Lang could hear their footsteps in the hallway, right above him. They hadn't noticed him, but all they had to do was look down and squint a little to do so. He was in the dark, underneath the metal grating the ship used for hallway floors.
"So you're on the late shift?" one of them asked.
"Yeah, but it's okay. I traded with Jefferson, he's going to take the Saturday," the other said.
"He doesn't want to be at the party?"
"I guess not. But it works for me," the other said, laughing.
They walked on, and Lang wanted to sigh in relief but stopped himself just in time.
He was on the Lance, a ship bound for Europa. They had left port a few hours ago, and if they discovered him now, they could still drop him off somewhere that wasn't Europa. By his calculations, if the Lance made good headway, they would pass the point of no return in a few hours more. Then, even if he was discovered, he'd be taken into custody and delivered to the port authority in Europa.
To him, that was already a win.
When the crewmen passed the corner and left the hallway, he got up on his hands and knees and crawled further along the crowded space beneath the floor.
He'd been on Ganymede for the past few months. He'd been rebellious and left his family behind with little care to what would happen to them. He'd thought, at that time, that they could take care of themselves, that he was being held back from his potential and that they lacked ambition. Ambition he did have. They were farmers, the only real profession held on Europa. After the Pwyll and Conamara islands were created with soil from Ganymede, it quickly became a favorite among farmers.
Arriving on Ganymede, he'd felt that anything was possible. There was hardly any farming, but there was industry and scientific research being done. He had tried to get a job, even an internship, at all kinds of places, but as a Europan, his education had been mostly about farming. Any topic not specifically about farming had had a slant towards how it could be used to improve farming.
He was immediately out of his depth and after a few months, he knew he'd made a grave mistake. He started noticing that all the produce, all the processed foods, had Europa stamps on it. He'd even found foodstuffs from his family's farm here.
He started to realize that what his family was doing was important. It was ambitious. He'd grown up on Europa and all it had to offer was just... Normal. It was how things were. It wasn't special. Ganymede, however, was completely different. It's colder there. Ganymede used to be slightly warmer, but terraforming efforts on Europa had seen much more investment. It was intended to be the source of food for the entire region, after all.
He hadn't adjusted well. It was dark, cold and you couldn't go outside without a pressurized suit.
So he'd made a choice. He was going back, apologize to his parents and work on the farm as had previously been expected of him. He now understood what it was for. And building out what his family had built up so far was more ambitious than he'd given it credit for.
He bumped into something, which jangled. A high-pitched clanking noise went through the hallway.
He stayed as still as possible, holding in the gasp that had formed in his throat immediately. He couldn't be found now.
After a few minutes, he knew nobody was coming and he kept crawling. He needed to get to the end of the hallway, because that's where the kitchen was. He was starving.
He'd been living off of what he could steal or what was given to him by friendly strangers. He hadn't managed to build any kind of lasting relationship while he was on Ganymede. All he'd been able to get was short-standing friendships of convenience. For example, Haden. They had rolled around together for a few weeks, helping one another steal food and credits, but eventually Lang had woken up alone, without any food or credits. He'd scoured the station he was at, but found that Haden was nowhere to be found. She'd probably left for another station with his stuff in her bag.
After that he'd started being less trusting. He considered whether he would be able to do that to someone and concluded that he'd have to be far hungrier to get to that point. So his disappointment grew.
But while Haden had been around, they had gotten quite good at hiding. They had gotten to know the station well by that point in time and knew secret passageways, how to hide and move under floors quietly -- like he was doing now -- and how to take stuff without it being noticed.
Theft is noticed when there's an obvious break in a pattern. Someone will see that all the oranges are gone. Someone won't easily spot that a single orange is gone. So you take one of each, and it can make for interesting meals. Just make sure you find out what the delivery schedule is, so you don't make it too obvious that the food is slowly disappearing, and you're good.
The Lance would be underway for a few days. It wasn't a terribly long journey, but there would be no deliveries in the meantime. So he knew he needed to be both careful and frugal. It was fine to be hungry, as long as he got enough food in him to keep him going.
He finally managed to worm his way around a big block of machinery -- what it did he didn't know -- and silently listened to see if anyone was coming. At the same time, he listened to see if there was anyone in the kitchen, but he couldn't hear anything. This was going to have to be his moment.
If his stomach started rumbling any more, he wouldn't be able to be very stealthy anyway.
He carefully lifted the floor part up and slid it to the side. He climbed out of the crawlspace and got up, stretching as he went. His bones cracked and he let out a soft sigh. It felt good to be standing again.
He lifted the floor back into place and looked around. He was in the clear.
The door didn't have a window to look through, so he was going to have to go in blind. He swallowed once, then hit the switch. The door silently slid open.
There was someone in the kitchen. And she'd just looked up. Shock was on her face as she looked at Lang. Lang's face went white as he saw her.
"Haden?" Lang stammered.
"What... What are you doing here?" she said, putting down the knife she was chopping onions with.
"Wait, get in and shut the door before you continue," she said while taking off her apron.
Lang did so, then turned back towards Haden.
"What are you doing on this ship?" he asked, a bit of anger in his voice.
"I'm the cook. I got a job on the Lance a while ago."
"You... You stole my shit!"
Haden shook her head.
"I know. And I'm sorry. I messed up."
"You certainly did."
"But here we are. You're not on the crew, and we're not carrying any passengers."
Lang swallowed again. Maybe this wasn't the time to argue with Haden about what had happened in the past, as he needed to focus on getting out of this situation as best he could.
"I'm going home. I couldn't take it on Ganymede anymore. It's given me a much clearer look on things back home."
"You going to be a farmer after all?"
Haden sighed and walked a few paces towards Lang.
"Then I can help. To make up for the crap I pulled on you. You can stay in my cabin. It's not big but you'll have a blanket. And I can give you food. It won't be great, but if you're okay eating scraps -- and you were back on Ganymede -- then you'll have food."
He stared at her, his mouth slightly open, trying to process. Eventually he came to the only response he could give.
"Thank you, Haden."
"No problem. Now, let's get you squared away, wouldn't want any of the officers to find you," she said as she opened the door and led him into the hallway.
Lang considered that this was quite a lucky break.
Perhaps going home was really what he was supposed to do.