Chapter 2

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One year previously

Stellar date (Earth Time): 10-02-2913

I arrived on Station Veta Three still groggy from cold sleep to an oh-so-grand welcome party of three, averaging seventy in age, not that they looked it. The lone woman pulled a party popper, shooting a little puff of paper confetti and glitter (they still made those?), while the two men held up a banner that spelled 'welcome!' in bright sky blue.

"It's our new face!"

"Look at how fresh a face that is! Not a speck of white on that brown head!"

"Welcome to Veta 3." 

I would have smiled if I weren't completely disillusioned and starving to boot. Cryonic sleep does that, not that I'd ever experienced it before now. I could just remember getting into the pod and swallowing my grossed-out squeal as the cold jelly squeezed in around me. Now I was, technically, twenty years into the future of Earth in the space boonies, where I'd probably be till I died.

Yeah. Totally worth the party. I'm not vacuuming that confetti.

Thankfully, the three hadn't forgotten what it had been like for them when they first got here and quickly herded me towards the canteen, which had been built to house two hundred and forty, but now only housed three, now four, with my arrival. A maintenance robot vacuumed quietly in a corner, plated in the same white and chrome as the walls and floor tiles.

"Does all this white ever hurt your eyes?" I asked.

The woman, and one of the men I knew to be her husband, laughed too hard at that. The third, the one who'd just welcomed me to Veta three with the excitement of one getting a colonoscopy, sighed. Perhaps being on a station for twenty years with the same two people made everything a new person said hit harder, though I hadn't been trying to be funny.

"We hardly ever eat in here," said the woman, her hair as white as our surroundings despite her face only being a little wrinkled. "It was just closest to the dock you were arriving in and we wanted to keep the food as close as possible."

Their consideration warmed me. "Thank you."

"Oh, hush. It's only natural," she said. "More likely than not you haven't had the best of lives before getting into that pod. A little warmth goes a long way out here."

"Yeah, you'll find we don't beat around the bush," said her jolly husband, who was by far the largest of the lot, with broad shoulders and an equally broad chin. "No point in being otherwise when it's just us. Oh! Names! We forgot names."

"I hardly even hear my name anymore," said the quieter man, as lanky as the other was broad, though that was more normal for those who worked in space.

"Yeah, what's my name again?" asked the big man to his wife. She huffed and slapped him lightly on the shoulder.

"Don't be obnoxious, or I'll divorce you."

Both men rolled their eyes.

"It's a common joke around here," the big man told me, though I hadn't asked and, frankly, was only partially listening since I had food to consume. "Even if we got a divorce it'd take a year for the paperwork to reach Earth. And it isn't like we have anything else to do on this ship but—"

Rehydrated potatoes smacked across his face.

"Hush. No one wants to talk about old people sex."

"You just did!"

Eventually, they stopped trying to entertain me and introduced themselves, even though I'd read through their files multiple times. The woman and large man were Naomi and Joshua Friedman, a Jewish couple from northern Germany when there had still been a Germany. Both had been classified as hopelessly barren when she had to get her uterus removed in an unfortunate accident, and since space work was easiest on those who couldn't have children or didn't need to raise some, they both applied for the high-paying fringe work. He was a botanist specializing in alien biology that never really got anywhere or made any good discoveries, while she was trained as a general medical practitioner and nutritionist. While she could have gone places, as the space force was always in desperate need of medical personnel, she'd chosen instead to leave with her husband to a little explored part of space that had been abandoned once it was verified to lack any mining capabilities. Someone had to fund coming all the way out here, and if there was no money in it what was the point? Never mind the fact that the planet the space station circled still had life, albeit no intelligent life.

Not that anyone really believed in aliens anymore.

The third, the skinnier man with an old fashion undercut and trace amounts of black still striking through his gray hair, was Levi Blau, Naomi's younger brother. Unlike the other two, he had the more common background of those sent out to little-used space stations like this one: criminals. He'd burned all his bridges on Earth through smuggling, illegal drug dealing, burglary, human trafficking, lots of assault, and manslaughter. In prison, they had a training program to maintain space stations and relay messages and the like for those who had nothing left to lose by spending unknown decades alone on little-used space stations. When I read this on his file, I suspected that Naomi and her husband had opted to come out here to keep him company, because, even as little known as he was, a botanist specializing in alien plantlife biology still had plenty of job opportunities.

Which was sweet if it was true. Having to maintain a space station all by yourself for years on end, even with the company of A.I. androids, sounded like hell. Despite mankind's aspirations for A.I. being akin to human consciousness made of wires, that line had never been crossed. Modern A.I. could answer questions, hold basic conversations, and make observations, but the certain something that fed personality and creativity had yet to be found.

The few times I looked up from my food to glance at Levi, remembering these fuzzy-warm theories of mine, I ended up quickly looking back down as his hard, black gaze seemed to be expecting these very same thoughts. He'd looked younger in his picture, but still as striking. Those dark eyes, even framed with lashes paled by age, seemed to fit the criminal profile to a tee. He didn't speak much, other than the short comment here and there that sounded dry at best. Noami and Joshua, on the other hand, kept on chattering and laughing at any word I thought to say, a sharp contrast to their quiet companion.

It wasn't till I'd finished off my food and the couple had gone ahead to lead the way to my bunk that Levi said anything close to personable, even putting a hand on my shoulder.

"You'll do just fine."

Not that there was any point even if I did.

_____________________

Katy Perry's E.T. will not stop playing in my head. I don't even really like Katy Perry's music. I'm more of a classical, Nickle Creek and the occasional 2000's rock sort of person. Does anyone know if AI is spelt with the periods or not? I think it is the periods, since it's an acronym for Artificial Intelligence. 

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