The sensation of removing a vacuum enviro-suit after a fourteen hour shift was the closest thing to pure pleasure Viktor ever experienced.
First he had to walk backwards into his locker, hooking his backpack-like life support system onto the wall so it could disconnect the various electronics. His bulky outer suit came off next, a ten minute process which required twisting the torso off the waist, unsnapping the seemingly endless pressure clips at the seams and along his hands, before pulling it all over his head. After that, the pants came off easier.
That left the three underlayers. The micrometeoroid garment, which crumpled loudly like plastic as it came off and went into the locker. The bio layer, which contained his waste bag, water supply, and liquid cooling flow system. All of it had a habit of shrinking when he perspired–which was every time he put the damned things on–so fifteen minutes of twisting and struggling and he was down to his underwear.
He sat on the bench of the Kerwood’s change room, allowing the cool air to hit his exposed body. He was red and splotchy all over, with crease lines criss-crossing his skin. They were done. The last load completed, all the excavation equipment returned to the cargo hold. He took long, deep breaths, savoring the satisfaction. If Helena could see him in that moment she’d frown, cross her arms over her breasts, and demand to know why he never looked that happy when he was with her.
The sound of the door banging open broke the reverie. Jimmy waddled inside, his own enviro-suit covered in grey bits of asteroid. He grinned at Viktor and spoke in a muffled voice behind his helmet.
Viktor raised an eyebrow and tapped his own skull. Jimmy rolled his eyes and then twisted the helmet off. “Every time, boss. I swear I do that every time.”
“You should be more conscious of your environment,” Viktor said.
Jimmy sat heavily onto the bench. “Oh I’m conscious, alright. I’m conscious of the fact that we busted our butts and finished an hour early! Time to get off this potato rock.”
For once the kid’s enthusiasm didn’t grate at Viktor.
Jimmy began removing the various clasps from his suit. He eyed the older Russian. “Hey. Vicky. Listen, about what happened yesterday…”
Viktor waved a hand. “Forget it.”
“No, see, I feel bad. Connie told me you rushed over to the site. Is it true?” He paused. “You steeplechased your way to save me?”
Viktor sighed. After Connor wrote the kid up he’d been apologizing every hour on the hour. Viktor hated the retroactive sympathy more than the recklessness of the act itself.
“Da,” he said. “It’s true.”
Jimmy whistled through his teeth. “Connie showed me the position logs, but I wasn’t sure if he was foolin’. You were only a few meters per second of delta-v from hitting escape velocity.”
Viktor blinked. “Connor exaggerates.”
Jimmy shook his head. “Nope. If you had a young man’s quads you’d be your own heavenly body orbiting the sun around two-point-two AU. The way I figure, boss, that’s gotta be some sort of record. You know? Long jumpers on earth ain’t got nothin’ on a crazy Russian in the black.”
“All I’m sayin’ is you oughta look it up. Put your name down in the Guinness Book of Galactic Records.”
Viktor had had enough. He pushed to his feet and threw on some fresh clothes, which weren’t all that fresh. “I need to talk to Connor.”
“We could call it a ‘Crazy Viktor’,” Jimmy called after him as he left the change room.
Viktor’s muscles ached with comfortable exhaustion, and the comparative ease of walking around suitless. Like an animal who had shed its shell.
He smiled to himself. Their job was done. It was time to go home.
The return trip always felt like a waste to Viktor; time that would have been better spent working. If the Ceres Resource Hub project ever got through the approval process then miners wouldn’t need to make the trip from the belt to the inner planets every time, but that was still years away. It didn’t help that the corporations pledging funding for the station were always at each other’s’ throats, squabbling over contract rights. Everyone agreed the pie needed to be cut up, but everyone wanted the best piece.
But none of that mattered to Viktor Sharapov. He was even looking forward to the return trip, for once.
Can I even call it retirement? he wondered. Fungus farming was notoriously hard work: monitoring moisture levels, constantly checking soil samples, harvesting spores three times a week. So long as he was doing it with Helena, in control of his own life, he didn’t care.
The Kerwood was like an ant hill, everyone rushing around to finish up their final tasks before departure. Viktor shouldered his way to the broom closet Connor called an office.
The Irishman was facing his video screen, shaking his head. “No, no, no. Washers first, Harry. Then the bolts. If you do it wrong the crates won’t…” he trailed off as he saw Viktor.
“Got a second?” Viktor said.
Connor said, “Do it right, Harry,” and then turned off the microphone. He leaned back in his chair. “A second? No. I don’t have a second, Viktor, because we’re leaving an hour early and everyone seems to have forgotten how to do their job.”
Viktor closed the door and sat in the lone chair across the desk. “You’re the one who wanted the excavation site packed sooner than originally planned.”
Connor held out a palm. “I know. I’m not blaming you, just complaining out loud. Captain’s got a bug up his ass about leaving, so the shitstorm’s rolling down the chain of command.”
“Ahh.” Viktor sniffed the air. “What is that–”
“Ahha!” Connor smacked the table triumphantly. “The air is heavier, right? I had engineering come up here. Turns out there’s a minor xenon leak. They said I was crazy, that xenon is odorless, but I’ve got a nose like a bloodhound. And before you panic, no, xenon is not toxic. We’re safe in here.”
“Ahh.” Viktor hesitated.
Connor lowered his eyebrows. “Well? Spit it out.”
“The company profit share,” Viktor said. “I want to talk about…”
“Oh, Jesus Christ,” Connor muttered.
“…how it will be distributed among the workers,” Viktor said. “We need to switch to a proportional system.”
“I told you I would raise it up the pole when we got back.”
Viktor pulled out his hand terminal. It showed a bar graph, with names listed on the x-axis. “I sorted through the suit position logs, and cross-referenced them with worker shift data and the hourly crate count. Even though total hours worked remains consistent across all miners, that’s not the best metric to use. Some miners only pulled half as many crates as others.”
Connor looked at the graph and raised an eyebrow. “I’m surprised you’re at the top of the list, considering all your smoke breaks.”
Viktor opened his mouth, then closed it again.
Connor saved him by barking a laugh. “Jesus, Viktor, relax. I’m not going to write you up for that, so long as you don’t blow yourself up. Then you’ll get a mark on your record.”
He nodded awkwardly. “Thank you. But the data show…”
“I know all about the data. What do you think ops managers do all day? Sifting through spreadsheets and finding inefficiencies is half my job.”
Viktor pointed to the graph. “Then you can see how myself and Jessica deserve a higher percentage of the credits. Whereas someone like–” he hesitated half a second, “–like Harry deserves a smaller portion.”
He’d been about to say Jimmy, but didn’t want Connor to think he was taking yesterday’s prank personal.
“Harry’s getting cut as soon as we get back,” Connor said, “but I get your point. I’ll see what I can do.”
“You said that on Vespa last contract. You told me you would look into it, make some phone calls.” Viktor spread his hands. “Yet nothing.”
“Yeah, I know what I said.” Connor sighed. “It’s not so simple. Efficiency shares may make sense in a vacuum–hah, no pun intended–but there are problems. Such a system is essentially incentivizing miners to work faster, right? That’ll take the lollygagging out of guys like Harry, but it’ll rush others. Maybe it rushes them more than what’s tolerable. Push them to cut corners, ignore certain protocols to make sure they get the biggest share. What if we see an arms race of safety violations? Then I have to start cracking down, which’ll only work as long as my eyes are on ‘em…”
Viktor felt himself deflate like a balloon. “I did not think of it this way.”
Connor ran a hand through his auburn hair. “Yeah. Look. I appreciate the work you do. Same for Jessica. But…”
The intercom in the speaker crackled to life. “Attention all crew. This is Captain Hayes. Departure time has been moved up. Anyone not in their launch chairs in twenty-eight minutes will find themselves bouncing around like a human pinball.”
The intercom went silent.
Connor frowned at the ceiling. “Gets jumpier every damn day.” He regarded Viktor. “Look. I may not be able to make efficiency shares a permanent thing, but I do have some leeway in profit distribution on a per-mission basis. You’ll get your extra profit share for this mission. I promise. I’ll put it in when we get home.”
Viktor suppressed a smile. “I appreciate you taking the time to…”
But Connor had already turned back to his computer screen. “Harry, what the shit did I tell you? Check all four corners. I don’t care if they’re stacked, when the Kerwood’s under thrust if they so much as move a millimeter…”
Viktor allowed himself to smile as he returned to the hallway. He and Helena would have what they needed, now. No more contracts. No more orbital transfers to the belt.
He made his way to the galley, along with what looked like most of the ship. The crew would be confined to their launch chairs for eight hours during the departure. Standard safety procedure. Anyone who had a meal scheduled during that time would miss it, so it was either get your ration early or go hungry for the duration. On larger celestial bodies, like the inner planets or Jupiter, Viktor would have left his stomach empty for the departure burn rather than stain his shirt with vomited leftovers. But for Egeria’s miniscule gravity well, the departure would be hardly bumpier than a bicycle ride.
He followed the crowd until it reached an intersection, where a body suddenly crashed into him from the right. He stumbled into two other miners.
“Watch it, guy,” said one miner. The other cursed at him in what sounded like Spanish.
Viktor mumbled an apology and turned to look at who had run into him.
It was one of the engineers, judging by the grease all over her jumpsuit. Her nametag said Bahr. Anger flashed on her face for an instant–no, not just anger. Fury. Uncontrollable fury, a fire in her eyes that promised malice and pain.
It lasted only a moment, and then a mask went over her face.
“Sorry!” she said cheerfully. “Need to watch where I’m going. Too much to do, you know.” She pushed past Viktor and the other crew in the opposite direction.
The miner next to Viktor snorted. “Grease monkeys. Treat us like we’re pack animals.”
“No respect,” agreed another. “The whole ship’s that way.”
Viktor watched the engineer disappear behind them. “It is not so bad. Everyone is just busy.”
“Busy pushing us around, you mean.”
“We’re strangers to them,” Viktor said. “Contracts change, people change. The crew that stays with the ship is always wary of strangers. It is natural.”
“Whatever you say,” the miner mumbled.
Viktor wanted to protest more, but the sound of shouting reached their ears as they neared the galley. Everyone was crowded around the door. Viktor shouldered his way through.
The galley was only as large as it needed to be: ten meters squared, with one wall of food dispensing machinery and two tables with chairs bolted into the floor. The yelling came from the three crew members standing by the food dispenser. Jimmy was one of them.
“…can’t be serious,” Jimmy said, gesturing with a hand.
The target of Jimmy’s anger was Daisuke, the supply officer. He crossed his arms and said, “Take it up with the corporation. I’m just following orders.”
Jimmy saw Viktor. “Boss, they’re cuttin’ the return rations.” He held up a brown rectangle of hardened nutrient paste. It was a few centimeters shorter than normal.
Viktor frowned. “What’s wrong? What happened to cause this?” His first fear was that navigator had underestimated the return trip, that it would take longer than previously expected.
“Nothing happened,” Daisuke said carefully. “It was planned this way by HQ from the start. More efficient.”
“Cheaper, you mean,” Jimmy said. “How the hell am I supposed to survive on 1,500 cals a day? Look at me! I already don’t have any fat to spare!”
The third man snorted. He wore the blue uniform of the Bridge crew. “You don’t get to complain. You slaggers have been feasting on 4,000 a day for the past two weeks!”
“Cause we’re the ones doin’ the heavy labor, Einstein. Not all of us get to twiddle our thumbs in a comfy chair sixteen hours a day.”
“Comfy chair? You slaggers have no idea what we do…”
Viktor turned to Daisuke. It took every bit of willpower to keep his voice calm. “How can you do this? The previous calorie guidelines were carefully calculated based on body mass. The amount of muscle atrophy that will occur in the six weeks…”
“Maybe you weren’t listening,” Daisuke cut him off, “but it wasn’t my call. I’m just the enforcer. Take it up with HQ when you get back. Or your ops manager.”
Viktor cocked his head. “Wait. Connor?”
”Uh huh. He signed off on it too.” Daisuke squinted at the code on Viktor’s uniform and punched the code into the dispenser. It made a whirring noise, like coffee beans grinding, and then a small rectangle of food-like material slid into the tray.
“Take it or leave it, I don’t care. But get out of the way so the rest can get in here,” Daisuke said.
Viktor grudgingly took the food.
“I don’t want your shit-shaped energy bar,” Jimmy said, throwing the food across the galley. It bounced heavily off the wall and fell to the floor, too dense to break apart. Jimmy followed Viktor to the door, then thought better of it. He scurried to the corner of the room, picked up his bar, and then stormed out.
“Can’t believe this,” Jimmy muttered.
“Yeah,” Viktor said. Connor couldn’t have known about the restrictions. He wouldn’t have allowed that.
Viktor considered confronting the ops manager, but the intercom in the ceiling buzzed to life. “Ten minutes to departure. No exceptions. Anyone who breaks a limb because they weren’t in their launch chairs will be required to reimburse the Kerwood for medical expenses.”
Jimmy made an ugly face. “Broken limbs? This ain’t Saturn. You could fill the Kerwood with sleeping babies and none of ‘em would notice the liftoff.”
Viktor took a bite of the calorie bar, chewing the tasteless chunk methodically. If the corporation was skimping on food rations, he doubted they would reallocate profit bonuses to the more efficient workers. Easier to just cut the pay of the slower ones and pocket the rest.
But Connor had said he’d make sure it happened. Was he lying? Just telling Viktor what he wanted to hear until they got home?
He knew about the ration cuts, Viktor thought. And he didn’t deign to share that with us.
They returned to the change room and dressed in the environment suits required for all launches and landings. The thin material wouldn’t withstand a butter knife, but it would keep them alive for a few minutes if the Kerwood suddenly lost atmosphere.
The launch chairs for the miners were arranged against the wall in a narrow hallway barely wide enough to walk through. Most of the miners were already strapped in and waiting. One was Connor. He nodded to the Russian.
Viktor gave him a we need to talk look before squeezing past his knees. He considered confronting Connor right then, but decided it would be better in private. No need to call out the ops manager publicly until he heard his side of the story.
He fell into one of the open chairs and pulled the harness over his head. The chair shifted. Viktor tested it by moving back and forth, and the chair wiggled at its base. Piece of slag, he cursed in Russian.
Jimmy stared down. “Aww, man. If I’d known the fun seat was open I’d’ve taken it.”
Viktor looked a question at him.
“You know. If it comes loose during launch you’ll get to go for a stroll while the rest of us stay bolted to the floor. Fun seat.”
That didn’t sound very fun. Viktor began removing the harness so he could switch to a more stable chair, but the rest of the miners were already filing into the hallway. Half of them didn’t even bother wearing their launch suits, which made Viktor’s hand twitch. He considered pointing it out to Connor, but the Irishman already had his eyes closed.
Resigned to his environment, Viktor sighed and leaned back in the wobbly chair. One last contract. One last launch. Forty-two days until home, and then he’d never worry about such things again.
He took another bite of his calorie bar, just another unpleasant task to complete in a long list of unpleasant tasks. He closed his eyes and thought of Helena while waiting for the launch.
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Next: Chapter 05