Copyright © 2016
by Nathan M. Hurst
“How you doing Eli?”
“I’m fine, Seb,” he responded. It was a lie. The last intersection he had negotiated found more escaping methane. If this had just been a retrieval mission the platform would have been locked down and the environment evacuated, putting out fires and reducing the risk of asset recovery in moments. As it was there were survivors.
Ever since methane mining of asteroids had been sanctioned for private enterprise, mining facilities had been popping up throughout the belt. It wasn’t just methane being targeted but ammonia and other volatiles, however the affect was the same. Rapid unregulated, greed driven operations which he had begun to liken to the Gold Rush of the late 1840s back on Earth. People died back then, people were dying now. The only difference as far as he could discern was the technology and scale. Once people picked up a pan or pick, now they worked from large mobile mining platforms which bored and leeched onto the side of an asteroid and devoured it from the inside out, draining as much natural resource as it could from the orbiting rock.
There were thousands upon thousands of the willing. Ready to uproot themselves from the safety of Earth and risk their lives millions of mile from home so their families, their children could have a better life. It was so easy for the corporations to recruit that the investment in equipment and asset maintenance was always secondary to profit. The instant side effect to this decision was that the safety of crews and support teams was always an afterthought. The losses were common. People were expendable and instantly replaceable. The fact that the miners were the lowest priority in the cost chain seemed only to breed a level of disgusted acceptance. Miners would die, miners would be replaced, miners would complain but be wary that their lucrative job may be terminated, arguments would blow over, mining would continue. It was a fractious arrangement, but no one wanted to kill the cash-cow by getting the bureaucrats or politicians involved. They always screwed things up, for everyone.
“So, don’t leave me in the dark. What’s the situation?” demanded Seb.
Considering that’s exactly where Eli was, he found it rather irritating that the guy sitting in a comfy seat back on the support vessel 20 clicks away was asking to be enlightened.
“Oh, I don’t know Seb. Let me just switch the lights on, power this place up and find out,” he replied, his voice laced with deep sarcasm.
“Er. No. Don’t do that. You might short something.”
How did I get assigned with this dick, he thought. “Roger that. Oh, and the situation is the same as it was 30 seconds ago.”
Working his way through the facility corridor the weak gravity made for a slow loping stride towards the next bulkhead. The door had tried to close but with the corridor twisted as horribly as it was it had jammed halfway through its travel. He dropped slowly to a prone position and looked forward through to the corridor beyond. It was an equal mess of broken ducting, warped floor and ceiling panels. He shifted to be parallel with the door and rolled under it.
“This place is a mess, Seb,” he reported back. “Whatever explosion ripped through this place didn’t leave much untouched. Are you sure the life signs you’re getting are accurate?”
“I’ve checked the readings multiple times, they’re there.”
“Honestly, I don’t think I’ve seen worse damage to the main structure of a rig before. Don’t see how they’ll get this one back into service.”
“Oh, I’ve seen a couple. This is positively unscathed alongside Tango-Lima-12. They had that running again inside three months.”
“I don’t call that running. It’s called the Widowmaker for a reason.”
“Look on the bright side. It’s paying your bills.”
“Seb, you’re all heart.” He could feel Seb’s grin back over the silence of the comms.
Stepping over debris he reached the elevator shaft at the end of the corridor. The doors were also buckled and warped.
“I’m at the elevator. There’s no way I’m getting through here. I’m going to have to cut through. Plus five.”
“Damn it.” He heard the comm cut off as Seb muted his mic to spread the good news. When every second counted a five minute delay could be a life, or eight in this case.
Deploying the cutting torch he raised his right arm, the cutting tool unfolded from its forearm housing. The nozzle reached out a couple of inches beyond his hand and ignited with a blue-white flame. Instantly the door metal became molten and flared in sparks as he cut himself an entrance into the elevator well. Finally as the panel was almost cut through he stopped. Sliding his fingers into place and taking an angled stance he pulled the panel hard, bending it easily into the corridor. He cut the last until the panel fell to the floor.
Putting his head through into the shaft he looked down to his target.
“I see the elevator car. Thirty five feet.”
“Okay, but take it easy.”
“Don’t I always?” He clipped the hook on his belt winch to the emergency bar fixing in the ceiling of the corridor close to the door. Leaning out into the elevator shaft face forward he took up the slack in the line, then began to slowly walk down the shaft wall as the winch line extended behind him. After a couple of minutes he put his hand out and touched the ceiling of the elevator.
The elevator car showed no immediate signs of damage, but what he imagined had happened was the explosion at the complex had buckled the guide rails, narrowing them further down the shaft so the car couldn’t pass and had essentially become wedged. If his theory was correct, they would have a little more time to evacuate the car.
He knocked a couple of times on the elevator car roof. “Afternoon. Anyone at home?” he called out. There was an immediate response.
“Hey! We’re here. Can you hear us? We’re here!” a panicked voice shouted from within the car.
“Hi folks. Yes, I can hear you.” The voice of his instructor suddenly echoed in his mind, in the moments of initial contact, stay friendly, sound in control, stay relaxed and work fast. “Everyone okay? Are any of you hurt?”
There was a slight pause. “Olland, he’s pretty bad. The rest of us are knocks and bruises.”
“Okay, that’s great. What’s your name?”
“Karl – with a ‘K’.”
“Good to know Karl. Now are my sums right? Are there eight of you?”
“Great. Can you move to the far end of the car. As far from the door as you can get.”
There was muffled commotion from below. A dragging noise away from his location, probably Olland being moved by the others.
“Okay, Karl. I’m going to cut my way in. A small hole above the door at the front of the car.”
“Sure,” Came the reply. “Any time you’re ready.” The voice still clearly shaken seemed to be calming. Good.
Deploying the cutting tool, he again started to cut a hole. The thickness of the roof material was wafer thin and held no resistance to his cutter. “Thirty seconds,” he vocalised, almost to himself but he knew Seb was listening in. The comm clicked once, to register that Seb had understood the message.
The ceiling plate fell to the floor of the car and made a clatter as it did so. His head mounted torch illuminated the end of the car and its pitch dark interior. As his eyes adjusted a white face with squinting eyes and a hand raised to shade them from the intense torchlight peeked round into the opening.
“Karl?” He asked.
“Yes, sir. Boy, are we glad to see you.”
“Good to see you too, Karl. Now two at a time, most mobile first,” he said walking through in his perpendicular position. From his point of view the world looked sideways, but this would soon change. Stepping forward towards the floor of the elevator car, he stopped about an arm’s length from the floor and swivelled around in his harness. The winch was now at his front supporting him from his rigid carapace and harness. “Now, please stand on the bars either side of the winch plate and hold onto the cable.” He paused a moment to allow them to settle. “Here we go.”
Reversing the winch it took a moment to adjust to the additional weight but they then began to climb back to the elevator shaft door.
“Captain’s asking for your assessment, Eli. How’s it look? Have you acquired the target?”
This was the cold part of the job he didn’t like. “A little busy, Seb. First two are out.” He stepped up to the door and the two miners stepped out into the level’s corridor. Just as the second stepped off there was a overpressure and sudden rumbling explosion from far within the asteroid. He had felt it through his toes before any audible sound reached him, the superstructure of the facility transmitting the sound almost instantly through steal and rock. The two miners looked at him with fright in their eyes. “Stay here, he told them. We’re safer together.” One of them nodded.
Spinning in his harness again, he faced back down he shaft and headed back to the car. In the moment of privacy away from the miners he called up Seb. “The structure is unsafe and suffering secondary explosions from within the asteroid.”
“Yeah, we picked up the activity,” replied Seb. “Captain’s ordering you out.”
“He can’t do that, there’s another six in the car and I haven’t found what we’re looking for.”
“Orders are orders, and it’s not about the crew. We need to vent the place and stabilise it.”
“That’s a last resort. We’re nowhere near that yet,” he said with perhaps a little too much anger. He knew the boss would be listening in.
“Not your call, Ace.”
He stood back in the perpendicular world of the elevator car. “Next two,” he said.
“We’ve got a runner!” called Seb with a little too much excitement in his voice. “I told, you. Spook them - they always run. Corridor, 10 metres, 20 metres, he’s moving fast for a normal.”
“Where’s he going, Seb? This place is nothing but dead ends.” He turned and followed the tracking beacon. It was the one he’d told to stay put. Not clever. He could feel his mission bonus dropping by the moment.
“Hey, he gets away, it’s coming out of your cut.”
His winch wound fast getting back to the corridor in seconds, his appearance at the doorway making the remaining factory worker flinch and try to become part of the wall, to become invisible.
“That way,” said the worker. “He went that way,” earnestly pointing and trying to deflect any attention. He was already past the workman and moving at pace down a corridor he had carefully navigated only minutes before.
Among the factions of workers, a small few had decided to take a hard line against their corporation paymasters. An escalating number of large industrial failures had begun to occur, sabotage to delay and disable facilities. The action was never on a scale that would injure or destroy, but enough to cause downtime of an uncertain duration which cost the corporations millions. Investigations discovered the damage was always targeted, always small risk for maximum effect. The kind of action which only came with detailed knowledge of the mining operation and its machinery. The workers themselves had just put themselves in the corporate enforcers sights.
The enforcer team he was part of had arrived at this facility on a tip off. Unfortunately, they had been hours too late, the facility had already been attacked. Unlike all the other strikes, this time something had gone wrong. This time there had been fatalities, this time the facility itself was in danger of structural failure. In these circumstances the company view was simple. People were secondary, the facility was the asset to be saved. Everything else was expendable.
“We need the data he’s carrying, he can’t get away,” Seb’s voice stated, getting a little more high pitched as the adrenaline started to kick in.
“I’ve got him. Take it easy.” Two drones released from his shoulder section flew ahead of him and disappeared from his own view but extended his sight as he went, illuminating the scene and providing his optics with an enhanced laser cast augmented reality of the facility. His Ready-comm system feed the data into his visual cortex and gave him perfect vision, even though the darkness of the corridor was too dark to see in most places.
“30 metres ahead and increasing.”
The corridor appeared to him in a constant low light, coloured and accurate. Now he could pick up the pace. Turbines in his back began to start up, whining with a distinct sound and giving him the ‘kick and lift’ which allowed him to pace out. Running at full tilt he was sprinting at twice that of a normal, a five second hundred metres on the flat, here he would be on the runner in moments.
“He’s taken a left. You’ll see it coming up – now.”
No time to slow down for the corner he left the ground and leapt at the opposite wall to the direction of the corridor he wanted. Going high he pushed off and jumped for the corridor entrance, he landed with sliding steps at a hard angle and was almost on the floor. Stabilising himself with his left arm and pushing himself upright he covered the last few metres to his target.
“I got him,” he reported back to Seb. He could see the workman’s red jumpsuit ahead bobbing and ducking through the darkness. Then gone.
“He’s heading for the escape pod on this section.”
“And you didn’t know that?”
“Hey, I’m working with old data here. It doesn’t show on my plans. Getting better data now from your drone stream.”
He raised his arm and the top of his forearm sprung aside and released a short barrel. He aimed and fired.
The explosion put a metre wide hole in the inner and outer sealed door panels of the life pod. Taking a final pace he leapt, raising his feet he entered through the hole feet first, tumbling to a stop across the floor of the pod. Before he could even stand he felt a heavy blow to the head, his vision blurred and shook. Another landed, and a third. He swept out with an arm hard. There was a cry of pain and an audible crack.
Looking up the lights of the pod almost blinded him, too bright but throwing the scene into clarity. The workman was crawling best he could back across the floor away from him, a leg twisted awkwardly to the side partway down. The man was sweating profusely his hair wet and eyes rolling in the pain.
As he stood, a red flash flew towards him and struck him across the face hard. The fire extinguisher fell to the floor with a clang but was now out of reach of his aggressor. He almost snarled in response.
“Nice work, Eli. Now let’s get what we came for.”
Stepping in he knelt to the side of the man. “Okay, Karl with a K. Let’s see what you have to say for yourself.”
“No. Don’t do it. No!” Karl yelled. “I’ll tell you. I’ll tell you what you want to know.”
His left hand uncoupled and extended, his fingers forming a cage around Karl’s head to keep it still as he struggled.
“Hey, I find out either way. Now for the official part.” He removed a small elliptical device from his belt, clipped it to Karl’s head just above the ear. “Karl with a K Drake,” he said, reading Karl’s last name from his jumpsuit. Karl frantically struggled as he took a second elliptical device and placed it above the other ear. “You are charged with the destruction of Pallen Industries property and the death of 815 workers.”
“I haven’t killed anyone!” Karl yelled, almost hoarse with the shouting and sobbing.
“The evidence is against you.” The temporal recorders in place he flicked the control into his Ready-comm optical display. “With the power vested in me by the Terran States I pass sentence. Indefinite digital incarceration.”
He activated the temporal recorders. Karl’s body began to relax. Retracting his hand and laying the shell of Karl Drake to the floor he stood and made his way to the door. Activating the door control it opened enough for him to squeeze back into the corridor.
“Seb, you there?”
“Yep. We got the faction data. Names, mining facilities, targets. It’s all here.”
He closed the external valves on his respirator and sealed his suit.
“You can vent the site now.”