Luna Station Quarterly is a speculative fiction magazine featuring stories by emerging women authors.
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Leaving

Report 942/692a

Health and Safety

Recent Class 4 Atmospheric Storm/Missing/Hovercraft PI48S-gne/11 Labour Units

Hovercraft missing in the most recent Class 4 atmospheric storm, including 11 labour units. No trace found on satmaps.

Recommendations-

Ping all explobots to register any traces they may find

Requisition for replacement of labour units and equipment

***

“What do you mean, double-shift? No day off in three weeks and now a double-shift?”

The miners crowded around the exec, angry despite their exhaustion. He didn’t look tired at all, damned GenCorp parasite. No problem for him, three standard months on-planet and three off, all laid out nice and binding in his contract.

“You heard me. Double-shift.”

“We’re not bots. You can’t work us like this.”

“Back to work or there’ll be deductions.”

Bots would be better, more methodical and tireless, but they were too expensive. That was the long and the short of it, Harj thought, as he moved away and zipped up his overalls again. GenCorp couldn’t afford to just use bots, not for this kind of mining.

Cheaper to have the leavings of the sink estates sign themselves over, like himself. Those that managed to get past the age of eighteen with no major mutations and free of the harder-to-splice genetic problems and a nice poll tax from the government for each one taken off the overcrowded planet. Like all the rest, Harj had signed all the papers and the disclaimers and the forfeits and the diligences and the who knew what? Signed his old life away for the chance of a new one. He walked over to where his shift members were standing by the doors.

“Alright, lads? All checked? Sooner out, sooner in,” said the gaffer, Marl. There were plenty that complained about him, but anyone who’d managed to survive twelve standard years here must have something going for him, even if it was only luck. The light flicked to green and the doors slid open with a pneumatic hiss. They stepped into the airlock.

“Freeze the balls off a brass monkey.”

“If you had any balls to freeze off.”

Marl let it continue for a couple of minutes. “Now, lads and lasses, we’re moving into Sector 6 today. That’s a good bit north of here.”

Harj had heard that the explobots had been out there prospecting for the last few weeks. The seams in Sectors 2 and 3 were barely viable at this stage and that drove the explobots to fan out into other sectors from the pole, mapping as they went.

Marl zoned out for a few seconds, tracking the infostream, blinked rapidly and then continued. “Resource estimation of tantalum deposits came back as feasible, mostly in skarn ore. The drills have opened the shafts so we have to do the scaling and support ex. Nothing new there.”

The lights on the door opposite them flashed amber and everyone pulled on and sealed their helmets. The lights flashed green and the door slid open. The cold was bitter, coating every surface with frost that glittered like diamonds in the light. This was the coldest part of winter. In the height of the summer, if it could be called that, even here so close to the south pole, it was possible to leave the compound without a suit for a few minutes without freezing to death.

More snow last night, but not churned up and filthy yet. The lights of the refinery were blue in the distance and the greenhouses glowed a faint, comforting yellow. The hovercraft was backed up against the door and they scrambled in. It’d take a while to get out to Sector 6 and most of the miners settled down for a nap, chin to chest or heads leaning against the windows.

Once away from the shelter of HQ, wind buffeted the craft, rocking it off-course at intervals, but nothing the autopilot couldn’t cope with. If the autopilot crashed for any reason, the craft would revert to manual and there were plenty on board that could fly something as simple as a hovercraft. There were millions of stars above in the frozen sky. Harj tilted his head back to look at them. Home was supposedly out there, past Lunar 3 and Lunar 5, that had just risen above the horizon. He’d never liked those moons, not from the first moment he saw them. They were too big, too near. He didn’t trust them not to fall and crush them all.

***

“Stay well back behind the scaling bot, lads,” said Marl. “Its pace is irregular, hitting patches of limestone. Too small to have been picked up by the explobots.”

There were only four of them on this team: Marl, Thea the tech, and Harj and Phil, the new guy, for grunt work. Each team had their own access ramp to deal with and they’d been allotted this one. 3ks of sloping, zig-zagging tunnel to be cable-bolted, checked, and mapped in detail.

The scaling bot continued to cable-bolt the decline, corkscrewing along ahead of them. Dust shivered and floated in the air with each percussive strike of the cable-bolts, coating the visor of Harj’s helmet. The weight of rock and darkness pressing down on him, all around, pressure building in the small bones of his face. A sudden sharp craving hit him for the blue bowl of the sky, its space and distance. Then there was a dry cracking noise and the sound of rocks falling, heavy and hollow. Phil froze in fright beside him.

Marl exchanged a look with Thea. “We better go have a look at that,” he said.

Just past the next bend, the scaling bot was trying to edge its way around a rockfall.

Marl tapped and dragged on the bot’s comm station, frowning in concentration. “Limestone. The further north we go, the more patches of limestone there’ll be.” He looked up, smiling. “Something to look forward to, eh lads?”

Thea and Harj hunkered down. Phil was too new to know that you sat whenever you got the chance, and he stayed standing.

“Well, looks like we’ll be here for a while,” said Marl. “The bot’ll move slower, now. It’ll have to double-bolt the whole lot till it gets past the limestone. We can have a bit of a break while it’s doing that and no deductions for it.”

Marl took off his helmet. His hair stuck to his head with sweat. He peeled open his suit, knotting it around his waist. “That’s better.”

“Except for the stink,” said Thea, as she unzipped her suit. “Christ, I stink as bad as you now, Marl, and that’s saying something.”

“Is that allowed?” asked Phil. “I mean, the suits? GenCorp?”

“What they don’t know won’t hurt them. Oxygen levels are bang in the green and ambient air temps are, too. A bit dusty, but nothing that the filters can’t deal with,” Marl said, tapping the side of his nose.

“What’s in there?” asked Harj, indicating the hole in the tunnel with a jerk of his chin.

“How’d I know? Probably a cave. You want to have a look? Not afraid of the piskies and zombies?”

“Don’t be daft. Just curious is all.” He saw a look pass between Thea and Marl. Probably some illicit shagging. Though how they got the energy and desire for that at their age and with all the suppresso-drugs they were all pumped full of, he didn’t know.

“Sure, we’ll take a look,” Marl said. “You young fellahs are all full of curiosity. Leave the helmet here, Phil.”

“Are you allowed to leave it just lying there?”

“No, no, not really. It’s supposed to be with you at all times. But we’ll leave them here for now. No need for the Corp to know that we’re gone off-target, you know. Not that they’re likely to be checking.”

They ducked one by one through the hole, their helolamps set to max, a blaze of light all around them. They moved further in, their lights swiveling, piercing the darkness of the cave in shafts. It was a huge, dim cavern.

“What the hell is this?” said Harj.

“Limestone,” Marl replied. “Eaten away by water. Back when GA had surface running water. The further south we go, the more of this there’ll be. The whole of the equator is ringed with limestone, or so they say.”

“Anything in it worth mining?”

“No, not worth a damn for that. Nothing here for the likes of GenCorp.”

All around was like a fairyland of rock, weathered and carved, pockmarked and pierced, reaching down from the ceilings or up from the floor, like some huge, incredibly slow growing plant. Harj heard a small, steady noise–plink, plink, plink–that took him a few moments to recognize.

“Water. There’s running water here.”

Plink, plink, plink. The echoes made it sound like it was all around him. How long had it been since he’d heard that sound? It was a pool, a damn pool of water. Water dripped from the stalagmite above it. Plink, plink, plink. Concentric circles rippling across the dark surface of the water. He reached out his hand to dip it in.

“Hang on there, Harj.” Marl moved around him, Thea at his shoulder. They were busy for a few minutes, testing the temperature of the water, taking samples, sealing them up.

“Is it safe to drink?” said Phil.

“It always is. High in calcium and iron. Good for you, actually,” said Marl.

“But you can always drink your own piss, if you’d rather not take the chance,” said Thea. “No skin off my nose either way.”

“I’m going to wait here a bit and listen to the water,” said Marl, looking around him for a flat surface to sit on. “Go take a look around, lads. Come back and tell me if you see anything interesting, yeah?”

“I might take a kip here as well. Seen it all before,” said Thea.

And there was that look between them again. Harj went with Phil for a while, then doubled back. Curiosity killed the cat, but there was something going on. Marl and Thea were still sitting by the pool. Heads close together, talking. At least they weren’t shagging. That would’ve been embarrassing. He could only get so near and still stay hidden, straining his ears to catch what they were saying.

“…typical karst landscape…”

“…sinkholes…by 40 degrees south bound to be…”

“What of it?”

“…phototropic microorganisms…”

“…temperature range…projected…adequate…”

Then a whole batch of mumble that he couldn’t catch. Marl stood up, yawning and stretching as Thea rebuckled her boots.

“We better round up the lads and get back to where we were. The bots’ll be done by now.” They started to walk in Harj’s direction and he ducked even lower.

“Pass on what we know tonight?” said Thea.

“What we think we know,” Marl corrected her.

“After eight years in this dump, thinking is good enough for me. Only thing that keeps me from running mad at this stage.”

“Aye. But we better get a move on.” He shouted, “Phil, Phil. Harj. Come on, shake a leg. Time to get back.”

***

Harj kept his eyes and ears peeled, always watching but discreet-like. Shift after shift, month after month. He hardly ever saw Marl or Thea now that they were on C shift, except in passing in the canteen. Maybe there really was nothing going on. Maybe it was his own desperation that made him see things where there was nothing.

When the lockdown eventually happened it was almost a relief. Something different, wasn’t it, to break up the utter tedium of the days. They were in the canteen, pretty much all of D shift, having breakfast at the end of their shift when the announcement jingle came on, increasing steadily in volume. Then the screens flashed on and there was an exec smiling benevolently down at them. A high-up one to judge by the bars on his olive green lapels. If he was even real and not a sim. “A Grade Three lockdown commenced at 0600 today,” he said in his nowhere-accent voice, white teeth flashing.

“Ha! Knew that was coming. A right tizzwozz up on landing last night according to my mate.”

“Shuddit.”

“Just sayin’.”

“…is as follows. A variant on staph flu, believed to be JP/56, was confirmed early this morning outside the quarantine and landing zones. It has since been traced back to the latest supply ship to land. Unfortunately, transmission had already occurred.” The exec paused, bowed his head slightly, eyes cast down in fake sympathy.

Transmission had already occurred. That was corpspeak, but corpspeak for what was hard to know. Staph flu burning through barracks after barracks? An entire shift wiped out? Or being cautious about nothing that a dose of gene-adapted ’biotics couldn’t sort out? No way of knowing.

“In order to prevent further spread of the infection, the following measures have been put into place.” The exec was facing the camera full on now, radiating competence, warmth, security.

All the usual stuff. Lockdown between the shift sections. No access to communal areas. Contravention, blah, blah, penalty, blah, blah, blah. Each base section could pretty much continue working independently, especially in the short term, so lockdown meant production could continue even if some shifts were already infected by the staph flu. Bit of a headache for logistics and transport. Some blah, blah, blah about ventilation. More work for the engineering technicians, but that was their problem, the idle tossers.

Harj was pinged later that morning, just before getting his head down for the day. He squinted at the message. It took a minute for the meaning to sink in.

Re-allocation of work due to short-term labour requirements. Report to Supply Area B at 2100 for evening shift. Cleared for Zones iii, iv and vi.

He smiled. Supply Area B. That was the greenhouses. Well, well, something different, wasn’t it? It was warm in the greenhouses. Better than freezing his arse off out in Sector 6. Cushty, cushty. They must be short because of the flu if they were calling him up. He knew nothing about plants, but they’d have to work that out for themselves in their own sweet time. No need for him to go bringing it up and risk getting booted back to a mining shift.

***

It was warm in the greenhouses, a warmth that you could feel lapping against your skin, seeping into your bones. Even the light was a different colour, a soft yellow, the light of GA’s sun filtered into something more familiar. All around Harj there were racks and racks of water with gene-spliced edible algae and seaweed floating in it in sheets, feathers, and fronds, waving gently in the bubbling water, growing before his very eyes, in a hundred shades of red and green and brown.

The work itself was nothing interesting, but it was warm, not like out on Sector 6, so all to the good. Just grunt work, inserting cultures with a dropper into growing containers about the size of a mug. Thousands and thousands of the things. Each drop hung in the water in a dark swirl of itself for a second or two before disappearing. Some gene-modified high protein algae that grew in the dark. Cheaper that way, he supposed, not needing light to grow and not having to be shipped in.

A few days later, he was spooning up his breakfast in the canteen at the end of his shift when he saw Thea and Marl come in. D shift were back on nights, then. A quicker than usual changeover with the lockdown still in place. D shift broke into small groups and knots of people, friends sitting together but Marl and Thea kept walking till they came to the table where Harj was sitting.

“Hey, Harj,” said Marl.

“Hey, Marl,Thea.” Harj answered, looking up from his plate. What did they want?

“I hear that you’re in the greenhouses these days,” said Marl, sitting down without so much as a by-your-leave, Thea settling in next to him.

“You heard right.” News travelled fast, even the boring kind.

“Nice.”

“I suppose.” Whatever they wanted to know they’d have to ask him straight out. He wasn’t a mindreader. “So?”

“Doing what, exactly?” said Marl.

Harj frowned, mock surprise. “What’s that to you, then?”

“We need kind of a favour.” Marl stirred his porridge, creating circles on its sludgy green surface. More algae or seaweed. Thea said nothing, gaze flicking from Marl to Harj in turn.

“Who’s ‘we’?”

“Me and Thea.”

“Well, spit it out, then.”

“You’re working with algal cultures there?” Marl, leaned forward, elbows resting on the table. He glanced at Thea. She nodded slightly. “We want some.”

“You want me to steal from the GenCorp greenhouse? Not that I have a problem with that in itself. But what’s in it for me?”

“Depends what you want. Synths? Meths? A different shift? A shift leader job? It could be arranged. In time,” said Marl. They were both leaning forward now, sure they had him interested.

“I’d have to have a think about that side of it.” Harj said that lightly, with a smile. “But risky business innit, nicking from the corp. Big deductions for that. Or stuck out on a satellite. Accidents happen, too, if the mood takes them. Wouldn’t fancy that myself, now.”

“Nah. We’ve got it all worked out,” said Marl.

“Oh, yeah?”

And they did have it all worked out. Security was understaffed on the next few shifts with the lockdown still in place. How they knew the ins and outs of that exactly, Harj didn’t ask. And the greenhouses were low security priority at the best of times, compared to the docks and transport sectors.

Three plastic vials of a clear liquid in his pocket, each one slightly smaller than a joint on his little finger. A drop of culture in each, seal them up and keep them warm next to his skin. Waltz in with the vials, waltz out with the culture in them, and no one checking and nothing to show up on the sensors.

He’d always known that Thea and Marl were smart. You didn’t get to stay a shift leader or a tech for years on end without that. But not as smart as they thought they were. If he got caught or grassed them out, it’d be only Thea and Marl that caught the flak. Fair enough. But synths or some crappy shift leader job wouldn’t be enough to buy him off, either. They should have known better than that. He wanted in.

***

Four days later, Harj met Thea again, in the bathrooms this time. She was transferred to C shift again two days after their conversation in the canteen, otherwise she’d be on shift by now. It was easy to make arrangements to meet on the same shift.

It was quiet in the bathrooms. Most people had their heads down for the night, apart from soft voices coming from a game of cards just inside the barracks door and one guy hopped up on synths, mumbling to himself. Thea was standing just inside the door when he came in. He was almost on top of her before he saw her.

“So, Harj. You got ’em?”

“Yep.”

“Good, good.” She exhaled, unfolded her arms. “Cheers.”

“But they’re not right here.”

“What? You effwad! If they get cold, they’ll die.” She pushed herself off the wall where she’d been leaning and stepped towards him. She looked different then, not the Thea he knew, but a harder, colder woman. “Watch yourself, young Harj,” she said, looking into his face. “Don’t try and eff me around.”

“I’ve been here coming up to three years.” He looked Thea in the eye. “Three years down and another twenty-two to go.” All going well, twenty-five years was supposedly enough to pay back his flight, sleeptank, equipment, food, board, and all the other incidentals. How many more years in the cold and the dark after that to save for the cost of a flight off-planet? And then what? “Three years down. And the rest of my life to go.”

“You worked that out then? Not bad for a sink estate sprog.” Thea smiled, eyebrows raised.

If you believed what you were told, then it could be done quicker, bonuses for high productivity and such. GenCorp’s bulletins were pinged in to their simplugs, featuring smiling men and women, awarded for devotion, loyalty, productivity, innovation, and all the other crap that the corps spun in a web around themselves.

“You’d have to be a half-wit not to work it out,” he said.

“You’d be surprised how many don’t or don’t want to. Effwads and half-wits.” She laughed.

“I know what you’re up to. You and Marl and the rest of you. I want in.”

“Want? You want? Who’re you to be wanting?”

“I’m here, the same as you. Dealing with the same crap. And I’m not spending the rest of my days stuck in a GenCorp suit, burrowing underground like an insect. Me and the cultures. That’s fair.”

Thea said nothing, just stood there, regarding him quietly. The voices from the barracks were dwindling, the card game winding down.

“What’s to stop me leaving you here strung up by the neck? Another bloke who topped himself. So sad.” She made a mock sympathetic face.

“Then no cultures, innit?”

“No huge rush there. Get them another time.” She shrugged to indicate her and-who-gives-a-fiddler’s attitude.

“Phototropic? High protein?” He stared her down thinking. Don’t take me for a some kind of a half-wit, too. “No problem with…now how did they put that? A substantially alkaline growing solution. That was it, alright. Alkaline. I knew I could remember it.”

“So you learned a new word. Big swing.”

“Alkaline. Limestone makes water alkaline. Don’t it, Thea?”

“So you’ve worked it all out, then? Not as stupid as you look.” She gave a little chirruping whistle and a man stepped out from one of the cubicles. His face was vaguely familiar, with strangely light-coloured eyes, but he was no one that Harj knew. He stood off to one side, saying nothing. “But all the more reason to leave you hanging here. See, Harj?”

“Nah, I don’t.” He was getting reckless now. All the cards on the table. “How long would you be waiting to get into the greenhouses again? And out again with the right algae? Could be months and months.”

“We can wait. Been waiting long enough.”

“You could have the cultures and all you have to do is take me, too. That’s all.” He held out his open hands. Asking, begging? He didn’t know nor care. “And we never agreed on any price for this. Meths, synths, whatever, you said. But I don’t want none of that. Only out of here. Fair’s fair.” But there was no sign of softening on Thea’s face. Hands loose and still by her sides. “I’ve known about this for months. Worked it out back when we were in Sector Six together. If I was going to dob you in, I could’ve done it back then. All I’m asking is to come too.”

“Jamie’s down with the staph and in lockdown. He’s going nowhere. Room for one more.”

Harj and Thea spun to face the man. “And who asked you?” said Thea.

“Just saying,” he said with a shrug. “He’s kept sthum so far,” jerking his chin in Harj’s direction. “And there’s a good chance of more monitoring if there’s another suicide.”

“True,” said Thea, “and lord knows I’m done with waiting. Chancy, chancy.” She worried at a hangnail on her thumb. Outside there was a sudden sharp cry from someone in the barracks. They froze, heads cocked, waiting for more noise. A bunk creaking and a shurrup was called out, but one with no malice in it.

“If anything goes wrong with this, no matter what it is, I’ll blame you, Harj lad, and you’ll be lucky to live out a shift, let alone a week,” said Thea. “You get me?”

“I’m in?”

“In. For all the good that it’ll do you. There’s eff-all chance of us making it out, you know. And after that…” Her voice trailed off.

“No GenCorp, no problem,” said the man with the light-coloured eyes.

“Hmph. You might change your tune soon enough,” said Thea, though she smiled as she said it. “All in it is, then.” She looked back at Harj, stepping so close that he could see the yellow flecks in the irises of her eyes. “Word is there’s a series of Class 3 and 4 atmospheric storms due in four days. Should last about three days. We’re going to take our chance sometime then. Say nothing to no one and keep the cultures with you. Word’ll be passed to you.” She stepped back, smiling a tight little smile that didn’t reach her eyes. “Are we clear?”

“Clear as a bell,” said Harj.

With that Thea jerked her head at the man and together they slipped out into the darkness of the barracks, without so much as a backward glance.

Harj exhaled and leaned back against the wall. He pressed his hand against his breastbone, feeling the small bag there, tied with a string around his neck. One, two, three. Even beneath the layers of clothes he could just make out the shapes of the three vials resting warm and safe next to his skin.

***

The Corporation Period lasted roughly 60 years and during this time GA was owned and run by GenCorp. It is widely accepted among historians of this period that the first free settlers of GA were bonded GenCorp miners who escaped and fled south in small groups over a period of roughly 30 planetary years to the equatorial region and managed to survive and eventually thrive in the karst cave warrens of the Dol Band.

Extract from Lecture 5, Lecture Series 8C, Basic Planetary History- An Introduction, by Prof. A. Singh

A bit about the author:

I am an Irish writer who predominantly writes science-fiction and fantasy. My publications include short stories in the Silver Blade, Another Realm, Moon Drenched Fables, Aurora Wolf, Swords and Sorcery, Misfit Magazine, Sorcerous Submissions, Fantasy Short Stories and Fiction on the Web. I recently returned to live in Ireland after over twenty years abroad and am currently working on my first full-length novel. Visit author page