Roughnecks & Butterflies
This isn’t fucking happening.
After two years in cryo-sleep, Ethan stood almost flat broke outside the building he should have worked in for the next five years. He’d worked so hard to get there—harder than any of his peers—for the opportunity to land one of the most prestigious jobs in the newly colonized solar system.
The huge building in South-Hub was the one he’d dreamed of working in. Where he’d further challenge his skills as one of the best accountants in the worlds. He’d picked this because the ores on this cluster of planets being mined were important.
But, instead of being shown to the sixteenth floor for his first meeting, a woman had come to him in the reception area to let him know that the corporation had downsized while he’d been en route. He’d been fired before he’d even had his first day on the job.
Looking up at the impressive building, it appeared almost alive from all the vegetation growing on it. Vertical botanic—the answer to oxygenizing the hubs.
For good measure, Ethan kicked the heavy stone flowerpot again, this time hard enough to stub two toes. He bit back the scream of frustration and pain, manned up, and made his way to the shuttle with his bag.
He looked at the keycard they’d given him. Hub-Seventeen. Just his luck—one of the highest numbers of the outer ring. The corporation hadn’t even shown him the courtesy of housing him in the Hub he should have lived in had the Culture not been downsized and been grounds for his sudden lack of job. He’d be living with the miners. The Roughnecks. Or Worms, as they were called on that planet.
According to the shuttle plan, he had just missed the shuttle that would take him to his new accommodations. The next wasn’t due for another fifteen minutes, so he plopped down on a bench and squeezed the bridge of his nose. He hoped the cryo-fog would lift soon. In an attempt to force it to lift quicker, he pulled out the map of the Culture to get a feel for the layout.
He’d studied it while planning his future there, yet he’d focused on the hubs he’d work in and the surrounding ones. Now he had to get a feel for the entire layout.
The one he sat in was huge—the biggest of the seven Cultures on Ore 5’s surface. Each was a big city of sorts made up of domes. Each dome was called a hub, and this Culture had fifty-three Hubs, all laid out in a beautifully symmetric pattern of circles.
Only the three oblong domes at the bottom of the pattern didn’t really fit. They were Bay-One, Bay-Two, and a private Control-Hub used only by the Corporation.
The outer ring consisted of four big hubs, North, East, West, and of course South-Hub, where he was currently waiting for a shuttle.
Between each of those were six smaller hubs, twenty-four in total, which were the housing for Worms. A shuttle track connected the hubs, and it was the only means of transportation between them.
There were two inner rings with housing hubs—one of which was housing for the white-collar employees and their families—the ring Ethan should have lived in.
Four big hubs and thirteen smaller were spread out on the ring between them. Between that ring and the Center-Hub, or C-Hub as it was called, three almost isolated hubs functioned as the Water-Filtration-Hub and Recycling-Hubs. Everything was reusable, and each Culture was almost self-sufficient. They still got meat from Earth. Cryo-meat.
Ethan had laughed at the concept the first time he’d heard about it. But putting a cow in cryo-sleep to send it on a two-year journey to a frontier mining planet kept the meat fresh. Same with chickens. He wondered if they’d managed to develop cryo for fish during the two years he had been en route. That had been a problem.
The planet was only good for one thing—mining for Sectanium. It was a mineral unlike anything found on Earth—as light as aluminum, strong as titanium, and transparent if processed correctly. All domes were made of it to keep the poisonous atmosphere of the dead planet out. And avoid letting in the alien life forms, Scyphoes—little fluttering things that resembled Earth’s jellyfish, except they lived in the air. They were even as poisonous as some of those.
They were the only things that scared Ethan about Ore 5, because his O-negative blood type meant he would be in serious trouble if he got stung. Upon arrival, he’d been given three syringes with an antidote to have on his person at all times, plus a medical bracelet.
For a second, he wondered how the Scyphoes could survive both outside the domes in the toxic air, and inside where the air was breathable for humans.
The fog in his brain hadn’t lifted as much as he’d hoped from studying the layout, yet it had enough for him to notice that he sat in a lush park with trees, shrubs, and grass. A vine of some sort lived on the enclosure he sat in, but he didn’t know why there would be an enclosure. There wasn’t exactly a lot of wind inside the domes.
Almost every building had vegetation on the sides—not completely covering them, yet it gave the world a vibrant feel. Everything seemed clean, the air was clear, and it smelled wonderful.
The beauty of the place didn’t take away the hollow feeling of seeing his years-long dream fall to pieces, though. How could that happen? He’d signed the contract to work on this mining planet as an accountant, specialized in inventory and system optimizations. He’d always been good at keeping track of things and keeping order. He’d ranked fifth out of six hundred thirty students at graduation. Ranking anything less than fifty, and you could kiss space and the boatload of money to be made there goodbye. Fat lot of good it did him.
At age twenty-seven—not counting the past two he’d spent cryo-sleeping—he’d graduated top of the class and been handed a contract with fine print and a bailout settlement just big enough for a return ticket. He’d end up back on Earth penniless and with all the best jobs occupied by the second-best graduates. And they’d have four years’ worth of experience he missed from traveling and time spent in cryo-sleep.
He’d even been so stupid as to tell others about his new job on Ore 5, and he’d have to go back with his tail between his legs. No way was that an option. He’d been put down his entire life, so going back a failure would just add to the list of things this fat guy couldn’t pull through.
He could almost hear their taunts and see his dad’s disappointed grimace. Not that they’d meet again. He knew only too well what his dad would say if they did, because it would be a repeat of when he dropped out of Harvard Law.
“Do you know how much effort I put into getting you into that school? Is it too much for a father to ask his son to work hard and make him proud? For a son to work just as hard on keeping the family name respectable?”
For the first time in his life, Ethan had stood his ground. His life was about living his dream, not his dad’s. He didn’t want to become a corporate lawyer like his dad, and he didn’t want to take over the law firm his father had built from scratch and made one of the most respectable names in all of Europe.
Ethan wanted to work with numbers and inventory—the gratification of keeping everything so neat and clean that nothing got lost was so much more rewarding than winning a battle from nitpicking clauses. He loved order. There was no order in law—especially not the frontier kind of law that was constantly revised as more companies bought the rights to mine planets and set up businesses out there.
“You’re a spoiled little brat. I’ve failed, I can see that now. Look at you! You’re the poster-boy for how wealth can spoil a person. It looks like you’ve tried to eat your inheritance! If you drop out of a school like Harvard, you’re going to show the whole world that you can’t cut it. And for what? To sit in some cramped office and do other people’s taxes? Our name will be smeared, and people will think that quitting is something we do. Don’t you think of anyone but yourself?”
Those were the last words his father had spoken to him before Ethan had left his childhood home for the last time. In an attempt to leave the hurt behind and stand on his own two legs, he’d changed his last name from Falk to his mother’s maiden name Becker, and he’d applied to study at Haddelbrook School of Economics—a school as esteemed as Harvard, yet his dad hadn’t pulled any strings to get Ethan in there.
Ethan had accomplished that all by himself.
He was so good with numbers that no one could take it away from him. Or so he had thought. The corporation he’d signed with could take it all away. And they had.
Just as the hope of finally finding his place in life had started to blossom. Just when he thought he’d finally found a hole in the blanket of obstacles to break away from the judgmental and condescending glares from family, students, and…everyone he’d ever known. God knew he’d tried to break away enough times on Earth, and he’d been stupid enough to think that a whole new planet would make a difference. That there wouldn’t always just be another Allen to discard him when he was done with him.
Ethan quickly pushed away the thoughts about the only boyfriend he’d ever had. He was irrelevant now. Boyfriend. That word probably didn’t even qualify, since Allen just wanted to fuck him when they were alone, and that was it. And it was irrelevant to think about a boyfriend because Ethan hadn’t traveled into space to look for a new one.
The streamlined white shuttle arrived almost without a sound. He picked up his single bag, stepped onboard the magnetically propelled shuttle, and found a seat by a window. There, he curled up, pinning himself somewhat comfortably against the seat and the backrest in front of him for the ride from South-Hub to Hub-Seventeen.
The shuttle moved closer to the end of South-Hub. They entered the first tunnel and headed away from the hub’s light. Through the tunnel’s transparent wall, Ethan had a clear view of the barren landscape outside the dome, the blue sun, and the almost purple sky. It was somewhat beautiful, but Ethan was too angry to fully appreciate it.
The light from the next hub bathed the shuttle, and it stopped shortly after. Hub-One. More view of a barren landscape, and they arrived at Hub-Three. Thus, it continued through the odd numbers until they made it to Hub-Seventeen. Three more stops and he would have made it one hundred eighty degrees from South-Hub. Three more and he’d have ended up in North-Hub, or Party-Hub as it was known. North Hub held all the nightlife, all the brothels, fast food, pubs, bars, and discos. It had something for everyone—or so the information in his welcome package had claimed. He’d read about it, thinking it could be fun to go slumming and see what the rumors of the notorious nightlife in North-Hub were all about.
South-Hub was more his kind. Movie theaters, cafés, restaurants. He’d grown up wearing suits and neckties for dinner, going to ballets and operas and gallery openings, so he wouldn’t fit into the clientele of nightclubs and sleazy bars. He’d never even been to one that didn’t host his end of the social hierarchy. Except a few parties at school, but that was different. Also, it catered to students from that end of society.
But here he was at Hub-Seventeen. He stepped off onto platform B and felt the rush of the shuttle taking off behind him. Before him lay a path to a three-story apartment building with external galleries and a staircase zigzagging its way up the middle. Five doors and five windows on each floor of the sand-colored stone buildings. It didn’t look new, but it didn’t look like a total dump, either. For some reason, he’d thought it would. Even in that hub, there were trees, shrubs, and grass, and the buildings were also covered in vegetation.
He turned to look at the other half of the Hub, finding it to be perfectly mirrored to the side he stood on.
What apartment number had he been given? He hadn’t even checked, so he looked at his keycard, then at the Hub-plan. Two identical buildings sat on this side, and five structures to each side of the wide apartment buildings ahead, also three stories high. Everything was the same sandy color, and the buildings looked like they were built in a park. The rails were white, giving everything a clean feel that he hadn’t expected.
Hub-Seventeen now housed ninety-five Worms and one stranded accountant.
He sighed, swung his backpack over his shoulder, and made his way to the apartment. It was on the second floor of the building furthest from the shuttle platform. As he made his way up the staircase, he got a closer look at the apartments, and it made him stop to stare. Each apartment needed a door, but there were the same number of windows, meaning the apartments had to be small. Nervousness rose, and he hurried up the stairs and unlocked his door to find himself in a one-bedroom apartment no bigger than two hundred square feet. He left his bag by the door and went inside, gaping at the sparsely furnished room.
A couch, a small coffee table, a desk with an office chair, a bookcase, and a dresser with a mirror hanging above it.
His heart dropped when he saw a kitchenette next to the door. The entire room was smaller than his dorm room in college. At least it wasn’t the same sandy color as the building. The rug was gray and clean, the walls white. All in all, the room looked well maintained. He quickly looked around, silently praying for the room to have a bathroom. He found a door and yanked it open. A toilet, and not even a small sink. He’d have to back up to the toilet because there was no room to turn around in the tiny enclosure.
“You have got to be joking!” He slammed the door shut. The apartment that came with his job had been a two-bedroom apartment with a proper kitchen, living room, and dining room. This room was about the size of the living room of his promised accommodations.
He turned to take it all in again, yet the view made him pause. He moved to the window and looked out back, seeing a big lawn and the edge where the dome touched down. It gave a clear view of the planet and some of the mining activity. Through the dust the big machines provoked to rise out there, he could see them move silently across the flat landscape between tall rigs and cranes. The ground had a murky purple color to it, but looking above the dust, the sky was clear. The big, blue sun was truly a spectacle to behold. He wondered what the planet would look like at nighttime. Would it all just go black, or would the stars come out? Would he even be able to see stars through the dome? As far as he knew, the material didn’t cast reflections, so maybe the lights inside the dome wouldn’t prohibit a view.
Okay, so the view kinda made up for the crappy circumstances, but the rest was a joke.
He turned his attention to the couch. Since he was standing in the only room, it had to be a sleeper. He pushed the worn coffee table to the side and struggled with the couch for a few minutes before finding the lever that allowed it to be turned into a bed. Two sets of clean bedding with the corporation logo were folded neatly in the lower drawer. Thinking he couldn’t take much more of this nightmare, he made the bed. The fog in his brain still hadn’t lifted, and he hoped sleep would help with that.
His stomach reminded him he hadn’t eaten anything since the protein porridge he and the other passengers had been served when waking up from cryo. He’d have to see about food, so he went to the kitchenette and opened the small fridge. Someone had left food in there recently, because it appeared to be fresh. Opening a cupboard, he found a pot, a pan, two mugs, and three plates. In a drawer, he found cutlery for three and portion-sized instant coffee for three days at his rate. There was also some instant soup or bouillon.
Voices carried through the window to the gallery. He looked up to find two men in work clothes climbing the stairs, talking and laughing. He remembered he had just dropped his bag in the open door, so he went to get it.
One of the men stopped and looked at him. “Hi. You new?”
“Yeah,” Ethan said. The guy’s lower arms were huge. He looked more than forty and gruff. Judging by his weathered skin and tired eyes, he looked like he’d led a hard life. Knowing how high the accident rate was out on the rigs, Ethan figured the conditions took a toll on the Worms.
“Well…welcome. You on a rig?”
“No, I’m rotating out in a month, so they let me stay here.”
“Oh. Thought you looked a little too polished to be a Worm, but that’s not a first. Usually, the first three tours grind off some of all that pretty.”
Ethan tried for a smile, not happy to be labeled pretty by a roughneck. Mainly because pretty probably meant green or merely young and naïve. “I’ll bet.”
The guy shrugged, apparently sensing Ethan’s reluctance to carry on the conversation, and moved on to unlock the next door.
Ethan closed the door, and the thought of a bathroom registered again. He pulled out the housing papers from his bag which showed that the middle door on each floor was a communal shower.
“Oh, shit.” He left his room to check it out. As he entered, he heard water running. To one side he found four shower stalls with doors stopping about six inches above the floor. Opposite each shower, there were enclosures with wall benches where one could change. There was also a small locker in each enclosure, and one of them had his apartment number on it.
It calmed his nerves somewhat that he’d be able to shower alone, because gym class growing up had been a nightmare. Being the fat kid meant getting whipped with towels and ridiculed. Even his gym teacher had been all too happy to join in on ridiculing him, apparently thinking it might encourage Ethan to get off his fat ass and lose some weight. Those had been his exact words to Ethan’s father once Ethan’s limits had been met and he’d broken down, crying.
Hadn’t done any good, considering his father had agreed with the teacher.
All it had resulted in was Ethan pulling away from people, hating his own body, and falling into a vicious circle of eating disorders that almost destroyed his metabolism. He’d gotten that under control now, and he had lost a considerable amount of weight since he’d finished school. He was by no means slim enough to not be considered fat, though. But what nine-year-old would know how to battle something like that alone? Ethan had managed it once he’d left Germany for the States and Harvard, but it wasn’t until Haddlebrook that he’d gained the clarity of mind to fully recover from the eating disorders caused by bullying.
The door behind him opened, and the gruff neighbor came in, stopping at the sight of Ethan standing in the middle of the locker room. As the man’s eyes raked over Ethan, Ethan’s brain went into overdrive trying to figure out a way around the guy without coming off as rude.
“I was just…getting acquainted with the facilities.”
“I can show you around later if you want?”
The glint in the man’s eyes made Ethan shiver. “Thanks, but…I’ll be turning in soon.”
“Another time then.” The neighbor stepped aside, but only enough for Ethan to have to squeeze past him. He noticed that his name was on his overalls. Brian.
Ethan hurried back to his apartment and locked the door. He sighed, thinking that guy’s eyes were way out of line. In a shower room, nonetheless. Why would he do that? Did he think Ethan was interested in him? No, just because Ethan was gay didn’t mean most guys liked guys. But then why would he look at Ethan that way? Were there not enough women on Ore 5 for Brian to buy some company? Nightlife descriptions certainly promised a fair share of Ladies of the Night. Or was he just one of the sadists who thought it fun to poke the new fat guy on the block?
When it came down to it, the guy just creeped him out.
Ethan went about making himself a cup of coffee, emptying his bag for toiletries and a fresh set of clothes while the water boiled.
Looking around, he found it all quite primitive. Then again, most people were on a mining planet to work and sleep. Okay, the com-link in the wall wasn’t primitive—it was newer than those provided in the dorms at Haddelbrook.
The water boiled. Ethan poured the coffee and brought it to the bed. Sipping the ghastly hot drink, he took in the room one more time.
It had what was needed to get by for that month.
A thought made him stop. All his belongings were in Bay-Two, and they certainly wouldn’t fit in this room.
He put the cup down and found the settlement check. His cryo-fogged brain had kept one important fact out of conscious reach. The settlement was only enough for a ticket for him, not his belongings. He’d even have to use some of the money to have his things stored on Ore 5 until he could pay for it to be shipped back to Earth, too.
“Oh, this just gets better and better!” he groused. No way was he leaving without his belongings because he refused to go back to Earth without them. What he had with him now could be considered a weekend bag, and he had to contact Bay-Two freight personnel about getting the rest of his clothes delivered.
Ethan whimpered at the realization of just how bad the situation had become. He fell back onto the bed with his arm over his eyes. He pressed it hard enough against his face to see stars, but he’d seen too many of those already, so he bolted upright again, going to the com-link.
He needed a job, and there had to be ads about that. Maybe he could get a job working inventory at one of the Freight Bays? Or in one of the stores in Produce-Hub?
One thing was for sure—he was not going to work in North-Hub.