by Orion Ussner Kidder.
When the money meter in Charlene's helmet started ticking down instead of stuttering upwards, she was pretty sure she knew what had happened, but then she felt it, and she was absolutely certain: the sensation of a massive ship - a ship the size of a small moon, a ship with its own gravity - jumping to hyper speed within half a kilometre of her. It turns out that much mass can't just blip away without it affecting the bodies around it. She felt it in her bones, like a reverberation but deeper. That's when she had to admit to herself that she'd been left behind.
She was floating in her corporate-issue EVA suit over the new installation, a replacement hab ring on the Ganymede station. The old one was so full of cracks and holes that the corporation finally realized they were losing money on escaped oxygen and lost productivity due to hypoxemia in the crew. They'd been complaining for six months about headaches, not being able to breathe, and something they'd started calling "cotton brain," but that hadn't convinced the money people, obviously.
Charlene had been out doing a final check, which was her job, and that had kept her from getting back in time for the hyper jump. No countdown. No warning. No coworkers telling her to hurry up. The system just flipped from paying her to charging her for air, electricity, and wear-and-tear to her suit.
There was a blank spot on the inside of her helmet, between the money meter and the corporate logo - a baby in a space suit wearing a cowboy hat, for some reason - and in that tiny little space, she'd always wanted to take a sharpie and write "fuck capitalism." She stared at that spot and imagined the letters scrawled there, as angry as she was. It comforted her a little. Not as much as a union would have, but they were in space, so there were no laws, and so no union, and at that particular moment, no ship. But she'd heard of people sending encrypted IMs, having meetings in surveillance blindspots, organising enough workers together that the bosses would have to listen.
She gave the finger to the space where the ship had been, careful not to let go of the clipboard in her other hand because they'd charge her for that, too. She'd sworn to herself she'd never end up in this situation. She knew it had happened to other workers. She'd watched it happen. But the company had a schedule, and the schedule was way more important than one replaceable employee.
The next couple of minutes were going to really suck, and when it was all over, the best she could hope for was losing half her pay for the whole contract. The meter took a big jump and then continued ticking down more steadily. That would be the system charging her for the processing time required to hire a replacement, as well as that replacement's pay bump, and they'd also charge that replacement for the paperwork involved in promoting them, of course. God damn them. That's when she realized she'd be lucky to make anything off this contract at all.
She wanted to wait another few minutes to see if they'd come back for her, but she knew they wouldn't, and she'd lose less money if she just bit the bullet and hit her beacon. She sighed. It was a sigh that expressed thirteen years of working for this piece-of-shit company and all its wage-thieving bullshit.
She tapped her beacon and waited. She'd never experienced cryo before, but she'd heard it was awful. First, five tiny arms unfolded from the helmet and shoved plugs up her nostrils, into her ears, and down her throat, which meant she couldn't breathe or hear while her visor counted, "3... 2... 1!" and shot two globs of saline lubricant into her eyes. She closed her left in time, but her right was stuck open, her vision filled with a dark blur. That's the moment some sadistic engineer had decided the suit would plug her lower orifices, too. Then, the suit filled with fast-drying foam, the plug in her throat released its pouch of anaesthetic, and her whole body sank into a coma so deep she was legally dead. She'd float there for a while until someone picked her up. She could stay revivable for up to five months, but if it took that long, they'd start dipping into her savings.
Just before she lost consciousness, she thought: union. Half-dreaming already, she swore that when she was finally picked up, whether it was a day or a year, she'd find the organizers. This job wasn't good enough to be afraid of losing it.
© Orion Ussner Kidder, 2023