Tuesday, December 2, 2014

1: Anywhere but Here

“We could always leave here, you know.”
The circular saw buzzes and a thin spray of ichor is thrown into the air, freezing to tiny, sparkling green crystals before it even begins its descent. The rendering plant is particularly cold today, some fan broken, they said. Or perhaps, muttered in low tones among the workers, they’re just trying to shave down overhead expenses.
“We could pull up, head somewhere else, anywhere else.” The suits are supposed to protect them from the sub-zero temperatures, the thin atmo that is essential to preserve the bloated carcasses they work on. They do their jobs, just.
Jubjubs, they might not be very appetizing now, and they won’t look like much later, but rich lords and ladies in the nearest system over pay more than a pretty penny to smear the results over their perfect unlined faces.
Kar has always wondered if it smells any better by then.
Eval grunts and works his fingers back and forth in the oversized gloves, bits of slender wrapping flexing and unravelling. He quirks a face. No matter how many times he works out a way to force the equipment to fit his slender frame it always ends up failing a few hours in.
They've had this conversation more than once. The grunt doesn't even get a matching eyebrow this time. Not while he's trying to keep his circulation moving. Allie got dangerously close to losing a finger last week and he's not eager to repeat the process.
"I am serious you know." The saw spins down to a standstill, pulling back from sticky purple flesh. "How much longer do you think we can stay here?" It's an earnest question, his voice clearer now with the saw silent and propped against a hip for balance.
Brown eyes flick up, scan the other face through a scratched and smeared portal.
"Don't pin this on me." His voice is even, without malice. Perhaps a trifle exasperated. Eval is more pragmatic, steady as you go, unwilling to try change, and Kar's mood swings are something of a legend. "Just last week you almost passed out at the pricing on that convoy."
A half frozen hand raises and waggles at him. "Just the list. We haven't even gone to see it in dock."
“So why don’t we?”
The eyes that meet his are the bluest of blue, squinting a bit nearsightedly. Though the older man has never admitted so far to needing corrective lenses. Not even those fancy color-changing ones.
“They say they will charge that much, but think how persuasive we could be. Maybe half-fare and pay our passage another way, yes? We could make it work.”
Apparently the despair of seeing all those zeros has snapped back into the eager hope of a new idea.
A grimace twists the expression behind the much abused faceplate before it turns back to the carcass. A tool slices through rubbery flesh, flays muscle from bone with the efficiency of practice. "Got lots of hidden talents, eh Kar?"
There’s a pause, and then a deep, weary, beat-upon sigh. “Like you are one to talk.”
A flick of his wrist and the saw spins up again, a deafening whine that joins the chorus echoing up and down the long lofting factory. An alarm blares and the jubjub lurches, is dragged away down a set of squealing rails and replaced quickly by a new gelatinous bag of speckled skin.  
Hours pass before they're safely through decontamination and the locker room. It's not until they're both ensconced in frigid plastic seats and picking at reconstituted protein patties that Eval says, "Where are you thinking about heading to?"
Without the suit the slender fellow looks like he's seen better days. He's pale, thick black hair cropped tight to his head. Smooth features, his face is almost entirely hairless, though there's a rash along his right cheekbone that looks like it could use attention. His fingers have red spots worn from the suit, dry spots worn from the cold.
Poorly tinted lights beam down from the low ceiling, casting some areas in a faint drab green, others in a bluish winter cast. It does nothing to cheer up the stainless steel surfaces, made more for function than form. Other figures nearby grimly pick at their own meals, stragglers from the previous shift not especially eager to slide into cramped quarters and snatch a few hours of sleep before the cycle starts anew.
Kar prefers to keep his hair long, a coarse, dark brown rope secured at the back of his neck by a scrap of twine. He claims it as his one vanity, Eval has been heard to contend that it and the bush of beard straggling from his chin is simply pure laziness.
“What do you mean where?” A disbelieving scoff around a forkful of dry patty. “Anywhere would be better than this shithole. I mean,” A hand waves towards the slender man’s face, his hands. “How long do you think you are going to last here?”
A deep sigh, and then Eval snatches up the tube to his water bladder, sucks on it. After a moment his nostrils flare and he leans forward onto an elbow, serious. "And how'dya know anywhere else is gonna be any better?"
“We are on a purgatory of a planet that would less charitably be called an asteroid that just happened to be in the migratory path of some of the most foul-smelling grye-riding space porpoises this side of the tear and you want to start betting me there is no-where better?
Another sigh, and that look in the other man's eyes reminds Kar that he doesn't know him as well as he could.
"There's definitely worse," is finally put forth.
Unlike his friend, Kar was born on this rock. Or perhaps one of the smaller colonies surrounding it on even more insignificant bits of space-trash that no one has ever bothered to claim were planets. His father was never really clear on the specifics. Or perhaps he just didn’t remember. It’s amazing what thirty years of hard interstellar radiation will do to a man’s skull without the proper protection. At least they’ve got that figured out now. Mostly. Not that any of the colonizing generation is still around to see it.
“So we do not go there, we ship out with a convoy, work our way around until we find something solid, something we like. What is there to loose? Do not tell me you are getting attached to this lovely place and all its charms.”
A shrug. "Course not."
Kar’s dramatic sigh ruffles his beard, eyes raising to the heavens. “Look at what I do for this boy, I take him in when he arrives all scrawny and shifty eyed, make Benny share the bunkhouse, show him how to use a quad-bladed shifter, and look at what I get. ‘Course not’. Like a sullen teenager you are.”
This earns a twinge of a smile, glitter of brown eyes. Eval leans back again, plate clean. "Didn't marry me for my conversation Kar."
The bearded man shovels the last scraps of protein into his mouth and shoves back from the table, chair legs scraping on the dull green linoleum that is the universal color of industry and despair.
“Yes, so we make a good team on this lump of a moon, no excitement in that. I am just saying we should see what we could do out there.”  Dumping his tray down the recomposition chute turns into a wide gesture towards the rusting metal ceiling and its hanging lights.
The water bladder is snatched up as the gangly man follows after. No sense in using the ones that come with the suits. They're all rife with bacteria and who-knows-what sorts of diseases. Best to keep your drinking water on you, safer that way, even if you do have to jury rig the fitting so it's easy to access while working.
"You pitch a destination and I'll think about it."
“You’ll think about it, you’ll consider it, you’ll ponder on it.” Kar ducks under the low doorframe, everything in the living quarters is small, compact, less space to pay for augmented gravity. Less air to circulate. It’s claustrophobic and stale, made particularly annoying by his burly shoulders, taller stature.
“So careful my boy, so cautious. You think too much.”
There are benefits to being small in Space. One of them is greater maneuverability. Eval swings himself up towards his bunk, slides his water away under his pillow, drops back down to the floor. Not much point in lying down on the narrow shelf until it's time to actually close his eyes.
"Kept me alive this long," slapped back with a glint of teeth.
“Difference between being alive and living.” Tonight Kar is deviating from their usual routine of cards and a drink of sour spirits from the still behind Benny’s bunk. Instead he stoops to drag a worn black bag out from under his bedframe, loops the strap over his shoulder.
“Makes it my job to keep that life from getting too boring on you, yes?”
Eval blinks, tensing. Something about the other man's tone has changed, and not for the better. He swallows, eyes narrowing in confusion as he looks Kar over.
The older man smiles wide.
"Kar," cautioning. There's a face the man makes right before he lays down a winning hand. It's not a face that Eval has ever liked seeing. And having it appear outside a game does not bode well.
“Come little Eval. I’ve lived too long in this place and you, you have not lived long enough to bury yourself here. The work is too harsh and there are not enough beautiful women.”
Kar ducks back through the door, twisting his shoulders to fit through the small frame, leaving without a glance back.
“No more thinking.”
Short sharp breaths fill the space as Eval's heart rate soars. He quickly twists back to his bunk, flips the mattress back and sticks his hand into a hidden slot.
A twist switch and he's out the door after his closest friend, grabbing for his shoulder. "What did you do?!"
Kar stops and turns to face him amicably enough, though it’s difficult in the tight corridor. He nearly fills the space. Though he looms over his friend the larger man can't be described as threatening. Often moved to passionate speeches, yes. Lectures on the proper way to appreciate life, the beauty of a well-oiled shredder, elucidations on the taste of a fine cheese he squabbled for in the market. Those well-known mood swings taking him from glee to envy, back through anger and out again into hilarity, though hardly ever driving him to take physical action.
In the history of the refinery he is known to have been moved to violence only once. 

Possessions had been going missing, wages disappearing, complaints reaching a certain manager's office and going no further. Until Kar himself had made a visit.
Some say the manager swallowed those teeth, the more popular theory is that they vaporized. The only thing anyone knows for sure is that the burly man came out of the office with lost heirlooms, and that particular overseer was replaced with a much more understanding young lady a few weeks later.  
Kar could not convincingly be called level-headed, but he could never be accused of not having his friend’s best interests at heart. He smiles fondly down at Eval.
“What have I done? I had a good day at the tables. A very good day. I am boarding tonight the convoy of the Lady Corsair. And you, my uptight friend, will come with me. I will not leave you here to waste away your life.”
It's possible that Kar expects a wash of relief to flood his friend's face. Perhaps an answering smile. Whatever he expects, what he gets is dilated eyes paired with horror. Eval's hand falls away from his friend's shoulder and he takes a step backwards. "What?"
Blue eyes regard him with something close to sympathy, but no sign of surprise. “You are young, and you are very smart, and you are my friend. Whatever you have done before, wherever your eyes go when you do all that thinking, it does not mean you must stay here.”
He's a statue. A short, slender, exhausted statue who has no power to move, or speak, or even think.
A bear-like slab of a hand claps down on his shoulder, shakes the younger man gently. “Come, little Eval, get your things, they are packed. No more waiting.”
"I can't go." Soft.
“You will, no one will stop you. If anyone should try I will stop them.” A solid grip on his shoulder turns Eval carefully around, steers him back to the room with the cramped bunks and the tiny door. A familiar waft of stale, sour air and the harsh whistle of a nearby vent. Dull colors, sheets and walls and floors worn by the passage of the many workers that came before them. Waiting for the uncountable number that will come after. A space that grinds in the fact that they are only cogs, only one in a line of faceless forgettable lives.
“You are too much of the past. You have your reasons, I am sure, but they will not make you happy.”  
Eval moves as directed, in a haze. He stares at his bunk unseeing. A shake of his head clears his thoughts and he turns back to the older man. He's always been serious, but he's gained an edge of humor over the last few months cultivated by long poker games, bad alcohol.
There's no humor in his response, carefully worded, "You'll be in danger."
Thick brown eyebrows raise curiously, and Kar studies his friend for a long moment before the wide affectionate smile slides back onto his face. “So be it. You see? Our trip is now exciting already.”
A meaty hand ruffles Eval’s hair, then moves to reach around behind his bunk, draws out an already-packed duffel much the same as Kar’s own. It’s swung up onto his shoulder next to the other.
There's a long silence before the younger man lets out a long breath, opens and closes his eyes and gives a short nod. "Gyre save us, it will be nice to get out of here."
“Good!” His friend claps him on the back and steers Eval once again out of the room, urging him deftly down the hallway. It’s hard to turn back when you’ve got a wall of Kar behind you.

“We go to the docks, we board the convoy, we sleep and eat and then,” as they leave the sleeping quarters for the last time he gestures expansively, past the chipped linoleum and a flickering sign that reads No Organic Contaminants Past This Point. Past the dull chatter of pedestrians in the corridor beyond, down towards the docks and further. “The whole galaxy ahead of us.”