Twenty Thousand Last Meals on an Exploding Station

by Ann LeBlanc


Riles Yalten has approximately thirty minutes before she dies, and that’s just enough time to try the new gravlax place on level sixteen. She ducks through a staff-only hatch and slips into the swift cold waters of the maintenance access canal. Up in station engineering, her team is probably just starting to panic, having found the impending failure she so carefully hid.

Down on level sixteen, the gravlax joint looks promising. The owner stiffens when he sees her. His eyes slide up and down her body. First: her hairless head, mucus-slick skin, and black-metal smart-nose. Second: her gilled and wattled neck, the bio-metallic utility-tentacles that take the place of hands. Finally: her backward knees and flippered feet.

She is dripping wet from the canal, making a mess of his floor. A pause stretches between then, a mere second lengthened by adrenaline. Then he goes to the closet and pulls out an aug-friendly seat, setting it at the counter. Riles smiles, and notes in her review that this place is aug-inclusive. 

She orders one of everything, knowing she won’t have time to finish it all. With hope, she can at least try each dish and cross this place off her list. If she doesn’t, she’ll have to come back next loop.

The cured salmon—locally sourced from the station’s aquaponics rigs—is creamy and salty, the perfect companion to the crisp of the knäckebröd. This one has a dab of mustard-dill sauce, that one has a bit of roe and lemon zest. She notes everything—texture, taste, plating, ambiance, and so on—in her mem-aug.

As she takes a bite of the last plate—new-potato with roe—the station lights flip from calm blue-white to fearful red. The shop owner’s eyes widen, stuck in panic response, before he starts packing up his little shop—in violation of protocols; he should evac immediately. 

“Don’t bother,” Riles says over the howl of the sirens. “Station reactor’s gonna blow. Anti-matter containment failure.” She takes another bite. “So you might as well try to enjoy the next… three minutes. Your food is astounding by the way.”

His eyes flicker between fear, anger, and confusion. He points at the emblem on Riles’s wetsuit. “Aren’t you station engineering? Why aren’t you up there helping?”

She starts to respond, but all that comes out is a slurred, “Oh, blarghle.” Her emergency mem-backup flenses her brain like a nictitating membrane made of fingernail scraping across her consciousness. By the time it’s done, the owner has fled.

She wipes the drool from her face, takes one last bite of potato, and waits for the end. She wanders out into the promenade, to an observation window, and watches ships flee through the speckled black of space, trying to escape their inevitable antimatter annihilation. 

All but one. She gasps when she sees it. A ship emblazoned with the logo of the Pan-Aafaras Insurance Agency, burning hard towards the station. Had she not noticed it before? Or was this something new?

Before Riles can frantically update her mem-backup, the reactor fails. One moment she is alive, and the next she is bathed in a glory of white hot plasma. She dies, along with all the station around her.

~

Three days earlier, Riles Yalten awakens, immersed in the warm waters of station engineering. The memory backup activates, pumping three days of memories into her brain. And then another three days, and another. More than two-hundred iterations of the three days before the reactor failure, all the way back to the first loop.

In this iteration—like the several hundred preceding—she pushes off from her work station and swims down to the emergency backup hub. An alarm tolls in time with the blinking lights, indicating a mem-backup from the future has arrived. 

“False alarm,” she lies on the engineering staff groupchat, after disabling the alert. “I’ll look into it once I’m done checking the S4 baffles.”

They don’t need to know they’re going to die. If Riles tells them about the fatal flaw in the newly installed magnetic baffles, they’ll spend three days stressed beyond bearing, working nonstop with no sleep, to save a station that cannot be saved.

Instead, Riles slips out—taking a sick day—while her team meets to discuss the latest round of department budget cuts. It’s time for her next meal.

~

They say Bellayn station has a restaurant for every planet, every culture, every taste. There are over twenty-six thousand restaurants on the station. Every year, a quarter of those restaurants close—competition is fierce, and rents are high—and are replaced with new ones. Thus, even if someone did nothing but dine out, it would be impossible to eat at every restaurant in the station, before churn rendered the task endless.

Impossible—unless you are trapped in a time loop.

Riles Yalten lost hope of escape more than a hundred iterations ago. Now, she has a new goal: to eat at every restaurant on Bellayn Station, and to review and record each dish (along with notes on service, ambiance, and accessibility). 

This loop is dedicated entirely to a single restaurant, The Lab Wisteria. Specializing in Neo-Minimalist cuisine, they are consistently rated one of the top ten restaurants on the station. Getting a reservation can take months. Riles only has three days.

She pauses at the door of the restaurant, her date, Ina, standing beside her in a lavender halter-dress. Ina squeezes Riles’s bicep, then intertwines her fingers in Riles’s tentacles, unbothered by their writhing. 

What Ina doesn’t know is that Riles is only on a date with her because—in a previous loop—she’d scoped out that Ina fit the narrow criteria of both already having a reservation and being willing to go on a date with a merp-aug. Riles is the reason why Ina’s original date flaked on her. Does Riles feel guilty about that? She would have, in the times before the loops, but now she has grown accustomed to knowing the consequences of her actions will be wiped away in hot plasma at the end of each loop.

Through the door, and the maître d’ smiles, unaware that Riles considers him her nemesis. She sees the exact moment he notices her augs. She is deeply familiar with the transition from friendly to formal, relaxed to tense, open to guarded. He is about to declare that a reservation is required. He will say that the waitlist is months long. He will not willingly offer any opportunity to add their names to the list. He will be exceptionally polite, overtly kind in tone, but the subtext will be as obvious as it is deniable. 

Riles’s date—bless her—does not let him say anything at all. 

She has a reservation, she says. She asks if the owner is in, her words and tone implying a personal relationship. Throughout this exchange, her arm is draped across Riles’s back, her hand resting at the top of her hip, holding Riles close under her protection.

They are not seated at Ina’s usual table—near the windows that look out over the restaurant’s flower garden—but in a table nestled in the back corner. Riles doesn’t care, she’s here for the food. In the time before the station began exploding, she would’ve been frozen with anxiety over the semi-polite glances and hostile stares of the other diners. Current fashion only accepts augs if they’re discreet, and only if the owner is polite enough to be mildly ashamed. Riles is not discreet, but she has learned not to care for the opinions of those who will shortly be atomized. Not only will they forget, but she has practice of hundreds of iterations at ignoring her own internalized hatred.

Despite the ambiance, the food is excellent. An interesting take on Neo-Minimalist cuisine utilizing specially-bred flowers acting as light counterpoints or accents to the simple flavors of each dish. The decor—a much celebrated commentary on the color of wisteria flowers—does nothing for Riles. She prefers the plastic tables and bulkhead walls of an inner-station hole-in-the-wall. Or—even better—one of the few waterlogged canteens that serves the station’s merp staff.

The first course is a spoonful of black-cream, topped with spinach foam, and a single nasturtium blossom.

After that is fried skate—wild-caught, imported at great expense—with a caper-citrus sauce and a borage blossom dressing. The best part of being trapped in a time-loop is not having to worry about blowing a years salary on a single meal.

While waiting for the third course, Riles feels a familiar itching and excuses herself to bathroom. It’s as bad as she feared: recessed lighting, trendy gargle-pop music, hanging vines, and no hookups for a waste port. Twice, someone walks in, sees her emptying her waste-tube into the sink, freezes, and then ducks out again. 

So she’s already in a bad mood when—making her way back to her table—she hears her sister’s voice yelling her name. Which is impossible because Milla is light years away, and the station’s loop-bubble is only three light-days in radius.

Yet here she is, power-suit clad, face angry behind her plex-bubble helmet. 

“Why aren’t you in engineering?” she asks, stomping towards Riles.

Riles opens her mouth, but her brain is too busy screaming confusion to provide any words besides, “Ummm…”

Milla gestures at Riles’s body. “Does mom know about this?”

The screaming in Riles’s head transitions to horror, shame, anger. She wishes the station would explode right now.

“I… no. We don’t really talk.” Riles and her mom have been no-contact for five years now. Riles has been careful to only talk to her sister briefly, vaguely, and with no video.

“Whatever.” Milla rolls her eyes. “We can deal with your bad decisions later. I need a debrief now. Station computer says your mem-backup’s active, so don’t play games with me.”

“I’m in the middle of something.” Riles tries to edge her way back towards her table.

“Not any more you aren’t. Debrief. Now. What’s causing the backup system to engage? And why haven’t you fixed the problem already?”

The nerve of her. “You think we haven’t tried? You want to know why we’re still stuck in a loop? All of the replacement magnetic baffles—every single one—is tainted.” Riles is up in her face now, breath fogging Milla’s faceplate. “Our department has been defunded over and over again. Forced to use a cut-rate supplier, and now, here we are, with an antimatter containment system that will always—”

Milla interrupts, “But haven’t you tried—”

“Whatever you can think of, we tried. Nothing worked. Nothing. Which is why—”

Milla tries to grab Riles’s hand. “Then what are you doing here? You should be—”

“Let me finish! One-hundred and thirty iterations me and my team tried to save this station. Over a year of subjective time.” Riles gestures to the diners. “These are the people we were trying to save. Do you think they’d do the same for us? These people voted to defund engineering, voted against merp accessibility measures, voted to make it harder to aug new merps. One-hundred and thirty iterations I tried to save them, and these people have no idea. I couldn’t let my team keep dying like that.”

“What did you do,” Milla’s voice is flat, eyes like she’s going to hit her. Riles remembers that look. Riles thought she was free from that look.

This time though, Riles doesn’t back down from the implied threat. “I disabled the backup system for everyone but myself. And now I’m taking some me-time.”

Riles starts telling Milla about her plan to eat at every restaurant on the station, but only gets halfway through before Milla’s armored fist crunches into Riles’s nose. Ina rushes to her side, butter knife brandished against the power-armor wearing stranger.

The station lights go red, alarm wailing. Riles laughs, blood streaming down her face, as the mem-backup painfully yanks all the threads from her brain.

Her nose hurts worse after the backup. “Your team must’ve messed up,” she says. “Been there. See you next—” and then they are bathed in fire.

~

Riles awakens three days earlier, knowing she is doomed. Her sister—acting on behalf of the company that insures the station—will not stop until the station is saved and the loop is cut. Even if it’s impossible; she’s the sort that will grind herself to dust to meet her superior’s expectations. 

Riles has to prevent Milla from making the situation worse, but she also has to eat. She can do both right? Fight her armed and angry sister, while dining the full breadth of Bellayn Station.

Two days later, Riles is enjoying the smell of the trees and open water at a lakeside cafe nestled in one of the station’s larger parks. She’s slurping broth from a bowl of spicy braised beef noodle soup, so she doesn’t see Milla coming. An armored hand knocks the bowl from her tentacles; hot broth goes everywhere, chili-oil stings Riles’s sensitive mucosal skin. 

“You have loop-psychosis,” Milla declares, grabbing Riles’s arm and clicking a shackle onto it. 

Riles tries to twist away, but the chair and table get in the way. “I’m fine. I wouldn’t be enjoying a nice meal if I still had—”

Milla grabs Riles’s other arm, hard. “LP is inevitable if you’ve been in a loop too long.” Milla’s arms—assisted by her suit—are too strong to pull away from. “You’re obviously suffering from delusions of grandeur.” She drags Riles out of the cafe, into the park.

“No. I had loop-psychosis. I know what LP feels like. “

“If you were fully sane, you wouldn’t have disabled the mem-backups in order to go on some hedonistic mission.” Milla pulls the shackles, dragging Riles down the path that winds towards the lake. The shackles are rubbing raw the part of the wrist where arm transitions to tentacle. 

“You have no idea what we went through. My sabotage was a mercy. And my restaurant reviews? How I saved myself. Staying focused on an achievable goal is exactly what the regulations say to do when loop-stuck.”

Milla scoffs. “You can’t evaluate your own condition. The fact you thought becoming a merp was a good idea tells me you weren’t in a good place mentally to begin with.” A low blow, but Riles really doesn’t want to talk to Milla about her transition. She needs to focus on getting free.

Milla pulls harder. “My team’s on its way to disable your mem-backup.” She laughs when she feels Riles flinch. “I would’ve preferred your help, but we’ll handle this without you. You don’t have to suffer anymore.”

The lake spreads out before them, the water mirror-calm. Riles waits till the path takes them alongside the shoreline, then she strikes. Milla’s mistake was thinking of Riles as-she-was—a non-aug with hands larger than her wrists—and not as she is—a merp-aug whose utility tentacles hold within themselves a multitude of tools useful for deep-space engineering. 

The shackles fall, clattering on the sidewalk. Milla tries to grab Rile’s arm, but Riles pushes off her, twisting and falling off the path, down into the water.

A splash, and she is away. Moments later Riles feels the vibrations of Milla’s plunge into the water, but now they are in Riles’s element. Milla’s powered suit—fast on land—is heavy in the water, and she isn’t familiar with the water-based layout of the station’s core. Slipping away into the maintenance canals is trivial. Stopping Milla’s team will be harder.

Swimming down the spine of the station, Riles searches the station’s cam-feeds. Four suits, all non-aug humans, float outside the engineering office hatch, scrabbling futilely at the door controls. Fools probably didn’t bring any water rated equipment. Not surprising; there aren’t that many old merp-built stations left.

Their stun-sticks don’t work underwater either, as they discover when Riles comes up behind them. Her equipment works just fine, and after she stun-locks their suits, she locks the hatch behind her.

~

Riles awakens, though the water doesn’t feel as safe as it usually does. She thought she had escaped her family. When she was a child, Riles mother told her stories about Bellayn. The people were rude, fast, and unrepentant thieves. It was a hub of moral decay, the sort of place people went to make money or buy their own debasement.

The reality was stranger, bigger, and kinder. Riles couldn’t help but stare at the first merp she saw, wet-slick seal-skin, metal head-plate inscribed with concentric circles of sea creatures and ships and constellations. He was eating nopales tacos with a confident ease, and none of the diners in that cramped commissary paid him any mind.

Riles had no idea a person could have a body like that.

~

Riles is trapped, and the walls are closing in.

The station’s vast antimatter stores—released all at once—are capable of reverting time three days—enveloping a three light-day wide sphere. Milla’s fast-response ship would’ve been caught in the loop as soon as they crossed the reversion line, but it’s equipped with its own chrono-reversion system. Only able to revert one-hour at a time, it took her ship more than seventy iterations to make it to the station. 

Every iteration, Milla arrives earlier. More and more of Riles’s time is spent setting traps, finding new ways to thwart her sister. It is never enough.

“Why are you even here?” Riles asks, over comms, as her sister chases her from a mussels-and-fries joint.

“PAIA insures Bellayn—we’re contractually obliged.”

“No, why are you here?”

She doesn’t reply. Either the question caught her off guard, or she found the lamprey-drones Riles set in wait for her.

Or, she’s preparing her own ambush. Riles hides behind a decorative shrubbery along the promenade. The afternoon crowd is thick with slow-walking tourists, loud kids, busy locals. Milla could be anywhere in the stream of bodies, waiting for Riles to make a run for the canal access hatch.

A scream cracks across the noise of the city, and the crowd ripples. Milla hurtles past, an electric lamprey-drone stuck to her neck. She goes down, eyes locked to the ceiling, lamprey writhing, debilitating current locking her suit.

“You being here isn’t an accident,” Riles says, foot on Milla’s shoulder, keeping her down. “It has to be mom. She pulled strings.”

Milla tries to reach up to Riles, and fails. “Loop… psychosis,” she grits out.

Riles presses harder into Milla’s shoulder. “Mom interfering isn’t farfetched. Remember when she got me fired from the remediation job on Mintilla?”

“No. You lost that job because you were obsessed with saving those clams.”

Milla wouldn’t stop struggling, so Riles uses her utility tentacles to weld her suit to the floor. 

“Is that what mom told you? I’m thirty-eight and she’s still treating me like I can’t make my own decisions.”

“Is she wrong? You had such a promising career. And you threw that away because you wanted to be a fish? Why can’t you just be normal?”

Riles’s chest swirls, a mix of rage and fear. But instead of cranking the lamprey’s current to max, she says, “You sound just like mom,” and walks away. She probably has enough time to try the caldo verde joint before Milla’s team cuts her loose to continue the chase.

~

Iterations blur together, accreting in her memory like a mollusk building the layers of its shell. In one memory she slurps mint ice-cream, in another she swims up and up, her sister screaming below her, the station falling to pieces around them.

How many iterations pass this way? Riles loses track. She could look it up with a thought, but she’d prefer not to know. It’s easier to live in the moment, and the only number that truly matters is how many restaurants are left to review. 

6,452 restaurants still on the list. She hides, jianbing in hand, wedged trembling in an electrical shaft. The canals aren’t safe anymore, Milla started poisoning the waters five iterations ago.

5,978. Station security hunt her through the corridors, shock-sticks humming a deadly tune. Each iteration Milla and Riles struggle to convince security that the other is an existential threat to the station. Station security is loop-locked, and thus predictable, but it’s yet another way Milla is tightening the possibility-space Riles operates in.

5,722. Riles and Milla wrestle on a kitchen floor, pizza ovens baking the air around them. 

“Why are you still fighting me?” Riles asks, pinning her to the ground. “You don’t have to make yourself miserable for Pan-Aafaras. Do you know how much they charge Bellayn for insurance? They’ll pay you a pittance of that, then send you on another mission. Stop fighting; take a vacation for once.”

Milla’s writhes below her. “Give up? Like you did? I have an actual career, and I won’t let you derail it with another of your weird obsessions.”

But Riles is already gone, leaping up and back, out through the door.

5,255. Riles flees, mouth full of acorn-squash dumpling. The restaurant explodes behind her, throwing her into the air. She’s been planting explosives, sacrificing parts of the station she’s already dined.

Riles loses count. She floats in the void, stars all around her, body swelling, moisture evaporating, mind drifting. 

She remembers the day she started her transition. A small pink pill, a glass of water, the table spread with potluck snacks, her merp friends there to celebrate. She mostly doesn’t remember the surgeries. The pain of recovery is small compared with the feeling of fear and hope transitioning into certainty and peace—the glorious rightness of her new self. Nothing more right than the cool water on her gills, nothing more perfect than knowing she could live within the water forever and ever.

Eternity swells out before her. She returns to the present, sitting across from Milla. Smoke hangs between them. The station is burning, a small fire compared to the impending antimatter flame, but no less deadly to the station.

“Riles,” Milla tries to sit up, slumps. “I… can’t do this anymore. My team… we all have LP. I held them off as long as I could, but…”

“You’re going to kill the station.” Riles knows about the railgun on Milla’s ship. She knows that Milla could have done this at any time.

A titanium slug, fired precisely, piercing the station’s heart. Milla might get lucky; it might only kill a few hundred souls between the outer hull and the engineering office. It might only disable the mem-backups. Riles would awaken at the start of the next iteration—no memory of her struggle to save the station, her failure, or her culinary salvation. All her reviews, so carefully compiled, lost forever.

There is also a chance the titanium slug hits the anti-matter reactor—or any of the subsystems that keep it stable. The emergency reversion system might fire, or it might not, depending on exactly where the slug hits, and what it damages. The station might be annihilated instantly. The loop would end. Nine million lives would be gone, forever.

Riles has lived so long within the safety of the loop. A gamble like this is unthinkable. Nine million souls. Her own sister. Though perhaps the thought of destroying Riles’s merp body is a plus for Milla.

Riles slumps, “You always were stronger than me.” 

“You lasted longer loop-locked than I did. You’re tougher than I thought. Your team—I’ve never gotten them to betray you. They trust you so much—respect you, love you. I didn’t know—”

Mem-backups hit them both at the same time. Riles will have one last iteration, one last chance.

“I’m sorry. Mom was… a lot, and I should have stood up for you. I should’ve listened,” Milla says, her voice cracking from the smoke, or perhaps the pain of that admission.

Riles is stunned. “I’m sorry too. I should’ve let you try to help when you first got here,” she says, then pauses. What else can she say? There aren’t words that will revert the damage between them, and they’ve already been backed up, so neither will remember this conversation.

“I wish…” one of them says, and then they die, hope being no match for antimatter.

~

Riles awakens three days earlier, knowing this is her final loop. She has maybe five hours before Milla’s ship can take the shot.

One last meal. Riles sits on a chair at the center of Bellayn’s Hexagonal Gardens. Here amongst the reeds, in the transition between water and ground, below the stars, is the best merp-food joint on the station. Passed down from master to apprentice for five generations, it has existed in one location or another since Bellayn was a tiny merp-run entrepot.

This place—wet and full of life, smelling of comfort food—is her favorite on her station. Riles had been saving it for last, and now—with her work unfinished—she is here for her final meal.

She greets the owner with a kiss, as she has done many times before. They’ve prepared a multi-course meal, a full exploration of Bellayn’s merp-cuisine. Around her sit her friends, merps and non-merps, co-workers and lovers. They all came when she called.

First course is a pureed cauliflower dip, accompanied by raw cucumber and broccoli. Second course is a beet and leek soup, seasoned with dill. In the early years of Bellayn, the station was mostly water, the crew mostly merp. They couldn’t afford fancy imports, and ate a simple diet of what they could easily grow in rickety aquaponics rigs.

Third course is tilapia, poached in a ginger-tomato broth. Tilapia is a hardy fish, hard to kill, like the community Riles found on Bellayn. 

Fourth course is boiled brine-shrimp, with a basil and sweet-vinegar dipping sauce. Riles’s comm pings, Milla telling her she has just two hours left.

Five courses later, and Riles is full. Thirty minutes until the end. She spends ten minutes writing her last review. Above her, Milla’s ship’s drive-plume flares orange-bright through the plasglass. One last sip of rice wine, and then she activates the program she wrote.

Her mem-backup rips her brain apart, preserving her memories. It only takes a moment, just a few hours of her favorite foods and her favorite people. 

When it’s done, she slumps in her chair, sliding lower and lower until she’s fallen into the brackish water. She floats, watching the stars, waiting for what will come next.

Deep in the station, her program runs. It compiles her memories, all of them, all the way back to the first loop and all her life before that, and it sends them to Milla’s ship, along with a message.

This is Riles’s surrender. She tells Milla she won’t fight back, and she’ll do what she can to help her fix the station. She’s attached all her notes from the year of hell, everything they tried and failed. Maybe Milla’s team and the equipment they brought can solve the impossible, maybe not. Riles asks for a few hours each iteration to work on her reviews, but this isn’t an ultimatum. Riles is placing herself at Milla’s mercy. There’s no going back from this. Milla could disable Riles’s mem-backup and work without her. Or she could take Riles’s hand and work towards healing the damage to the station and their relationship. 

But whatever happens, it will be an end. And after thousands of loops, Riles could really use a vacation.

~

Two years later, Riles and Milla share a meal—their first together since the loop ended. Fried crawfish, smothered okra, dirty rice, laid out on a scuffed plastic table in a cramped commissary wedged between two bulkheads. Milla’s only passing through, a few hours before her ship departs.

Riles attracts a few glances from the other diners. She has a sort of local fame: from saving the station, from her almost-complete restaurant guide, from her newly-won spot on the city council. 

The last two years were rough for Bellayn. They never did fix the reactor. Fifty-three iterations they tried, till even Milla admitted defeat. Desperate, they used parts from the railgun in Milla’s ship to launch the reactor as far from Bellayn as possible. Three-hundred people died. The station survived on emergency power for over a month, during which another thousand died. The PAIA inquest lasted a single week; the agency absolved all parties—including the original faulty baffle vendor. The rich fled, taking their neo-minimalist cuisine and seats on the city-council with them.

Riles tells all this to Milla, who mostly stays quiet. They’ve been messaging each other across the light-years. Their relationship still awkward, but Milla is listening, and Riles has hope that something new will grow between them.

Riles never did finish her restaurant list. In her spare time she eats, filling in the gaps, but she’s made peace with the fact that she’ll never truly finish. She knows that her and Milla’s relationship will never be what either of them truly wants. Instead, she’ll try to enjoy the infinite space between here and there, one meal, one conversation, at a time.


© Copyright Ann LeBlanc


Ann LeBlanc lives in Massachusetts with her wife, where she writes about queer yearning, culinary adventures, and death. Her short stories have been published in Fireside Magazine, If There’s Anyone Left, and Silk & Steel: A Queer Speculative Adventure Anthology. She can be found at annleblanc.com or on twitter at @RobotLeBlanc


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