I: Up (To your scattered mines, go!)

I’ve died more times than I would care to remember. And then came back to life—um—most of the times… That I recall. 

I forgot how it all started. I do remember: up, down, out. How could I forget that? 

Don’t worry. I know you don’t understand. I don’t fully understand what happened either. Yeah, and I’m the one who lived it. 

And no, I’m not going to get all philosophical or religious on you. That’s not me. Just one thing I’ll say now: He goes where I go. That’s all I’ve got to say about that for now. I just… I’ll get to that in good time. 

But first, I have my story to tell. 

I’m just going to get started, then. Started with my story, that is. 

Except I forgot how it started. 

What about you? Do you recall how your story starts? Well? I didn’t think so. I mean right in the middle of things—there you were. One day—ill defined but in a line drawn continuously, more or less, back from the present to whatever your origin might happen to be—you just happened to be. And, of course you accepted the story of your birth, the story of who you were, the story of where you came from. 

Think about it. How did you start your story? Didn’t someone else start it for you? 

If. 

If there was someone around to tell you the start of your story, that is. 

I forgot how my story started and I didn’t have anyone to help me figure out much of what I heard spoken in whispers and rumors. But in the thick of things—no matter what was going on—my story always returns to up, down, out. 

 * * * 

I can hear Vrög, ‘Section First’ and leader of my team, say even now, “Everything in life is just one of three things: up, down, out.” 

Indeed, every moment of my short life belonged to one of those three things as well—we called them shifts, of course. I remember Vrög would growl at us at the start of the shift, “If you’re here, you’re not out. It’s time to get up. This is NOT the time to be down!” 

Remembering her voice, I still feel the urge to hop to it, get on the job, be on target. I always tried to be ready and eager to be up—it just went with the job, I guess. 

I can see her stomping through the barracks in her heavy boots, rousing us to our work. Rarely did anything anyone ever did satisfy her. She had no problem reaching into my bunk and pulling me upright if I wasn’t moving quickly enough. But if you moved on the bounce and thought on your feet, you just might avoid the worst of her wrath. 

“This asteroid is not going to mine itself,” she might have said. I mean, it seems like something Vrög would say. She was First of six hundred miners, myself included. As a section, we worked around the clock, in three shifts that everyone called: Up, Down, Out. Everyone had to be accounted for when it was their turn to be up, and the production quota—all the minerals we broke down and shipped out—was met every day.

Later I realized that life could be more than a continuous sequence of workshifts full of grime and grease, roars and concussive blasts piercing through the monotonous shrieking of metal grinding on metal. It was brutal, and I’ll be honest, the merest hint of the smell of ozone will still trigger my nostrils to pinch themselves shut even after several lifetimes away from the constant stench in the asteroid mines. 

It was dirty but honest work. Do I miss it? No, not really. Not even as a joke. And at the time, the only thing I vaguely desired was just to escape in one piece, and if possible, with my mind intact. Even the inky blackness of the vacuum of space held more potential than the ground-up dust that perpetually covered every inch of my brown face, my scarred yet still growing body, and of course, my hazard condition suit.

But at least the mine was better than the prison moon where I was born. Or, so I was told.

* * *

My name is Kerf—or, that’s the name I was given. And of course, that is what I’m used to being called. But… Actually, I hear it pronounced in my imagination as Chyeruff—a subtle distinction that somehow always felt meaningful. I have no idea what my name might have meant to the prisoners on the moon where I was born. 

You know, later—oh, no. You don’t yet. Sorry. Got ahead of myself. But I just got to say that my name came to have a new meaning—or, a meaning that was already there and I had just failed to realize it.

Like Vrög would always say, “If you don’t keep your eyes open, you won’t see any gems—even if you’re lost in the depths of a diamond mine!” But we didn’t mine diamonds—that I know of. We were sent after deposits of Helium-3 and other rare but potent compounds for reasons I can only guess at and certainly was never told.

But none of that makes me any different from any of the other miners. I certainly wasn’t unique in my situation. A steady stream of biologically compatible prisoners meant that a prison moon would have its own births as well as countless deaths—none of which mattered to the overseers except as either a financial burden or unexpected boon. I—and the others like me—were just commodities to be smuggled out and sent to the asteroids to work until we die.

The final out, as it were.

It was a continuous cycle: up, down, out. Until it wasn’t anymore. Although even then, for me it wasn’t my last out. I don’t think I can die that way, based on what I’ve been through—or, more to the point, what others thought I had been through or meant to them. But everyone dies, and a lot of other people I once knew are dead; their last ‘out’ finishing the cycle for them forever. I think.

I’d be a fool to say that I know one way or the other. My own experience reveals the utter folly of concluding that anything can really, truly be known. I mean, free will feels real, but is it? One cycle just masks the rhythms and the ups and downs of another cycle, and another, and so on. And just when you think you know what’s coming, something slams you sideways and there’s absolutely nothing for it but to hang on to what you can and ride out the worst of it.

Especially when mining asteroids for volatile compounds with substandard, outdated or compromised equipment.

Indeed, accidents happen.

* * *

From what I could see on the ident stencils on the equipment, we were working on an asteroid called 944-H1-DLG-0. Although, as I recall, I’m sure it was known by a different name, if it were known by anyone outside of the semi-legal mining collective that I called home.

I specifically remember Vrög shouting at her Second, “What are they thinking? We can’t supply water to that section—they’re our source of water!” My ‘up’ shift had just concluded, and I was reporting to Central Logistics at the anticipated closing of the mineral seam my squad had been excavating. I had been sent through the tunnels by my lazy-ass squad leader, who hadn’t waited to finish before settling down and going out as he nearly always did at the end of the shift.

I stood around with the other squad leaders—not all of whom were as self-indulgent as mine—waiting upon the Section First to acknowledge us with the usual curt nod or grunt. In the harsh light of the ancient and beaten electric lamps, we were nearly identical although there wasn’t a single clone among us. We were so covered with dust and grease that it was impossible to tell the men from the women from the others. Even Vrög was covered in grease this time, as the emergency that had occurred earlier in the shift must have required her direct attention.

The First wasn’t above getting her hands dirty—everyone knew that. And with the exception of my crappy squad leader and others like him, we were a good team. Besides the First and her assistants, we were all just miners here. Everybody worked. We were all equal in the eyes of the company—equally reliable and equally expendable.

Not having anyone else, they were my adoptive family. Well—no, almost but not quite. Although they would do in a pinch. Actually, they were more of an adoptive clan than a family, maybe? I wouldn’t know.

I’m sorry. I’m losing track. That happens a lot when I try to remember the events of several lifetimes ago.

What emergency actually happened during that shift was a mystery I have yet to understand and perhaps never fully will. All I heard were alarm klaxons blaring through the tunnels for a moment before they were silenced, and then the comms announcing a mandatory shift extension due to an unscheduled and unavoidable interruption. And that was all, at first. We were told that the emergency had passed and the shift was still underway. So, we all moved on as if nothing had happened, while the shift’s normal operations required our attention.

Despite the emergency, the up shift concluded like always when it was over. I had helped out on the closing of shifts before despite not being a true company supervisor. Usually, the Section First would start with a review of incident reports and discipline. Mostly, I just stood and waited, and when the First got around to the squad leaders, it would be over with a signal.

But not this time. This was the last shift of the last cycle of my entire life, and the beginning of the end was an explosion, and you probably guessed that it was indeed distant and ominous. 

 * * *  

As the echoes of the explosion continued to rumble, shouts filled the corridors. Vrög and her assistants froze momentarily, listening. I expected more klaxons, but none came. The squad leaders and I just looked on expectantly until Vrög barked an order and swept her hand about the room. Somehow, I was caught up in that sweep despite having no right to being a member of that group besides having an incompetent squad leader.

“Suit up!” Vrög said. “If the reactor coolant doesn’t get you, the radiation will—”

Without warning, the lights went out. In the moment of blackness before the emergency generators tripped, I could still see my fellow miners in an afterimage that froze them in the process of donning protective gear. But when the wan emergency backup light snapped on, the eerie tableau was replaced by chaotic images of running, pushing and yelling accompanied by belated alarms and automated evac announcements over the comm system.

Vrög’s Second, Jom, had never been more than a shadow of the First in my entire time in the company. Efficient and seemingly always in the right place at the right time, I was shocked when he appeared right in front of me.

I had still been wearing my full hazard suit when the shift ended, so all I had to do was don the gloves that had been clipped to my belt and pull the faceplate of my helmet into place. As the seal clicked, Jom knocked directly on my helmet.

“Glad someone thought to wear a suit. Kerf, right?” he said. 

I tried. “Cheryuff,” I said, pronouncing it as I intended it should be.

“Good. Kerf. Right. You’re with me.” He started to walk out of Central Logistics—one cavern among many—and I followed. “We’re going to the reactor and when I begin the diagnostic on the repair made earlier—”

“You’ll need me to handle the safeties.” I finished the sentence, having heard of the engineering routine on many occasions. 

“As it needs two,” Jom said, continuing without interruption. “Alone, one can shut it down, or start it up normally, but I’ll need you to…” Jom paused. “You’re smarter than you have a right to be, Kerf.”

“Only just,” I said, trying not to sound out of breath. I was tired. Having been up pulverizing rock for an entire shift, I was ready to lay down.

Jom turned to look at me as we jogged around a turn in the tunnels, dodging more running figures fleeing the disaster. He was about to speak when another explosion rocked the asteroid, causing the mine to shudder and shake. The lights flickered as a short in the backup circuits spread minor havoc in the system.

And yes, I remember thinking, I am smarter than I have any right to be. I also remember just wishing to be as smart as others thought I was. Was intelligence really so difficult to estimate?

After Jom steadied himself, he looked at me quizzically and asked, “What do you mean—only just?”

“If I were truly smart, would I be here?” I said. I didn’t realize how condescending it sounded, and I completely missed the insult to Jom—if you’ve missed it, I won’t dig into the details, but if you see what I mean, then you can guess just how bad I am in socially connecting with others.

Jom muttered something, but I hadn’t the audacity to ask him what he was saying. Of course, it wouldn’t have mattered even if I had. In that moment, we were both lost in a haze of smoke.

  * * *

We were engulfed in smoke, but I activated the HUD in my helmet with a touch and could now see false color images of the tunnel, now littered with abandoned tools. Also, standing in front of me, I could see the outline of the Second. He was in the middle of an incoming status transmission and missed seeing the concussion wave that my HUD represented as a rapidly flowing distortion sweeping towards us.

I only had time to grab Jom before the blast pushed us first into one side of the tunnel before crossing to the other and dropping us to the floor. The explosion had occurred in front of us, but somehow at that same moment, vacuum pulled at the atmosphere from behind. Another failure, as the blast doors should close each tunnel with an air-tight seal.

But the dust storm now raging in that tunnel turned into a silent scream against the hubris of technology. I pulled Jom closer to me, but I couldn’t see his face in his helmet. I touched my helmet to his and shouted his name. He moved, but was unresponsive, as far as I could tell, until I heard a faint yell through the sympathetic vibrations in my helmet.

“Kerf!”

“Cheryuff,” I said, stubbornly. I untethered my comm lead from my useless transmitter, plugging it into a receptacle on the Second’s helmet that greeted me with a burst of static when the connection was made. “Are you all right?” I asked when the noise subsided. He nodded when he heard me. “Are comm lines out?”

“What? Oh, yes.” Jom said. He looked at the wire connecting us, then at me. “Smarter than—” He seemed to recall something, and pulled himself up from the floor of the tunnel. “Let’s go—there’s still a chance to keep this wreckage from flying apart and killing everyone in the mine.”

“A chance, you say?”

“Just the one.”

But what optimism Jom had held lightly vanished in the sight of the reactor. It had been installed close to the surface to facilitate access for replacing spent fuel, but the protecting infrastructure had collapsed. Sheets of metal and piles of rubble were all that separated the reactor—and us—from the vacuum of space.

“Without blast doors, the entire mine will be exposed if that structure fails,” Jom said. “Without power, everyone who managed to survive to this point is doomed—”

“But we can preserve the integrity of the mine if we collapse the tunnel,” I said. “You can jettison the reactor—just as it is supposed to be handled in an emergency.”

“I know. I wrote those emergency procedures,” Jom said. “And you can be excused in case you didn’t know that the jettison protocol requires a safety interlock. Like I said, it takes two—”

“And I’ll be the Second’s Second,” I said. I thought it profound at the time. I remember the feeling of belonging to a cause greater than myself, of being needed. But you’ll forgive me if my poetic aspirations fall short of actual profundity. “I’ll handle the interlock as soon as you have the controls wired up.”

Jom shook his head, and silently pulled the trigger casing away from the reactor, adjusting the amplitude of its signal as he did so. “How much time do you need?”

“Now is already too late for many. We need to do this.”

“You’re one of a kind,” he said.

“One of something,” I said, and my voice sounded distant to me. 

He patted me on the back and left. As soon as he turned the corner, it was as easy as pushing a button. In an instant of flame, irresistible force, confusion, and pain so sharp I can still feel the cut through the whole of my being, it was over.

  * * *

Nothing. And in an instant, something. And in another instant, an expectant sharp, swift intake of cool…

Nothing.

I had no urge to breathe. I blinked, but the growing light didn’t change. A glow began to suffuse my naked body as I looked around. Even with my eyes closed, I could see.

Sort of.

I had no idea what was happening. Was I down? Was this the way out? I looked up, and saw Jom—who was also not Jom—standing over me, smiling.

“You’re one of us,” he said. 

Next Chapter: I (continued): Up (A Stranger in a Strange Room)