Authors: E. M. Foner
Date Night on Union Station
Copyright 2014 by E. M. Foner
Paradise Pond Press
Cover image mash-up from NASA images
“In conclusion, it is the view of Union Station consulate that the trade in counterfeit Earth chess sets has not been impacted by enforcement activities, and perversely, the crackdown has forced the principal actors to master molecular tagging, thus accelerating their technical competency and leading to increasingly sophisticated forgeries of other high value exports, especially playing cards and kitchen gadgets.”
Kelly grimaced at the length of the sentence, perhaps it needed a few more commas or another period? But she suspected that the transcription program wrote better English than she spoke, so she decided to leave well enough alone. The report to EarthCent concluded her Friday afternoon ritual of taking stock in the week, even though she knew from experience that some diplomats flooded EarthCent with multiple missives a day while others preferred to lay low unless something was going very wrong.
“Are you going to go home and get ready for your date now, or do I have to tell the girls to come and drag you?” asked Donna, the office manager for the consulate. Donna had accepted a post as the office gopher when she was still a teenager, but quickly grew disillusioned with the romance of living in space when she realized that the employees of the recently established consulate never took a day off from work.
In a display of innate executive potential, Donna convinced Gryph, the Stryx intelligence who ran Union Station, to begin operating the corridor lights of the human sections on a 24 hour cycle. Then she counted five days and declared a weekend. The two hundred thousand plus Earth expatriates living on the station at the time assumed this was another mysterious decision of the Stryx and settled into the new schedule with no more than the usual complaining.
“I’m going, I’m going,” Kelly replied and pushed back from the display table that served as her desk. “I only received the details a few minutes ago. It’s kind of embarrassing, you know, for the top Earth diplomat on the station to be using a dating service. You’d think after fifteen years of practice negotiating with everything that walks, flies or crawls, I’d be a better judge of character. But somehow I always end up with the creeps, the basket cases, or the dreamers who can’t stay around because they know that somewhere in space there’s a solid gold asteroid just waiting for them to stake a claim.”
“And I’ll bet that on every rock you’ve been posted, you left behind a broken hearted guy crying to his bar buddies that you loved your job more than him. You may be the top Earth representative within a hundred light years, but if you don’t get moving, this career is going to be the only marriage you’ll ever make.”
“You sound like my mother,” Kelly grumped, but she impulsively kissed her best friend on the cheek as she passed into the corridor. “Give my love to the girls.”
“And you fill us in as soon as you get home. We want to know all the gory details. It’s part of the deal,” Donna warned her as they headed off in separate directions. Donna’s home was just a few minutes away on the same upscale residential deck as the consulate, while Kelly lived on a low-rent deck, populated mainly by station transients.
The corridors were lined with wall-height display panels that could display real-time feeds from exterior cameras or anything from station memory. At the moment, the displays were showing the riot of ships approaching and departing the station, and Kelly couldn’t help but feel that familiar, yet transient thrill, that humanity had finally reached the stars.
The fly in the ointment was that interstellar space travel had arrived for humanity through a remedial program run by a highly advanced race of artificial intelligences, the Stryx. Humans tended to think of the Stryx as robots, since some of them occupied mobile mechanical bodies to move about, but many lived in the structure of ships or space stations, and it was probable that others existed in forms that were beyond human comprehension.
Why they had assumed the role of nursemaids to the galaxy’s low achieving life forms was known as “The Mystery of the Stryx,” and the robots weren’t telling. The knowledge base of the Stryx was many orders of magnitude beyond that of the hundreds of life forms they nurtured, but it was suspected they were somewhat lacking in imagination since they could find nothing better to do with their time than to interfere with the natural development of biologicals. Biologicals who had reached the stars under their own power often looked down their breathing protuberances at Earth and the other worlds the Stryx had taken under their metallic wings.
Kelly wasn’t really interested in watching the comings and goings of starships tonight, even though her position as Earth’s top diplomat on Union Station made her responsible for an endless parade of first contacts and requests for trade concessions. Well, perhaps that was a bit of an exaggeration, she confessed to herself, since interest in Earth was mainly limited to oxygen/nitrogen breathing aliens looking for cheap domestic help or a retro vacation experience. But in the two years since her arrival, Kelly had never regretted signing on to a five-year tour of duty on the farthest Stryx station from Earth, except for one little thing.
A chime sounded in her right ear and ghostly letters spelling “Collect call from mother,” suddenly appeared to be floating in space before her eyes. Kelly grimaced, turned into the primary radial corridor, then subvocalized, “Accept charges.”
“I just had a terrible dream about you, Kelly.” Her mother’s voice sounded as clear as if she had been right there walking by Kelly’s side. “You were thirty five years old and you still weren’t married, plus you moved all the way across the galaxy to a moon-sized alien space station where there weren’t any eligible men.”
“That’s very funny, Mother,” Kelly replied and rolled her eyes. “You know perfectly well that there are over four hundred thousand humans on Union Station these days, even if we’re just a drop in the bucket of the total population. And how do you expect me to save enough money to buy my own apartment when each of these collect calls costs me a day’s pay?”
“Oh, don’t be such a killjoy,” her mother chided. “I worry about you out there all alone, while your younger brother and sister have settled down and started families. Besides, I don’t call you that often.”
“It’s the third time this week, Mother!” Kelly suppressed a moan, forgetting that the subvoc pick-up embedded in her larynx would reproduce this as something like whoopee cushion sounds. Such minor foibles aside, the implant technology was so seamless that she had to study the lips of humanoids to figure out if they were speaking English or if it was being simultaneously translated, even as the sound from their native tongue was cancelled out at the ears.
“Have you been eating right, Kelly? I know you say that the restaurants synthesize the ingredients they can’t import, but that doesn’t mean the kitchen is kept clean.”
“I can’t talk now, Mother. I have a date,” Kelly blundered, desperate to end the call.
“A date? You mean you’re out on a date and you took a call from your mother? What’s wrong with you?”
“I’m getting ready, Mom. I’m meeting him in an hour,” Kelly answered, instantly regretting the explanation and rapping herself on the top of the head with her knuckles. Why didn’t she say, “You’re right,” and hang up? Too late now.
“So who is he? How do you know him? Where are you meeting?”
“His name is Branch Miner, and we’re meeting at a sports bar.”
“Sounds romantic,” her mother scoffed. “And how did you meet Mr. Miner?”
“I’ve got to go, Mom, there’s somebody at the door.” She didn’t count it as a lie when her mother knew she was lying, since Kelly always used the same excuse to terminate a call. The excuse grew out of a rule of etiquette her mother had taught her about answering the phone while she was still living at home, never to risk ignoring a warm guest for a cold call.
“Don’t be too picky, Kelly,” her mother advised. “First impressions are often wrong. Why, your sister Lisa…”
“Bye, Mom,” Kelly interrupted her mother and cut the connection. She fantasized briefly about paying a talent agency to find an out-of-work voice actress on Earth to take her mother’s calls. Anything would be cheaper than the real-time tunneling communications billed triple for collect, and she was getting sore spots on her head from hitting herself in frustration. She took a left, narrowly escaped being run down by a bicycle messenger, and chose a rarely used stairwell door to descend three levels, bypassing the lift tubes.
Twenty-four months on Union Station and she had yet to go on a date worth a second look. Last week, to celebrate Kelly’s two-year anniversary as Acting Consul, Donna had surprised her with a five-date subscription to the Eemas dating service. Eemas was rumored to be powered by the same Stryx that managed the station, which Kelly took as proof of how boring eternity must be for immortals. She had seen Eemas advertised and knew it must have cost Donna more than a week’s pay, so the least Kelly could do was to show up for the dates. Besides, it turned out Donna’s pre-teen daughters were the driving force behind the gift for “poor Aunty Kelly,” and that was a wake-up call to either find a man or get a new best friend.
Kelly exited the stairwell into the low rent corridor that acted as the main artery of her neighborhood and immediately slipped on a discarded pizza box, barely maintaining her balance. The omnipresent wall display panels were painted over with primitive murals depicting run-down inner-city scenes from Earth, images which were defaced in their turn by graffiti. The station maintenance bots came through and cleaned up on a regular schedule, but they didn’t replace the display panels. The recently discarded trash, the loiterers, and transient homeless made it clear that this wasn’t anybody’s dream neighborhood.
After a quick turn down a side corridor, Kelly arrived home in less than a hundred steps. The door of her cramped efficiency slid open in welcome, and she entered and collapsed with a groan into the LoveU massaging recliner that took up most of the floor space. The chair was her sole extravagance since arriving on Union Station and she was still making ruinous payments on it. But the LoveU lived up to its name, offering an unconditional warm embrace, with lower lumbar Shiatsu and gentle full body kneading, alternating with low frequency vibration and Fintrian nerve stimulation of the arms, legs and neck.
“If you could walk and talk, you’d be the one I’d marry, LoveU,” she murmured, stroking the armrests affectionately with her thumbs. The familiar chime sounded again in her ear and “Libby” was suddenly floating before her eyes.
Kelly sighed and subvoced “Hi, Libby. Did you read my weekly? I’ll bet you’re the only one who does, and you don’t even work for EarthCent.”
“I always find your reports to be informative,” replied the Stryx who functioned as the station librarian and library wrapped up in an extremely patient personality. After two years, Kelly had come to suspect that Libby was one and the same as Gryph, the Stryx who ran the whole station, but if it preferred to manifest multiple personalities, that was none of her business.
“I also agree with your conclusion that Earth is fighting a losing battle trying to protect your limited exports,” Libby continued. “Every planet goes through this stage. The best solution is to focus on your manufacturing strengths and to keep your prices reasonable, so that the counterfeiters will look elsewhere for easy money.”
“I’ve been telling them that for years, but it doesn’t seem to get through to the right people.”
“An EarthCent representative’s work is never done,” Libby sympathized, or maybe it was a warning, Kelly could never be sure. “I forwarded a high priority message for you earlier today, I hope you’ll be able to act on it.”
“Uh, I’m still working on that one, Libby. Is that why you called?”
“I just wanted to make sure you didn’t fall asleep before your big date.”
“You what? Libby, are you the one running Eemas, along with whatever else you do?”
“Word gets around Kelly. You know we Stryx aren’t very good at keeping secrets,” Libby replied innocently.
That’s one clumsy evasion and one outright lie in a single statement, Kelly thought to herself, unless Libby was employing some legal parsing that defined “very good” as “perfect.” At least once a day she told herself that her ongoing confusion about the scope of her job duties was really due to some fundamental misapprehension on her own part. Everybody else seemed to accept the activities of the Stryx as a local force of nature, the space equivalent of weather, but Kelly was never sure whether it was sunny or raining.
She started to rise from the chair, and the LoveU instantly sensed her motion and practically rose on its hind legs to place her on her feet. Kelly once entertained the fantasy that when she died, rather than burial or cremation, she would be strapped into the chair and launched out into space to wander among the stars for eternity. But when Kelly mentioned it to Donna, her friend had pointed out that she hadn’t finished paying for it yet, and besides, it would be cruel to the LoveU. The latter part of the argument had convinced her to abandon the idea.
“I’ll leave you to get ready then. We’ll talk soon,” Libby spoke in her implants and withdrew. Kelly always wondered how many more of the hundred million plus sentient beings on the artificial world that was Union Station were speaking with the Stryx at the same instant. It was disconcerting to have a friend whose capabilities were unknown and probably unknowable for humans.
Kelly undressed quickly and punched up an express shower which was as painful as it was invigorating. She imagined that the flagellants of Earth’s history who scourged themselves with leather flails would have felt right at home in the shower, though they might have been upset over getting too wet, or even too clean for that matter. Ugh, why wouldn’t her mind stop wandering? Maybe she’d ruined her brain by spending too much time reading.