The roof is surely gonna fall. I cringe at the thought of saying anything—I already know what the reaction’s gonna be. But the rock here is soft. I can feel the weakness through my gloves as my machine drills the roof. It’s going through like a hot knife goes through soft cheese. That’s why their mining machine is working so good today, why the rock is grinding out fast, and ain’t one of them clever enough to ask himself how come we’re moving so fast today?
I watch them out the corner of my eye: they’re grinding, manhandling the conveyor belt, trenching the floor to guide the trickle of water to the collection point. But too fast!
I know a lot of the guys on the crew from high school—I especially remember a couple that ganged up and punched me out a few months back. Why not, everybody else did. But no one ever apologized and I reckon no one ever will. That ain’t the way it goes here. I don’t hang with them, don’t eat with them, and they don’t talk to me neither—unless it’s about work. I steer clear when I can; it’s healthier that way.
I figure I gotta speak up. But I cringe at the thought.
“Excuse me, Mr. Ickes,” I say, punching transmit on my wristy as I walk up to face him. “I’m sorry—I’m doing my level best but I can’t keep up.”
The foreman stops yammering at his boys and faces me. His visor is foggy with his own breath. I can see his pale, wrinkled face and yellowed eyes from behind the transparency, see him struggling to catch his breath, hear his constant phlegmy cough. Decades of dust exposure, a sad souvenir of the early days when the decontamination rules were all loosy-goosy. Big chunks of his lungs are most likely rotted away. And he’s also got that chip on his shoulder—that seething, crotchety anger smoldering just below the surface, so common among the old-timers here. Especially towards me. Ain’t I the lucky one.
“You’re just gonna have to pick it up, Yuuta boy,” he barks. “We ain’t gonna slack off for some Yuuta so he can stand around pickin’ his ass.”
“But my machine won’t go no faster,” I say. “Without the bolts, the roof could collapse.”
“Ah, buncha dust puke crap,” he says. “Roof ain’t gonna fall. Besides, we only got a few more hours before we gotta stop. We meet quota or we all get docked. Even you, rich boy.”
Rich boy. There it is again. Everybody in Shacktown thinks I got a secret fortune stashed away. But Pops didn’t never share squat with me. Wherever he’s gone with the money, it’s just as much a mystery to me as it is to everyone else. I’d like to kill him just like they would. More so I reckon. And I will someday if I get the chance, the black-hearted sumbitch. But nobody believes that.
“Look,” I say, “the roof bolter won’t go no faster than I been pushing it. If you ain’t gonna slow down, I’m gonna go back and get some jacks to fill in behind until you stop.”
“Suit yourself boy, but we keep moving,” he says, and spins his arm around to signal his crew to get back at it.
I hoof it over to the tram. I’ll go back to the staging area, load up the bed with roof jacks, and be back within a few minutes. I check my wristy—that son of a billy goat Ickes is right about the time. We’re only allowed to dig during certain hours on account of the ground vibrations blur the images from the Big Scope. It’s agreed that they get certain hours of eyeballing and we get the other hours to dig. The big digging machine that Foreman Ickes and his boys are driving makes a lot of vibration. My roof bolter, not so much. I can follow up later with bolts and take down the jacks after the diggers are done. Of course, that makes my shift longer, but it’s better than a cave-in. I hope Ickes don’t start making a habit of this.
I push the tram’s motor to its max. The long, flat cart lurches forward. It’s pretty bumpy but I gotta go fast just the same. The sooner I get back, the better. I careen through the rocky tunnel, glove gripping the tiller, careful to avoid the sharp-edged walls and the conveyor belt topped with its endless, moving stream of rocks. The shadows on the walls and floor ahead skitter away from the tram’s lights like shy, black ghosts. And everything is veiled behind the always-present dust, which makes the tunnel even spookier. But I’m used to that by now.
The roof above me is peppered with the bolts and plates that my machine and I have screwed in—hundreds of them. And Ickes says I’m lazy. Off to the side of the tunnel is the trench with a precious trickle of water rushing down the incline. That’s what this whole exercise is about: the water.
Malapert has a much better system—they find pockets of water before they dig. They drill directly to underground pockets of the stuff, but we in Shacktown have to guess where the water is and mine for it. Malapert has a gadget that we don’t have, and we can’t get, because they won’t license the tech to us. And they won’t sell us their water. For us, it’s dig or die.
I’m grateful for the work though, because without it I don’t know how I would eat. Things ain’t easy in Shacktown. I cannot wait to leave. I’ll leave Ickes and water mining and the dirty squalor of Shacktown in my past. I been training for the Corps for a whole year; nights and days off, even reviewing material during slack time at work when Ickes and the super weren’t around. And I graduated a few months ago, yay. All I need now is a ship and a berth and I will kiss this piss-pot town goodbye. That’s my plan, anyways. Gotta have something to look forward to or I would go crazy down here.
I come to the pile of jacks I’ve left up near the plug. The plug is a movable rig that seals against the walls and contains three rooms: the dressing room, the airlock, and the decontamination unit. If you enter from the civilized world, you go through the dressing room, where you put on an environment suit, go through the airlock, then go through the decontamination unit. The decon unit sprays your suit with a coat of special oil. When you leave the mine, you get the oil dissolved off you in a shower of solvent. Then you go back through the airlock, doff your suit in the dressing room and leave it on a hook to dry until the next day of work. Just watch out when you take the suit off because the solvent stinks. I mean, really bad; it stings your nose and makes your eyes water. So it takes a while to get in and out of the mine but you get used to the routine. At least you’re on the clock.
I jump off the tram and gather jacks fast as I can. They’re big and long but not too heavy. Bulky, mostly. I pile up a couple dozen on the flat bed of the tram, careful not to tear my suit. I take the tiller on the other side. I twist the speed control and off we go, rolling and bumping through the gloom back down to the mine face.
Within a minute I feel a jolt. My seat bumps and I and see a thick, angry cloud of dust rolling in on me from the tunnel ahead. Oh no. My suit radio erupts.
“I’m stuck! Somebody help!” That sounds like Kirk, the leader of the gang that walloped me back in school.
“What the hell!” That one is Ickes because I can hear his gurgle and wheeze between the corners of his words.
I hear more panic, cursing, cries of pain. I’ve already got the tram going as fast as it will go but I twist the handle a little harder anyway. I hit a rushing wall of white pea-soup anthracite dust that I can’t see through. It collects on my visor and the tram’s lights won’t penetrate it. I am blind. I jam on the brakes. For a second I’m not sure what to do. The cries for help keep coming.
A responding call from Emergency Services comes over the radio: they’re on their way. But they won’t get here for at least 20 minutes—they have to get suited up and go through the plug just like everybody else. I jump off the cart, grab a heavy crowbar from the toolbox in back of the seat, and shuffle my feet down through the dust, feeling my way along the rough wall to my left side, wiping my visor to make a clean steak so I can see at least a little.
My helmet lights ain’t doing too good neither, it just makes the opaque cloud glare into my eyes, so I turn it off and continue down the tunnel in near darkness. The only light is a weak yellow flicker coming from a wall lamp about 5 meters back of me. I’m stumbling on loose rocks that I cannot see. I feel my way around them as frenzied pleadings for help squawk from my headset speakers, one after another.
I transmit. “This is Yuuta. I’m coming to you quick as I can. You probably heard that Emergency Services is coming too. Hang on.”
Just then my boot hits another rock. I lose my balance and stumble into the wall. I flail around for something to grab but there ain’t nothing so I fall down onto another big rock. Its sharp edges jam into my ribcage, hard. I gasp from the pain. The wind is knocked out of me. For a few seconds I can’t breathe, and I just have to let the pain wash over me. Eventually I can breathe but every time I do it hurts.
I push myself back to a kneeling position. I check for tears; the suit is OK. Then I stand, wobbly at first, and continue on, holding my aching, bruised ribcage, feeling my way.
My boot hits another rock but this time I don’t fall. I swing the crowbar in front of me. The metal hits something solid. I feel with my gloves to get an idea what’s in front of me. It takes me a few seconds to figure out that the pile of rubble reaches from one side of the tunnel to the other. Ain’t no passage through.
I’ll have to make my own. I switch my headlight back on and start on the right side of the tunnel, pulling rocks from the pile, one by one, and toss them to my left. Some boulders are half as big as I am. Their size makes them hard to manage, but I slowly make a dent in the wall. The crowbar helps with rocks that are hard-jammed in. Sweat streaks down my face inside the helmet, stinging my eyes.
There’s a tap on my shoulder. “You must be Yuuta,” says the voice in my headset.
I sweep my glove over my visor to make a clean path and look at the cluster of suited figures behind me. Emergency responders. “Yup, that’s affirm, I’m Yuuta. They’re on the other side of this pile,” I say.
“OK,” he says, “You’ve done what you can do. We need you to clear out now. In these conditions you’ll only be in the way. We’ve got equipment that will open this up.”
“Roger that, I’m out of here. Good luck,” I say.
I hoof it all the way back, finding the tram where I parked it, but leaving it there; the visibility this far back is still too bad to drive. I feel along the wall and walk until I’m back at the plug. I go through the solvent shower and stand in the airlock, dripping, until the chamber is pressurized. I open the hatch to the dressing room.
The superintendent is in the room, putting on his suit as I start pulling mine off. He’s a tall, red-faced man with bushy eyebrows and a tendency towards drama. He pauses, helmet under his arm. “What happened, Straker?” he asks.
I pull off my helmet and sip from a paper cup full of water before speaking. The vapor from the solvent always dries out my throat. “There’s been a cave-in,” I say between gulps. “It’s pretty bad. I think some of the crew are hurt. The guys from Emergency Services are working their way through the rubble now.”
“How did that happen, Straker?” he asks, his eyebrows low over his narrowed eyes.
“Roof fell, I think,” I say. “I was working as fast as I could. Ickes and his men were digging faster than I could bolt.”
“Why weren’t you with them then?”
“I…wait a minute, this was not my fault! I told Ickes to slow down but he wouldn’t. I came back to get some jacks to shore up behind him. The roof caved in when I was on my way back to the face.”
“So you left them there? You left your machine, with the roof unbolted behind the crew?”
“Well, yea, but it was the best I could do! I can put up temporary jacks faster than I can bolt. I was gonna finish up the bolting after he stopped.”
The super shakes his head and frowns. “Yuuta, you’re fired. You can’t just leave the machine while a crew is digging. That was completely irresponsible. Get your stuff and get out.”
“What? You’ve gotta be hosing me!”
“You think I’m gonna take your word for it?” he says, one hand on his hip, the other shaking a finger in my face. “Last time I trusted someone named Yuuta I was out ten thousand coin. Now get out. Out!”
With a final red-eyed glare, he pushes on his helmet, climbs into the airlock and slams the hatch shut behind him. I sit there, on a bench in the dressing room, my head in my hands, surrounded by empty staring helmets and flaccid suits and stinking air, feeling the rage build inside me.
I can’t believe this. I know life is unfair; I’ve known that for a long, long time. But my gut wants something more. My gut wants an even break. Is that asking too much? Really, is that asking too much?
I pull off my suit and put on my regular clothes. I leave my enviro suit laying on the floor—let somebody else pick it up. I look around at all the other suits hanging from the wall, each with the name of a crewperson bonded to the chest, the wrists and ankles tied off to keep the stinkroaches out. The empty helmets gawk at me in judging disapproval.
I yank them down, every helmet and every last suit; I yank them all down to a pile on the floor and then kick the nasty contents of the trashcan onto the pile for good measure. A half-dozen greasy stinkroaches scurry for cover. Somebody else can pick that up too.
I leave the room, slamming the door behind me. I tramp up the rocky slope, passing the security doors and entering the wide main tunnel. The thrumming of heavy machinery recedes behind me as I trudge forward through a main, wide tunnel. The sign on the wall says ‘Corridor C’. Emergency personnel are still running in from the other end of Corr C but I don’t turn my head as they pass.
I only think about my own anger, walking hard and fast to bleed it away. I catch the moving sidewalk in stride and continue walking. I make my way through the meandering tunnel with its ventilation ducts, pipes, and electrical conduit bolted to the rock. It’s colder here—I fasten the top snap of my coveralls when I start seeing my breath. There are the kiosks selling everything from pastries to homemade tools, with grim-faced people walking in the both directions, wordlessly shoving past one another unless they’re arguing about something. A scrawny rooster cautiously picks his path through the crowd, hoping for a snack.
The only relief from the dismal scenery are the colorful murals on the walls; something I’ve grown accustomed to and usually fail to appreciate. School children over the years have painted them to add color and life to their otherwise bleak world. Much of it is just graffiti, but some of the murals are halfway decent, depicting families walking outside, breathing free air, surrounded by trees and birds and animals; sometimes with forest animals but often featuring cats and dogs.
We see none of those things here. The murals are all imaginings from videos and pictures the children have seen. I pass the Cesar Chavez entrance to the farm tunnels, where people queue up to get a glimpse of the goats and sheep. They don’t let folks see the rabbits no more—too dangerous. Further on I pass the environmental plant, where water is purified and made into air, then come to the recreation areas where kids play tunnel soccer and roller skate.
Markets for clothing, food, tools, computer equipment, specialty water. An old woman squatting on a blanket, onto which she has spread a few dozen pair of shoes and trinkets and worn-out wristies, hoping something will sell. A couple of boys arguing about something.
I wonder if there’s going to be a fight, consider sticking around to watch, but keep walking. I get off on the stop near the Blisters & Blood saloon. It’s where I usually snag my meals instead of a cafeteria. Their menu ain’t much and the water is cloudy, but it’s a good place to be alone.
I push past the double swinging doors and past the little stage where the local bands play. But not now, it’s much too early and the place is nearly empty, just a couple of guys and a woman sitting at tables, wolfing down chow before their shifts. I take a seat at the bar. The lights are low. The place stinks of whisky and frying oil.
I’m turning it over and over in my head and I keep asking myself: what should I have done different? Was going back to get them jacks the best thing I could do? I wonder if everybody made it out OK. And I also wonder—if someone did get killed or hurt—if maybe it ain’t my fault a little bit. But what else could I have done?
Cranky Old Tanner is wiping glasses in his sink. “You off work already, Straker?” he asks.
“Hi Mr. Tanner, I say. “Yup, you might say I’m off work. I got fired.”
“Well ain’t that a pisser,” he says, lifting his furry eyebrows and shaking his head. “Heard they had an accident down there. Roof fell, I hear.”
Word in Shacktown travels fast, and it travels directly to Old Tanner. I tell him all about it anyways. I tell him my side of the story, because I’m sure he’ll hear the other side from the net. Old Tanner ain’t a bad sort to talk to about these things; not sure if he really cares or if it’s all just part of the job to him, but at this point I’ll take what I can get.
“Well,” he says, “another bite of the crap sandwich. I don’t see how you deserve to be fired, though. Ain’t like anybody got killed.”
“Oh, is that a fact?” I ask.
“Yup. It’s all on the net. Few bruises is all. The big machine got bent up.”
“Well, that’s good anyways. Ain’t none of them my friend, but I don’t wish no ugly on them neither. But thanks for telling me—I couldn’t bring myself to check my wrist.”
“That superintendent overreacted,” says Tanner, pulling up a fresh beer mug from the grey water. “People have gotten just plain mean here in Shacktown. It didn’t used to be this way. Used to be right cordial. Things just kinda went bad when, well you know…”
“When my Pops ripped everybody off.”
He looks down at his sink and rubs the glass in his hand with extra vigor. “Yea, that was a part of it. Nothing to do with you, Straker. But it was also when Malapert got their fancy water tech. Our guys just couldn’t compete in the market no more. Took the soul right out of the town—everything’s been downhill ever since.”
“Most of that was before my time. You’d think somebody would figure something out by now. Some new way to make money.”
“Oh, well, sure,” he says, nodding. “Things are bound to get better. There’s the stroid mining; that’s about the only thing keeping us afloat. They’ll hit it big one day, just wait. You finish up with the Corps training?
“Yup,” I say. “Couple months back. Now I just need a ride.”
“Well, you’ll get your chance,” he says. “Funny. Time was when them astronauts was test pilots and all manner of educated. Celebrated as heroes, too. Nowadays, with you local kids, you can start spacing right out of high school. More of a working man’s job.”
I nod. Things are different here. Nothing glamorous about spacing in this town—mostly grunt work anyways.
Old Tanner leans in. “We got company,” he says, nodding towards the door, then picking up another wet mug.
The Provisional Government marshal is walking in. He’s the face of ProvGov within Shacktown and Tycho and Malapert—pretty much everyplace south of the equator. I had my share of unlovely moments with the marshal in the not-too-far-off past but that’s all behind me now. Old Tanner looks at me over his spectacles. “You want some fried lamb and frittes? It’s what’s on special. Plus it’s all I got.”
“Yea, thanks,” I say. “I’m starved.”
The marshal—Devian Baumann—sits down on the stool next to me. “Beer,” he says to Old Tanner. Then he looks at me and says, “Hello Straker. You been behaving yourself?”
“Hi Marshal,” I say. “Yup, I been so good folks hardly know it’s me.”
“Understand you were involved in a cave-in,” he says.
“I couldn’t bolt the roof fast enough to keep up. I believe they hit some soft rock.”
“Story coming from Ickes is that you left them unprotected,” says Baumann.
“What! That’s a load of codswallop—I’m gonna find that old coot and…”
“Simmer down, Straker. Don’t do anything foolish. Won’t look good at the inquest.”
“Inquest? There’s gonna be an inquest?”
“Yup. They need to figure out who gets the blame. Standard procedure. Somebody could get charged.”
Old Tanner slides the plate of lamb in front of me and a glass of brew in front of Baumann, trying hard not to hear what’s going on. I wait until Tanner goes to the back room, then speak low. “But marshal it weren’t my fault. I warned Ickes to slow down.”
“Well, it’ll be your word against his then.
I feel the blood rush to my face and clench my fists and it’s all I can do to keep from cursing out loud.
“Well, maybe it won’t be so bad,” says the marshal, as he stares straight in front of him at the wall and sips his beer.
“What do ya mean?” I ask.
He takes his time, sips his beer, then says real low: “I mean, maybe I could make it go away.”
“You mean that? You would do that?”
“I said maybe. Maybe you’ll do something good for me too.”
“I’m listening,” I say.
Baumann pulls out a little pad from his jacket pocket and brings up a page. He slides the pad over to me. There’s a notice about a mining mission. The marshal turns on his stool and looks at me. “There’s an asteroid ship leaving in a few days. I got word that they’re short a crewman.”
“Really?” I say, looking up. “Think I could get on?”
“Yes I do. You’re done with training, right? Between salary and profit-sharing, it could be a pretty good take for you.”
“What about the inquest? Don’t I need to be there?”
“I could write it up like you said, like it wasn’t your fault. You wouldn’t be a person of interest. That’s what I could do.”
But I know ain’t nothing for free. “What do I need to do?” I ask.
“ProvGov wants to keep an eye on this ship. “Just keep us informed about what’s going on with this mission, that’s all. In return, I protect you from the inquest and we’ll set you up over at Malapert when you get back. You’ll be out of this dump. It’ll be a fresh start. What do you say?”
I got no reason to doubt him. He ain’t no friend of mine, but he’s mostly been square with me in the past. Plus I reckon the government’s got a right to keep an eye on things. Most important, it’s a way out of the mining fiasco, and it’s a job and a future, and right now that’s two things I need.
“OK,” I say, and nod, covering a fritte with watery ketchup and biting down. My appetite is returning.
“Good. Now get yourself over to the Corps offices. You need to apply today. If you get on the crew, I’ll be in touch.”
“I’m obliged. Hope I get on.”
“I have a feeling you will.” He chugs down the remainder of his beer and waves over to Old Tanner. “The kid’s meal is on me.”
“Thanks Marshall,” I say. “Be talking to ya.”
“Yes you will,” he says, pats me on the shoulder, and strolls out the swinging doors, whistling some happy tune.
* * * * *
A sign on the wall says Overlook. I check the calendar on my wristy; it’s a good time, the libration is at a good state. I should be able to see everything. I deserve a look. I open the scratched-up blue door and start the spiral climb up the tower stairs. This is where Pops first took me years ago—a place where fancy visitors and investors came to see the facility, the one place where they could appreciate the entire enterprise.
I’m a tad winded when I arrive at the top. I walk into the big dome. It’s made of special glass, thick enough to hold the atmo and block most the rays but not a good place to spend time. Locals are told to limit their visits here; the radiation effects are cumulative over a lifetime. One more way to get killed in Shacktown.
There’s only a few other people, keeping mostly to themselves, pointing and talking softly. Everything sounds funny on account of the shape of the walls; I can make out most of what they’re saying even though they’re at the distance. I look over towards Malapert Mountain; I can just see the tip of it glowing in reflected sunlight. The top always shines like that. That’s one reason it’s become a tourist mecca, with swimming pools and casinos and attractions for appetites too unseemly to think on, even for me. But Malapert ain’t what I’m looking for, it’s what’s hovering above it.
There she is, making her majestic appearance, that breathtaking sphere perched low in the sky, like a jewel from a fairy tale. The Marble. Earth. Regal and spectacularly blue, painted with green forests and tawny deserts under feathery white clouds, majestic and huge and mighty and awesome. It makes my heart pound. It fills me with a powerful hard yearning. Why would anyone leave such a place?
I shake my head to push back the blues. This is why I don’t hardly come up here. I spend a minute remembering the first time I saw this sight, standing right here with Pops, fresh from Earth. How excited I was. I reach over with my right hand and finger the bracelet on my left wrist, hanging there just below my wristy, where I’ve worn it ever since Pops gave it to me. It fits my wrist now, unlike back then, when it was much too big, always falling off. It’s unique, custom made, with its distinctive rocket and asteroid engraving, a trademark of the renowned Hiromi Yuuta. It reminds me of who I am. Reminds others too. I’ve taken it off half a dozen times, vowing to leave it off and destroy it so maybe people will forget and just leave me be. But I always put it back on.
I look over the monotone of gray and shadows and mountains rippling from here to the horizon. Off to my left I see the terminator line that separates night from day; where the dust rises when the sun hits it and reflects the light in a glowing haze. To my right I see the star-like glint of the New America space colony, hovering out there in a Lagrangian point. It’s the faraway home to all the movers and shakers of cislunar space. Never been there but maybe someday.
In a few more 24-hour cycles, the sun will be hitting the Earth-facing side of Luna. The people of Tycho and the other towns up that way will have to stay in their caves out of the godawful heat and adjust to a new reality after two weeks of night. As for Shacktown, it only means that the sun will beam in from another angle, since we are exactly at Luna’s south pole.
I walk over to the other side of the room and peer down into the blackness of the crater. Shacktown was officially known as Shackleton Crater Telescope Support Facility. Deep in the crater sits the Big Scope. It’s nearly five klicks down from here, where it’s so cold that even gasses stay liquid. Used to be a good bit of water ice down there, but that was scraped out years ago, before the Scope was built.
So should I do this? If I get on the crew, I’ll have to do the spying. I know better than to cross Baumann. I’d have a target on my back the rest of my life. Plus, the people of Shacktown have a big investment in the Consortium and the Corps and they don’t much trust ProvGov. I’d need to leave Shacktown for good. But then I think about Ickes and the superintendent and getting punched in the nose; I think about growing up in an orphanage and the look that everybody gives me when they find out my last name. Why would I want to stay here anyways?
My wristy buzzes; it’s time. I kill the alarm and head back for the stairs. Two stern-looking women are between me and the door, bunched together closely, whispering and giving me the side-eye. They’re looking at the bracelet. “Excuse me” I mutter and circle around them. I can feel their bugging-out beady eyes on the back of my head as I jog down the stairs. It’s that Yuuta kid, they’re thinking. Ain’t no short of ugly in this town. I don’t fit in here and never will.
Screw it. I’m taking Baumann’s deal. If I’m gonna be hated anyways, might as well be hated for something I’ve actually done instead of something Pops did.
I hustle down the stairs, then down one more flight, past the greenhouse to the floor where all the offices are situated. It’s a long corridor, arcing off to the right to match the curve of the crater rim. I come to the door. Corps offices. My heart is pounding like a jackhammer.
I take a breath. I twist the handle.