by Kate Connors
Space traffic controller Thorn Katnir never meant to start a war.
| Somebody put a piping-hot cup of rumig on my desk before I got here and my name is handwritten in cursive on the side. Maybe it’s a sweet gesture. Or maybe—and most likely—somebody wants to burn me. Either way, now I have two cups. Should get me through the next ninety minutes.
“Two cups today, Thorn?” my coworker, Sue, asks from the next desk. His name isn’t actually Sue, but most of us can’t pronounce his real name—aside from the lady with a degree in interstellar linguistics. But as far as I’m concerned she doesn’t count. Freakin’ showoff.
I turn to look at him, which doesn’t make much sense since he doesn’t have a face. I mean, not by Altairan standards. Somehow he sees everything with his brain—he’s explained it to me thirty times over the last three years and I still don’t get it—and he speaks to us non-telepaths with a computer program. And I’ve never had more in common with anyone else. “You got here before I did. You know more than I do,” I say, turning to the holographic overlay on our floor-length windows. Two inbound, one on the approach, still minutes away. The other is almost half an hour out. “Slow this morning, huh?”
“Aren’t you curious who left it?” Sue asks.
I squint in his direction. Try to guess what he’s thinking. Watch his midsection expand with each breath. And thirty seconds later I still have no idea what’s going on inside that shapeless mass of brown fur’s brain. “Do you know who left it?”
Another thirty seconds. The transponder codes inch across the screen. My hands end up in my hair. “Oh my gaelin, Sue. Give me something.”
A pause. “Yeah. I know who left it.”
“You know what—” I put my hands up. “I don’t even want to know anymore. Keep your secrets, hairball.”
“Skylark 4407, one heliometer from SPATZ, cleared for the ILS 14,” I say as the ship crosses the waypoint.
“4407 cleared for the ILS into 14,” the captain responds.
I turn back to Sue. “Do you even know what blue looks like?”
“Fuck you. Yes, I know what blue looks like. And to answer your question, things have been really slow this morning. Deneb just put an embargo on Arcturus and half the galaxy is already up in arms over it,” Sue says. “I—never mind.”
“No, what were you gonna say?”
“I don’t want another war, Thorn.”
I let out a sigh. Bite my lip. Touch his—the top of—I touch him. “Yeah. Me neither.”
Silence until the ship touches down and clears the old runway, then it’s Sue’s turn to handle them on the ground. One of us could do the job today, but having an extra set of eyes—well, not eyes, I guess. Having an extra person working on the same problem is nice when they’re easygoing like Sue. Most planets have more advanced space-based facilities, but ours is lightyears behind what a port its size should be. Now that Vega is Altair’s project, though, things are changing. Slowly but surely, starting with a space station. Too bad our presence here isn’t purely humanitarian.
“Are you in the mood for Johnny Cash?” Sue asks when the ship is stopped at its gate. “Need something to break the silence.”
“Kinda heavy, huh?”
I smile. “I brought you something new today. If you want to hear it.”
“Sure. I mean, obviously we don’t have music where I come from. But you seem to have good taste.”
“Well, that’s because you don’t have music where you come from. Silvia—” I say, watching the screen, “—could you play ‘Thorn’s Ultimate Legendary Playlist?’”
“Playing Thorn’s Ultimate Legendary Playlist,” the computer lady says before the sound of guitar and trumpets.
We’ve made it to do you rememberwhen Sue asks, “What is this?”
“It’s called disco.” I lean back in my chair, hands clasped behind my head. “What do you think?”
“Come on, man, we’re like thirty seconds in.” My screen flashes. 6708’s shields fall for a split second and come back up. Must be an older ship. I swear some of these cargo-runners are held together with spit. Better check on them. “Pisces 6708, everything okay?”
“Fine. Thanks,” the captain snaps. “6708.”
Their shields fall again after a few seconds and I look to Sue. Once is a glitch. Twice can be a serious problem, depending on who you are and what you’re flying. “What do you make of that?”
“What? Their shields? You know how unstable those old systems can be—they’re probably just cycling.”
“Twice in thirty seconds?”
“I—” He shuts up. “They just dropped again.”
“They’re either in bad shape or something’s interfering with the . . .” Fuck. I’ve only seen a malfunction like this during the war. On ships carrying—I really hope it isn’t what I think it is. I don’t want to shoot them down, but they’ll contaminate the whole planet.
“Thorn, that’s a Cephenean ship.”
“I know. I know.” I put my head in my hands. “I’ll tell them to hold until the police can get here.”
“Will they listen to you?”
“No.” I take a deep breath. “Pisces 6708, hold stellar east of HAYDE, bearing 270 until further notice.”
“Unable. I’m sure our shields tipped you off, but we’re having some problems over here,” 6708 says.
Shaking my head, I glance at the section of the screen crossed out in red. Rehearse my code in my head. I never thought I’d need it. “What kind of problems, 6708? I can’t clear you unless you declare an emergency and you just said you were fine.”
“Something came up. Pisces 6708.”
“You’re either fine or you aren’t, 6708.”
“It’s like talking to a woman,” Sue mutters.
Dragging a hand down my face, I can’t help smiling. “There are no women in your species, are there?”
“There aren’t. Just trying to lighten the mood.” It doesn’t last long. 6708 isn’t slowing down. No matter what I tell them, and trust me, I’m using my entire vocabulary, nothing happens. Until I say, “Pisces 6708, discontinue or you’ll be shot down.” Waiting for an answer, I grit my teeth. Sue is already talking to a trooper, but it sounds like she’s a few parsecs away. We’ll have to handle 6708 ourselves.
Static crackles through the receiver. Muffled voices. Sounds like conflict on the bridge—my main takeaway from the conversation is that some of them kind of want to stop but the person at the controls doesn’t—then someone says fairly definitively, “Go to Hell, Altair,” and cuts communication. Guess I should have brought a couple beers instead of rumig. They would have blown themselves up with or without my help.
“They really hate you guys these days,” Sue says.
“Understatement. Huge understatement.” Highlighted in red, the transponder code is flying across the screen now. “You know.” The computer accepts my code and Cancer, our orbital defense system, arms. Now I hold the four lives on 6708 and all the lives on Vega Prime in my hands. “My mom is from Sol. Maybe if we all die and I’m out of a job I’ll go back. Find myself.”
“Going to climb Olympus Mons?”
“No, I always thought climbing Olympus Mons was kind of hubristic.” Locked on. All I have to do is push a button when they come into range and four people end before you can blink. “We sail around faster than light between star systems and we still have to walk to the top of a mountain for it to count? Thanks, but no.”
“Isn’t Olympus Mons sort of a status symbol for humanoids?” Sue asks. “They’ll be in range after fifteen seconds. Think you can hit them while their shields are down?”
“I can, but—” Easier said than done. An error message swallows the transponder code: sensor malfunction, courtesy of Cephenean jammers. I’m blind. One shot. One shot we have to make in the dark now. “How fast were they going?”
“250 heliometers per hour.”
“Stellar 095. Straight toward HAYDE.” Nice to have an extra set of eyes. An extra person. Whatever.
“Silvia, extrapolate Pisces 6708’s time of arrival at waypoint HAYDE,” I tell the AI.
“37.8 seconds until arrival at HAYDE,” computer lady says.
“Discharge Cancer when Pisces 6708 crosses the waypoint.”
“Unable. System will not discharge automatically without sensor lock on intended target.”
“Ask nicely,” Sue whispers.
“Unable,” Silvia says again. “System will not discharge—”
“Okay.” I put my hands up. Bite my cheek. “Display a countdown on the screen and shut up, then.” Twenty-five seconds. Twenty-four. Twenty-three. “Anyway, yeah. Olympus Mons is for those really rich people with too much time on their hands. The kind of money you have to make illegally.”
“Currency confuses me.”
“Me too, buddy.” My attention settles on the Discharge Proton Pulse button. Shifts to the timer. Back to the button. Ten seconds. They didn’t cover anything like this in training, but they’ll start after today, whether Vega Prime lives or dies. “Last words, Sue?” Five seconds.
“Try not to miss.”
Zero. A vein of white light splits the sky in half and folds all the shadows in the room away and no oxygen is going to my head anymore. But we’re not dead yet. For once I’m not entirely disgusted by my planet’s compulsions to build moon-killers that kill bigger moons every year. Cancer isn’t even in the top ten.
Teeth digging into my cheek, I stare at the screen until the SENSOR MALFUNCTION placard goes away, and I have to laugh. I have to laugh because somehow I’m still around to read it. Oh Gaelin. I really thought we were dead.
“That’s a lot of radiation,” Sue says as the field diffuses across the screen. “Thanks for not missing.”
Pressure is building between my eyes and whatever I had for dinner yesterday is trying to go on a comeback tour no one wants. Hands braced against my knees, I stare at the floor, bent on cancelling it. “That’ll be a hell of a cleanup effort, though,” I say through a deep breath.
“Cleanup is better than recovery. You just saved an entire planet, Thorn.”
“Um, yeah. I guess. I’ll be right back.” The computer chimes with an incoming call and I get up from my desk, hoping I can make it to the bathroom in time. Speaking of cleanup efforts. My reflection catches my eye on the way in and I lean over the sink. Splash some cold water on my face. Try to swallow the lump in my throat. I hate throwing up. Killing four people you were supposed to protect is shitty enough. Could I have stopped them? Negotiated? Did I say something wrong? Before I started this job I thought I knew everything.
Purged of way more than whatever I had for dinner last night, I’m back at the sink when a hologram pops up from my watch: INCOMING CALL FROM [SYNTAX ERROR]. Aka Sue. “Accept,” I say, poking underneath my glasses at the purple veins in the corners of my eyes.
“Trooper Hideri wants to talk to you.”
“I can’t talk to a trooper. I look stoned,” I say.
“You know she can hear you, right? Plus I have traffic coming and I’ll have to divert them all the—”
“I’ll be up there in a second.” Ending the call, I push my glasses back onto my nose. Watch my reflection let out the rest of the air in his lungs, then let some back in. Okay. Back to work.