“Keep it moving you slackers!” Zak’s voice filled the comms channel. It had been a long shift at the quarry face and the crew was beginning to sag. However, they knew better than to complain when Zacharia Ahlmatredis was gang chief. As nice a guy as he was off shift, he was always ambitious whilst on the job and today he had something extra special to prove. Not only was he about to break his big brother Kagarnus’s 100 day tonnage record he was going to do it a day early. They had been warned in advance that they were going to be breaking crystal as long as it took to break the record so slacking was only going to prolong the agony. He’d even hammered the message home by bringing extra backup air cylinders for Christ’s sake! They bent to it and tried to pick up the pace by imagining what they were going to do with the bonus once pay day came around.
Break, haul and load. Break, haul and load.
Each gang member concentrated on his task within the cycle. With none of the usual backchat and teasing the comms channel was mostly silent with only the occasional curt instruction or confirmation. Nobody paused even to stretch and nobody bothered to look up from the work. Mind you, none of them would have expected to see much of interest even if they had. Deep in the quarry as they were, there were no sweeping vistas just an enclosing wall of steep crystal cliffs and today the crystal was being especially dull without even the customary Sparkle.
Every crystal miner soon became accustomed to ’The Sparkle’. Swarms of pinpricks of multi-coloured light that sometimes swarmed and chased each other through the crystal matrix. New recruits would often stand and gawp in astonishment. Seasoned crew, on the other hand, were said to develop sparkle blindness and became unable to see it even when it was pointed out.
However, up on the surface of the planet, something inexplicable was going on. Within the last few hours, lights had begun to pulse and flash sporadically all across the surface of Ull. To begin with, they had been far off and apparently randomly scattered but gradually they were getting more and more concentrated around the Ahlmatredis quarry. Massive and pure white these bursts were clearly something quite different to The Sparkle and even the most hardened miner would have taken a second look.
"Hey little bro!" the voice crackled in Zak’s earpiece, "How’sit goin’ down there? Broken any good records lately?" As the boss of a successful mining operation that he had built from scratch, Kagarnus had a fatter competitive streak even than his younger brother. Nevertheless, he still couldn’t help himself feel proud of the kid’s performance. Growing up, he had served as both brother and father to his orphaned sibling and now felt a parent’s joy.
"It’s going well Kak. The guys have just filled launcher 4 so only one more to go and I’ll have your crown." The younger brother was trying to stay as factual as possible but couldn’t help feeling pleased with himself either.
"Yeh?, well I ain’t gonna to start polishin’ until it’s all been measured and stowed on board the freighter. I ain’t gonna trust no launcher stats."
"Do whatever you want. Anyway up you want to measure it, I’m about to beat you and that’s that!"
"See about it Zak, see about it. You could still get a rig failure. Still, looks like the planet thinks you’ve done it for sure!"
"What do you mean?"
"Oh, it’s buildin’ up to quite a fireworks display down there."
"How do you mean? We haven’t seen anything unusual."
"Na, you wouldn’t. It’s all up on the surface right now, but it’s getting closer should be right on top of you soon. Just in time for the celebrations."
"You trying to freak me? You can’t scare me that easy. I’m staying till we’ve loaded up the last launcher. You can’t cheat me out of the record that way!"
"Co’rs not! Nothing to be scared of. Only lights. Just finish up in the quarry quick and get topside or else you might miss it. Who knows when it’ll happen again?"
"Fine, I’ll call in once we’ve loaded and are on our way." Zak went back to work, loading the larger pieces of crystal with the big grab arm whilst the gang continued to collect in and grade the smaller debris.
Meanwhile, the flashing on the surface continued to get closer.
The last launcher was loaded quickly. The guys had heard the two brothers’ conversation and knew that the end of both the record breaking run and the back breaking shift were in sight. When the load indicator finally switched from green to yellow a whoop of joy sounded through the gang.
"You happy now boss?" It was Jack Greensmann, "Let’s get this launcher in the sky and then we can all get off this shitty rock!" The gang chief looked up at the load light suspiciously. The launcher had been filled unusually quickly. It wasn’t unheard of for a load cell to malfunction or for uneven ground to cause a miss-reading. He eyed the launcher legs and the ground they were resting on. Everything seemed fine to the naked eye but, mindful of his brother’s warning, he was damned if he was going to let a potential mechanical failure steal his victory away.
"Keep loading!" As simple and direct as the instruction was it sent a wave of consternation through the gang. Suddenly, the home straight had stretched back out over the horizon and the finishing posts had been snatched from sight.
"Keep loading?" It was Jack again, "But it’s Yellow! If we overload, it won’t lift and then your precious record is in the crapper!" This was true, but without any way of checking the load independently he really only had one option.
"It isn’t overloaded yet. We load ’till it goes red and then dump until it drops back to yellow again." Even without the open comms link the groans would have been apparent from the body language of the crew. The whole gang slumped visibly. This was an extreme command by any standards. Loading more into the launcher was easy enough, the machines did the heavy lifting. Unloading was a different matter altogether. The Launcher bins were filled and emptied from the top and offered no access for any of the quarrying machines. The guys would have to climb in and heave the excess crystal back out by hand. It was going to be truly back-breaking work and the only thing saving him from a violent mutiny was the fact that the gang were already so tired. He knew this but could see nothing else he could do. If he couldn’t trust the sensors he could at least use up all the safety margin. "Come on! Get to it!" and demonstratively walked back to the grab arm. They reluctantly followed and began filling the loading hopper. It only took a couple of trips and halfway through tipping in of the second hopper the light went red. Ahlmatredis climbed up and looked into the cargo bin. They were fortunate that the crystal was almost all the way to the top. They wouldn’t have to lift to more than shoulder height. "Come on! Everyone up and start dumping!" At a different time he would have organised the men to unload the crystal gently by placing it in a hopper and lowering it to the ground. This would preserve the pieces at a commercially valuable size for the next launcher. However, this would not only slow things down considerably but also surely test the nerves of the crew beyond their limits. They did get a tonnage bonus but the higher profit margins from selling larger pieces in pristine condition went straight into the brother’s pockets.
In the current climate, with the threat of a mutiny already real enough, he decided not to chance his luck. It would be far better to get the job done quickly so that he could get the ordeal finished and every one back to the ship for some well-earned rest. After all, he was chasing a tonnage record today not a profit line.
He picked up a medium sized piece and heaved it over the side. It fell to the ground and exploded into a haze of brittle splinters. He looked down at his men, struck dumb with surprise and fatigue. "Come on!" he beckoned to them, "Get up here and get it over the side. I thought you wanted to get back!" The gang leapt into action and scrambled up into the bin. Soon a ring of brilliant white shards had grown around the Launcher as they heaved crystal as fast as they could. Every time Ahlmatredis threw something out he glanced at the indicator light and as soon as it turned yellow again he called a halt. The men stood on the uneven surface of the cargo panting. Their suits had failed to compensate for the unusual physical exertion and they were overheated and soaked in sweat. In their sealed pressurised suits even a simple act like wiping sweat from your eyes was impossible and this added to their discomfort. One of the men was even bent over and coughing dryly.
"You OK, Eduardo?" asked Zak. The small man stood up-right again and the pained expression on his face was all too evident even through the grimy visor.
"Yeh, no problems, just shit my suit is all!" A thin laugh of crude humour rippled through the exhausted crew. The breather units in the suits could scrub CO2 out of the re-circulated air very efficiently and enabled the men to work for much longer than with just air cylinders alone. However, smells were un-effected. It was bad enough to have to re-breath the oily rubber smell of the suits themselves coupled with a whole shift’s worth of sweat, but even the most hardened miners dreaded getting trapped in their own flatulence for hours on end.
"Well you can all get back to the crew-bus now and get out of those things. I never thought I’d say it about you lazy bastards, but you actually deserve some rest today." The gang let loose a flood of vulgar banter and cajolery. He stood back and let them climb down first, enduring the good natured gybes and back slapping as they did. He didn’t follow straight away, but waited until they were all heading for the crew-bus. The comms link crackled loudly with their voices but their backs were turned as they climbed the slight rise to where the transporter sat ready to lift them back into orbit. He wasn’t alone, you were never truly alone in the cramped, intimate life of a space miner, but this was as close to a moment of privacy as he was ever likely get. His absence would go unnoticed for a few precious moments. He bent down and touched the pieces of crystal before him before looking up into the sky. He was not particularly religious but something moved him to a brief silent prayer. "This one is for you guys." He thought silently to himself as he dedicated the day’s final load of this record breaking performance to his unknown parents. Then he stood and glanced out across the launch area and around the quarry. He stifled a growl of irritation. Light was pouring out from the narrow cut that served as the entrance to the current drift they had been using. In their haste to load up they had obviously forgotten to switch off the flood lights. If they were left on, the power packs would run out and then the next gang would not be able to work. It would cost the operation a half shift sending for new power packs to get the lights back on. Apart from the money it would also cast a shadow over the record. Furthermore, he still had the last day of the hundred day time limit to work. It would be nice to stretch the record a little further. That way it would take just that little bit longer until anyone else could take a crack at breaking it again.
He knew which crew member’s job it was to turn the lights off at the end of the shift but he decided to go easy on him. The guys had done enough today and a disciplinary action would just be mean spirited. After all, hadn’t he told them to go straight to the bus without tidying up first? He climbed out of the bin and down the side of the launcher. Flipping open the cover on the control panel he tapped in the launch code and pressed the big red launch button. He almost lost his cool when the start sequence refused to begin but remembered, just in time, that the load light had gone red. He needed to manually reset the safety lock before the launch could be initiated. Angrily he punched his way through the re-set procedure before starting the launch sequence again. This time the message panel flashed its acknowledgement and the tension left him instantly. He turned and casually headed for the quarry. There was no hurry to clear the launch area as the final sequence would only start once he had left the launcher’s self-imposed safety cordon.
"Just heading down to the quarry. Mickey forgot to turn the lights off!" It would only take a few minutes to sort the lights and this minor delay together with the ensuing teasing would serve as enough of a lesson for Mickey today. He chuckled to himself, who knew? It might even become part of the legend of the record, told and re-told for generations to come. The ground shook and bits of crystal debris rattled past as behind him the launcher muscled its way skyward. Strolling down to the quarry entrance he was perfectly relaxed and smug about what he was about to achieve. Then, as he turned the corner into the drift, the sight that greeted him froze him in his tracks.
Back at the bus it had taken a few minutes for the implications of Zak’s message to sink in fully. Initially, the guys had been busy climbing out of their suits and joking about how they now all had to breathe in Eduardo’s stink. Then it took a few more moments of friendly banter and teasing about how Mickey had left the lights on on purpose for some fantastic or vulgar reason or another before Mickey finally retorted.
"Shit you guys! I turned the lights off!" This provoked a fresh wave of derision but Mickey ignored this and grabbed his headset from his helmet, ’’Hey Boss!, there’s something screwy going on! I’m sure I turned the lights off!" The few brief seconds of silence on the comm link that followed this killed the banter in the crew-bus more effectively than a gunshot. ’’Hey Boss, can you hear me?"
"Yeh, Mickey I can hear you!" The release of tension in the bus was palpable. However, the odd edge to the boss’s voice kept everyone listening.
"I said, there must be something screwy going on. Perhaps a fuse popped in the switch box." Again a pause.
"Sure as shit is screwy, but it ain’t no fucking fuse!" Mickey was about to fill the ensuing silence with another question about what was going on when the comm link opened again, "You guys should get the fuck down here and see this shit, its spectacular!"
"On my way Boss!" As nominated pilot for this shift, Jack was still outside the bus where he had been pedantically checking over the boosters and thrusters. Everyone else was already inside but two of the younger men made a grab for their helmets and scrambled back to the pressure door. The older hands just groaned and shrugged. Sparkle, or whatever it was, wasn’t worth the effort of going back out. ’’Jesus fucking H Christ!" Jack had jogged and already made the drift entrance. Zak glanced back over his shoulder from the middle.
"Told you!” he said before turning back to the spectacle. The exposed faces of the crystal were alive with light. Every facet and plain seemed to be burning with internal flames as intense waves of light careered across them. The intensity was magnificent. This was definitely nothing like the twee phenomenon of The Sparkle. The whole quarry was alight. Ahlmatredis stood transfixed. He had never seen anything like it. With an irresistible compulsion he walked up to the crystal quarry face and stretched out his gloved hand. Despite the violence of the lights the crystal was as still and cold as ever. He left his hand rest on the smooth surface and watched as the lights seemed to dance around the outline of his fingers. Just as he was about to pull his hand way the nature of the light suddenly changed. The cascade of colour was replaced by a single beam of white light that shone out of the crystal directly at him. It was so unexpected and bright that he staggered back a few steps and held up his hand to protect his eyes. As he did so more beams of various sizes began lancing from the crystal and intersecting at the point where he stood. Soon he stood in a brilliant pool of white light.
"Boss! Come out of there Boss!" Jack took a nervous step forward towards Zak.
"Keep your cool! It’s only light!" Ahlmatredis held up his hand and turned it marvelling at the quality of the light. All the time, more and more beams were crisscrossing where he stood. It was already too painfully bright to look at him with unshielded eyes. Jack flipped his sun visor into place.
"Boss, I don’t like this! Get the fuck out of there right now!" He shuffled another half step into the drift and beckoned in vain for Zak to come out. The light was getting so bright that even with the visor Jack was beginning to squint. He could even feel radiant warmth on his cheeks. By now Zak was just an indistinct darkening at the centre of a halo of light. Over the crackle of the Comm link Ahlmatredis’s voice could be heard filled with wonder,
"Jack can’t you see how beautiful it is?" and then, with a sudden and fearful final burst of light, he evaporated.
All at once the shafts of light disappeared, plunging the quarry into sudden darkness, just as the two younger crewmen came to a stumbling halt at the entrance to the drift. Over the comm link all that could be heard was the hysterical screaming of Jack,
"Boss! Boss! Where the fuck are you? Boss?" The younger men stood petrified by the uncanny silhouette of Jack where he had fallen to his knees. By now most of the rest of the gang had scrambled into their suits and were on their way down to the quarry. It was Eduardo, arriving at a sprint, that was the first to approach Jack.
“Fuck me Jack! Get your shit together man!” He grabbed the shoulder of the still kneeling man but, before he could shake it, Jack twisted round and grabbed Eduardo’s arm.
"It got him man! It fucking got him!” Eduardo looked down horrified. The front of Jack’s suit was scorched and blackened and his visor was opaque with blisters and heat crazing.
“The Fuck man?” Eduardo was at a loss as to what to say, “What got who and where the fucks the Boss?”
“The crystal, the crystal killed him! Burnt him up man! Burnt him right up!" Jack began weeping only breaking off occasionally to repeat this same message again and again. A couple of the men cautiously entered the drift but could find no trace of Zak. Eventually, they dragged and carried Jack back to the crew bus. Once inside, Tony offered to pilot and with the exception of the still whimpering Jack, huddled on the floor trapped inside his warped and half melted suit, they flew up to the freighter in silence.