In the shadow of an airborne mountain two men break for lunch.
It isn't noon. Really, in space it isn't any proper time at all. But they're hungry and the union says they get a local quarter hour, by wristwatch or by optically-observed sidereal march. Watches are subject to audit so most guys just watch the stars crawl to avoid hassle. Sidereal counts are subject to audit too, technically, but nobody ever bothers to do the math.
Viati checks the constellations against his watch. Plicio snorts. "Pussy," he says.
The men are tethered to a rock, and so is lunch. They tug at the tethers until their lunchboxes bob down into reach, dabs of glowing ink marking the corners. At home the metal hinges on the boxes squeak, but at work they never do. "Cultured pseudo-ham again," sighs Plicio as he peers inside. "I swear this is her way of hinting for divorce."
Viati shrugs as he connects his own sandwich to the straw on his helmet. "You're complaining to me? I've got algae-paste and cheese, and there's nobody to blame for that but myself. I'd die to have a wife who wanted a divorce."
"Yeah, she's alright," admits Plicio, slurping a mouthful of ham.
"Can you close the audio when you eat, pal? It's disgusting."
"La-di-da, your highness."
They're good friends. They've been on the job together for a dog's age. They'd subscribed to school together and taken their union exams together and even been quarantined for six months in a twelve cubic meter cell together when the Joviat had been overrun with a novel flu.
Today they ride amongst a trillion diffuse kilograms of ore circling the Saturnian moon of Rhea. Some of the ring matter has accreted naturally but most of it has been transmitted in by upwell surveyors and rock jockeys, mineral hounds or nomads. Plicio and Viati are there to scan, catalogue and brand the mess so the inner moon refineries can place their bids.
It's a living.
A great asteroid turns beneath them, blocking Rhea from view. The rings wink. The starscape turns. Here and there geysers erupt as rocks roll out of shadow and into the sunshine. Everything is silent. A vast, monstrous elegance. A beautiful indifference.
For a moment Viati allows it to make him feel small. Plicio twists around to scratch his behind and sets himself rotating, accidentally launching Viati's thermos with a wayward kick. The thermos shoots away like a bullet, vanishing beyond the reach of their lamps in a blink.
"Hey, my coffee!" cries Viati. "You clumsy anus!"
"I can save it," says Plicio. He bends his legs and vaults against the tool caddy, sending each sailing away from the other.
Viati yelps as he dodges the careening caddy.
The lamp on Plicio's helmet plies the thermos from the ink. He stretches out his gloves, the adhesive tips of his fingers grazing the canister and causing it to spin. It flashes periodically as it catches the light, gliding away to the rings. "Faeces," grunts Plicio, his tether jerking as it unfurls as far as it will go. He turns back to face his friend. "Sorry, man."
"Forget it," says Viati. "The coffee was bitter."
Plicio furrows his brow as the tether lazily folds, loops of slack rolling toward him. His eyes widen as the broken base-clamp sails by. It is followed in serene parade by two screws and a washer.
Plicio's mouth has gone dry. He licks his lips and swallows, a long moment of purring static filling the audio link. "I think my tether's busted."
He says again. He sees Viati scrambling toward the tether car, his lamp flashing over the connections. The radio squelches as he gets too close to the sail. "Where's your auxiliary? I can't find your auxiliary!"
"I put my lunch on the aux. The lunch chain was tangled."
Viati looks up slowly. His shoulders drop. "Damnation, Pliss" he says. "By the time I uncouple the load and gybe the car into a higher orbit --"
Plicio nods. "Yeah."
"Your suit's not sunworthy, pal. That means --"
"Yeah," Plicio says again. "I know."
Radio static. Crawling stars. The thermos glitters in the distance, then shines like a beacon as it exits the asteroid's shadow. Steam curls away from its surface in a puff. Viati's voice comes in ragged on the channel: "What's your air like? Maybe if you can orient the vent opposite your trajectory --"
Plicio shakes his head. "I'm going too fast, man. This is it."
"I'm uncoupling the load."
"Don't bother. You'll just fornicate the quota."
"But -- you're going to die, pal."
A quiet moment passes. "Yeah," agrees Plicio. He looks over his shoulder and then clears his throat. "I reckon two minutes, maybe two and a third. Check my math, though. I've gained some weight."
Viati watches his friend recede against the stars, the blaze from his helmet lamp slowly shrinking. Viati shouts, "Why didn't you link up your auxiliary you dumb bastard!"
"I'm a dumb bastard," explains Plicio.
Viati unplugs his food tube with great solemnity. He calls out to dispatch even though he knows he's in a communications shadow behind the asteroid. Nobody can hear him but he speaks anyway. He doesn't like the way his voice breaks when he starts to report what he's reporting so he trails off, switches the channel back to local. He doesn't know what to say so he doesn't say anything. He can hear wet, breathy sounds.
"I wish my mouth didn't taste like ham," says Plicio. He licks around at his gums and frowns.
"I don't know what to say," says Viati.
"It's not your fault. I can't expect you to trade with me every time." Plicio shrugs, then hugs his own shoulders. "It's her fault. I keep telling her what I don't prefer but she doesn't listen."
"There's got to be something I can do. Just let me think, pal. Let me think."
"I love her, though," says Plicio. "I can't help it. Callisto girls, man. Everything they say about them is true."
There's half a kilometer between the men now. Viati's unfinished sandwich spins unattended at his shoulder as he hitches every ounce of his experience and wit against the problem of getting a signal bounced back to Rhea. Successful contact will not alter Plicio's doom, but it makes Viati feel better to keep busy. He can't just stand idly by.
Plicio cranes his head around to take in the view. To the right, the arc of Saturn's rings crossed by the faint lines of Rhea's. To the left, Hyperion is a dot. "Do you find her attractive?"
Viati blinks. "What?"
"I mean, I know she's not your type but she's got some decent traits. She's a Callisto girl, after all. You can't fake a microgravity bust. And she's real sweet -- that is, when a guy troubles to butter her up a bit." He pauses. "I should've troubled to more often."
Viati knocks his helmet against the reception dish on the tether car, eyes pinched shut. "Don't talk like you've given up, pal."
"She likes you," says Plicio. "Don't let her be lonely."
"How can you say something like that?"
Plicio shrugs. He spreads his arms and legs out wide like a kite. "I'm passing into the penumbra now. Temperature's up. Feels kind of nice, actually. Toasty." He chuckles. "I'm going to close audio now, okay?"
"What? Why? No!"
"This is kind of…private. The burning, I mean."
"Jesus, Pliss. You can't. Just talk to me. We're going to get through this."
"I don't want you to hear me scream, man."
Viati starts to cry. "We're both suckers for taking danger pay," he blubbers, but there is no reply. Not even static. He looks up to see Plicio's suit shining in the sun. Viati flinches when it outgases, a bloom of vapour spreading out in a twisting rooster tail.
Two minutes, nineteen seconds have passed.
Viati decides to run for union president. His platform will emphasize worker safety. He will buy the Callistan widow flowers and include one red rose.
She will never, ever serve him ham.