“I’m getting incident reports from all over the station now. Someone woke up this morning with half their head shaved. It’s not messing with any of the systems though, or equipment.”
“So, not a gremlin?”
The station’s security chief glanced down, as if she were looking at a document. “I’m trying to parse all the objective details from the reports to see if there’s a pattern, a profile.”
“It…likes to play tricks?”
Acting Station Administrator Jordan Cass pressed her lips together, gazing at the messages streaming down her console screen. “Are you absolutely certain it’s not a person?”
“There have been a few sightings.”
Cass glanced up and over her screen at the security chief. “How? How can there be sightings if none of the station’s cameras have picked anything up?”
Of course this would happen when the chief administrator was gone on vacation—not to some conference where she may have welcomed an interruption. She was unreachable. Even if the whole station was melting down into its component atoms, she could not have been reached. She was close to retirement. The only thing holding her back was that Cass was not yet quite ready to take on the role.
“I want to talk to the man who fell out of his chair,” Cass said.
Security Chief Irene Dae nodded, then tipped her head toward the open door of the office. “Actually, the chair was pulled away from him right as he started sitting down.”
Cass and Dae walked out toward the railing of the walking on the administrative level. It was the highest level of the station. They could see the other levels from where they were. The residential levels just below, the public and commerce levels below that, and all the way to the bottom, sealed away from the rest, the refinery level.
Mining Asteroid Companion Station 47 was typically quiet those days. In the early days, when the metals were still shiny and smooth, and a satellite dock was still floating nearby because of the volume of transport ships coming and going, the station had been nicknamed “Maximal” by someone who proclaimed the “4” represented an “A” and the “7” was a flipped letter “L.” An ironic name now that the asteroid only had a trickle of resources left, maybe enough for a few more generations to live reasonably well on the station.
People would have to move elsewhere then, unless one of the proposals to turn it into a tourist destination worked out. Cass didn’t like the idea of living on a casino station or a retirement resort. In her fantasies, someone discovered another ore to mine from the asteroid they orbited. Something that meant the station would continue being like a town or city, full of people of all ages and types, some working in the mines or the refinery, some going to school, some maintaining the station.
Only a few thousand people lived on the station now, fairly far from the major ports and thoroughfares in the system. Life was fairly mundane and routine. And that was just right for Cass. Station security and administration didn’t have unexpected emergencies to deal with on the regular. And they were practiced and experienced with the expected emergencies. That meant they could focus on exploring and experimenting with new systems and strategies for efficiency. Or at least, Cass hoped to do so once she officially held the position of chief administrator.
But it only took a day after the station’s current chief administrator left for vacation for the incidents to begin. At first, Cass and Dae suspected kids playing pranks, maybe testing the authority of the station’s temporary leadership.
“Alright, we have two jobs to do,” Cass said. “One is to catch it—whatever it is, let’s not make assumptions. The second is to find out where it came from.”
“We may need to make an assumption or two, Jor,” the security chief said. “It would give us a starting point for how to capture it.”
“Well, can’t you just use your most cautious protocol for unknown entities?”
“If we’re really dealing with a pixie,” Dae said, “that protocol would actually hinder us from catching it.”
“I trust you haven’t used that word outside of your team?”
“You trust correctly.”
As they walked down to the residential levels, Dae flicked her fingers over her wrist console without looking at it, sending assignments and instructions to the rest of her team.
“We may have a lead, or two, on the second job,” the security chief said. “I’m having Martin do the questioning. He’s good with people.”
Cass nodded, her belly flipping over as they approached the residence of the man who’d been hurt in the most recent incident. “Good,” she said. “Good with people is good.”
Cass didn’t yet know the people on the station the way her boss did, and the way Dae did. So even though Ian Frait’s family had been living on 47 since it was first built, Cass hadn’t yet met the man. Still fairly young, Mr. Frait had already retired from his refinery job and had moved to a smaller but nicer suite, where his wife—who was still a few years from retiring herself—would soon join him. As it was, she was only there on the weekends. Though, since his incident, she’d taken time off to tend to him.
“Don’t need to make such a fuss. Not over me anyway,” he said to her as she took over the task of bringing out refreshments.
“Just want to make sure that rascal doesn’t come back to finish you off,” she said, with a light slap on his cheek.
Mr. Frait was walking with the assistance of a cane, while the bone-and-tissue repair bot attached to his hip continued its work for another day or so.
Dae started asking him her standard questions, following up on any promising details.
“I heard giggling at first,” he said, finishing his account of his accident. “High-pitched like a kid. But when I started groaning, the giggling stopped, and it flew out of hiding. Hovered right in front of me.” Mr. Frait smiled. “And it kind of squeaked, or whimpered in sympathy, or maybe apology. I’m absolutely certain it didn’t mean to hurt me. And though I was still hurt, I couldn’t help but smile. It was glowing kind of. And had these little wings that were beating so fast it was a blur. When I moved my hand over to my wrist console, something hurt in my back, so I stopped. I was about to just use voice commands. But then that little creature flew right over and slapped my wrist console. Brought up the emergency button and pressed it. How do you like that?”
Dae and Cass exchanged a glance. The security chief leaned toward Mr. Frait. “I hadn’t heard that part of it before.”
He grinned. “I know what it is. I’ve seen the super-nature documentaries from the root planet.”
Don’t say “pixie,” thought Cass.
Mr. Frait glanced over to her. “It was a pixie.”
Dae gave no special reaction to the proclamation than she had to any other part of his account. She made a note and nodded. “This has been very helpful. You gave me some details I didn’t have before. Thank you.”
Mr. Frait pointed at her. “Don’t hurt it, Irene. Tell your people. It doesn’t mean any harm. Just following its nature. And from what I could tell, it’s young, very young. With none of its grown folks here to guide it and protect it.”
Dae rose and nodded. She leaned down to give his hand a reassuring pat.
Mr. Frait rose too, with the help of his wife. “You find the son of a dingbat who brought that poor creature here.”
“I will. And you mind your hip—and your language.”
“Sorry, I’m just…”
“Worried, about the little guy who put you in the medical bay?”
“Not the worst I’ve been going in there,” Mr Frait said with a wink. He waved his hand. “Was just a lark.”
“Nice guy,” Cass said when they were back in the hallway. She hadn’t so much as exchanged greetings with the couple.
“They won’t all be as generous, especially if the pranks get more dangerous.”
“But it seemed as if the pix—the assailant felt remorse. Even called for help on his behalf.”
“Which is another clue, I’d say. Pixies have no trouble picking up and learning human languages—spoken and written,” Dae said. When Cass looked over at her, she shrugged. “I watched the same documentary.”
Then Dae shook her head. “If we weren’t so far away from everything, I’d call for a special containment unit to help out. Might still do that, with your permission.”
“It’ll take them time to come out here though. We have to at least find some way to keep…Lark contained somewhere, away from people.”
“Is that the codename we’ll use, so we don’t start a panic?”
“Sure, let’s go with that.”
“I have good news and I have bad news,” Dae said. She had just entered Cass’s office that evening. If she’d come in person, after the end of her shift, then the bad news must have been very bad.
Cass sat up in her chair. She’d spent most of the day receiving and answering calls and messages. Half of them were more reports of disturbances caused by some mysterious prankster. Most never saw who. The pranks had gone harmless, but Call worried they might escalate again.
“Is someone hurt?” Cass asked. “I’ve been monitoring, but I may have missed—”
Dae held up her hands and shook her head. “Not that. I hope our little culprit really did get squeamish after what happened to Ian Frait.”
“Okay, I could use some good news.”
“I’m certain enough that we’ve found the person who brought that pixie aboard the station to go and bring them in for questioning.”
“The bad is who that person is. I thought you might want to come with me.”
Dae pointed one finger up.
Cass took a deep breath and blew it out through her mouth.
Then she gulped.
“We had two leads before this one,” Dae said, as they once again walked to someone’s residence. But this time they went up a level. “Martin talked to them all. One was a recent visitor from the root planet, who’d been on a tour of the system after winning a game show or contest. He had family on the station. Wasn’t here long. But we cleared him. Next was a group of employees with one of the transport contractors—Sector Six. They went to a conference on a moon that no one from the station had ever been to before, according to their records. That one was a bit of a longshot. But the moon also gets a lot of traffic from the root planet’s system, so we were just being thorough. But we cleared them too.”
“But you weren’t able to clear this one?”
“More than that,” Dae said. “We found evidence in their shuttle. Residue. Lab’s analyzing it now.”
“Why aren’t we waiting until the results come in?” Cass would rather have gone in with solid proof. But she had to admit to herself that even with solid proof, she would have wanted to turn around and run in the opposite direction at each step, just like she did now.
Dae sighed. “Because those results will take a few hours. And she already knows we’re coming.”
The level above station administration and security belonged to those who had paid for the construction of the main station—and the satellite docking station that had since been hauled away for use elsewhere. The level was not for offices, but residences, for the head of the refinery corporation, the system’s governor, and individual patrons, like the Wright family.
The Wrights had discovered the asteroid and laid ownership claim to it.
The “she” that Dae had referred to was the current head of the family, at least the arm of the family that resided in their system.
She lived on the station, along with one or two of her ne’er-do-well adult children.
One of those adult children broke a quarantine on a recent vacation to the root planet, presumably to show off to his friends or feel a thrill. He went into a preservation zone that was teeming with the larvae of a pesky and potentially destructive species of fairy, pixies.
Cass loathed herself for feeling reluctant to accuse one of the Wrights.
Their patronage brought in a good percentage of the funds needed to maintain the station. It was funds the station couldn’t afford to lose.
“According to my sources,” Dae said, “he took one of the larvae and smuggled it off the planet on his private shuttle. Brought it home to show his mother. Thought she would be proud of him. But she ordered him to take it back. So it seems the larva was on the shuttle, which is too big for their private dock.”
“That’s why it was in a public dock?”
“Correct, and that’s where it hatched. Cameras managed to get a blurry image. Lark’s wings must not have been completely dry and solidified yet.”
And, as Ian Frait had told them, without any adult pixies to temper its naturally mischievous nature, the hatchling—now more like a toddler—would run wild.
As they approached the Wright residence, Cass braced herself for denials and counter-accusations about violating the privacy of their private property—the shuttle. She pulled up a few legal and policy documents on her wrist console that she would most certainly need to reference.
Ms. Wright also offered refreshments. She also offered polite banter, asking after Dae’s family, and complimenting Cass on handling the responsibility of running the station in the absence of her superior.
“I wonder if your son is at home,” Dae said shortly.
“Chief Dae, Admin Cass, I have a deal to propose,” Ms. Wright said.
Dae said nothing. That meant she didn’t trust herself to say anything quite yet.
Cass cleared her throat. “A deal?”
“I know you’re on the case already, doing an admirable job of it, by the way,” Ms. Wright said, tossing a smile toward Dae before returning her gaze to Cass. “If you can deal with the culprit and capture it, and keep my son’s involvement out of your reports—both official and unofficial—I will arrange transport back to the root planet. As you know, that is quite a considerable expense with how far we are from the nearest working wormhole.”
Dae responded, or tried to. “Speaking of your son—”
“Yes, that will be taken care of too,” Ms. Wright said, raising a hand to the security chief. “I give you my assurances that he will be banned from this station henceforth.” She rose. “If there is anything else I can do for either of you, please let me know. I’ll connect your consoles to my private line.” She gestured to the front door, which slid open.
Cass rose first, and waited for Dae to rise as well. They both thanked Ms. Wright and left.
This time, Cass followed Dae to the security office. They were both done with their shifts. But considering the current emergency, they wanted to check in before heading home for the day.
Three of Dae’s team were gathered around the one who was in charge of the “night” shift.
“What’s going on?” Dae asked.
“We had a fire on the refinery level, sector eleven. No one was hurt, but…almost.”
Cass’s stomach flipped again. “Oh no.”
“Do we know what caused it?” Dae asked.
“The cause was not the suspicious part, Chief,” the one in charge said. “Fires flare up in the automated smelting areas on occasion, but they’re put out right away if the fire suppression system is working. It should be triggered automatically, but this time, it didn’t activate.”
“The fire spread to areas where there were workers,” someone else added. “They had to evacuate.”
“Then the system activated and put out the fire.”
Dae frowned. “A delay?”
The one in charge shook his head. “We checked the logs. Someone hit it manually.” He smiled. “From inside the automated smelting area. So it couldn’t have been one of our people. They were all accounted for in the evacuation area.”
“You taught us not to make assumptions, right, Chief?” one of the others said. “So we didn’t want to assume anything about the fire. Like if it was an accident or started on purpose. I looked into it according to procedure. Guess what? That system has been overdue for its regular quarterly maintenance for about a year. Oh, and before that, someone was taking care of it, but on their off time. That person got stretched thin, missed one maintenance. Missed the rest.”
Dae shook her head. “It’s already happening. The smaller companies that used to handle stuff like this pulled out and sold their contracts to the larger ones. But the larger ones have been cutting back.”
Cass gripped the edge of a table as her head spun. “Station safety is ultimately my responsibility. This is my fault.”
“You can’t keep track of all the details,” Dae said. “That’s not what your job is.”
“Lark,” Cass said. “Lark saved those people.”
“I’m starting to like that little runt,” the head of the night shift said.
Cass inhaled as her mind spun with thoughts. She focused it on one line of reasoning.
The pixie seemed to have matured quickly after having hatched.
Entering a childhood where it understood having a conscience and morals, having easily picked up the language and symbols of humans, the pixies tricks were diminishing.
Maybe the pixie was at an age where it could be reasoned with.
Cass blew out a breath as her head cleared. “Dae? What are the chances—the realistic chances—of you and your team being able to catch this pixie?”
“Honestly, Jor. We’re not trained for it. Why would we be? It would have been hard even just after it hatched, but at this point…” She sighed. “The containment team is a week out. We’ll keep coming up with plans, of course. But we may just be looking at damage control until they get here. Our priority, as always, will be the safety and security of the station residents, ourselves included.”
Cass was nodding even before the security chief finished speaking. “Okay, then I want to try something. I need your team’s full cooperation and support.”
“You’ve already got it. Wait…are you thinking of doing something reckless?”
“Do you still have access to that documentary you and Mister Frait were talking about?”
“Why are you not in the Wright shuttle?” Dae asked over the encrypted security line.
Cass was sitting in one of the station’s shuttle bays, inside one of the transport shuttles owned by one of the few companies still operating on the station. Dae had vetted them for her. This company had a good reputation for being responsible—especially when it came to safety. The shuttle was less than half full. It wasn’t scheduled to make any deliveries for another year. But Cass had easily convinced the owners to let her make an early delivery, if she managed to offset the missing cargo by taking aboard a very special passenger.
The private shuttle that Ms. Wright had offered would have been faster and probably just as safe.
But Cass wanted to avoid owing the Wrights any favors, even though the whole ordeal was technically their fault, and they were only correcting their own mistake by offering their shuttle.
“I don’t want to have to pay for any damages,” Cass said. “In case our friend gets angry, or is just feeling a little destructive.”
“Do you think it’ll work?”
“How long do you plan on waiting in there?”
“I don’t know yet.”
Dae checked in every hour. Cass waited.
Seven hours past, she had made a station-wide announcement, addressed to the pixie, requesting to meet in the shuttle bay. Since the fire, there had been no more pranks. And no more sightings.
At the fourteen-hour mark, Cass started feeling too tired to amuse herself with reading. She’d long since given up on trying to catch up with paperwork. She scrolled through her messages and saw a vacation card from her boss. There was a cheesy joke in there about hoping Cass had fallen asleep from the boredom of running such a quiet station.
And at some point, Cass fell asleep.
She was woken by a bright light.
Cass winced at the crick in her neck from sleeping only half-reclined in the pilot chair. She squinted and held her forearm over her eyes.
The brightness dimmed.
She lowered her forearm.
She glanced up at a corner made by two panel boxes attached to the shuttle’s inner hull. Perched between them, three limbs held against the panel sides, one limb hanging loose, and wings still fluttering slowly, as if winding down to a stop, was the pixie.
From her distance, Cass couldn’t make out the features of the face, human-like but with two antennae curling around two oversized tapering ears, almost as long as the wings.
Hello, Lark, Cass thought.
But when she spoke, she said. “Thank you for coming.”
At the sound of her voice, the pixie shifted position, crawling along the side of one panel box, flattening an already slim and narrow body, and settling on top of the box. A row of stinging spines along the pixie’s back rose slightly, but then settled again.
“I’ve asked you here to discuss something with you,” Cass said. She stopped and watched the pixie for any sign of a response, or a repositioning.
The pixie sat still now, just watching and listening.
“First, I thank you for saving those people from the fire. That was you who hit the manual button, wasn’t it? For fire suppression?”
The pixie’s head tilted quickly, then straightened. The movements reminded Cass of the little lizards who lived in the horticulture wing on one of the public spaces levels.
I’m stalling, Cass thought, peering at the pixie, wanting to move closer, but afraid that if she tried, she would blink and find herself staring at an empty space where the pixie once sat.
Wild and capricious. There is no making a deal or a contract with a pixie.
Then again, there was no making a deal or contract with some people either.
Cass took a deep breath and let it go. “You don’t want to hurt people, do you? But someone has hurt you, taken you away from your family without their permission, or yours. I’m sorry about that.” She pressed her hand to her chest. “I’d like to take you back. I’ll take you myself. To make sure. No tricks. I don’t play tricks.”
The pixie suddenly leapt off the panel. The feathery wings thrummed again, moving so fast they seemed to glow in the same warm orange and yellow hues that colored their surfaces.
Without looking away, Cass swiped at her wrist console, pulling up an image on the shuttle’s main viewer.
“This is the root planet, Earth,” she said. “Where humans originated. Pixies too. Actually, you should have been born there. Do you want to go back?”
Please say “yes.”
The pixie flew closer, close enough that Cass could now see tiny twinkling eyes, tufts and strands of red-orange hair, and a wide smile.
The pixie pointed to the image on the viewer, then pointed to Cass, and nodded.
“Yes?” Cass asked. “I am ready to go now, if you are.”
The pixie nodded again and then settled on the main shuttle console, standing upright now.
“Oh, I’ll—uh—need to access some of those controls, if you don’t mind.”
The pixie hopped away, onto the chair typically occupied by a navigator or co-pilot, for more perilous trips.
Cass realized that she needed to use the shuttle’s facilities after having slept for a few hours.
“Excuse me a moment,” she said, locking the controls.
The pixie waved a hand, eyes transfixed on the image of the root planet, and the route they would take to get there.
Once they were under way, Cass explained about the route they would take, and how they would be met by officials when they landed, who would escort the pixie back to the pixies’ home zone.
“They’ll let me come with you up to a point, if you want,” Cass said. “But if not, well, I spoke with the person who’s going to take you back. She seems like a responsible and compassionate person. So I think you’ll be in good hands, until you can be back in your own hands that is. Also, if you want to pull any pranks or anything, please just make them minor. Nothing scary. And nothing that interferes with shuttle operations—although I’m sure you know that part already.”
After a few more sentences, she realized she was babbling and stopped.
But the trip went smoothly. They arrived right on time.
The hand-off went smoothly. The pixie declined Cass’s offer of escort—politely declined with a bright smile.
“Goodbye, Lark,” Cass said as they parted. “Good luck.”
The pixie glowed.
On her way back, once she was in range of station communications again, Cass gave Dae her unofficial account of the uneventful event. And they both discussed their new struggle.
“Are you leaving him out of your report?” Dae asked. “Because I don’t want to lie in my report. But if I don’t, Wright will pull her support. So I’d be endangering the station if I don’t lie. Then again, Wright still has a few more idiot kids living here. What if one of them brings back something worse? A plague or a singularity in a suitcase.”
Cass coughed out a humorless chuckle. “I’ll support and match whatever decision you want to make. Station security is your arena. People already know by now what really happened. They’ll understand that it’s a necessary compromise. If we lie, we’re doing it to protect the station.”
“That’s not a compromise, Jor. That’s a concession.”
“Will it help you decide if I tell you I may have managed to line up a new source of funds? Nothing official yet.”
The primary reason Cass had wanted to fly the pixie back to the root planet herself was to make sure the pixie made it back. But the secondary reason was that she hoped to find someone—or maybe a few someones—who would be interested in investing in the station. She hoped that meeting in person would make her case more convincing. Cass took about a dozen meetings while she was there, and scheduled twice as many remote meetings for when she was back on the station.
“How many were interested?” Dae asked.
“None of the ones I scheduled anyway,” Cass said, grinning.
One of them told her she would have been interested, if the pixie were still on the station, and could be trained to do shows, steal things from the audience, and make “controlled mayhem.”
“What an idiot,” Dae said.
“Yeah, but after I talked to her, I got a call. Someone requesting to meet with me.”
Cass grinned again.
The researcher, the pixie expert who had met Cass and escorted the pixie back into pixie territory, was both disturbed and captivated by the story of what happened.
“She wants to bring a good chunk of her funding to the station, so she and her team can study this rare instance of human-pixie interaction in the wild. I had sent some of our notes and reports to her already, and she was apparently impressed by how extensive they were. She wants to come herself. But her team is coming in advance, as in, they’re onboard this shuttle. They want to take samples, and do interviews. Oh, they’ll need badges if you can get started on that.”
There was a slight delay in their communications. So it took a few seconds for Dae’s face to shift from a neutral listening expression to a smirk. “Wonderful. We all know how incredibly wealthy academic researchers are. We should be set for life now.” She held up her fists with both thumbs pointing up.
Cass threw up her hands. “Hey, it won’t replace all the funds we expect to lose, true, but it’s a start.”
“A damn good start, Admin Cass. Thanks for that. And thanks for giving me a reason to tell the whole truth in my official and unofficial reports.”
Cass breathed a sigh of relief and nodded. Then she chuckled. “Conclusion, ‘Disaster narrowly averted.’”
“I’m putting, ‘Conclusion, Emergency proficiently prevented.’”
“How about ‘yay for teamwork?’”
Dae’s delayed smile bloomed over her face.
“Yay for teamwork,” she said.
Copyright © 2023 Nila L. Patel