Author Archives: David Kristoph

Days Until Home – Chapter 19

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Days Until Home: 18

“A mutiny is not what I am suggesting,” Viktor said.

“Then what are you saying?”

Viktor took a sip of coffee to give himself a moment to think. It tasted like water scooped up from the bottom of a muddy hill. The five miners arrayed around him–well, four miners and Rebecca–weren’t getting it.

“I am saying tensions are high right now, and people are becoming suspicious of one another. It is dangerous. We all need to carry protection, just in case.” He hefted the heavy wrench to give the others an idea.

Jessica frowned, the skin on her forehead moving the white bandages of her head. “Won’t carrying weapons escalate the issue?”

Viktor nodded. “Which is why we need a simultaneous show of good faith. To help everyone relax.”

“Like, backrubs or somethin’?” Jimmy said. Nobody laughed. Viktor let the silence stretch a moment before continuing.

“I am going to surrender my personal encryption key to the Captain. I have nothing to hide. Let him see the communication logs with my wife on Luna, all personal computer activity, everything. It’s the only way to set their minds at ease. I think all of you should do the same.”

“Like slag I’m doin’ that,” Jimmy said. “I don’t need Hayes creepin’ through my net logs. A man’s search history is between him and God.”

Viktor ignored him and focused on the others. Siebert, ever the follower, nodded immediately. It might make him uncomfortable, but he’d do it if everyone else did. Jessica took longer. She stared off at nothing for a long thirty seconds. For a while Viktor considered saying something, to make sure she wasn’t still showing symptoms of her concussion.

“Yeah,” she finally said, closing her eyes. “I don’t have a better idea, and I’d prefer Hayes probing my history instead of my physical body.”

Viktor gave her a thank you smile, then used a wall handle to spin himself around in the microgravity to face Jimmy.

“Aww, hell, if I’m the only one who doesn’t do it I’ll look guilty by default,” he said.

“Perhaps.”

“Perhaps you’d throw me to Hayes to save the rest of your skins? After all we’ve been through, Vicky?”

Viktor spread his hands in as reasonable a gesture as he knew. “Hayes is already losing his mind. We’re trying to do whatever we can to defuse it.”

Jimmy looked around the room for support. Jessica and Siebert stared back expectantly. Knowing that Jimmy was the kind of kid to react unpredictably when backed against the wall, Viktor said to the others, “Give us a minute. I’ll meet you in the galley.”
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Days Until Home – Chapter 16

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Days Until Home: 82

Viktor bent to pick up a crate of ore from the Kerwood hold while considering the question he’d been asked. When he turned around the Matsue worker, Harry, was waiting for an answer, as if it were a question at all.

“Yeah, it was bad,” Viktor said over the suit comms. “The worst thing I have ever experienced.”

Harry bobbed his helmeted head in agreement. “I mean, yeah, it had to have been, right? I saw the launch hallway. Hell of an explosion. Must’ve been quite the sight.”

The third guy on the shift, who hadn’t bothered to volunteer his name to Viktor, stood in the corner taking a breather. He didn’t seem to care about the tragedy that had befallen the Kerwood, beyond annoyance at needing to do work.

Viktor only nodded at Harry and carried the crate toward the hatch of open black, his mag-boots clomping along with each step in the semi-gravity. They were bundling the crates into groups of four to later be moved and rearranged in the most efficient arrangement of mass according to the computer algorithms and laws of physics. For now they were just stacking them close to the ramp door.

Viktor didn’t need to help, but he was sick of waiting around like a passenger. It felt good to work at something, even a job as monotonous as moving cubes of rocky money from one area to another. And the low-G work wasn’t so much hard as it was tedious; even with his wounded arm unable to grip anything with real strength he was able to move the heavy crates without issue.

“Quite a sight,” Harry repeated, staring off at nothing. Viktor got the impression that he was bored, and wanted some sort of excitement to break the dullness of spaceflight. It was the kind of restlessness that only came from youth, when one hadn’t experienced true tragedy yet. When one hadn’t learned that excitement was a bad thing out in the black. With some guidance and nurturing that sentiment would be trained out of him, hopefully without any real crisis.

For a brief, painful moment it made Viktor wish he and Helena had had children.

He smiled sadly and said over the comms, “Stay sharp, Harry. The boots are tricky if you’re not paying attention.”

Harry followed him to the edge of the cargo hold with his own crate. The kid’s steps slowed as he approached, his hesitation at nearing the black edge palpable in the airless air. Viktor kept his movements steady and confident to show him how it was done.

“You want to stop at the edge, here,” Viktor said, just as everything went wrong.

Red and orange klaxon lights around the border of the bay began flashing in warning. It must have scared Harry, because he took a jerky step, one boot detaching from the ground, and then he was tumbling through the air.

Over the comms, Harry screamed.
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Days Until Home – Chapter 13

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 Days Until Home: 84

Viktor was moving down the hallway toward Siebert’s transponder signal, cringing with every magnetically-enhanced boot step that sent jolts of pain through the bundle of fabric and flesh fused together at his belly, when laughter drifted through his helmet.

Jimmy paused and turned around, giving Viktor a confused look. He heard the laughter too. “What the…”

“Attention all Kerwood crew,” came Captain Hayes’ voice, clearer but still twinged with levity. “I have an important announcement to make.”

“Then make it already,” Jimmy said on the private channel only Viktor could hear.

“We’ve established communication with the commercial mining vessel Matsue. They are plotting an intercept course to provide assistance. Folks, we’re being rescued.”

Hayes must have opened up the channel to everyone, because a scattering of cheers filled Viktor’s helmet, some weary, others halfhearted, all of them hopeful. Jimmy grinned like an idiot and pumped his fist in the vacuum.

“The Matsue,” Viktor breathed, staring off at a point past Jimmy’s shoulder. “That’s my old ship.”

“Who fricken cares what ship it is,” Jimmy said. “It’s a ship, and it’s rescue, and it’s safety. I thought I was gunna die out here, and no offense Vicky, but I was terrified your ugly face would be the last thing I saw.”

His laughter took the sting out of the words, and Viktor surprised himself by joining. For a long while they stood there and laughed, along with the remnants of the crew throughout the crippled Kerwood.

It took eight hours for the Matsue to reach them, hard-burning all the way on chemical rockets. Viktor imagined the chest-crushing g-forces the crew must be suffering just to reach them as quickly as possible. Viktor and Jimmy were able to cut open the mangled door and retrieve Siebert. The big miner appeared unconscious at first, but came to once they patched into his suit comms. He seemed to hear everything they said, and he nodded or shook his head to answer their questions, but he had a thousand-meter stare in his eye that Viktor recognized as shock. There was no sign of Adelaide, so they escorted Siebert back to relative safety before his brain could process everything that had happened.

They huddled in the med bay while waiting for the Matsue. The video screens that would normally show the view outside the ship were down, so they had to use their imagination, with occasional updates over the radio. The Matsue matched their relative velocity, then closed the distance until they were only a few meters apart. Though the engineers had done a pretty good job at negating the Kerwood’s spin by opening and closing airlocks, the ship still was unstable on one axis, so the Matsue used engineering arms to clamp onto the crippled vessel and then negate the spin with its own maneuverability jets.

An emergency airlock attached to the trunk entrance. It sounded like a dozen woodpeckers hammering the outside of the hull, creating the temporary seal. Viktor had the absurd image of old earth pirates on the open seas, throwing hooks onto a vessel before they boarded. He laughed, and when Jimmy asked what was so funny he only shook his head. Part of him knew he was so far beyond exhaustion that his brain was barely functioning. The larger part didn’t care.
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Days Until Home – Chapter 10

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Days Until Home: UNKNOWN

Viktor drifted through his cube-shaped bubble of atmosphere a few millimeters per second. Such slight movement was practically still relative to the walls, but the airlock was small enough that within seconds he neared the ceiling. He reached up with his good hand and let his fingertips absorb the inertia. The result was that he began floating back the way he’d come, a fraction of a degree slower than before.

There was a comfort, there. Whatever disaster had befallen the Kerwood, the laws of physics still applied. A reminder that they were still in the world of the living.

He couldn’t muster the energy to do more than float back and forth. He couldn’t muster the energy to care. Once the adrenaline from the action had worn off extreme exhaustion had taken its place, like he’d worked a double shift in high-G with no calorie break. Simply floating there was a soft, calm luxury.

When Viktor was a child, his father had taken the family on a trip to the Caspian Sea. The people in the markets there were exotic compared to the stoic Russians: they called their wares in high-pitched, almost singsong voices, pointing out strangers and gesturing wildly to attract attention. One rotund man sold blown-glass ornaments, small enough to fit in the palm of one’s hand, intricate and precisely crafted. Viktor had never seen glass with colors swirled inside, greens and reds mixing and dancing like water. He’d begged his father to buy him a glass figurine of a ballerina, leg extended and dress blown out in a swirl. Of course they could not afford it, and Viktor’s father had been angry at the request.

The man selling the ornaments had smiled sadly at Viktor. What he remembered most about the man was that he wore a white turban around his head, tightly wrapped like a cloth beehive.

The gauze wrapped around Jessica’s head wound reminded Viktor of the glass salesman. A big, swollen, turban.

Jessica occupied the wall opposite him, looking alarmingly like a dead body, though he knew she lived and could see her chest rise and fall. Despite what she said, the pain from her scalping had become too severe for her to suffer. Viktor shot her up with drugs from the medical bag before wrapping her head in gauze. They clipped Jessica’s tether hook onto the wall to keep her in place.

Viktor envied Jessica her unconsciousness. He wanted to curl up and sleep. Not in his Kerwood bunk, but in a real bed, with the warm lump of his wife an arm’s length away. A warning indicator on the wall next to Jessica changed from green to yellow with an emphatic blink. He knew he should be thinking about what to do, but he couldn’t bring himself to focus.

Jimmy smashed the comms button again and spoke louder, as if volume were the reason nobody was responding.

“Hey there boys and girls, it’s your friendly precious mineral extractor here. Still here. In the airlock. Waitin’ for death. We’ll be here for–oh, I don’t know. A few more hours, depending on how much O2 I consume speaking into this squawk-box.”
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Days Until Home – Chapter 07

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Days Until Home: UNKNOWN

The taste of the stale calorie bar still lingered in Viktor Sharapov’s mouth when the ship began to tremble.

His eyes shot open.

“Whoo boy,” Jimmy said. He was two seats down, and his voice sounded muffled. “Now it’s a party.”

Viktor realized why his voice sounded strange: it wasn’t coming from the receiver in his helmet. Because Jimmy wasn’t wearing one.

It sat in his lap, quiet and unused.

The trembling grew stronger, wobbling Viktor’s seat.

“Jimmy!” Viktor yelled. “Put your helmet on!”

The kid picked up his helmet, but not to put it on. He held it to his ear to use the comms, like a sphere-shaped telephone. “What’s that, Vicky?”

“Put your slagging helmet on!” Viktor looked around the launch hallway, at the handful of other miners who hadn’t bothered to follow protocol. The vibration in his seat bones increased.

“All of you. Do as I say. Connor! Do you not feel this?”

The ops manager twisted in his seat. “Relax. The ship isn’t exactly new. Always some bumps. If the engineering team signed off on the launch…”

A sudden jolt threw everyone’s heads forward.

The room spun. Everything was wrong. For a brief, horrific moment Viktor was certain his head had been sliced off and was now tumbling across the room independent of his body.

But it wasn’t just his head. The entire seat had become dislodged from its base, sending him in a slow arc through the air, tugged by the miniscule gravity created by the Kerwood’s thrust. Viktor bounced off the far wall gently. Two screws and a hexagon nut hit the wall within his view. From the seat mounting.

Cheering echoed in his helmet, and in the muffled air on the other side of his visor. He looked around the hallway as his seat rotated back into view.

The entire mining crew was whooping and whistling, clapping their gloved hands together. Only Jessica didn’t join in the cheer, and leaned back in her chair defeated.

“I do not understand,” Viktor muttered to nobody in particular.

“Of course you’d be the one,” Jimmy said. “Luckiest Russian that ever lived.”

“Lucky?”

“The fun seat,” Jimmy said, as if that were explanation enough. When it became clear it was not, he added, “We’ve been taking bets on when it’d finally go. I put a week’s pay down that it would happen on launch. Jessica took the bet.”
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Days Until Home – Chapter 04

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Days Until Home: 42

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.”
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Days Until Home – Chapter 01

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Days Until Home: 45

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.”
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