This story is by Sef Churchill and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
Kes checked the time on her bunk ceiling. Shift change. She swung her feet off the sleepmat and straight into her shoes on the cold floor. Spaceworker regulations said to cleanse at the start of shift, but who showers before going to collect the dirt from other people’s lives?
“Look lively,” said her workmate Logan, struggling into his brown coveralls. “It’s the squeaks today.”
“Oh!” Kes grabbed a washmitt and scrubbed at her face. If she’d known, she would have got a bit of water as well.
A squeak ship to clean! And not just any ship, but the Perfect Destiny. Kes waited until Logan wasn’t looking and then checked her workbag, prodding the lining for a particular bump. It was there, and life was sweet.
“Move,” said Logan. She moved.
The gritter ship worked a strict eight-eight-eight rotation, tending the rest of the fleet in a constant stream of work. The crew split into three shifts, and their waking times barely overlapped enough for acquaintance, but their lowly place in the fleet gave them unity. If you deliver the mail or water the plants, nobody cares when they bump into you. If you’re there to carry away the foul, you need to be invisible.
The military ships tolerated the gritters. The soldiers had to, because they would one day be doing true dirty work, planet work.
The other service ships accepted, too, that they generated waste which needed to be removed, cleaned, and repurposed as fertiliser or growth agent.
But the squeaks could not admit that anything foul came from their bodies, or that uneaten food rotted and stank. When you worked a squeak ship, you worked silent and quick, and you prayed none of them glimpsed you.
“Don’t call them squeaks.” Logan wagged his finger at Kes, but he was smiling. He had a soft spot for her.
“Everyone calls them squeaks. Squeaky clean.” She checked her suit. Gas leak was always a risk during transfer.
Logan said, “They’re the colonists, or they will be. One day.”
Kes yawned. “We’ll all be colonists, one day.”
“Yeah, but we’ll still be scrubbing toilets. They’ll be in…” He paused. It was hard, out here, to picture a planet. “Houses,” he said.
Kes snorted. “Reckon they’ll just park their squeak ships and carry on.”
“And you’ll wash your face just as quick when you get a squeak job,” he said sourly.
“We each have to make our own way,” she said.
“Gritters and squeaks can’t be mates, Kes,” he said.
She shrugged. “Anyway, they need us. Most of them can’t see past the next drink, or fix.”
Logan jerked his head at the security cams. “You’ll get us in trouble!”
Kes shut up. She was not afraid of being busted for disrespect – where, exactly, would she be busted to? – but there were certain reasons why she did not want attention today, not near the squeak ship, not if there was a chance she might see Givern.
The Perfect Destiny bore the sleek lines of an elite personnel carrier. Two thousand was its official capacity. Kes pouted at the suit screen confirming seven hundred aboard. Soldiers and gritters crammed into their crates like beans in a jerry can, but your engineers and artists, surgeons and politicians did not like to share.
The gritter ship, the Garden of Hope, held only a hundred folk, but that was because it carried a bellyful of machinery and waste. Kes didn’t mind. The Garden might be home to the fleet’s foul, but it offered holes and closets where you could meet your off-shift sweetheart, eat tucker nabbed from Stores, or hang out, watching the centrifuge spin waste into goodness. Kes knew every secret on this ship, and now she had one of her own.
Logan said, “Stop dreaming, start suiting up.”
Kes said, “The gas would get us before the suit could even start filtering.”
“When did you get so cynical?” said Logan.
She could hardly say, watching squeak broadcasts while in Givern’s bunk. It seemed most squeaks thought muckers, as they called the gritter crews, were basically animals, genetically predisposed to snuffle among dirt. So she shrugged. “I read books.”
“That’s plain cheating.”
The Garden of Hope docked, butt-up, into the underbelly of the Perfect Destiny. The gritter crew climbed up a narrow access shaft into the guts of the smaller ship, ready to carry out an inspection and scrub of its sanitation systems. This involved solid and liquids, and, far more dangerous, the gaseous waste. The first kind flushed wholesale into the Phase One holds.
The second kind entered the Garden’s cleansing tank via a one-way valve.
“You’re on valve,” said Logan to Kes. “Don’t forget to check the seal,” he added. Checking the valve was ninety-nine percent of Kes’s job. She rolled her eyes.
He frowned, flipped down his suit helmet, and they parted ways at the top of the entry shaft.
“Have you got it?”
No greeting, no concern that they had not seen each other in a week, only Givern’s outstretched palm.
“I’ve got it,” Kes said. Right now she ought to be checking the seals on the valve. Instead, she was here, in Givern’s fluoro-white cabin, with its real feather bed and its fake woodland view on a screen. Givern himself wore his diamond-bright suit, complete with cape. He looked like a hero, like a god. His chin was so smooth, not like Logan’s, and his skin was so brown and perfect…
“How much?” His fingers closed around the gritter excretion before she could reply. He weighed it in his fist, half-smiling. “Yeah. This will get me a real lot of dope.”
“Not dope,” Kes said. “It’s to get you and me a ship of our own.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Givern turned the bright gold over and over in his hand. Gritter processes extracted precious metal from waste. The gold was supposed to go directly to Raw Materials for re-use, but people need to trade, and gold endures.
“So,” said Kes, touching Givern’s smooth cheek. “What shall we do?” Givern continued to fondle the gold. “Logan thinks it will take me an hour to check that seal-”
“-Please, spare me your mucker lifestyle. Why are you still here?”
Kes recoiled. “What?”
“I’ve got the gold. Now go.”
“No, what about – plans? What about – us?” Her gaze went involuntarily to the bed.
Givern shuddered. “With a mucker? I have some self respect.”
An ache developed in Kes’s throat, like the start of a cold, or the sign that you’ve worked in recycled air too long. She drew a ragged breath and said, “But I-”
“Well,” he said in a tone of great reason, “any man would let you do that. But the rest – well. I know where you’ve been.” He sniggered at his own humour. “You do all those jobs which a robot could do as well. I could do it myself if I didn’t mind the filth. You’re pointless.”
The pain in Kes’s throat hardened into a lump. She clutched her helmet, its solidity a comfort in a world which had shifted right under her feet. “Right,” she said. “So this was just for the gold.”
“Yup. You’ve been played, well done, now get out. Don’t let me see you, oh, ever again. Bye.”
Kes stumbled to the valve, then stood there not servicing it.
“Are you OK?”
Logan’s voice in her ear made her jump. She tapped her helmet and the display came up: his anxious face, swathed in beard. “I’m OK,” she said. “Just finishing up.”
“You took a long time,” he said.
“I’m OK.” She hesitated, then said, “I think there’s a problem with this valve.”
The valve throbbed, holding back the dirty gas which would poison the Perfect Destiny if released.
“Ok,” said Logan, “I’ll log a possible fault. -Are you OK?”
“You sound – off.”
“I hate the squeaks!”
She heard Logan’s breath, slow and patient. “We’ll check the valve next cycle. Don’t touch it, it’s not worth the risk.” His voice faded while he spoke to supervisors.
The valve bulged.
Kes bit her lip. Givern was not the only squeak on the Perfect Destiny. But did any of them think of her as human?
Logan said, “I got some coffee, back at the bunks.”
“OK.” She cut Logan off before he could be nice to her.
She gave the valve a twist, to make sure. Her suit pinged immediately, urgent, panicky. “Don’t bother,” she said to it. “They’ll be OK, these squeaks. They could fix this themselves, if they wanted to, right?”
The suit did not answer, but then, she did not expect it to. She strode to the access hatch, where Logan was waiting, and let herself out.