by Jamie Woodcock.
A small tray moved past. It has a series of indented sections and ridges. Small pre-packaged items are slotted into the respective parts. Each can only fit in its correct place. It is a simple puzzle, repeated with each tray that comes along.
As the contents were perishable, the temperature was kept at around 3 degrees or below. This made slotting in the items harder than it could have been. Fingers were either numbed or made clumsy by gloves.
The largest item was in a foil container. A smaller container went next to it, followed by something wrapped in plastic. Two smaller items next, along with a thinner package that went on the side. The last task was to put a large plastic lid over the top of the tray and seal it with a sticker placed over the corner.
Finishing the tray meant no respite as the next one was only just behind it. Tray after tray approached on the conveyor belt.
The same hand movements put the lunch box together. In went the main meal, bits of vegetable, and a drink.
"It's time to leave. Come on, we haven't got all cycle," her voice called out to the other room.
A young child came out of the other room, dressed and ready to go, apart from a lack of shoes.
"I can't find them anywh-"
Without replying, she pointed to the shoes, tucked the lunch box under their arm, and shepherded them out towards the door.
The commute to work was always worse during the night phase on Ganymede. The shifts were colder in the night and the views were subdued. The on-off 12 hours shifts meant it would be seven more night shifts before the sun rose again.
She was working on vegetables today, which meant preparing the smaller pots that another worker would put onto a meal tray.
"Asha?" she heard her name called from across the line.
"What do you call a row of cabbages?"
She looked down at the anaemic leaves, flexed her cold white knuckles twice, and replied while continuing to cut the cabbage, "I don't know Jyoti, what do you call them?"
"Very good, very good."
Jyoti loved puns. Asha wouldn't have minded so much, only she also had a love of sharing puns while they were working. The latest wasn't the best she'd come up with, but it also wasn't the worst. She let a little smile spread from the corners of her mouth.
She carried on cutting, stripping, and packaging the cold cabbage.
At the lunch break, they filed out of the packing floor and into a makeshift canteen. It wasn't actively cooled, but given the rest of the building was, it stayed chilly.
Asha sat with the same group every lunch. Jyoti, trying out new puns. Usha, who liked to gossip. Finally, Priya, who would chat away on almost any topic.
She had got out of sync with the conversation and watched the three of them chatting away. She has a flash of memories from when they all arrived on Ganymede all those years ago. How they had changed since then. Families were growing up, grandkids were now being looked after. She looked at their faces, smiling, but with the signs of ageing and greying hair.
When they signed up to work here it was for Martian Spaceways. They had worked countless shifts preparing and filling the in-transit meal trays. Most routes took many cycles to complete and passengers needed to be kept fed throughout. Veg, Synthetic Meat, Halal, Kosher, Vegan, and a few other specialist options. Three per passenger per cycle, it all added up. There was some slight variation between each of the three, but they still came in the same shaped tray.
Asha strained to remember the memories. What had they eaten on the transit over? In her mind she could only see the most recent version they made. She knew that before, when they'd been employed directly for MS, they were different. They must have been different before that too. She tried to visualise the MS meals, how they changed when they'd been outsourced to Ganymede Process Outsourcing, then later to Interstellar Gourmet. Although the last name might have given a different impression, the quality of the food was by far the worst.
"Right you lot, come on, back to work. You know the new rules, we're on 15 minute breaks from last cycle." The voice of the supervisor cut through Asha's memories.
They say that food tastes different in space. When you think about the science of this, it makes sense. You don't have the regular gravity or atmosphere. When you eat a spaceflight meal, you're hurtling through the void of space in a pressurised metal tube. The gravity, when it's there, comes from the engine thrust.
At the atmospheric pressure in a spaceship, your tongue goes a little bit numb, meaning less taste buds can be used. The air is recycled and dry, often smelling less like a restaurant and more like machinery. The cramped quarters are loud and uncomfortable. At best, this reduces the sense of taste - not to mention the ambience - of any meal.
If you've ever wondered why spaceflight meals are served with tomato juice, that's why. Not counting a bloody Mary, when was the last time a cafe or restaurant offered tomato juice? That wasn't common on Ganymede, even during the harvest seasons. In space, like atmo flights, it tastes richer and fuller, with much less acidity.
Asha thought about the last time she had drunk tomato juice. She could remember the taste, but not the last time.
Someone new had entered the factory floor from one of the supervisor doors. He looked like management. The clothes gave him away, but also the way he looked across the conveyor belt and at the workers.
"Listen," she heard him start, "at Interstellar Gourmet, we're churning these out for trips across the Solar system. But I've been on a call with MS management and they're not happy."
The man picked up a cabbage and pulled a leaf away, tossing it aside.
"These meals are for economy passengers, right? They make up the bulk of ticket sales on every journey. We cram as many of them in as we can."
He took a pot and turned it upside, the light reflecting off of the foil lid.
"Only around ten percent of the tickets we sell are business and first class. This is the elite, you know? But what I bet you didn’t know is they generate eighty - yeah that’s right - eighty percent of the carriers revenue."
His eyes had lit up and he started to gesticulate at the two lower managers beside him.
"So sure, they get more space, better booze, the promise of a luxury experience, and so on. But do you know what really sells those tickets? It's the division."
They moved along the conveyor belt, inspecting the different parts of the meals.
"Why do you think we make economy passengers walk past first class and business cabins on their way to their seats? There are airlocks at either end! But if they don’t see first class, how are they going to know what they’re missing? It’s the same for first class, make them see how the economy passengers lug their bags past the cabins on the way to their part of the ship."
"Ahhhh,” one of the lower managers, not really paying attention, kept up their side of the conversation.
"This is why we’re introducing the bigger trays with the white napkins in business. Not because the food is any better, just look at it? But to try and make the other passengers feel bad because they’re not getting the same service. Meal after meal, we want them to wish they had upgraded."
Jyoti shot Asha a look, rolling her eyes. Before they were subjected to any more of the manager's spiel, the tea break announcement came over the tannoy.
At the end of the tea break, Asha, Jyoti, Usha, and Priya made their way back to the factory floor.
"Who is that by my station?" Usha, first through the door, blurted out.
As the tea break spilled out of the door, they were met by another shift already at work.
"Hey, you? What are you doing here?"
Asha got a feeling in the pit of her stomach. It was the same feeling she had when Ganymede Process Outsourcing had announced the shift to Interstellar Gourmet. It was the feeling of something moving out from underneath you.
"Back to the canteen now,” Priya spun on her heels, dragging Asha by the sleeve and beckoning the rest to follow.
They arrived back at the canteen with the rest of the shift. Workers were huddling around the tables, but hardly anyone was seated.
"Ok! Ok!" someone from the union was trying to call the nervous huddles to order.
“Right, we’ve heard from GOP management that the people on shift - your shift - are agency workers brought in by Caldecott-Krüger. What they’re trying to do is provoke you, right?”
Asha could see that they had succeeded in doing more than trying to provoke some of them.
"Leave it to the union. I promise, we'll get them around the table to discuss this first thing next cycle. Don't rise to it now, that's just what they want."
Jyoti spoke up, "I'll tell you what they're trying to do. They want to get rid of us on the old contracts. Mine goes back to the in-house MS conditions, not like these new agency rates I bet they're on."
Asha waited for the pun.
"If they think they can just serve us this", she made the motion of a ladle with food, "they've got another thing coming."
Asha was relieved that the pun wasn't so extreme to make light of the situation. Instead, she could see the anger in Jyoti's eyes. It was an anger shared in eyes across the room.
The meeting continued back and forth with the union rep. Management were notably absent.
"We're not going to get anything sorted talking to him", Usha whispered to their smaller huddle.
It was clear that Usha wasn't the only one thinking that. The meeting reached a sort of spontaneous end. The participants were angry, caught between wanting to keep venting and eager to move things on. They dispersed into smaller groups, with the promise to be back next cycle.
As Asha left the factory, she passed another group of workers.
“Hey, are you from Ganymede Outsource Processing?”
She thought about correcting the young man, but instead nodded, unsure of where the line of questioning was headed.
"I'm, uh, we're from baggage handling."
She knew they usually worked on the other side of the port, although they often came to collect the shipments of meals. Before every flight, they would load the baggage for passengers, followed by the meals. That way, the cabin crew could access the additional meals from the hold during the longer journeys.
"We've heard about what's happening."
"Oh right," Asha responded, more like a question.
"And we've come as a delegation to tell you that we've walked off the port in protest at what they're doing with the agency workers. We know that it won't stop with your-"
A smile broke across Asha's face. She imagined the ships missing both their baggage and meals, knowing this would bring the port grinding to a halt.
"Thank you, thank you! You see Priya back there? She can tell you all about it."
She would have stayed, but for now she had to go and pick up grandchildren from the school.