“Janis, you awake?”
“Mat?” Janis rolled over in her bunk and rubbed her eyes, yawning. “Come in. Do you know what time it is?”
Mataes entered and sat on the end of her bunk. Damp socks draped over the mattress, and unwashed clothes lay scattered across the concrete floor. “I’ve brought you some food,” he said, pulling a half-loaf of black bread from his coveralls, unwrapping it from a piece of cloth.
She sat up with stiff joints, air ducts wheezing above. She grabbed the bread from his outstretched hand and took a large bite. “Where did you get this?” She looked into his dark eyes, smiling.
“I stole it from the higher-ups’ mess. They’re hoarding now.”
“Thank you.” The dry bread stuck against the roof of her mouth, but she savoured each mouthful, letting the bread soften on her tongue before swallowing. “Sorry, would you like some?”
“No thanks, why do you think it’s only half a loaf?”
“You’re amazing. If there’s any way I can repay you?”
“Oh.” Janis fell silent and stopped chewing. “What is it?”
“A few of us—.” Mataes hesitated, brushing his hand over his scalp as he faced Janis. “You want what’s best for everyone, don’t you?”
“Everyone? Who’s everyone?” She wiped breadcrumbs from her rough woollen blanket.
“All of us workers. We’re starving while the higher-ups are sitting on supplies. We’re still getting bills for power and water — what are you going to pay them with? It’s only a matter of time before things start getting violent. You don’t want that, do you?”
She shook her head. “I see.”
“A few of us have got a plan, but we need people we can trust to help us. I know I can trust you Janis — you’re a good person.”
“Is this ‘few of us’ Arfo?”
“Has he spoken to you?”
“No, but the way the pair of you have been going around lately, I could tell you were up to something.”
“You can get to the cleaning stores. No one would suspect you if you did,” he said, taking Janis’s hand.
She knitted her brow, pursing her lips as she considered his words. “I could get to the cleaning stores when I was working, but how am I supposed to get across to the other platform without raising suspicions? Haven’t the higher-ups stopped the capsules?”
“Arfo said he can fit you with a vacuum suit. He said you’d just need to go up the capsule tunnel to the other side.”
“Right.” The side of her mouth twitched.
“There won’t be anyone on that side except for a few of the higher-ups. We just need you to mix some cleaning chemicals.”
She pulled her hand back and scratched her head. “But we’re not meant to mix them — it’s a rule.” She shook her head. “Is there no one else who—.”
“There’s no one, Janis. I know you can do this.”
“Right.” She looked down at her chipped fingernails and gave a quivering sigh.
Mataes cupped her hands with his. “I believe in you, Janis Parvo.”
“Okay.” She gave him a nervous look. “And what should I say if I get stopped?”
“We’ll do it when the higher-ups are asleep. And if you are stopped, just tell them there’s an issue over on our side with the toilets. They’re not going to show their faces on this side any time soon.”
“When were you thinking?”
“There are a few things we need to prepare, but if you want to help us, it will mean so much to me. Being willing to make this sacrifice is amazing.” He cast his eyes to the door. “I like you, Janis.”
Janis smiled, then nodded. “If this is what we need to do to help everyone, I’ll do it.”
“That’s great Janis. That’s really great. I’ll let Arfo know you’re in. And remember — don’t say a word to anyone about this.”
She nodded. “I won’t. I wouldn’t.”
Janis stood with her arms outstretched and hair tied back as Mataes made the final adjustments to her vacuum suit. She winced as the suit squeezed around her thighs and forearms. Air ducts hissed as the station creaked with low syncopated ticks.
Steel beams and blue light tubes curved ten metres up to the tunnel entrance above. Without the workers boarding and alighting transport capsules, it was far too quiet. She leaned over the platform edge, expecting to see the top of a line of spherical capsules, but the hole was empty and black.
“I’m scared,” she said, stepping away from the concrete edge.
“You’ll be great,” said Mataes. “The suit’s just adjusting to you. And if it’s any consolation, you do look ridiculous.”
She laughed and struck him on the arm with a playful punch. She leaned forward and kissed him on the lips.
“Well, look at you two.”
She released him from her embrace and flushed. Arfo strode across the boarding platform towards them. He stood tall and thin, with sharp features and a thick black ponytail.
Mataes fumbled to fit Janis’s oxygen backup. “Good luck,” he whispered.
“Make sure your communicator’s off,” Arfo said. “We don’t want the higher-ups to listen in on any of this. Are you happy with the plan? Do you remember what to do?”
She nodded as a small bead of sweat collected on her forehead and dripped to the floor.
“Just keep going straight up the capsule tunnel and you’ll be fine,” Arfo said. “Try to accelerate to the point in the centre when you feel the gravity dip. When it flips you want to start decelerating. If you keep at a constant acceleration, the gravity’s going to give you a big speed boost, and you might lose control, so please be careful.” He glanced up at the tunnel and then leaned over the platform edge.
She gave an unsure nod.
“Just remember when you get to the middle, what you thought was up will become down. Just try not to get disorientated.” Arfo brushed back his hair and examined Janis’s suit.
She smiled as Mataes lifted the helmet over her head. “I’ll see you on the other side,” he said. “I’m so proud of you for doing this.”
The helmet clicked into place. She moved her head from left to right and up and down, testing its range of motion. She smelled her nervous sweat and the faint trace of ozone. Air pressure pushed against her ears.
Looking up, the capsule tunnel gave the illusion of a series of concentric steel rings. She gulped.
Arfo tapped her helmet twice and nodded. Taking a deep breath, she twisted the knob to open the propellant and floated up and into the tunnel.
She’d travelled back and forth along the capsule line thousands of times, but always within the confines of the windowless transport capsules. This was something different, both exciting and terrifying.
The gravity reduced the closer she came to the central point between the two platforms.
Then she stopped. Turning to her left, she gazed out of the window and realised it was the first time she had ever seen outside — the blackness of space; the dull orange surface of Titan; the vast swathes or white and orange and red across Saturn’s surface, its icy rings shimmering ghost-like against the distant white sun.
The sounds of her body filled her ears — her breath, her heartbeat, the grinding of her teeth.
After drifting past the viewing window, her speed increased. The gravity flipped.
The suit jerked and she went into a spin. Closing her eyes, she tried to re-orientate her body to the new direction of gravity’s pull. She took a deep breath, reduced her acceleration and drifted down towards the work side of the station.
The gravity increased until it reached the station’s normal level. She made a final twist on the suit’s knob, stopping the propellant, and squeezed past the stationary capsules.
She switched on the suit’s internal communicator. With trepidation, she tapped on the side of a capsule — its hollow, metallic sound ringing out around her. She couldn’t switch on the suit’s external communicator, but she could hear her surroundings.
The platform mirrored the one she had left behind. The platform creaked and strained against the ubiquitous rumble of idling machinery, the low whine of air ducts, and the echo of her own footsteps against concrete and steel.
Her workplace was unfamiliar at this time of night. Gone were the crowds of workers and drones racing back and forth; gone were the bright daylight lamps lining the corridors; and gone was that sense of community, of belonging.
All was quiet. All was still. The silence terrified her.
She crept along the main corridor lit by strips of dim blue light. She passed by the drone control rooms and the administration offices, the medical bay, and security room with its reinforced doors framed by thick rivets. She passed the stairwell down to the farms, the air processing and water treatment levels. She passed the elevator up to the reactors and the higher-ups’ accommodation. The door to the main delivery dock loomed ahead. She stopped.
A distant rhythmic sound rang out behind her. She hugged her body against a doorway. The pulse in her head became louder and louder. She held her breath and strained to hear, but the internal communicator’s range wasn’t as good as her own ears. She unclicked the helmet. Her ears popped. The air was stale. The stench of something rotten lingered.
Placing the helmet next to her on the floor, she waited and listened, cupping her ear with her gloved hand. Nothing.
Shaking, sweating, she reached down and clicked the helmet back on. The pressure returned to her ears. The platform’s ambient sounds faded to little more than a compressed hiss. Her neck stiffened.
Crossing the corridor, she entered the cleaning store. She closed the door behind her, switched on the light and slumped onto her usual seat. She sighed as she considered the vats of chemicals stacked against the opposite wall.
If she wanted, she could turn back.
She got up and walked over to a trio of cleaning drones standing along the rear wall, each of them looming over her by half-a-metre. One-by-one, the drones came online as she keyed in their respective codes. She’d used these machines every day, but she had never considered using them for anything other than cleaning.
Squinting, she keyed in each of the drones’ manual overrides. She opened the containers of various cleaning chemicals, struggling and wobbling as she poured the first vat into the fluid cavities of each of the drones.
She turned off the suit’s internal communicator then poured the other cleaning fluids into the drones. She couldn’t smell the liquids, but she was confident the containers would be correctly labelled. Kneeling before each drone, she keyed in the commands for them to dump their payloads on the higher-ups’ accommodation level.
She held her breath when the three drones moved out with smooth motion. With slow, cautious steps, she followed as they called the elevator and waited — still, humming, ominous. They entered the elevator, the doors sliding closed behind them.
“Hey, are you okay?”
Janis snapped out of a trance as Mataes placed a reassuring hand on her bare shoulder. Scratching her head, she forced a smile. “Honestly, I feel terrible.”
“Come down to the common room, join us,” he said, perching on the edge of her bunk.
“I can’t. I feel so—.” She closed her eyes and held in a breath.
“You’re a hero, Janis,” he said, stroking her arm. “You saved us.”
“At what price?”
“You can sit here feeling sorry for yourself, or you can think what would the price have been if you hadn’t helped us. You were the only person we could trust who had access to those cleaning stores. And you did so brilliantly.”
She sighed and stared at her open palms — pale, small, wrinkled — the hands of a killer.
“Look at me,” Mataes snapped. He hooked her chin with a finger, his skin cold and rough. She met his gaze and blinked. “The higher-ups were keeping the stores for themselves. They’d locked us out. Hundreds of us would have starved. If they had done the right thing, kept things running, fed the workers — well, we wouldn’t be where we are.” His words were a slow and deliberate monotone.
She frowned. “I know. But have you ever—.” She paused, hesitating as she ran the words over in her mind. “You’ve never had to do what I did.”
“All you did was mix some chemicals and programme some drones. It’s what you’ve always done — nothing different,” he said, rubbing the back of his neck.
“Don’t play me for a fool,” she said, her voice rising. “I know what I did, and God will judge me for that. I poisoned eight people — people I’ve known all my life.”
He held her. After a moment of tension, she leaned her head onto his chest, tears filling her eyes.
“Think of it like this,” he said, stroking her hair. “If someone was going to open the airlocks on a platform and the only way to stop it was to kill that person, what would you do?”
She didn’t respond.
“It’s exactly the same. You saved many lives. What you did was difficult, but you were so brave. That’s why… that’s why I love you, Janis Parvo.”
Janis sat up and regarded Mataes. “What?”
“I love you,” he said, looking away.
“That’s not true.”
He reached out and stroked her cheek. “I’ve loved you for a long time and, well, when you kissed me before you saved us all, I knew then I wanted you. I wanted to be with you.”
She flushed. “I don’t know—.” She shook her head.
“Please say you feel the same,” he pleaded.
“I do,” she whispered, smiling. “I really do.”
“Then be with me, Janis. I’ll help you, I’ll be there for you. We can get through this, together.”
She leaned over and kissed him on the lips. They held each other. Pulling away, she smiled, then gestured for him to join her in bed.
“Do you want me?” she asked, slipping off her underclothes.
“Yes, I want you,” said Mataes, his breath growing heavier as he threw off his coveralls.
Janis hummed to herself, smiling as she held Mataes’s hand. Arfo rose from his seat to address the mess hall. She sat at the head of the table previously reserved for the higher-ups, with Mataes sitting to her right and Arfo to her left. Steaming potatoes, fresh breads, roasted chicken and apples piled high along the steel table. Workers clamoured to fill their bowls as the hall buzzed with conversation. The smells of cooked meats, baked bread and boiled vegetables hung in the air. The room loomed around her as daylight lamps glared down from high above: all clean lines and off-white walls.
Arfo banged his bowl against the table three times until the workers fell silent. “For this meal, we have one person to thank.” He raised his bowl high above his head, grinning as the other workers echoed the gesture. “Let the name Janis Parvo ring through the generations as the person who freed us from our bondage — the woman who saved us all from starvation, the woman who saved us all from certain death.”
Janis squirmed as the three hundred or so men and women stared at her and banged their bowls in appreciation.
“Without Janis’s selfless bravery, we would still be living in uncertainty. We would all be wondering when our next pay would arrive, wondering how we could pay our bills, wondering how we could feed ourselves and our families. She is an example to us all — the risk she took was great, but the reward was greater.”
Janis scratched behind her left ear, then leaned forward to pick a slice of chicken breast from a tray being passed along the table.
“And this is true of all us,” Arfo continued. “A few of us are working to get the reactors back online and get back to work. But this won’t be work for the higher-ups — clawing for a measly wage which barely covers our bills — this will be work for all of us.”
Mataes squeezed Janis’s hand.
“I am not your leader and you are not lowly workers. We are all equal, all for one, working for the good of us all. No longer will you have to pay for power, for heat, for water, for food — we will work for the good of us all.” He brushed his hair back and scanned along each of the five parallel tables.
“Things will be difficult to begin with — things are always difficult in times of change and transition. But your lives will improve. We will build our own trade networks, reap the profits of our own exports and take control of our lives.”
The room filled with cheers and the loud rhythm of bowls banging against tables — metallic, sharp, deafening. There were stamps and whoops. Janis focused on the grip of Mataes’s hand.
“This evening is more than just a celebration of our bright new future,” Arfo said as the noise died down. “We’re also here to celebrate the coming together of Janis Parvo and Mataes Rafillio. The couple will make their union official once things settle down, but I think you’ll all join me in wishing them the greatest of luck.”
Janis’s cheeks flushed as the banging bowls rose again to a loud, thunderous crescendo. Arfo poured her and Mataes a cup of cider. She sipped and it tasted bitter on her tongue.
Janis awoke to find the bunk empty beside her. She placed her hand on the space where Mataes had been sleeping — it was cold.
“Mat?” she whispered. She listened in the darkness. She was alone.
She sat up and stretched. Yawning and blinking the sleep from her eyes, she slipped from the bunk and pulled the blanket around her shoulders.
Creeping through the bunkroom door on tiptoes, she turned right down a corridor, passing beneath a dozen dim blue light halos before making her way to the bathroom. She slunk down onto a toilet and yawned.
In the cold light, she heard the sound of low voices coming through the wall behind her. Not daring to flush, she stepped softly from the bathroom.
“You’ve got to keep her sweet,” the first voice said. “She’s a tool of the revolution, but you need—.” The words came muffled, unclear. “—the wedding will cement that—.”
Holding her breath, she moved a few steps closer, cupping her ears to listen.
“I know she’s thick, but that’s the point.” She heard Arfo’s voice, but it sounded harsh, threatening. “She’s obedient and malleable — you need to stick to the plan.”
She leaned closer, pressing her body hard against the cold metal wall, shrouded in the shadowy mid-point between two light halos.
“I can’t stand her though. She’s ugly, she’s boring — she does nothing for me. What am I getting from this?”
“You fucked her, didn’t you?”
“Well, yes — what would you have done if it was there in front of you?”
“Look, we’re done with her now, surely?”
“If you don’t continue the engagement, people will suspect.”
She gasped as a sudden white-hot pain tore through her chest. She wanted to cry out, to scream, but instead she moved in silence back to her room.
She climbed into the bunk, wrapping the blanket tight around her. A numbness engulfed her. She lay for a long time, staring into the dark, listening to the air ducts hissing and wheezing through the night, pretending to be asleep when Mataes returned. He lay next to her, rigid, silent.
They both remained awake until morning, neither acknowledging the other.
“There they are, my favourite couple,” said Arfo as Janis picked at her porridge.
“She’s in a mood this morning,” Mataes said. He tipped a second boiled egg into his bowl.
“I’m not in a mood. I’m tired.”
“Well we’ve got a wedding to plan, haven’t we?” Arfo said, sitting to Janis’s left.
She pushed her spoon around her bowl, wishing he would go away.
“Come on — it’s not that bad,” he said. “We’ll do something really special.” Arfo smiled. “You like apples? I know a great recipe for an apple cake — we could have that at the feast.”
She slid along the bench and rose to her feet. “I don’t like apples,” she spat, marching away from the table.
Janis wiped another tear away as she programmed the cleaning drones for another day’s work. She paid no attention to the smiles and greetings of other workers as she turned to the stairwell and made her way up to the upper levels.
She entered the former higher-ups’ living quarters, cupping a hand over her nose. The bodies had been removed and jettisoned from an airlock, but the smell of death still lingered — at least to her it did.
The level was quiet, save for the reactor’s hum and the occasional whistle of air ducts. With a deep breath, she pulled open the single door to the communications room and sat in front of the console. She spent several minutes examining the black sheen of the buttons and turning the receiver in her hand.
Nodding to herself, she switched on the console and opened the communicator to broadcast on all external channels. She wasn’t sure if this would register with those onboard the orbiter, but it was a risk she had to take. The betrayal was too much. They’d used her.
“Hello,” she said, her voice thin and trembling. “I’m on the Titan Orbiter and, well—.” She checked over her shoulder. “The workers have taken over. Please send help or something. Arfo and Mataes did it. They killed the higher-ups.” She frowned. “Please.”
With adrenaline rushing through her body, she got up quickly from the seat and left the room, unsure whether her message had worked.
Janis frowned as Mataes crawled beside her into bed. “I know what you and Arfo have been scheming,” she said through a lump in her throat. Sweat pooled on her brow and seeped from her armpits. Her heart raced in the darkness.
Mataes sat up and slid his legs from the bunk. “You’re already in on the plan — you know that,” he said in a low voice. “You’re tired. You should try to sleep.”
She clenched her jaw and sighed. “Just stop,” she snapped. “Just stop the lies. I heard you talking last night.”
“I heard you,” she repeated. “What was it you said? That I was thick? That I was boring? You weren’t saying that when you were inside me. How could you be so—.” She swung a fist against the wall.
Mataes stood. She waited for him to speak. “Are you going to say anything?”
“It’s not what you think,” he said after a long silence.
“Then explain it to me.”
“I… I can’t.”
“You thought you were so clever. You and Arfo. What was your plan? Trick the stupid cleaner lady in doing your dirty work?”
“Stop lying,” she snarled. “I knew exactly what I was doing with those drones. You weren’t tricking me at all.” Her pulse thundered in her ears. “Well?”
“Well, what?” he huffed. “I don’t fucking know.”
She saw him as a faint outline against the dark as he paced back and forth, rubbing his hands on his scalp in a jerking motion.
Wrapped in her blanket, Janis sat up and switched on the light. She caught Mataes’s eye with a sharp glare and smirked to herself when his gaze shot to the floor.
“You’re pathetic,” she said. “I want you to take your stuff out of my bunk and get out of here.”
“Fair enough,” he mumbled.
She rose to her feet, her blanket dropping to the floor. Standing naked before Mataes, she leaned so her mouth brushed against his right ear. “You can tell Arfo I was in the communication room today,” she whispered. “You can tell him I sent a message to all open channels telling them what’s happened here.”
Mataes’s eyes widened. She pointed to the door. “Now leave.”
He hurriedly scooped up his belongings and left without another word. Janis leaned her back against the door, sobbing.
Janis closed the cleaning store behind her when the alarm sounded. Workers ran past her in all directions.
Flinching at the siren’s shrillness, she grabbed a man’s shoulder before he could pass. He squirmed as he stopped himself from tumbling. “What?” he snapped, his dark eyes wild.
“What’s with the alarm?”
“Some ships have docked.”
Janis stood motionless as the man turned and fled. The thin trace of a smile made its way across her face as she pictured the reactions of Arfo and Mataes.
Covering her ears, she backed her way through the door into the cleaning store, closing it behind her and noticed the vacuum suit hanging like a marionette from a peg on the far wall.
She took off her coveralls and examined the suit. Taking the suit down, she pulled it up her legs, her shoulders contorting as she reached into the arms. The suit’s material clung to her like a second skin. She checked and fastened the oxygen tanks. The noise from the alarm dropped as she clicked the helmet into place. She breathed a satisfied sigh.
Stepping into the main corridor, scores of panicked workers ran past her in dreamlike silence. Reaching the departure platform, the capsule stood, unmoving. Groups of men and women paced around in confused agitation.
Taking a deep breath, she stepped out over the platform edge, turning the knob to release the suit’s propellant. She rose past the capsules and the workers and up towards the darkness.
Her body jolted upwards as she ascended the tunnel. She drifted through weightlessness, adjusting the propellant as the gravity flipped. She did not stop to look out of the window.
The daylight lamps came into view as she drew closer to the side of the station.
Coming to a stop, she found the capsule platform empty. She removed her helmet and breathed. Placing the helmet on the platform, the alarms stopped, leaving behind an unnerving absence, a strange stillness.
She stepped through a large door into a corridor and crept past the kitchens. Most of the workers were on the other side of the orbiter during daylight hours, but this was too quiet.
Approaching the workers’ mess hall, she heard shouts coming from inside. She pressed herself against the wall at the sound of a loud bang, followed by a chorus of screams. Holding her breath, she moved to one of the mess hall doors and peeped through a thin crack.
Her eyes widened as two dozen men dressed in black uniforms stood over some of the workers. Three bodies lay on the floor, blood pooling around them. She almost called out as one of the uniformed officers lifted up a sidearm and shot a woman in the head.
Scores of familiar faces lined along the mess hall wall with their hands on their heads. She gasped at the sight of Mataes.
She moved away from the door and caught her breath at the snap of another shot.
Stepping into the kitchen, she walked past half-prepared meals and shouldered her way into a storage cupboard. Though not as well-stocked as her own, she found barrels containing various cleaning fluids. She rolled them over to the kitchen hatch, straining as she lifted them onto the worktop.
Ducking, she pressed the button to raise the serving hatch and tipped the containers into the mess hall. She scrambled back to the storage room. More shouts and cries came from behind her. She tipped all the containers out that she could before her lungs burned and vision blurred. Thick white mist gathered all around her as the chemicals hissed and fizzled.
She lay on the floor as the coughs and chokes from the other workers faded.
“Forgive me,” she whispered.