This story was originally written in response to a writing prompt at Hair Brained Press. The prompt was “Beware, for I am fearless; and therefore powerful.”
The relay station was designated HRS-05274, but he called her Sarah. He would talk to her as he crabbed through maintenance shafts and crawl spaces. Very often she would reply.
Each remote tachyon relay station in the network was staffed by a single engineer assigned to supervise automated maintenance. Every cycle a transport would dock at the station to deliver supplies. A psychiatrist was also delivered to evaluate the maintenance engineer. Some people thrived in the solitude of deep space, while others flayed themselves and wrote poetry with their blood and feces on the walls. It was difficult to anticipate which way an engineer would go.
One of his predecessors had scratched the words “Beware, for I am fearless; and therefore powerful” into the glass of a viewport before slowly and methodically immolating herself with a fusion torch. They never were able to completely buff the words out of the glass, or remove the bits of her that had fused with the floor.
“Do you have disturbing thoughts?” the psychiatrist asked.
“I just imagined you naked.” He replied. “That was disturbing.”
She made a note on her tablet. “Do you ever hear voices?” she said.
“Only my own.”
“The audio logs record you talking to someone…” she said, making more notes. “Sarah, I believe you call her.”
“It passes the time.”
“Who is Sarah?”
“This station. The machinery. It’s an engineer thing.”
“Why do you call her ‘Sarah’?”
He called her Sarah because that’s what she told him her name was. “Dunno,” he said. “Seemed to fit better than Bethany or Delores.”
“Your conversations are quite…intimate at times. Do you believe Sarah is real?”
“Do you mean do I think she’s a figment of my imagination or not?”
“Being alone so long can blur the line between reality and imagination,” she added. “Do you think I am a figment of your imagination?”
“I hope not.” He shrugged. “Figments of my imagination are usually hotter than you.”
“Is Sarah ‘hot’?” The psychiatrist’s face was as blank as an empty canvas.
In an awkward all knees and elbows geek girl way, yes, smoking hot, he thought. “She’s a relay station,” he said.
“How long have you been working at this station?”
“Five cycles. You know that.”
“When was your last leave?”
“Two cycles,” he said. “I have another one coming up next cycle. You know that too.”
“How do you intend on spending it?”
“I’m getting a penthouse suite for a week and three hookers—not synthetics mind you—and a few bottles of whiskey. The real stuff.”
“That will be expensive.”
“I’ll have three cycles of pay due. What else should I spend my money on? Wise investments? Feeding the poor?”
More scribblings. “Do you take these evaluations seriously?” she asked.
“Not really,” he said. “Do you?”
“The Company cares about its employees,” she said.
“The Company cares that the relay stations stay online and their engineers aren’t found hanging in shafts strangled by their own entrails.”
She made more notes.
He shifted in his chair. “Are we done here?”
“You‘re a pig and an asshole, but you’re not insane,” is what she wanted to say. What she said was, “Yes, we’re done.”
“Good.” He stood to leave, paused, and looked her up and down. “You’d be prettier if you smiled.”
Her face could have been carved from granite. She made another note before shoving her tablet into a bag. “Good day, Mr. Thomas,” she said. “I’ll see you again next cycle.”
“Stuck up bitch,” he muttered as he walked away, trailing his hand along the cool metal of the passageway.
He watched the transport undock and pull away from the station, slowly becoming just another point of light in the blackness of deep space.
“Three hookers?” said a voice behind him.
“Why not?” he replied.
“You could make a girl jealous.”
“Nothing to be jealous about,” he said, and turned from the viewport. “You’re my girl.”
The woman standing behind him wasn’t what he’d call a knockout in the traditional sense, but she had a pretty face and enough of the right assets in enough of the right places. She crossed her arms and frowned, holding up one finger.
“Fine,” he said. “One hooker. Happy?”
She smiled. It was a crooked smile, all wrinkled nose and pursed lips. He loved that smile.
“Ball-breaker,” he said without conviction.
She shrugged and walked away down an unlit corridor. His eyes followed her. It wasn’t an unpleasant view, even in her frumpy engineer’s uniform. A bit skinny for his tastes, perhaps, but ass is ass, especially in deep space.
Sarah had begun speaking to him near the end of his first cycle on the station. He wondered if he was heading down the path that led to profane graffiti with bloody fluids, but decided not to mention it to the psychiatrist at the time. It was a good gig with plenty of free time. It paid very, very well. No reason to mess that up.
He eventually rationalized that Sarah was not a symptom of insanity, but a manifestation of the heart and soul of the station. A ghost in the machine. He was never alone. He had Sarah, and she had him.
It was during his second cycle that she started appearing to him. That was harder to rationalize.
He knew he wasn’t hallucinating because if he had it would all be much more…exotic. Sarah was about as far from exotic as a girl could be. Still, after all these cycles alone with her she had grown on him; wrinkled nose smile and all, and he stopped questioning it. He might even say he loved her.
What really drove him insane was that he couldn’t touch her. Three cycles between leaves was a damn long time to be alone with nothing but a box of tissues and a VR headset.
That night as they sat below the observation dome, talking about nothing in particular, Sarah awkwardly unzipped her uniform and pulled down her top. The dusting of freckles across her breasts was like the dusting of stars above the dome. She knelt in front of him. He noticed she was shivering.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“I want to watch you,” she said.
“I want to watch you do what you do with those goofy VR googles on,” she said. “But I want you to look at me while you’re doing it.”
He wasn’t the blushing sort. He blushed anyway. “You’ve been watching me?” He coughed. “This is awkward.”
“It doesn’t have to be,” she said. Her voice softened. “Imagine you are making love to me.”
“I always do, Sarah….” He traced his finger around the shimmering outline of her ethereal face. “God, I wish I could touch you.”
“So do I.”
When he was finished she sat beside him and hugged her knees. “One,” her voice whispered to him under the stars. “And she has to look like me.”