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Echoes

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A mountain of onyx-hued, oxygen-deprived stone looms on the horizon, cutting a slice out of the system’s blood-red star. Formed by millennia of interactions with the planet’s faint atmosphere, the geologic monstrosity stares in austere indifference at the sprawling station built on the black surface, holding in nitrogen, oxygen, and carbon dioxide for the people inside. At the extreme edge of the station, connected to the primary hub by a long, tunnel-like passage, sits a glass observation dome, ostensibly for tourists to gaze out at the blank majesty of their host planet; a scarred, lifeless expanse of time-tortured black rock.

The inside of the dome looks like the waiting area of an airport. Rows and rows of seats are arranged to gaze outward in three directions at the planet, or the expanse of space beyond it. Dark blue carpet covers the floor, and the circular wall around the dome come up only to about waist-height, and the rest is glass. On either side of the dome’s entrance there are kiosks that offer pamphlets of information on the Orion system and the station, glasses to filter various frequencies to change the appearance of the expanse, and the typical shirts, hats, and pins that somehow become five times more expensive than their intrinsic worth by virtue of having Orion station’s name emblazoned on them. Tourist junk. None of the kiosks are manned presently, however; tourism is sparse and it’s the off-cycle besides.

Only one seat in the dome is occupied. The woman in it turns away from the kiosks and back at the unpleasant, scowling expanse of dead rock.

Shaw is aware that her present mood colors her thoughts of the open vista. Just yesterday, or, at least, yesterday by the chronologic cycle she’s chosen to hold to, she’d found the view entrancing. Now, she finds it and the empty echoing dome aggravating, as if it was a crime committed against her personally. She pulls herself up from her seat, crosses the large empty space and uses her visitor’s pass, carried around her neck, to open the automated door out of the dome. It slides smoothly open, and she steps through into the airlock chamber. The space is large enough to contain about a hundred people, and there are even benches to either side in case there’s a lengthy wait.

This time there isn’t, and the second door opens as soon as the first one shuts. Shaw continues through, out into the blue carpeted, windowed tunnel that will take her back to the station’s hub. She takes a pair of earbuds from a pocket and pops them into her ears as she continues on the very gradual slope of the tunnel. By the time she reaches the other end, she’ll be completely beneath the planet’s surface.

The tunnel echoes as she walks. It’s not the lack of people that bothers her. She’d chosen her sleep schedule specifically to avoid the few tourists and staff that are on site. The issue isn’t a general absence, but a particular one.

Voices emit from her earbuds.

“—and good morning to everyone getting the first glimpse of our sun. Well, your sun. Mine’s a bit yellower. Anyway, while you’re all still rubbing last night’s sleep out of your eyes I’ll give you our forecast for today…”

Though this station is the only one on the planet designed for tourism, there are others spread across its surface that facilitate research and resource mining, and a radio relay was already set in place for communication between stations. They did not, however, have a dedicated radio show, and Root had immediately detected a void she could fill. Annoyingly, her show, in the week they’ve been here, has become absurdly popular. People from all over the small onyx world call in to the show to request music, or just to talk with their enthusiastic host.

Shaw reaches the main atrium. The ceiling rears high overhead, painted black to give the impression of looking out into space, although there are no actual windows. The rest of the place resembles more of a shopping mall than a space station; most tourists have the bizarre desire to feel like they’re at home. Directions printed onto the ceramic floor point to various destinations: ‘Lodging,’ ‘Food,’ ‘Attractions,’ ‘Arrival/Departures.’ Shaw follows the ‘Food’ arrow. She and Root could have rented a room in the complex, but she prefers to return to their docked craft, and Root tends to follow her everywhere. Unless she’s busy with her radio show.

There aren’t many people wandering the atrium, but fortunately, when Shaw reaches ‘Food,’ a smattering of the assorted eateries have staff present.

“—And until then I want to wish all my lovely listeners out there a great solar cycle. Have fun out there!”

***

“I thought you were going to the observation dome,” A voice calls, and Shaw looks up from her milkshake towards the woman approaching her booth. Root’s shirt bears the words ‘Orion Station’ on it in bold colors, and she’s bedecked in all sorts of tourist bait; cheap plastic sunglasses hanging around her neck, a hat, several bracelets, and another shirt in her hands. “This one’s yours,” she says, holding it up as she slides into the booth beside Shaw.

“Haven’t made it over yet.” Shaw gestures to another tray of food sitting on the other side of the booth. “Your food’s cold.”

Root pulls the tray over and starts eating. “We could still go,” she leans her head over to reach the straw for Shaw’s milkshake. “If you’re up for it.”

Shaw shrugs, pulling the milkshake away. “Fine with me.”

“You could call in, you know,” Root says as they leave the diner out into the atrium and begin following the arrows labeled ‘Orion Observation Dome.’ “If you want.”

“Seems like you’ve got enough calls on your plate already.” They pass the docking exit, where their craft is currently housed, until the current shipment is fully offloaded and their new contract comes in.

“I have a special line just for you, sweetie,” Root smiles. “You can call anytime you want.”

Shaw retrieves her visitor’s pass, and the tunnel door slides open. Landscapes of pitted rock move past them through the windows to either side as they walk. This time the austerity is significantly more visually appealing.

“They’ll finish offloading in the next few days,” Root says, fiddling with the pink plastic glasses hanging around her neck. “But we could stay here a while longer, if you want.”

“I was looking forward to going home.” Shaw replies.

“Home?”

Shaw shrugs, and Root smiles.

“Besides,” Shaw adds. “It’s kind of crowded here anyway.”

Root laughs, and grabs Shaw’s pass to open the door into the airlock.

The dome is still empty when they walk in. Shaw walks to the far side, and takes a seat looking out towards the system’s crimson star, which has changed position somewhat since she was here before. The glass of the dome filters the light from the star so that it can be viewed without ones eyes burning out. Root dawdles at the kiosks, taking a few pamphlets though it’s not clear what she needs them for. She eventually makes her way over, walking past Shaw to stand right in front of the window.

“You know,” she says, not turning around. “If you get lonely, there are other people on this station.”

Shaw doesn’t respond, and after a minute Root turns around and places herself on a seat six spaces away from Shaw.

Shaw sits for a bit, then rolls her eyes, stands, and walks over to place herself in the seat beside Root. She puts an arm around Root’s shoulders. “It’s not other people I want.”

Outside the dome, light from the star casts the planet surface into coruscating light.