Viktor Sharapov took one careful step after another, holding the plastic composite crate at arm’s length as he made his way across the asteroid’s pock-marked surface. The contents of the crate–mostly yttrium and scandium, and a few other lanthanides–were worth more than Viktor could make in a thousand lifetimes, so he held it with a reverence somewhere between a newborn child and a bomb.
Viktor sighed, fogging the glass faceplate of his suit and obscuring the grey-against-black landscape. He had to watch where he walked, ensuring good purchase on each step–no easy feat while carrying the crate. Most of the asteroid was made of nickel-iron ore and carbon, but occasional pools of frozen hydrocarbons dotted the landscape, traps waiting to trip him up and send him falling. It would have been easier to disable his magnetic boots and leap into the air, traveling in a long arc toward the Kerwood. The microgravity of Egeria-13, the potato-shaped asteroid that they’d called home for the past two weeks, made such a feat possible.
But the microgravity also meant he was just as likely to reach escape velocity as land back on the asteroid. Drifting through the black for the rest of his life–which would be about four more hours, based on his suit oxygen level–was not an enticing prospect.
Still, Viktor daydreamed of leaping back to the ship in one momentous bound.
Another sigh covered his faceplate with moisture, forcing him to stop and wait for it to disperse. Micro-fractures in the seam along the glass, just enough to be annoying. Slagging credit-pinchers, he silently cursed. He’d been requesting new suits for himself and his miners for the past three contracts. Every time the supply manager patiently nodded, feigning concern on his face and assuring Viktor they would do what they could. And every time, the request was denied. Sooner or later one of the suits would malfunction and kill one of them. A negligence lawsuit would kill their profits more than the cost of a few new suits.
Cheap suits. Cheap drilling candles. Cheap orbital transfers. These days nothing mattered, so long as the costs were kept low and the profits high.
Viktor resumed his steady march across the grey, until the rim of an especially large crater appeared and the Kerwood came into view.
She was ugly, with the not-quite-sleek design only a space-faring vehicle could suffer. A short, fat fuselage with a pair of ion engines on the back that looked like used toilet paper rolls. Most of the bulk was the cargo bay that ran along the belly underneath.
Still, the Kerwood had been home for the past dozen contracts, and she hadn’t failed them yet.
A light inside Viktor’s helmet flicked on as a short-range radio broadcast connected. The voice of the ops manager, Connor, filled his helmet. “About fragging time, Viktor. You stop to take a piss out there?”
If Viktor squinted, he could see Connor’s silhouette in the square window above the cargo ramp. “You bet,” he replied in accented English, the common language among most of the crew. “Wanted to see how far it’d go in the microgravity, but it curved so far over the horizon I lost sight. Too strong for my own good.”
He heard the Irishman chuckle. “That’d be a sight, eh? Seriously though, what’s the hold up? Captain’s antsy to get off this potato rock.”
“The same thing as before, Connor.”
“The suits again…”
“The suits,” Viktor confirmed. “I cannot take a breath without the inside of my faceplate turning into Siberian permafrost.”
“Look, I’ll talk to the supply guy when we get back, but you know how they are. It’ll take a blow-out for them to do anything about it.”
Viktor shrugged in his suit. “You asked, so I answered. Where do you want this one?”
There was a pause as Connor tapped into the crate sensor. “Yttrium, scandium… two-forty kilograms. Put it on the left stack, for now.”
The resistance in his boots changed as Viktor guided the crate up the steel ramp into the cargo hold. Identical plastic composite crates lined the walls, stacked together with interlocking bolts and fastened against the wall so they wouldn’t shift in transit. Only a quarter of the hold was full, but that was on account of the heavy ore they were hauling. Viktor didn’t pretend to be an expert on orbital mechanics, but that was a simple concept: the heavier you were, the more delta-v you needed. A man could push a bicycle, but not a freight train.
Viktor placed the crate on top of another on the left wall. The hold worker on shift rose from his seat across the room and approached with a handheld bolt gun, moving slowly in her own cheap suit. Viktor was already striding back down the ramp before the woman reached the crate, but he felt the vibration of the gun in his boots as she bolted the crate to the wall.
“Three thousand more kilos and we’re done,” Connor said in his helmet. “Maybe ten crates. Keep it up, big guy.”
Viktor only grunted. He knew how many crates remained. Like everyone, he’d been counting them down since the day they arrived. In the unapologetic harshness of the black, a menial worker’s life was often measured by trips to and from the ship.
Rather than head straight back to the drill site, Viktor descended the ramp and doubled-back to a spot next to the cargo hold door. There was a small, flat indentation in the ship’s hull. A butt print of smeared dust showed on the metal surface, and Viktor sat down with the sigh of weary muscles and aching bones.
What he did next was a trick he’d learned from a Luna frigate sailor three years back. Twisting his head inside his helmet, he used his teeth to pull a cigarette and red-tipped match away from the insulation. The tape used to hold them there floated across his vision before sticking to the opposite side. Keeping both the cigarette and match firmly in his teeth, he flicked his head in a nodding motion, scratching the match against the glass. The match caught immediately, a flare of yellow which subsided into a steady flame. With the match burning at the end of the cigarette, he puffed gently until the tip glowed orange.
He used his tongue to flick the match back and forth until it went out, then pulled it into his mouth to douse the end with moisture. Ignoring the sting, he swallowed. The routine complete, he took a long pull of the cigarette and exhaled slowly, filling the helmet with grey smoke. For a long while he watched it drift and swirl in the queer semi-gravity.
Their mining contract was almost complete, but that didn’t mean they were done. They still had the long trip home, trapped in a tin can with nothing but faith and a thin layer of insulation between them and the black. And thanks to the wonders of orbital mechanics, the trip home wasn’t direct. Earth was halfway across the other side of the sun from Egeria-13, in an unfavorable position for a direct transfer burn. So the jackasses who piloted the Kerwood decided it would be easier–and, more importantly, cheaper–to burn for Jupiter and get a gravity assist. The Kerwood would approach Jupiter’s gravity well, fall into it while accelerating, then slingshot around the other side at a marginally increased percentage of the speed of light.
He’d be home to see Helena on Luna Station a few weeks sooner than the alternative, but Viktor still cringed at the prospect of the trip. Gravity assists were hell on his knees, even more so than lugging around crates of rare metals.
Sound danced through the smoke as his helmet speaker crackled. Jimmy’s high-pitched voice. “The hell you doin’ back there, boss? Takin’ a nap?”
“Just tying my shoes,” Viktor said. “You punch through that iron vein yet?”
Jimmy was his drill partner for the shift, a young American whose energy made Viktor feel old. He spoke quickly, like he was perpetually out of time. “Not yet. The vein, boss. The vein’s thick. Two candles burned out trying to punch through, melted half the rock to slag, it did. Believe me. So I swapped ’em out for the candles with the diamond-tipped bits. The chewy ones? Should do the trick, though I wanted to check with you to make sure it was fine first, on account of how expensive they are. Budgets and all that. Your call, not mine, though I’m tellin’ ya it’s the only way.”
“Sure, sure,” Viktor said when Jimmy stopped to take a breath. By comparison, his Russian-accented English seemed slow and clunky. “I’ll sign off on the expense. Connor will raise hell, but it will still be faster and cheaper than checking the prospecting logs, finding a new drill site, and moving all the equipment.”
“You got it, boss. You got it. That’s why they pay you the big bucks. Always thinkin’ of the big picture.”
He took another drag and said, “Medium, Jimmy. They pay me the medium bucks. Line up the candles, but don’t light them until I get there.”
“Sure thing. I’ll wait til you’re done suckin’ on your tobacco cancer stick. Just hurry it up, I got an itch I can’t scratch in my suit.”
Viktor cursed under his breath as Jimmy cut the connection. Idiot kid was going to get him in trouble if Connor or anyone else happened to be listening in on the miner wave. Viktor had been smoking in his work suit for years without issue, but the guys who signed the paperwork didn’t like it. The last thing he wanted was another half-hour lecture on the flash point of teflon insulation in an oxygen-rich environment. That, and he didn’t want his pay docked again. Most of his share of this contract was going to the Luna fungus farm he and Helena were plotting, and he didn’t want anything to jeopardize that.
But he waited, and nobody jumped on the radio to yell at him, so Viktor sighed and continued his smoke.
Half the cigarette was curled grey ash when his radio spoke again. “Hey, boss? What’s the deal with these fancy candles?”
“What do you mean?”
“The diamond-tipped ones. I’m lining ’em up, just like you said, but my hand hit something on the side. Whole thing is hummin’…”
The cigarette fell from Viktor’s mouth, running down his suit into the left leg. “Jimmy, repeat that?”
“I think it was a switch. On the outside, near the top? Why would they put the initiator…”
“Jimmy,” Viktor tried interrupting, “did you engage the drill fuse prematurely?”
“…on the top like that, where it could accidentally trigger? I’m still puttin’ the candle in position. Engineers are a buncha idiots, never thinking of the common man who will actually use the damn things…”
“Jimmy, shut up.” Viktor tried to keep the panic from his voice. “If you engaged the drill fuse then you have only a few seconds to get out of the burn radius. Release the drilling candle and step back quickly.”
Jimmy started to say something, but was interrupted by a roaring sound, like air shooting over a microphone. Viktor’s ears stung at the volume, sudden and violent. The rushing air sound continued, and a scream cut through it.
Viktor jumped to his feet, stepping on the cigarette inside his boot, thankful to feel the hot end burn through his sock instead of his suit. Moving out of impulse instead of thought, he pushed off with his bad knees, launching himself diagonally through the air in the direction of the drill site.
The ground fell away beneath him, frighteningly fast. For the first few milliseconds he was certain he’d jumped too high, would reach escape velocity and sail away from Egeria-13 and into the black. Then he felt his flight path begin to level out around five meters, hardly high at all.
Jimmy continued screaming over the miner wave. “I’m coming,” Viktor promised, then switched to the Kerwood general wave. “Connor, we have an emergency at the drill site.”
“Don’t know.” Viktor’s voice was calmer than he felt. “Just get the med kit ready. Decompression is likely.”
“Shit. Okay. Shit.”
Viktor drifted to the ground, examining his landing spot. Even a trivially short jump was dangerous on an asteroid. If he didn’t land on his feet he’d tumble across the surface, which was replete with jagged outcrops of iron revealed when the Kerwood’s landing engines kicked away the surface dust. His suit was a fragile bubble of oxygen. A small tear meant big decompression. So close to the Kerwood Viktor might be rescued in time, but it wasn’t a guarantee. And it would mean certain death for Jimmy.
A shiny pool of frozen hydrocarbon reflected starlight beneath him, black as obsidian. He spread his legs and landed on either side, boots crunching on sturdy surface.
He used his momentum to move in short bounds, and switched back to the miner wave. The deafening sound returned: rushing air, gasped breaths, muted cries for help. Jimmy didn’t have a lot of time. If the diamond-tipped drilling candle tore his suit, he would reach full decompression soon. Viktor did the math. A minute to get there, at least a minute to return. Another thirty seconds to get him into the pressurized airlock, if Connor had it ready. And all of that was assuming the drill didn’t chew through his body and leave him a pulpy red mess.
The math didn’t work out. Viktor needed to reach Jimmy sooner, and he knew there was only one way.
“Viktor, what are you doing?” Connor said. “Wait, I think Jimmy–”
Viktor cut off the radio. Helena, forgive me.
Throwing caution to the stars, Viktor took one more long bound, then another, before launching himself into the air as hard as he could.
It was the strangest sensation watching the too-close horizon of the asteroid fall away, replaced by the black beyond. His stomach lurched, his senses laughably unprepared for the impossible feats of low gravity. Not even twenty years mining in the black could rewrite millions of years of human evolution. Viktor held his breath and silently willed the vertigo to pass.
The glow of the drill site lights appeared ahead, bathing the landscape in harsh focus. A different kind of light flickered, sending long shadows across the asteroid’s surface: the ultra-bright magnesium drilling fuses, called candles because of how long they were. The candle was half-buried in the rock, shallow enough that sparks shot out of the hole and across the ground.
He saw the outline of Jimmy’s suit, a few meters from the candle. He lay flat on the asteroid’s surface, not moving. The radio had gone silent. Viktor’s helmet display showed Jimmy’s suit info: power, oxygen, and suit pressure all looked fine. Slagging credit-pinchers, he silently cursed. Too old and broken to show the right data.
Viktor soared through the air, the gravity of Egeria-13 slowly pulling him level. He would land a few feet from the site, he gauged. He glanced at the clock in his heads-up display: it said 02:41:22, earth time. How long had it been since Jimmy started screaming? He should have marked the time the moment it happened. He was getting soft in his old age. Should never have let my guard down out here.
The ground rose up before him, faster and faster. He positioned his legs and waited, preparing for the sudden jolt. Ten seconds. Five.
He landed hard, boots indenting dangerously in the loose rock. His knees absorbed most of the impact–and flared with pain at the duty–but it wasn’t enough. Viktor’s momentum carried him forward, tumbling end over end across the drill site, black and grey alternating in his faceplate. The candle flickered perfectly white as he rolled past.
Every bump against the ground, each scrape against rock, threatened to tear his suit open and leave him a frozen bag of flesh. His hands were padded with working layers, so he used those to flail around and slow him down as he rolled across the barren, black landscape. Helena’s face appeared in his mind, smiling and sad. He flinched, waiting for the inevitable hiss of air and the sensation of moisture boiling on his tongue and eyeballs.
It never came. Viktor slowed to a stop.
The clock said 02:42:55. Too long for sure. Saying a quick prayer to Saint Sergius, Viktor returned to his feet. He unmuted his radio, but it remained silent. The candle had burned out, and the drill spotlights were pale and lazy by comparison. He bounded over to Jimmy.
The man lay face-down, eerily still. His once-white-but-now-brown miner suit appeared undamaged from this angle. Viktor took a deep breath, steeling himself for what he would see, before reaching down to turn the body over.
Jimmy’s face appeared, young and smooth. It stared back blankly.
Abruptly, his mouth twisted in a cruel grin.
“Holy slagging shit, boss,” Jimmy laughed, “Did I get you? I totally got you. I can see it on your face. Ahha!”
Viktor blinked as Jimmy jumped to his feet and ceremoniously brushed off his suit. Grey asteroid dust cascaded down in a curtain.
“What…” Viktor began.
“Wait ’til I tell the boys on third shift,” Jimmy said. His face was flush from laughter. “Pulled one over on old Vicky. They won’t believe me! Oh Jesus, your face…”
Viktor stared at the half-buried candle. He pulled it out. Instead of the expensive diamond-tipped drill on the end, there was a charred grey fuse, like the end of the cigarette butt rolling around somewhere in his boot. It was just a flare, the temporary kind they used if they wanted to prospect a site without setting up the spotlights.
“You’re gunna need to come with me when I tell ’em,” Jimmy continued, finally catching his breath. “They’ll be pissed I won the pool. You’ll need to tell ’em yourself. You’ll back my story up, right?”
“Pool?” Viktor dumbly said.
Jimmy’s smile wavered. “Yeah. The, uhh… the pool. To see who could pull a fast one on you, on account of you’re the most senior one here. It’s up to forty credits. Jessica tried last week, the stunt with the tank hose. She’s been in a bad mood since it didn’t work.”
It was all for fun. Gambling on who could embarrass Viktor first. He’d risked his life bounding across the asteroid, reckless and fervent, to save this slagging kid. And it was all for nothing.
An image of Helena appeared in Viktor’s mind, wearing a black dress. Mourning a closed casket as it shot into space.
He faced Jimmy, anger boiling up the back of his throat, making it difficult to breathe. He realized the flare candle was still in his hand, held like a spear. Jimmy was only a meter away.
Viktor imagined the man’s suit tearing, the oxygen leaking away as his eyes widened and bulged. The vein bursting in his temple, crystals of frozen blood dancing through the black like pink diamonds. In that moment he wanted to make it happen, deep within his soul with a desire he’d never felt. His grip on the candle tightened. One quick jab, straight to the gut. There were no cameras this far from the Kerwood. Nobody would know.
He raised the candle a fraction of a centimeter when his radio crackled.
“You’re supposed to keep the general channel open,” Connor said, voice filling his helmet. “You would’ve heard me warn you that Jimmy was probably fooling.”
Jimmy made a pained noise. “You’d rat me out like that, Connie? And deny my god-given right to forty credits?”
“Let’s all just calm down,” Connor said. There was a twinge of diplomacy in his voice. He was probably looking at Viktor’s suit sensors, at his elevated heart rate. “Viktor, you can hit the showers early. I’ll call Hernandez up here to finish your shift with Jimmy.”
“Hernandez is supposed to replace me in an hour,” Jimmy said.
“Not anymore. You are now working a double. You can collect your forty credits after that.” Jimmy began to protest more, so Connor added, “Unless you want me to let the Captain know about your little stunt? Wasting company time and assets just to pull a prank?”
Company time and assets, Viktor thought. Nevermind risking his life. The anger remained, but more muted, so Viktor lowered his spear.
Something in the gesture must have hit home to Jimmy. He said, “Yeah. Sure thing, Connie. I’ll stay with Hernandez.” He hesitated, eying Viktor, and added, “Hey. Sorry, boss. I didn’t mean to scare ya. You understand, right?”
“Da, I understand.” Viktor tossed down the candle and turned away. I understand that I want to go home.
He began the trek back to the Kerwood in cold silence.