Everyone Outside heard. A sod walker talkset broadcast the words across a common work channel. Tony Constanza, hovering near the engineers' window, was close enough to see the man muttering, "Ants aren't normal," his voice thick with disgust.
Constanza pushed off a girder and drifted closer to the window, thinking he'd tap it a few times with his torch. An engineer's reaction to an angry ant, hammering on the sod walker's only shield against the perfect vacuum of Outside, would be interesting.
The window couldn't break, but the man might not know that. Beyond the limited confines of their various specialties, most engineers were nervous whenever they moved around the station. They were very jumpy around windows.
Constanza recognized the mouthy one, a thrust analyst named Adams. Until hearing the words, Tony thought Adams was okay, above common sod walker prejudices against spacers.
Research and development was the great passion of all engineers, and not much of that took place in space any more. They resented time away from earthside R&D computers and laboratories, and didn't even pretend to respect the spacers whom they called ants. As in "They live like ants, they work like ants, they fight like ants."
"They're worse than ants," Tony'd heard someone say, his last dirtside period. "You don't see ants eat their own shit." The recycling of waste seemed to bother engineers more than anything else, though they had developed the technology that made such alchemy possible. When sod walkers came to a station, they spent small fortunes ferrying personal supplies from home.
Constanza reached the port and raised his torch, more than willing to pay the substantial fine that would certainly follow his threatening gesture. But before Tony even began to swing the tool, the engineers had turned away and were gone.
"Tony! Hey, Tony C!" Constanza watched the window, ignoring the voice in his earphone. "We got work to do, man!"
At the far end of a lumasteel girder, Constanza's work mate, Ditka, was watching him curiously. Hearing the despised epithet "ant" on an open channel was not uncommon. It was easier and less expensive to ignore lapses in taste and etiquette than to pay for the kinds of reactions Tony had in mind.
But Ditka hadn't seen the sour disgust on the engineer's face, confirmation the man had no more regard for Tony and his coworkers than for real insects.
"Let's hit it, sport," Ditka urged on the work channel. "Two more cubes, whattya say?"
Constanza acknowledged the transmission with a wave and moved back to his end of the girder.
A tugger eased the mass of metal and plastic closer, until Constanza took over with a remote box. He carefully guided the cube into place, keeping his eyes on the lights that confirmed the maze of fittings and connections in the cube matched corresponding ones on the station.
Whenever Tony held a remote box, mating the fittings looked far easier than it was. In a few minutes he locked the structure down, flipped the shield over his eyes and fired his torch.
In training school he'd dozed through a thirty minute lecture about super welder theory. All he knew was it caused a highly localized melting of alloy, melted two pieces together so they became one piece. For all practical purposes the whole station was a single, enormous chunk of metal. Xrays couldn't find super welded joints when they were done by an expert like Constanza.
Tony moved one way around the new cube, Ditka the other, torches strobing, casting flickering shadows onto the main body of the station. When each had circled 180 degrees, holding a super torch to the base of the new cube, it was done. Whatever the cube was to be, habitat, lab or storage area, it was ready.
Constanza moved the channel selector in the wrist of his suit to the frequency monitored by O'Mara, the shift foreman, and waited for a break in the constant flow of information. "Constanza, second sector," he said when there was a stretch of unbroken static, and studied numbers molded into the bulkhead a few feet above his eyes. "A202C1085 ready for inspection and pressure."
"I'll get somebody on it right away," O'Mara responded. "If it passes, that's five cubes this shift." No inspector had called Tony back to a weld since he was a newbie on his third contract period. "One more and you and Ditka got the record. You gonna make it?"
Constanza nodded, though O'Mara couldn't see him. "We'll make it, Mike."
It was an accident Tony was ever part of the record. The shift he and an old timer named Johannsen finished four and a half cubes, Tony lost count of welds, didn't know how many they'd done till they left Outside, to be smothered in congratulations as soon as they were through the airlock.
Johannsen had known more dirty jokes than anyone Constanza ever worked with. All Tony remembered of breaking the record was laughing so hard his sides hurt.
Johannsen wasn't there to see their "trophy" delivered to the station. A week before the mocksolemn hanging of a broken super torch in Thelma's Lounge, a tug lost control of a cube, reducing Constanza's partner to a frozen smear against the side of the station.
It was fifteen years before another team, on Station Kansas, welded five full sections in a single shift. Everyone knew the Kansas foreman allowed the others thirty minutes overtime to beat the record. One night, after a few hours of beery, maudlin reminiscences about Johannsen, Tony heard himself say he'd get the record back.
For half a dozen shifts, Constanza watched other welders, looking for one who might keep up with him. O'Mara had been a friend of Johannsen, and was easily persuaded to assigning Tony and the youngster Ditka to the same team. The kid understood they were going for record without Constanza having to say it out loud.
Tony watched a tug push the sixth cube within a hundred yards of the station and checked his watch. They had plenty of time. He signaled Ditka to handle the remote. Allowing his helper move a cube in place would let the rest of the shift, including O'Mara, see the kid's impressive skills.
Ditka needed only a few more seconds to get the structure in place than Constanza would have taken. The last welds were done five minutes before shift end, and Ditka didn't have to wait for silence on the status channel to request inspection and pressurization. It was so quiet Tony almost felt the whole crew holding its collective breath.
"That's record," O'Mara confirmed.
Constanza interrupted. "Hey, Mike, make sure everybody understands we did it under shift time, okay?"
"I'm logging it in at twelve and a quarter minutes before shift end," O'Mara responded.
Tony jetted to the nearest crew air lock and waited for Ditka to catch up. While they waited for atmosphere the common channel began buzzing as word was passed that the record truly belonged to Station California again.
Red haired Molly Ditka didn't wait for Tony to get out of his suit and helmet before hugging him, her green eyes shiny with pride and excitement. "Thanks for giving me the remote on the last cube," Molly said. "That meant a lot."
Constanza grinned at her. "You done good, kid."
Molly stored her suit in a locker. "See you at Thelma's?"
"I'll be there," Constanza confirmed.
"I've got something important to tell you." Molly winked and launched herself into the interior passageway, hooking a corner with her foot to turn in the right direction before kicking off toward her rack. Molly moved through the long corridor with the grace and easy speed of a tadpole in a familiar pond.
Moving much more slowly, Constanza headed the other way. He could remember zipping around stations, showing off his mastery of zero grav environment. But he was finishing his eighteenth contract, had become an old timer among spacers, with nothing left to prove.
When he reached his rack Constanza pulled himself inside and slid the cover closed. Plenty of comfort was built into the four by eight by four area. A holovision terminal was in one bulkhead, above a computer keyboard and monitor. A modem accessed the station's extensive music collection, and a small closet provided one cubic yard for storage of personal articles.
Constanza punched an order for a beer into the computer's keyboard. Instead of signaling a deletion from his personal account, the holoscreen played a recorded message. Constanza vaguely recognized the image. One of the tug operators, he thought. "This one's on me, Tony," the face on the screen said. "On account of the record." The man smiled shyly. "Charlie Johannson trained me. You'd a made him proud, today."
Constanza screened other messages on the computer. He'd drink for a long time on beer already paid for by others. He attached a squeeze bottle under a nozzle, pressed a button and the vessel filled with beer.
Tony checked the screen for sports news as he drank. A heavy pool was riding on the results of the European soccer championships, but the score wasn't in yet. Closing his eyes and swallowing, Constanza decided what came out of the squeeze bottle tasted exactly like a cold beer, whatever its origin.
Beer from earthside didn't travel well. Because of their squeamishness, engineers didn't even have taps installed in their racks. Tony couldn't imagine coming off shift without a cold one waiting for him. He let go of the empty squeezer. As it drifted away, he entered a wake up call for 1830 and closed his eyes. He dozed off in seconds.
When the polite main frame voice called him from sleep, Constanza went to the vacuum showers to clean up, and almost decided to stop shaving. For some reason beards pissed off the engineers. Constanza liked seeing a sod walker get aggravated.
A beard was uncomfortable under a helmet though, especially in early stages when it was impossible to scratch. He plugged in his razor and shaved, but left a mustache. To an engineer, hair on an upper lip was nearly as bad as a beard.
Sailing leisurely back to his rack, Tony slipped on jeans and a tee shirt, and pulled velcro sandals on his feet. Having civilian clothes shipped up was expensive, but Constanza had little else to spend money on.
By the time he got to Thelma's, the tiny tavern was a noisy, shoulder to shoulder mob of workers in a variety of spatial orientations, some with their sandals hooked onto what was ceiling for others. Tony drifted to the bar and planted himself firmly so he wouldn't drift.
"Heard whatcha done today, Constanza," Thelma said from behind the bar, expertly launching a squeezer into a high trajectory, her brightly polished lumasteel left arm catching the light. Tony reached up and the bottle eased into his open palm. "Way to go."
"Thanks." Tony sipped from the bottle then asked, "Seen Molly yet?"
Thelma shook her head. She didn't ask him to pay for the beer, and didn't deduct it from Constanza's credit line either. Tony grinned at her. It was a red letter day when Thelma bought a drink.
Of course, she'd appreciate what he and Molly had done more than most. Thelma had been a super welder herself, until a control rocket fired erratically while she was guiding a cube into place. The wildly careening mass crushed one arm.
Thelma was entitled to disability retirement, but as soon as she was certified as rehabbed, the exwelder bought the bar contract on the station where she almost died. No one recalled the last time she'd been dirtside. There were others like Thelma in the station, disabled spacers who couldn't or wouldn't adjust to full time dirtside existence.
Constanza was finishing his second beer when Molly came in. She stopped at the bar, picked up three fresh drinks and glided toward Tony. Molly's husband Dan was just behind her.
Dan and Molly wore clean working coveralls. Molly's were welder green, a near match of her eyes. Dan wore the crimson of tugger pilots. Married about a year, they were saving their money, and wouldn't pay to have civvies shipped up, or take the cheaper route of buying used clothes from someone going off contract.
Constanza could remember saving money. In a few years though, he lost track of what he was saving for. After twenty five contract periods, spacers retired on full pay, so not even approaching old age required thrift. Regularly updated statements from his bank were on the computer, but most of the time Tony didn't even bother to screen them.
Molly put her hand on Constanza's chest as she drifted close, using his mass to alter her glide and plant herself. Dan hooked a railing by the bar. Leaning to kiss Tony on the cheek, Molly handed him one of the bottles she carried and gave another to Dan. "Thanks again, Tony," she said, her eyes still glittering excitedly.
"Hell of a job," Dan said, slapping him on the shoulder. "What you guys did was all I heard about, coming in."
"The record belongs to Tony," Molly insisted. "I was just there to help out."
"Bullshit," Constanza said. "You're good as any welder on the shift. Better."
Dan raised his squeezer. "Anyway, here's to you both." The trio touched squeezers in a toast and Dan asked, "You going to put the trophy in here?"
"If Thelma finds a place for it." That Thelma might not clear a space for the Scorched Torch was a ludicrous thought. Constanza turned toward Molly. "So what was it you were going to tell me?"
"God, it's great news," she blurted. "You know I implanted?"
Constanza nodded. "Implanting" referred to a fetus, sent immediately after conception to an artificial womb back on earth. If they didn't implant, spacer women had to spend the whole term of their pregnancy dirtside. A fetus wouldn't develop normally in zero grav, and few spacer mothers were willing to spend nine months on earth. Babies were left on the planet until they were grown. Spacers parented between contracts.
Molly had conceived at the beginning of her current contract period, and a dozen other women on the contract team implanted later on. Constanza had never heard of so many pregnancies on one station at the same time.
There was an odd secretiveness about it as well, but surprisingly, Tony never heard what the hushhush business was all about. Successful secrets were uncommon in the intimacy of the station.
"Almost full term, aren't you?" he asked.
"Next week," Dan said. "The rug rat's ready Friday." He grinned. "It's a girl."
Constanza's good mood melted like alloy under a super welder. Once Molly was busy dirtside with a baby, he'd be working with someone new. Welders got hurt when new teams formed. He hated the thought of breaking in another stranger. Unless they were naturals like Molly, too many dangerous mistakes were made, learning one another's work rhythms.
Breaking the record was Molly's swan song as a welder, at least for a while. Constanza shrugged. "So. When are you going dirtside?"
"I don't have to," Molly said. "The baby's coming here."
"Since when do they allow babies in a station?" Tony asked.
"Since now," Dan said. "It's been kept quiet, but they've decided kids can be raised in a station. Another station, Carolina I think it is, already has some."
"You ought to see the videos Carolina sent," Molly bubbled. "Exercises to develop baby muscles, special diets, stuff like that. I'm going to raise my baby off earth. I don't have to go be a sod walker, ever."
"And the other ones who implanted, they're bringing babies too?"
Dan nodded. "They told us not to talk about it, but in six months we'll have a dozen kids aboard. And that's only the start."
Molly grinned excitedly. "That last cube we welded today?" Constanza nodded. "It's a nursery, with all kinds of special equipment." She beamed her excited smile at Constanza. "Isn't it wonderful, Tony?"
Constanza grinned back and nodded. "Big change," he admitted.
Ciesinski, another old timer, drifted over. "Hey, Tony, congratulations." Constanza nodded. "Anybody see who it was made that crack about ants today?" Ski asked.
Tony almost told him it was Adams, but he was already tired of the incident. Everyone knew how it was with engineers.
Other spacers came to talk about the record, more beers were bought, and soon Constanza, Dan and Molly were part of a milling, laughing mob. Free drinks showed up constantly. Tony didn't think about Molly's baby again until he was alone in his rack.
Pleasantly intoxicated, he stretched out and thought about babies coming to the station. The idea made him happy.
Tony remembered when stations were almost entirely male enclaves. There'd always been female engineers, and a few women tugger pilots, but he was on his fourth contract when welding crews were sexually integrated.
Tony'd done his share of bitching when all project job slots were opened to women, but the presence of females softened and civilized the station. Men without women weren't pleasant company, as he recalled. He wouldn't consider a contract on an all male station now, not even for double scale.
And soon there'd be babies. He thought about how it would be to grow up in the station, wondered if spacer babies would ever go dirtside. They'd have to start schools. If Molly and the others raised their babies to be engineers,there'd be no reason for anyone who called spacers "ants," or hated Outside to ever come Up.
Sod walkers could add "They breed like ants" to their lexicon of spacer epithets.
Constanza thought about babies until an idea hit him, burst into his consciousness in full bloom. The babies ought to know they were spacers from the moment they opened their eyes in the station. And he knew how to make sure they would.
He'd need help, someone senior enough they couldn't be fired, who could handle the exorbitant fine the company would lay down when the engineers realized what they'd done.
Someone like Ciesinski.
Constanza called him on the holophone, explained his idea. Ski's face lit up when Tony explained. "Somebody's gonna have to forge a requisition," Tony pointed out.
"No problem," Ski said. "Doreen Gagliano works in supply. She'll take care of it."
"When?" Tony asked.
"Hell, let's do it now," Ski said. "I'll go see Doreen. You pick up suits and torches and I'll meet you at the lock in thirty minutes."
No one gave Tony any hassle with checking out equipment from the tool crib. When problems developed Outside, old timers like Constanza and Ski were often called back to work at odd hours. Tony waited impatiently at the lock until Ski showed up. "You get it?" Tony asked.
The other welder gave him a thumbs up sign. "Piece of cake. Tug's fetching it right now." he said. "Hey, it was Adams who made that crack today wasn't it?"
Ski grinned. "Thought so. I had Doreen put his name on the requisition."
Tony laughed out loud as they went into the lock. They suited up and completed the safety checks quickly. Finally Ski popped the lock open and they were Outside.
Saving jet packs for when they were absolutely needed, Tony and Ski went hand over hand to the last cube he and Molly had torched. The tug was just leaving the warehouse when they got into position. By the time it closed with its cargo, Tony and Ski had cut a six foot hole in the exterior bulkhead. Constanza signaled the tug he was ready to move the equipment, and it backed away.
This installation was much easier and safer than moving a whole cube. The round structure slid in place without a hitch, and he and Ski made the last welds in almost no time. When they were done, torches fading to a dull blue, they pushed away from the cube together, snagged a girder twenty yards away and turned to admire their handiwork.
"Sod walkers are gonna shit when they see this," Ski said. "And they'll know who did it."
"Hell, I'll tell 'em we did it," Constanza sneered. "All they can do is fine us."
"It's worth it," Ski said. "Looks good doesn't it?"
They stayed Outside for the better part of another hour, looking at the nursery's new window. It was the biggest one the station stocked, six feet across, providing a panoramic view of the station and deep space beyond.
Windows so large were never used in spacer areas. Only engineers had them. Whenever he was Outside, Tony was aware of faces crowded together to watch him, no doubt telling the latest ant jokes.
But the babies would have a big window of their own. Once the other welders heard, no amount of money would tempt any of them to remove it.
Constanza imagined Molly and Dan's baby, floating inside the cube, looking out on the station and deep space that was home. Still grinning, he touched Ski's arm. "Let's go in and get yelled at."
~ end ~