the orange flowers. The gooey tissue within made a nice salve to relieve the ant bites. It was a welcome respite.

The light was fading rapidly. Lilly donned her pack and unshouldered her rifle, holding it at the ready. She would leave through a different route—one more basic and ingrained precaution. It was difficult to ambush that which was unpredictable. Again she resumed the shuffling walk as the stream’s cacophony faded behind her.

The sound. Lilly stopped instantly. She waited, but didn’t hear it again. It was dusk now—past the point where woodland creatures would normally turn in for the night. At this, her caution turned to anxiety. She quickened her pace, giving less regard for noise now. Speed seemed the more tactical choice.

The sound again. Lilly stopped, and the sound stopped. She hopped briskly a few more yards and heard the sound again. She stopped, and the sound stopped. It was no longer coincidence. She spotted a glen and ran, keeping low. The sound in turn grew louder. Lilly entered the glen, cleared a fallen tree and turned, crouching. The open glen would give her clear line of sight. She peered over the log and stared intently, hoping the concentration would reveal shapes. The sound appeared ahead, further right, so she stood enough to swivel at the waste. She caught the semblance of a silhouette, but the arrow was faster than her reaction time. It hit low, glancing off the log and striking her left lower abdomen. The searing pain hampered her poise and she cried out, dropping the rifle.

The silhouette charged, something raised high for striking. Tears clouded her vision further, and she clumsily grasped for her weapon. In an instant, it was upon her, but it had to overcome the log. Lilly managed to stumble backwards and fell, just beyond the strike. The blow impacted the log with a dull thunk, and the weapon was embedded just long enough for Lilly to raise her rifle and fire.

The black bolt was almost invisible in the darkness, but it glowed with an unnatural essence and, although silent in itself, split the air with a sonic crack. The impact was center-of-mass, typical for a panicked shot, and the swirling eddies of purple verified the contact, ripping the life from the screaming creature. It stumbled backward in agony. Lilly, now fully terrified, ran, abandoning all reason as her naiveté to violence overcame her reason. Rather than verify the kill, she fled out of survival instinct.

The arrow, embedded at her waist, pressed uncomfortably into her flesh. But she ran on, screaming to attract attention. She neared home, and caught a glimpse of father emerging. The familiar returned a shred of confidence, and she spun, firing E-beams at random into the woods while screaming obscenities at what she hadn’t even identified. The sounds of father’s footsteps quickly crescendoed behind her. She vomited, then all was black.

(3) Bargain

17:00 arrived and Juid donned his finest evening attire. What that translated to was: whatever garment held the least amount of that familiar body odor/chemical degreaser combination. And in Juid’s case, that meant a folded jumpsuit he never wore because he got asbestos in it once and it itched ever since. Chronic itching caused anxiety, but the alternative would be immediate rejection due to woman’s hypersensitive olfactories. So he used it for precisely these occasions, rare though they may be. And it didn’t look bad, just—informal. But that was to be expected. Only upper management had formal wear, and there were no new sources so even those would be lost to time eventually. Besides, with the bar being set so low, no one else going to the event would be dressed any better.

But there was another problem that weighed on Juid’s mind, one much greater than a jumpsuit. Being so outnumbered, the women were notoriously choosy. But unknown to Juid, however, was that the competition created a bigger problem: men giving other men advice on women, who possessed no incentive to give good advice even if they had any to offer. So Juid was perpetually armed with an arsenal of painfully cringe-worthy tactics. Juid rehearsed some of these lines to himself as he strode to Lower Commons.

“A woman such as yourself deserves a hard-working man.” No, that only played into a woman’s entitlement. Bring them down a bit. “A woman needs to choose before she becomes too old. Let’s discuss my credentials.” That might be too direct the lead with, albeit the truthful goal. Perhaps he should appeal to a woman’s inherent narcissism. “Beauty befits beauty. A woman of your grace deserves equal male perfection.” Juid flexed his bicep, feeling the working man’s bulge tighten against the synthetic fibers of his suit. He let out a manly grunt whilst doing so for self-validation, drawing curious gazes from passersby. These were valid statements, in his mind. A woman wanted a man who was properly ambitious, physically attractive, and who fell into an acceptable tier of economic viability. But the women liked to play games, and Juid would need to be coy with his advances. They wanted to be pursued relentlessly by a man who didn’t appear desperate.

Juid reached Lower Commons and presented his identification to the attendant. After all, attendance was restricted, otherwise using the events as incentive would be pointless. And because it was so important to maintain the effectiveness of these non-material rewards, the attendant took an agonizingly lengthy review of Juid’s credentials. While he waited, Juid looked past the attendant. The party was just getting started, as Juid had learned to arrive exactly when the events began. He wanted first contact with the women, as all did, and the entry queue invariably grew to occupy the entire hall as newcomers arrived, and those not invited timed their own arrival in an attempt to blend into the crowd to gain entry. As he stared, a woman walked past his field of view, and in that instant, Juid’s parasympathetic systems jolted with primitive elation and anxiety. She wore evening wear—a dress even—and though it possessed no sequins or rhinestones, it managed to achieve glamor through the use of polished aluminum beads. Juid’s hands twitched slightly with the testosterone-induced animal urge to attack.

“You may enter.”

“Mmm?” Juid missed his cue, then recovered. “Oh!” He immediately stepped past the attendant and uncouthly powerwalked in the direction the woman had gone. As he searched, he rehearsed his lines. “Hello, woman. I would like to discuss…things. What economic station do you desire? Would you care to see a demonstration in virility?” He spotted the woman, seated at the bar. Excited, he quickened his pace and stumbled clumsily into the chairs next to her. Startled, she abruptly turned to face him. Her eyes were icy and indifferent, save the tinge of surprise. “Hello woman!” Juid blurted, much too loud.

She stared but said nothing, so Juid mistook the silence as a prompt for more. “It’s nice to see you. You look nice.” A smooth recovery with a general compliment. Juid tried not to stare. He stared.

“Thank you”, she responded. She turned back to her drink. She was, after all, obligated to converse, having been assigned to the task by upper management. To her, this was part of her job and she was not terribly engaged with it. Still, the mere feminine quality of her voice tugged at Juid’s lower functions.

“Are you actively pursuing a spouse?” Juid winced, not because he recognized his words were worthy of the wince, but because he knew he was playing his cards too soon.

“The search never ends.” Her response was the general requirement—to show availability and remain noncommittal.

So Juid responded in kind. “I’m a Hazardous Environment Maintenance Technician.” He used his full title, hoping to add the allure of danger. Women were known to be attracted to risk, not to mention the increased compensation that came with such a position. Juid did, after all, live a middle class lifestyle.

“Yes, that was my understanding.” Of course it was. This event was being hosted specifically for the HEM team. Still, Juid was the ranking unit member, so he could elaborate.

“I led this morning’s repair work. There was a local hull breach from a foreign object. I can tell you about it if you like.” Maybe she would be interested in hearing about Juid’s competent work.

“Certainly. Go on.” She turned back to engage him, momentarily thankful that he was distracted with his work and not her. From her perspective, this was a win. Perhaps she could keep the conversation away from her and any marital/reproductive plans.

And Juid, with the delightful surprise anyone receives at having their work seem valued, launched into a monologue detailing how he bravely welded an aluminum plate to the outer hull in complete vacuum. The woman listened and practiced professional visual cues of interest, despite the lack thereof.

But her intent to keep the conversation off her was ultimately doomed. Juid then asked: “So tell me about yourself.” It was a pointless question, and the answers rarely varied in significance. Infant mortality was high, and with such demand for heavy labor, women became under-valued for physical tasks. With resources allocated to the workforce, girls typically suffered chronic malnutrition and succumbed to disease very early. Those who made it to womanhood were drafted into the consort ranks—no exceptions.

But all individuals retain their vanity, and despite how banal her story might have been, she wanted to feel unique and meaningful. So she told her story with the appropriate embellishments, of her abusive father and absent mother. Of her orphaning when her father died in a maintenance accident. Of how she had had to fend for herself until she was of age and could enter the consort program. It was tragic, certainly, and likely mostly false. And besides, everyone’s life had become tragic.

But still, Juid responded with genuine kindness. Woman or not, she was a person, and life here was hard. “That must have been very difficult. You’re very strong to have survived. Have you given any thoughts to your future plans?”

The question was riddled with implications, of course, and the woman merely sighed, having finally been unable to indefinitely forestall the inevitable. “Look, I’ll say this tactfully, because you had the decency to start a conversation first, but I’m not interested. With the options available to me, I’m not going to choose a maintenance technician. I’m here because this is my assignment, but soon enough I will have the opportunity to entertain at events for the higher levels of management. At that point I will move on a man of high station.”

She had already decided. Inwardly, Juid frowned. He hadn’t even had the opportunity to use his more charming lines. Automatically, he glanced around, but by now the room was filled and crowds had gathered around each of the other women. Many other men were eyeing Juid and the woman intently, waiting for their turn. He was instantly irritated at the pointless game, and felt extreme contempt for his peers, leering as they were. Perhaps it was because Juid was just like them. Well, he could still have his victory.

“Ok, now that that’s been discussed, I have a different proposition for you.”

“You know that’s against the rules. Breaking that carries heavy sentencing. Besides, I doubt you could make it worth my while.”

“No, I didn’t mean that.”

“Oh.” The woman seemed surprised, and a tad disappointed. No doubt she received that proposition constantly and had responded automatically. It hadn’t occurred to her that Juid would want something else. And despite her lack of interest, the fact that Juid wasn’t propositioning her partially deflated her ego. She had no interest, but she certainly felt that Juid should still have physical interest in her. She was a woman, after all.

“I presume, then, that you have no interest in any of the other men here, considering your prior comments. If our conversation were to end, you would no doubt have to repeat yourself to every man in this room before the evening ends. Stay with me for the party, and I’ll consider the matter dropped. We can discuss other affairs, and together escape the indignities of romantic rejection.”

The woman blinked. She hadn’t considered this option. “This seems like a fair exchange, but I feel I would gain more. What do you have to gain from this arrangement?”

“Simple. If you spend that amount of time with me, the other men will assume there’s more where there isn’t. I gain some peer reputation. What’s more, is I’ll have a chance to speak with a woman on equal terms, and potentially learn more about them, with all pretenses set aside. It’s a tactic I hadn’t considered before.”

“It’s a new concept to me as well. Very well then, you have yourself a deal, though I should warn you that there may not be much insight to be had. You see, I haven’t met a woman yet who feels differently that I. You are quite possibly, out of luck, unless you manage to achieve a higher station.”

“I’m beginning to suspect as much.” Juid thought for a moment. “Is there anything I have or can do that you want?”

“Are we already back to this? I told you I’m not interested…”

“No, you misunderstand. I’m thinking we can create a mutually-serving partnership, if there’s anything I have that you want.”

“Ah, you wish to bribe me then. That’s uncommon for the lower folk. I’m not sure. What is it that I have that you want?”

“Advice, or information, regarding a certain Bob.”

“Mmm, so you’ve taken my words to heart already and are seeking promotion. Do you wish to gain his good graces, or replace him?”

“Is it really so obvious?”

“Station intrigue come with the job. So which is it?”

“Replace him. He is fairly useless, and I doubt he’d ever consider me for promotion.  I tend to not make him look good.”

“He’s also a lecher. Some of my colleagues have complained about him, though I’ve never had the pleasure of his company myself.”

“So you’ll help me?”

“Absolutely not.” She laughed. “Don’t you see? There’s no sisterhood among the consorts. It brings me joy to see my competition suffer.”

Juid thought a moment. It was obvious he’d have to up the ante. “Ok, materials then. Surely you like stuff? Physical comforts?”

“Yes, but what do you have to offer that I couldn’t get through someone better connected?”

“The benefits of someone who’s not worried about losing his job, as it’s not very lucrative, as you well know. This frees me of some of the more burdensome rules regarding say, fair trade?”

“Petty thievery?” Again she was amused.

“Smuggling.”

“How so?” Now she was interested.

“My position affords me access to the more restricted regions of the station. It also puts me in contact with the other stations regularly. Placing orders is so commonplace that my communications are rarely monitored. And payment doesn’t come from me, but rather would be subsidized by the station.” Juid was unaccustomed to crime, but on more than a few occasions he had considered it as he toiled away in squalor.

It was enough for her. “So you can obtain black market goods by selling off our water supply?”

Juid felt a twinge of guilt. The finite resource was the very reason behind his ignored arguments to management, about resource acquisition and allocation. But he wasn’t naïve. Juid knew how the upper management lived. Surely a little extra wouldn’t be missed. “Keep it down. And yes, that is the proposal. Now what do you want?”

The woman thought some more. “Well now, this is a first. The opportunity to acquire without promising marriage and ‘favors’ to the station’s elite. You of course realize, should I accept, I in no way owe you any obligation to marriage. I’m off-limits to you.”

“You’ve made that perfectly clear, repeatedly.”

“I’m just wanting to be absolutely clear. You have a partner.” She raised her glass to seal the deal. Juid did likewise.

“Another thing—I’m going to need a bona fides.” He was pushing it.

“Shrewd, I like it. You’ll certainly make a better business partner than lover. Very well. The report can’t come from me, for obvious reasons, but your superior is having extra-marital relations with a certain Traci, to be specific. I mentioned watching her torment is amusing, but to be rid of her entirely would be useful as well. Use that as you will, either to oust or leverage him. Once rumor is confirmed, my competition will be lessened.”

“‘Lessened’?”

“You don’t know about this, but there’s an exclusive brothel, staffed by Disgraced.”

“‘Disgraced’?”

“Yes, it does happen, whether through temptation, going too far to manipulate, or rape. These women are unfit for marriage, but still serve a useful purpose. Whether that’s right or not is not mine to debate. Traci was always loose—she’ll enjoy the employment.” The woman laughed.

It became clear that continuing down this path would ruin lives, but Juid was too curious to stop now. “One last question: What’s your name?”

“Roxanne, and now, this one’s free.” Under watchful eyes, she leaned over and kissed him, much to the loud jeering of Juid’s colleagues. Juid fumbled for words, which gave Roxanne the perfect physical and conversational exit. When Juid had regained his senses, Roxanne had already blended into the crowd.

(2) Lilly

Lilly pondered the plot of earth at her feet. The plants no longer bore the spotted blight that had destroyed the prior year’s crop. There were contingencies, of course, but she missed the potatoes. The soft golden variety had always been a favorite of her mother’s, with the churned crème and topped with the wild onions she was so fond of gathering. She had been on one of those foraging ventures when she had gone missing. The town’s militia had mobilized a search, but no trace was ever found. Perhaps it was better that way. Without closure, she could hold out to hope.

But for now, the nostalgia of that potato recipe occupied Lilly’s consciousness. She bent down to examine the plant in greater detail, aware that her skin-tight blouse and short skirt (donned to cope with the day’s heat) was putting on a show for the young men in the field. But it was a small village, and reputations were eternal, so they pretended not to notice and turned a gentlemanly gaze back to their own crops. Inwardly, she smiled. Admittedly, she enjoyed the attention.

Her cool exterior, however, was shattered when her shouldered E-Beam rifle slipped out of place. She made a fumbled attempt to control it, but only managed to hook a forearm through the sling. The weapon crashed into the potatoes. She cursed, and inspected the damage. A snapped stem and some dislodged leaves. But potatoes were, after all, rather resilient to physical punishment, so it was a minor injury.

This was also why those working in the fields chose pistol variants. But the rifle was her mother’s, and she stubbornly insisted on carrying it as her required small arm. Her father, recognizing his late wife’s stubbornness, had long since ceased to argue on the practicality. And regardless, she was an exceptional aim.

One of the young men had made a move towards her upon witnessing her momentary plight, but had aborted once determining his presence would be unnecessary. He resumed his work, hoeing weeds—efficient and practical sidearm holstered at the belt line on his back—practical and out of the way. He pretended not to notice Lilly’s glower as she examined his weapon choice. She sneered, and made a mocking assessment of his manhood through the obvious correlation. Sensing the silent hostility, the man moved further down the row and resumed working.

Lilly turned back to her potatoes. This batch was starting to brown. It was about time to harvest. Prematurely, she dug her hands into the soft dirt and felt for a tuber. Successful, she severed it with her knife and withdrew a fist-sized potato. She smiled, examining its blight-free exterior, and became giddy in anticipation of the harvest pre-party. She would need to go on an onion search, but first she wanted to show father. He too would reminisce. He had also been deeply wounded by the prior year’s failed crop, as he appeared to have taken it be final confirmation his wife had taken the Grey Path. This would raise his spirits.

She stood, shouldering the oversized rifle once again, and grabbed her linen bag. She placed the potato within, then shouldered it too, on the other shoulder. Off she marched, along the row, careful to avoid trampling any desirable plants, and quite successful through years of practice. The rifle almost comically hung to the back of her knee, but it too was a burden overcome through practice. A breeze sent her skirt fluttering and she smiled again, knowing her egress was being monitored.

Father was on the roof of their brick cottage. The last rainstorm had brought hail, and while the damage had been insignificant to the crops, the slate roof tiling had suffered casualties. He was carefully fitting squares, securing them with tar. It was hot and difficult work. And father was getting old. Lilly felt the need to point this out.

“I can’t lose you too, you know.” She called out, jesting to cope with the still-open wounds of the family’s loss.

“The alternative is to enlist the help of someone younger, but for that, you’d have to make a friend.”

“I assume you mean one these local degenerates?”

“They won’t be young forever. Time mellows a man, and you’ll find them more to your liking once they get older. Perhaps you should go into town and meet some older ones.”

“Are you so quick to get rid of me?”

“I won’t be around forever.”

“So I need another man in your place?”

“Your path is your own, but it’s a lonely world. Don’t try to make it lonelier than it has to be.”

Lilly grumbled. Father had never been overly-protective, in spite of events. But he was also never hesitant to suggest she start considering starting her own family, not that he felt she wasn’t capable of solitary survival of course, but as he said, the world was a lonely place. He was right of course, and it was irritating.

She changed the subject. “The potatoes are almost ready. I couldn’t help myself. I cheated.” She withdrew the potato from her bag and held it aloft as if it were a sacred icon.

Father smiled. “It’s about that time of year, isn’t it?” He didn’t mean the time of harvest. He meant it was when mother had gone missing. It was why Lilly had brought home the potato a week early. It was the exact calendar week of that incident, though she hadn’t realized it consciously.

Lilly breathed deeply from sadness. “I was hoping we could make some of that crème, you know…so we could…” She trailed off, struggling to communicate that which didn’t need to be said. Father, knowingly, said nothing, but didn’t avert his gaze, either. He had grown patient with time, and always waited for Lilly to finish her thoughts, even though at the moment, she didn’t want to. Gradually, his stare softened.

“I have some fresh milk. The grass is in full swing this time of year. The milk is so rich.” He, too, had thought of the potatoes this exact week, and had bought what they didn’t normally keep in-house in anticipation.

Both knew where the conversation would go next, but father made Lilly say it aloud. “I have to go acquire another ingredient…” Father silently interjected, but the words failed him. He meant to protest, but made no motion to stop her, eventually yielding with a simple nod before breaking eye contact and resuming placing shingles.

(1) Juid

Juid groaned in discontent—a lengthy, pained groan of a man who had been unappreciatively and prematurely roused from slumber by circumstances which couldn’t possibly have been more important than a solid night’s sleep. The alarms, having been designed to alert the population of a potentially lethal scenario, had become so commonplace that they existed now as mere background noise to the cacaphonic soundtrack of Juid’s life. And Juid, like everyone he knew, was station-born, and so knew nothing of a life devoid of such constant threat. But his ever-adaptable human mind had long since accepted the dangers as inevitabilities—constants of his physical environment—which no longer invoked a survival stress reaction.

Management disagreed with this blasé assessment, however. Juid’s superior, indignant at his delayed response, opened the hatch to his quarters without announcement or permission, cursing as the eternally sticky handle caused a fumbled entrance and a painful cranial impact upon the bulkhead—justice served to a courtesy violation. Juid failed to suppress a grin, despite his state of sleep-depravity. Even through the chronic fatigue, and regardless of that fact that he was being summoned in person, he had already surmised that the problem was adequately severe, independent of the alarms (which were still screeching, Juid noted). His most astute conclusion was formulated upon the observation of extremely reduced gravity, at once apparent as Juid rose from the prone position, which in turn meant that the station’s rotational velocity had been reduced, which could only therefore mean that it had suffered an explosive decompression somewhere—or had experienced a collision with some foreign object (or both), which would also likely mean decompression. The causality chain was gradually coalescing in Juid’s fatigue-clouded mind. Either way, it meant that there was hull damage and needlessly wasted atmosphere. That would only lead to further resource rationing. Juid knew who would feel the pinch. It was a series of events that would conclude in no positive outcome. Juid groaned again, this time a groan of slightly shorter duration than previously, now triggered by emotional displeasure rather than from physical discomfort.

Get dressed. 50-39-56.” His manager left, rubbing his head at the site of impact. He was not in good humor today, although the blow to the head had likely evaporated any that would have been there to begin with at this hour. He also looked less fat in reduced-G, Juid mused as he left (quite a feat to become fat upon standard rations).

The station was mapped on a coordinate system. This was practical as it was rotationally symmetric, so the X-Y-Z, 3-dimensional field of reference applied seamlessly, measured from the ring’s center of mass (which was not within the station itself, as such a location would have no simulated gravity). Of course, the interior of the station was not nearly so homogenous as the coordinate system would have implied, being restricted only by rotational symmetry of mass. A more practical system would have included numerical designations at corridor junctions, in order to pinpoint impacted sections and more efficiently direct an individual through the maze. And it once did. Centuries of groping hands could never polish away the numbered plates bolted at every door, airlock, and intersection. But such information was lost to time, and unnecessary these days. Juid could navigate the station blind, as could everyone. It was the only home they had ever known, and they had had their entire childhood with which to imprint the spacial references to memory. Juid knew exactly where to go and how to get there, and only required those three simple numbers to tell him.

Juid opened the locker to his vacuum suit (a most utilitarian receptacle), upon which it gracefully fell in the low gravity to the floor in a disheveled heap. Juid had hung it up properly of course, but the low-G had apparently caused it to dislodge from its moorings. He picked it up and cautiously sniffed the collar, the way one does with full knowledge of the olfactory violation to come, and upon receiving the anticipated sensation, recoiled slightly at the familiar stench of his own concentrated body odor. It was his odor, yes, having finally triumphed over the suit’s prior owner’s, but still, he didn’t relish basting in it for extended periods. He gagged. Water rations always precluded the laundering of any exo-wear, forcing suit owners to make due with a myriad of toxic solvents instead, trading the discomfort of solidified oil for the ultimate health costs of long-term carcinogen exposure. Juid was certainly no exception. He wiped the inside with an industrial de-greaser and winced at the chemical fumes. Then, with his eyes properly burning and the suit’s lining mildly caustic to the touch, Juid donned the vacuum gear.

The suit was bulky, but was designed for interior, not external, maintenance. This meant that it had to fit through narrow access hatches. So, it wasn’t a giant fabric bubble, as the first suits were, but rather a compacted body suit, still thick with insulation and tear-resistant fiber, but relatively mobile. It was solid technology, relying primarily on physical pressure, rather than atmospheric, and remarkably still intact from Before—which was why Juid was not its first owner, nor would he be the last. Juid grabbed the helmet and exited his quarters. He would wait until the last minute to seal himself completely, thus minimizing the time he would spend inhaling the nauseating combination of aforementioned body odor and pungent chemicals.

In the hallway, business carried on as usual, as was to be expected. Pending death was no reason to cancel daily plans, and like Juid, the station’s populace had grown to become generally unresponsive to the frequent alarms. The only difference was that today people were galloping down the corridors like wild beasts (not that Juid had ever seen any such beast in person) because of the reduced gravity—an unintentionally comical sight. The few children on board could be heard squealing with delight as they relished the opportunity to literally bounce off the walls, oblivious to the severity of the situation. Juid had to dodge more than a couple. But, at least it made moving in the vacuum suit easier.

In short order, Juid arrived at his destination. As a general policy, bulkhead doors were to remain closed at all times. This was for obvious reasons, case in point, although the greater threat historically had been fire, not decompression. It was far more likely than an electrical malfunction in a high-oxygen environment would trigger disaster, rather than a catastrophic hull failure. But regardless the original reason, the present circumstances benefited from this practice. Although, had no policy been in effect, it would have still been de facto. All doors opened against the rotational force of the station, and so remained closed if not by policy, then by physics alone. They were originally powered pneumatically, saving the operator some effort, and although the majority of those pressure systems had since failed, the doors were still counter-balanced. A mere toddler could open them if so inclined. And even in sections where the weighted pullies too had failed, the doors themselves remained a modest 30 kilos under standard gravity. It didn’t require much material to hold back low atmosphere.

However, it was generally not possible to open a door against the pressure differential of 0.6 kPa. This meant that an airlock would need to be jury-rigged from the series of hatches. The improvisation involved gathering all maintenance personnel, cordoning off the hallway between the door to open and the next bulkhead door, placing a notice on the outside of this far door warning of deadly consequences (not that any casual passersby would be able to open it anyway), running a compressor to reduce the ambient pressure of this now dead space, then forcing the door with a most elegant too—a large crowbar (or in this case, a 2-meter bar of sharpened steel). The purge of this small cavity of air at reduced pressure was rarely more than a strong gust, and then behold! Access to the compromised structure. And the ventilation ducts were even valves, designed to close against vacuum. The station was a marvel of old-style engineering—mechanical failsafes independent of any electrical control systems. They were with certainty the only reason anyone could still live here at all. Computer systems would go offline through data corruption, and as their programming languages became lost to time as new generations failed to grasp their context, but the tactile world of mechanical engineering was rooted in universal perception.

Following the aforementioned procedure, Juid and crew examined the breach. In short—it was large. A small breach didn’t cause decompression, just a gradual leak. The station was riddled with gradual leaks, often plugged with nothing more than fabric adhesive. This job, however, required welding. Welding used valuable resources, so before repair work was authorized, scans of the damage were forwarded to management for approval. The photograph crew did just this. And then they waited.

In Juid’s experience, this was a worthy repair. Repairs that were not cost effective or of minimal impact simply remained sealed off—bulkhead doors closed eternally and forgotten to time, or until the next trade pod (if it contained sufficient materiel and an appropriate deal could be struck). But in this instance, the affected junction was heavily trafficked, yet the damage was not sufficiently large enough to compromise the hull’s greater integrity. This scenario belied a much larger problem, however. This particular type of damage was becoming increasingly common, and management was only denying the long-term implications. These exercises were simply not sustainable with the dwindling access to supplies. But that didn’t concern Juid at the moment either.

The station, aptly named “Lagrange 1”, resided at Lagrange point 1, which is to say it was locked into a comfortable position between the planet below, and its natural moon above…so to speak. The benefit to this arrangement was its permanence, and had been chosen with intent by the station’s original designers. The station would never suffer the fiery cataclysm of a retrograde orbit. It was, as all things within it, timeless in existence yet terminally ill. It would always remain here, even after it was no longer capable of supporting life, ultimately finding its fate as a fragmented mass of floating debris, sealed in relative position until the system’s star transitioned into a red giant.

Such had been the fate of Lagrange 4. Its former occupants had asphyxiated in the emptiness of space, presumably after their station had suffered an impact too severe to be recoverable. Or perhaps they had run out of compressed air, or scrubbers, or the power grid had failed. It was impossible to establish a timeline of events, or isolate a probable cause from the myriad of problems which may have arose, as any evidence to solve the mystery had gradually eroded from the constant barrage of orbiting particulates once no one was left to make the repairs.

Thousands of kilometers away, the inhabitants of Lagrange 3 had, out of their own survival necessity, sent an exploratory salvage team to Lagrange 4’s location after rediscovering its existence in their archives, and ultimately the location of all the Lagrange stations. This was centuries ago, and had marked the beginning of the earliest trade caravans. L4 was far closer to L1 than L3, but by the time all Lagrange stations had established communication channels and were in possession of operational shuttles, L3 already had a salvage monopoly in place, and since L3 was running the risks of salvage, and had formed the basis of the original trade systems, all other stations were reluctant to disrupt the balance and potentially compromise their already tenuous mercantile system. Unfortunately, this also meant that one station controlled the only source of materiel needed for repairs and equipment replacements. Increasingly, the cost of said materials made these repairs prohibitively expensive.

The tear in the hull, which Juid had now patched with an aluminum plate and sealed with a thermolytic chemical reaction, had cost them collectively a week’s worth or water rations. The giant spaceburg, which dominated half the station’s total mass, had been hauled in from the outer system during the stations’ construction, and served as the primary source of propellant, gasses (notably oxygen), hydration, and general sanitation. All the Lagrange stations had their own supply (excluding the former L4, who’s was notably—and suspiciously—absent), and it served as the only practical means of currency. But while their sheer size seemed eternal, like the salvage shortage, it was a dwindling supply.

It was a point that Juid was tired of arguing. Reporting concerns directly to senior management was highly irregular, and so Juid was forced to try to reason with his permanently apathetic direct manager. His manager surmised, correctly, that he would be long-dead before water shortages and escalating costs of supplies would spiral completely out of control, and while this attitude presented a direct contradiction to why management was so frugal with the supply, the mere fact that the system was working at all was sufficient reason to maintain indifference. Therefore, he was only concerned with his own immediate wellbeing, which primarily involved his tireless pursuit of any number of the diminishing population of vastly outnumbered women on station.

This last thought was bouncing through Juid’s mind as the radio clicked to life with his boss’ consent for the repair order. He enjoyed a mutual moment of amusement with his colleagues who all noted that they hadn’t waiting for permission.

They waited a bit so as to maintain the veneer of subordinate obedience, then Juid sent over a radio communication. “The repair’s done. We’re ready for a test compression, unless you want to check the work personally.” Final signoff always fell to him, officially, even if he knew little of grunt work himself, or cared at all.

“No need, go ahead and pressurize.” Juid may have been mistaken, but he could have sworn he had heard yawning in that response.

Whatever, he never had been a competent welder to begin with—part of his quick advancement no doubt (Juid’s turn to feel mild indifference). He walked to the nearest ventilation duct and forced the manual release. Air hissed its way through, slowly as it always did (another mechanically-engineered safety). Had he not been wearing his vacuum suit, Juid would have experienced the blast of stench firsthand from the accumulated dust which only now, after being subjected to a significantly faster stream of air, was freed from its duct purgatory. The crew would have to wait. Juid checked his pressure readings, noted the time, and made an estimate. It would be an hour at least. He glanced to one of his colleagues, who was doing a similar check. Through their gold-laminated faceplates they met an imaginary gaze, and the man shrugged. They both knew, and there was nothing else to do in the meantime.

“Might as well tell the engine crew to get started, Bob.” The status of the air pressure in this one junction wouldn’t impact the process of restoring the station’s rotational velocity. And regardless, this crew’s job was done.

“Yeah, okay.” Another yawn—this time definitive. Asshole.

A few minutes passed and then a sudden lurch shook the station. Equatorial thrusters were venting water vapor. Though he could no longer see outside, Juid knew that a month’s supply was being dumped into nothingness. Inwardly, he sighed. They would feel the pinch. He imagined as the station’s rotation spun the building cloud of ice crystals into a toroid.

Gradually, Juid’s feet grew heavy. The weariness of the job only now manifested with the return to normal gravity. But on the positive side, they would now all receive an ethanol ration, as was customary. Each repair job netted a little bonus, and Juid suspected that this was top management’s way of helping the proletariat forget the hard work, bad pay, and hazardous conditions (plus, giving people a depressant tended to quell their rebellious energy). Juid would have preferred an extra water ration, or a complementary suit cleaning, but at least he’d enjoy an evening of recreation. And in addition to the ethanol there was one more perk of the job. Tonight, management would send down some of the women for entertainment. It had been weeks since Juid had talked to one, probably just as long since he had even seen one, and there was always that small chance he could arrange for an official courtship. Hope was a great motivator.