Strictly Business

By Gary Cuba

Artwork by Jose Baetas.

Corporate takeovers could be brutal, especially when they involved deep space assets. Samuel Stein knew what was coming; he'd seen it all before.

For any who hadn't, the handwriting on the wall was the small group of Apex Interplanetary Industries executives who'd shuttled aboard their orbiting factory headquarters the day before. They marched straightaway into the inner sanctums of the Conglin Enterprises corporate office, accompanied by their stone-faced security people.

The station's Operating Manager had already been canned, just a few days before. Before returning to Earth he gave one last instruction to Sam, his most trusted senior-level employee: Do your best to protect the assets during the final transfer. A company man to the end, Sam thought--although the wetness that had gathered in his eyes as he shook Sam's hand for the last time suggested more complex emotions at play.

Now the Apex hatchetmen had arrived in force. While the other employees wrung their hands in despair, Sam pecked away at his work terminal, trying to predict and prepare for what might come next.


This morning, Sam fiddled with his coffee squeezebulb in the employee breakroom, staring at the wrinkles and age spots on his hands. Around him sat three of his closest work friends, all of them younger than he. Other small groups occupied the neighboring tables. It was eerily quiet inside the normally clamorous room; on this particular morning, nobody quite knew what to do or say. They could only sit and await word of their ongoing employment status.

Tom Johansson, the youngest and least experienced of them, broke the silence. "Shoot, I never even got the chance to fully learn my job." His voice cracked. "No way they're gonna keep me on. I'm a goner, sure as heck!"

"You never know," Sam said. "Potential may count for a lot. You're a smart enough fellow. Versatile. And you've applied yourself really well during your time here."

Andre Petrov, a senior-grade engineer whose brooding features were accentuated by purple radiation burns, leaned back in his chair. "Thomas, just be glad you don't have a wife and kids to support. Not like me. And times are darned tough out there, what with the economy the way it is."

Sam closed his eyes and brought up a memory of his own wife, Sarah. She'd died years before, but her features lived on in the face of their grown daughter--and all the grandkids had also inherited Sarah's looks. He couldn't help but smile at his momentary reverie.

"Sam, you're probably the safest."

This came from Peter Murphy, who sat at the opposite end of the table. Of them all, he was Sam's closest and dearest friend. "Hell," Peter said, "you know everything there is to know about how things work around here. Whenever we had a problem, we always came to you for solutions."

Sam grunted. "Thanks for the kind thought, but experience alone might not carry much weight in this situation. I expect these new folks have their own ideas about how things ought to operate. If so, they won't consider any of our legacy systems to have much value."

A mirrorshaded Apex security guard appeared at the entrance to the room. "Thomas Johansson? Please accompany me."

Sam heard Tom's breath catch. The young man rose and trudged over to the guard. Tom paused and looked back at his friends for a long moment. Sam lowered his head, unable to meet the man's forlorn gaze.

Silence reigned at the table. A short time later, they saw Tom being escorted back past the breakroom. He carried a small sack, presumably containing his personal effects. He didn't even glance in their direction; his head remained bent low, staring at the floor directly in front of his plodding feet.

Over the next hour, the same scene played out for every other person in the room. As far as Sam could tell, all had been fired. Now it was his turn, the last one left.

He entered the executive office with the guard, where three Apex men sat behind a wide table. There was no chair for him to sit in. He could only stand in front of the men, who were apparently reviewing his employee file on their computer screens. They whispered among themselves.

"Mr. Stein," the man in the middle said. "Your skills and significant work experience are noted, but they are not a good match for Apex, going forward. Thank you very much."

"With all due respect, sirs, there's a lot of 'tribal knowledge' required to run this factory at maximum productivity. I'm talking about critical information that's not contained in any specifications or procedural manuals. You're tossing it all away. Take Calciner Number 3, for example. It takes some special tricks to keep it running smoothly and safely, and--"

"Mr. Stein, what part of 'you're fired' don't you understand?"

Sam nodded once, turned, and walked out of the office with the guard. So it's going to be a total personnel purge. If that had been their original intention, why hadn't they simply announced it to the Conglin group as a whole? Not really so difficult to understand, Sam thought upon reflection; they maintained psychological and physical control that way. Let each individual retain a grain of hope up to the end, but also make sure we understand the exact nature of the situation: We are the bleating sheep, they the dominating wolves. Better to pick us off one by one. It was a time-honored strategy.

Sam and the guard detoured to his old workspace, where he picked up his personal articles. He'd gathered them together the day before; it only took him a few seconds to bag them. He leaned over his work computer and shut it down. Sam thought: I'm getting way too old for this kind of horsecrap.

He rejoined his friends, who stood waiting with their bags in the station's port lobby along with the rest of his coworkers. They glanced at each other wordlessly. Sam took a quick count of the group. Yep, they were all there, every single Conglin employee on the station.

The inner hatch doors of the disembarkation port opened. Under the Apex guards' prodding, Sam and the herd of fired employees advanced into the large transfer antechamber.

The doors closed and sealed behind them with a sharp metallic clank. Someone pointed up at the outer hull door status indicator and cried out, "There's no shuttle connected!" A communal gasp filled the room. The door's activation countdown display lit up at that moment: ten seconds, nine, eight . . .

Tom sobbed openly; Andre just issued a deep sigh.

Their imminent fate had become instantly clear to everyone there. Nothing but vacuum stood behind that door.

Sam chuckled and nodded his head. Out here, so far away from the constraints of civil law, impersonal corporate entities might indeed choose to use the cheapest and most convenient way to clear out unwanted detritus. He felt a hand on his shoulder, and he heard Peter say to him in a quavering voice, "I'm glad to have known you, Sam. Give Sarah my dearest regards when you meet up with her again."

Sam turned to his friend and gave him a broad smile. "Not today, Peter. Explosive decompression isn't in our immediate future." He flipped open his comm pod and hit a key. "I programmed a number of different scenarios into the station computer's control logic yesterday. The option I just activated will open all the incoming port hatches, should the computer sense that we don't have a proper connection to an outgoing personnel shuttle craft."

When the disembarkation hatch countdown display hit zero, he heard the sound of the station's atmosphere venting violently on the other side of their securely sealed chamber door.

He imagined the Apex men's consternation, followed swiftly by their panic when all the interior safety doors in the station mysteriously failed to shut in the emergency. Within moments, the hatchetmen and their lackeys would find themselves the ones who were sucked out of the station into the vacuum of space.

"It's strictly business, my friend," Sam continued. "Our business is to stay alive to work another day. We'll deal with tomorrow when it comes. But I have a feeling our new owners will get today's message loud and clear, and come to understand what their true assets really are."

Note from Kasma's editors: this story originally appeared in Quantum Realities (Jan 2013).