This is a draft of Cubs of Democracy, which runs about 4,700 words. It’s gotten a kind rejection note or two, and it’ll go out for submission again soon. As such, it’s not released under any license, and I reserve all the copyrights, hopefully until it sells, which would be nice.
In school, I took a part time job in a Portland greenhouse tower as a junior worker bee, wandering the thirty stacked floors, earbuds in, humming along as I went about my rounds. I loved it. They paid next to nothing but offered flexible hours in a calm, quiet environment, and all the work was pleasant and easy: tending the plants, patching PVC runs, watching for the pests that made it through the screens, talking to customers about their backyard gardens, ensuring tastiness of the product through extensive sampling. Despite their place in this near-paradise, the other employees feuded. Who knew more about native plants, who got to repot the tulips, which junior worker bee screwed up patching the PVC run, who got the weekend off, who had screwed who when and with what at which convention. No dispute was too petty for them to not to fight over.
I thought about this while weightless, clinging to a handloop in the near total darkness of the hub, as the other thirty four crew members on station debated whether, having used the last of our uranium to send out the SOS beacons and with little air and heat left, we should play cribbage or go through our next shift, one of six we might, at the outside, have before we all died.
When the argument went twice as long and become four times as stupid as the debate over whether to use the last of our uranium to call for help or give us some extra time running the recyclers, I called for a stop to the debate.
“We’re wasting air,” I said. “Let’s vote. I represent apathy.”
“I think we should have a round-robin rock-paper-scissors tournament,” Hager said. Boos came from all walls.
“You think we should spend a couple of our remaining hours shaking our fists at each other and… really?”
“Yes,” Hager said.
“Fine. There’s a third option, rock-paper-scissors tournament. Let’s vote.”
The other thirty-four crew members drifted to their preferred option. Cribbage won easily. Hager stood alone.
“Cribbage it is,” I said.
Nods. The crowd broke to find cribbage sets. I waited until the central hub cleared out and pushed off across and made my way up to Observation.
I’d spent years in Wolf 359, my work shifts divided into 20-minute increments of next action on next action, each peeled off a selected project. I’d never turned off the agents and thought.
With Wolf raging against the long dying of its light, the windows dampened against the tantrum, obliterating the rest of the star field. Outside, the storm lit up the whole electromagnetic spectrum, X-rays pounding on our hull, the radio spectrum blanketed. There was no one to talk to anyway. Our communications array depended entirely on the launcher, and the launcher took ridiculous amounts of energy to fire its tiny messengers, and energy we no longer had. I sat in the observation couch, closed my eyes, and tried to sleep. Sleeping used less oxygen, and gave me the chance to freeze to death.
Hours later, Wolf calmed, the windows relaxed, the change in lighting waking me from my restless sleep. I could see stars, the tethered planetoids, and our giant nearly-destroyed solar cell array. Normally, I’d look up the weather forecast, see if we had an hour or days before things got chaotic again, hoping to get some work in. I didn’t care any more. We wouldn’t be doing space walks, and while we’d left the mining operations going, the chances we’d ever be making pickups verged on zero.
Wolf 359. A tiny, dim red dwarf with no significant bodies within the first couple of AUs. Possibly all eaten in the life of the star, disintegrated in the shift from happy, yellow star, though our resident astronomer weighed that against other theories, or would until he ran out of oxygen and died.
The majesty of space exploration indeed. We were here because the system was filled with stellar crap, which was great if you wanted to do a lot of mining of objects under the legal standard for autonomous stellar objects. And that we did, setting our bots to unraveling the dumb rocks into usable materials, but in terms of not having your station hit by shards you didn’t manage to map in time, it turns out it really, really sucks.
And those stupid rocks. Whee, carbonacous rocks. All the silica, oxides, and sulfides you could wish for. Do you wish you had tons on tons of scorched olivine and serpentine? Come on down, because I have more of that shit than I know what to do with. Nickel-iron, boy, do I have nickel-iron. You would not believe how much nickel and iron I have. Magnesium? My prices on magnesium are crazy!
What I don’t have, though, is enough cadmium. Or selenium. There’s some cadmium sulfide, and some molybdenum disulfide. But if you need to rebuild your solar arrays and other critical, fragile equipment like, for instance, environmental recyclers, do not, under any circumstances, come to Wolf 359, because you will be well and utterly fucked.
If you’re unfortunate enough to be there, holes punched in your vitals, and your launcher batteries don’t happen to be topped off – and why would they be, it’s a ridiculous thing to waste power on – well, the smart thing to do is burn your miniscule uranium supply to power the chip launcher, shut off everything you can, including the algae vats, salvage what you can to keep the station warm and livable, then settle down to play cribbage and hope when your grain-of-rice-sized beacon blows into Barnard’s Star someone is listening and has any kind of rescue capacity and the calculations on the cost of launching a salvage mission come out worth it to fire up the reactors and gate the rescue ship in-system, at which point they would bill us into perpetual indentured service.
The thing about perpetual indentured service is as horrible fates go, it does still beat asphyxiation. The other thing is that I knew no rescue mission was coming. We’d generated a reasonable valuation of the operation including documentary evidence and offered nearly all of it in exchange for the rescue operation. I knew unless someone was coming out here anyway, the numbers wouldn’t work. There was no reason someone would be coming out here anyway, because there was nothing worth coming out here for, including us. I was somewhat depressed.
A nascent operation like ours, that’s the risk you took: you had to get there, build your way out of eating algae, build the mining operation to self-sustainability, recruit more people, build a launcher, recruit, start firing rare materials back, recruit, build a pharmaceutical fabrication center, or adult zero-g recreation center, or counterfeiting operation, and by then if you’re an original settler you’ve long paid off your launch costs and you sell your equity shares to retire happily, rich beyond all utility.
The other option, of course, is that instead of years of work equally divided between the hard, the monotonous, and the extremely hazardous, you could just die.
“Your agents are off,” Schroeder told me, an annoyed, grating tone edging her voice.
I looked back from the couch. She stopped at the threshold, waiting for a nod. “What do you want from me? Is there vital traffic on the station group? Why not just page me?”
She pulled herself in and strapped down to a couch. “You’re in a bad mood,” she said.
“Smiling exercises too many muscles,” I said. “I’m trying to conserve energy. What’s your problem?”
“I’ve been thinking,” Schroeder said. “I know it’s a taboo subject and all, but as long as we’re going to die on this rock, there are some things I’d like to do before I die.”
“Are you coming on to me?”
She laughed. I couldn’t even flirt when we were all going to die without it coming off as a joke. Oh, I’m that good. “No, look. I know we’re all a crew and crews stick together blah blah blah, but let’s be honest, Hager’s always been a dick.”
“See?” she said. “See, you’re interested. What I’m saying is, as long as we’re all going to die, we reasonably guess things are going to break down towards the end…”
“Ah, there’s the flaw,” I said. “They won’t. The joy of no oxygen, we’ll all just get really drowsy, pass out, and then expire. But we’ll see a rescue before that.”
“I don’t believe that any more than you do,” Schroeder said. “What I’m saying is, if we all have to go, I really want to kill Hager. If his death means the rest of us get an extra hour of oxygen, and let’s be honest, it’s going to be more than that because he absolutely will not stop talking ever, then isn’t that a good thing?”
“I’m not killing anyone,” I said.
“You’ve already killed all thirty five of us,” Schroeder said. “You and me, we’re just haggling over the order.”
I didn’t respond, and we both sat and watched Wolf 359 churn.
The second round of cribbage ended to cheers, and from the volume it was clear that our descent into oxygen deprivation would be well-lubricated.
“Where did the alcohol come from?” I asked.
“You want to head back?” Schroeder replied, quietly. I looked over and could see her eyes heavy with tears not flowing.
“No,” I said. “I’ll go if you want me to.”
She shook her head, and outside, something flickered.
“Wait, what?” Schroeder asked. She wiped her eyes. “I thought –“
“You did,” I said. I pulled up the station’s meters. We’d detected a huge burst of energy, accompanied by all the bizarre particles that come out on the destination end of a launch. “Someone’s here.”
“Is this a oxygen-deprivation hallucination?” Schroeder said. “Because this would be a really, really cruel thing to dream up as you died.” She looked at the wall air monitor. “Hey, we’re still over twenty percent. That’s awesome!” She paused. “Unless I’m hallucinating the reading.”
“Knock it off,” I said.
“I bet it was my miniscrubber. Days of oxygen, days.”
“Yes, yes, you’re very clever.” With a fair idea of where they’d jumped in, I found the ship quickly. This was made easier because the ship was huge, sleek, elegant, and hauling to something else almost half again its size, all spindles and struts. I put it up.
“What the fuck?”
“It’s a launcher,” Schroeder said. “They brought their own one-time launcher if they needed to get back.” She drew on the diagram for me, unfolding it into the familiar wide umbrella shape as I watched.
“Wow. Do you recognize the ship?”
“It’s ATS Aerospace. No question.”
“We’re saved,” I said, savoring the words as I said them. “We’re saved, we’re saved, we’re saved.”
“I’m so happy I could kiss you,” Schroeder said.
“Could. I’d have to unstrap myself from the couch, go all the way to the other side of the room, find a hold, and besides, let’s be honest, since I cannibalized the showers, we both smell pretty ripe.”
I pushed an announcement and video onto the ship’s net and I cranked the antennas around. Silence.
“That’s weird,” I said. Someone pulled into the room, nodded at us, latched in, then two, then the hallway started to fill, but no response came.
“Is the antenna out?” Hager asked.
“Why would you even ask that? Really, seriously, if you don’t leave us alone I’m going to put spacing you to another vote, and I don’t know how generous everyone’s feeling about subsidizing your air right now.”
“No would have sufficed.”
“Vote!” I called.
“I’m going, I’m going,” Hager muttered, and the other crew in the hall roughly shoved him back hubward.
“Vote cancelled,” I said. “I should broadcast.”
“Wait,” Schroeder said. “Why wouldn’t they hail on entry? There’s no reason not to let us know they’re coming.”
I listened to galactic background noise.
“The question is do we hail and what do we say,” I said. “We only get one chance, so I need a couple of minutes to think. If no one could interrupt me, please. I’ll take ideas in five?” I looked around, got nods. “And if someone could please lock Hager in with the algae tanks, that would be helpful.
It only took Schroeder a minute to figure out the answer to a more important question.
“It’s not a rescue mission,” she said. “It’s salvage.”
I felt the cold of realization. She was right. Rescue operations were expensive. If they found the station and operations viable, they’d install a new panel, throw some uranium into the emergency reactor, drop off a new company crew to repair and restart the station, and get our years of start-up work for free. If they didn’t find it worth running, they’d salvage all our expensive gear along with the most valuable mineral stocks, load up the launcher, pop back to Barnard’s Star.
Surveying the crew in the room and who I could see in the hallway, it was clear they were coming to the same conclusion.
“No problem,” I said. “I call vote!”
“Hager’s already in the tanks,” someone called back, and everyone laughed.
“No, really, I call vote,” I said. “Did you stuff Hager into a vat?”
“Without a vote? No way.”
We all went back to the hub, where we could cluster on the walls, see each other all at once, and talk easily.
“Here’s the problem,” I said. “There may be reasons that they’re not talking to us that are entirely benign, but Schroder’s right, economically they’d like us to die. I love you all, but we’re labor out here, and as long as we’re alive, from their perspective it doesn’t matter what we sign, because maybe we class-action our way out, claim duress, whatever, it’s a pain in their ass even if they win. Dead, it’s all salvage law, nice and painless.
“I want to lie to them and give them a reason to hurry up. This is going to be illegal, and I want us all to be in on it. The question: can I lie to the ship in order to get them to get here faster or provoke a response or otherwise keep us from choking or freezing to death while they watch?”
I got thirty four yes votes.
“The hit we reported on our solar array had secondary impacts,” I said. “The worst of these were multiple pinhole punctures through the hull and the air scrubbers. We’ve patched the leaks, and improvised some oxygen and energy-generation to buy us more time, but we’re lucky to still be here. We might only have hours left,” I said.
Schroeder rolled her eyes at me. I paused the recording.
“Would you like to say something?”
“You’re boring,” she said
I clipped it back on. “In addition, if you have a xenoarchealogist, we require immediate consult.” I let a little desperation creep into my voice. “I’d also take a xenobiologist, xenolinguist, even a xenophile at this point.”
I signed off, bundled it with a long batch of suitably grim atmosphere data we’d taken off the dying algae tanks, and burst-transmitted the package to the ship, pulling current and shaving seconds off everyone’s lives. I set it to repeat when it looked like we had clear line-of-sight, no more than every ten minutes. The conservation was meaningless, lost in someone’s cough or a cheer over a won cribbage game. I couldn’t help it.
“That’s your plan,” Schroeder said. “Aliens.”
“You said I was boring. I wanted to spice it up.”
“Uh huh. Good work with that. Really.”
We watched the magnified ship, taking its leisurely, fuel-saving approach, start to change its attitude and drop the towed launcher behind it.
“What do I know,” Schroeder said.
Through the rocks, they hailed us.
I recognized the wear in the face of the captain of the Arbuckle. Like me, at some point he’d worked outside and taken too many rads, because labor was cheap and early in our business the really good protective suits were expensive.
“You’re not supposed to be here,” the captain said.
“We figured out a way to get another couple days of air out of the water recyclers, lucky break for us.”
“Your video looks horrible,” he said.
“It’s a three-year-old system,” I said, “and we’ve got better things to do with our power right now. However, if you would be so kind as to send me the latest in superior video codecs, I would be happy to install them,” I said, “except that we’re all going to die in a particularly boring way so I’m not sure you’ll care if the video quality is up to snuff.”
Shroeder groaned, and the captain made an unhappy expression.
“But there will be time enough to talk about that when you get here. I’m so happy to hear from you. Given the nature of our emergency, it might be good to go over what you have before we negotiate terms.”
Confusion crossed his face for a fraction of a second, and I knew I had him. He wasn’t prepared to negotiate rescue terms.
“Why did you ask for a xenoarchaelogist?” he asked.
“We found something,” I lied. “We’re all dumb spacers, we don’t know what to make of it. Do you have someone?”
“Transmit your files,” he said. “We have someone who can look at it.”
“Ah, but here’s the thing,” I said. “The data itself may be valuable. I can’t just give you a free sample. It potentially affects the value of our whole operation if it turns out we have claim to alien artifacts. I’d be neglecting my duties as the station’s representative—“
“I get it,” he said. “But how do I know you really have something?”
“It doesn’t matter, does it?” I said, cheerfully. “When you get here, you can come on board and verify it yourself.”
He looked off camera for a second and sighed. “Yeah, we’re not actually here to rescue you. We’re here to set up our own operation.”
“Really? Could you be a neighbor and loan us a solar array? We’d be good for it, I promise. After all, you know where we live.”
“The thing is,” the captain said, shifting. “We’re going to start on your station.”
“What?” I cried in mock outrage. Out of camera range, the crew bit their fists to keep from laughing. “There’s no room here.”
He cleared his throat and fidgeted again. “We’re going to let things sort themselves out,” he said. “And then we’re going to claim salvage.” He took a breath in between clenched teeth. “I know this is uncomfortable, but from a business standpoint, the difference in our return on investment is enormous.”
“Yeah yeah yeah,” I said. “We figured that out ages ago.”
Surprise, and the crew laughed openly this time, which got the captain’s eyes to go even wider.
“If you can’t prove you have an artifact, we’ll wait it out,” he said.
“No, you’re not,” I said. “It’s a chunk of an alien station on one of the rocks. And here’s the thing, if you don’t here and help us, the bots are going to roll right over it, process the whole thing, and the only evidence you’re going to get when you salvage our operation is a particularly weird inventory report.” He blinked at me. “We don’t want to be dicks about this, but I think you understand that we value our continued survival over advancing human knowledge of alien precursors.” I smiled.
“Yes,” he said. “I understand.”
“In any event, we’re prepared to strike a quite favorable deal with you.”
“We’ll burn through as fast as we can,” he said, “but with the rocks and all, I can’t give you a figure. A couple hours.”
“We’ll hold our breath,” I said. “Hail us when you’re close enough to send a skiff.” I cut the line to general applause, and did a zero-g bow, scissoring my body out of the chair.
Schroeder wasn’t applauding. Or even smiling.
“I thought that was a nice performance,” I said. “And usually I’m a pretty harsh self-critic.”
“Genius,” Schroeder said, “they come on board, see we have no alien station or data on a station, no artifacts of any kind, they’ll kill us, claim salvage rights, and then destroy the evidence.”
I thought that through.
“Oh crap,” I said, “I hadn’t thought of that. I call vote!”
I nominated Schroeder as station leader on the basis that the last few hours had definitively proven she was clearly way smarter than me, at least in this new, oxygen-deprived environment. I won, putting her in charge of my mess, and she stuck her tongue out at me, surrounded by my twenty two votes for her. Hager voted to install himself as station representative. He got one vote.
“You’re in charge!” I called. “Have fun with my mess. I’m going to go take a walk.”
“Oh no you’re not,” Schroeder called, but I was already down the tube and started the lock cycle while putting on my suit.
“We need you back here,” she yelled over the lock’s speakers. I whistled happily, popped the helmet on, checked the tank.
“What in the world are you doing?” she asked in both my ears.
“Hey, look, I can do with my oxygen what I want, it’s mine,” I said.
“Are you going to try and extract oxygen out of the water we’re getting of Eunomia?”
I paused. “Wow, that’s a really good idea,” I said. “We’d need more time than we had, but it’s still inspired. Why didn’t I think of that?”
“I knew we didn’t have time and didn’t want us to waste time arguing about it.”
“No wonder you’re in charge,” I said. “I should have nominated you ages ago.”
“So then what are you doing?”
I shut off the channel, clipped some hand-held reaction jets to my suit and cycled the lock to vacuum.
We’d only that month roped Eunomia 40 in to where we could dot it with the mining bots. We’d had our eye on it for a while after we’d noted it had a particular fondness for the three micrometer wavelength, which meant water and a possible shortcut to greenhouses, which in turn meant the vote to reprioritize passed unanimously. You can only spice algae so many ways.
I increased the human population of the rock to one. There were several materials processors, and a set of giant reaction motors we’d dropped on the beast for steering. It was a brutal and inefficient way to move rocks, but we had mass to spare, so we didn’t really care. We wanted tomatoes, dammit, and asparagus and carrots. While I made my way, I called the ship and declared myself His Excellency the Great and Powerful Glorious Ruler and King for Life of Eunomia Land. I announced that I would be implementing policies designed to win environmental protection for mixed-composite astronomical objects between 150 and 200 kilometers in average diameter and as a first step had liberated Eunomia to inspire the other asteroids to revolt against the station’s tyrannical exploitation.
“Are you sure your tank had oxygen in it?” Schroeder asked me on her delay. “Get back here, Wolf’s acting up.”
“Stuff it, bourgeois pig,” I said, and clipped off again. As life in Eunomia Land became twice as bright, I hijacked the rovers to collect the giant reaction motors and pile them up. During the initial panic, we’d considered trying to convert them, even to use as heat sources to generate horribly inefficient energy, but they’d all required too much labor and too much time.
As motors, though, they remained huge, ugly, and effective. I loaded up tons of nickel-iron for mass, tethered them together, and dragged them out into the debris field, trying to keep rocks between myself and the ship’s approach.
Then I floated, trying to slow my breathing, steady my thoughts. With the storm, they’d be reduced to using narrow-band lasers, which wouldn’t work through the rocks well, so even before they put out a skiff, they would be close. They might even consider docking directly, so they could better storm the ship.
The question I meditated on, as I hung basking in Wolf’s latest tantrum, was this: how could I, without knowing what was happening on the ship, determine if they were dealing with the station fairly or not?
A day later, no answer had presented itself to me as the Arbuckle swung into view backwards, engines exposed.
“Fuck it,” I said to my tethered motors. I turned the motors on and tried to control them as best I could with the primitive telemetrics I could do from the suit.
I don’t know if the Arbuckle saw what was coming and tried to fire short-range rock-defense lasers at them as they came in, but I like to think so, because then I get to imagine that they had time to realize they were screwed before the missiles went through the back of the ship, where all the expensive, toxic, dangerous, and important stuff lives.
I called in to the station, and they used the Arbuckle’s skiff to come get me.
“The landing party was unarmed,” Hager told me. “If it wasn’t real, they were going to use survey rockets to puncture our hull.”
“Really?” I said. “Because it’s almost like someone did that to them instead.”
Schroeder greeted me at the docking ring.
“Greetings to the His Excellency the Great and Powerful Glorious Ruler and King for Life of Eunomia Land,” Schroeder said, offering me her hand. I shook, and she pulled me into the station. “That was some walk.”
“Yeah, wasn’t it? I want to apply for asylum,” I said.
“I’ll call a vote,” she said, smiling, and we pulled ourselves towards the hub. After some debate over whether I had left or could be granted asylum, in which Hager attempted to argue that as head of my own state, I couldn’t apply for asylum from myself, they voted and I won, renounced my title, and station representative Schroeder accepted the insistent calls to open a conversation over narrow-beam laser.
“That was low,” the Arbuckle’s captain said.
“Your video quality is terrible,” Schoreder said. “Is your communication array damaged?”
“You know what you did.”
“Wasn’t us,” Schroeder said, her face even.
“You’re the victim of a terrorist attack from Eunomia Land,” she said. “It’s a self-declared free state on Eunomia 40 trying to win environmental protection for mixed-composite astronomical objects between 150 and 200 kilometers in average diameter.”
“That’s not funny.”
“I’ll transmit you the logs, I’m not joking. How’s the ship?”
“Screwed, as you well know,” the captain said. “The hull’s punctured in six places, our engines are gutted, we’ve got emergency life support functions blowing up.”
“Wow,” Schroeder said. “That sounds like you’re in pretty dire trouble.”
“Yes, we are,” the captain said. “Now please take our skiff and come help us.”
“No,” Schroeder said. “No, I don’t think we will.”
“What are you going to do then?”
“We’re going to wait,” Schroeder. “Let things settle themselves.”
She waited, looking into the increasingly pale face of the Arbuckle’s captain. I nudged her.
“I’ll have our people draw up some service contracts and we’ll vote on which set of terms you’ll find most distasteful. I’ll call you back when we’re done.”
She cut off and started to laugh.
“We’re going to live!” she yelled. “We’re going to get a new array and probably uranium and all kinds of good stuff. I’m so happy I could kiss you.”
“Please do,” I said, and that time she went for it.