Daddy Dearest tracked every particle in low Earth orbit, from tiny paint chips up to long dead satellites. It calculated the most efficient paths for the volunteers to take, made estimations on their productivity, and ensured that their route would lead them within the path of the station’s orbit after twelve hours. It automatically compensated for the momentum lost by catching debris in the scoops. It took control of the MDCUs if the volunteers attempted to do something too dangerous. It did everything but handle the moment-to-moment piloting of the MDCUs, the gathering of debris, the controlling of manipulators. This freedom, at least, was allotted to the volunteers, but it was a double-edged sword. Upon the completion of a shift, any volunteers who failed to meet Daddy Dearest’s quota, who exhibited reckless behavior, who performed their duties adequately but slowly, would find themselves on the wrong end of Daddy Dearest’s behavior modification subroutines. A mandatory psych evaluation, a specially prescribed stimulant or sedative. It cut into the little free time the volunteers had, and it guaranteed that Daddy Dearest would be watching the next day with a much closer eye. A volunteer could fall into an almost endless cycle of ups and downs, the days passing in a pharmaceutical haze of twitching and staring vacantly at nothing. Once Daddy Dearest struck the perfect balance and the volunteer in question performed to his liking, they’d find themselves suddenly awake, their senses a little too sharp and their vision a little too clear from a detoxtail. Days, weeks, maybe even a month or two gone, and all they could do to piece it together was check their logs (if they kept them,) their incoming and outgoing messages (if there had been any,) and talk to the other volunteers (if any would still give them the time of day.)
Some volunteers went out of their way to get it. A month you couldn’t remember might as well be a month you didn’t serve. But Daddy Dearest was smart to begin with, and a quick learner. If he got wise to a volunteer trying to play him for a fool, instead of a drug cocktail, they could expect an all day session with the psychbot.
If there was one thing worse than twelve hours of dull, repetitive work in a metal box all by yourself, it was twelve hours of being interrogated by a robot in a metal box all by yourself.
Ghenn deactivated her microphone and sang pop songs she remembered from the last time she was on Earth. She messaged Panna and they told jokes and stories they’d already told a hundred times before. She set a stopwatch in her BiOS and raced to see how quickly she could feel the MDCU’s containers. She picked a the smallest object on the MDCU’s scanners and tried to collect it without collecting any others.
She remembered a story she’d heard once years ago, an interview with a convict centuries dead. He’d served decades in a maximum security prison that hadn’t existed in almost as long. He’d said that when he and the others were locked in their solitary cells, they had to devise ways to keep their minds occupied. They’d tear buttons off of their clothing and flick them into the air, then close their eyes and crawl around trying to find them. Anything to make the hours go by a little faster, he’d said. It was that or go insane.
Ghenn remembered this story. Then she tried to remember where she’d heard it from.
It helped pass the time.
* * *
When the shift came to an end, the volunteers had an hour to themselves before Daddy Dearest served dinner. Some showered, some read, some napped in their bunks (which seemed fairly pointless, given that most opted to go to bed within two hours of the shift ending, anyway.) Ghenn logged onto the single terminal in the station and checked her messages. There was something particularly irritating about the lack of BiOS service at the station. Ostensibly it was due to the station’s construction and relative isolation from communication satellites, but that was absurd. It was harder to intercept and censor BiOS messages, whether coming or going.
Not that there was anything worth reading or censoring in the messages she got anyway. A few notes from her parents, one from her brother.
Something caught Ghenn’s eye. A video message with the subject, “aRe YOU tiered all the tme???”
“Oh, come on,” she muttered. “Spam? Daddy, you’re not doing your job.”
She moved the cursor over the deletion function, but she stopped herself. After a moment, she sighed and clicked the subject line. “What the hell, let’s see what it is?”
Nothing happened. She frowned. “Laggy piece of–”
A BiOS window overlaid her vision. Her eyes went wide. That wasn’t supposed to be possible. The terminal had a weak wireless connection, but a message shouldn’t have been able to open in her BiOS like that.
An image appeared within the window. An eagle’s head made of iron, its feathers like knives and its eyes glowing like LEDs on a machine. Beneath it was a stylized shield with animated zeroes and ones falling from top to bottom like rain.
Ghenn’s breath caught in her throat. She knew that image. Everyone did. It meant a knife in your back and cyborg replacement taking over your life. It meant proxy wars and toppled governments. It meant politicians crying out against policies one day and recanting their positions with a wavery voice and haunted eyes the next. It meant board meetings interrupted by a bullet through a window. Or a tungsten rod through the roof.