“Uh…my—my last job? I used to work at the, the Outer Spiral Roadhouse.” Rekha pulled her gaze away from the mural of the butterfly nebula that arced over the vaulted ceiling of the main concourse, and looked down at her shift partner.
“No kidding?” Lianne said. “How long did it take you come all the way here from there?”
“Oh, uh, not long. Not long. Took a wormhole.”
Lianne glanced over at her. “Well, look at you, Miss Moneybags.”
Rekha shook her head and smiled. “It’s…it’s not like that, trust me.”
“Don’t worry, kid. I’m not trying to get into your business. But just in case you are rich, I plan on staying on your good side.”
The two continued the swift pace that Lianne set, heading towards the meeting room where the Guest Liaisons got their assignments for the shift. Rekha inhaled slowly through her nose and blew the breath out shakily through her mouth. She sat at the front beside Lianne, so their boss could introduce her to the rest of the Liaisons.
Rekha hadn’t met any of them. She’d spent her first two weeks sequestered in the medical wing’s quarantine ward, but she’d been unconscious for all but two of those days. And she’d spent those two days focusing on equilibrating her body. She hadn’t given her mind the chance to think about much less dwell on her first day.
So far, she was experiencing what she’d expected to, wonder, nervousness, excitement, and eager readiness.
When she was called up before everyone, she was a little shaky, but a drink of cool water helped with that, and once she started talking, she eased into her introduction smoothly. People chuckled at her one or two jokes, expressed mild surprise at how far she’d traveled from her last home and job, and nodded and smiled politely when she said she looked forward to working with them. The only surprise were the several gasps, raised brows, and muttering that simmered around the room when she announced that her safety training had taking seven months.
But that gave her boss the perfect segue to bring up the first order of business, the “safety first” reminder. “Safety first” was their principal motto. Even with all the safeguards to protect the guests, they always seemed to get themselves into some kind of trouble or other (so Lianne had said). So every employee—regardless of their primary job and duties—were trained and drilled extensively in the various safety protocols.
It took Rekha seven months to do and pass all the training in simulation rooms back home before she was granted final employment approval. Till then, they might have still rejected her.
“Seven months, huh?” Lianne said, as they headed for the lift to their main assignment for the day, the observation deck.
Rekha guessed that she must have taken way longer than usual. “Yes, but I did pass with flying colors.” Or at least she’d thought so. But maybe she’d just made it by the skin of her teeth.
Lianne crossed her arms and pulled her mouth to the side. “I recommend not mentioning that to Audrey when you’re on shift with her.”
“Uh…okay.” Rekha glanced at the lift’s control panel. She reached for the observation deck button and caught a glimpse of the small plaque beneath the panel. The plaque read, in simple script, “Grand Universal Singularity Resort and Laboratory Facility.” GUS and RALF. She was really there. She huffed out a breath and put a hand to her stomach.
Lianne uncrossed her arms and turned to her. “You alright, partner?”
“The full gravity of the situation just hit me.”
Lianne paused a beat before saying, “Pun intended?”
And Rekha paused a beat, as her mind grasped what she’d just said, before she started laughing. Lianne appeared concerned, but Rekha held up a hand. The burst of laughter carried out a lot of anxiety with it, leaving only gratitude behind for the woman who was already turning out to be a good colleague.
“No,” Rekha said, catching her breath, “but I needed the laugh. Thank you.”
Lianne gave a cautious nod. “Okay, if it’s just a laugh. But if you’re going to fall apart, try and wait until the end of the shift.”
“So I don’t scare the guests?”
“Well, yeah, that and…so I’m free to walk you to medical or…whatever.” Lianne cleared her throat.
Rekha smiled and pressed the button. “I’m looking forward to this.”
Lianne slapped her on the back. “If you forget that you said that, I’ll definitely remind you.”
“We have a complaint,” the man said.
Rekha rested her elbows on the ledge in front of the console that displayed the flat video from that particular guest’s booth. “I’ll help if I can, sir. What’s your complaint?”
“If the black hole is supposed to be invisible, why can I see it?” The man raised his brows and waited expectantly.
“You can’t, sir,” she said. “What you’re seeing is the stuff around the black hole, the ordinary matter and energies that are whipping around for the last time before being…thoroughly devoured. I’ve heard it’s quite spectacular. Can you not confirm that for me?”
“We most certainly can, miss,” another voice said, and another man came into view, gently shifting the first aside. “And thank you for answering our question.”
“We paid for the option of tossing a coin in there,” the first man said. “How long before—“
“We’ll let you go now, miss,” his partner interrupted, “in case other guests need your help.”
Rekha smiled, glancing at the check-in sheet for that hour. Another couple, wasting their time talking to her when they could be enjoying a uniquely romantic moment. “My pleasure, sir. Don’t hesitate to ring if you have any more questions.”
If that was as rude as the guests got, she was in for a treat.
Not as wonderful a treat as the guests on the observation deck were getting of course. It was the first part of the resort that had been built, modeled on the deck built for the laboratory facility. The only difference was that the resort’s deck was divided into separate booths, like the rooms. Only the occupants were privy to the view from the floor to ceiling windows. And only for limited amounts of time. It was a safety thing. Guest Liaisons working on the deck were stationed in a windowless room.
Rekha reviewed her “cheat sheets” to confirm that the answer she’d given was correct.
She had always been fascinated by space, but the space sciences went over her head. She knew enough to give rough explanations to guests. It was part of what impressed during her interview. Her little sister on the other hand, even at fourteen, was the real deal when it came to understanding particle physics and cosmology. But even at fourteen, she wouldn’t dare dream of working at the GUS Laboratory. So Rekha decided that she would create an opportunity, a win-win for herself and her sister. The employee discount she’d get for wormhole travel once she had enough seniority would go a long way in getting her sister to the center of the galaxy, to the event horizon of a black hole.
Someday, wormhole travel would become common enough for people of moderate means to travel between the edge of the galaxy and its center. And employee applications would pour into the cosmic-class luxury resort and the laboratory facility. The competition would be insurmountable for an ordinary person. So insurmountable, it might as well be a gamble. But Rekha had gotten her foot in the door at just the right time.
And thanks to the stable entanglement bubble that she and the resort and the laboratory facility were encased in, her local time was coordinated simultaneously with the passage of time back home, on Earth.
About a century ago, a science team discovered what was now colloquially known as exotic particle fizz at a certain level of the event horizon around the galaxy’s central black hole. They secured funding to send probes in, expecting that the research would be multi-generational, maybe eons long. They were surprised to receive signals back in real time. They guessed their educated guesses. Some kind of quantum entanglement event, maybe. The fizz comprised bubbles of various sizes, some of which were macroscopic, and which existed within the same time dimension as the ordinary space outside the event horizon. In other words, there was no time dilation effect from the black hole’s gravity within the bubbles. And even more significantly, some of the macroscopic bubbles were large enough to send in probes, even small ships.
Then one day, they discovered something even more amazing, a stable bubble large enough to build a facility within, a research facility. But to get and maintain funding for the research, someone had the idea of co-locating the research facility with…a luxury resort.
Rekha had read up on the history and the science of the whole GUS and RALF endeavor, as much as she could, during her training and on her nine-hour ride through the wormhole.
She remembered random odd facts, which she now recalled for Lianne, in between answering guest questions.
“Scientists didn’t know if there was a singularity—a point of infinite density, I think—within the black hole, but funders wanted the word ‘singular’ in the names of their resort and laboratory. As if it were necessary to point out how special GUS and RALF were.”
Lianne stared at her console. “Uh-huh.”
“They may also have wanted to add some decorum to the name. But the scientists were worried the laboratory would get short shrift in the funding. So they got cute and came up with GUS and RALF.”
“That’s pretty cute,” Lianne said in a monotone.
Rekha threw her hands behind her head and stretched her back. “Sorry, Lianne. I know I’m boring you. I just…feel like I’ve got to keep these facts fresh, you know? So I’m ready for any question.”
Lianne swiveled her chair around. “You’re not expected to be ready for any question. It’s acceptable and recommended to say, ‘I don’t know, but give me a moment to find out.’ That’s why they keep a technical consult on shift at the lab for us.”
“I know—I know. I just don’t want to be over-reliant on them.”
Before Lianne could respond, her console lit up. But it wasn’t the blue light of a guest calling from one of the observation deck booths. It was a yellow light. Their boss was calling. Lianne picked up, listened, nodded, grunted, said “right away,” hung up, and turned to Rekha.
“We have a situation,” Lianne said. “I’m sending you out into the field, kid.”
Rekha frowned in confusion.
“A lost pet?”
“Our dog,” the woman said, removing her floppy hat. “His name is Proto.”
“It’s short for Protostar,” the man standing beside her said. “We just love space phenomena.”
Blinking, Rekha glanced between the two. “A dog?”
“You know, I don’t know how he could have gotten out of our suite,” the woman said.
Lianne had told Rekha that this…side mission was one of the lessons that Lianne, in her seniority, wanted to teach her newest partner.
As far as Rekha had known, the resort and research facility officially banned the presence of all non-native animals save humans, while data was being compiled and calculated on how safe it would be, and discussions were being had on whether or not it was ethical. (Also, as far as anyone could tell, there were no native animals in the event horizon.) But apparently, the resort looked the other way when it came to guests they’d had before who’d proven to be decent people—respectful of the staff and other guests, leaving their rooms in good condition, and so forth.
This was because the research indicated that it was safe in the resort for most Earth-native animals. But it would take time and money to build appropriate amenities for pets. So the resort was dragging its feet on making any public announcements. In the meantime, certain guests could bring certain pets on a case by case basis, and as long as they kept those pets healthy and kept them away from public areas. If they didn’t, they would be asked to leave, and banned from returning.
“I’m…a dog person,” Rekha said, after recovering herself. She smiled at the guests. “I’d be happy to help you look, and to guide your—uh—Proto back to your suite, discreetly.”
Rekha searched for the better part of an hour, with Lianne checking in every now and then.
“How it’s going, partner?”
Rekha checked her mobile console as she made her way down a passage. “I think I know what you mean by ‘getting my sea legs.’ I feel weird. It’s not nausea exactly…”
According to Lianne, searching for a lost pet was the best way for Rekha to quickly become familiar with the actual layout of the resort and to get her “sea legs.” The bubble they were in didn’t protect them completely from exotic particles, gravity waves, tidal forces, and other dangers of being so close to a black hole. Dangers that most of the people in the resort, including Rekha, didn’t even half-understand. So several constructed levels of adaptive shielding were needed to dissipate those dangers. But most employees and guests still experienced some mild symptoms as their bodies acclimated to being conscious in the bubble.
“Yeah, one of the docs explained it to me once,” Lianne said. “Something about particle bombardment.”
“Oh! I hope not.”
Rekha heard the sound of breathing…rapid breathing, or maybe panting. “Let me call you back,” she said. She was approaching one of the garden walking paths that were arrayed around the resort for when guests wanted quietude.
She heard some light splashing, and slowly walked around a corner to find a dog lapping water out of a small pond.
“Proto?” Rekha called.
She had neglected to have her guests describe their dog. And so she had expected to find a tiny little guy, not a hefty boxer. The boxer turned around to the sound of her name. Rekha knelt down. “Hey, Proto. Come here, girl!”
The dog came dashing over to Rekha, almost knocking her down. The boxer leaned in, allowing Rekha enough time to get hold of the leash she was dragging that was attached to a body vest.
Rekha used her map, and a few tips from Lianne, to avoid the public walkways and lifts as she navigated her way back to Proto’s human companions.
When she returned to the observation deck, Lianne had a guest queued up for her, and she went on a short break.
Rekha answered the call.
“I don’t have a question,” the guest said. “And I don’t have a complaint. I just wanted to introduce myself. A few things about me quickly, so we can get to the interesting stuff. I’m an artist. I won a contest to come out here and paint the black hole. I want all the employees to know me and my work, so that you’ll bug your bosses to let more artists come.”
Rekha smiled, glancing over at the door that Lianne just exited, and she listened.
All guests could take two-dimensional and three-dimensional image captures of the black hole from the observation deck. It hadn’t even occurred to Rekha before that anyone in an observation booth would need or want or have enough time to paint or draw the black hole. The artist had a few days to observe the black hole. Her painting didn’t have to be completed by then, but that was as long as she could stay at the resort. She felt fortunate. She also felt stressed by the pressure of being the only officially sanctioned artist there. The typical guests were not inclined. And resort employees weren’t allowed on the decks. Almost all of the art created about the black hole—poetry, stories, paintings, music—were by artists who’d only seen captures. There were a handful of scientists at the laboratory facility who had artistic skill and inclinations, and who’d made some sketches and drawings. But even they were usually too busy with their research.
The artist hoped this would change as time went on. And that it changed for the average ordinary scientist too. And the average ordinary guest.
Rekha chatted with the artist for a short while. After they said goodbye, she was inspired enough to start up something she hadn’t done since she was in school, journaling. An account of her first shift would be a perfect place to start. She sent a reminder note to her cabin console.
Lianne returned with another “field” assignment.
So it went. In between returning to the observation deck, Rekha went to handle in-person complaints and issues. She found a lost bracelet for one guest. She escorted a family to the medical wing, after their little son pushed a peanut up his nose. She observed a simple repair that one of the mechanics did on the water reclamation back-up system—one that her boss had decided all the Liaisons should learn and practice doing a few times. After safety, redundancy of training was a high priority.
As she was walking over to the lunch room to meeting Lianne, she had to dodge an emergency response team. She heard the words “spaghettification in progress” before they switched their communicators from speaker to earpieces.
She told Lianne about it.
“Safety first,” Lianne said with a sigh. “We haven’t had any deaths or major accidents in a few decades in either the resort or research facility. Part of the reason is that we prefer to overreact to emergencies.”
Rekha’s and Lianne’s mobile communicators both lit up yellow, despite being on lunch mode.
Lianne frowned. She tapped the screen. “Boss?”
“We have an emergency,” their boss said.
“We have a repeat guest,” their boss explained. “He’s very curious about the construction of the park.”
Lianne shook her head. “Mister Gachis?”
“I realize you’re all on lunch.”
They were back in their meeting room, their boss, and the eleven of them who happened to be on lunch.
“I’m the new guy,” Rekha said. “I can just grab a bite on my way to Mister Gachis.”
Their boss shook her head. “No need. He’ll be fine. But I wonder, would any of you happen be musical prodigies, and maybe left that off your resumes?”
“Musical prodigies?” someone asked.
“Say…a string instrument?”
The galaxy-famous Cosmic String Quartet could not play for dinner that evening in the main dining area, because one of them had a swollen hand.
It happened when her path crossed with the aforementioned guest. Mister Gachis had made a few attempts to walk along a special “authorized personnel only” tunnel that led to the skeleton and foundation of the park being built beside the resort.
Authorized personnel wore excursion suits when they traversed the tunnel. The layers of shielding that protected the resort and laboratory had not yet been erected around the tunnel. A primary shield was in place, but random unpredictable bursts of variable gravity passed through the tunnel. Mister Gachis was, in Lianne’s words, “a slippery little quark,” and always managed to evade the Guest Liaisons assigned to keep an eye on him and the tunnel, and make sure the twain never met.
None of the other guests even knew where the tunnel entrance was. Mister Gachis tried again to get back into the tunnel, somehow making it past security. When they pursued, both reacted badly to being unshielded, and both passed out in the tunnel. He hadn’t meant for anyone to get hurt. The guards had reported the breach before giving chase, according to their protocol. But before anyone else could get to the purposely remote location, Mister Gachis had run out of the tunnel and grabbed the nearest person he could find. This happened to be the violinist of the quartet.
In trying to help drag the guards back into the resort grounds proper, both she and Mister Gachis were exposed to mild gravity waves. Everyone would recover. But in the meantime, the violinist couldn’t play. Her left hand had puffed up so much she couldn’t bend her fingers.
“If this was any other resort, I would just let the trio play,” their boss said. “But guests have paid premium prices to see the Cosmic String Quartet. They’ll be taking captures. I need you all to call around and see if any employees, on duty or off, can play a string instrument, preferably a violin, at a high level. They should also be proficient at learning new music.”
“Maybe she can fake it,” Lianne suggested. “We could pipe in recorded music.”
“Are we sure that Sandy won’t recover by tonight? How bad could it be?” someone else asked.
Their boss sighed and rubbed her forehead. “We’re not going to ‘fake it.’ And no, she won’t recover in time.”
“What if instead of having the trio play,” Rekha said, “you hold a solo performance and promote it as a special treat, one night only?”
“A Cosmic String Singlet?” Their boss shook her head.
“Wait, we must have some celebrity guests,” Rekha said, sliding up to the edge of her seat. “Maybe one of them would—”
“What? Want to work while they’re supposed to be on vacation at the most exclusive resort in the galaxy?” Their boss looked at Rekha.
She wasn’t frowning or angry, but Rekha slid back in her seat.
Lianne leaned over and whispered. “Trying to prove yourself on the first day, partner?”
She leaned away and stood up. “Boss, the ten of us can handle checking our employee rosters for a back-up musician. But why not let the new kid try her plan? Two longshots might add up to a short shot?”
Their boss nodded as she headed to the door. “Fine. That’s fine. I need to go report this to upper management. I told them we need a rotating act. They’ll need to check with Accounting about partial refunds…” She exited the room, muttering to herself.
“I guess I’m in charge of splitting up the work,” Lianne said. She turned to Rekha. “And you have clearance to see public info for our guests. You’ve only got an hour, so hop to it.”
Rekha hopped out of her chair. And headed over to the lobby level front desk.
“I need to see everything you’ve got on every guest currently staying at the resort,” she said to the desk clerk.
She’d always wanted to say something like that.
Rekha would describe what followed in her journal as a montage of her approaching several different guests from a list of about…ten. She only had time during her lunch hour to reach seven of them. They were all sympathetic and all disappointed not to be seeing the quartet, but as her boss had pointed out, they were on vacation. None agreed to help. Lianne agreed to start the rest of their shift on the observation deck while Rekha finished up her list. The other Liaisons hadn’t had any luck either. Several of the resort’s employees sang or played instruments, and even did so for guests as a charming surprise. But no employees had musical skills impressive enough to share a stage with the string quartet. No one even dared to claim such skill.
The ninth person on her list was coming off the lift when Rekha, hoping her eyes didn’t appear as wide and desperate as they felt, approached her. She was a famed dancer, who had come to the GUS Resort hoping to be inspired by the swirling and fluttering of the matter that spun around the black hole. She had booked and spent as much time on the observation deck as she was allowed to. She had been there in the morning, but hadn’t asked any questions.
Rekha called out to her and dove straight into it. “I’m a Guest Liaison. It’s my first day, and I should be doing all I can to help you have a wonderful stay here. But the resort is in a bind right now. You might be the only person who can help us out of it.”
The dancer’s eyes went wide. And Rekha held her breath.
Then one corner of the dancer’s mouth rose into a smile. “I’m listening.”
Lianne gaped as Rekha made her way to her console station.
Rekha nodded. “I sent her to—uh—Sandy? And the others…in the quartet.”
“Did you let the boss lady know?”
“Uh-huh, I really hope it works out.”
Lianne slapped her shoulder. And Rekha exhaled through her mouth and slid on her headset.
The dancer had, in fact, been thrilled at the prospect of performing at the GUS Resort, especially since she’d already been inspired to add some movements to her routines based on what she’d observed of the black hole.
Rekha wouldn’t have a chance to see the performance, of course. She was on observation deck duty for the rest of the shift.
“Lianne, I owe you some time, if you ever want to take off early. You know, once my training wheels are off.”
“No worries. The boss approved your plan, and it’s working out so far.”
“But I didn’t come back here right away.”
Lianne turned to her. “What do you mean?”
The dancer had been so kind and so excited. Rekha had been worried that disgruntled guests would complain or be rude when they saw that the full quartet wouldn’t be playing. She didn’t want them to be surprised in the moment.
So she had stationed herself at a thoroughfares, letting passing guests know about the “special performance” expected that night, crossing her fingers that the dancer didn’t change her mind. She started by asking guests if they were planning on seeing the quartet. She was especially enthusiastic in encouraging those who were not originally planning to see them. She figured those guests would be the least likely to be disappointed, and the most likely to be delighted, by whatever performance they saw that night. She began to panic somewhat when she observed that most of the guests were planning on seeing the quartet, and a good number of them were only at the resort for one night.
She had an urge to do something more to fix the situation, but she’d left Lianne on her own too long already. So she returned to her station on the observation deck.
“Also, I took some time to eat.”
“Well, it’s been quiet on the deck,” Lianne said. “And promoting the special performance was a good idea.”
“Hope it doesn’t backfire.”
Lianne laughed. “I’ll take you up on that offer sometime, partner. But not tonight. Tonight we ride together.” She offered her hand to Rekha, who gave a silent laugh, took it, and shook it.
And they got back to work.
Rekha wasn’t sure why her feet hurt when she’d spent half her shift sitting down. She and Lianne were headed toward their meeting room for a final check-in. But Lianne turned away and headed toward a set of guest suites. Rekha checked her mobile console, but there weren’t any new requests from their boss.
“One last thing, and then we’re done.”
They headed past the suites to a set of rooms reserved and furnished for guests to conduct meetings and hold private events. They stopped at one of the rooms.
Lianne knocked on the door, and their boss opened it.
“Your plan worked,” their boss said to Rekha. “I’ve been at this job so long, I couldn’t even think that far out of the box. The only complaints came from those who arrived too late to sit close enough to see the performance. Apparently, someone started a word-of-mouth campaign that got a lot of people excited.” She winked.
Over her shoulder, Rekha saw other members of their shift. They were laughing and dancing to the music that was playing.
“We would have done this even if you hadn’t saved the day,” her boss said.
“All the guest suites were booked tonight,” Lianne added, as if that would explain things. “This is the best we could do.”
She led Rekha into the room, and as heads turned toward her, a cheer went up and glasses were raised.
Lianne sat her down in a chair and insisted she kick off her shoes, as someone handed her a pair of very fluffy slippers. Someone else presented her with a platter that had hot towels on it.
Rekha felt a relaxing pulse pass through the muscles of her back, which she now realized were sore. The chair she was seated in had a massage function.
“It smells good in here,” Rekha said, as her empty stomach gurgled.
“We’ve got a few items from the kitchen,” Lianne said, gesturing to the conference table full of platters, “that you checked off on that optional favorite foods survey we sent you.”
Rekha blinked at the table in a daze. “Favorite foods? I thought that was about allergies…“
“You can go back to your cabin after everyone leaves, if you want,” Lianne said. “But I recommend sleeping here all night. Who knows when you’ll get your next chance to sleep on a luxury mattress?”
“I’m not really a fan of hotel mattresses. Wait—there’s a bed?”
“It slides out of the wall over there,” Lianne said, pointing behind her. “And I highly recommend it. It’s not like the other hotel mattresses.”
Lianne walked over to the table, and pointed to the smallest dome. “Last but not least.” She lifted the dome.
“You’re not allowed to see the real thing, but you can see this…and eat it.” Lianne carried the plate over and set it down on the side table beside Rekha.
Rekha placed her hands on her cheeks, fully aware that her colleagues were probably amused by her reaction.
It was small, but it was glorious.
A black orb of chocolate was emerging from a pool of glowing white and yellow, surrounded by spirals of bright orange, enclosed by darkness, and then, at the outermost rim, a scattering of iridescent sugar bubbles, and blue sugar crackles.
“An Exotic Particle Fizz Cake,” Rekha whispered.
A singular delicacy.
Lianne handed her a fork, and several voices urged her to try it.
“Is there a knife? We have to share this.”
Lianne shook her head. “It’s all yours.”
“I don’t get it. It’s just my first day. Why not wait until my one-year anniversary?”
“Everyone deserves a taste of the fine life,” Lianne said. “Now if you don’t mind, the rest of us are going to have a fun night in your name.”
Someone had turned down the music while Lianne presented the cake. They turned it back up again. Their boss declared that she would be leaving, so they could all have some real fun—responsibly.
Rekha sunk her feet in the fluffy slippers and sighed. She smiled, easing into an appreciation for the luxury, now that surprise was fading. She didn’t say it out loud, because it would have sounded cheesy, and because it was her first day, and she didn’t really know anyone all that well, even Lianne. But a reward that went beyond luxury was having colleagues who cared about her and each other, and their jobs, and their guests. And the people in that room with her seemed to be just those kinds of colleagues.
And they were right, she might not get another chance. So she enjoyed her time in that rare bubble of luxury, and she thoroughly devoured that cake.
Copyright © 2022 Nila L. Patel