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Short Story

“…te amo
como se aman ciertas cosas oscuras,
secretamente, entre la sombra y el alma.”

Pablo Neruda

Part I: Silencio
Chapter 1

As you emerge from sleep, nothing is yet. Atoms hastily bond together, clash and melt, and vibrate as chaos rearranges itself into a more familiar one. Right before the eyelids unglue, a blissful breath or two in unburdened haziness and then reality hits. It comes in waves, splattering with anxiety … oh no how late is it …, giving you a splash of bemused uncertainty… wait what am I so in a hurry for… and crushing you with the sudden realization just how far Earth is. Augusto never adjusted to that blow, the distance seemed to expand in his chest every morning, as it does now, filling him with a sense of sad vastness that will linger on for the day and lull him back to sleep. In-between lies a day’s worth of things he’ll wish he didn’t know about and a few he won’t be able to undo. For it finally is November the 8th, the day the mighty Myriadis will stay on the docks of Taurus V’s second biggest shipyard for whole six hours, bringing grade-C water, diamonds on sale and, hopefully, answers.

Breakfast is dull. It is a blend of questionable micronutrients and echos of the conversations Augusto had on his first day in the shipyards, almost six years ago. Hey, mate, evtin’ ahright? Funny thing, this porridge, huh? Have you heard the terrible news … the latest, I mean? … No??

Today’s half an hour of mandatory nourishment and socializing, prescribed by the federation workers’ union, holds up with some of the dullest he’s ever had to sit through. Three dead on dock twelve, nitrite gas leak. Six wounded while unloading import granite and sick bay still backlogged on add-on orders so there’s another day of being dangerously understaffed to look forward to. Meredith and Franz are discussing a – possibly – strawberry jam and infidelity.

– All I’m saying is, if it ever came to that, would you leave me?

A blank stare. Meredith opens her mouth to say something and decides against it, then asks:

– Pass me the jam, please, and get over yourself.

She even manages a smile Augusto finds halfway convincing.

– No, babe, hear me out, I’m only saying if, as in, I never would, but IF I did…

– Well, come to think of it, Franz, I would surely be irritated to find myself busy after hours. But the one that will’ve left will be you, honey, and I promise I’ll remember you fondly, especially the loving way you’ll be asking me to quit hitting you with the shovel.

This smile of hers Augusto finds fully convincing. For Franz, most mornings start with inspiring Meredith in new and straightforward ways to entertain the idea of doing him in. Still beaming, she reaches across the table and gently strokes Franz’s hair, his pupils wide and his thoughts too scattered too early in the morning.

– It is important to make informed decisions. Now pass me the jam, please, will you?

Аugusto aches. He feels what he’s witnessed is out of place, it does not belong here, this isn’t a place that sustains it. The seconds he reminisces on that are the last in today’s 30 minutes of breakfast and they find him halfway through his sixth buttered toast.

As he is standing up, something mushy hits Augusto’s back. He turns around, as a second helping of porridge misses him by a less than a foot. It hits someone’s head but fails to draw any attention in a cantina, where for 20 long seconds gravity seems to have seized to work for anything resembling food. It’s the third uprising in a fortnight and everybody knows what follows next.

Briefings are an intersection of the transposition of the federation’s educational programme and local peace and harmony enforcement. They are applicable to a multitude of transgressions and uphold the ancient tradition of cold-bloodedly abusing time in the way the worst people do – without a dirty speck of imagination.

For the instigators and willing participants of what will have been the last food fight on Taurus V it is straight to the conference room. Finding one, never mind the right one, requires a broad and nuanced set of skills, working knowledge in pictographs, codes and at least six modified alphabets. Might as well be good, then, that there are friendly armed security personnel to show them through. Augusto catches a glimpse of the crowd being escorted down the corridor and purses his lips. Some of the faces he knows well. He spent the first four years here working with them down in the salt mine. Each 18-hour shift would begin with a bowl of porridge, the ever solitary option B on the menu for mine workers, and end with at least a few casualties. He abandoned the idea of making friends shortly after his second shift. It’s crazy, he thought, to have the pain and horror of loss, and add the constant fear of it to all the time that precedes it. And it is a different kind of fear when you care. A different kind of loss.

Even after he unwillingly found his way out of the mine and onto the customs docks, he kept to himself. Franz and Meredith, who had similarly spent years underground, would more often than not choose to sit with him on the breakfast table. They would nod at him and smile as they worked, they would hang around in the breaks. Funnily, he couldn’t quite shake off the feeling that maybe, just maybe, it was the other way round.

Dock five is, by all accounts, a beauty. It stretches for 16 miles across and can provide the feeling of being cosmically lost even better than the vast universe that surrounds it. Cargo is dropped on its artificially attuned gravity field from as high as a third of an orbit. Needless to say, jaywalking on dock five is punishable by death, effective immediately and at a minimal operational cost. Augusto stops with his eyes closed for a long second, as if pondering something, then opens them, looking up, left and right, and crosses the bridge to the dock.

Conference rooms serve many a purpose. As a dumping ground for all the leftover grey paint in the world they make their inmates lose their bearing, therefore rendering them less likely to riot while receiving education. One notable exception is the security briefing on what used to be Gemini, cut short by a loud bang only 145 minutes into laying out the pressing need to evacuate the moon and leave it to crumble under the stresses of its disintegrating core. On that particular occasion, the possibility of people rioting was filed under ‘not entirely improbable, yet no reliable witness accounts.’

Today’s briefing is delving into all the particulars of how but-of-course-it-is strawberry jam is being made. It is a strenuous, labour-intensive process and the resources for it are hardly won. All for a good cause, after all, as a strawberry jam with a high probability of strawberry is as good a thing to hope for as any. After that, the briefing goes into some dry and recently updated statistics about the number of accidental firings of security personnel weapons and total unfortunate rioters body count. The path forward is through education and the federation workers’ union appreciates that sentiment.

In the time it takes to complete the briefing, Augusto is halfway through his 10-hour shift. He is looking at his clock more frequently with every passing hour and finds the usual chaos that surrounds him distant and irrelevant. In exactly thirty minutes, he will go and absent-mindedly ask his supervisor if there are any import probes left before midday or he could go take a nap in the underground storage. The supervisor’s nostrils will flare and something mildly offensive and insufficiently amusing will come out of his reddish face. Augusto tips on, “Fields of strawberries, kid, you’ve been given hearing add-ons, couldn’t they fill the gap in between them as well? Anything would do.”
Yeah, that will probably be it. Then, Augusto will be sent urgently to examine probes of the on-sale diamonds the Myriadis is unloading on Sector C, all six cargo holds of them. For Augusto, however, the ship is carrying a load of much greater value, for all he knows.

And all he knows is so little.

more by OZEANIS

photo by NASA

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