Up in Space Station Zebra, Boyd voiced his displeasure about the new arrival. “A dewy-eyed babe thinking she can do a dangerous job.” His blond curls rippled in sync with his shaking head. “Women like her shouldn’t be in space.”
“Women shouldn’t be in space?” Tameka said, “So what the hell am I doing here?”
“Not in the salvage team is what I meant,” Boyd back-pedalled under Tameka’s fierce stare. “You, Grace, and Asunción are invaluable members of the space station, of course. But, the salvage team should only be men.”
“She’s a private contractor,” Patrice said, “not officially part of our team.”
“She goes into space with us to perform salvage operations. That counts.” Boyd wouldn’t have any of it. “That’s progress for you,” Tameka said, “What’re you gonna do about it?”
“Demonstrate that she doesn’t belong.” Boyd flashed a mischievous smile. “Starting with a good old hazing.”
“Don’t let Asunción find out,” Tameka said, “she doesn’t like such ‘antiquated antics’.”
“Come on; we’ve all been through it,” Boyd said, “It’s as old as human exploration. In the old days King Neptune visited newbies crossing the equator, now the Space Alien visits those rising above geostationary orbit for the first time. It’s tradition.”
Tameka and the others nodded, and quietly acquiesced.
Yo-Sung Lee drifted alone in Hangar 18 and waited for instructions. A variety of space drones sat on the end of electromagnetic sticks, ready to be deployed at will. Still, the hangar was mostly empty, probably in anticipation of salvaged goods. In her insulating space suit, inside the massive hangar, she felt both cold and claustrophobic. The emptiness seemed pregnant with a presence.
An eerie glow encompassed the edge of her vision: deep purple, sinuous, swaggering, gargantuan tentacles.
Abrupt changes washed over her: eyes turning inwards, face a whiter shade of pale, tense muscles, expression dead. It was instant zombification of her senses.
She kicked off against the nearest wall, launching herself at the Cthuluesque eidolon, grabbing two four-legged space-drones from their sticks in the process. Yo-Sung slashed at tentacles with blinding speed, dodging the gnashing teeth of an oversized beak, going for the weak spots of the giant squid. She found a weak spot, and as she kicked both her feet straight at the creature’s humongous eyes, they passed through hitting the ceiling hard.
Her helmet filled with boisterous laughter. “You’ve escaped Ptholo the Space God for now,” Boyd jested, “but, he’ll haunt your newbie ass forever.” While Boyd enjoyed his prank, the others were secretly impressed.
Space Station Zebra tracked Chaos satellites that monitored the onset of Earth’s extreme weather events. These satellites revolved in intricate butterfly-wing shaped orbits requiring complex launches, which often failed. Enter Boyd’s salvage team to recover the expensive machines.
Boyd’s boys were daredevils, but their handheld thrusters had a limited range. Underestimate their power reserve, and they would become a lost satellite. However, Yo-Sung had developed a thruster with a longer range in the shape of a space bike, using herself as an extra power source.
It was a long stick with a saddle on one end, pedals in the middle, and a two separate ion exhausts at the other end. Through a generator in the hub, pedaling produced an ion stream that could aim in all directions through the dual exhaust, enabling the space bike to go ‘down’ without directing the ion thrust beam through Yo-Sung.
Yo-Sung’s space bike was untested in a true gravity-free environment: ClimateTrack—Space Station Zebra’s owners—sponsored her trip into space to do tests in co-operation with Boyd’s salvage team.
Out there, it was devilishly hard. Boyd knew this and relished her initial awkwardness.
She was clumsy, and the self-learning algorithms in the space bike’s interface needed time to interpret her gestures right. The efficiency of her design initially worked against her: even as she pedaled slowly, the generated ion thrust pushed her hard. In combination with the jittery interface, it made her zig, zag, and stutter like a crazed puppy on acid. She needed a couple of hours to herself, but Boyd wasn’t having any of it.
“Over there dummy; there’s a satellite. Show us how you pick it up, space zombie.” Her surgical strike at the projected space squid had earned Yo-Sung her nickname.
She went for it. It was unfair: she knew it, Boyd knew it, everybody knew it. Yet, nobody challenged Boyd’s authority. Jumping out of a stuttering spiral, she went in its general direction. While her aim was right, her control over the space bike was still bad, and she overshot the target.
Defeated, she recognized the boisterous laughter over the radio. Boyd overtook her with a few quick firings of his ion thrust guns, and, with an elegant movement of his grappling hook, reeled in the satellite dummy. “This is how we do it at Boyd’s daredevils,” he said, “and I don’t think you have the right stuff.”
Despite Boyd’s obstructive behavior, Yo-Sung—with the assistance of one of Boyd’s boys who wanted to remain anonymous—did get some exercise time when Boyd was asleep. As her mastery of her space bike increased, Boyd countered by giving her ever more complex exercises, which she, never giving up, eventually completed.
At some point, Boyd had to allow her to tag along at an actual satellite recovery. Quite a risky one, at that, as it moved towards the inner Van Allen belt. Their remote-controlled space drones didn’t work in there, so they had to salvage it before it entered into the fierce Van Allen radiation.
Boyd’s boys—Yo-Sung was told to keep her distance—tried to catch it with the space drones at first, but the increasing radiation wreaked havoc with the control signals. It was now up to the humans, as time was running out.
In a complicated maneuver, one ‘pusher’ had to direct the wayward satellite towards two ‘brakers’ who reduced its speed with cushioning nets and a ‘grappler’ to take it home. Boyd, the pusher—the riskiest part—tried to position himself between the incoming satellite and the invisible belt (whose proximity transmitted through a Geiger counter-like interface). He had to be fast: going there quickly, then braking at the last possible moment, when his braking thruster failed halfway through the stopping maneuvers. With his other thruster depleted, he drifted helplessly towards the belt.
Yo-Sung—who despite Boyd’s orders had positioned herself near the grappler—watched in disbelief as nobody intervened.
“Somebody—anybody—save him!” Yo-Sung was both desperate and exasperated. No volunteers came forth. “Nobody?”
“He’s beyond reach; our thrusters can’t go that far,” someone said, “Chasing him would mean two people dead instead of one.”
“On top of that,” another said, “in case you didn’t notice, Boyd was just as bad to us as he was to you. Who would risk his ass for him?”
“I will.” Yo-Sung’s eyes turned inwards, her face deadly pale, her reflexes quickening to blinding speed. Pedaling furiously in full-on zombie mode, she went after Boyd with an acceleration that defied belief. “She must be generating over half a kilowatt to go that fast,” someone said in awe.
As she rapidly approached Boyd, both their Geiger counter interfaces clicked with increasing frequencies. Yo-Sung either had to abort, or get a deadly dose of hard radiation, unless there was a third option.
She kept speeding towards Boyd, but as she closed in, she rotated the thrust end of her space bike towards the Van Allen belt, positioning the dual exhaust pipes such that they functioned as a reversed umbrella. The frantically spiraling exhaust of ions acted as a makeshift radiation shield. Miraculously, it seemed, the Geiger clicking slowed down. By carefully adjusting the exhaust pipes, Yo-Sung could also perform a braking maneuver to reel Boyd in.
Bumping into each other, they embraced for maximum grip and moved out of the danger zone like love-locked bats out of hell. While they were heading towards the safety of the cushioning nets, she fainted from exhaustion, missing the massive cheer of release as they hit the ropes.
“Double swipe with your right hand to go Galactic West,” the instructor said, “Otherwise, you’re doing fine.”
“Can we keep going for another hour?” the trainee said, “I want to use it for the operation tomorrow.”
“Fine, I suppose. Will you let Tameka join? She handles her space bike fantastically.” Yo-Sung cast Boyd a weary glance.
“Of course I will.” Was there a demure quality to Boyd’s voice? “I was a dick. I learnt my lesson.
BIO: Ingrid Garcia tries to sell local wines in a vintage wine shop in Cádiz, and writes speculative fiction in her spare time. For years, she was unpublished. But to her utter surprise—after years of receiving nothing but rejections—she’s sold stories to F&SF, Panorama and Futurist