The men worked in a tunnel lit by glowing chords strung on the ceiling, their silver suits blackened with earth. Modge dragged a Right Sight scanner on the rock floor because he was too lazy to carry the damn thing. Foreman Turner was discussing something at the face of the rock with Tech Expert Hutchins.
Foreman Turner said over the radio, “Get the hell over here, Modge. Pick that shit up off the ground.”
“Yes, sir,” said Modge, who wore a Sabercats hat inside his space helmet. He held the long, bulky penetrator-scanner—which had cost the government 668,000 Coyin—and hopped to Turner’s side. Modge saluted with the tip of the scanner.
Hutchins pointed at the dark reddish rock face and Turner said, “Here, boy.” He patted the rock. “Right there.”
“You got it, boss,” said Modge. He held the scanner against the rock and pressed a button; three legs popped out that gripped the rock and the men felt the ground shake as the scanner round shot silently into the granite.
Priam looked on. Dust fell from the ceiling and landed on the sleeves of his suit, but he didn’t bother to wipe it away. It was going to feel like heaven to get back to the station, strip off the suit, wash off the day’s grime, and collapse on his warm cot. He had the day off tomorrow, thank the Lord. How would he spend it? Maybe send a message to his old buddy from colony Jupiter 12. Maybe lie around watching holovid episodes of Harsh Justice. Or spend some Coyin getting off at one of Yunker Station’s pleasure chambers, but that was kind of a waste of money because he was saving up for something big, such as a shuttle to Venus—not now, but down the road, when he was ready to move on. Then again, his hands got shaky sometimes because he was so alone, and he had a dream the other night about getting in Modge’s cot and doing ridiculous dream-like stuff he’d never do in real life.
Tech Expert Hutchins pulled a tablet from his pocket and pressed buttons the screen, reviewing the scanner bullet’s readings.
He said to Turner, “There’s a four-inch thick sheet that’s got 11% wustite, almost perpendicular to us. It’s about a foot in, so you can either drill or start to excavate.”
The foreman whistled at Priam and the other excavators and said, “Have at it.”
Modge and the foreman moved out of the way for Priam, Gnash, Sutton, and Vernard. Priam gripped his Haxwell drill and bent down to roll it into position, locking its feet to the ground. He pulled up the screen and with gloved fingers turned dials and switched settings on the digital interface. He pressed Enter and stood beside the drill, which spun in violent silence. He turned a physical knob to extend the drill bit and it crunched at the surface; he turned the knob again and the resistance slackened and the drill sank in nicely. The excavation drill chewed into the rock with toothed flutes and debris spat out the back for the automated courier carts to catch.
When he’d drilled as far as he could, Priam changed out the bit for a side mill cutter and opened out the bore, revealing a darker, flaky layer in the rock. Priam was twenty-two and new to the work. With brute force he worked fast but the others knew how to pace themselves and make an even cut.
In fifteen minutes they were down to the wustite-enriched layer. The excavators changed their bits to face-mill cutters, which sheared the wustite into tiny flakes. The robotic courier carts scooped up all the biggest pieces, sucked up the smaller ones, and carted their loads down the tunnel to the stock machine.
When all the wustite was taken out the Tech Expert said, “Better get back to drilling.”
Foreman Turner directed the men away from the rock. He hit Priam on the shoulder and said, “Getting better at it, son.”
Priam said, “Thanks, boss.”
They went into the tunnel behind the drilling machine. Phuong was in the cockpit at the helm. Everyone cleared the way he spun up the massive drill and drove it into the earth.
When the day was done and they were awash in sweat and thinning O2, they set their tools against the rack and went to the tram. Fresh men filed out of the doors for the start of their shift. The two groups exchanged greetings and there was some laughter on the coms. Priam’s group entered the tram and, once seated, took their helmets off and strapped in for the odd gravity swirls characteristic of the journey.
Priam sat between Vernard and Sutton. Vernard was thirty years older than Priam and had a brow that squashed his eyeballs. Sutton was ten years older and wore a satisfied grin.
Priam said, “What? What’re you smiling about?”
He shook his head, “Nothing.”
One of the men said Sutton was such a flake and had thoughts in his mind and such. The men agreed he was always thinking about other things and other places and had no mind for what was here and now and right in front of him.
“Ain’t no place for storytelling,” said Sutton.
The tram rumbled and started moving. Priam put his head back and closed his eyes.
“What’s the story?” said Phuong. The others asked what the story was.
Sutton had a young-looking face with a stubbly beard and a head of long, light brown hair messed up by the helmet. His shoulders tensed.
“You’re a trashy lot of fuckers, ain’t you,” he said.
The men said they weren’t trashy or any of that but merely nosy good-for-nothings.
Sutton said, “Suppose I was to say it was a long story. Wouldn’t you be opting to wait to have a drowny slurp in your fat old palms? Ain’t no good to tell no two minutes of a story that well deserves ten or twelve.”
The men said, “Right, right, good, good.”
Light shot into the windows of the tram as it broke the surface of Shard Gamma. The rocky tunnels drifted away and became a prick in the shadow of debris. The tram followed a path set by floating gates on its way to Station E. Priam heard there used to be women working in the Company, but there were fights or assaults or aggravations or whatever mishmash and after that they said no more women—having them around was bad for morale. All right, fine. It was a downside of the job but he had a job. His brother Nathaniel was still back at Jupiter 12, living under a tarp on Back Deck and scraping by on vent frogs. In the window the huge black spike of Shard Alpha moved in front of the sun, and the tram was dark, and Priam felt the tram decelerate. They docked on Station E, smooth as smooth gel and lubricated drills.
They unstrapped and funneled into the locker room where they stepped out of their suits, set their helmets on the shelf, showered, and dressed in dry clothes. Then they crammed into the giant Slosh Hall, where all the miners from the Shards gathered to pack rations into their sloshy stomachs. At 2100 the lights were turned down and the tables glowed white; the bars opened and sold drinks for a Coyin apiece.
It was Priam and Sutton and Phuong and Gnash and Modge at a table with fiz-topped slurps that had a glow of greenish blue.
“Lads,” said Modge, still wearing his Sabercats hat. They clanked their glasses and drank to the bottom. Gnash was the last to slam his glass down and the others pointed and laughed and he forked out four Coyins on the table with a ‘fuck this,’ ‘fuck that.’ Then the men demanded Sutton resume his story.
He said, “I warn you shitty dolts that I am a sentimental man and that I don’t take no goddamn responsibility for your embarrassment on account of my self-acknowledged fault or cryin’.”
Phuong said, “We know you are, ya idiot.”
Some laughed and Sutton said, “Fair warning. Now, you might none of you know about my upbringing. And perhaps from my accent you already did guess that I, me, this here Sutton B. Frazer, was in fact raised on a scavenger ship.”
“Who’da thunk it,” said Modge.
Sutton said, “I know. And: I do not know if perhaps you ain’t known that my parents were scavengers in the time of great piracy and violence in Venus Quadrant. My old father, blessed man, worked hard and our clan reaped success and by all accounts we had a good sized ship. She was called HMS Ruelle. Fifteen family lines lived upin the vessel and called it home.”
Sutton toyed with the Coyin in his fingers and looked at the face of President Amond Bloom on its metal surface. He put it in his pocket and said, “I was eight years old when I fell in love for the first time.” Modge smirked. Sutton said, “That funny to you, Modge? because you ain’t got no soul. We scavengers do got soul, and I was in love. Her name was Ziasa and she was pretty as polished corundum. We did used to take a look see at what dirty scraps were left in the Collection Bay; after all the pieces were stripped apart and sorted into drawers and barrels and stock trays. Say we got a wing of a blasted-up ship: the adults done separate the pieces into bad scrap and good scrap—I mean sellable and smeltable—and Ziasa and I played with the bad scrap. We pretended like we was warriors with armor and plasma beamers.”
Sutton stroked his stubble. “Then she sort of growed up and I sort of growed up. Didn’t see each other so much anymore. Scavenger families work together but most everything else they like to keep private. That’s the special privilege of a scavenger that no one in the universe gets to have no more. Your own private room with just your little family. A place to be quiet and alone. My dad said that since I was older I couldn’t play with Ziasa no more, and I was supposed to stay inside the room with him and Ma and siblings, or else he’d sit me in the corner to say nothin’ and do nothin’. I always did what he said because I was a good kid and I hated the corner.
“Ziasa got given out to a fellow in Mickum clan when she was twelve and sent to join their ship. The day she went she gave me a jewel that she herself had made—a line of silver alloy gauge twisted in a pattern most beautiful. She did not say goodbye, not with vocal sound, and I did not say so either because we both understood.”
Priam and the men were silent. Sutton scratched his nose and smirked and shook his head.
“It makes me smile to think that maybe she be out there thinking of me in such a similar way as I do think of her, with fondness and wishing I could be a boy, and glad that I was a boy in the time when she was a girl.”
Phuong said, “Probably got a room full of kids and a heart for her man now.”
“You think that make a damn of difference but it don’t. Not to me. Ain’t gunna smile for no thing that don’t exist. I got to smile for that thing that was; it last forever. It’ll keep on when I die and long after. Don’t ask me how that is but I feel it true. If a good thing happens once it happens forever and there ain’t no breaking it. Make no difference no damn what you say.”
Sutton sat up straight on his chair. The men were quiet and lost in thought, expressions blank, eyes wandering. Priam wanted to break the silence with something chauvinistic to return them the ballsy gurgle of the Slosh Hall, but Sutton was right. Priam knew what he was talking about. When he was eleven there was a girl on Jupiter 12 named Jerelyn. He would sneak out at night to visit her at Point Deck. They held hands, she said his fingers were warm, and he smashed her nose with his when he went for a pecky kiss. They went to an empty storage box and kissed some more. He couldn’t remember if she was pretty or not. He was too young to know what beauty was, anyways. He knew he liked being with her because she made him feel excited and nervous and she had soft, cool lips. Why did he still remember her? It didn’t last long. They never did anything sexual. Ask him if he knew the name of every woman he’d slept with and he wouldn’t be able to. This kid Jerelyn he could remember—her dark hair, her narrow eyes, a scratchy voice that was too loud. Would those moments last forever? Were good things immortal substances unlike us? Priam didn’t believe it worked like that. Good memories always got washed out by the bad and he had to apply effort to preserve the ones he wanted to keep. Memories required triggers to conjure, and so many memories had lost their triggers. Not Jerelyn, though. He remembered the feeling—not the details or the moments, but the sense of awe, and he was so young! It couldn’t be real love. He was just a kid. But it felt bigger and truer than the loves of his teenaged years, and think about it: he was a child without the troubles of a man. No bills, no debts, no wife, no children, no job, no way to use somebody, and no desire to. She felt like the entire world because she was his entire world. She was all he had, and he was hers.
Priam looked at the bottom of his empty glass. He looked at Gnash and knew what he was thinking. Gnash had a wife and children on Saturn 5 and deposited all his extra Coyin to her bank account. He’d been at the mines for over twenty-five years. Gnash was probably wondering if he’d ever see them again.
Modge put an arm around Priam and said, “What’s her name? I know you’ve got a lady story. Just look at this boy’s face. How many darling gals has he left sobbing across the stars, eh?”
Someone said, “How ‘bout you tell yours, Modge?”
“All I can say is it’s been too long. This fucking station has turned into a moldy armpit since the women left.”
Priam stopped listening. He drank two more rounds, got up, left the Slosh Hall, stumbled to the birthing chambers, took a leak, and collapsed on his cot. He let his mind and muscles relax from the day’s labor. It was fine, honest work. It was also shitty, being crammed in with this dead crowd of sweaty losers. He could tell himself, I’ll stay just one more year, and next thing he knew he’d be wrinkled, coughing on thin O2 and the smell of men, and trapped with only memories.
Seven months later, he took a transport to Venus Quadrant and signed on with a cargo crew. Priam loved it; he got to see new faces and places all the time and never had to wear a suit. There was a woman but it didn’t work out and he stopped looking for the real thing. He bought a one-bedroom on a floater colony, where he figured he’d retire someday. He took up welding as a hobby. Sometimes he wondered if the guys were still there, Sutton and Gnash and Modge and Phuong, drilling for iron in the Shards of Earth. That planet was and always would be the system’s blight. When people first left Mars and saw the splintered hunk of dust they probably looked at it with disappointment and flew right on by.