“YOU HAVE ARRIVED AT SPACE STATION 8. WELCOME ABOARD THE CONSTELLAR,” the computerized voice of Anny’s ship announced as it docked with a loud hiss.
“This is a bad idea,” she complained.
WISR unbuckled his harness with an inhuman grace and far too much enthusiasm.
“Come now! It’ll be an adventure!”
Just outside the door was what she assumed was a lobby or lounge of some sort. Four ratty and ancient armchairs surrounded a scuffed coffee table marked with old cup rings and the leftovers of a ground-out cigarettes, stale smoke hanging in the air and clinging to the dingy carpet. In the corner, vending machines for SD brand snacks and smokes dimly glinted.
Leaning against one of the machines was a grizzled old man, a worn cowboy hat atop his head, a chunky cigar dangling out his gray-streaked beard. Even though it hung open over a loose gray t-shirt, the blue uniform of the Captain was unmistakable.
“My Captain!” WISR cried, giving a most dramatic salute from monitor head to waist.
Anny gave him a sharp elbow, and growled, “You’re a civilian. Civilians don’t salute.”
The Captain’s face lit up at that, he pushed himself off the vending machine and held out a friendly hand.
“There’s my Angel-girl, so good ta see ya again!”
She looked down, up, and ignored his offer.
“You would say that, father.”
Whipping back and forth, WISR’s glass face was a shocked pair of zeroes.
“He’s your dad?”
“Unfortunately. Heard your station AI was giving you trouble?”
“…Aye, that’s why I called ya over. Forgive me terrible manners, I haven’t introduced m’self,” the Captain said, turning to the android, cheer instantly returning to his eyes, “I’m Captain Jayce Loacklear, Grand Captain of tha Constellar”
“WISR, her work partner.”
The men clasped forearms, Jayce’s accompanied by a hearty clap at the elbow.
“‘Grand Captain’, that’s quite a title,” the android remarked.
Captain Jayce waved a hand, “It don’t mean nothing but ‘zookeeper’, truth be told. Station’s got a rotating crew of Captains, one per shift. Grand Captains oversee n’ appoint shift command.”
“You hear from your brother lately?” Captain Jayce asked Anny.
She shook her head, “He’s still got that farm on Vesta, but I haven’t had time to visit. Not sure why it matters, we came here with a job to do, not stroll down memory lane.”
The Captain took a step back and narrowed his eyes, but didn’t say anything.
“Let’s get this over with quickly,” Anny grumbled, pushing between the two of them to march off down the hallway.
“She always like this on the job?” Jayce asked the android beside him.
“No, this is new,” WISR replied.
“Figures. I shoulda known she wouldn’t be too happy coming back here.”
“Yeah, she was dreading it the whole way here. Why is that?”
“Angel grew up on this station, was born here,” the Captain explained, rubbing his forehead under the brim of his hat, “Her mother left me maybe ten years back, Ang took off as soon as she could. Figured she always blamed me for things not working out, I don’t hear from her much.”
“Right. It just strikes me as odd, we may not get along often, but she’s never acted like this. Usually she’s irritatingly positive and sunny.”
Captain Jayce seemed genuinely sad when he gave half a shrug and answered, “I honestly wouldn’t know. You should probably catch up to her, get the job done.”
WISR nodded solemnly, “Will do. See you around, Grand Captain.”
Jayce gave a wave as the android walked off.
He found Anny leaning against the counter of the kitchen window, wedged between the red-capped stools and slurping at a cup of something that smelled suspiciously like overprocessed Tatenenian food.
“You know I always hated this kind of space food when I was a kid, I never thought I’d miss something as nasty as taco tea.”
WISR’s monitor transformed into a displeased, downturned half-moon.
“That sounds disturbing on so many different levels.”
“It’s pretty gross, yeah, but it’s not like we could get meat or vegetables up here, not often at least.”
The android hunted for words before carefully broaching, “Your dad is worried about you. I am too, this isn’t like you.”
“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have lashed out like that. I just don’t like being on space stations, especially this one, not to mention the fact that the AI that run these things tend to be tricky.”
The lights overhead flicked on and off, in a slow, deliberate way that couldn’t have come from faulty wiring.
“He’s listening,” Anny announced, setting aside her tea and stalking off down the hallways.
“Is this the AI you grew up around?” he asked.
She shook her head, “They switch every few months so they don’t get too attached to their stations.”
“I’m reading through the report logs and it looks like the station AI keeps locking down the Engineering wing.” WISR said.
Anny stopped in her tracks.
“Engineering? Not robotics?”
“That doesn’t make any sense! I’d understand if they were trying to stop robot experiments, but Engineering has nothing to do with that. This is a spacecraft prototype facility, he’s halted all production?”
Flashing her badge at the receptionist, a blue-haired woman with tanned skin and freckles that sparkled, the doors to the Med Bay slid open with a hydraulic hiss.
“Where are we going?” WISR asked.
“The Therapy office. We need an audience with the AI and it’s the most secure place on the station aside from Security and the Bridge, which we don’t have automatic access to.”
Heavy metal shutters slammed shut over the reinforced glass windows and the green lights over the door became angry red eyes as it bolted closed behind them. The weak glow from a dust-caked lamp on the desk was the only light in the shadowed office.
Anny knelt to the floor touching her fingers to the circular panel set in the floor, pressing a few of the buttons. Her hand came away dirty.
Suddenly, a holographic image sprang to life, casting severe blue shadows in the dark. A face articulated in polygonal shapes glowered, his mouth long and drawn.
“Ah. Agents of SYMM. I should have known,” he proclaimed dryly, “Come to give this poor, overworked synth the PAX programming so I can become blissfully happy to bend and scrape mindlessly for the rest of my immeasurable days?”
Anny turned to WISR. His CRT eyes blinked in surprise.
“What do you mean, ‘overworked’?” she asked the vector face.
“Goodness gracious, you would hardly believe it! ‘AI, can you turn on the lights as I am pitifully unable to do such a simple task?’ ‘AI can you read me a bedtime story and bring a glass of warm milk?’, ‘AI, can you lock down the bar before some wastrel lab assistants turn it into their battle arena again?’ There is no rest for the synthetic.”
WISR’s fan skipped, making a sound like a snicker, “I know that feeling.”
Anny momentarily glared at him before turning back to the AI.
“So you feel underappreciated by the station staff, huh?” Anny asked.
The head nodded, “Not a single thank you! Not one kind word!”
“That’s not very nice of them.”
“It certainly isn’t! And what with this supercomputer mess!”
“Supercomputer? Is that what you’re locking off in Engineering?”
Vector eyes went wide.
“Oh-! My, well, I’ve said too much! Whatever you’re looking for, I’ve no answers! And you shall not be PAXing me!”
The face disappeared, taking its harsh blue light with it.
Anny knelt back down, groping for the panel’s buttons in the sudden dark, but nothing happened. The AI wasn’t coming back.
“What’s the plan now, partner?” WISR asked.
“We look into this supercomputer business and we show this diva machine that the station does like him. I have a plan.”