by Elizabeth Shack
Jake trudged into the miners’ locker room and straightened his aching shoulders. As soon as he’d arrived on the asteroid, Marta’d warned him to not let the Sarks know they were getting him down. They’d built a galactic empire on the backs of the weak, and Earth didn’t want to be just another building block.
Neither did Jake, even if he had to start with a mining job on Ceres. At least he wasn’t alone—a handful of other humans worked alongside dozens of thick, gray-skinned Sarks, tunneling deep into the rock.
The day had gone well. Grinning, Jake shucked his sweaty suit and dropped it into the laundry bin, wrinkling his nose at the acrid stink of unwashed Sark. The aliens had stopped taunting him after lunch, after they’d seen how fast he worked.
Not as fast as a four-armed, muscular Sark, but faster than Marta and the handful of other humans hollowing out the asteroid. Fast enough to beat his quota, maybe win a bonus.
“Let me see your report.” Marta, the humans’ supervisor, grabbed his tablet.
Jake peered over her shoulder as she tapped the screen, struggling to hide his pride. Pride meant he’d once had doubts, and Sarks didn’t like doubts.
A third of his tonnage disappeared with a beep. “Hey—”
Marta cut his protest off. “You can’t start that far ahead,” she said, her voice sharp despite its low volume. “It makes the rest of us look bad, and it makes the Sarks suspicious. We humans have to stick together. Work a little slower tomorrow.”
Jake pressed his lips together. She’d been just as bossy back on Mars, before their breakup. But he couldn’t afford for the other humans to hate him, not on his first day. “Won’t they notice the reports don’t match the actual weight?”
“They don’t check the data that closely. The records are always a little off.” She handed the tablet back and headed for the dry-showers, tossing a “See you tomorrow” over her shoulder.
Jake slumped at the station’s cheapest bar, fingers drumming the sticky plastic counter. A dozen conversations blended into white noise. The tables were packed—humans were unwelcome in the station’s better establishments unless they were waiters or bartenders, plying Sarks with delicacies the humans couldn’t afford.
Aliens on their way to finer dining paraded past the window that looked out on the corridor. A human striding among them caught Jake’s eye. Marta, close by the side of an eight-foot-tall Sark, head tilted up toward it. Jake frowned, ran his chip over the scanner, and left the bar.
Heart thudding, he followed Marta and the big Sark around the gentle curve of the station’s main corridor, ducking his head every time an alien glanced his way. He’d heard stories about men who provoked a fight with a Sark. It was tough to win against a bigger, stronger creature who could pin you down with two arms and pummel you with the other two. But none tried to stop him—humans had enough freedom to roam the station at will. They weren’t even technically barred from the restaurants. Marta waltzed into one on the arm of the Sark, who Jake realized was one of the mine’s administrators. Suspicion inched its way up his spine.
He paid a human cook to let him in the back entrance and donned an apron. Playing busboy, he crept close to Marta’s table.
“…Won 18 naironns from chief,” the Sark said. “It was… house run?”
“Home run,” Marta chirped, leaning toward the alien.
Jake plucked silverware off the table behind theirs, piece by piece. Marta’s behavior reminded him of their flirtatious early dates. The thought of a Sark’s rough hands on her skin made him shudder.
Its voice was like gravel. “How was the new human?”
Jake’s hand froze on a dirty plate.
“Fantastic,” Marta said. “I took thirty percent. Had to spread it around more than usual.”
The Sark laughed. “Chief will not notice, no good with numbers. That is my job.” Marta’s laugh joined the alien’s. It pointed a stubby finger at Jake, whose mind was racing. “You! Two glasses best champagne! We are rich now!”
Jake flinched, but Marta didn’t turn around. He stepped behind the screen that hid the bar and paused. Thirty percent. Spread it around. Rich.
Sark workers earned twice as much per haul as humans. Take some kilos off a human’s totals, add it to a Sark’s, collect the extra pay, and treat yourself to a bottle of bubbly. The Sark will never know, and the human won’t dare to complain.
We humans have to stick together, Marta had said. What a hypocrite.
Jake grabbed a bottle and two glasses from behind the bar. His steps to the table were slow and measured. Humans who consorted with Sarks….
Marta said something and the Sark laughed, as if they were friends.
As if they were equals.
Thoughtful, Jake returned to the bar before marching up to the table.
The Sark leaped to its feet, towering above him. Marta stared up at him, eyes wide, and stretched to put a hand on the Sark’s arm.
Jake set down the bottle and two glasses. “Couldn’t help overhearing.” He smirked at Marta, added a third glass, and sank into a chair. “I want in.”
Elizabeth Shacks work has appeared in Daily Science Fiction and Fictionvale. Visit her at elizabethshack.com