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The Architects: The Illusion of Death – Part 1, CH 2

Next thing he knew, an alarm chirped, waking Sirius up for his shift of the day – if one could call it a day. On ships with such long deployment schedules, day and night became irrelevant. Time took its order from the varied on and off shifts of its crew. It made no sense to base an entire ship’s timetable on the rotations of a planet millions of kilometers away. Sirius, like everyone else on the ship, the Anna Karenina, was working a double shift – a result of an urgent change in mission. A sister ship, the Karamazov, had lost contact with the rest of the fleet. The new mission was to find the Karamazov and see if she needed any help.

The Anna Karenina was a big ship, designed to carry thousands but now she was only crewed with a little over a hundred – the barest minimum to keep her going. For the last 20 years, she operated as a salvage ship. Her sheer size meant that she could easily carry hundreds of tons of ill-gotten ship parts and scrap metal. Owned by shell corporation after shell corporation, the ownership of the Anna eventually led back to the Red Sky Faction, a Mars-based crime ring that practically owned the stations of the two Martian moons and had strong presences on other stations much further afield. Both the Anna and the Karamazov flew their flag.

Sirius pushed off his bunk gently in the zero-g. The Anna had paused for some repairs and was no longer generating false gravity by accelerating. She was an old ship, built during the later Martian colonization days sometime half a century ago. Her insides were constantly being replaced and updated on the cheap by contractors with shady practices. Which often lead to frequent stops to make sure she wasn’t losing more air than she could afford.

On that note, Sirius’ first shift was to patch up any new holes from micrometeor impacts on the hulls, a full eight hours of mind-numbing work in an EVA suit that smelled of a thousand previous occupants with the most cantankerous chief welder the solar system had to offer. And now his prosthetic left arm was jamming up. Most likely from the impact last night, but also because the tactile processors were aging and causing feedback in the form of a constant dull ache. It had been time for a new one since forever, but the newer models cost too much. He was stuck with this one for a little while longer. To make things worse, his head still hurt.

He took his time getting dressed, forgoing his mag-boots in favor of floating through the corridors. Unlike Spacewalkers, the more “polite” term used to describe those who spent their whole lives in low-gravity environments, Planetsiders were almost always uncomfortable in zero-g. They were always finding ways to simulate any fraction of planetary gravity that they could, including simulating walking with the mag-boots on the inside of the hull. Granted, the mag-boots were practical for extended spacewalks – it was easier to accidentally forget to check a tether than to disengage the boots by accident. Hell, getting them to disengage to take the next step while walking was hard enough. Sirius had spent long enough in low to no gravities to adapt to moving in those environments with efficiency and precision. For him, it felt more natural to float than to walk.

Dressed, Sirius floated out from his small shared room to one of the corridors. A few crewmates floated by, having just started their shifts too, and a few Planetsiders were making their way slowly down the corridor, mag-boots snapping to the inner hull with audible thuds. To his perspective, they looked like they were walking upside down, and he gently adjusted himself to match their up-down orientation.

“Hey!” he waved at them as they looked annoyedly, even enviously, in his direction and he pushed off a wall support to glide even more quickly down the hall. He wasn’t moving near as fast as he did last night, but it still knocked the wind out of him when he collided with the ramp to the workshop.

“Pizdets!” He swore when he got his breath back. He hadn’t been paying attention. He pulled himself up – hoping no one had noticed, especially his boss for the shift. No luck.

“Two years on this fucking ship, and you’re still running into shit. If you’re not careful you’re gonna break my goddam ship with your thick skull, boy!” Chief Welder Smith yelled at him. Smith was a very thin man. Most of his body was covered in old radiation burns, wizened, and he was mostly deaf in one ear. The only thing keeping him alive was spite.

“If I had known my thick skull was all it would take to down a ship, I would have joined the Navy”, Sirius joked.

Smith frowned and went back to his damage map. This was the best possible reaction Sirius could expect from him. The other ways he showed his appreciation for jokes often included throwing heavy objects, or threatening to leave him in the maintenance crawlspace – a threat he often made good on. Sirius had once spent four hours watching his O2 meter tick dangerously low before the man had unlocked the maintenance airlock for him. Sirius figured that the long shifts had sapped the man’s violent energy.

“Fucking officers don’t understand this ship going to tear herself apart if we don’t take our time patching all the holes that they put into her with their high G flight plans. Captain wants us back and moving by next shift cycle. Asking me to work a goddam miracle on this piece of junk. By the way…” Smith trailed off, an evil gleam in his eye.

“What?” Sirius asked cautiously, wondering what he’d already done wrong.

“I don’t see you in your fucking EVA suit, that’s what! I’ll join you in a minute to double-check the suit’s seal, it’s been a bit fucky lately”, Smith dismissed him.

Sirius left the workshop and floated towards a nearby maintenance airlock. He suited up in an EVA suit, loaded up the schematics, and checked his suit’s stats. Not great. Like Smith said, some part of the ventilation system was leaky, meaning he’d have refill his oxygen more frequently, but otherwise, everything else was going to work just fine. He logged a repair request anyways. Best case it would be taken out of circulation before it failed completely. Worst case he’d be able to say ‘I told you so’. Even worst case, someone else would be saying ‘I told you so’ on his behalf. Smith came in to check the suit’s seal. It was a habit ingrained in those who lived and worked in space. Always check the seals twice. Anything less was suicidal.

The maintenance crawlspace consisted of the spaces between the inner hull and outer hull, some portions sealed off by bulkheads, and others left empty, a maze of support beams keeping everything in place. There was no light here. Excepting that which was brought, but Sirius had found that he could spot most of the holes by watching for the starlight to shine through. He kept his headlamp dark most of the time. In the darkness Sirius could already see some of his co-workers’ welding rigs lighting the inner hull as they worked their way through their assigned hull patches. The damage report showed a few hundred perforations in his assigned work area. Time to get to work.

Low-G vacuum welding worked a lot differently than it did on Earth. In some ways it was easier, the lack of gravity kept things from moving too much and the lack of atmosphere meant that nothing would oxidize mid-weld. Weight became a non-issue in zero-G, which meant the otherwise very heavy welding gear could be dragged around by even the tiniest crewmember.

In other ways, it could be more challenging. Vacuum welds cooled slowly which meant he needed to be careful not to contact a hot patch of metal while moving through the cramped space. At best he’d ruin the weld’s integrity and have to go over it again, at worst the heat might melt his EVA suit’s plastics. Even worse, if one of his O2 tanks got too hot too fast…

Another challenge was that the EVA suit’s thick gloves made fine motor skills difficult, not impossible, but difficult. Add that to Sirius’ malfunctioning prosthetic and it was a wonder he’d passed the qualifying exam at all. If he didn’t get a new arm soon, he might not be able to pass it the next time around and there weren’t many jobs that made the same kind of money.

After nine and a half hours, Sirius was finally done with the last weld for his first shift. While working he had discovered a few cracks in some support beams that had cost him and a team of other welders their one break between shifts. Tired, he stopped at his cabin to briefly freshen up, change into his officer uniform, and then head back up the corridor, this time to the executive decks where the captain had called a meeting. He made sure not to crash into anything this time.

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