I walk to my apartment, sweat-soaked and exhilarated. Someone needs to explain to me how a human body can perspire so much in a conditioned climate while seated. I feel like I lost liters of fluid during the final hours of the shift. My body is exhausted and my head is pounding but I wouldn’t trade the last two hours of my life for anything. Working traffic in a situation that’s circling the drain and successfully fighting through it is absolutely life-altering fun. It’s not better than sex but it’s better than some of the sex I’ve had.
“Tey?” I cry out as I enter the tiny apartment. I feel the corner of my mouth curl upward playfully. “Sosie?” There’s no response and I assume Tey is at her even smaller apartment on Deck 24. I look to the corner of the living room and see Sosipatra. At least one of my girls is always home. She’s moved to the back of her terrarium since I left this morning, a long way for a plant only forty centimeters tall. I walk over and pick up a spray bottle filled with brackish water and hamburger grease. It’s her favorite. She’s lucky she can’t get clogged arteries. Sosipatra is a Socretea exnorrhizia. She’s a carnivorous wandering scavenger plant that can move up to ten centimeters a day. Tey and I adopted her nearly a year ago when we traveled down to the surface. She’s my girl through and through. “Hey, baby,” I say in my most soothing voice while giving Sosie a couple squirts.
I’ve known my other girl, Tey, for nearly six years, ever since I came to the Sabine star system. During my first shift after certifying as an FPL, I worked Final while she sent me traffic from the spinward approach position.
I walk through my living room, pull off my drenched shirt and wipe my face with it to little effect. Boots are kicked off seconds later and my pants come down while heading for the shower. Tonight is most certainly a water shower night, a sonic version will not do the job.
That first solo shift on Final was difficult. Before Sabine, I started my career at Hiisi, a Level 6 system. The FSTCA breaks down its facilities into twelve levels. The greater the number the faster your heart attack comes. Such is the price of success. My first shift in Sabine was unreal. Dozens and dozens of starships carrying thousands of people, every one of them wanting to reach their destination on time and safely, with emphasis on “on time.”
I soap up, rinse off and step out of the restrictive shower into my cubicle bathroom. There’s barely room to turn around but it’s luxurious compared to Tey’s coffin and she shares it with a roommate. I suppose that’s why she spends most of her nights here.
The trick for working the Final slot in any STC orbital is all about intervals. Somehow, you have to take starships that are coming at you from every direction and get them all lined up and sailing at the same speed with the same interval between them. If there are two operational parallel Entryways, like there were today, you further have to stagger those intervals to create adequate distance between the starships heading for the left and right parallel entryway corridors. That’s Final’s job: speed and intervals. It’s putting pieces of a puzzle together into a living, breathing shape and done right, that shape gives the tower just enough time to guide a starship in and let one leave before the next arrival. There’s beauty in both the dance and its efficiency.
I enter the bedroom, which is only marginally larger than my bathroom. The bed fits two. Barely. Sometimes that works to my advantage, sometimes not. Goosebumps rise over my damp body. It’s cold in the apartment tonight. Fusion-powered orbitals have fusion-powered air conditioning. I’m in for the evening so it’s pajama pants and a Sabine Knights t-shirt. Once outfitted, I move into the living room where my datapad waits. I have studying to do.
At most jobs, the people around you can make life either better or miserable. Today, Niven was not helping David. Yes, Niven was doing his job and complying with STC guidelines but he was also just throwing traffic at him as it came. Melissa, on the other hand, was absolutely helping David. Not only did she accept his handoffs for traffic that really had no reason to enter her side of Orashi’s tower airspace but she also took David’s ships that rejected their entryway clearance and were “going around.”
On my first night working Final, Tey essentially did her job and mine. Now, I’m a capable controller but anyone coming from a Level 6 to a Level 10 system and working Final for the first time is going to be overwhelmed. Even me. Except I wasn’t that night, because of Tey. The ships she sent me were almost in parade formation and even when things got busy and her airspace began to fill, Tey never compromised. She never opened the floodgates and passed her problems to me. Everything pitched my direction came in orderly, staggered lines. She kept her calm and never raised her voice even when traffic was at its thickest. She was the epitome of grace under immense pressure. I knew that night that I had to become this woman’s friend, maybe more. And I became her friend. And definitely more.
I’m twenty minutes into the coursework regarding the satellite traffic control positions for the Ophion star system when the door hisses open. I’m greeted with eyes the shade of emeralds and black hair that’s nearly iridescent. Tey’s smile can power an orbital. When she uses it, that is.
“Hey, Jake.” Her tone is anything but electric tonight. That’s par for the course lately.
“Hi, Tey.” My stomach clenches and I wonder if I should hide my datapad’s screen from her. Six months ago, we agreed to try for the Ophion system. It’s a Level 12 posting and those who work Level 12 are considered the gods of traffic control. They are the pinnacle of achievement and I know in my heart that Tey and I can stand among them. Maybe above them.
She walks around the sofa and sits near me. I see those mesmerizing green eyes sweep over my body. The curl of her mouth moves south as she sees my pajamas. “The gang is going to Murphy’s tonight. Let’s go with them.”
“Don’t you want to study?” I blurt out before I can shove the datapad into my big mouth.
Any cheer drains from her voice instantly. “Jesus Christ, Jake. That’s all we do anymore.”
“Two slots could open up in Ophion at any—”
Although her next words are cruel, her volume remains low. “I need more than a level twelve boyfriend, Jake.” Tey never raises her voice, even during our fights. Half of her tone is pure frustration; the other half just seems empty.
“—at any time…” I feel ashamed when I prod her but also a little angry that I have to motivate a woman who used to have the drive to excel all by herself.
We both sigh at the same time. Tey is pissed and her resentment will drown any logical argument I may make about STC application procedures and the scarcity of Level 12 positions. The River Tey flows one direction. “How about I finish this page, change clothes and catch up to you, hon?”
“Do what you want.”
She rises and I notice for the first time that she’s wearing a black tube skirt that stops about five centimeters above her knees. It hugs firm thighs and outright flaunts the shape of her ass. Even though I’m frustrated at her lack of ambition lately, I have to admire her effort in other areas. “I promise I’ll meet you in a bit, Tey.”
I can’t help but watch as she tramps out the door and I resolve to keep my promise.
Two hours later, my datapad chirps. I’m nearly finished with the entire satellite block. Satellite STC positions are basically anything that isn’t located on a main system orbital. Control stations near tunnel points are the most common example but there are also control stations in asteroid belts and smaller positions that manage traffic in far-flung outposts. Such places are usually cramped and overworked. Every controller in-system takes a turn being deployed to these lesser stations but Ophion’s satellite positions are going to suck.
The datapad chirps again. Shit. It has to be Tey and I’m long overdue. I tap Accept and am relieved to see my friend Sam’s face instead. “Hey, buddy, what’s up?”
“Dude, get down here.”
I look past Sam and can tell he is with the gang at Murphy’s. It’s a dive bar on Deck 20 and the most likely place to find a controller. It’s large enough that it’s not solely an STC dive but it’s become our adopted home. There’s a lot of noise and laughter coming through my datapad’s speakers and I feel a spike of jealousy take hold because I’m missing it. That’s okay. I’ll have fun once I’m working Level 12. “I’ve got ten more minutes and then I’m headed out, Sam.”
Sam Hastings is my best friend. We trained together at Dextra, applied for and worked Hiisi together and then Sam surprised me by following me to Sabine. He’s one hell of a controller but he missed his true calling as a surfer. I’ve never seen someone look more the part than him. I may not have any siblings but I do have a brother. Right now, my brother is frowning at me and a wave of anxiety washes over his face. “Dude. Get down here now.” His playful attitude is gone and that spurs me into action.
“Okay. I’ll change and be on my way.” Before I can say any more, the view on my datapad swings wildly and sweeps over the gang before disconnecting. I saw Janine there, sitting with Melissa. Tey was next, then Brandon. After Brandon was Niven and then David, my wayward developmental. The frame blurred to black before I could make out the rest. I wonder if David is trashing me to my friends. It’d not only be a dick move but also a mistake. They already know what kind of ass I am.
I walk into Murphy’s twenty minutes later. The music is loud enough to hear yet doesn’t overwhelm conversations. Either someone monitors the noise level and dutifully adjusts the volume or maybe a computer does it. I approach the group and catch only Sam’s attention. His smile is tight but he raises his mug of beer in a friendly salute. Melissa follows Sam’s eyes and then averts her gaze from me. She casually leans to her left and bumps into Janine. Words are exchanged between them. Janine immediately looks at me and then tactlessly elbows Tey. Is this some new party game? Tey moves away from Brandon but keeps her head down. She’s clearly still mad at me for pushing her to better her life.
“Ladies… Gents,” I greet as I move around the table. There’s no room for me next to Tey but that’s fine. We’re not needy. Sam noisily scoots his chair over to give me a landing spot.
“It’s about time you made it, Jake,” Melissa scolds but there’s a smile on her lips. I can tell by her look that she’s three sheets to the wind. I glance past her and see Janine and Tey are sailing beside her. Tey’s hands are fidgety, her biggest tell. They are in almost constant motion, roaming the surface of the table, riding the rim of her mug, tucking sable hair coquettishly behind her ear, ducking below the table to smooth her short skirt. When Tey is drunk, she can get delightfully handsy. I miss that.
I link my datapad to Murphy’s menu and find our server’s code. It’s a man named Casey and he’s my favorite employee in the entire establishment. He is customer service personified and makes you feel like you’re the most important person in the bar. “David,” I call out loudly to get his attention at the far end of the table, “what’re you drinking?” A peace offering.
He looks at me and not with hateful eyes. “The house lager, Jake, but you don’t have to buy me a beer.”
I wave his assertion away and order our drinks. “You’re going to be salvaged, David. I talked to the supervisor after our shift and he’ll go to bat for you once you apply for your extension.” The orbital manager makes the final decision but he’ll listen to his supervisors.
David’s smile brightens considerably even as Melissa chimes in with a congenial, “I told you, David.”
I’m not always good at reading people but I don’t think David has been talking shit about me. At least not tonight. Office politics are a large part of STC and in an ultra-pressure, ultra-competitive field like ours, controllers can get a little backstabby. None of us are immune.
“Hey, it was my fault,” David confesses. “I just got behind and couldn’t space them out enough to keep my head above water.” His admission is as accurate as it is wrong.
I feel the need to console him… now that we’re not looking at a control panel. “Well, that asshole working Final didn’t do you any favors.”
“Fuck you, mate,” Niven interjects before resuming his conversation with Brandon.
Ignoring Niven, I wave David over and he dutifully rises from his chair. He stumbles a bit on his way. Is everyone at this gathering toasted? David rests his elbows on the table and leans toward me with his nearly empty mug in both hands. Head bowed, he looks like a monk awaiting an offering.
“David, your job isn’t to separate traffic as far apart as possible.” I pause to make sure he understands. “Your job is to pack them in as tight as you can and still be within guidelines.” I can tell by his expression he’s uncertain what I mean. “The farther apart they are, the quicker you run out of airspace and the quicker it all goes to hell.”
Sam chips in his two credits and waves his beer forward, slopping some over the brim. “He’s right, Davey-boy.”
I see the wheels turning behind David’s eyes as he processes my pearl of wisdom. “Thus ends the lecture. You’re a good controller, David. You’re going to be fine as soon as you get used to the traffic level ten throws at you. Don’t get discouraged.” I imagine that’s what I’d want my FPL to say to me if I had just failed. Thankfully, I’ve never given one the opportunity.
He smiles at the compliment and nods. He’s so damned agreeable. “You’re right, Jake, and thanks.” Teetering as he stands, he wanders back to his chair.
I turn to Sam and flash my most disarming smile. “Happy now? All better?”
Before he can answer, my beer arrives via a smiling Casey. We exchange pleasantries and he is off to deliver more refreshment to David. I clink my mug against Sam’s and toast, “To your upcoming deployment, Sam. Three months in a sardine can jam packed with sweaty men.”
Sam Hastings is scheduled to leave in four days for one of Sabine’s satellite positions. The slot he will fill, named Stellacat TP-4, is one of six control positions in a small space station orbiting the tunnel point leading to the Stellacat star system. The tunnel point is busy enough to need two controllers working the traffic each shift but the station itself was built before that demand existed and was never upgraded. Most traffic control stations in the Federation could use a good refit. Many, such as Stellacat, should just be decommissioned altogether. However, credits are tight in the Federation and because we noble FSTCA controllers reliably prevent starships from coming together, money is rarely sent our way.
Consequently, Sam will get to share a 4-meter by 4-meter room with another man during his deployment. He will have no privacy barring any “alone time” in the sarcophagus they call a sonic shower and he’ll work ten hours or more a day, every day, for three months. I’m going to miss the hell out of him. I tell him so, as only I can. “Just remember to use condoms.”
Sam swears under his breath before draining his beer and promptly ordering another. Oh, I forgot to mention, there is no alcohol allowed on the Stellacat TP station. “When are you due to deploy, Jake?”
“My next deployment is scheduled in two years.” I smile confidently. “Tey and I will be long gone by then, buddy.”
Sam shakes his head and opens his mouth but Melissa smothers him before he can respond. “We’re going to miss you, Sam,” she declares sloppily. “Who am I going to dream about when I’m in bed, Sammy?” Her grin is rapturous.
Sam and Melissa aren’t an item. At least, I don’t think they are. She’s just extremely drunk and overly friendly. Sam and I burst out laughing although he’s the only one turning red.
Janine rolls her eyes and pries her friend off Sam. Behind her, Tey is giggling at Brandon and Niven is trying to undo the good I’ve done with David. My eyes move back to Tey and my heart flutters a bit. She is truly stunning. I want to be sitting next to her and decide to make my move. I lift my mug only to find that it’s nearly empty already. Murphy’s house lager is deadly smooth. My hand reaches to my datapad to order a second round but I falter as I see Tey laugh and push playfully against Brandon’s chest. One of us will need to answer the bell tomorrow morning and Tey is certainly not in the running for the job. With a swipe, I close out my meager tab and order water. I’m going to be Sober Island in the Sea of Inebriation. Tonight will suck for me but Tey clearly needs to drink away some of the tension between us. As much as I would like to join her attempt at liquid catharsis, it’s not worth both of us oversleeping and missing tomorrow’s shift.