The endless winds of the Northern Craterous Expanse whispered outside the ballistic glass window in Taris Exlee’s quarters. He turned over on his bed and rapped it with his knuckles as if to touch the dim blue moon that shone through the clouds. Although the broad, concave window made the apartment feel a bit like an aquarium, such a protective measure against the harsh environment was necessary to ensure the United Republic’s continued presence on Zarmina, the only habitable planet in the remote Gliese 581 system.
Exlee propped himself up on his elbow and stared out at the arid expanse. He had joined UR Research Station Zarmina six months before by invitation from the ColDef Corporation, one of Zarmina’s chief investors. Exlee’s dream was to work on a materials research team to deploy experimental ship armor on the fringes of UR territory, and ColDef’s lab on Zarmina offered a prominent reputation to any scientist who could put up in long hours on a remote planet.
Zarmina Station’s peaceful but moody interior, in opposition to the planet bent on destroying it, echoed the tense, understated sentiments among the several thousand residents inside. As part of a new push to establish United Republic colonies at the edge of its territory, the research station was subjected to frequent lockdowns amid rumors of infiltration from a number of vectors: Shingen agents, Outer Rim pirates, insurrectionists--there was even talk of a Pulsar Cult revival. During these lockdowns, the lab’s operations ceased, and the scientists, along with all the other colonists, were remanded by Station Security to their quarters. Getting anything--and anyone--on and off the planet had become a particularly labored and bureaucratic affair.
ColDef was powerless to circumvent such pauses; its was just one voice among the many corporations that made up the United Republic, and official UR planetary policy was one line--maybe the only one--that a corporation did not want to cross. During such lockdowns, Exlee was forced to occupy his time. He read, jogged up and down the stations narrow corridors, and volunteered to receive and catalogue shipments to the team’s materials library, which the station expedited through security.
On this night, after finishing another bad science fiction novel, he turned off his reading light and lied down just as the winds started up. With hope, tomorrow would bring a message that the research could continue.
The moon outside cast its gaze down at the station. Exlee’s handset beeped and he slowly grabbed it off the night table. It was a message alright, but nothing too promising: a delivery of alloy materials had arrived on the planet. It would be ready for him at the materials lab whenever he could sign for it. He tried to go back to sleep but was kept awake at the notion of retrieving it. Maybe it was a sign that work would soon resume. Even though the research was halted, he could at least catalogue it with the other material samples.
He got out of bed, got dressed, and exited his apartment in Resident Wing 6 to begin the two-kilometer hike to the other side of the station. The halls were quiet and dark at this hour. Two station security agents approached him as he rounded into the main hall. “Evening, Dr. Exlee,” said a sharp-nosed agent, Station Security had instituted a “suggested” curfew to residents at every 18 hours, but Exlee had enough security clearance that he could walk around without question.
Exlee liked walking at night hours. It was peaceful. The station had low ceilings and bulkheads that gave it a cramped feeling, even despite attempts to reproduce the vibrant, lived-in atmosphere of an orbital station with a lively market and other highly-trafficked commercial spaces interspersed throughout the Resident Wings. He was adjusting well. It would only be another 8 standard months until he was rotated again, and his boss promised him a lab on a lush, bright planet next time.
The only problem was that the station just opened 6 months ago so it was still underpopulated. Whole Resident Wings, like this one, were still uninhabited except for official offices, places like the lab, which required people to walk here. Tonight, only the presence of security guards and a janitor punctuated the stillness of the wing.
He waved to the janitor as she mopped the floor in the wing. She moved slow and looked old. Her hair was long and she sported face tattoos common to diggers--asteroid mining families. She waved back.
Exlee arrived at the lab. It was shuttered and dark, which was odd, considering the message originated from there just 30 minutes ago. He tapped his code into the keypad and walked through the door into the lab. The lights would come on with motion, but since there was none, Exlee brushed his arm on the wall to turn on the light switch from memory.
The lights came on. A clicking noise behind him punctuated the silence.
Exlee turned and a delivery agent stood with an ancient-looking revolver pointed at his face. Exlee opened his mouth but the agent shushed him.
“Shut up. Log in and transfer the data to this,” he said in a nervous, raspy voice and threw a handset onto the desk.
While Exlee nodded at the man and turned his terminal on, the agent walked around and grabbed Exlee’s own handset. He then stepped back while Exlee sat with a nervous sway. “It’s, uh, uploading,” said Exlee.
The agent looked away to poke at some metal plates on a worktable.
Exlee paused for a moment while the files transferred. He slowly looked up at the agent who had the gun trained on him.
“Who are you?” said Exlee.
The agent said nothing.
Exlee shifted and the agent jumped up.
The lights went off.
“Exlee! Duck!” said an aged feminine voice.
Exlee jumped down to lean against a desk opposite the agent. The motion-activated lights lit up the room just as the janitor rushed at the agent and hit the revolver out of his hand with a broom handle.
The agent danced away from another swing, then picked up a microscope from the worktable. The janitor swung again with a practiced overhand arc, but the agent brought the microscope up to block it at the last second. The force of the swing broke the broomstick and sent splinters out from the impact.
The janitor bounced toward him with another swing, and the agent blocked again. He turned and leapt over a desk just as yet another swing came down.
They both eyed the revolver that had skidded somewhere into the corner. The agent was trying to maneuver himself there. He paused as he and the janitor stood either side of a desk, both making feints here and there but neither willing to commit. Neither spoke, perhaps because they both knew it was useless. One of them was going to end up dead.
Maybe that was the thought that moved the agent to jump first. He ran for the corner, hopping over a desk as the janitor followed a second later.
The agent moved too slow, and the janitor leapt over a desk and tacked him into another. He elbowed her in the face, and again, but she held on, eventually wedging the broken broom handle under his chin and pulling hard. He kicked out, sending both of them tumbling onto the floor, but her grip was firm.
Exlee sat against the desk with his eyes closed. He heard a gurgling sound and then silence from the corner. A minute passed, and the janitor crawled over to him. Her nose and lips dripped blood onto her shirt collar. She sat down and winced.
Exlee slowly looked over, saw the blood, and asked, “you’re not just a janitor, are you?”
“Taris Exlee. Doctor Taris Exlee” she said, leaning against the desk and touching her face to check for broken bones.
“You… do I know you?” asked Exlee.
“I doubt it. But we’ve known you for quite some time now.”
“Just, who are you?”
“You’ve heard the rumors about us. Everyone does. Disappearing scientists, engineers, construction facilities?” she said, dabbing her nose with her sleeve.
“Are you… Arpeggio?”
The janitor shrugged. “The name’s not important, but let’s say that those aren’t just rumors.” She turned to him. “Look, you hear a lot of the bad stuff but none of the good. Up until our initiatives started taking hold, you had a lot of factions gearing up to wipe each other out of existence. They were not only trying to develop their own technology, but they were trying really hard to prevent their competitors’ technological advances by any means necessary. They stole, they killed, destroyed, burned. Hell, you heard about Bellorophon station, right?
“Yeah, a chemical leak.”
The janitor laughed then cringed at a pain in her ribs. “You could say that. A chemical leak that caused a hundred thousand casualties. Over six months.” She nodded and smirked. “Anyway, everyone was stealing or destroying anything they could get.”
Exlee looked at the blood spot on her overalls. It looked to be growing. “The kid with the best toys is going to come out ahead,” he offered.
She grunted in response. “The problem was that instead of better toys emerging from this whole scrap, the different factions were just ending up with the same toys, and they were old and clumsy. The fighting was getting more brutal every year.”
Exlee raised his eyebrows in a show of incredulity but said nothing.
“That’s where we stepped in. We like to think of ourselves as the galaxy’s janitors.” She gestured at the disarrayed lab. “Look around. We don’t want this kind of thing to happen to humanity. We can’t have that. So we’ve decided that we’re gonna take good care of the ship factories, armories, and development labs like this one. Sure, we make a little money, but you get to do your work without guys like that coming in and ruining your day.”
“So why don’t you just steal the data?” asked Exlee.
“No one wants a messy playground, Exlee. As long as we keep the toys in our closet and dole them out so kids play nice, no one has to risk losing their toys for good.”
“Alright, I get it. Enough with the toys.”
“Tell you what, Exlee,” said the janitor. She cracked her knuckles, felt her side, and winced. “I like you. I’ve watched you enough that I want you to end up some place safe. I feel like we can come to an arrangement here.”
She adjusted her hat. “How would you like to live a safe, healthy life with your family and complete your research in peace? I would even get you off this planet and get you somewhere nice. Somewhere with a good view, maybe a sunset.”
“I don’t have a choice, do I?” asked Exlee.
“There’s always a choice, Doctor. But I’m just a janitor, not a philosopher. Think about it. We’ll pay you extra for your hard work. All you have to do is keep us updated with your research data. We’ll be in touch with a way you can do that with no risk.” She looked out toward the hall and nodded. “We’ve got lots of janitors around, willing to help.”
Exlee thought for a minute, then said, “that sounds nice but the problem isn’t the money. It’s the pace. No data is going to be produced unless they start the research again.”
The janitor rose, grunting until she stood on her two shaky feet. She then offered Exlee a hand up.
“We can take care of that. This lab is going to be operational before you know it, and I’ll make sure no one bothers you again.”
She looked around for her work cap.
“What are you going to do now?” asked Exlee.
“Clean up this mess. I am a janitor, after all. You should go now.” She grabbed a broom and began sweeping up broken glass.
Exlee walked back to his apartment at an unhurried pace. The same sharp-faced security guard stood at the entrance to his wing. “How’d it go?” he asked with a yawn..
Exlee stared out the hall window at the cold, windswept plain.
“I think I just got a promotion.”
Edited by Shinlocke