Chekhov’s Phaser

I never planned to end up here. I’ve never planned anything, really. All my life has been like that: I see an opportunity and I take it. Sometimes that works out better than other times. So why should this be any different?

I’d just been by docking station three, slipping a few hundred wadded euros off the shifty captain from that rust bucket Lunacy. What a stupid name for a cargo ship. Why do ships’ captains feel compelled to name their barges with some clever pun, anyway? Lunacy, indeed.

About a month before, I’d caught them dumping their trash out their airlock after their last trip off the base. They thought they were far enough off the rock that no one would see, but I just happened to be ogling a brand new BMW private shuttle through the scope when I saw them do it. If I’d followed procedure and called it into the ILSOC, the International Lunar Station Oversight Committee would have slapped that scow with a fine that made the wad I’d stuffed in my own pocket look like milk money. And the dark circles under the captain’s eyes I’d seen the last few times they dropped their cargo off made me guess that he didn’t have the kind of dough to cover a fine like that. The cash in my pants told me I’d guessed right.

He’d been paying me off every time they came through here to keep my trap shut so they could just open theirs and avoid the dumping fees back Earthside. It was typical for that kind of operation – an old junker repurposed for cargo transport to try and get in on the lunar cash cow. I’d been inside Lunacy a couple of times when I was making nice with a sweet young thing who’d been working on board for a while. It was amazing their shipments didn’t grow legs, the security on board that boat was so bad. No one ever noticed me, though. It seemed like anyone could come and go as they pleased, and for a few nights, I was very well pleased, indeed.

I was off to my quarters to add these recently acquired bills to the little stash I had going, when my beeper went off. I jumped at the noise, and pulled the little phone from my other pocket. I could see on its display that it was a call from my boss, Laura. I was technically off duty, but I answered the call.

“Natalie?” A voice that was definitely not Laura’s boomed through the tiny speaker. I thumbed the volume down a bit.

“Yes,” I said, warily. “Who is this?”

“This is Jerry Cornwell speaking,” the voice said. Oh, shit, I thought. Jerry Cornwell was Laura’s boss. I’d never even seen the guy. “Could you pop by Ms. Baine’s office please?” His voice made it clear that it was not a question.

I gulped nervously to myself. “Sure,” I said aloud, turning away from the habitat section of the converted old mining station and toward the management offices for the resort. “I’ll be there in a few minutes.”

#

Laura Baine was the manager of shipping and receiving for Bella Luna, where I shlepped crates for a living. Bella Luna was the new resort complex just over the horizon from the old lunar mining station, which is where us working stiffs who run the joint actually lived. The moon was becoming a great tourist destination, but while it might be a great place to visit, almost no-one wanted to live there. So, the money was extraordinarily good for manual labour, and they weren’t that picky about the resumé. My co-workers were a motley crew of deadbeats, ex-cons and desperados. I fit in just fine. Laura didn’t fit in at all, though. Which was why she needed me.

Laura wasn’t there because she was behind the eight ball on debt or dead last on anyone’s list of potential employees. She had left a perfectly good job Earthside to come up here and run S&R. I never could understand it, but she tried to explain it the first day we met by showing me her prized possession: an old prop from the original series of Star Trek.

I’d just arrived at the station, and was still feeling sick from the transport or the gravity change or something. I just wanted a slice of dry toast and a clean bed, but the new boss wanted to talk. Always wary of pissing off authority, especially in close confines, I agreed to meet her in her office that first day. The woman was almost giddy when she reached out to shake my hand.

“Natalie,” she’d said, her warm hand embracing my clammy one. “You don’t know how happy I am that you are finally here. It will be so nice having another woman on staff.” She let my hand go, but moved a foot closer to me, even further invading my territorial zone. I had to fight not to wince. “We women need to stick together,” she said, much too close to my face.

I first thought that she was coming on to me, and I didn’t have enough mental fortitude to deal with that possibility right then. I took a half step back, and slapped on the best smile I could manage. “Call me Nat, Ms. Baine,” I said, politely I hoped.

She smiled back. “And you must call me Laura.” She walked back to her desk, and sat on its edge. “So, what brings you to Bella Luna, Nat?”

The goddam vomit comet, I wanted to say. Instead, I told her that I had needed a job, and this was the best deal going. It wasn’t exactly a lie, and if she hadn’t looked at my CV herself and seen the three years at Hawthorne Women’s Correctional I’d just finished doing for a botched robbery, then I wasn’t about to enlighten her.

As it turned out, I could probably have said anything. She wasn’t really paying attention to me. “I’ve been here since almost the beginning,” she said, her eyes getting that misty look people pick up when they’re getting all nostalgic. “As soon as I heard that the mining station reclamation project was going ahead, I knew I was going to end up here. Heck, a decade ago I even tried to find a decent job for myself at the mine. Anything to be up here.” I could tell she was on a roll, and didn’t think I could stand through a whole speech, so I hop-walked over to the nearest chair.

She went on as if I’d never moved. “All my life, I’ve loved space. Not like an astronomer, I mean, though I did learn the names of all the constellations when I was seven. But I love the concept of space, the idea of all that freedom, the vastness of it all. The possibilities.” She paused, a crazy kind of gleam in her eyes. “You see that?” She pointed to a brown lump in a lucite box hanging up on the wall above her desk. I nodded. “That’s the exact phaser that Walter Koenig used in season two of Star Trek.” Her face flushed. Whether it was with rapture, pride or fever, I couldn’t tell. But she was practically glowing. “It’s no replica,” she said, as if expecting me to challenge her on the authenticity of the thing. “You can take a closer look, if you like.” I knew I was supposed to be impressed, so I levered myself out of the chair and maneuvered myself so my face was almost pressed against the box. “Magnificent, isn’t it?” she asked.

I thought it looked like something you’d find in the toy aisle of a dollar store, but I kept that opinion to myself. “Pretty cool,” I said. “So, you chose to come up here just ’cause you wanted to live on the moon, huh?”

“Well,” she said, a conspiratorial look in her eye. “It’s not for the fulfilling work, I can tell you that.”

#

Laura wanted us to be friends and I knew enough to know that getting cozy with the boss was a good way of greasing my way through this place. She liked to think that she took me under her wing, that she was offering a helping hand to a fellow gender warrior or something like that. We ate our lunch together at the staff canteen more often than not, and I made a point of agreeing to visit her in her quarters once or twice a month to watch old space shows. After a day or two on the job I knew that Laura wasn’t flirting with me, she was just lonely and scared. Her juvenile visions of living off world hadn’t factored in being trapped with a bunch of people who don’t share your vision of a beautiful future.

“Those guys hate having a woman boss,” she told me, one of those interminable nights in front of the flat screen in her quarters. I knew she was talking about my co-workers on the docks, not the crew of HMS Space Cowboys or whatever it was on the TV. I honestly hadn’t noticed anything of the kind, but maybe this was the first time Laura had ever heard the kinds of things that working stiffs always said about the suit who was cracking the whip. In my experience, no one gave a damn whether the suit bottom was pants or a skirt. But, I knew that this was the tenuous thread that bound her in friendship to me, and I wanted to keep her on my good side.

“Men,” I said, trying to sound disgusted. “They never think a woman can keep up, am I right?”

“God, it must be terrible for you, Nat,” she said. “Women always get the short end of the stick in male dominated jobs, especially physical ones. How do you keep going?”

“I keep to myself, and work hard,” I lied. The truth was that I got along just fine with the guys. Especially after I split Lefty Connolly’s lip when he grabbed my ass the first week. After that I became a regular in the monthly poker game. But Laura knew nothing about that.

“Even so,” she said, “it must be tough out there among them.” She paused, but I didn’t think she’d gone back to watching the hoary episode of Stargoons or Transgalactic Space Pirates or whatever it was. “I’ve got an idea,” she said, finally, a grin spreading across her face. “I’m going to make you my assistant.”

“Your what?” I said, frowning. I didn’t want to end up taking a pay cut just so I could sit on my ass all day in Laura’s office making coffee and answering the phone.

“Not officially, of course,” Laura said. “I can’t get you out of your regular jobs. But you can help me out when it gets quiet on the docks. Come in first thing tomorrow, and I’ll show you around.” She smiled. “This is going to be great,” she said. “I’m totally snowed under with communications right now, and there’s hardly anything coming in on the transports for a couple of days. And this will be fabulous for your career.” I tried not to roll my eyes.

“Sound great, Laura,” I said. Seeing an opportunity, I continued. “Well, I’d better be well rested if I’m going to be taking on a lot of new responsibilities.” I yawned. “I should probably head back to my quarters.”

“Okay,” Laura said. “You sure you don’t want to stay to the end?” She cocked her head toward the TV screen.

“Definitely,” I said, and left. It was early enough that I caught Lefty in his quarters before he’d gone to the bar. As it turned out, we never actually made it to the bar that night.

#

I wasn’t exactly well rested when I got to Laura’s office the next morning, but it didn’t matter. She gave me a portable computer and a corner of her desk, next to the mind-bogglingly ridiculous snow globe of the old mining station. As I shook the thing, and watched fake snow fall on the overly shiny model of what the mining station supposedly looked like once, she gave me a brief run-down on her job. I’d never really thought about what the manager of Shipping and Receiving does all day, but it wasn’t a big surprise when she laid it out. You don’t hump crates all day for months in a joint without having a pretty good idea where they’re coming from and going to. When she was done yakking and left me alone to actually do some of the work, I took my time, and sipped my coffee, and got stuck in to the backlog of emails. Just the usual stuff – suits wanting confirmation that their gear got where it was supposed to when it was supposed to. And this was what they paid her the big bucks for?

It turned out that being her little helper was a better gig than I’d first imagined. Most of the time when deliveries were slow, the bosses got us grunts to shift furniture, paint the walls or do some other menial task they called “other related duties.” I didn’t mind loading cargo – it was my job, after all. But I’d never cared for being told to do some other random thing just because the boss could make me jump. Hanging out in the office with a coffee and the portable beat cleaning out the break room fridge by a good margin. So I eagerly offered to help Laura out whenever things were slow.

I didn’t bother letting the guys in on my sideline job. Kissing up to the boss is a great idea; being seen to be a suck up is much less so. But usually once a week I found myself happily sipping coffee and banging away at the portable on what I now thought of as my corner of her desk. I wondered how a person got to be a manager of Shipping and Receiving. It was a pretty nice job, and I knew Laura’s pay grade was a good chunk higher than mine. I was starting to think that I could easily get used to a desk job. I was even growing fond of that stupid snow globe. When Laura wasn’t around, I’d stare at the thing and see if I could figure out what each part of the station was now.

The mine was totally shut down about a year before the resort opened, but the construction crews needed housing and services, so the station was converted to a kind of township for them. It later evolved to become home to those of us who work for the resort. They say that when the mine was operational, there were something like a thousand people working at the mine and nearly the same number working in the businesses that sprang up to support the miners. There were the usual suspects like the canteen, the commissary and the laundry, but there were also several bars, a movie theatre, a pizza joint and even a Thai restaurant. Most of those businesses died along with the mine, but the construction crews kept a few alive, and the resort staff population is big enough that even a few new ones sprang up.

Lefty and I liked to drink at the honky tonk by the south bay doors. It was the shortest stumble back to his room of any of the gin joints on the rock, and I knew the lay of the pool table. The first time shooting pool in lunar gravity was quite a trip, let me say, even if they do weigh the balls down. Lefty was leaving the rock for a job back Earthside, so we were kind of trying to make the most of the few nights we had. It was no great romance or anything, but we amused each other well enough, and when your entertainment options are limited, you take what you can get.

It was the day after he’d bugged out that Laura called and asked if I wanted to go for a drink. I could hear the desperation in her voice, and if I hadn’t been looking for any opportunity to avoid having to feel lonely, I wouldn’t have agreed so fast. But, like I said, beggars can’t be choosers around here.

We met at one of the bars that catered mainly to the front staff at the resort. I think I was the only roughneck in the joint, but I knew how to clean up all right and I can keep a low profile. I wasn’t worried about standing out. Laura, on the other hand, looked like she’d been hitting the bottle pretty good on her own when she came through the door. She wasn’t stumbling or slurring her words, but I could tell that she’d had more than a glass of wine by the total lack of volume control in her voice.

“Nat,” she bellowed as she sat down across from me. I winced. “You’re here already.”

“Just got here, Laura,” I said, casually glancing around to see if the bar staff were getting ready to kick us out of the joint. I caught the barman’s eye, and he winked at me and shrugged, so I figured we were probably still within the bounds of propriety at this place. He came over to the table, and Laura loudly demanded, “Bourbon. Rocks. And don’t be stingy with it, either.”

I grinned at the bartender, who wasn’t entirely unattractive, and said apologetically, “Same for me, please.”

“No problem, ladies,” he said smoothly, then walked back to the bar to pump the drinks.

“So, what’s up?” I asked, hoping she’d talk and drink herself out fast so I could see about fixing that bartender up as Lefty’s replacement.

“Oh, I don’t know,” she sighed. “It’s just all so disillusioning, you know?” I didn’t, but I smiled and nodded anyway. “I mean, is this how you thought it would be?” She waved her arm around to indicate whatever “it” was that she was talking about, and ended up belting the bartender in the gut. It looked to be a soft hit, and he didn’t even drop the enclosed squeeze glasses containing our drinks, but I saw an opportunity.

“Are you okay?” I asked, jumping up out of my seat and steering him away from Laura after he hooked the drinks to the holders on the table.

“Sure,” he said, smiling. I took a liking to that smile.

“My friend is just having a tough time of it these days,” I said, putting on my best sympathy face. Guys dig that. “I thought that if I took her out, I might help her snap out of it.” I smiled apologetically, and got another one of his thousand watt grins in return.

“I hope it works,” he said, and gave my arm a squeeze before he went back to the bar. Things were looking up. But I still had Laura to deal with for the rest of the night. After that song and dance there was no way I could ditch her now, not in front of Smiley there.

I sat back at the table, and watched Laura take a long sip of what was left of her drink. “So, what were we talking about?” I asked, hoping she had forgotten.

“This place,” she said, disgustedly. I looked around the bar. Seemed all right to me.

“The bar?” I asked.

“No,” she said, sighing as if I were a moron. I was getting a little pissed off. The barman wasn’t hot enough to put up with much more of this. “No,” she said again, her voice losing its strident edge this time. “The whole place. The resort. The fucking moon.”

I finally figured it out. Maybe I was a moron after all. “Space isn’t everything you imagined it would be after all,” I said, and watched Laura nod. I thought I maybe saw tears in the corners of her eyes, but it could have just been the funky lighting of the place.

“It was all I ever wanted,” she said. “The exploration, the freedom and wonder of it. ‘To explore strange new worlds…'” She picked up her glass, but didn’t take a drink, just watched the amber fluid float around the ice cubes in the thin plastic container. Her voice got hard. “But it’s the same here as anywhere else. The same bullshit day in and day out.” She took a long sip from her glass, finishing the drink, and looked straight at me. Her eyes were cold. “I thought it was going to be the adventure of a lifetime. But it’s just fucking Shipping and Receiving.” She laughed, but I got the feeling she didn’t think anything was very funny. “It’s just a different view.”

Laura got pretty quiet after that and while she put back another couple of bourbons, I got the bartender’s phone number. “How’s your friend doing?” he asked.

“She’s homesick,” I said and he nodded.

“Well,” he said sagely, “the moon isn’t for everyone.” He told me his name was Dave, and that he thought I was a good friend. I looked over at Laura half sprawled on the table, and thought I saw an opportunity.

“I’d better get her home,” I said, and Dave smiled and squeezed my arm again.

#

It was the next day that my phone rang while I was counting the dough I got from squeezing the captain of Lunacy. I ducked into the ladies’ room and made sure I looked presentable before I walked into Laura’s office. A middle aged man sat behind her desk, his ass barely squeezing into Laura’s ergonomically designed chair. He stood when I walked in the door, and extended his hand. I took it, and we shook, as I waited for the other shoe to drop.

“Please sit down, Natalie,” he said, indicating the chair opposite the desk. I levered myself down, and he shoved his butt into Laura’s chair. The nervousness I’d felt on my way was totally gone now, and I had an urge to laugh, but the stern look on his face made me tamp the giggles down.

“I’m afraid I have some sad news,” he said, then made an effort to smile. It looked more like the effect of a mild electrical shock than any real human emotion I’ve ever seen. “However, there is some good news for you, I think.”

“Oh,” I said neutrally.

“Yes,” he said, the stern look returning. “I appears that Ms. Baine has decided to leave us here at Bella Luna.”

“Really?” I said, surprise in my voice.

“Yes,” Cornwell said. “She tended her resignation by email last night, and her things are all gone from her quarters. We assume she took the overnight shuttle back to Earth. Something about needing to find a new challenge, she said.”

“She never said anything to me about resigning,” I said.

“No?” Cornwell said. “I understand you two were close.”

“We were friendly,” I said, warily.

“According to Ms. Baine’s reports, she was showing you the ropes around here,” he waved his hand over Laura’s desk like a magician.

“She did let me help out when we weren’t busy on the docks,” I admitted.

“According to the reports, Ms. Baine thought you would make a good replacement for her when she left.”

I swallowed hard. “That’s very kind of her,” I said carefully.

“Ms. Baine is a professional,” Cornwell said. “I’m sure her judgment is sound, and that is why I would like to offer you a provisional promotion to head of Shipping and Receiving, Natalie.”

My eyes grew wide. I knew what Laura made, and the raise would make a nice addition to the stash I had going. I smiled at Cornwell. “I’d be honored, sir,” I said. “And, please, call me Nat.”

#

It turned out that I was right, and becoming a suit wasn’t so hard after all. I ordered a new ergonomic chair that fit me better than Laura’s old one, and I’ve even become kind of fond of Chekhov’s phaser up on the wall. Dave the bartender and I have been keeping time together, and he takes me to much better restaurants and bars than Lefty and I had ever gone to. Even with the expense of nice clothes and quality liquor, I’m still hanging on to way more cash than I’d ever seen before.

After we’d gone out a few times, Dave took me to the observation lounge on the top of the old mining station. I hadn’t even known that there was one, and when we walked in the door I found that I had to close my mouth. You don’t really notice the full immensity of space when you’re busy on the station. But under that clear dome it’s like the biggest, clearest night sky you can imagine. I have to admit that the first time I saw the Earthrise it took my breath away and I finally understood what Laura had been talking about. I can’t even imagine living anywhere but the moon any more.

The only thing I miss is that old snow globe. I still find myself reaching out to pick it up and give the thing a shake every once in a while. But I know it’s out there somewhere, blood and bits of hair I knew I’d never be able to get off still stuck to its edge. It’s there, forever floating out in space along with everything else that found its way into Lunacy’s trash room and out their airlock that night I took Laura back to her office. I was a little worried that the resignation I wrote wouldn’t fool them, but I guess she taught me how to sound like a manager well enough. No one noticed me in my uniform pushing a crate over to the docks, and no one noticed me load it into Lunacy and stick it under the rest of the crap in the trash room. Sometimes it’s good not to be noticed.