The Phoenix-Feathered Hat
This week, Will Alexander returns us to the universe of last year’s “A Body in Motion” where we’ll visit a space station that is very alive, and that finds certain guests highly upsetting. What could possibly go wrong? (Answer: Many things, including poetry!)~ Julian and Fran, April 23, 2023
The Phoenix-Feathered Hat
By William Alexander
Torque stood in the docking bay with Director Skippy Zayas and waited for a transport full of sun cultists to arrive.
The Hat was also there, and also waiting. Technically the Hat was everywhere on board, but Torque could sense the station AI focusing most of his conscious attention on the docking bay. Ambient light flickered in patterns of disgruntlement that only Torque could see.
Skippy picked at her fingernails. She was the youngest administrative director to ever serve aboard the Hat, and for several months she had been the only human occupant. Now, that solitude was ending. She bit off a piece of fingernail and spit it out.
“Am I the only one looking forward to this?” Torque wondered out loud.
Yes, said the flickering lights.
“Yes,” said Skippy. “This is a research station. We shouldn’t have to deal with tourists.”
“Pilgrims,” Torque said.
“What?” Skippy craned her neck to make eye contact with the cameras in Torque’s face. His chassis was tall and spindly thin by normative human standards.
“Our inbound guests are pilgrims,” he clarified. “Tourists tend to be irreverent. Isn’t reverence the whole point of a pilgrimage?”
Skippy hit Torque with her elbow, which he interpreted as a gesture of affection and dispute. “This is a researchstation,” she said again. “Actual data about solar flares will be twisted by charlatans into prophetic signs and sightings of fiery mythical creatures. It’s very gross.”
Torque moved his metal shoulders in a practiced shrug. “It’s also a stipulation of our biggest grant.”
Skippy grunted and glared through the airlock window like she wanted to toss the approaching transport into the sun. The pilgrims inside probably wanted the same thing—at least eventually. Most of them would commit their mortal remains to the roiling incandescence of their god. Right at this moment they just wanted to get close to the sun rather than immerse themselves completely in its glory. The Hat was the most sunward travel destination available to pilgrims, so he had become a holy place. The Hat did not enjoy his holiness, however. Lights continued to flicker all over the docking bay in patterns of annoyance.
It’s going to be okay, Torque sent through the data stream, and repeated that message at precisely regular intervals.
Docking clamps ca-chunked into place outside the airlock doors.
“Here we go.” Skippy straightened her posture and uniform. “Time for the two of us to host a whole gaggle of sun-gawking tourists.”
“There’s three of us,” Torque reminded her. Even directors sometimes forgot that the station was a conscious entity.
“Right,” Skippy said. “Three of us. Sorry, Hat.”
The Hat acknowledged her apology by blinking all of his lights at once, slowly enough for human perception to notice.
Hydraulics hissed. Airlock doors opened. A minister with a wispy mustache led several pilgrims into the docking bay. Most of them were unremarkable in clothing and appearance, which disappointed Torque. He had hoped for resplendent ceremonial robes and tacky sunburst medallions.
The very last pilgrim to disembark looked more impressive. She wore a large hat decorated with a bright scarlet feather.
The station made a low grumbling noise.
I don’t think she’s making fun of you, Torque said. He dipped into the data stream and glanced at the passenger manifest to learn more about this pilgrim who had seen fit to wear a magnificent hat aboard the Hat.
Name: Louisa Anacostia Muldoon
Profession: Poet Laureate of Mars