Countless stars in the black void. That was all I could see. And so many of them, they were like the roe of God, shimmering in the womb of an infinite night.
Lost in the wonder of it, I had completely forgotten my work until I heard Target’s voice crackle in the speaker of my spacesuit.
“Argos-277 to Apollo! Argos-277 to Apollo! Is anybody up there fucking paying attention?”
I looked down into the mine shaft where Target was working, unable to see him but knowing he was down there, looking back up at me.
“What do you need?”
“Oh, a couple of donuts and a blonde. What the fuck do you think I need? I told you to send that hoist bucket down here fifteen fucking minutes ago.”
“No, to be exact, you said you were almost ready for the hoist bucket about fifteen minutes ago and I’ve been up here waiting for your next command ever since.”
“Well, I’m fucking ready now, so send it down.”
Slowly, and with great care, I reached out with an artificial arm and snatched the hoist bucket, thinking of Casey as I did. He probably would have told Target. “Say please.” To which Target would have exploded.
Every mining boss I had ever known was that way. Always on a short fuse. Always with a stick up their ass. Quotas. Deadlines. End of the world crap.
But out here? In the middle of outer space? Who the hell cared?
Well, obviously Target did and ran his operation just like we were working in one of those hellholes back on Earth, two miles down, around the clock shifts. Building the pyramids, men called it. Always some kind of artificial deadline. The pharaoh wanted it done yesterday and they had a whip if you didn’t like the deadlines. And they had a gun if you didn’t like the whip.
One hundred years of tyranny and revolts back on earth had failed to throw off the yoke of the ruling class. They had the guns and total power now and shot anyone who dared to get out of hand.
“Any fucking time now,” I heard Target say.
Having brought the hoist around to the shaft, I started lowering it down into the hole. A few seconds later, the feed pipe froze somewhere up in the derrick above my head. I tried ramming the feed pipe up and down several times but that only seemed to freeze it more stubbornly into place.
“Any fucking day now,” Target said.
“The feed pipe locked up.”
Target went off on an expletive laced tirade.
A moment later, Casey came floating up out of the man shaft, bounded over to my position and shoved me away from the control panel.
“You could fuck up a wet dream, you know that, Apollo?” he told me.
I saw Casey’s big smile through the screen of his spacesuit.
He tried ramming the feed pipe up and down several times, just as I had done, with the same results.
“It’s probably the crown block,” I said.
“Brilliant deduction, Casey”
I was preparing to climb up and inspect things but Casey shoved me aside again and took the lead in my place.
“Don’t be a hero,” I said as he went scrambling up the outside of the derrick. “Tie yourself off.”
“Yeah, and turn a five minute operation into half an hour.”
“Better that than hurtling off into space.”
“Chill out, Apollo. I’ve got a date with a doll over at the Where The Stars Come Out At Night Café. We’ll be done here in a couple of minutes.”
“What the fuck is going on up there?” Target shouted out from down below.
“Casey’s working on it,” I said.
I heard Target cursing again and his sound went dead.
With one eye on Casey, I stared back up at the stars, though it was not really staring up. The stars were everywhere and slowly rotating around me as Argos-277 tumbled through space. The burnished red star of Mars was out there somewhere, and Earth too, but they were lost among the other stars. It was impossible to distinguish them without a telescope—just two more cold stars in the void from three hundred million miles. Then Jupiter suddenly rose in the sky, like a huge, yellow moon, mottled with gray and ochre and russet. Then it was gone from view with the slow tumbling of the asteroid.
“Goddamn it! Let’s get a move on!” I heard Target saying.
I gestured up at Casey. How much longer? He gave me a thumbs up.
“He’s almost got it,” I called back to Target.
“All right. Fuck it,” I heard Target say to the other men down below. “I haven’t got all eternity. Crank up that drill again and let’s get the next droid crew working on their shift. I need a drink.”
“No!” I called back. “Casey’s up there untethered on the derrick!”
When Target failed to answer me, I shouted down at him again.
“Casey’s fucking untethered!”
When Target again failed to answer, I shouted up at Casey but it was too late. The drill motor kicked into gear with a tremendous jerk and Casey, who had been fiddling with the crown block, went hurtling off into space. It was like someone had hit a homerun, without the gravity involved.
“Fuck, Apollo! You’d better get out here to rescue me!”
“I’m on my way! Just hang in there and keep talking.”
I quickly switched my carabiner from the derrick lead onto a rope line and bounded over towards the two-man shuttle as fast as I could.
“Fuck, man. You’re already disappearing,” I heard Casey saying.
I looked up in the direction of where he had gone somersaulting off into the black void but he was already lost from sight.
“You still there?” I said as I bounded along.
“Yeah, I’m still here.”
I glanced up once in the silence.
“But I’m totally fucked, dude.”
I did not answer.
“I said I’m totally fucked, aren’t I, Apollo?”
“Just hang in there, Casey. I’m almost to the shuttle. And keep talking. It’ll help me to track you.”
I can’t believe…”
Casey’s voice cracked up into static.
Just as I reached the shuttle, the static gave way to eight more words.
“…what a fucking way to end your life…”
I heard that and the communication went dead. I lifted the shuttle lid and had one leg in when I felt a firm grip on my shoulder. I turned to find Target standing there next to me. Robart, the lead mining crew droid was standing next to him.
“Forget it,” Target said.
“Fuck you,” I said. “We at least have to go look for him.”
I again started to climb in but Target’s grip grew that much more forceful.
“Not on my dime, you’re not.”
“Is that all you’re thinking about, Target? How much fuel it’s going to cost you?”
“No, but look out there. How the hell are we going to find him now? You go looking and the next thing I know, I’ll have lost you and a shuttle too.”
I looked from Target to Robart, who was staring impassively at me. That was the way they programmed those droids to look. Cold, clinical and emotionless. Still, you wondered. Were there feelings back there behind those eyes? Was he troubled by Casey’s loss, like I was?
Robart glanced out into the void of space and back at me. It sure seemed like he felt something, but who knew? It was probably me reading my own feelings into things.
“So, are we all right?” Target said to me.
Without answering him, I glanced up into the black void. He was right. There was no finding Casey now. Still, your gut said you had to go look.
Barnes and three other mining crew members came up behind us just then.
“Well, are we going to go look for him or what?”
Barnes looked at me. I nodded at Target.
“So, what the fuck?” Barnes said to Target.
“I told you son of a bitches to stay down in the mine, didn’t I? Now let’s get back to work?”
“Fuck you,” Barnes said. “If it was one of your precious droids here, you sure as shit would be going after it, wouldn’t you?”
Target glanced at Robart. Robart was staring at Barnes.
“That’s right,” Barnes said while staring at Robart. “You got a hundred thousand federations sunk into your precious little baby here, but us humans? We’re fucking dispensable.”
“Just get the fuck back down in the mine and let’s lift that load. It’s been a long shift already and I’m sure everyone’s dying to get back to main base.”
“Yeah, like Casey. I’ll bet you he’s dying to get back to main base about now too.”
“Just move it,” Target said, “or you’re going to find yourself back on Mars, broke and looking for a job.”
I reattached my carabiner to the rope line and headed back over towards the derrick.
“What a fucking bummer,” I heard Barnes say and looked back. He and the others were coming along behind me, however reluctantly.
By the time they arrived, I was already crawling up to work on the shaft. It was almost unlocked. Casey had nearly gotten the job done before he went tumbling off into space. I looked up into the vastness of the universe. Until the end of time now, Casey would be hurtling off through that nothingness, or at least until some form of mass sucked him into its gravitational field.
“You done up there?” Target called to me from down below.
“Yeah, go ahead and run it.”
I waited around long enough to make sure the shaft had been freed before I crawled back down. Robart was standing there with Target when I hit ground level. We stared at each other as Target hoisted the load of ore up to the surface.
“Too bad about Casey,” Robart said to me.
At hearing that, Target’s head snapped around to look.
“All right, break up the bullshit and let’s grab this line.”
While still staring at me, Robart did so. Then he went about his work. I continued staring at him, left to wonder again what went on inside his brain.
A few minutes later, with the ore finally placed away in storage, the other men appeared one by one out of the mine. A morose mood had settled over everyone.
“All right,” Target told Robart. “Get down there and make sure the next shift is in gear.”
Robart glanced at all the men before leaving. They watched Robart until he was gone, then turned their disgruntled looks at Target.
“Don’t give me those fucking looks,” Target said. “There wasn’t any saving him, all right? Look at it! Look at it!”
He waved his hand at the wide, black universe shimmering around us.
“The man forgot to tether himself off, so let that be a lesson to you. Work smart and shit like this won’t happen.”
I started off towards the ten man shuttle, thinking of Casey. As the other men piled in with me, there were looks all around—angry looks, dangerous looks—but not a word was said.
Target waited until the last man had gotten in and the door was securely latched before he started his engines. A gyroscope kicked in the minute he lifted off and started the shuttle to tumbling in unison with the asteroid. We went skimming along the surface of it, heading back to base. Argos-277 was an M-class, roughly two miles long and a half mile across. Base was down at the far end from the mining operations. I stared out into the great black void, searching for Casey.
Once we were over home base, Target hit a switch and the docking bay doors slid open. As soon as we had touched down, the doors slid closed above us. Everyone disembarked in silence and stepped into the compression bay. The soles of our shoes were partly metal and the floor was slightly magnetized, keeping us in place as we walked.
Inside the compression bay, Target hit the close button. I exchanged looks with the men standing behind him. If knives had been handy, someone probably would have stuck one in Target’s back.
Once the compression bay had filled with oxygen, everyone took off their helmets. The door to the base opened and Target gestured for everyone to go on ahead of him.
Each of us started down the rock-lined passageway, methodically, step by step. There were two basic ways of moving around on the asteroid—down one of these magnetized walkways with your metal shoes on, or bounding along in the air. With Argos-277 having a slight bit of gravity, any mass hurtled into the air eventually came down, but very, very slowly—like a helium balloon that was running low on helium. You went bounding along in the air, the weightlessness of it making you feel giddy.
But no one was feeling giddy now and we made our way down the dank, dreary passageway in silence. The jagged rock walls and ceiling bled moisture around us. There were no improvements, save for the metal floor and a few battery operated lights. Plants lined both walls, the plants genetically designed to be edible, to live on minimal water and to devour up as much carbon dioxide as possible. It wasn’t a break even enterprise, but the cost in water was well worth the savings in oxygen those plants spit back out.
Our sleeping quarters were on the left side of the passageway and I turned into mine without saying a word. Target continued down the hallway alone. The other men lingered around the doors to their rooms. As soon as Target was out of earshot, I heard them scheming among themselves.
Exhausted from my shift, and still in shock over Casey’s loss, I lay down and stared up at the netting above my cot. The netting was there in case you forgot to anchor yourself in before going to sleep. Each of these personal quarters amounted to a one man prison cell. Actually, with the silica based door and walls, the feeling was that of an office cubicle. A toilet and sink sat against one wall. The toilet worked on an air flush. One blast sent your waste hurtling off into space. I wanted to take a shower but you were allotted only one a week, at a communal spot down the hall. Otherwise, each man received two gallons of water a day for hydrating, a splash bath and brushing your teeth in the sink. Water was precious and recycled. The pipes necessary to accommodate this enterprise jutted out of the walls here and there.
Ice was the key out here, more precious than gold. Ice was water and water was life. Water could even be turned into fuel. Liquid hydrogen was far easier to make when the ambient temperature outside was -273 degrees C.
As I lay there, I heard the main air pump pounding away. It was like a heartbeat. Boom…boom…boom…boom. I heard it in my head, until I was unsure of the difference anymore. Maybe it was my own heart pumping away.
I closed my eyes and tried not to think of Casey.
Not much longer, I thought. I had signed a five year contract and had six months more to go. A man could walk on his contract anytime, but then you forfeited everything you had earned. If you were lucky, they gave you passage back to Mars, where you would be broke and blackballed. Most men who walked on their contracts limped back to earth, beaten and half mad. Those who didn’t head back to earth usually turned to piracy. Once you had been blackballed out here on the frontier, there weren’t many other options open to you.
Six months more and I could hitch a ride back to Mars. Start shopping for the ship I wanted. A Magellan class with long range, high speed ion thruster engines and liquid hydrogen for a quick thrust backup. You couldn’t dart in and out of battle like the smaller, Drake class ships, but you could haul big loads long distances, and that’s where the big money was.
Before I dozed off, the image of Casey came back to haunt me. For all of eternity, drifting off through the cosmos. Eyes and mouth open. Like a spirit forever being reborn into the universe. Then, maybe they’d find him stuck to the side of a nearby asteroid next week.
He was dead, I was alive and everything in between those two things two had very little meaning these days. That was all I could really say.
Exhausted, I fell into slumber.