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Constants and Variables

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Aislinn Kelly had left her home in Dublin, Ireland with great trepidation. The powerful multinational corporation of TranStar regularly recruited for their many employment opportunities, but when she reached out to them about a job in maintenance aboard their crown jewel, Talos I, she quickly found out just how strict they could be. TranStar employed thousands on Earth, the Moon, and on that station, competing with fellow tech giants like Kasma for every inch of space they could muster. They were worth billions, the second most valuable company on Earth.

The madness that had compelled her to put in an application had gripped her the entire time, and only left after she sent it off, leaving her aghast that she’d done such a thing.

A hurried shutdown of her computer and return to the peaceful solitude of her apartment had then been in order.

Yet, two weeks later, here came a response, asking her to come to their London office for an interview, offering to pay for the travel expenses in return. Her excited family waved her off at the airport as she traveled to a city she’d never been to and had only dreamed of, shaking with disbelief that she had actually been chosen. That faded quickly once she saw how many other people waited in the lobby of TranStar’s impressive tower, which dwarfed even the beautiful Shard, and looked out over a sparkling expanse of city and green spaces that took her breath away.

The HR department was friendly, full of smiling men and women with soothing voices, who led her to an interview with someone on the other side of the world, in San Francisco. She was shaking, painfully aware of her fading blonde highlights and stout frame, but managed to get answers out and not make a total fool of herself.

When all was said and done, they told her they would “let her know” and shipped her back to Dublin, where she retreated into her apartment for the next month whenever she didn’t have to work.

Her current job gave her plenty to do, repairing robots and industrial vehicles that were basically big robots themselves, her ears sometimes filled with the chatter of TranStar’s Operators and sometimes left mercifully alone. It paid well, usually had hours as long as sixty a week, and kept her hands busy while her mind could wander freely.

The tour was only supposed to last a year.

In early June of 2033, the confirmation email came. After her two-week notice at work expired, she was shipped off by TranStar to countless training regimens, from zero-gee to “life aboard Talos I” classes that were treated with deadly seriousness, and spent two months absorbed in everything they needed her to learn. Within a binder stamped with the logo of TranStar in gold leaf, given to her a week in, were pages and pages of information, listing personnel, safety regulations, and an attractive marketing spiel about the beautiful Talos I.

In late September, after the last of her classes slacked off, she graduated from the TranStar Extraorbital Training Program, barely two weeks after her twenty-ninth birthday. She received a TranStar suit and a training video on how to use and maintain it, and was not allowed to progress until she passed the short test on proper use of said suit.

And then, when all was finally said and done, and she was an exhausted mess of frayed nerves and too much knowledge, she launched from Cape Canaveral.

At the beginning of October, she reached Talos, went through security checks and a brief onboarding session, and then was unceremoniously shuffled into the crowds of new employees as older ones were rotated out. More training came, a week’s worth of studying charts, maps, and safety regulations, while she also had to learn her schedule and get to know the rest of her team. The schedule had enough detail to tell her where she needed to be starting at five every morning, and for the eight hours that followed, but still had flexibility she appreciated and took into account the possibility of significant downtime. It was a far cry from the sixty-hour workweek she’d left behind.

And then, finally, a week later, she was given her normal schedule, assigned to her first rotation, and left alone to work at last, just the way she preferred.

Aislinn soon found the Lobby to be one of her favorite areas. Despite being right on Talos’s pulse, not a lot of people just sat at the railing and gazed out the massive windows at the Moon and Earth. When she didn’t have something that needed her immediate attention, she was content to do exactly that, sipping on a cold can of coffee and watching the two spheres spin among the endless blackness of space. It comforted her to see familiar constellations and the glow of Earth’s dark side, but sometimes, her eyes drifted to the darkness, and she shivered.

Then, at the end of that week, she found a rotation in Crew Quarters on her schedule, tending to the door behind the reception desk. Its hydraulics had gone on the fritz, and with the assistance of a mercifully quiet Operator, she set to work for several hours, prying the machine apart and shooing away anyone who wandered too close. Hidden behind the desk, she could be left alone, music playing through her headphones and hands working, letting her mind drift off as she contemplated everything from her family on Earth to the fringes of existence.

As she finished her task and stood up, sweating and knowing she would be sore the next day, it was in time to see two men walk by, completely oblivious to her presence – to much of anything, really, it seemed – as they headed toward the lifts near the stairs. Both of them were about her height, dark-haired and pale-skinned, dressed in the rich red of the administrative uniform, and only once did one of them glance her way.

Aislinn had to resist the instinct to duck back, a sense of awe invading her thoughts. In all her time with Transtar so far, she had only seen Alex Yu, their CEO, in prerecorded messages. It was one thing to see him there, and quite another to see him in person – heavy, stern-faced, imposing, radiating confidence and walking as though he owned the world. She had never seen anyone walk like that before, and the twinge of fear was brief and very real.

The other one, though, she had only seen a few times, but never in person, always with the same cool expression, always perfectly put-together and moving with a swagger she didn’t exactly like. Eyes as dark as the space between the stars gazed out from under a sweep of dark hair and dark brows, only briefly passing over her before he turned his full attention back to Alex, hands moving as he spoke.

Long after they’d taken the gravshaft to the Executive Suites, one of the few places she had yet to go, she leaned on the desk and rubbed thoughtfully at her forehead.

Seeing the Yu brothers – CEO and Vice President of TranStar, and two of the wealthiest individuals in the world – in person felt a little like seeing some mythical creature come to life before her eyes. They were larger than life, and commanded the kind of anxious respect that made words not come out right, tripping over tongues and trembling lips. She often heard whispers of Alex’s aloof power and Morgan’s attractive features, yet seeing them in person at last did little to quell any of the nervous thoughts that had taken up residence in her mind about them.

She finished her work and moved on to the last job on her schedule, after taking care to check for anything new having been added. As part of the maintenance crew, she was one of the unseen and unnoticed, and, unless she did something catastrophically stupid, neither of them would pay her any mind at all.

They were, after all, the masterminds behind Transtar, scientists and tech-minded, both of them genius billionaire business moguls who had a lot more important things to worry about than her.

The likelihood of even crossing paths with them, even on this station, hung at the low end of possible.

As the Operator drifted away again, she gathered her tools and headed upstairs to her last job of the day in the Yellow Tulip, letting the thought of the two men drift out of her mind. There were far more important things to deal with from moment to moment, certainly far more than dwelling on the faces of those so far above her that they might as well live on the very top of Olympus Mons, a passing curiosity to her speck of an existence.

And by the time she reached the bustling dinner scene of the Tulip, she had forgotten entirely.

 

-

 

For several weeks, she worked her shifts and rotated through her schedule without paying much heed to anything else, getting a feel for the environment and people before she would try easing herself into the social sphere. She came to love the peaceful ambience of the Arboretum and the quiet moments she could snag at the railing in the Lobby. Getting a job in the TranStar exhibit was always a treat, as few people came through and she could work in near-complete silence. Once in a while, one of the groundskeepers, Matt, who was halfway through his rotation and seemed fond of her, might pop in during his duties, but for the most far, she was left alone.

It had been a little over a month since the brothers had arrived.

This morning, she tended to the bulbs over the wall displays, switching them out according to the belief that they were too yellow, while Matt worked his rounds on the dead plants. Nothing went to waste here, as everything he cut was bagged and taken to be recycled. Both resources and space were immensely valuable. Talos I, for all its eye-popping size and beauty, was still a station spinning in the cosmos, and though it got some resources from Pytheas, self-reliance had long been an accepted fact of its existence. There were gardens and hydroponics everywhere, most of them in the Arboretum, that grew everything, including fruits that tasted vaguely of meat.

As she finished up the last light, Matt appeared at the door closest to the Lobby’s enormous windows, all spindly limbs and a mop of black hair that never seemed to enjoy being on his head. “Hey, did you hear?”

She glanced at him. “No.” Station gossip didn’t interest her.

Apparently, her hint had been left wanting, because Matt decided to move closer to her and start speaking in a conspiratorial whisper. “Mikhaila about drunk herself blind at the Tulip last night,” he told her. After a quick glance around, he ducked his head closer to hers, prompting her to lean away a bit. “She and Morgan got into–”

“Morgan Yu?” She hopped off the ladder and collapsed it, then leaned it against the wall, elbow resting on one of the rungs, to look at him. “More gossip about the big boss, aye? And what makes you think I, of all people, care?” Though she tried to ignore it, there were inevitable moments where she overheard talk, ranging from idle chitchat to outright hero worship. Some of those hero-worshipers were starry-eyed women, fixated on Morgan’s good looks and, as she had to hear once in a while, attractive figure. She hadn’t seen enough of Morgan to have an opinion.

“Because everyone’s talking– you know what, you’re no fun.” He shook his head. “Can’t you pretend to care for a minute?”

“That would take effort I can’t spare,” she pointed out.

Matt tilted his head, narrowing his eyes. “So, what, you only have so much ‘effort to care’ on hand?”

“Exactly right, and I can’t go wastin’ it on pointless nonsense. Once it’s expended, it takes a while to come back.” Flashing a smirk, she waved a hand before turning back to the ladder and pulling it down to hook under one arm. “Now, get on, then, so I can finish my rounds in peace. Don’t let all the talk get to you, if you can help it.”

Matt made a face at her, but did as she said, leaving the exhibit at last.

The Mikhaila-Morgan gossip lasted about two days, before something came down from higher up, silencing all of it as suddenly as though someone had flipped a switch.

Her rounds brought her to the station’s inner circle – Teleconferencing, Human Resources, the like. The drink machines had to be cleaned rather frequently, as cans exploded and sometimes caused damage to the sensitive electronics that waited behind panels and seams. She didn’t mind scrubbing away and replacing tiny parts. The work kept her busy and paid. By the time she got back to Earth, she would have a comfortable nest egg.

In the middle of October, she received an addition to her schedule she didn’t quite expect: to tend to the fabricator in the office of Morgan Yu at the end of her shift.

Aislinn hesitated when she read the work order, wondering if it might be worthwhile to push back and admit she didn’t have much experience with fabricators, then thought better of it. This was probably her boss’s way of getting her that experience, and at least, if she failed too terribly, Morgan could probably fix it himself.

Jason was the secretary outside Morgan’s personal office. He was missing when she first came up, and he was the only one with the keycode she needed – it had been explicitly denied when she requested it, citing a lack of security clearance – so she sat on the desk to wait, toying with her transcribe to pass the time.

A few minutes later, she heard footsteps padding down the carpeted hall. “Sorry about the wait,” said a warm, soft voice; she looked up to see that it belonged to a man slightly taller than her with black hair and dark eyes, approaching with a smile. “I’m Jason. Eyes-lin, isn’t it? It’s nice to meet you.”

She stood and took the hand he offered. “It’s ‘Ashlyn’,” she said, “and nice to meet you, also.”

Jason nodded. “Aislinn, okay. That accent, it’s lovely. Where from?”

She smiled. “Ireland.”

“Oh, it’s beautiful. Love it. Can I call you Ash? And can you say more words? It sounds so lovely.”

Finding his interest endearing, she smiled wider. “I’ll be sayin’ as many words that’re needed, Jason,” she told him. “Now, on to our business here. I need somethin’ from you to do my job.”

“Mmm, yes. Sorry about that. Here.” He walked past her to the keypad by Morgan’s office door and unlocked it. The panel turned green, and he stepped back. “There might be more work orders coming up. Morgan hasn’t had a lot of time to work on things like that. He normally does his own maintenance, but there’s a lot of projects taking up his time. Don’t be surprised if your schedule gets a little full.”

She nodded, though in the back of her mind, she wondered why she would be the one chosen to do the work. It didn’t matter, though. She went wherever she was told and did the work that was asked of her. “I like the work. Keepin’ my hands busy is always very important. Thanks, Jason.”

“Sure thing. Let me know if you need anything else, now.” With another smile, he sat down at his terminal and began to work, turning his attention away from her.

Aislinn checked her tools, making sure she had everything she needed, and walked into the office.

It was a spacious one, overlooking the lobby where a few people wandered, with plush red carpeting and bronze-colored trim wherever she looked. The ceiling rose high overhead, dark wood paneling and gold accents giving the place a sense of real warmth she rather liked. Soft lighting pooled over the carpet and shelves full of books, while flowering plants in pots and glass stands could be seen tucked into the corners. The windows reached from floor to ceiling, giving her a clear look at the Lobby and the panorama of space at the far side.

Despite reminding herself not to snoop, she made a detour by his desk. A few sculptures, a potted tree, abstract paintings on the wall, and a portrait of what she could only assume was the Yu family – an old man, an old woman, Alex, and Morgan. None of them looked particularly happy, with Morgan looking perhaps the dourest of all.

“Big happy family, huh?” She shook her head and moved to the alcove on the far side of the office to the fabricator and recycler, both of which looked as though they didn’t belong and had simply been shoved wherever. Two workbenches took up the remaining space, covered in odds and ends she didn’t recognize, with a filing cabinet shoved in the corner between the fabricator and an Operator dispenser.

After shutting off the fabricator and disconnecting the power, she popped open the main maintenance panel.

Halfway through her work, the door hissed open, followed by hard footsteps, then the sound of the door closing again. She glanced back to see the office’s owner, just in time to witness him slap a stack of papers onto his desk, before returning her full attention to her task. Nothing was liable to go wrong with her fingers inside the machine, but its sheer complexity and amount of delicate bits meant she had to be careful regardless.

More footsteps, approaching swiftly, and the sudden feeling of someone right at her back. Anxious at what she might find, she looked over her shoulder, then up at Morgan’s face, glowering down at her.

“Who are you?” he demanded. “Were you assigned here by someone?”

“Yes, sir.” The words came out a little unsteady, and she suddenly felt very, very small – not a common sensation for her at all, and not one she liked. “Need about another hour.”

He scowled down at her, eyes blazing; she looked away, wanting nothing more than to avoid his gaze, and continued her work. After a moment, she heard his footsteps recede and the sound of him settling into the chair at his desk, followed by the tapping of keys and a bit of mumbling.

Her first real impression of Morgan having soured what opinion she had of him, she buried herself in her work until her hands were too sore to move. A few minutes of rest solved that problem, and she finally sealed up the fabricator and powered it back on an hour and a half later. Morgan was still at his desk, and only glanced at her as she quietly slipped out, closing the door behind her. Jason had gone from his desk again.

Two days later, she received another maintenance request for his office, this time for an appliance. When she arrived, it was to find a tiny fridge stuffed in the remaining space near the recycler. It wasn’t working from the moment it had been plugged in, so she fiddled around with it until she found the issue – a broken power connector, which she replaced from her stock – and lingered long enough to confirm it was indeed beginning to cool down.

Mentally going over the remaining items on her schedule, she gathered her tools again and stood.

“Excuse me.”

Startled, she pivoted on her heel to face the source of the voice. Somehow, Morgan had gotten into the office without letting on, and now sat at his desk.

“I’m aware someone was assigned to stock my office, but Jason failed to tell me who you were.” He had a firm, polite, direct manner of speech that felt as cold as the station’s hull, and just as unreadable, a startling change from just two days prior. “Can you tell me your name, miss?”

Aislinn studied him for a long moment. His face was totally expressionless, dark eyes gazing at her from under thick brows and a sweep of nearly black hair. From behind that desk, he looked unimpressive, but the blood-red executive uniform didn’t allow her to think of him as anything less than what he was. He had wide shoulders and a sleek build, though she knew the uniform’s bulk hid what he really looked liked.

“Yes, sir.” Her nerves failed her, so she stayed rooted to the spot. “Aislinn Kelly, maintenance crew. Ah...” She probably needed to be less rude, but she couldn’t make herself function correctly. It was one thing to see the Vice President out of the corner of her eye, and quite another to stand this close to him. “...did you say somethin’ about ‘assigned’?”

“Things regularly break in here.” The verbal shrug was obvious. “It’s usually minor, but I don’t always have time to fix it. I have maintenance assign someone to my office.” He rested his elbows on the desk and folded his hands. “Which means, we’ll cross paths, frequently.”

“Yes, sir.” She couldn’t think of what else to say.

One eyebrow quirked. “‘Sir’ seems a little formal. Just call me Morgan, please.”

Again, she blanked. It seemed disrespectful to call him by his first name.

It must have shown on her face, because the eyebrow went down again. “You wouldn’t be the only one. Most people I work with regularly do it. I might be the VP, but I’m still stuck on this station with all of you.” A faint smile touched his lips. “And maintenance is important, and you’ll be here often enough that we shouldn’t pretend we don’t know each other. Sometimes, it’s good to fill the silence.”

“You mean... while I work, sir? Morgan.”

“I do mean that, Aislinn. I’m sorry in advance if I ever seem short, or I don’t want to talk, but never be afraid to say anything at all. I’m head of the station’s research division so...” He tipped his head. “...let’s just say I got a lot on my plate, and I’m part of every major email group. I get busy easy.”

“So, you’d like a distraction?”

“Once in a while, sure. Besides, you’re going to tell me you like the silent monotony of working a wrench?”

That made her smile a little. “Only sometimes.”

“Then it’s settled. Now, I have to get back to work, but thanks for fixing the fridge. You’ll get some additional training on the other machines, like the recycler – they’re complicated, but everywhere, and break because they get used so much. Or, they might just need a little spit-shine now and then, if you know what I mean.”

She nodded. “Guessin’ that’ll be part of my required training, then, or I guess I can ask my boss.”

“One or the other.” He straightened. “Ireland?”

It took a second to switch mental gears. “Yeah, that’s where I’m from. Used to work on repairing robots and industrial equipment, so I guess comin’ here was a natural fit.”

“Robotics? An engineering background?”

“Uh... nothin’ special, really, just enough to get by. I got a basic degree and some certs, enough to get my foot in the door. Then I just kind of...” She shrugged one shoulder. “...threw myself in and learned what I could.”

“Often the best way.” He turned back to his terminal. “Thanks, Aislinn.”

“Sure.” Not knowing what else to say or do, she gathered her tools and left the office. Jason gave her a quick smile as she passed, but nothing more was said, and she returned to her rounds.

 

-

 

Nearly a week later, Aislinn returned to Morgan’s office, fresh training in mind, to unblock his recycler. Jason was there, but Morgan was absent, so she worked without being disturbed, headphones on tight. Disconnecting the power was the worst part, having to trace the cable, then decouple the multi-part connector and drain the capacitors. Only then was it safe to work on, and even still, she kept a wide berth from anything with a warning label on it. Somehow, several pieces of junk had gotten gummed up inside the vacuum seal, what remained of what he had cleared away before he’d had to leave it alone again, and she scooped it out with unhurried hands and lots of quiet grumbling.

Two days later, there was a request to replace the keyboard, since he had somehow gotten it doused in coffee. She did her duty and handed the keyboard to sanitation to be thoroughly cleaned and returned to circulation.

For nearly two weeks, every two or three days, she had another reason to return. The pattern repeated, but the circumstances did not. A poor mood and severe expression greeted her one day, so she ducked into her work and kept herself busy by focusing on her hands, while another day, he was quiet, but willing to talk, even outright ignoring his terminal. Even as she did her job, he engaged in small talk with her, leaving not a second of silence between them.

Without meaning to, she starting peeling back the layers.

He told her offhand about a blend of tea and coffee he favored, which he had kept meaning to order, but simply forgot. He told her about Alex breaking his arm in a blind fury, then moping about and helping while it set. She found out that he liked the tiny pink flowers a groundskeeper sometimes left on his desk – a mess of clippings, tucked prettily into a jar, which he didn’t seem to mind. He told her about ostrich meat, far too expensive to ship to the station, and how he longed for even a shred of the stuff, a concoction he missed from his time on Earth.

Then other factoids crept in. How he always wanted to play the piano. A little about Mikhaila, though nothing about their relationship. Each time he spoke, he filled the silence with a steady, smooth tone – pleasant to listen to, making her feel far more at ease even as she felt awed and humbled by his presence. Small talk humanized him, grounded him in her reality, even as the vibrant red of the uniform never faded from her notice.

Yet he never told her anything substantial. All of it was “small talk” that gave her snippets, but said nothing. Behind the shroud he presented, she sensed a sort of cool detachment and aloofness. Morgan Yu was the Vice President of TranStar, one of the most powerful corporations in the world, and he behaved like it.

And he never allowed her to forget. Whether in his measured tone or how frequently he fell silent to attend to his terminal, it was impossible to forget.

Morgan Yu told her only what he wanted her to know, and nothing more.

Then the day came when she found him standing at the office window, staring down at the lobby in silence with his arms folded. “Aislinn, good. I’m glad you’re here on time,” he said, facing her. “Since you come here so often, you should know what’s going to happen, and what’s been happening, so you’re not surprised.”

She adjusted her toolbelt. “Surprised? What’s ailin’ you?”

“I’ve been undergoing some... tests.” He shifted his weight. “Tomorrow, my memory will be wiped, and a new round of tests will begin. That day we met? I’d just undergone the first trial.”

It took a moment for her to realize what he was saying. “Uh... can... can I ask what sort of testing?”

He looked at her a long moment, and nodded, before turning back to the window. “Shouldn’t hurt. Jason, Alex, and a select few already do – those who interact with me daily, those who need to know. I’m assuming you’ve heard about neuromods? Well, those.”

Aislinn had to stare at him a bit. Removing neuromods would remove his memories? She had heard of such a thing, but never gotten specifics. Did it remove all of his memories, or just up to a certain point? Her family had never been able to afford neuromod treatments – what info she did have was completely secondhand. The pamphlet regarding employee perks had talked at length about neuromods, and she vaguely recalled something about “memory disturbance”, but it hadn’t given many specifics. Being a generic pamphlet, maybe they weren't about to.

“That means, the next time you come here, I won’t know who you are.”

“Do you...” She frowned. “...lose everything?”

“No, only back to the point the neuromods were installed. But because I met you after I began the first trial, I won’t remember you. It will be as though all that time... all this time never happened.”

Slowly, she nodded, still trying to absorb it. “Aye, then.”

“You know enough that you could convince me you knew me.”

His expression was as unreadable as ever, even when she looked hard at him. “Did you get anything from the testing so far, though?” she said as she moved to begin her duties.

His expression crinkled slightly. “I’m better at math than I’ve ever been. It feels like a second language at times. I also got a little stronger.” Flexing his fingers drew her attention, but she couldn’t see anything through the layers of protective fabric and seals. “Next time, I’m hoping for something more useful. Just don’t know what yet.”

“Maths isn’t useful?” she said as she tucked away the coffees.

“Oh, it’s plenty useful, but not anything I couldn’t learn on my own,” he told her. “It’s all totally random. Next time, I might have learned how to be a master gambler, or... play the piano.” He lowered his arms. “Tomorrow, we resume testing, and I expect you’ll still be coming in.”

“Unless you swap me out for someone else, right?”

His arms fell from their folded position as he half-smiled faintly. “You do a great job, and you got good marks. You won’t be going anywhere anytime soon, don’t worry. Besides, you’ll be a constant – just the thing I need for these trials. You’ll see what I mean once I begin the next round.”