I Owe My Soul

Image by fszalai from Pixabay

This multi-part story is set in the same universe as “The Things We Do For Family

Chapter 1

Richard Quentan made his way down the tunnel his pod had drilled in the rock. It wasn’t a small passage, but it still felt tight because the hardened vac suit so necessary to his survival when working on this god-forsaken rock of an asteroid added several inches to his height. It didn’t help that at 5’ 8”, he was taller than the average asteroid miner. This particular rock had a tiny bit of gravity, but not enough to keep your feet firmly on the ground. The only thing that kept him from floating was the roof of the tunnel and, even then, each step knocked his head against whatever was above it. Over the years, he’d picked up the deliberate, planted walk that was so characteristic of miners in the asteroid belt. It wasn’t an easy life, but it beat slaving away in the refinery back on Ceres.

Once he got to the free face where the holes for the shot had been drilled, things got a little better, mostly because he stopped moving. He settled in before the free face, called up the pattern on the heads-up display on his face shield, and checked the placement of the holes. Everything was as it should be, which is exactly what he expected. Davy Dinks, his number two, had laid out the grid and he was nothing if not precise.

“She may have laid out it perfectly, but she didn’t drill the holes herself, so let’s see what we’ve got.”

He reached down, pulled the laser scanner off his belt, and began checking the depth of each hole. The task of drilling them had fallen to a new man on the crew. Jakob Huelet had joined them as a temporary replacement for one of the pod’s longtime members, Matty Sandsen, who was recovering from injuries sustained when a shot went off prematurely. Mining in the belt was inherently unsafe, due in no small part to the fact that the corporation regularly cut corners on materials. The blastgel (aka “pudding”) that Matty was loading into the holes wasn’t mixed properly and detonated prematurely, and that had set off the rest of the explosive in the pump’s hopper. The only thing that had saved him was his suit. That was one place the company didn’t, couldn’t, cut corners. If they did, no miner worth his salt would ship out for a tour in the belt. Throughout this rotation, Rick hadn’t been thrilled with Huelet’s work and wasn’t sure he wanted to bring him out next time. At first, he’d chalked it up to the fact that Huelet was new and hadn’t worked out his place in the pod’s rhythm. However, the last couple of shifts, he’d begun to see that the man was sloppy. The depth of these holes, for example, wasn’t consistent. The variation wasn’t extreme, but it was there. And imprecision wasn’t something Rick was willing to accept. He signaled Davy, who made her way down to the face.

“What’s up, boss?”

“Huelet drilled these, didn’t he?”

“Yes sir,” Davy said, moving her hand up and down in a manner that approximated a nod. Head movements and facial expressions weren’t visible in a vac suit. “Is there a problem?”
Rick pulled up the hole depths and projected them on the wall in front of them. “See for yourself.”

“Oh, that’s not good,” she said, shaking her head. “It’ll screw up the delay. No way to set the fuses to account for that much variation.”

“Okay, we’re stuck with him for now, but I don’t want to see him next time we come out,” Rick said. “Thank the maker this rotation is almost over. If it wasn’t, he’d be burning for Mars right now.” He looked around for the drill. “Let’s even these holes and set the charges. The quicker we drop this face, the quicker we can go home.”

Rick tried his best to get comfortable on the shuttle’s crew couch. It wasn’t an easy prospect because he was still in his suit, a situation necessitated by the bare-bones nature of the craft. It wasn’t lost on any of them that Wynotech’s efforts at cost savings always seemed to come at the expense of crew comfort but there wasn’t much they could do about it. He shifted again, trying to find a position that wouldn’t be too hard on his body once the shuttle began to accelerate. His head banged the front of his helmet and a muttered, “Fuck” slipped out. He was reminded that he still had a channel open to Davy when she snickered.

“What’s the matter, boss? Your old bones giving you a fit?”

He grunted as he finally found the sweet spot within the hard shell enveloping his body. “The problem isn’t my ‘bones’, he said. “It’s this goddamn suit. It’s getting harder and harder to get comfortable in this thing.” Then, he added, “But, fuck you very much for asking.” That brought a full, throaty laugh from her.

She relented, saying, “I hear you,” as she drifted in and settled onto the seat beside him. “These goddamn couches are not comfortable.” She locked in the safety harness. “As much money as Wynotech takes out of the Belt, you’d think they could upgrade these shuttles a bit.” She pulled up the specs on her display to find the age of the shuttle. “Shit, this one’s only a couple of years old, but the goddamn technology in it isn’t much more advanced than the shit the fucking Founders used.”

The “Founders” were the colonists who built the first Mars colony and all the infrastructure that allowed mining operations in the asteroid belt. They were also the people who had the bright idea to allow folks who couldn’t pay for their passage outright to “work it off”, i.e. indentured servitude. Every miner and laborer on Mars or Ceres was either a descendant of those early “servants” or was working off an indenture themselves since the practice was ongoing.

Rick laughed. “You really think the company’s gonna spend money so your broke ass is all comfy? If you do, I’ve got some beachfront property on Gale Crater to sell you.”

She raised both hands, palms up, in front of her slightly, giving the gesture that signified a shrug in the suit and said, “Yeah, I know. But would it kill them to add some environment so we could get out of these damn suits? And, some more comfortable couches would be nice, too.”

Rick lifted his right hand and brought it down to his thigh, which in this context meant, “get real”. Then, “You just want to show off your long, flowing locs.” Dinkins was famous for her meticulously maintained bald head. Her skin was deep espresso that almost glowed and no one had ever seen so much as a hint of stubble, even at the end of a long tour. Feeling that he’d evened the score a bit, he shifted into business mode. “I’m pretty sure Medical will release Matty before we come back out again, so that should settle our personnel issue. Either way, I don’t want to see Huelet on the crew again.”

“Agreed,” said Davy. “He was definitely more trouble than he was worth.”

That “definitely” caught Rick’s attention. “Is there something that I don’t know about?”

Davy waved her hand, palm down, in front of her. “No, not really. Nothing concrete at least.”

“Okay, what are you not telling me?”

She hesitated a moment, then said, “A couple of the girls felt like he was hitting on them. Even after they told him it wasn’t allowed.” Rick didn’t care what his pod members did while they were at home but he had a strict “no fraternization” policy when out on the rocks. He had enough to handle without adding relationship drama to the mix. She continued, “I kind of picked up on it, too.” She must have sensed his rising ire, because she said, “It was more a vibe than anything solid. That’s why I never said anything about it.”

He was a little irked that she didn’t tell him about this but he also knew that she was an excellent number 2 and could deal with the more minor issues, only involving him when necessary. He’d long since learned to trust her judgment and decided to let this go. “Good enough,” he said. Everyone was settled in and secured and the light on the bulkhead changed from red to green indicating that the shuttle was pulling away from the rock the crew had been working. He felt bladders in his suit begin to expand, keeping his blood where it needed to be so he wouldn’t black out as the main engine kicked in. He settled in and closed his eyes. Maybe I can catch a nap on the way back to Ceres, he thought.

Their suits and equipment had been deconned and stowed away, the quarters that had been their home for the past three months cleaned and readied for the pod that would be relieving them, and the initial tonnage numbers collected. There was a huge amount of paperwork that went with leading a pod and Rick would complete most of it on the trip home. He hated paperwork but the passage back to Mars took anywhere from 10 to 20 days depending on orbital positioning and having something to do helped pass the time.

Twenty minutes later, they stood in the assembly area of Ceres’ tiny spaceport, waiting for the go-ahead to board the Horizon, an Immortal class transport ship that made the circuit between Callisto and Mars that included regular stops at Ceres on both its inbound and outbound legs. Rick looked around at his pod and thought that it was more than just a crew, it was a family. His gaze swept over Huelet and he remembered what Davy had told him on the shuttle. That fucker couldn’t be gone soon enough, he thought. Just then, his PDA pinged, letting him know the ship was ready for boarding.

“All right, people,” he said, raising his voice to be heard over the chatter of people excited to be going home. “They’re ready for us. Load up.”

Everyone slung their duffles and moved toward the scanners. They placed their bags on the belt and stepped into the detector to ensure no one was smuggling any ore. Wynotech was extremely protective of its profits and, after a couple of miners were caught trying to sell some palladium they’d snuck back to Mars, everyone had to be scanned multiple times before they could leave Ceres Station. In the crush of boarding after the scanners, he noticed Huelet standing extremely close to Barie Ruson, the pod’s med tech. He kept an eye on the situation, ready to act as soon as Huelet did something untoward but he didn’t need to worry. People tended to underestimate her due to her elfin size, but Barie was more than capable of dealing with men like Huelet.

“What the fuck, Huelet?” she barked. “Get off me.”

Chagrined, the man took a couple of steps back. Rick caught her eye and nodded approvingly. He’d managed to catch a few words with Barie and another female in the pod, telling them that he was aware of Huelet’s behavior and was taking steps. He also told them to do whatever they needed to handle things in the meantime and he’d stand by them.

As he waited to board, he looked over Horizon for what must have been the tenth time. The repetition didn’t help, though. The ship never came off very well in any examination. Like all Wynotech’s ships, Horizon was lacking in creature comforts. It was also old. The last upgrade worth talking about occurred 7 years ago when they’d replaced the old chemical rockets with a fusion drive. That had shortened the trip home significantly but they hadn’t done anything about quarters or passenger/crew comfort. Which fit pretty well with Wynotech’s corporate ethos. Cutting transit time added to the company’s bottom line but comfortable employees? Not so much. At least not to the bean counters’ way of thinking. He watched his crew embark, waving Davy ahead of him. Whether at home, on Ceres, or out on the rocks, he was always the first in and last out.

Rick sat at the workstation in the cabin he shared with Davy, his PDA projecting multiple screens of data from the pod’s productivity for the tour into the space in front of him. The desk had a data station he could use but, like everything else on the ship, it was laughably out of date. So much so that his PDA outperformed it in every metric. He was moving all the data he’d kept track of out on the rocks into the forms and tables the company reporting system used. It was basically a mindless task that the PDA itself could handle, provided it had the proper software. But, like so many things in this job, software cost money, and spending money would cut into the company’s bottom line. And, from the company’s point of view, why spend money on software when they had employees, whom they already paid, spending multiple days doing nothing during the transit between Mars and Ceres? Wasn’t it just good business to have them handle the task? He’d been at it for a couple of hours and his brain was getting foggy, so he put the device to sleep and was about to get out and check on the pod when Davy walked in with two cups of stimmy. She set one in front of him.

“I thought your grumpy ass might appreciate this,” she said. “I know how you get after a few hours of data entry.”

He picked up the mug and took a sip. It was hot, strong, and dark, just the way he liked it. “Oh, that hits the spot.” He set the cup down and wiped the steam from the reading glasses he’d recently begun wearing.

Davy laughed, saying, “I still cannot get used to you wearing those things. Where did you get them?”
He looked them over himself before setting them on the desk. “I didn’t get them, Marta did. But, where from I couldn’t tell you.” Marta, his wife of almost 20 years, was known throughout the Wynotech colony for her resourcefulness. “I learned a long time ago not to ask questions when she produces stuff, just take it and say thank you.”

“Sounds like there’s a story there,” Davy said.

Rick laughed. “You could say that. We’d been together about a month when I came home from a tour and my suit liner was getting pretty ragged. I asked her if she could do a little something to make it last longer since I still had another tour before I’d be eligible for a replacement. She took one look at it, shook her head, and threw it in the trash. When I told her I needed it, she said not to worry, she’d take care of things.”

“So, what happened?” Davy asked.

“About a week later, I came back from a crew meeting and a brand-new liner was lying on the bed. I looked over at her and asked where she got it. She told me not to look a gift horse in the mouth and say thank you. I pushed a little bit and she shut down like a scrammed reactor. Didn’t talk to me for two whole days,” he said with a chuckle. “Lesson learned.”

“I’ll bet,” said Davy. “Marta doesn’t play, huh?”

“Not even a little.” Rick took another sip of stimmy. “By the maker, do I miss her,” he said. “And, like always, I’m gonna make sure she knows just how much when we get back.”

Davy laughed, then said, “Hey, I’m just looking forward to having some gravity under my feet.”

“Damn right,” Rick said. “Any big plans or just time with family?”

“No, nothing big,” she said. He thought she sounded far away at that moment. Then she snapped back, adding, “Just gonna be lazy for a while, then see what comes up.”

“Good plan,” Rick replied. “All right, let’s get these reports squared away. I don’t want to spend any more of my off-time in the office than I have to.”

“For sure,” Davy said as they sat down and got to work.

The ship settled onto the pad at the Mingo Settlement’s spaceport and everyone on board felt the satisfying hold of Mars’ gravity. It was just a fraction of Earth standard, but they’d been out here so long, it felt normal to them. Especially after 3 months on Ceres and other rocks that had even less. There’d been some talk of spinning up Ceres to increase its gravity but that would have a negative effect on refinery operations. It was also an expensive proposition. Both would cut into the Wynotech Corporation’s bottom line and the Wynotech Corporation only cut into the bottom line when it was absolutely necessary. So far, they hadn’t seen the health and welfare of their employees as all that necessary. Rick shrugged out of the safety harness and stood up.

“Okay, people. We’re officially off the clock. Go home, knock some boots, play with your kids, and whatever else you want to do. We’ll meet at The Blasthole tomorrow afternoon to pass out pay stubs.” He paused for a moment. “And, hopefully, a nice fat bonus.” That brought a cheer, and everyone gathered their gear and headed out.