Science Fiction

Another Generation’s Problems

By Kyle Aisteach
Jul 4, 2019 · 7,054 words · 26 minutes

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From the author: This was always a particular favorite of mine, because I got to combine my love of hard science fiction with my love of old science fiction tropes. An American space station, now controlled by China after a war, is harboring a war criminal, and an idealistic engineer has to choose between doing what is right and doing what is right.

The gravity comes back very gradually in the cavernous elevators that take you from the central docking core of Space Colony Reagan to the spinning habitation ring. You just realize at one point that you’re on the ground and you can stand up again. The elevators are designed to move transports full of people all at once, and I had it all to myself. With one hop I bounded over to the full-length mirrors on the wall, where I fixed my hair and adjusted my tan civil-service uniform. I needed to be composed if anyone would trust me to save the colony.

Americans see me as a very small woman, which compounds the issue that even after fifteen years of America being a Chinese state, they generally resent our assistance.

American-built stations tend to be crowded, having been flooded with refugees well beyond their design capacities in the last days of the war. I hate crowds. Every time I’m in a crowd I still expect an American drone to appear and unleash some horrific new weapon of mass destruction on us. Being surrounded by Americans only makes that phobia worse, even all these years later. Some wounds heal. Others leave very deep scars.

The elevator doors opened before I even realized we’d gotten back up to full gravity.

The governor stood just inside the customs check, throngs of people shuffling through the crowded arrival area behind the security doors. His uniform was standard-issue green, but his breastplate insignia indicated that he was a Japanese national. Japan is one of the states that resisted adopting any of the Chinese dialects, so I bowed in the Japanese formal manner and spoke in American. “I am Wu Xiu, engineer second class, civil-service civilian corps of engineers. I am here to conduct the feasi- bility study for the repair of this space station.”

“Welcome, Miss Wu,” the governor said. He motioned to a tall man standing behind him in a black custodial uniform. “This is Mr. Smith, our senior maintenance engineer. I’ve asked him to show you whatever you need to see.”

I nodded. Assigned to be escorted by the custodial staff. American mores had rubbed off on this governor.

Mr. Smith smiled. He had incredibly dark brown skin that made his eyes and his wiry hair seem impossibly white, but his teeth were a more welcoming shade of beige. “How do you do?” he said. I forced a smile. “If you don’t mind, I would prefer to skip the formalities and get right to work.” Mr. Smith laughed and gestured toward the open elevator door. “In that case, Miss Wu, we’ll be going right back the way you came in.”

The station’s rotational engines were in far worse shape than anyone could have imagined. Only one was operational, and it had been patched together using parts from the other three, two of which were of a different generation. Every time it kicked on to adjust the rate of the outer ring’s rotation, it roared and emitted rank, black smoke. It was an odd, old design, built when it was considered important for the central core to remain stable for docking and undocking. Newer stations were far more efficient, and only needed tiny thrusters to maintain rotation.

I despise working in microgravity. I spend half the time wondering what I’m about to bump into and the other half wondering when I’m going to throw up. Visual inspections are next to impossible as you drift around. “Who did the repair work?” I yelled over the grinding of essential parts inside the one working engine.

“We’ve all done this and that over the years.” Mr. Smith seemed perfectly at home in microgravity, easily spinning himself upside down to point at one of the expansion joints. “That’s the part that has us most worried.”

The metal was fatigued so badly I could see it with bare eyes. “It should have failed already.”

“That’s what we thought, too.” Mr. Smith had a strong voice that naturally carried over the death cries of the machinery. “We’ve been requesting repair and upgrade as long as I’ve been on the station.”

“How long is that?”

“Fifteen years. At least.”

“It is important to your people that you live in this station?” I asked.

Mr. Smith had set me up in a cubicle in the maintenance section, in the lowest level of the habitation ring. The ceilings were low enough that he had to duck under conduits and pipes as he moved around, but I had settled into the dingy space easily. I had plugged my personal data interface into the desk with one of the adaptors I carry in my suitcase, and I had the station’s design specs open on the screen. “What do you mean?” Mr. Smith said without looking up from the mop he was cleaning. “I mean relocation will be a lot cheaper than getting this station up to its original standards.” Beijing had flat-out refused the station’s requests to replace the rotational engines. The company that built them had gone out of business a hundred years ago. Developing new technology to fit into the existing architecture would cost hundreds of trillions of yuan.

“This is our home, Miss Wu.” He stood up and shook out the mop, and then hung it on a rack to dry. “I don’t know about in China, but Americans don’t much like being ordered to leave the places they know and the people they love just because it would be cheaper not to fix a problem.”

I nodded. It had been the answer I had expected. I brought up the design plan I had been working on during the shuttle ride up from Guizhou. “Then this is my proposal. You know the realities of the station better than I do. I would appreciate your input on its feasibility.”

He sidled over to look over my shoulder. The station had a radius of just slightly over two kilometers. To maintain normal gravity, it had to rotate about once every ninety seconds.

“Qingdao Technological University has recently developed rapid- deploying solar sails,” I explained. “My plan is to install four along the outside ring of the station, here, here, here, and here. When the station needs to accelerate to keep gravity normal, the sail that is about to catch the solar wind will deploy, and then furl again as it loses the sunlight. If the station ever needs to decelerate, they could do the same on the other side. The computer control is relatively straightforward, but the station architecture needs to be able to actually support the forces the sails will apply.”

“Well, that’s not gonna be your problem,” Mr. Smith said.

“I haven’t shown you the force diagrams yet.”

“I don’t care how many times you cycle those sails,” he said. “This station was designed for the flex of eighty thousand people walking on it every day. Obviously, we should inspect those spots first, but you can install whatever damn fool contraption you want, wherever you want. But I’m telling you now, we need new engines.”

“A new station would cost less.”

“A new station built to current Chinese standards, and no doubt full of China’s favorite citizens before we even get a chance to enter the lottery for housing over there.” Mr. Smith folded his arms and made a guttural sound. “No, thank you, ma’am. China wanted to own this station. China owns it. China can fix it.”

I turned in my chair to look up at him. I hadn’t noticed before, but he had freckles, which were only barely visible through his skin tone. “And you speak for the entire population of the station now, do you?”

“I’m sure I speak for more than that idiot governor your people sent up here.”

I laughed. There’s an old saying that if you want to hear the truth, ask the children and the servants. “And why, exactly are new engines superior to my plan, then?”

His voice suddenly became quiet and professional. “Because you’re forgetting about orbital mechanics.”

I turned back and stared at my drawing.

“In our orbit, we get about fourteen hours of sunlight for each ten of shade,” he said.

“The variation in rotational speed you’ll experience when the sails won’t work is less than the variation you get between floors right now,” I said. “And the angular momentum is adjusted for by the deployment software.”

“That’s not the problem,” he whispered. “You’re deploying a solar sail. Where are the forces from that going?”

“Here,” I said, pointing at my drawing of one of the deployed sails. “And that accelerates the station to make the artificial gravity.”

“Okay,” he said, burying his face in his hands. “Let me ask this another way. You’re assuming the station rotates around the axis, right?”

“Of course.”

“So what’s keeping that axis where it is?”

Suddenly, I realized what he meant. The solar sails, every time they were deployed, would be pushing the station into an orbit farther and farther from Earth. I hadn’t calculated if that would destabilize the orbit or not.

“So,” he said, taking over my interface and switching it to American, “you put that kind of force on only one side of the station, coupled with the fact that it’s rotating and has a good amount of angular momentum, and you end up with a walking orbit, like this.”

Faster than I could have, he had animated a simulation of the station drifting into an elliptical orbit that careened into other colonies, space stations, and the space elevator.

Gan,” I swore. “That won’t work.”

“That’s what I was telling you,” Mr. Smith said.

Engineering mistakes like the one I had made are very obvious when someone points them out, but notoriously difficult to spot on your own. “Where did you study?” I asked Mr. Smith.

“Me? I’ve just been putting this station back together again for a decade and a half.” He moved back to his sink full of mops and began washing out another one. “You pick stuff up.”

I had never heard of a case of someone “picking up” orbital mechanics.

In Guiyang, people of European and African descent are not uncommon, but they stand out. The strangest thing for me when I visit American cities or stations is the sea diversity, the fact that I’m the one who stands out. As I walked the corridors making my way to the upper deck, conversations stopped as I passed. People either turned to stare or deliberately looked away. Even the least informed knew there was a government engineer on board, and I didn’t look like the other Asian- descended people here. I looked Chinese. And Americans don’t like the Chinese.

Fortunately, I didn’t much like Americans, either. Any nation that would do what it did to my family and claim it was fighting a “clean” war was barbaric to its core. But I was here to help them, and that is exactly what I was going to do. Not because I liked them, but because it was my job, and my duty, and in China we take those things seriously. And, after all, they were all Chinese citizens now, too.

But I resent when people withhold information from me.

The top deck is all agricultural. The gravity is actually noticeably lighter there, and enormous windows crisscrossed with titanium beams cover the entire area. Sunlight slanted in from around the limb of Earth, constantly changing angle as the station spun around its axis. They’ve planted fruit trees in neat rows, with hedges and ground produce between them and along the footpaths. The biological services office sat in what gave the impression of a standalone building tucked under a canopy of apricots. I ducked inside before the sight of Earth whipping overhead one more time made me dizzy.

A blonde woman in a teal sciences uniform looked at me suspiciously. I tapped my ID badge to signal identity confirmation to her and introduced myself. “What can I do for you?” she asked flatly.

I pulled a sample envelope out of my pocket in which I had secured a few strands of Mr. Smith’s wiry hair, collected off a chair he had used during his lunch break. “I need a DNA profile on this.”

“How soon?” the biologist asked.

The entire room shook. My feet went out from under me. Several more scientists emerged from the back and looked at each other, confused, as I stood back up.

Dread came over me as I realized what must have happened. I ran back out the door and looked up through the trees.

On the central axis of the station, rotator engine parts spilled out into space. A hole, its edges ragged, gaped at me from just above the one-hundred-meter-wide rotator joint. And the ground still shuddered.

“I think we might be in trouble,” I said.

The scientists said nothing.

The governor summoned me to his office as if he were in charge.

Since I needed to speak to him anyway, I decided to go. The man still had never bothered to introduce himself.

His secretary was a young man who appeared to be of Native American ancestry. He looked up as I marched into the office. “I can announce myself,” I said as I blew past the desk and into the governor’s office.

The governor smiled politely and stood up. I bowed. “Governor-san.” “Miss Wu,” he said. “I hope you’re aware of what happened.”

“Frankly,” I said, “I’d be more up to speed if I was up there doing an inspection instead of here holding the local government’s hand.”

He smiled and bowed slightly. “Ah, but see, we have been requesting repairs to prevent exactly this accident since the end of the war.”

I bowed again, too. “Ah, yes, but the deferred maintenance clearly predates China assuming responsibility for the citizens here. We do our best when we inherit other people’s problems but cannot always work miracles.”

My personal data interface buzzed at me. It was the biologist, sending me a DNA sequence off the hair sample. I forwarded it to our government identification databases, not really listening to the governor’s polite accusations that Beijing was planning to let the Americans living on Space Colony Reagan suffocate in the vacuum of outer space.

I smiled politely and bowed again. “Governor-san, you have my personal assurances that if the station ceases to be habitable, we will evacuate each and every former American before I leave the station myself. Now, I will be needing your full cooperation if we are to determine how long momentum will maintain an acceptable gravity in the station.”

“My maintenance engineers are already working on that.”

“I would have expected no less.” I tried to remember to smile. “But they are not, at present, including me in their communications, and I do not have an environment suit checked out to me on the station.”

He smiled, and bowed, again. “Would you prefer I pull Mr. Smith off the survey to check out an environment suit to you?”

I repeated the smile-bow routine. Just as I opened my mouth to speak, my personal data interface came to life with a priority alert.

My blood ran cold. I completely dropped all pretenses. “Actually, it turns out Mr. Smith is a wanted war criminal. I expect him to be in custody by the time I can get down to your police office.”

It’s remarkably challenging to find a private location to have a breakdown on a colony station as crowded as that one is. The crowd jostled and elbowed me until I found my way to a stall in a public restroom off one of the market corridors. And I sat there, trembling, crying, my entire past collapsing around me.

And I could already tell gravity was holding me to the deck less than before.

Mr. Smith’s real name was Conrad Leclerc. He’d been an American engineer. He had been given the Congressional Medal of Freedom for devising one of the cruelest weapons of mass destruction the Americans ever used against us. And at the end of the war, he was one of the people wanted for war crimes who had simply vanished.

To the governor’s credit, when I found the police office, the officer on duty pointed me directly to an interview room, where Conrad Leclerc sat. He looked up at me, still speaking in his faux-affable style. “Care to tell me what I’ve done?”

“One word, Mr. Leclerc. Osteoresonance.”

His whole demeanor changed. His features fell and he sat more erect. His voice again became calm and professional. “You struck me as someone who had put the past behind her. I guess I was wrong.”

I wasn’t familiar enough with this police office to know if our conversation was being recorded. I grabbed the metal chair across the table from him and sat down. “I grew up in Guizhou Province, Mr. Leclerc.”

“I’m very sorry to hear that,” he said, “but right now there’s a very real emergency going on, and you and I should be out doing everything we can to stop it.”

“You have no remorse!” I barked.

“It was war, Miss Wu!”

“That weapon was horrific!” I went off balance, and realized I had sprung to my feet instinctively but had not compensated correctly for the lighter gravity. “My parents screamed for twenty minutes while every bone in their body vibrated to dust. They lingered for hours after that. Everyone’s parents did. Children and people who were too old to walk were left helplessly to try to find if there was a doctor still alive anywhere in the province. A land of orphans and the forgotten elderly.”

His jaw clenched and he folded his hands in front of his face. “You’re too young to remember this, but your country erased the line between combatants and civilians. Every able-bodied adult was a soldier. And they had you, the children, around them, as human shields. Thinking we wouldn’t dare attack. We had to find a way to target only adults. We were playing by the rules of war. China wasn’t.”

“They gave you a medal.”

“Yes, they did.” He folded his arms and leaned back in his chair. “I’m an old man, Miss Wu. I did what I had to do for my country. And if I have to stand trial for that, so be it. But right now, let’s you and I work on getting this colony station spinning again.”

“This station is scrap metal,” I said. “I’ve already called for evacuation transports.”

“Won’t work,” he said.

I glared at him.

“The docking area depressurized in the explosion. Unless you can get a hundred thousand environment suits in here, nobody’s going anywhere.”

I hated the fact that he was right. “Well, since you no longer need to pretend to be ignorant, I’d be curious to hear your suggestion.”

“I want to try your plan.”

I stared, but he didn’t seem to be joking. “My plan?”

“Well, a variation on it. May I have a personal data interface?”

I handed him mine. He signed into the network and pulled up a set of drawings that were clearly modified from mine. “My grandfather used to sail,” he said, “like, wind on the water type of sailing. Old fashioned, recreational. But the principles of how a sailboat sails how a solar sail works are basically the same. He used to be able to sail into the wind. So, if we can articulate your solar sails on one more axis and tip the station thirty degrees, we can catch solar wind in both directions.”

“Equalizing some of the forces,” I said. “It’s not solving the problem — it’s just slowing it down.”

“Ah, but if we also move the station up into a polar orbit, then when we go into the walking orbit, a tug can correct us before we start hitting the rest of the infrastructure.”

“Why didn’t you suggest this before?” I asked.

“When we’re spinning,” he said, “we’re essentially a giant gyroscope. Getting that thirty-degree tilt with us spinning at full speed takes more energy than all the tugs you’ve got in orbit can muster.”

“But the rotation is slowing,” I said. As friction along the rotational joint slowed us down, not only did we have less and less gravity, but we also lost gyroscopic stability. If the tugs could move the station while we were effectively without gravity, it would be as easy as moving any other satellite. “How quickly can your teams do the install?”

He laughed. It was the same laugh, but I now found it creepy instead of affable. “How soon can you get those solar sails up here?”

I grabbed my personal data interface back and transmitted the request. “I’m going to have a team down in Guiyang get to work on the programming. You and I are going to make sure the install goes well.”

“Thank you,” he said, standing up.

“This is not a release, Mr. Leclerc,” I said. “This is an emergency work detail. You are not to leave my sight, even to use the restroom. And if I even think you’re trying to disappear into a crowd of evacuees again, I’m shooting you in the back, is that clear?”

He leaned over and spoke in a low, clear voice. “Perfectly.”

That afternoon I discovered something I hate worse than working in microgravity: working overhead in high gravity.

The government had managed to rush a prototype mounting plate for the solar sails to us, but we had to install it on the outer ring of the colony station. And as the station rotated, the mounting plate wanted to fly off into space. There were nineteen of us working on it, most of us struggling to hold it in place as the same forces strained against our tethers, trying to hurl us off into space, too. To be of any use at all, I’d had to turn myself upside down, planting my feet against the station and tightening my tether enough to hold me there. I held my edge of the plate by pushing against the artificial gravity in a half squat, while one of the welders moved along the ten-meter edges, two others struggling to keep the welder’s tanks from tearing their hoses and falling away as well.

“Tell me again why thrusters won’t work?” Conrad Leclerc grunted.

I really wasn’t in the mood to chat, with all the blood in my body sloshing into my head and my sinuses threatening to explode. “This station has a stable core,” I said through gritted teeth. “No efficient way to pump the fuel.”

“Heads!” someone on the other side shouted, and nine people lost their grips simultaneously. The plate fanned away from the station. The six people on that side shot away from the station until their tethers went taut and caught them. The welding crew secured themselves as the rest of us shimmied along to pull the plate back down, and those closest hauled the deadweight of their fallen teammates back up to within reach of the handholds.

“This isn’t going to work,” Mr. Leclerc said.

“If you are near a place that is already welded, move along to reinforce the other side,” I ordered. The crew complied. Moving for me involved moving one foot at a time, wedging my toes into the handholds, and then bending my legs in a sort of upside-down chin-up to move my tether. By the time I made it around the corner, the fallen crewmembers were secured again properly and alternately lifting or pushing on the plate, depending on whether they had assumed a right-side-up or upside-down posture for the job.

The plate wasn’t settling back against the station properly. I did my reverse chin-up again. I grabbed two handholds with the tips of my fingers so I could look between my feet under the plate. My headlight illuminated several buckled joints where the already-welded end had warped the station itself when it fell. “There is damage underneath,” I reported. “Don’t force it.”

“Do you want us to cut it and reseal it?” the welder asked. That would depend on how bad the damage underneath was.

Before I could ponder further, the entire crew lost hold of the plate in a cascading failure.

The station vibrated under me as the new weld alternately tore and removed hull plates. I reached out and grabbed ineffectually as the mounting plate flung past me. The welding crew tried to dodge, but the plate caught them. Tethers snapped. Three crewmembers and the precious mounting plate flew off into the blackness of space.

The tug that had delivered the plate had made a valiant attempt, but it had only managed to recover the crewmembers — two bodies and a man who would be dead soon. The mounting plate was lost for good, one more piece of space junk. Beijing had ordered a halt to the fabrication of the remaining three mounting plates until we could work out a secure way of installing them.

I ignored another summons from the governor and swung by the armory and checked out a handgun so I could make good on my threat to shoot Conrad Leclerc in the back if need be.

I rejoined the crew on the maintenance deck, where a small group had been patching the torn hull from the inside. Atmosphere had been restored, and I could hear the arcing and smell the tangy flavor of welding before I rounded the bend to where they worked. Six men and one woman were buffing the edges of the repair job, with Leclerc supervising.

“There is no need to make it pretty,” I said.

Several welders shut off, and the team turned to look at me. “Well,” Mr. Leclerc said, “we don’t have much else to be doing.”

“You can give me an accurate report on the state of the docking bay.”

A few of them chuckled.

“It’s completely destroyed,” Mr. Leclerc said. “There’s no way to evacuate anyone through it without space suits.”

“I’m not asking about an evacuation,” I said. “I need a definition of ‘completely destroyed.’”

Leclerc looked at the others before he looked back at me. “Some debris came through the lower bulkhead and hit the shuttle that was parked there. It slammed into the #3 and #4 elevator doors, and its engines fired and took out the docking airlock, which is now open to outer space.”

“So it needs to be completely rebuilt,” I said.

“Yes,” Mr. Leclerc said. “Completely.”

“What else is the central core used for?” I asked. “I mean that in the practical, everyday sense. Not what’s on the drawings and manifests.”

“Zero-g storage,” Mr. Leclerc said.

“And the laboratory?” I asked.

“More storage these days.”

The young woman volunteered, “Sometimes a pickup game of zero-g squash.”

I nodded. “In that case, I want the six of you”— I indicated everyone but Mr. Leclerc — “to get in there are disconnect the gyroscopes that hold that section still.

They didn’t move, but instead just looked at one another.

“Do it,” Mr. Leclerc said. “It’ll reduce the amount of friction slowing the colony down.”

Then they moved. I would have to have a word with the governor about discipline in his ranks. A moment later I was again alone with Conrad Leclerc.

“Are you thinking this is a permanent solution?” he asked.

“That depends,” I said. “Do you think the residents of this station would die of shame if Chinese-built shuttles served it instead of the antiques you’ve been using?”

“You want us to lock off the rotator joint permanently.”

Just then, the governor appeared, flanked by two body guards. I smiled and bowed. “Governor-san.”

“There is no need for pretense, Miss Wu,” he said, smiling artificially. “I sent for you. You did not respond.”

“I was busy,” I said simply.

“I want to know what the hell is going on!” the governor snapped. And then he smiled again. Yes, he had been thoroughly Americanized.

“I’m looking into implementing your Mr. Smith-Leclerc’s latest plan,” I said.

“My plan?” Mr. Leclerc said.

“Yes,” I said. “You were the one who said thrusters would be simpler to install. Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like you to start drawing up the plans for where to mount the fuel tanks and to map out the best routes for the feed lines.”

Conrad Leclerc laughed that irritating laugh of his again. “Yes, ma’am,” he said, and headed toward his cubicle.

I turned to glare at the governor.

“I thought he was under arrest,” the governor said.

“I judge people’s value by what they contribute to the greater good, Governor-san,” I said pointedly, and turned to follow Conrad Leclerc.

“Don’t walk away from me, Miss Wu!” the governor shouted, and, as an afterthought, called, “Please!”

I ignored him, and I ignored his next several attempts to formally order me to his office.

I knew they had gotten the rotator joint locked off because a shudder went through the station and I grew lighter again.

Conrad Leclerc and I were surveying places to drop the fuel line for the new thrusters on the top deck. I looked up through the arched windows overhead and confirmed that the center section of the station was now rotating along with the outer ring.

The chief arborist stepped up beside us as we stared upward. He was a wrinkled man, probably of Eastern European descent. “Wow,” he said. “It just looks wrong.”

“How long will the crops survive if we lose gravity?” I asked.

“It depends on the plant,” he said. “If we can find a way to infuse water around the roots, some plants do fine in low-g. These trees, however...”

I looked at those trees. The set we were standing under had blossoms just peaking, and root systems that I knew must run down several meters. In a few weeks they would be alive with fruit to feed the colonists, unless we did something to kill them.

“The polar orbit idea would’ve done a number on them, anyway,” Mr. Leclerc said.

“If your plan works,” I said, “there’s no need to shift the orbit.”

“To that end,” Mr. Leclerc said, “is there any reason we need to run the fuel line internally at this point?” He pointed to the nearest elevator shaft connecting the outer ring to the central core. “Run the line externally along the shaft, follow the contour of the mullions, down the side of the ring, and don’t breach the hull until we get down to the maintenance level, where we set up the arch over to the thruster. Maintains a good downhill flow the whole way, and it’s a much quicker install.”

I thought about it. “Eventually, we’d need to install some sort of space-debris cover or your crews will be out there patching holes weekly.”

“My crews are pretty good working outside,” Conrad Leclerc said. “So that can be another generation’s problem.”

“I think that is an acceptable engineering compromise,” I said.

My personal data interface bleeped with an alert. “Gai si! ” I swore.

“Problem?” Mr. Leclerc asked.

“What is the name of your brain-wasted governor?” I demanded.

“Kenta Ine,” Mr. Leclerc responded.

Typical of his Americanization, the family name was in the second position. “Mr. Ine,” I explained, “just put out an order for my arrest.”

Conrad Leclerc’s laughter can only be described as hearty.

The most dangerous part of the installation was going to be installing the new fuel tank in the old rotator engine room. The destroyed engines were going to have to be cut free and jettisoned through the damaged docking area, the new tank then maneuvered carefully in, secured in place, and then connected to the four feed lines. Conrad Leclerc didn’t want anyone taking that risk but himself, so it would be the two of us doing the work. I hadn’t done brute-force construction since I graduated from university.

We were just completing our inspection walk three-quarters of the way around the engineering decks, making sure the thrusters had been correctly installed through the floors, when the governor appeared, flanked by fifteen police officers.

“Miss Wu,” he said, “you’ve ignored at least a dozen summons, and I’ve now got a credible report that you’re armed and dangerous.”

Conrad Leclerc stepped aside. “Don’t you get out of my sight,” I said.

The officers blocked the way forward, but if I could move backwards before they could react, I might be able to take cover behind the cubicles. The gravity, even down in the bowels of the station, was only about two-thirds Earth’s, so I’d be awkward if I tried it, and I couldn’t count on the officers to be as poorly trained as I liked to think they were.

“I am the representative of the government here,” I said. “Please step aside and let us get back to work.”

“Miss Wu,” the governor said, “I’m placing you under arrest.”

“Anyone who attempts to detain me is guilty of treason,” I said matter-of-factly. “Now step aside.”

Several of the officers looked around nervously, but none moved. Typical Americans, only loyal when it came time to behave stupidly.

“Mr. Smith,” the governor said, “come over here.”

“Stay where you are, Mr. Leclerc,” I said.

“Mr. Smith,” the governor said again.

Conrad Leclerc began to move. I drew my gun and leveled it as his torso. The police officers all also drew their weapons.

“Chicken, I believe you call this?” I said. “The penalty for killing a government official is death.”

I could make out beads of sweat on the foreheads of a couple of the police officers. They probably wouldn’t fire. But I couldn’t count on them all not to fire. It only took one.

“The Supreme People’s Court will not care which of you fired and which of you did not,” I said. “You will all be executed. Now lay down your weapons.”

“Mr. Smith, come here,” the governor said.

We all stood, not moving, for a long time. I kept my gun pointed at Conrad Leclerc. The police kept their guns pointed at me.

Finally, Conrad Leclerc turned and took two steps toward me. “Now, young lady, I want you to listen to me very carefully,” he said quietly.

I shifted the gun into firing mode with my thumb.

“There’s effectively no way for me to get off this station without a massive conspiracy to pluck me out of it in a space suit,” Conrad Leclerc said.

“It took a massive conspiracy once before,” I said. The first time he had escaped justice. So many people had to provide him with false documents, to look the other way as he moved through checkpoints, to keep quiet about the man who knew more than a custodian should know.

“Now, you’re a big believer in putting the needs of the community before the needs of the individual,” Conrad Leclerc said. “I’m going to ask you to walk the walk now. You’ve drawn up a good plan. I know how to follow it. You go cool your heels in the police office for a while and let me finish saving the colony for you.”

I stared at him. The man who killed my parents. The man who killed so many parents. How many children were there like me, orphaned so brutally by this one man?

“You are going to stand trial,” I said.

“You have my word,” he said. “I’m not going anywhere.”

The word of a mass murderer counts for very little. The guns of fifteen police officers count for a lot more.

And, unfortunately, Conrad Leclerc was probably the only other person on the station with the knowledge and training to execute the more difficult aspects of my plan. If Beijing had known someone of his background was on the station, they probably wouldn’t have dispatched me at all. Americans would have trusted an American more, anyway.

And those Americans now stood here with guns pointed at me, as they had so many times during the war. It would serve them right if I killed Conrad Leclerc and made them kill me. The station would either spin down until it couldn’t support life any more, or they’d blow it up trying to get the thrusters working.

“My life doesn’t matter,” I said.

“No,” Conrad Leclerc said, “but this is a Chinese station now.”

How had he read me so perfectly? He wasn’t just a war criminal. He was some sort of sorcerer, too.

“Now let me have the gun,” Conrad Leclerc said.

My instincts told me to shoot. My emotions told me to shoot. But my discipline insisted that he was right.

I handed my gun to the man who had killed my parents.

The police swooped in immediately to place me in restraints. “Remember that the feed lines use Chinese tolerances,” I called to Conrad Leclerc as he led me away. “Don’t overtighten them.”

“I’ve been at this since before you were born,” he responded as the police led me away.

I sat in the holding cell as my body weight came back unceremoniously.

An hour later, Conrad Leclerc arrived at my cell door, looking exhausted. He stood behind the observation glass and clicked on the intercom. “We did it,” he said.

“I figured, based on the gravity,” I said. “Well done. Were there any complications?”

“The tug delivering the tank had a hard time matching the station’s rotation. I hope your shuttle pilots are as good at those spinning dockings as you say they are.”

“They’re not usually lowering a tank full of volatiles below themselves on their way in,” I said.

He laughed, and somehow it didn’t seem false this time. “I know Governor Ine won’t say this, but thank you. For the first time since the war, this colony is on the mend. I really appreciate you taking all this so seriously.”

“I was only doing my job.”

“You went above and beyond, or you wouldn’t be sitting in there right now.”

I looked around the cell. I wouldn’t be here for long. And if the governor didn’t pull off some very fancy talk when the military arrived to get me out, he would be taking my place as soon as they did. “Well, thank you for reporting. You were under no obligation to do so.”

“Well, I figured since I had to come down here anyway, it wasn’t a big deal,” he said.

“Why did you have to come down here anyway?”

“I wanted to get some sleep,” he said, “and I’m currently living in the next cell. I’m under arrest pending transport back to Earth to stand trial for war crimes, remember?”

I’m sure I looked flabbergasted. “The governor is standing by those orders?”

“No,” he said. “I am.”

I stood up and walked over to the window in the door. “Thank you,” I said.

“Now don’t get me wrong. I plan to mount a vigorous defense, and if there’s any justice in China, I’m going to be acquitted.”

I smiled slightly. There was no chance he would be acquitted. Too many of us remembered.

I touched the glass, and he touched it too.

I knew General Wong had arrived. Police officers scurried past my cell looking terrified. The officer who came to release me visibly trembled as she unlocked the door. I composed myself in the mirror, and then marched out of the cell.

General Wong stood flanked by a team of soldiers in boarding-party gear in the main reception area of the police office. I stepped into the room and saluted.

The general saluted back. “Miss Wu, I trust you are unharmed?” he said in American. Always considering the effect of his words on those around him, General Wong was.

“Inconvenienced is all, General,” I said. “Though I was arrested only under threat of deadly force.”

One of the police officers in the room had been present when I was arrested, and he visibly shrank behind the reception desk. General Wong was intimidating even when he wasn’t furious, and I imagine these officers had already felt his wrath once.

“The governor has been relieved of responsibilities, and we’re landing a replacement in the next hour,” General Wong said. “I’m very interested in this war criminal you’ve tracked down.”

“Conrad Leclerc?” I said.

“Yes, of course!” General Wong bellowed. Even his own soldiers sidled to give him more room.

I trembled.

“I’m not sure it’s correct to say I tracked him down,” I said. “I merely determined that this is where he most likely died.”

A few of the police officers glanced at me nervously.

“What?” General Wong roared.

“I worked with an ex-lover of his. She still had some hair samples. I confirmed the identity. Beijing must have misunderstood the nature of the request.”

The desk officer’s knuckles turned white, and I knew exactly how he felt.

General Wong bellowed and cursed in Cantonese.

I stood formally, waiting to be addressed again.

“All right. Come on,” he finally ordered.

His soldiers pivoted and marched out in front of and behind him. I fell in at the back of the line, motioning for the police officers to keep quiet. “Oh, and General Wong,” I said, “the new governor could do a lot worse than to appoint Mr. Smith from maintenance engineering as liaison to the operations staff. I found him to be extremely knowledgeable and capable. Probably more so than even myself.”

“Noted,” General Wong barked back without turning around. I glanced back at the police officers, grinning at the baffled expressions I saw.

The crowds parted as we marched toward where the ship had breached the hull. The faces of former Americans stared at me with a mix of curiosity and hostility. But they were faces I would never see again, a crowd that need never acknowledge the debt they owed to China. If any crowd was going to swallow up the man who had killed my parents, this was as good a crowd as any.

Let someone else deal with the next set of problems. I just wanted to go home.


This story originally appeared in Emerald Sky.

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Little Dystopias

Includes: "Another Generation's Problems," "Clockman," "Eternal Love," "Eternity Undone," "A Fairy Tale," "Final Voices," "The Folklorist's Notebook," "Man of Water," "Nobody Watches," "Nobody’s Ancestor," "Pressure and the Argument Tree," "Promised," "The Survivors' Menagerie," "Too Close for Comfort," "Unforgivable," "Ward and Protector," and "The Wrong Dog." "Highly recommended." -- Howard V. Hendrix “[A] writer to watch.” -- Robin Wayne Bailey

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Kyle Aisteach

Kyle writes science fiction and fantasy and is mouthy about QUILTBAG issues.