Chapter 3 - Irrigation

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It had been a wild year. Captain Garcia had no interest in media appearances, Dr. Musa was too smart, and my old roommate Dr. Burns wanted to be on TV about as much as, well, they had wanted to be my roommate. That left little old me to be the voice of the Herald, explaining all the details of our fateful trip to the late night talk shows, midday talk shows, morning talk shows, and anytime podcasts. The details I understood that is, which was honestly enough - most people just wanted to hear about the big explosions, which had been pretty impressive. They even generated an al from the library of Oprah footage on hand and I had the weirdest interview of my life - I still didn’t jump on the couch though. I think an elementary school in the Midwest even got renamed after me, they needed to get rid of a Confederate general and I was as good as the next Herald crew member.

Well, not as good as - the rest of the crew were experts in their fields, and were already busy on the next phase of the life of Tea. My talents lie in talking, so I was scooting around terra firma making sure the world was informed about the recent past, but they were busy going up and down to and from orbit, consulting and designing the future. Though there had been a few weeks of wobble, about two months after the day of detonation Tea had settled into Lagrange point 4 and humanity officially entered a new age. The first of April had been declared a UN holiday, International Asteroid Capture Day - but everyone just ended up calling Tea Day, and there were already competing holiday decorations in stores as the world got ready to celebrate the first anniversary of when it didn’t blow up. It would be interesting to see the traditions develop, they almost had an agreed color scheme of orange and white figured out. Some felt a little weird picking the colors from the explosions themselves, but then the why on that sort of thing gets forgotten pretty quickly.

I was wearing my orange and white dandelion pin the network had provided the day I got the call to go back into space. I had just wrapped up another interview where I repeated the summary of our explortation plans as explained to me by Dr. Burns. They hadn’t loved that phrase, but I was trying to make it happen. The host had been especially interested in the last part, what life would be like on Tea.

“So where will the miners get air? Water? Surely we can’t just ship that up to Tea?” he asked, playing a smiling exasperation to the studio audience’s mild chuckle. I chuckled along, explaining “Well you would be surprised - we can ship quite a lot of the essentials up there now that so many corporations have shifted their manufacturing to focus on getting things to orbit. For instance, Raytheon has entirely pivoted its production of missiles to make the drone equivalent of space rockets - the modern equivalent of beating swords into plowshares!” The host looked a bit confused at that, I’m not sure his education had embraced many ancient classics. I pressed on. “By getting a certain amount of starter air and water up there, the really cool phase of introducing hydroponic farms can start generating more native air and help the scientists refine the circle of life to allow people to start moving in.” “So when does Simba get to move in?” he joked, another glance at the audience. I did laugh at that, I had been tempted to sing that part myself. “Well, really moving in will be a while yet, but in parallel to that project the actual mining has begun, a combination of robots, als, and humans digging out material, in part to make room for the hydroponics.” He took on a thoughtful look and asked “So there isn’t really any air there yet, but we do have people mining? How does that work? Isn’t it dangerous?”

“Oh, extremely dangerous. These miners are heroes, working in the vacuum of space, in the dark and cold, in less than a quarter of the gravity on the moon. If you drop a pen on Tea, it will hit the ground - an hour later. The UN coordinated with the corporations to recruit from deep sea divers, oil rig workers, long haul truckers, pearl divers, and any one else who worked in extreme environments. Then they had to get used to down and up not being a thing anymore, and living in small habitats. Truly humanity owes them everything!”

Oh how those words would bite me in the butt. “We’re heroes, you said it yourself! So asking for a piss break shouldn’t be a big damn deal!” the head of the impromptu miners’ union was sputtering on the other side of the table. It was my first meeting with new union leadership, each of us strapped into our seat so a random sneeze didn’t blow us across the room. Or all the hot air coming out of our mouths, for instance. “No one is saying that there shouldn’t be shift breaks, that is written into your contracts already.” I replied calmly. While I had been speaking those fateful words, a work stoppage had broken out across the worksites on Tea. It hadn’t even been three months and the stress of the environment was taking its toll. Since I was the only diplomat on Earth with space experience on my resume, I got yanked from my goodwill tour and sent back into space. I wasn’t sure which environment was more vacuous, newsertainment shows or the inky void, but I knew which one was colder.

“What we’re saying is that the contract needs updating, it was written before anyone had actually worked a shift outside the atmosphere.” Calmly, Rol Garcia tried to bring the tension down a notch. This Garcia was that Garcia, nephew of Captain Garcia, and in the room for the same reason. He was a low ranking miner, but the union leaders figured he might be a good in with me, since I thought the world of his tia. That was an old trick and wouldn’t have worked on me, except he actually did a better job negotiating than most of the ostensible leaders of this new movement, and was at least more professional.

“Now that is a fair point, and something I can take to the boards of your employers.” I said, leaning a little on the word employer. I am sympathetic to unions, but this was the cutting edge of humanity’s next steps and they were slowing things down. I reached for the bulb of water they had offered, a bit stale but at least it was something. “We all agree that we need to get this show on the road, so why don’t you help me understand what are your must haves to get back to work, and what we can work out on a more extended timeline.” A moment passed, and the delegation lead, a man named Leonid, said slowly “We have already provided our demands to the boards, did they not give you a copy?” They had not. I stifled a groan. “It must have slipped their minds, things have been moving fast - why don’t you give me the highlights?” The miner who had seen my interview began to take in air but Leonid shot him a look and spoke first. “We do not repeat ourselves. Why don’t you go back to these boards and ask them. We will have nothing to add until then.” He then nodded at the rest of the room, who unstrapped themselves and began to awkwardly climb their way out of the room. Rol was the last at the opening where he paused, then looked over his shoulder. “My tia says you are decent man. I hope she is right.” And with that he was gone.

I took another sip of the whisky in the bulb I had been handed with my lunch, it was hard to believe I was enjoying a 25 year old Scotch in orbit. “After we eat, we can get into the matter of these miners getting back to work. Eating in no gravity is something best done with your full focus!” Leopold chuckled, glancing at the others around the table. While the table itself was similar to the miners’ meeting hall, the seats were unquestionably nicer, better padding in more places. I was tempted to give myself a chance to eat - it had been all protein bars as I was shuttling between Tea’s facilities, and something solid would go a long way. But I knew we were on a clock, after all the air up here was not infinite, so I had to set the bulb down. As I did it occurred to me that every hour on Tea represented millions of dollars spent, so this laid back lunch became even more strange.

“Chairman, as much as I would like to enjoy this fine meal, I do believe we need to prioritize the work. The first order of business is simply why did you not share the miner’s demands with me before I met with them?” Another light chuckle and a shake of the head. “Ah, well, that document is really irrelevant to the conversation I’m afraid. Poorly written, a nightmare of spelling and grammar errors, really it wouldn’t be helpful in getting to the real problem.” “Which is, chairman?” He became more stern, losing the joviality of a moment ago. “It is simple. They know that they hold our future in their hands, and they want to wring it for all it is worth. All this posturing about working conditions really comes down to greed - they know the incredible value Tea represents and they are willing to keep everyone else from it if they don’t get their way.” Nodding all along the table, a few frowns appeared around the edges of their cocktail shrimp. All except the man directly opposite me at the table. “Well, Chairman Leopold, I’m sure their motivations are multiple, but surely there is some olive branch you could offer them, to give them a sense that negotiations will go on in good faith? One gentleman seemed very concerned with the number of shift breaks they are allotted, is there any way we can expand on that?” I could imagine several complaints the miners might have, but better to go with one I knew.

“Well you see, it just isn’t that simple. Every break represents a certain amount of air and energy consumed by the person at rest. That means that the system needs to be rebalanced, and the monitoring of resources is itself a complicated enterprise that requires tremendous amounts of energy. Our environmental controls staff has carefully calculated what we can allow for, so that everyone stays in the safe zone. Isn’t that right Allan?” He indicated the man sitting across from me, who looked up from his tab and into my eyes. “Allan Clay is our head of safety here on Tea as part of the UN’s contract with the Pinkerton Agency. His people are constantly monitoring the levels of various things to make sure we keep everyone safe.” Clay nodded, “We do.” Satisfied, Leopold turned back to me. “See, this is the kind of thing your average miner just isn’t thinking of. Believe it or not, there is a reason we are in these chairs, we have to be able to keep the big picture in mind, deal with the details of this grand venture.”

I hadn’t stopped looking at Clay. “Let me ask you, Mr. Clay, what is the difference in the rate of air consumption between working and resting?” His fingers tapped across his tab, but he didn’t have to look down. “Please, call me Allan. The rate of consumption decreases when a worker is at rest, and increases while they work, by different profiles for different roles. I have the specifics of each role available if you need.” “No, thank you Allan, you’ve clarified things for me.” I turned to look at Leopold, who knew what was coming but didn’t show it. “So chairman, if workers had more rest periods, their consumption of the limited resources would actually decrease, which would be a boon to your environment, correct?” Nonplussed he replied “That would be a naive understanding of the situation, I grant you. That is, I expect, what some miners think. But a moments thought further would raise the question, where does the air and water come from to begin with? How do the oxygen scrubbers get replaced? Those are dependent on the resources generated by the mining here, so a slow down in mining risks the very resources that make that possible.” “And by resources generated, we would be talking about income, correct? Money? We are really discussing the profit of this operation, are we not Mr. Chairman?” He let out a small sigh, like he had realized something disappointing. “Ah, so you are one of those. Well yes, we are not mining Tea for good feelings Mr. Lewis, and even if we were our shareholders would not take such a generous view. It is our legal duty to represent them, and in this we must have integrity.”

I was prepared to settle into the parry and thrust of getting a corporate head to let go of just a little money to make someone else’s day a bit more humane, but then an alarm sounded and threw off my witty rejoinder. Space alarms aren’t exciting, well, not the good kind, and having already had one under my belt I had hoped to avoid any more. Yet, here we are. The Pinkerton agent was already unstrapped from his chair and in contact with his deputy getting details, but I had to wait for the general announcement that followed the klaxon. The facility’s al was updating us, “:ALERT:, damage to facility airlock 2, forced entry detected. Doors sealed and safety staff en route. Please remain calm.”

Fifteen minutes later alerts had been turned off, and most doors unsealed, except the few between the body of the facility and airlock 2. “What we know is that a group of miners came over from the main facility on the lead line with their gear and forced their way through the outer airlock at port 2. They are demanding to have a face to face meeting with the board representatives and are threatening to detonate mining charges if we do not agree to the meeting.” Allan calmly summarized what his staff had been able to confirm. Leopold’s face was a little ashen but otherwise calm. The head honchos of so many corporations had come up to be a part of this process because they thought it would be exciting to be the first person in their country club in space, but they hadn’t intended to get locked into a Ridley Scott film. “Well clearly we can’t meet with them now, that would set a precedent that violence is how they should negotiate!” one of the more belligerent board members was saying. “Well I’m not sure how we’re getting them out of that airlock, could we just wait them out?” another offered. Allan spoke up at this, “The improvised explosive device they have brought with them appears to have a dead mans switch. Should they become unconscious the IED will explode.” “Very well Allan, tell me, what are our options?” Leopold said, a few degrees less confidently than he had spoken earlier in the day.

“We have re-pressurized the chamber they are in and tested the seals, their entry into the airlock only damaged the outside control panel. At the moment you can enter to negotiate, negotiate over the comm, or vent them.” That alarmed me. “What do you mean vent them?” Allan, without any expression, explained “It is not our first option, but if we open the airlock without an atmosphere purge they will be propelled out of the unit at a speed over the escape velocity of Tea. With any luck they will be carried outside the damage radius of their IED. It is a last option Mr. Lewis, but it is an option. I recommend negotiation.” Leopold drained a little more and realized he would need to speak with this sudden delegation.

“A piss break! That’s all I’m asking! My dad died of bladder cancer, I’m not going out like that!” The face of the miner filled the feed. Harris, from Texas, used to working on oil rigs for months at a time and having nature’s toilet all around him, had become a bit fixated since reaching Tea. And the team he had gather around him was very different than the people that I had shared a room with a day ago. These were younger, angrier, and less patient it would seem. “I’m sorry to hear about your father Harris, I didn’t know that. What would he think of you threatening us with a bomb?” I asked, more sincerely than I had meant. “He’d slap me on the back and say good job, don’t try to bring my family into this!” Harris was unmoved. “But isn’t that the point Harris? It is your family, the other miners’ families, all of our families who need Tea to succeed. We need the materials, yeah, but even more we need the hope. You get that, right Harris?” Get them to agree with you on something, anything, build common ground. Negotiation 101. He took a breath, looked like he was remembering something for just a moment, then said “Fine, yeah, we want it to work, but not on our backs, not breaking us. What kind of hope would that be?”

“A fair question, wouldn’t you say Mr. Leopold?” Just a little thing, just agree to this much. “…Fairness is, that is, what is fair can be so -“ “Mr. Leopold, you do agree these miners should have a reasonable working environment, yes?” I tried to save/bully him. “Well yes, reasonable, yes we do want that.” Of course their ideas of reasonableness were going to be very different, but it was a start. “Okay, so lets talk fair, lets talk reasonable. What would you say to adding one more shift break into the standard shift plan Mr. Leopold?” “Well, certainly we could consider that, though of course we would need to modify the current compensation plan to balance out -“ Harris was displeased. “Modify the - you want to cut our pay?!” Leopold was about to respond but I cut him off. “I believe the matter we are discussing is the standard shift plan, Mr. Leopold, not compensation structures. We’re going to need to keep things focused to move forward, so let’s focus on the shift plan. If we added break time, the miners might be open to extend the total shift time?” Which was really just adjusting the compensation plan, but at least it could be a little more clear and controlled. “Fine, give us an hour break and we’ll give you an extra fifteen minutes of work.” Harris spoke quickly, either trying to seize an opening or just too mad to wait.

“An hour?! Are you out of your mind, surely you can use the restroom in less time than that! Fifteen minutes for fifteen minutes, that’s fair and balanced.” Leopold’s confidence came back a bit with his shock. “Do you even know how long it takes us to get in and out of these cut-rate monkey suits you got us in?!” Harris bit back, ”It takes more than fifteen minutes just to get through the bus’s airlock!” The mining support units, really small rooms wrapped in treads that could be navigated to the far ends of the tunnels each shift, were called buses by the miners. It was where they did all their necessities while on shift, as well as their only backup in an emergency. “Allowing for pressure suit changes and getting in and out of the support unit, plus a reasonable amount of time to take care of business, what if we said a forty five minute break for an extra twenty minutes of work?” I interjected. Leopold really wasn’t winning friends and influencing people here, and there was still a bomb in play.

“I could take it to the other chairpeople and see what they have to say. It isn’t totally unreasonable, though I think it will make future negotiations more difficult.” Leopold replied. “Really this sort of thing should be worked through the normal process, we have a yearly contract review for a reason. If we give them this, we may not be able to be so flexible in the future.” My eyes did their best to not roll out of my head, but it was progress. “If that is acceptable, would Harris please disable the IED he is currently holding?” Allan asked on the open channel, surprising the other three of us who had kind of forgotten he was there. “Well…we don’t have anything in writing yet, so I think I’ll be keeping ahold of my bargaining chip. Y’all didn’t say shit to me until your ass was on the line, so I think we’ll keep it like it is a bit longer.” Leopold, not thinking or not caring that Harris could hear him, muttered “This trash, this is what we have to work with?” But of course Harris did hear him, and the string of expletives he fired off would make most Texan fathers proud, in their way. “You arrogant piece of shit, you wouldn’t be sitting where you were if we weren’t where we are!” Leopold just frowned and replied “And you wouldn’t be where you are if we hadn’t hired you. Hauled you out of whatever foul hole you were scratching at and brought you out to space, you ungrateful ass.” I don’t think he’d looked at Allan’s dossier on the miners to know Harris was working on the open ocean, but that wouldn’t have made much difference. “You come out here and say that, I ought to -“

And with a loud clang that was the last anyone heard from Harris from Texas. I was still trying to figure out what happened when I heard Allan’s voice come back on the comm. “Venting complete. Re-pressurizing airlock 2 and deploying repair team. Chairman I suggest you return to the board meeting room and draft the shift change. Mr. Lewis I believe you will need notes for the investigation, please visit me in the safety office.” He had taken the last option. He had sent the dozen miners with their explosive sailing off the surface of Tea at several meters per second, which was about ten times Tea’s escape velocity. There was no explosion.

“What the hell did you do?!” I charged across the office as fast as the handholds would allow, probably for the best I couldn’t spare any hands to make fists at the moment. “We were making progress, we just had to get the deal in writing!” Allan sat calmly, skipping the strap but with one leg hooked on the stool he sat on. He waited for me to twist around and make my “up” the same as his, then responded. “Mr. Lewis. I am the final word on safety on all Tea facilities. Your negotiations were not going as well as you think. There are indications that the delegation brought a camera with them and were broadcasting their negotiation and tactics with miners across Tea. This sort of thing cannot happen again. As the miner Harris became more agitated his thumb had been tracing the deadman’s switch faster and faster.” Of course, Allan would have had one of the airlock camera’s trained on the immediate threat. “That could just be a nervous tic, you don’t know, you just murdered a dozen people!” “We don’t have the margin to take that chance. And he was threatening to murder those same people, and a significant number of people on this facility as well.” “Oh, so we can kill him because he might have killed us? That’s it, that’s how we want to run things?”

Allan sat for a moment. I think he just wanted me to stew a bit more. “Yes. Yes Mr. Lewis, we, I, will kill if that keeps others from killing. This facility, and the others like it, must be made to work. They must be dependable, reliable, people must feel they know the rules when they set foot on Tea. Now, they know.” My jaw dropped, as much as microgravity allows for. “You wanted to make an example of them?” “I didn’t want to, Mr. Lewis, but when the die was cast I had to. Even if Leopold hadn’t been a horrible fool and agitated the miner, it could not have ended well for them. Threats of violence are not acceptable here.”

“Other than yours?” I asked, knowing the answer. A small nod. “Other than mine.”