by Jamie Woodcock.
Fingers drummed on the console, waiting for the page to load. Light delay added stuttering to accessing information this far out. The news bubbled away in the background.
“...available in all good stores and resupply stations. Now, the latest news from the belt is that Caldecott-Krüger will be imposing wage restraint across the newly acquired mining stations in two standard days. The triple union compact has refused to comment so far...”
The form slowly appeared.
“Welcome to the Liberty Dynamics pay hub.”
Fingers tapped out, “Alexander Noble”, followed by a string of numbers. Drumming again. The readout started to display. Staring at the numbers, glancing back to a scrap of paper, then back again. A finger tracing down the calculations. The drumming stopped, eyes closed as he ran the number of hours and shifts back again.
“You've got to be kidding me.”
This was the second standard month in a row that the payslip had come back wrong. A heavy sigh as he clicked on the help button, knowing this would start a cascade of back and forth with a chatbot before it could be escalated. New figures were scrawled on the back of the paper, folded carefully, and placed into a pocket.
He strode out into the hallway, humming a tune that echoed off the bulkheads. Many people talked about this as the hardest part of the work. Waiting between shipments could sometimes be only a matter of hours. At points, the station could be buzzing with activity. When schedules didn't align, it could be eerily quiet.
“Alexander?” the synthesised voice called out, “I've replied to the automatic transmission from the incoming vessel the Matador, they have updated flight plans for you to review.”
“It's Sasha”, he replied to the disembodied voice, “how many times do I have to tell you that?”
The communication system had needed a hard reset, again, after it threw up a series of errors. Each time it defaulted to Sasha's full name, Alexander, a name he hadn't been called since childhood.
“Alexander is your designation. It only shares one letter with Sasha. If you prefer, I can change your designation to Alex or Mr Noble? Beep, the flight plans for the Matador need your review.”
Sasha remembered how the communication software had been promoted as a smooth way to handle the regular and complex communication with transport ships. Why it needed to mimic a human voice was frustrating, but at least it kept track of things in the background.
Sasha was tapping on the console, while a cat slept on part of the keyboard.
“OK, I have you on screen now, please identify?”
“The Matador, requesting permission to dock.”
“Please transmit your clearance code for docking.”
Sasha thought he could hear some other discussion in the background. The Matador continued to fly casually towards the station. The code wasn't verifying. The console was trying to connect to multiple corporate databases. A few resolved, but two or three were still hanging.
“Matador, what is your cargo and destination?”, Sasha asked, delaying the process.
“We're transporting materials through the sector, just a brief stop.”
The code looked legitimate, but the handshake hadn't been completed. Sasha tapped in an override code, a way to deal with the frequent problems the system encountered.
“Matador, docking approved, stay on your present course.”
The communication system clicked off.
“Well, that doesn't raise any red flags, does it?”, Sasha said out loud.
“Oh, come on?”, he appealed to the cat sitting on the console. “Nothing, Jonesy?” With no audible response, he gave the cat a quick scratch behind the ears, before standing up.
Sasha reviewed the day’s work schedules in another room. Technically, he could have done it from the comms station, but the walk was part of the routine. The station had been built decades ago and retrofitted every few years. This left a complex web of overlapping systems and hardware, many of which were no longer supported by a corporation - or the corporation that would have supported it no longer existed.
There were far fewer workers at the station now. Theoretically, it could have run without even him, but he knew it would only take one technical problem for everything to grind to a halt. His job was to review the tasks and machinery, ensuring the smooth loading and unloading of shipping coming through the sector. This could be agricultural goods from the planet, machinery and supplies from outside the sector, or even work crews passing through.
In a way, Sasha thought, he was the caretaker of the station. He greeted the ships, providing some new human contact, and food that didn’t come straight out of a packet. Similarly, Jones the cat played a vital role, keeping any pests across the mostly empty station at bay. However, Jones didn't have to take responsibility for signing off decisions or making sure the quotas were met.
The news piped up again: “we have a breaking story for you listeners. Two parts of the triple compact, the DWA and the IUST, have released a statement on the ongoing mining dispute.”
Another voice cut in: “the executive committees of IUST and DWA have both met today, speaking on behalf of both, I can confirm that we will not be recommending strike action. We maintain our position on system-wide pay rises, but the representatives of ABMU have not confirmed that they will be taking industrial action to oppose these cuts.”
Even with the light delay, the news statement had reached Sasha before the internal comms to union members. He sighed and stared into space.
His handheld pinged aggressively. As he unlocked it, a new message scrolled down:
Dear Alexander Noble, Europa section, satellite branch DWA member in good standing,
We wanted to be the first to tell you that the system-wide committee of the spaceside dock workers section met today with union-wide executive committee to vote on matters relating to the triple union compact with IUST and AMBU following the imposition of a new pay deal across the new Caldecott-Krüger owned mines.
The text flowed down, with little punctuation, and even less news being relayed.
Given the AMBU executive has not sanctioned belt-wide industrial action we as well as the executive of IUST will not be recommending any strike action to members we understand the concerns of our members and rest assured that we will be lobbying the corporations on your behalf.
Sasha sighed again, staring off into space. This time thinking of friends and old colleagues.
The Matador was closing in on its automatic trajectory. It cycled through the stages, shifting one way, then the other. The silhouette became clear, then right into focus.
Sasha ambled toward the docking bay, hearing the stages of approach announced throughout the station. There was little that he needed to do manually at this point, but failing to greet a new arrival would have been downright rude.
The doors hissed as the pressure equalised, with some suitably atmospheric gas rushing out. As the air became shared, he saw three figures emerge from the ship.
“You have to be kidding me?” Sasha blurted out, before they stepped forward into a hug, complete with enthusiastic back slapping.
“How long has it been?”
“Too long!” The words hung for a few moments.
“Where are my manners?” the newcomer exclaimed, turning back to the others. “This is Devan and Adamma, best pilot and mechanic this side of the sector”, motioning towards them. “Well second-best mechanic, maybe?”, they quipped, winking back at Sasha.
“Yeah, yeah”, Devan responded, tutting out an exaggerated rebuttal.
“Now for my manners”, Sasha started, motioning down the corridor, “we've got food, drinks, all the corporate-sponsored hospitality a ship like yours could need. Come on Isra, after the journey you must have had?”
Isra poured another drink, looking across the table, waging that Devan had probably had enough, but Sasha and Adamma could do with refills.
“... And that's why we left the Chaoxiang Industries sector in more of a hurry than we planned!”
Sasha enjoyed hearing the stories, even if a few of them seemed a bit farfetched. Isra had a tendency towards artistic licence, but it made for a fun night of drinking. They reconnected in that way that only old friends can, immediately slipping back into familiarity. Even so, work assignments had kept them apart for too long.
They shared stories and updates from across the sector. Sasha's hospitality involved keeping track of what had been happening, both in the news, but also the rumours and gossip that came with crews passing through the station.
At the same time, the station refuelled the ship, topped up the water reservoirs, carried out routine maintenance – fixing some of the second-best mechanics problems – and refreshed the databases. Sasha took on roles that were less defined.
After some time, Sasha tried to move the conversation on to the latest news.
“What do you make of the union executive’s latest decision?”
“Not now Sasha”, Isra waved a hand, “Later, tomorrow, there’s time for that.”
It had got to the point in the evening where eyes were feeling heavier, and the room was starting to slightly swirl at the corners.
“... I've got a cigarette!”, Adamma exclaimed to no one in particular, accidentally finding a break in the conversation. A slightly crooked, but mostly intact, cigarette was held aloft.
Without any words, drinks were finished, and they each got up from the table and headed into the corridor. Devan missed a step, clipping the doorframe and bumping into Isra. They staggered on, giggling through the corridors.
The four crammed into the airlock, forming a conspiratorial circle. In the dim light, a yellow flame briefly flickered. Devan shut their eyes, inhaling deeply as the end of the cigarette burned red. The cigarette did two rounds of the circle, before crunching under Isra's boot.
The doors opened slightly and the four shuffled out, quickly closing the door behind them. The smoke hung in the airlock, just long enough for Sasha to mime blowing it out as he tapped the button to open the external door. The smoke and remains of the cigarette whipped out into the expanse.
They headed back to the makeshift bar. Sasha turned the music on throughout the whole station. It blasted out through console speakers, the PA system, and anything else with a speaker. The rest of the evening was hazy.
Sasha slowly opened his eyes. He turned to check the time, wishing it would both be late enough that it was reasonable to get up, but simultaneously that it was early enough to go back to sleep. The headache came crashing in waves. He started to get out of bed twice, before making it upright on the third attempt.
He focused on breathing: in through the nose, out through the mouth. Eyes slowly surveyed the room, noting the unusual placement of clothes from the night before. Another round of breathing in and out.
A good few minutes later, Sasha had splashed freezing water on his face, got his hair looking less dishevelled and finished one and a half glasses of water. He staggered out into the hallway.
Isra was ambling down the corridor.
“I've got a surprise. Just what you need for the hangover.”
Isra produced something from a pocket, wrapped in cloth. As it unfurled, Sasha was astonished to see a single chicken egg.
“Where in space did you find that?”
“That’s for me to know! Anyway, we wanted to thank you for the hospitality. Plus, it'll help you feel better.” That wink again.
The egg felt almost painfully precious in Sasha's palm as they walked to the kitchen.
Sasha slowly went through the motions in the kitchen. Packs of protein and noodles were carefully arranged around the cooker. Small bags of spices and herbs had been unpacked, each carefully being added to a series of pots boiling across the stove.
“Smells good”, Devan mumbled as they found a seat.
“Better than good”, Adamma responded, a bit too loud.
Sasha took the egg, weighing it carefully in one hand and then the other. Into the right hand, raised over the pan. A moment of hesitation. Concentration, sizing it up. Bringing it down to the pan, back up again. Then crack against the pan, prized apart.
Sasha sighed. A sigh of relief as the yolk remained intact, the white sizzling away in the pan.
“Now listen Sasha, we need to talk”, Isra started, “I know we’ve come here a little underhanded.”
“You could say that, what with your out of date codes.”
“Some of us at IUST don’t agree with the exec’s decision. We called another vote and lost it by just 59 votes. Out of the whole lot, just 59? Can you believe that?”
“Go on,” Sasha nudged.
“So, listen, what I’m trying to say is,” Isra paused, “two branches are going to refuse to handle shipping from the mines. We want you to join too. Either you get a vote going,” they looked around the room, remembering the context, “or find some way to interrupt things. We’re not going to let an exec vote stop us from acting, you know what I mean?”
Sasha watched Isra’s face light up through the conversation. It was almost as if the short speech was more for their benefit than his.
“You don’t need to worry about me.” Sasha closed his eyes and bit into the yoke.
Sasha watched the Matador drift out into space, on the way to visit another station.
“Alexander, there is an incoming transmission from planetside. You also have fourteen messages from corporate that require an urgent response. Do you want me to read those or put you through to the incoming call?”
“It’s Sash-actually, do you know what, power down the external comm array.”
“I'm sorry, Alexander, I'm afraid I can't do that.”
“Of course, you won’t, well,” Sasha rolled his eyes as he pulled a series of wires out from behind the communications console. He hummed a tune as he moved between consoles, causing just enough damage that it could have looked like an accident.