A dingy hum filled the sterile passages as it did every waking moment, a droning background for the mechanical motion of the station. The whole station seemed to tick with every inch of its lurching rotation, spinning like the hands of a clock, a full circle for every twelve hours. Its spin created life, kept everything rooted, bringing gravity where there was none, or rather, the illusion of it, allowing its denizens to work and toil to keep the station churning and to keep their feet firmly planted. It was a simulated home. Its ground was metallic and worn, not soft, but was ground nonetheless. Its food was replicated, not grown, but still tasted fine. Its air was stale, not fresh, but still kept them alive. Even the most fundamental tug of gravity was artificially rendered, but it gave weight either way. It was not Earth, but it was good enough.
The only genuine comfort that both shared was the Sun, though theirs was in great magnification, and the stars, which shone every moment of every day. Half the time, the solar rays peered through tinted windows, filling corridors with dusty grey glows, the walls shining dimly against the heavily filtered light. The other half, the stars reigned over in a perpetual moonless night, the only convincing simulation, though still profoundly lonely sans Luna overhead.
On her few reprieves from working, Cara would contemplate this familiar sky, ever changing, allowing her a year’s worth of stargazing in only a quarter of the time. She plotted the stars in her head, drawing constellations with the tip of her finger, tracing mythical pictures in the creeping expanse overhead. She could watch them for a few short hours before she was called away by duty or sleep or the massive sun eclipsed the overhead window. As she would drift into dreams or walk to the engineering deck, she would recall the grand tales that placed the forms in the heavens, the tale of the pseudo-heroic Perseus, the tragically flawed Hercules, Orion the warrior, Cassiopeia the vain queen, her daughter, Andromeda. They danced in her head, creating a grandiose celestial drama.
When she would arrive at the deck, she would find solace in her modern Greek opera, spending the day characterizing these ancient figures as real, fallible people, her only true companions in the dank isolation of space. The only other thing that kept her so occupied was the station itself, monitoring its valves and meters, maintaining its complex systems and tinkering with its esoteric mechanics. It was her child, and she coddled and cared for it, showering it with what little affection that hadn’t yet been stamped out.
As the only woman engineer serving and one of the few onboard, she found herself to be the odd-one-out, often excluded from the fraternal activities of the rest, almost always the target of their cruel ridicule and misogynistic jabs. Her higher ups often treated her with disrespect, treating her as a grunt, allowing her to do only general maintenance and sticking her with the jobs that no one dared to do. She gladly accepted, carrying out the work with the same skill and effort as her male counterparts with no praise or attention afterwards. To Cara, the whole lot was nothing more than a gaggle of ignorant knuckle-draggers that knew a few things about a life support system. She had dealt with the boy’s club mentality of her profession since Day 1, but her experience did not help to diminish her solitude.
One day, though, amidst the taunts and belittling, a rumor floated around of a slew of reforms coming to the station – the higher ups back on Earth were apparently dissatisfied with the conditions on the aging craft and new administration were on a rocket to bring it to ship shape. Surely enough, their current, ineffective boss was gone the next day, and in his place was a man much unlike those they’d seen. Most of the crew was civilians: solar scientists, technicians, engineers with a not quite enough credentials to find better work, mechanics with little education and enough innate handiness to teach them the basics of space station upkeep. This new man, however, was clean-cut; clothes starched and pressed; hair short and tidy. His face was sharp and dark, eyes set back and a deep brown, harsh but not without feeling. He stood stock, every movement controlled and calculated. The moment he arrived at the station, he put out a station-wide announcement, summoning all engineering staff to the main deck. A few hours later, nearly the whole population of the ship, engineer and scientist alike, gathered in awe of this new man.
When he spoke, is voice was sharp and decisive with a lingering accent, a tinge of exotic origins.
“Good day, everyone,” he started, announcing his presence to the huddled mass of engineers, who stared at him blankly, “My name is Lucio Gregori. Though I am your superior, feel free to call me by my given name – I find these formalities trivial – but know that I am not here to make friends. I am here to make sure that this station is in full working order. I will be here to supervise you, as my title suggests, and I will be the first and last person you will go to if ever anything needing supervision arises.”
Lucio paused for a long moment, leaving the crowd to stir in impatient anticipation.
“Oh, and I treat all my men as they should be treated. Merit and nothing more will find you praise and determine your standing. I expect all of you to do the same. Let this be your only and final warning.”
With that, he turned away, swiftly exiting the deck amongst lingering silence, his shoes making light clicking on the metal walkway. The crowd stood for a time, flabbergasted, before a few brave souls broke from the mass, causing it to slowly decompose. Cara lingered behind, still stunned at the presentation of the young, striking man, wondering what this meant for her.
For the next few weeks, the station set into a calm hum once again, but something was different about it. Everything was quieter – the buzz of the systems fell to a murmur, the clink of footsteps grew rarer and discreet, the taunts lessened, even becoming compliments or regards. It was as if the station had undergone a silent metamorphosis, becoming a well-oiled machine, figuratively and literally, almost overnight. Lucio’s sheer presence seemed to change the whole workings of the station and its occupants. Cara finished her work in peace, finding more time to herself with all her work finishing so quickly with the systems running optimally and at full efficiency. She spent even longer hours in her quarters, her dreams of the mythical dramas now more vivid and comforting. One day, a note showed up on her door, peculiarly handwritten in an odd, flowing hand that Cara vaguely recognized, crudely pinned to it with some strange, clear strip she later identified as tape. She pulled it from the door, scrutinizing its elegant lettering.
“Please see me in my office, Deck 4, Room 7,” it read, signed simply at the bottom “Lucio”.
For a while, she pondered the archaic communication, bringing it to her quarters with her. She turned it in her hands, holding it against the filtered sunlight flowing through her window, inspecting every inch. This kind of thing was a rarity now a days, and using it over a simple electronic message or even direct audio link suggested an air of mystery about Lucio, that he wanted to get off some deeper, sub-textual idea through the use of such an outdated technology.
Later that day, still thinking on the paper, she followed its directions, finding her way to Deck 4, Room 7. The steel plated door was no different than that of any of the hundreds of other doors on the station, glossy and durable and sterilely plain, aside from a small name plaque at eye level, reading “Lucio Gregori” with the title “Station Administrator” written under it in small, unassuming lettering. Apprehensively, her finger drifted towards the digital keypad installed to the left of the portal, pressing it gingerly. A little beep rung within the room, but there was no response. For quite a bit, she stood, awaiting the door push open or for someone to acknowledge her, but nothing happened. She tried the keypad again with the same result. Confused and unsure about her options, she did the only thing she knew to do. Slowly, she balled her fingers into a fist, gently rapping against the cold metal door.
“Ah, yes, do come in,” someone greeted from inside as the door slowly pulled open.
Lucio was sitting at his desk, clutching a book, yet another antiquated novelty, seemingly reading it by the light of a humble desk lamp. His office was sparsely furnished but each piece was far older than the standard issue furniture and much more ornate. He put down the dusty, leather bound object, standing to greet her.
“Cara Reid, yes?”
“Yes,” she started apprehensively, “and you are Mr. Gregori?”
“Lucio,” he corrected.
“Lucio, right,” she repeated a bit nervously.
“Please, have a seat.”
He gestured to a small sofa with a smile, beckoning for her to sit. She did, slowly and carefully, still unsure as to what this concerned and confused by his bizarre and dated mannerisms.
“I’m sure you are confused as to why I called you here.”
“I wanted to see how you were faring,” he explained, strolling back to his desk, “I read in the reports on this station that you were the only female engineer currently employed as active staff, as well as copies of all your filed reports. It is a shame that the issues of which they speak were not addressed earlier.”
“No, it’s ok,” Cara replied, “I’ve learned to deal with it.”
“No, it is not ok. Your gender has no impact on your skills and ability as an engineer and member of this crew, nor should it affect your treatment by your peers or your role in the workplace.”
“I don’t want to cause any trouble.”
Lucio paused for a moment, considering this comment.
“You graduated top of your class and have received multiple degrees from prestigious international universities, not to mention nearly ten years of experience in this line of work. That is more than most of my crew can claim. It is not ‘causing trouble’, as you call it, when you request that your skills be put to better use. That is why I am installing you today as sub-administrator of the engineering deck.”
Cara was shocked and attempted to respond, but Lucio continued before she could.
“You will be looking over the whole of the engineering crew during normal hours. You will act as my eyes and ears on the deck to keep the place in order and inform me of any issues.”
“I can’t accept that, sir.”
“Oh, why not?”
“The boys down there just don’t respect me.”
“Do not worry about that. I will make sure that they do.”
Two days after their conversation, Cara started in her position as sub-administrator. Her first few days could be described as rocky at best, a full-on disaster at worse. Though her knowledge of the engines and systems was extensive, her knowledge of how to dictate duties and order to her inferiors was not. Few of the men acknowledged her as authority, others downright disregarded her, some even continued the same derogatory attitude they had always harbored towards her. Gradually, however, things improved, seemingly out of nowhere. Complaints of preferential treatment and sexism had risen by day two, but were quickly squashed and never spoken of again. The men began to trust her, obey her, and even respect her, but she felt this change of heart was far too sudden to be under their own volition.
Suspecting his doing, Cara went to confront her boss later that week, returning to the elegantly Spartan office. She found Lucio in much the same position he was before, reading another yellowed and dusty book.
“What can I do for you, Cara?” he asked amicably, “How has your week been?”
“Have you been telling off my men?” she asked, trying to hide her slight annoyance.
“I don’t understand,” he replied, looking genuinely puzzled.
“Have you been telling them to respect me?”
Lucio contemplated this for a moment before responding, “No, I would not say that, but I have been discussing their performance and attitude.”
“Well, I don’t need your help, or anyone else’s for that matter. Respect is something that is gained. After all, you’re the one who gave the speech about merit mattering, not gender.”
A grin grew on Lucio’s face, “Very well. I will not interfere. I simply wished to increase efficiency by dealing with problem workers. However, I see now that you are perfectly capable of handling this on your own and I will allow you to do as such.”
Cara studied his expression for a long while, unsure if this was sarcasm. He seemed trustworthy enough and his tone suggested no deception.
“Well, good, then,” she finally replied, “Thanks.”
“You are quite welcome.”
For the next few weeks, the station ran efficiently, thanks to Lucio’s behind-the-scenes administration, though Cara did not want to admit it. Still welling with pride, she wanted to take on problems on her own. When she was affronted by issues, however, she quickly felt overwhelmed, still not experienced in dealing with interpersonal manners, especially not in tandem with mechanical failures. If the engines had an issue, she would often forgo her troubles with her men to fix the issue as fast as she could and then try to make up for it by turning her focus solely to the management problem as the engines grew worse. It was a juggling act she just could not maintain, and after only a short month, she threw up her hands, walked off the engineering deck, and locked herself in her quarters.
For nearly three straight hours, she starred into the sky, watching as the stars drifted lazily by. Her hair splayed about her like a fiery red halo, resembling a modern Irish Venus, thin and fair, gazing longingly into the heavens. She reevaluated every aspect of her life, her new position, her skills, her presence on the station. She pleaded for help from her celestial cast, but no advice came. After a while, she drifted into a quiet sleep, fantastical dramas playing in her head.
She was violently jarred awake by a blaring siren. The whole ship echoed with a screeching whine, the flashing red of the emergency lights in the halls even visible in the reflections on her window overhead. She sat up with a start, glancing around nervously. Before she could even get to her feet, someone was pounding loudly on her door.
“Cara, get yer ass out here!” – it was one of her men – “The engine’s failin’ and half tha guys ‘re K.O.’d or dead and Lucio’s got himself buried knee deep in sparks ‘n’ wires! If ya don’t get out here, we’re all dead!”
Cara sprung up, but suddenly found walking difficult. Her first step was heavy and slow, as if her shoes were made of led, but her second was light and quick. Each step took a different amount of effort than the last, a sure sign that the gravity generator was giving way. She hurried to engineering as fast as she could, slowed considerably by the ever changing pull of gravity.
When she arrived, she found the doors malfunctioning, forced to shove them open herself. As she did, smoke poured from the slit. The whole deck was in chaos, clouds of thick black smog filling the air and wires sparking and fizzing like angry snakes. She coughed and hacked as she fought her way through the haze, careful not to step on the writing men below her.
“Lucio!” she shouted between coughs, “Lucio, where are you?!”
After a moment, a weak voice called, “Over here! Cara, over here, by the main terminal!”
Surely enough, he was, hanging over the central panel. His arm bore a deep gash and his blood was pooling on the floor. He coughed violently, lungs filled with tarry smoke.
“Hang on, Lucio, we’re gonna get you out of here,” she assured him.
“No, no, if you do not control the system, there will be no place to which to get. You must shut it down before we all die.”
Wincing, Cara nodded. Lucio staggered back from the controls, collapsing in his own crimson blood, gripping his arm as it seeped, adding to the pool at his feet. She immediately went to work, navigating procedural shutdown sequences and introducing clearances for a total reset of the system. As she did, the engines rumbled and spewed more and more haze, growing more virulent with every passing second. At the last moment, when the engine seemed at its breaking point, she entered the final code.
The engine sputtered, cracked, fizzed. Smoke now filled every inch of the room. Cara fell to the floor, barely clinging to consciousness.
With a dying growl, the engine shut off.
In an instant, gravity vanished. Through the smoke, she could see Lucio’s contorted form, floating just off the ground, small, perfectly spherical droplets of blood floating around him. He looked like a bloody angel, lamenting yet free. For a few short moments, she could hear him speak, saying something in a language she didn’t understand, probably Italian. It was short and powerful, whispered with his last breath, perhaps a plea or a prayer. It was the last thing she noticed before reality all came rushing back.
Gravity appeared again as quickly as it left, tugging Cara to the ground once more. She grunted as she slammed into the unforgiving metal platform, and lay at the terminal’s base for a few moments before getting over the shock of the last few events. As she rose, the smoke slowly cleared from the room, allowing her to see the men, surviving and dead, scattered about the deck, those living just as confused and shaken as she was.
Cara noticed Lucio slumped over, wet and stained by his own blood. She crawled to him, propping him up in her arms. His face was already pale and lifeless and his arm now only trickled blood, most of which was collected about his feet.
“Lucio… Lucio,” she pleaded, shaking him lightly.
Cara looked up towards her men, her eyes pleading for help, though there was nothing anyone could do now. The only thing they could offer was their applause, which slowly began to fill the room. As they clapped, tears flowed down her face, both in pride and in mourning.
She had proven her worth, but was it worth his life?