The station kept them on a twenty-four hour cycle to emulate what their lives would have been like on earth. Two hours in the “morning” for eating and personal matters, a twelve hour volunteer shift, another two hours of “night,” and then a mandatory eight hours of sleep. Shutters came down to block the light that streamed in from every viewport and window at every moment. The lights in the station dimmed, and access to the common areas became restricted. There was a balance that had to be struck between maintaining the happy shared fiction that members of the Debris Collection Corps were volunteers and making sure that they were functionally prisoners and not functionally slaves.
“It is now 10 PM, UTC. Quiet hours are in effect. You are strongly encouraged to rest in preparation for the upcoming day. The dining hall, the library, and the lounge are now closed. If you require medical assistance at any point during the night, don’t worry; your vital signs are always being monitored for irregularities and a medical bot will be dispatched to assist you in the event of an emergency. If you are unable to sleep, sedatives are available. We appreciate your contributions to providing a safer, cleaner Earth for us all.”
It was the same every night, and a damn near identical message every morning, save for slightly different language about common areas becoming open and stimulants being available.
The shutters opened. Everyone left their bunks, walked to the dining hall for their breakfast. The initial observations, the old jokes, that they’d gone from Eggs Benedict and mimosas to nutrient paste and more nutrient paste had worn out months ago. The old lines wouldn’t be funny again until the groups changed. The AI that managed all the DCC stations in orbit switched up the personnel assignments every six months, a gesture towards keeping the volunteers on the better side of sanity.
It was embarrassing in its simplicity, but it helped stave off madness more than anyone cared to admit.
By the time Ghenn reached the dining hall, the early risers had already eaten and left, and those who cared enough to try and get to the front of the line were chatting quietly, slurping at their reconstituted gruel. Panna waved Ghenn over, her grin wide, her dark eyes twinkling like stars. “Slop’s good today. It kind of tastes like apple pie, if you don’t quite know what apple pie tastes like. I think Daddy Dearest suffered a glitch and added a cinnamon flavor pack or something by mistake.”
Panna was younger than Ghenn by five years, and younger than most everyone else by at least ten. Young enough that she could serve her six and rebuild when she was free. Young enough that she still had a sense of humor about getting caught and getting convicted, about signing up for indentured servitude in lieu of prison, about the AI that governed their lives that she’d nicknamed Daddy Dearest.
Some of the older volunteers hated her for it. But then some of them, like Robaire, hated everything.
“The problem has been documented and a solution is currently being implemented,” an emotionless, robotic voice droned out. “The error with flavor pack CN-5 will not happen again. Your vigilance is appreciated, Volunteer 0B-47.”
Panna went silent, her shoulders slouching and her vision locked firmly on her gruel. Every eye in the dining hall was locked on her. “Whoops.”
Ghenn sighed. “Oh, it’s cool. Not like apple pie-flavored gruel for breakfast was going to be the highlight of the cycle or anything.” Panna opened her mouth to apologize again, but Ghenn shook her head and forced a smile. “Stop, stop. It’s my own fault for being slow.”
Robaire snickered. Ghenn and Panna both glared at him.
“You know, we’re all stuck with each other for another four months. Do you have to be insufferable?”
Robaire frowned. His double chin wavered with insincere hurt. “I’m just having a little fun. We only get six months together. I thought we were just joking around. Like friends.” He kept the quaver going for another few seconds before letting lose a single, harsh laugh, like the bark of a vicious dog. He pushed his chair back from the dining hall table and left the room.
Ghenn sat down and poked at her bowl of nutrient paste. Except for Panna, the others left one by one. “That guy’s a dick,” Panna announced to no one.
“And this is your fourth cycle with him?”
“He’s been up here for four years?”
“Four and a half, same as me.”
Panna was silent. “How have you not killed him?”
“Murdering fellow volunteers is expressly forbidden under the terms of your service contract,” Daddy Dearest intoned. “Murderers will be sentenced to a life in service within the helium mines on Luna Base.”
Ghenn rolled her eyes and pointed at the speaker port on the ceiling. “Don’t want to disappoint Daddy Dearest.”
“You can’t tell me you’ve never thought about it.”
Ghenn’s eyes narrowed to slits. She leaned forward to whisper out of habit, knowing in the back of her mind that it made no real difference. “Look, I know this is your first cycle, and I know you dropped out of advanced education, but you must have picked up something in one of the classes you accidentally went to. You ever study the concept of privacy?”
Panna rolled her eyes. “Yes, Mother.”
“Well, you know how privacy doesn’t matter because no one’s listening but advertisers and they don’t care about anything except for where our money?”
Panna rolled her eyes again and nodded.
“Up here, someone is doing nothing but listening.”
The two women were quiet, expecting Daddy Dearest to chime in. But the machine was silent. Panna shrugged. “Well, still, there must be something to do. A prank.” Panna looked up at the ceiling, addressed the speaker port. “A completely harmless, all-in-good-fun type of prank.”
Ghenn shook her head. “It’d be impossible to get away with. Daddy Dearest doesn’t miss anything. He doesn’t make mistakes.”
Panna stood up to walk away and tapped the side of her empty bowl of gruel with her spoon. The noise rang sharp and clear in the silence of the dining hall. “You sure about that?”