No one had threatened him yet. Shentah explored the small room, confused. There was a small but comfortable bunk, a small sanitation area that, although it did not have a door, did have a divider to provide some privacy. There was even a small table with a frame that let him access a wide variety of media, though it did not allow him to transmit anything. He decided not to enter his log-in, even though he was fairly certain the authorities could access it all anyway. He tried to remember whether or not he’d said or shared anything incriminating…he didn’t think so. It wasn’t as if he’d planned anything.
It felt good to be in gravity, or what passed for gravity, again. He’d spent six weeks with no sense of up or down, just long work shifts, mandatory overtime, and evasive answers when he or anyone questioned why things weren’t exactly as they’d been promised in Istanzia.
A soft, almost friendly chime sounded. Shentah looked around, wondering whether there was going to be an announcement or something.
There was a knock at the door. That seemed strange, but he said “Come in,” anyway.
The First Officer, Commander Dalrymple, entered the room, a small frame in his hands. “Mr. Sho,” he began. “I would like to speak with you.”
Shentah recognized the demeanor. It was false politeness. The first officer wanted something from him, and very likely had a great deal of power over his ultimate fate.
Shentah decided faking politeness was as good a tactic as any. “Of course,” he said, gesturing to the chair across the table. “How may I help you?”
“I’ve been looking into Istanzia’s community contracts…” the officer took a seat, but his eyes were on the frame in his hands, thumbing through pages and occasionally frowning or shaking his head. “You’re from the Free Republic, aren’t you?”
Shentah nodded. It seemed like an innocent question, but Commander Dalrymple might just be getting him used to answering automatically before slipping in something incriminating. “Yes, but my family moved to the peninsula.”
“And your education? There seem to be gaps…”
Of course there were gaps. Entire semesters when the government was is complete disorder and the schools were closed. He made it through anyway. He had his degree. "My attendance was reliable. My teachers—most of my teachers—were not.” He shrugged in what he hoped was an apologetic way. These people’s body language was strange to him. Some gestures he understood, others he did not.
“It seems to be a commonality in their recruitment,” Commander Dalrymple said.
Shentah didn’t understand. Commonality? “What do you mean?”
“Istanzia’s working population was recruited primarily from countries that have a high degree of disorder in their government. Countries in civil war or other internal issues.”
Shentah wished he could see the information the officer was holding. It seemed like an odd piece of trivia to bring up. “Yes, I suppose the community is made up of people from many different backgrounds. But that’s a good thing, isn’t it? Diversity? And aren’t people from troubled areas more eager to go to space? Or anywhere for that matter?”
The officer made eye contact. He seemed like a nice, normal person. He wasn’t at all intimidating, and that in itself was suspicious. This was the first officer, not just of one particular module or community, but of the entire station. The plastic and metal tumbleweed flying through space. “People whose lives are disrupted are more eager, yes.” The first officer met his eyes directly. Shentah glanced from the man’s face to the table and back again, nervous and confused. This was not the line of questioning he’d expected. “More eager, and perhaps desperate.”
“Desperate?” Shentah asked. He shook his head. Yes, he had agreed to a long list of vague and somewhat unusual demands, but wasn’t that just part of joining a colony? He had an uncle who had gone to work on Luna, and it was a sacrifice in many ways. But it was still better than the uncertain future they all faced at home.
Commander Dalrymple was thumbing through the pages again. “Are you aware that you have agreed to select a life partner from among your fellow citizens? And that you are expected to donate sperm in addition to fathering children with your mate?”
Still more trivia. “Of course I’ll find a wife in the same community where I live and work!” Shentah decided to ignore the sperm comment. It was just too humiliating, and not something he wanted to discuss with…well, with anyone. “And doesn’t everyone want to have children some day?”
The bemused expression on the officer’s face was insulting and offensive. Shentah wondered whether he was misinterpreting something again. “Children?” Dalrymple stroked his chin and looked off into the distance for a moment. “Perhaps most people do, eventually. But certainly not everyone.”
Not… is he trying to trick me?
“Of course, there are people who decide not to have a family.” Shentah chose his phrasing carefully. If the officer wanted to claim that finding a wife and having children was not the normal way of things, Shentah would not argue.
He noticed the officer was wearing a ring. “Are you not married?” he asked.
Dalrymple laughed. Shentah had no idea why that was funny. “Actually, yes,” he said. “I am a married man. All of about eight hours now.”
“Yes,” the officer said, standing up. “Your little stunt interrupted our reception.”
“Yes,” Dalrymple said, looking down at him. “Your stunt.” He closed his mouth and breathed out through his nose in a fatherly, disapproving manner. “Your DNA is everywhere on the wreckage we’ve recovered.” He stepped toward the door and stood there, half in and half out, for just a moment. “And your fingerprints are all over Mackerie’s throat.”
Shentah’s mouth went dry, but Dalrymple simply left, the door closing behind him with a slight whisking sound.
Shentah activated the frame on the desk, bringing up the packet of information he’d been issued as a citizen of Istanzia. He was supposed to have read it already, but it was well over a thousand pages. The orientation chiefs had promised that their summary was really all they needed to know, even though they regularly repeated that all citizens were required to read the whole thing anyway. Shentah had signed off after barely skimming the beginnings of each section.
He stopped. He could do a search, but he wasn’t even sure what he should search for. When the lawyer had visited earlier, she had given him a set of documents that outlined his rights and other things he needed to know. He brought up the section on the rights of station citizens with specific regard to the Chʼil Awoshí itself, not specific to individual modules, each of which had their own set of rules.
It was only a dozen pages. That didn’t seem right. He looked up the same information in the packet he’d been given on Istanzia. It was ten times as long. He could hardly read it, it was so full of convoluted language. He went back to the information his assigned lawyer had given him. Maybe he should ask to call her again…
The door chime sounded again. This time, Shentah knew what it was and said “Come in” again.
The door slid open, but instead of a human, a tiny droid rolled in. It was the size of a football, or perhaps a volleyball. The panels were stripes swirled together like a volleyball, not pentagons like a football.
Shentah looked up to see if someone else was going to follow the droid in, but no one did. It rolled up at him and let out of series of beeps, ending with a rise in tone that sounded like a question. “I’m sorry, but I don’t understand,” he said.
The droid rolled over behind the bathroom divider and bumped around for a minute before returning. It issued a series of beeps that sounded almost accusing, but Shentah had no idea what it meant. “I do not understand you,” he repeated. “Do you want something?”
The droid rolled backward, let out a few beeps, then forward and beeped some more, then whistled as it rolled out the door.
Shentah scratched his head. Was he missing something? Was there a translation somewhere? Was he supposed to understand it? What did it mean?
He stood up, waiting to see if it rolled back in, or if someone else was going to come in.
The door was still open.
Shentah stood expectantly in place, forcing himself to breathe.
The door was still open.