Once upon a time in a remote space station, an imposing ring of Hullsteel and Liquidarmor glass known as the Freehold Project...
The stale smell of the air was unpleasant. Antje Robin was trapped in a restricted area on a skyway car ... certainly not the way she had planned on spending Valentine's Day. Earth was a distant memory, but the residents of this station took social holidays seriously. Living on the edge of human space, where few ships have reason to make port, generates more interest in those around you.
Not that Antje was interested in seeing her date ever again. She pressed her palm against the inactive door sensor and bent her head to look around the deserted corridor through the clear window of the cabin. No one was around the residential hallway. Everyone was in the nightclubs and restaurants with their partners, enjoying drinks and a meal. Being locked inside the out-of-service transportation car triggered another wave of frustration. She was sharply aware that her anger had put her here.
Being out of control wasn't a normal condition for her and it felt frightening. The threat of a sanction for being in the restricted area wasn't far from her thoughts either. Some station officials make a big deal out of non-compliance, and Antje didn't want to be a poster-child for someone's political career. She had just wanted a romantic date. The notion of love and finding an attractive man to sweep her off her feet felt more distant than ever. She imagined Hayat had decided to break off the relationship to start fresh in the new year.
Outside the window on the opposite side of the car was a narrow span of Hullsteel overhanging the world below. The beautiful green ball below was a dangerous tropical world in the midst of its terraforming cycle. The spider-shaped space station hung above the world, a port for supply ships that seemed to come less and less often. This arm of the station, where Antje was stuck, was filled with empty science labs and remote residential housing. She wasn't familiar with the area, but her soon to be ex-boyfriend had been an entertainer from the planet, living in a temporary housing compartment on the arm. The station had eight arms that angled down from the central hub, each with a docking bay at the end. These extending arms were privately owned by corporations that had an interest in the Freehold Project. The planetary government owned and operated the central hub.
Hayat had stood Antje up. He never showed up where they agreed to meet. Later, she'd seen him in the background on a large Vidscreen, when a reporter was giving a news segment of the festivities. Hayat had Katie Wetzel, a glamorous station celebrity, on his arm. She was on the panel of a popular talk-show for women. The cameraman made sure to zoom in on the couple because the woman was braless in a near-sheer, white blouse and black mini-skirt. She was leaving nothing to the imagination. The woman's perfect figure made the already painful breakup sting even more. And they weren't where you go to have a casual date. It was an exclusive, trendy club. Hayat was there for the cameras and buzz for his career. He must have pulled some strings to get in. Antje felt like a nobody compared to the female celebrity. Throwing her expensive high-heeled shoe at the Vidscreen had seemed a good idea at the time. However, the throw was poor and it went through an open skyway door. When she entered the car to retrieve the shoe, the outer door closed. The off-line car's inner sensor didn't send a release signal to the airlock door. She was stuck. It was closed, holding trapped her in the cold car's cabin.
Her bare arms goose bumped at the thought of being stuck for long. Wearing a daring, red Valentine's Day dress with nothing underneath was turning into a nightmare. The low-cut of the dress and her bare bottom gave a lot of surface area for the cold cabin to chill, making her weak in the ankles. Her bare legs and open-toe shoes weren't really standard station wear either. She wanted to impress Hayat, to save their struggling relationship, but it was over now. The humiliation was not to be forgotten. The only consolation was her girlfriends weren't around to witness the event. They'd constantly told her she was blinded and didn't see the same man everyone else did.
On a date night, she'd never make the mistake of not confirming with her man again. He obviously hadn't bothered to warn her that he was about to end their relationship. The fading fantasy of finally catching a man to attend her ticking biological clock amplified her rage. There were the occasional station boyfriends of course, but none were looking for a long-term relationship. Most of the unattached men seemed shallow and rude. Hayat had said he wanted something more than a girlfriend, and she had believed him. Antje knew Hayat was no angel, but now she realized the man was as shallow as the rest of her past lovers. Her trusting heart was broken again.
Lost in thought over what her mother would say about her hot temper, she put the lost shoe on, and then walked to the end of the confining car's cabin. Her footsteps were loud on the smooth metal floor, tears streaking her make-up down her high cheekbones. She didn't try to check the stream of tears, beating herself up again. Behind her the skyway car door opened.
Antje stumbled in surprise, tripping over the base of the rapid-ride pole used by standing passengers. Her hand caught the pole, swinging her around to face the man. Off-balance in her high-heels, she fell to the floor. Her dress flipped up above her knees. Her heart pounding in her chest, she scowled at the attractive man.
"Oh, it is my neighbor," she thought. They usually waved in polite acknowledgment in their comings and goings near their residential section. Antje's shyness always seemed to constrain her to a limited few words of greeting. She considered the handsome man beyond her reach.
He rushed in to help her.
"No," she screamed.
He skidded to a stop, just feet from her, as the outer door of the airlock sealed.
"Are you alright?" he said.
She closed her thighs and pushed the dress down, drawing his eyes. He hadn't missed the blush on her pink cheeks or the lovely joining of her white thighs. Antje's entire face turned red as her dress.
Pulling herself up on the pole, she composed herself. "You just trapped yourself with me."
Seeing the closed door, he backed up to the motion sensor and waved his hand. Nothing happened.
"I see," he responded.
Her mind tampered down the urge to throttle him for depriving her of the escape from the humiliation. She realized her self-control with him was the first intelligent thing she'd done all night. In the dull light of the transportation car, Antje saw his strong jaw line, thin nose and boyish brows framing intense-blue eyes. His questioning brows conveyed confusion.
"What exactly encouraged you to jump on an out-of-service skyway car?" His tone was commanding but friendly.
"It was an accident," she admitted.
"Didn't you see the bright-flashing, warning light?"
"No, I was in a rage at my ex-boyfriend and I wasn't going to hobble around without my shoe," she thought.
"Somehow I overlooked the lights while I was deep in thought," Antje answered, pleased with her quick thinking. She avoided sharing the humiliation of her tale.
"I see," he responded.
She felt thankful that he was neither angry at her, nor mocking her stupid behavior. Of course, there was still time for him to make fun of her. They may be stuck in the skyway car for the entire evening, freezing together. Her eyes wandered over his athletic frame, taking the opportunity to really see him, close and unmoving. Whether he was a fine physical specimen wasn't as important as the warmth of his jacket. A shiver ran through her, pointing her best features through the thin material of her dress.
As if reading her thoughts, he took off his blue jacket and moved to sweep it over her shoulders. Antje watched, appreciating his unspoken attentiveness. The insulated, cargo-master material warmed her shoulders almost immediately. His latent heat transferred to her bare skin for a moment.
"Perhaps you should walk about with a companion to keep you out of trouble," he said, breaking her out of her thoughts.
"Would you mind holding conclusions like that to yourself?"
A half-grin crossed his face, and then he walked by her to the connecting car door. He tried the handle unsuccessfully. It was locked as it should be, isolating the airlocks between cars to protect the compartment's cabin. She noticed his shirt had his name printed on it. Antje hadn't known her neighbor's name was Khen. She really didn't know anything, other than he must work the docks to own a cargo-master jacket. The authorities didn't hand those out to anyone. It was like a badge of authority. "A station official," she realized, feeling unsettled. "Not a political appointee but part of the command staff." Feeling her confidence and dignity wane, she fell into a seat.
"Warming up?" He asked, sitting next to her.
Grateful, Antje squeezed his thigh. "Thank you. I was getting a real chill."
At least with the jacket, her daring dress no longer revealed such an abundance of skin. She was still hoping he'd not mention the flashing exposure during her collapse on the cabin floor.
"That is a lovely party dress, Antje."
She felt suddenly angry. Being reminded of Hayat's humiliating behavior pinked her cheeks. Her ex-boyfriend wasn't even as handsome as this man. It wasn't likely Khen was a thoughtless lover either. Hayat hadn't satisfied her in weeks. She had been faithful to Hayat and tonight he had a woman who looked like a model on his arm. It was she who should have been escorted into the high-class club.
Seeing her distress, Khen thought he'd crossed some unspoken boundary that upset her. He moved to stand. She saw his face and grabbed his arm.
"It's not you. Thank you for the compliment," she said in a rush.
He settled back into his seat.
"Well, you are beautiful tonight. And most days, too," he quipped.
She sheepishly wrapped the jacket tighter around her. Looking into his blue eyes, she decided his words were sincere not some form-fitting, standard male come-on. He put his hand on Antje's chilled hand to seal his honest feelings. She felt a wave of relief, not being alone in the confined car.
Even sitting, his head was above hers, his nearly irresistible lips only inches from hers. Passing in the corridors of the residential sections, they'd always been feet apart and moving in opposite directions. Suddenly, here he was sitting with her, holding hands. His warm breath comforted her.
"You're shy. I always thought you were self-absorbed. But you really are a quiet one," he said.
"It's Valentine's Day. My boyfriend just dumped me and he should be the one sharing sweet words with me," Antje said, not believing she let those feelings out to him. "Ex-boyfriend," she clarified.
"I've never seen you in your work clothes before," she mumbled, trying to change subjects.
He flashed her a smile. She sensed he was approachable and kind, almost accessible to conversation like a girl friend. The tiniest feeling of relief filled her that he seemed interested in her. She believed fire simmered below the surface of his innocent expression.
"I work out in the gym before and after work. I change there," he answered. "Today, I had to check the auxiliary docking bay on this arm of the station before clocking out. A very fortunate event for both of us."
It felt insane to her, he thought being trapped in the skyway was fortunate. But she liked it enough to give him a beaming smile.
"Hayat, I am confined and stranded with a stranger but he truly likes me ... Hope you're having a crappy date."
"Why fortunate, Khen?"
"I didn't have a date for Valentine's Day and here you are wrapped up like a red ribbon," he said.
She took a deep breath, feeling pleased he saw her as a beautiful package.
"Thank you," she said without blushing. A warm feeling spread out around her stomach. "Why don't you have a date?"
His eyes cast a faraway look, remembering something or someone. It suddenly occurred to Antje that he had known her name. His hand continued to linger over hers. Khen's eyes focused back on her.
"Do you really want to know, Antje?"
She heard, "Can I trust you with my pain?"
"Yes, I want to know why my white knight doesn't have a lady on his arm. As you deserve..."
"She had smaller breasts than you, slim legs like yours and green eyes. A bundle of happiness. It's how I will always see her. I fell deeply in love with her at the start, the very first day we ran into each other on the planet below. We talked and walked in the market for hours. It was relaxing and fun to be with her; and then she returned to her village on the western sea. Rhonda returned each day with produce from their family farm. After the farmers' market closed, we'd walk the city. I was the new, deputy shuttle-hanger foreman, so getting away to be with her wasn't a problem.
"When market season ended so did her visits, and everything began to fall apart. She would e-mail me every day. Brief messages that I suspected she kept short to make sure they sounded proper and were grammatically correct. People on this planet are full of pride but many are relatively uneducated. She wasn't being cold but trying to put a mask on her simple ways. The texts were simple and short. The weather has been bad for the farm. My horse loves the imported apples but they cost too much. I love you.