Friday, May 29, 2020

Liberty Station by Dan Rice

On a space station populated by humans and aliens, a lowly teacher must face a growing climate of bigotry; by Dan Rice.

My students, styluses to tablets, work studiously on the math quiz - except for Ben, a top-notch pupil if a bit entitled, and Felix, a quiet and kind lad. The polka-dots covering Felix's skin pulse yellow, contrasting against his otherwise light blue complexion. His arms are crossed before his chest, and he glowers at Ben, who is whispering something and has a broad smile plastered on his face.

I stop myself from sighing. Disciplining my students is far from my favorite task, but I can't let this go on, or the boys will disrupt the quiz. Putting on my best stern teacher face, I march in between the neatly arranged desks toward the boys.

"You know, Governor Spade is going to let us throw all your polka dot faces out the airlocks," Ben whispers to Felix. "You Starlight Missionaries aren't good for anything but taking our jobs. Good, high-paying human jobs. You're going to suck vacuum - "

"Ben!" I say, hardly believing the vileness coming from the boy's mouth. Since the election of a Governor Spade four years ago, this kind of talk has become commonplace in the hallways of Liberty Station but never before has it entered my classroom. I'm very aware everyone is looking up from their tablets and gawking at me. "Ben, that kind of talk is unacceptable in this classroom. You know better."

Ben turns red in the face and stares up at me with disdain. "Humans first. When Governor Spade wins the next election, he's going to throw all the aliens off the station, starting with polka-dot faces. That's what my dad says."

"Ben, go to the principal's office immediately," I say, struggling to keep my tone neutral.

"Why?" Ben asks, whiny.

"Go, or I will be forced to call Principal Montoya to the classroom."



I stay late, grading math quizzes on my tablet when the door to the classroom slides open. Looking up, I smile at my visitors: Felix, and a woman who must be his mother.

"May we come in, Mrs. Musashi?" the woman asks demurely. Her galactic common is easy to understand but carries the accent of a non-native speaker.

"Please. You are Felix's mother?" I say and stand up.

"I am. You may call me Lilly. I just wanted to say thank you. Felix told me what you did for him today. Standing up for him."

"It was nothing, really. Any other teacher would do the same," I say. "School policy is crystal clear. Interspecies bullying is strictly prohibited."

"You're wrong, Mrs. Musashi," Felix pipes up.

I glance at him, nonplussed. "What do you mean, Felix?"

Lilly says something in her native tongue that sounds like an admonishment. Polka-dots turning yellow, Felix stairs at the floor, and scuffs his feet.

"It's true. Kids have said things in other classes, and the teachers don't do anything," Felix says. "We used to all get along before Governor Spade. I hate him."

"Felix, wait outside," Lilly says, her polka-dots momentarily flaring bright orange.

"Yes, Mother," Felix, says and steps outside.

"I'm sorry about that, Mrs. Musashi," Lilly says.

"No need to apologize," I say, shaking my head. "It's been hard. Especially this past year with the lead-up to the election. Governor Spade's rhetoric is divisive. He's stirring up old grievances."

Lilly walks across the classroom to stand next to me, beside my desk. Held in her hand is a small coin, like the ancient currency of Old Earth. Only this token is translucent, and inside it, swirls what I can only describe as a glowing micro-galaxy.

"This is a star coin. My people use it as currency on our home planet. Please, take it as a gift showing my gratitude."

Staring in wonder, I pluck the star coin from Lilly's palm. It is smooth, featherlight, and warm to the touch. I can't help feeling like I hold a galaxy in my hand.

"It's beautiful," I gasp.

"I'm glad you like it. Thank you for your kindness and understanding."

"I don't deserve this," I say and try to hand the coin back to Lilly, but she is already striding to the door and shakes her head.



I lay in bed half the night dreading my students will arrive the next morning ready to parrot Governor Spade's hateful rhetoric again. I finally fall sleep, but my alarm startles me awake far too soon.

I arrive in the classroom almost an hour early to finish grading the math quizzes and prepare my lessons for the day. Periodically, the star coin sitting on the desk next to a "Galaxy's Best Teacher" coffee mug captures my gaze, and I smile. I don't deserve the gift, but I do appreciate it.

At 0800 Liberty Station standard time my students arrive, and I take attendance. Everyone is on time except for Ben who is absent for the entire day. Turns out my anxiety the night before was misplaced, and class proceeds without any of the governor's rhetoric repeated by my students. It's a relief, really.

At the end of the school day, I settle down at my desk to grade homework when my tablet pings. It's a message from Principal Jayleen Montoya summoning me to her office.

"Great," I mutter and stand, knowing that if the meeting goes very long, I'll be staying up late grading papers instead of catching up on much-needed sleep.



I sit across a desk from Principal Jayleen Montoya, and stare out the porthole at the swirling orange and yellow clouds of the gas giant that Liberty Station orbits. Some people claim

the churning billows are hypnotic if you stare at them long enough. I don't experience the mesmerizing effect because to my relief Jayleen wants to get right down to business.

"Grace, Ben Hartman's parents visited me today," the principal says. "They are putting in a transfer request to another school. Do you know why?"

The relief I felt moments before goes up in smoke. "Are you serious? They want to transfer him because of what happened yesterday? Ben is a good student. He is studious and usually will behaved, but what he said was totally out of line."

"Grace, you are being accused of taking an anti-human stance in class and favoring aliens," Jayleen says.

My jaw drops. "I do not. I treat all my students equally."

"Several other parents filed complaints. Some of the students felt intimidated by, and I'm quoting, Mrs. Mushashi favoring alien students' well-being to the detriment of her human students."

"Watch the classroom recording," I say, crossing my arms in front of my chest. "I didn't favor any species above any other. Ben threatened to throw Felix out an airlock. What was I supposed to do?"

"I've reviewed the recording. Felix was clearly acting aggressive. At the very least, you should have sent them both to my office. This is a severe lapse in judgment, Grace. I'm afraid I'll have to write you up."

"It was a clear case of interspecies bullying," I say, jumping up from my chair. "Is that allowed now?"

"Governor Spade has made it clear that the new station policy is humans first. You're one of us, Grace. It's time you do your part to implement Governor Spade's policies in your classroom. I suggest you go home and think long and hard how you're going to do that. Oh, and the gift that Starlight Missionary gave you. Don't display it on your desk. Take it home or something."

"Fine," I say and storm from the office.

I leave the star coin on my desk in the classroom. The small show of defiance makes me feel like a rebel as I walk through the bustling halls of the station and head for the mag train platform. I arrive at the platform about 30 minutes before rush hour, so when I board the train, I'm surprised it's standing room only. The cars are chock-full of men and women wearing the green jumpsuits of the asteroid miners' union. It's odd that so many of them are on the train. The miners work long hours extracting precious hypercrystals, the 100% pure kind used in the lasers that cut the fabric of space-time to facilitate faster than light travel.

I hold onto a pole and shift my weight with the acceleration and deceleration of the train. Brooding about my meeting with Jayleen, my mood turns into a sour soup of anger and sadness.

A ragtag group of miners standing in front of me starts a boisterous conversation.

"I lost my job to one of those blue faced freaks. The foreman told me they will work for half what I make. That's slave wages."

"Corporations need to pay them more."

"Damn Starlight Missionaries are hogging all the jobs."

"They need to be given a choice. Leave our station or suck vacuum."

Cheers erupt around the car at the last statement. My chest tightens. It's no wonder Ben is spouting off xenophobic garbage in class. Before Governor Spade people kept such views to themselves, but since Spade's election for years ago, his rhetoric has normalized anti-alien speech. There's even been violence, humans targeting alien businesses and the like. At times like this, standing on the train surrounded by angry humans, the station feels like a powderkeg waiting on a single spark to explode.

An automated voice comes over the intercom. "Next stop the Starlight Missionary District."

My relief is palpable. I can walk home from the train terminal and not have to listen to any more xenophobic ranting. To my surprise, the miners surge toward the exits. What's going on? I hear what sounds like chanting. As the train slows, I begin to make out the words and stare out a window in utter disbelief. At the terminal, a mob of riotous humanity chants: "Starlight Missionaries leave our station!"

The miners rush off the train as soon as the doors open to join the mob. I see men and women in grimy jumpsuits assaulting two Starlight Missionaries.

"Oh my God," I whisper.

The victims are Felix and Lilly. The polka-dots covering their blue faces are bright yellow, like stars. I join the crush squeezing onto the mag train platform.

The racket is deafening as I fight my way through the crowd toward Felix and Lilly. A burly man in an oil-stained jumpsuit pushes Felix to the ground. I barrel into the man, knocking him aside, and suck in a whiff of sweat and industrial solvent. I take Felix by the hand and pull him onto his feet and snatch Lilly by her arm. They quiver in fear.

Too outraged to be afraid, I try leading them away from the immediate danger. Through the throng, I see a service hallway free of rioters.

"This way," I say.

A towering woman blocks our way. She holds a metal pipe overhead. "Get off my station."

My heart roars inside my chest like starship thrusters in atmosphere. I expect the pipe to crush my skull, but a Starlight Missionary, polka-dots burning red, tackles the woman.

We race into the hallway and stay on the move.

"Are you all right?" I gasp.

They nod. I let go of Lilly and use my handheld to summon station security, but the device fails to connect. My insides turn cold. From behind us comes shouting and the heavy clomp of boots against the metal floor. I glance over my shoulder and see three men in pursuit.

I have no idea where this hallway leads, and the men are closing the distance fast. Up ahead, the hall gently bends, and to my relief, I see an abandoned electric cart.

"Get on," I say.

I jump into the driver's seat, and Felix and Lilly clamber into the passenger seat. From behind us come enraged screams. I slam my foot onto the accelerator, and the cart careens forward.

"Watch out," Lilly says.

Something flies over my head, just missing me. Whatever it is, it hits the wall with a metallic thud and falls to the floor.

Fingers rest against my forearm and I realize it's Felix. Our eyes meet. The polka-dots covering his face still blaze bright yellow.

"It's okay, Mrs. Musashi," he says. "They can't keep up with the cart."

I draw a deep breath to calm myself, but I can't find a sliver of tranquility. The angry bellows of the men echo through the hallway. I don't even want to consider what will happen if they catch us.

I check the cart's charge gauge on the dash. 15% charge. I clench my jaw. That might be enough to get us to safety. Looking over my shoulder, I don't see the men, and I swear the sounds of pursuit are fading. I ease my foot off the accelerator. The last thing we need is for the cart to run out of juice before we're safe.

"Does your handheld have a signal?" Lilly says. "I lost mine in the riot."

I fish my handheld out. "Oh, thank goodness. Yes."

I connect to station security. The bored face of a middle-aged officer fills the screen.

"There's a riot in the Starlight Missionary District," I splutter. "We're trying to escape. We're being chased."

"Whatever," the officer says and disconnects.

"Did he just..." Lilly says.

"That bastard," I say and glance at Felix. His eyes are saucer-wide. "Pretend you didn't hear that."

I retry security.

"You again," the officer says.

"I want to talk to your superior," I say. "Right now."

I hear a voice from offscreen. "What's going on?"

"It's nothing -"

"Rioting in the Starlight Missionary District!" I yell.

"Get out of the way."

The officer moves aside. A woman slides into his place. "I'm Sgt. Chen. What's the emergency?"

In rapid-fire, I tell her about the riot and the men chasing us.

"Okay. Can you get to safety?"

"I think so," I say and listen to our surroundings. I only hear the electric hum of the cart. "I think they stopped chasing us."

"Good," Sgt. Chen says, her gaze flicking offscreen. "It looks like you're about five minutes from your apartment. Get inside and lock the door. I'll be around to check on you in ten minutes. Don't open your door for anyone else."

Safe behind the locked door of my apartment, Lilly and Felix seem calmer. Their polka-dots are still yellow but aren't shimmering as brightly as before.

Lilly takes my hand, her skin smooth and warm. "Thank you for helping us."

"I'm sorry for what's happening," I say, not believing I deserve one iota of thanks for doing what any decent individual would do.

After convincing them to sit down at the kitchen bar of my sparsely decorated open layout apartment, I make tea for Lilly and give Felix a cookie.

"Thanks, Mrs. Musashi," he says.

A few minutes later, the doorbell buzzes. I check my handheld, expecting to see Sgt. Chen at the door and the device nearly slips from my grasp. It's the three men who were chasing us. One man with a bushy beard bangs against the door with a wrench. I tap the talk button on the screen.

"Go away," I say.

"Open up. We know you have those polka-dot faced freaks in there. Give them up, and we'll leave you alone," comes a gruff voice from the screen.

I turn to my guests, who are cowering behind an off-white couch in the far corner of the living room. I put a finger to my lips for silence. Their polka-dots are orange and emit an eerie luminescence.

"They ran off. I'm alone."

A short man climbs into the electric cart.

"8% charge," he says.

"Open up, lady. We just want the missionaries."

"Leave. Please."

The man thumps the wrench against the door. "We can get a torch."

"I've called station security," I say, and bite my lower lip. Sgt. Chen is late.

The miners confer in the hall. I try to listen in on their conversation, but they must be whispering because I can't make out what they're saying. It looks like they're about to leave, but then the one with the wrench starts rummaging through the electric cart's trunk. He hefts a plasma torch. His compatriots high-five each other.

The dull blast from the torch is audible through the door. I don't know how long it will take them to burn through the door, but judging by the orange glow around its edges, not long.

I race into the kitchen and grab a knife from the counter. I sprint across the living room to stand in front of the couch that Felix and Lilly cower behind. I hold the knife out before me and wait. I might have been standing for 10 seconds or 10 minutes when the door collapses inward to strike the floor with a resounding thud. The edges of the door and doorframe glow orange.

The miners step inside and eye me warily. The one with the beard uses his wrench to point at my student and his mother.

"Let us have them, lady," he says. "Nothing bad needs to happen here."

"No," I say through clenched teeth.

The bearded miner glances at his cohorts. "We rush her on three."

The miners grunt their approval.

"One."

I draw a shuddering breath. "Felix. Lilly. I'll hold them off."

"Two."

"Just... just make a run for it."

"Thr-"

"Station security. Don't move."

Standing in the doorway is Sgt. Chen with her stunner drawn and aimed at the men. Two miners spin and rush the security officer. A fizzle followed by a loud pop fills the air once then twice. Two miners drop to the floor, stunned. The bearded miner is still on his feet and hurls his wrench through the air. It crunches into the officer's shoulder, and she falls. The miner charges her.

Screaming, I run at the miner's broad back. He whirls to face me with a maniacal glint in his eyes. His fist flies through the air. Out of nowhere, Felix comes between us. The polka-dots covering his body are bulging and pulsating red. He catches the man by the wrist.

"Leave my teacher alone," he says in a low growl that I barely recognize.

Bone cracks. The bearded man is yowling. Felix's fist smashes into his jaw. The miner's eyes roll back into his head. Felix is going to strike again, and I'm afraid he'll kill the man, but then I hear the most beautiful humming. It makes my insides vibrate, but at the same time, it's calming.

Felix releases the man, who drops with a thud. Swaying, my student falls to the floor. Lilly, still humming that glorious sound, kneels next to her son and caresses his head. Felix is unconscious; his polka-dots aren't bulging and are fading to blue.

Lilly stops singing and stares up at me. Her polka-dots still have an orange tint. "You weren't supposed to see that."

"He could've done that the entire time?" I say.

"It's an extreme fight or flight response," Lilly says. "A small percentage of our young males are burdened with it. Most can repress it by adulthood. We don't want you humans to know about it because you're scared enough by us as it is."

"I didn't see anything," I say.

"I didn't see anything either," Sgt. Chen says. She is sitting up now with her right arm hanging limply at her side.

"What about him?" Lilly asks, gesturing to the man her son had knocked out.

"Don't worry about him," Chen says. "He'll be on the next prison transport off station for assaulting an officer. I have a cart outside. We'll head to the nearest security station."

I sit at the security station on a folding chair next to Lilly and Felix. Officers in body armor and carrying automatic rifles move purposely about the office. Occasionally, a man or woman in a green jumpsuit is led past us in handcuffs.

A newsfeed plays on a monitor near the ceiling. The chaos playing out on the feed is terrible. Station security is authorized to use live fire to end the riot. It's only a matter of time before some semblance of order is restored. The scabbed over wounds torn open by the day's events will take a good deal longer to heal. Unable to watch more of the violence, I turn to Lilly. Felix is conscious and sits next to her, but seems in a daze.

"The humming you did earlier," I say. "It was beautiful. Magical."

"We don't find it so. It just stops the rage."



After the riots, I consider returning to the Inner Planets. I have family on Bali XI. But I can't stomach abandoning my students, so I stay, despite feeling like an asteroid adrift between solar systems.

A month later, Lilly comes to my apartment with a tentacled Drakonusian and an officious looking young man in tow. The Drakonusian smells pungent (it's a species trait), forcing me to concentrate on not crinkling my nose, which might be interpreted as impolite.

"We need to talk," Lilly says. "May we come inside?"

I'm not thrilled to have visitors after a long day of refereeing my fifth-grade class, but I can't say no to Lilly after what we've been through. We sit down in the living room, and Lilly begins the conversation.

"We think you should run for governor."

"What? I'm not a politician. I'm a teacher."

The Drakonusian speaks, a triangular device around the alien's neck translates guttural growls and high-pitch clicks into galactic common. "A teacher is what we need in our next leader. Someone who will remind all of us why our ancestors chose to live together on Liberty Station. My people have run mathematical simulations. If the current regime continues, there is a chance humans will turn against my people. That will have tragic consequences. Peace between our species is mutually beneficial."

"You can win," the man says, leaning forward in his chair.

I laugh and say. "You need name recognition to run for office."

"You haven't been watching the newsfeeds?" the man says, turning his tablet toward me. "Your story has been trending this month on all the feeds. About how you saved your student."

"I've been avoiding the news," I say and stare at the feeds displayed on the tablet.

Truth be told, I'd heard rumors. A comment by a student or someone in the teacher's lounge. Still, it's unfathomable that the headlines are about me. I didn't do anything special. All I did was protect my pupil like any good teacher. That shouldn't make me famous or bring me accolades or qualify me to be governor.

"Anyway," the man says, flipping the tablet around so the screen faces him. "You have a real chance at winning. Especially if we get out the alien vote."

"They don't vote," I say without thinking, then blush because I'm afraid I might have embarrassed my alien guests.

"We will vote for the right candidate," Lilly says and leans forward.

Her gaze is intense, and the polka-dots covering her skin are glowing emerald green. I've never seen a missionary produce such a color, and I'm not sure what it means.

"The riot has changed my people's opinion on voting," Lilly says. "We always found it silly. A human eccentricity. Now, we understand that if we are to live side-by-side with humans, we must be cognizant of how the station's leader is chosen."

The translator interprets the Drakonusian's growls and clicks. "You are the candidate humans, Starlight Missionaries, and Drakonusians can support."

I lean back in my chair and stare at the ceiling, trying to find my center. My pulse tap-dances, and I feel woozy. I don't want to be governor. That's insane. Then again, can I really pass up a chance, no matter how crazy, to prevent the current regime from having a second term?

I turn my gaze upon my guests and take a moment to compose myself. When I speak, there is steel in my voice. "I'm in. I'm in for the victory."



One years after that fateful meeting in my apartment, I stand in my campaign's office in a converted diner located in the Starlight Missionary District on election night. My supporters surround me: humans, Starlight Missionaries, and Drakonusians. The room is silent with anxious anticipation as the returns play out over the newsfeeds on a supersized monitor attached to the wall. I'm head-to-head with Governor Spade, it's too close to call. I want to win for my supporters; but for myself, I want to lose. Governor Musashi? It has a nice ring to it, but I'm not qualified, and all I really want to do is teach.

Aliens and humans alike roar in approval as newsfeed after newsfeed declares the election in my favor. By midnight, I'm told by my advisors I should proclaim victory if only to force Governor Spade to admit defeat. My head swims in the ecstasy and terror of triumph.

Lilly and Felix, their polka-dots pulsating blue, usher me to a podium before my supporters, so many that they spill out of the campaign office into the hallway. I gulp, certifiably a nervous wreck. I've never spoken in front of a crowd this massive before.

I feel a tug at the sleeve of my jacket, it's Felix.

"It's okay, Mrs. Musashi. Just pretend this is your classroom. You'll do great."

I turn my gaze back to the throng. Starlight Missionaries. Humans. Drakonusians. Just like my classroom. I can do this. I begin the lesson.

6 comments:

  1. Great story to read to start the day. Well written and a with strong message. The MC has a long road ahead of her. Thanks for sharing your work with us.

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  2. Nice story with a transparent political message. It's clear (at least to me) who Governor Spade represents. I wonder who the narrator does. Maybe just hope? Guessing he has his work cut out for him, humans being what we are. Interesting aliens. Cool coin. Always been a fan of 1st person, present tense. Well done here.
    ("I lay"=I lie; "one years"=one year)

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  3. Enjoyed the sci-fi, provided a unique and memorable backdrop for a strong political statement. I found it nearly impossible to read this without visualizing real-life faces on certain characters. I admire Mrs. Musashi for stepping up and defending the values she teaches her students. Are decent human beings still electable in this day and age? I'm a bit cynical on that, but perhaps a Mrs. Musashi will come along sometime and prove me wrong.

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  4. Great reflection of our times. Humans First! Sounds familiar. One minor comment. When she was on the train and the miners all got out, I was surprised that it was Felix and Lilly they were after. Seemed way too coincidental that they were there at just that time. Perhaps some earlier buildup event could make it more believaable. Otherwise, a great read.

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  5. Reading this, despite numerous references to her as "Mrs. Musashi," I thought the narrator was male. The control? The violence? Romantic overtones w/ the alien woman? Not sure what stereotype I suffer from but want to apologize for misreading.

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  6. Hopeful story that hits all the correct points. Ms. M indeed is a model for positive change.

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