"Don't give me that look. You've palmed a card." He stops, frowns even more. "Finned…Palm. Whatever. You're cheating either way."
He glares at his opponent. There is a table with a large fish tank sitting atop it, highly pressurized, he does not even try to understand how it was made. Inside, there is a fish. It is large, black with bright red markings on its scales. Part of the cichlid family, Enterprise the Oscar, glares back before he swims away from his irritated owner.
His irritated owner is Eden Marcus.
It has been almost three years since Eden began his mission and, in that time, he and Enterprise have engaged in weekly games of poker. Enterprise somehow manages to win and receives a cube of frozen bloodworms as his prize, though Eden insists it is making Enterprise fat. Enterprise does not care.
Eden goes and retrieves said reward for his fish from the fridge. He drops it in the tank and begins his rounds. He runs maintenance on his phone, the video chat, the radio. He checks in with Earth, the Space Agency, checks his messages. There is one from his boss, one from his mother, another from a colleague bragging over how he owes him a drink after the football results. He mutters some curses under his breath.
The weeks have passed without incident. Eden wakes up and writes up his reports, each equally as boring as the next. He emails them back to the Space Agency, sure they will be ignored given how peaceful this journey has been.
The sights have been awe-inspiring, miles upon miles of endless stars, traveling past Mars and its moons, watching while the Earth grows dark and light from the sun as it rotates. To anyone else it would remind them of their purpose, the reason they put so much work in during their younger years. To Eden, it has become routine.
In the distance is Jupiter. It is huge, almost covering the entirety of the window. Surrounding it are its moons, the four largest in sight. Io, Callisto, Ganymede and his destination, Europa.
Known for being covered in ice and one of the best chances at finding life beyond Earth, both NASA and the Space Agency collaborated on an explorative mission to research the moon, scanning the surface for anything of interest. On finding there was some kind of atmosphere, tenuous though it was, machinery was sent up to build a station.
Eden remembered seeing the reports, following the station's development until its completion. At the same time as the first crewmembers were being sent, Project Pride, the prototype satellite was launched. Signals were sent through light speed, back to the second satellite orbiting Earth, with only a brief delay between messages.
He remembered following all of the project, the announcement of Project Pride, the construction of the station. Now, years later, he was on his way to the station, the Isolda, built on Europa.
For the most part, he has spent the journey with the blinds shut, ignoring the varying sights, only showing them off when asked on the video chat. He spends his time playing cards with a fish he has owned for almost ten years and finds this far more interesting.
He wakes up the next day, does his checks and checks the calendar. This is his last day of traveling, he'll reach the station mid-afternoon if his timing is right.
He sits down in the pilot's chair, switches off the auto-pilot. Jupiter looms above him, the great storm raging away. The storm clouds spiral around and around, it is almost hypnotizing if he were to watch it for long enough. He stares up at it, feeling small, insignificant, he can barely see to the top of the planet.
The radio crackles, makes him jump.
"This is relief technician Eden Marcus, Isolda please respond," he says into the radio.
"Technician Marcus, this is technician Hopkins. I'll let them know you've arrived," comes the answer.
Eden pilots the ship toward the landing bay, sets up the auto-pilot once again while he pulls on his space suit. He waits till it's landed completely, setting down on the metal ramp that has been lowered for him. He looks over to the fish tank, wondering how he's supposed to transport it with him.
He opens the door of the ship, hops across the gap and stops. Europa is miles upon miles of snow and ice. A geyser shoots into the air, ice crystals falling back to the moon's surface. Jupiter shadows them, a silent, hulking guardian.
The space station itself, the Isolda, spans several circular domes, all connected by tunnels. The burnished silver of the metal blends into the ice and for a moment, it makes Eden's head hurt to look at it.
He goes to the entrance, pushes the button and steps into the de-contamination chamber. When it finishes, he takes off his helmet and goes through the next door into the space station.
A bald man greets him, who he assumes to be technician Hopkins from the radio. The man is younger than him by a few years, similar build, wearing an old discoloured shirt with varying stains on it. He sticks his hand out. The other man shakes it.
"Ralph Hopkins, assistant technician," he says.
"Eden Marcus. How long you been up here for?" Eden answers.
"A year and a half so far, another six months before I get sent back."
He nods. "Your replacement's already on his way up then."
Ralph nods also.
He turns away, gestures for Eden to follow. "Come on, I'll take you to your quarters. You got much stuff with you?"
He shakes his head. "Not much." He pauses. "Hey, what's the policy on pets?"
Ralph turns back, raises an eyebrow. "Define 'pets'."
"Fish. Well, a fish. The Space Agency told it'd be fine to bring him, but they couldn't tell me if there were any regulations or whether it'd be allowed on site once I got here."
Ralph smiles. "For a minute I thought you'd brought your dog with you." He nods once. "Yeah, that's fine. There were a few guys brought their fish with them. Ever since one engineer came up with a way to set up tanks up here, it opened the floodgates." He looks over Eden's shoulder to the door he's just come through. "Your fish got a tank of his own?"
Eden nods. "Yeah, it's an Oscar. I let the engineers hook him up to my ship."
Ralph whistles. "Big bastard there. Right now it's only goldfish in the tanks. I'll pass on you need someone to get your fish out."
"Thanks. Better tell them not to stick their hands in the tank, he's liable to bite."
Ralph gets on the radio and passes along the message. Eden returns to the ship, grabs his bags, his supplies and everything else. He meets Ralph in the corridor once more and the other technician leads him to his new room for the next two years.
His quarters are plain, basic. All needs catered for and little else. There's a desk next to a door he assumes is the bedroom. There's a couch, a chair, a table. A television set is placed against a wall, a radio on the sideboard. Shelves line the walls with food, blankets, pillows. There's a microwave on a counter along with a kettle. It's his own little hotel room in space.
He takes his bags through to the bedroom, starts to unpack. Clothes are put away, bed is made, everything set out. While he is unpacking, the engineer comes in to tell him Enterprise is now set up in his own area. Eden thanks him and continues. With everything done, he tries the radio, surprised to find that it works at all. The television works also. Thank you Project Pride. While there is a delay, he knows he's seen this episode, several times in fact, for the next two years it will break the monotony.
He sits in his room, wonders if he is expected to get to work straight away. He gets up from the chair, leaves the room and goes to find Ralph.
Ralph is in the cafeteria, having coffee alone at a table. On seeing him, Ralph stands up, waves him over. Eden joins him.
"You're done unpacking already? That was quick," Ralph says.
He nods. "I'm good at it, been on the space station enough times."
"Yeah, I understand. How many times you been on the ISS?"
"Oh Christ…Five, maybe six?" He shrugs. "It kind of blends into each other."
Ralph cocks his head. "You think so? I've been up half that and I could go up again." He leans back. "This was a dream come true, to be assigned to here for two years."
Eden raises an eyebrow, leans on his hand. "Really? You didn't find the travel bad?"
"The journey here? Oh that was awful. Three years with nothing but yourself as company. Enough to drive you crazy."
He snorts, lets a smile appear. "Yeah, tell me about it. It if wasn't for my Ma and my fish, I probably would've lost it."
Ralph smiles, nods in agreement. "So you want the grand tour?" He stands up from the table, gestures to the exit of the cafeteria. "I've got nothing better to do and you're not expected to get to work till tomorrow."
"Well, that explains a lot." He stands up from the table also. "Yeah, I'll take the tour." He gestures to the door. "Lead on, technician Hopkins."
Ralph grins and leads him out of the room.
The corridors, despite looking easy to navigate from the outside, are a maze of silver and sliding doors. For all his trying to explain what each area is, Eden's confusion is obvious. He has been to the ISS several times and should be used to this, however his sense of direction fails him. Ralph at least, doesn't seem to mind. He leads the way, with a smile on his face and no signs of impatience or frustration. Eden envies him, in a way, and wishes he still had that sense of wonder.
They pass several people, heading for where he'll primarily be working. More than once he notices people sneezing, looking worse for wear. Red noses, bloodshot eyes and coughing is prominent in the tour. Eden can't help but wonder why they're here if they're ill.
Ralph notices this and offers explanation.
"It's only been in the last few weeks that that's been cropping up," he says. "It's a cold making the rounds, nothing more. Or so the doctor thinks."
"Are they sure? Looks like a damn heavy cold to me," Eden answers, glancing to another of his co-workers when their sneeze echoes down the corridor.
Ralph nods. "There's been no other signs of it. The guy you're replacing caught it. He insists off of one of the biologists." He shrugs. "Obviously he's not being sent back to Earth till he gets the all-clear. Same with anyone else that's fallen ill."
He frowns, doesn't say anything. There's something not right about it. He changes the subject. "How's the equipment been? No bugs, no malfunctions?"
Ralph shakes his head. "We've been lucky so far. You'd think there'd be a few teething problems with such a new system." He frowns for a moment, bites his lip. "Only thing worth mentioning is the heating system in the old part of the station. It's not completely bust, just really, really intermittent. You just get it going then it goes off again."
Eden nods once. "I'll take a look at it if I get the chance."
"Yeah, might be worth it. It's fucking freezing round there, need several layers of clothes just so you don't feel it. The electrics are the same way, but given how old that part is, we don't really use it much. Mainly stick to where I've shown you so far."
"I'm not surprised, the tech down there is what, twenty, thirty years old?"
Ralph nods. "Yeah, about that. The robots that built it are still there somewhere." He stops outside the infirmary. "Right, well this is the end of the tour. In here is our doctor, Kaitlyn. I dunno whether she's busy or not if you want to start introducing yourself or wait till you start. Up to you." He turns away, looks down the corridor. "You be all right to make your own way back? I got some system maintenance to run, coming up to its check-in time."
Although he knows otherwise, that he'll surely get lost somewhere along the way, Eden nods. "Yeah, I'll be fine. I'll not keep you, not if you've work to do."
"No doubt I'll see you around, good meeting you Eden." With that Ralph heads down the corridor, whistling a tune Eden is sure he should know but cannot identify it.