Author: Moriah Geer-Hardwick
Ira Holt scowls down the loading ramp at the landing pad. The wild tangles of his silver eyebrows hang low and heavy over his gray eyes as he scans the area. His face is pitted and weathered, like rusted steel. He stands with one wiry arm braced against the top of the hatchway, jaw set.
Benna Wallace shifts the strap of the tool kit on her shoulder and swipes a stray strand of dull brown hair away from her round face.
“Should we…” Benna stops herself.
“We probably should.” Holt’s voice is a grinding scrape across vocal chords shredded from years of plasma vapor and burner exhaust. He drags his knuckles back and forth across the ragged stubble that frosts hazy white over his chin. “Y’know, I never wanted to become that grizzled old veteran who talks down to the new recruit,” he says. “One of those old fossils that spouts things like, ‘back in my day,’ or calls you, ‘kid’ and ‘green behind the ears.’”
“You mean, ‘wet behind the ears?’”
“Probably. I don’t know. Look, I saw your creds. You got decent schooling. Probably know a lot more than me. Hell, the first time the Company sent me out to one of these unmanned outer perimeter stations, their idea of training was a fifteen minute briefing played on repeat all three months of torpor during transit. I got no call to be condescending, and I mean that sincerely. I gotta tell you though, I’ve stepped off this ramp into God knows how many downed stations and these places got a way of going funny.”
“Funny?” Benna frowns.
“Yeah funny. Y’know, like the subversion of expectations. See, experience, or a little education too I guess, gives you this library of expectations and you get to feel like you can reference it for everything. You run through the list of all that can go wrong, because of all you know that went wrong before.”
“Hypervigilance,” says Benna. “They teach it at the Academy. Tell you to run through scenarios before going in.”
“Yeah?” Ira looks at her, one eye scrunching into a quizzical wince. “What kind of scenarios”
Benna bobbles her head, thinking. “Micro event cascading mechanical failures. Want-of-a-nail situations. Or cataclysmic event mechanical failures. Meteor storm, solar flare, rogue wave radiation, things like that. Could be software. Glitch, or intentional hacking.”
“Pretty straightforward,” nods Ira. “Easy enough to set right.”
“Station could be dead because pirates hit it. Hostiles could still be on site.”
Ira nods again. “A bit more worrisome.”
“Then there’s cognitive contagions compromising the AI mainframe. Spontaneously evolved self awareness. Spiraling anarcho-syndicalistic ideology.”
“Been a while since I had to put down a robot cult.”
“Or xenobiological events. Silicone eating microbes. Full on first contact with intelligent alien life.”
Ira holds up a hand to stop her. “Those are all worth keeping in mind. Like I said, you got decent schooling. I guess my real point here is what do you make of that?” He gestures with a gnarled thumb toward the far corner of the station. Benna ducks her head to look under the hatchway and sees what appears to be a young girl in a yellow dress, facing away from them, floating about a foot off the ground.
“That’s weird.” Benna swallows stiffly.
“Yup,” agrees Holt. “Never seen that before. I suppose this place is either haunted or we’re hallucinating.”
“What do we do?”
“Add more expectations to the library.” Ira starts down the ramp.
The young girl slowly spins around to face them, her mouth open and impossibly wide.