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The Workforce Drive

by Scott D. Coon

Table of Contents
Table of Contents
parts: 1, 2, 3. 4

part 2

The changing shifts soon said their goodbyes, and Joey and Mike left in the same shuttle that had delivered Frank and Reg. After seeing them off, Frank wasted no time getting back into the logs. So much work for so little ore. Why hadn’t McKenna pulled them off of this dud? There had to be something, or the company would’ve shut down the platform and moved it to something more profitable.

As Frank dug for answers, Reg got some coffee brewing. “Hey,” called Reg from across the operations room, “did Joey look off to you?”

Frank thought for a second and replied, “Yeah, he did.”

Slowly scooping beans into the machine, Reg said, “Upstairs, Joey said some stuff, some crazy stuff.”

“Crazier than usual?” chuckled Frank. “Or just more crap about the ancient history of ‘labor unions’ or whatever?”

“Actually, it was crazier,” said Reg. He started the machine and turned around. “He said I should get out ‘before the price was too high’.”

“Transit prices?”

The price for a ticket to Hestia had been going up because of the pirates, which the news said were a mix of criminals, survivalists, and assorted nut jobs living on various old ships and hiding amongst the asteroids. They’d been known to raid the Hestia-bound transports for supplies and to attack mining platforms for who knows why. Frank had never seen a pirate vessel, but the news made it sound like he hadn’t been looking hard enough.

“I think he meant something else,” said Reg, the coffee gurgling behind him. “Like something bad would happen if I didn’t leave soon. I asked him what he was talking about, and he said only that things been changing. Like, the new hires have no ties.”

“Neckties?” asked Frank. “Like less bureaucrats in suits, more real working grunts like us?” He tugged at his McKenna-blue coveralls.

“No, I think like guys with nothing and no one to go back to,” explained Reg, “And he said the companies ain’t bringing out families anymore. And some other stuff I didn’t get. He wouldn’t let me come back downstairs until I promised to skip out on what was left of my contract and buy a ticket home as soon as this week was up. He said he was leaving right after he got his paycheck.”

“Wow,” muttered Frank.

“I know, right?”

“No,” said Frank. He quickly tore off his shoes and socks. “I mean-wow, did you feel that?”

“Feel what?” asked Reg.

Frank stood and closed his eyes. With his bare feet pressed into the metal floor, he felt it again, a short stampede of shudders. He looked over to a holographic display that showed the Heads-up Tree, a grid of colored boxes that gave an instant status of every system and sensor on their entire mining platform. The computer had all of the boxes glowing green; all was well. But as the next shudder rolled through the rig, the Tree blinked and the boxes were not all green, some were yellow or even red, indicating that all was very not well. But it only lasted for a faction of a second before switching back. And Frank wondered whether he had really seen it at all.

“Everything is optimal,” said Reg, now leaning over the Tree display, “temperature, depth, flow rate. But you’re feeling a thing? Wasn’t your last ‘thing’ just some gravel clinging to the gravity generator?”

Still lost in the blink, Frank nodded. Then he asked, “Did you see...?”

“Now you’re feeling and seeing things?” asked Reg, with a smirk. “What was it?”

Frank shrugged, then sat and put on his socks and shoes. “I’ll go out and visually inspect,” he said.

“I’ll go,” offered Reg.

“Nah,” said Frank. “I want to check it myself.”

“You want me to shut it down first?” asked Reg.

Frank looked hard at the Tree. All green. All good. Another shudder passed, softer than the last, at least through his shoes it was, and the Tree stayed green. Was he being paranoid? Was he just hating this worthless asteroid? He looked back at what the previous shift would be getting for merit pay after their week here: it wasn’t much. Frank nodded to himself; he was definitely in hate with this rock.

Frank huffed and said, “Rebooting, realigning, we don’t need that. We need money and we’ll have to scrape this asteroid dry to make anything.” He walked over and powered up the EXO-V through its portal. As he climbed into its spherical torso, he paused and said, “If that Tree so much as twitches, you shut down the laser, the pump, all of it.”

Reg gave a thumbs-up and Frank shut the portal. The EXO-V detached. While it flew its preprogrammed route around the rig to the laser assembly, Frank powered up its arms and brought up a link to the mining platform’s Heads-up Tree. All of the boxes were still green. Then what was that shudder? Frank shrugged. He’d find out soon enough.

Many miners saw the EXO-V as some kind of sumo wrestler robot with its round body, chubby limbs, and squat head full of sensors. But Frank saw it quite differently with its nearly invincible shell, powerful arms, and laser vision, of a sort. But most important was the window in its chest, a window with a view of the universe that happened to be shaped like a Superman shield. How could anyone not feel like a hero in one of these?

Through the EXO-V’s window, Frank saw a new bright speck keeping the distant star, Hera, company. He put two fingers on the smart-glass and zoomed in on what turned out to be a dome ship, one of the floating farms that grew crops to feed miners like him. Frank had always wondered what it was like under the vast domes of those ships, standing in a field of crops, and looking at all of this sky. He couldn’t believe Reg wanted to leave.

As the EXO-V came around to the far side of the egg-shaped mining rig, before he could see the laser itself, Frank saw a bright glow coming from underneath, far brighter than it had been during their shuttle’s approach. He checked the Tree. Still all green. When Frank looked up again, he saw the cause of the shudder. The laser drilling assembly glowed white hot.

“Reg! Shut it down! Shut it down!”

The assembly exploded and burning metal flew at the Superman window of Frank’s EXO-V.

* * *

Frank pried his eyes open. Everything hurt, but the pain seemed far away. Tiny lights and soft beeps filled the shadows. Tubes ran into his arm. Sensors clung to his forehead and torso. Frank knew where he was, but how did he get here?

He closed his heavy eyes and saw jagged scraps of memory...white hot metal flying at him, his EXO-V slamming backwards into a stone pillar, the mining rig torn open like a blooming flower... and a debris field slowly lifting away into the void. But it wasn’t all debris. There was a body.

“Reg... I killed Reg.”

The air suddenly thickened. Frank inhaled hard but he couldn’t get it into his lungs. He sat up. Tubes popped from his arms. Tears poured from his eyes. Machines screamed and flashed. A black hole opened in his chest. He clutched at it. New alarms joined the chorus. Nurses and doctors rushed in. A gun fired liquid cold into Frank’s arm. The icy calm shot to his brain, and Frank fell into darkness.

I killed Reg.

In his dreams, he saw it again, that moment when the Tree blinked. The moment stretched itself out so that Frank could really see the boxes, especially the ones tied to the sensors on the laser assembly — motion, magnetism, temperature — all red; explosion imminent.

* * *

Proceed to part 3...

Copyright © 2017 by Scott D. Coon

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