Sixteen Moles of Lithium
By Shaun O. McCoy
TO A DESPERATE MAN all women are beautiful, every meal is a feast, and each moment is numinous. I ride this high as I work the K8 excavator’s controls like a madman, desperate to find some pockets of good ol’ lithium-compound-number-five. I need lithium like I need oxygen. Without oxygen, God will kill me. Without lithium, Cryzer Co. will kill me.
Between you and me, Cryzer’s the one to watch out for.
Most of the other miners were born in Cryzer Corporation test tubes, raised from the teat on company training computers, and brainwashed through their childhood by company filmed propaganda vids. With that level of ideological insulation, they don’t always realize just how horrid this frozen hell around us is—but that’s okay, because I’m suffering enough for all of us.
The K8’s arms are extensions of my own, burrowing deep into the icy core of the Jovian moon Tarvus and sending up shards of frozen debris to slam into my pod’s window with the tempo of a hard summer rain. The mist of particulate obscures my vision, but there is no time to let it settle. I work by intuition, touch, and guesswork. The lithium counter edges a bit higher toward my quota line.
I was brought here ten years ago as a slave after Cryzer conquered Milan. I was thirteen. They had killed my mother, my father, and all but one of my siblings. As an apology they gave me four years of training, six hundred hours of propaganda, and some invasive emotional suppression conditioning.
Letting me work was a favor, they said. It was noble of their company to use human labor instead of AI, they said. Otherwise, you understand, there’d be no use for humans at all. Having lived in another society, I can see through their bullshit. People don’t have to be treated this badly. You don’t have to kill every worker who doesn’t make quota. You don’t have to work them sixteen hours a day. You don’t have to trick people into taking even more horrific assignments with false promises of better pay and more survivable working conditions. These Cryzer babies don’t know that, though. They buy the whole lie—but don’t let me give you the wrong impression. It’s not that they’re a whole lot happier than I am, it’s just that they’re not as pissed off. They think they deserve to live in Hell.
Right below this layer of ice is a massive ammonia bubble. They’re not mentioned in any of the training vids, but we all learned to spot them from the smaller ammonia pockets trapped in the ice around them. We had to learn, or die.
The ammonia of those smaller bubbles evaporates in sudden bursts as soon as I expose it to the air. The gas interacts with the condensation on my pod’s window, leaving rainbow patterns along the glass. Cryzer babies are a superstitious sort, so they think the rainbow is a sign from the death god of the Cryzer corporate pantheon. They’re superstitious, but they’re not fools, and there’s a reason they think this.
If I burst a large enough bubble, my mining chamber will fill with ammonia. It would take several hours for the decontamination systems to clear the gas, and during that time I’d be unable to work. Right now, because I’m four moles below my lithium quota, that means I’d be killed for the crime of laziness.
To get around it, I go left and up, then down and right, but the ammonia expanse is wider than my section. Letting loose the ammonia would end me, so I do my best to skirt the remaining ice on the bubble’s edge.
There’s only twelve minutes left. I must be as productive now as I have ever been. Even if I do this, even if I operate the K8 to the best of my ability, I still might not make it. In a desperate frenzy, I push deeper into the ice. I can practically feel the seething ammonia beneath the excavator’s grinders, just waiting to explode into my chamber.
My heart leaps as I see a pattern in the ice, a discoloration caused by fractures in the water crystals. Sometimes that means lithium. It’s deep in the wall, and it might even be touching the ammonia, but what does it matter? With only ten minutes left, I don’t have time to go looking elsewhere. I drill straight in. I’m burrowing so hard the ice turns to steam upon touching my K8’s rotors. I can’t see, but I feel the pressure beneath the arms decrease. Not knowing what I’ve tapped, I put in a siphon. My screen lights up with reports of lithium. I put the siphon’s pressure at 300psi. It might shatter the ice around the pocket, but if I don’t, I won’t beat the clock.
Three moles remaining.
I turn my burrower arms back on and start jamming them into the ice. The pressure helps pump the lithium into my collectors, but that’s just a fringe benefit. I have to make quota tomorrow, too. If I can burst this ammonia bubble, the decontamination units will run all night, while I’m off, and I’ll have a shot at surviving tomorrow as well.
One mole left. One minute.
I make quota just moments before the ammonia pocket bursts, blurring out my vision completely with waves of gas and rainbow colored condensation. I hear the warning sirens of the decontamination systems as they come online. With the chime of a bell, my shift ends, and the K8 jettisons my pod out of the mining chamber.
The pod opens. I’m so shot from spent adrenaline that I can’t keep my balance. I fall to the ground. A few of my co-workers gather around me, helping me to my feet. I see a Cryzer supervisor over the shoulder of one of my comrades. I grin at her.
Not today. You may kill me tomorrow, but not today.
I stand like an island as this hour’s sea of off duty miners pours out around me into the free area.
How a person spends the eight hours between shifts says a lot about who they are. Some people go straight to their barracks, hoping to get enough rest for the next day’s work. I did that for a time, myself. After a while, you realize you’ve nothing to live for. Others spend thirty minutes to an hour trying to find some meaning in their pitiful existence. That’s probably the best way to go. This job drives you mad, though, so sooner or later you’re staying out an hour or two. Maybe three or four. Then you’re almost dying on your shift. I’ve lost some friends that way.
These eight hours are very likely to be my last, though, so maybe I shouldn’t waste my time sleeping. Then again, there might not be any more ammonia bubbles left for me to burst tomorrow. If that’s the case, then I just might make quota if I get a good night’s rest.
I need to know. There’s this friend of mine, Jiles, who a worker can go to if they need to get their hands on some illegal survey data—if they’re willing to pay the price.
I find a temp pad, give it my thumbprint, and check my account balances. I’m in the negative, but hell, we’re all in the negative. Cryzer’s got the rent and food set up so you always owe them money at the end of the year. The question is how my credit line is doing. Turns out I’m almost maxed. I’ll get another credit extension on my tenth year of employment, but that’s two months from now.
I don’t have enough credit, but I seek her out anyway.
She’s got a booth next to the Food Consortium where she sells little trinkets. Trinkets that a guy like me might give to a girl he’s interested in. Jiles is a tiny little thing, maybe five feet tall, with dark hair, dark eyes, and a round face. She smiles as I approach, but it’s a sad smile. I lean up onto her booth’s counter next to a display of earrings. They jingle as my weight on the counter shifts the display. Her father is a corporate man, but her mother—before she died—was a worker. Jiles lives in that grey area between our two worlds.
She puts a hand on my wrist. “I hear your quota is day to day.”
I nod. “It’s true. I’m redlined.”
Her grip tightens just slightly for a second. “I’m sorry, doll.”
“Jiles, I don’t think I’m going to be able to work my way out of this one. I hit an ammonia bubble today. I might not make it tomorrow. I need to know.”
Cryzer workers aren’t allowed any information from the geological surveys of Tarvus. Cryzer gives some ridiculous excuse about how gangs would form to allow certain workers access to the choice mining spots. As if they couldn’t assign those spots themselves. As if they couldn’t commute the death sentence for not meeting quota.
But Jiles, she has connections.
Her sad, dark eyes look at me. She’s got a soft spot for me, I can tell. She leans forward over the booth’s counter as well and then whispers into my ear. “What’s your section?”
She takes her hand away from my wrist and starts working on the pad in her booth. “That section is covered in a Koleman survey. Only three hundred credits.”
That’s two hundred more than I’ve got. “I’ve only got a hundred, Jiles.”
“It ain’t easy for me to get this stuff, doll. Dangerous too. If I’m caught, they might make me a worker.”
“There’s a credit extension in two months coming up for me. I swear I’ll pay you back.”
I realize she’s not really listening to me. She’s looking at her pad, at the geo survey. I don’t like the expression on her face. She shakes her head and then looks me dead in the eye. “Don’t waste time sleeping tonight, hun.”
“How bad? Two pockets? Three?”
“If you need a woman,” Jiles tells me, “and you don’t find another, come get me.”
“But if there’s only one ammonia pocket, I can burst it early on. I might still ...”
She’s shaking her head.
Slowly, I make the transition from a desperate man to a doomed one. I put my thumb up to her pad to transfer my credits. She keeps it out of my reach. “Keep your hundred. Spend it all tonight.”
I’d met dead men before, and thought they were pretty pathetic. I’d never end up like that, I’d thought. My luck would always hold, I’d thought. And, even if I knew I was going to be dead tomorrow, then I sure as hell wouldn’t be wasting my time, standing in a corner of the Drink Consortium and Casino, gazing at nothing, lost in my own thoughts.
But here I am, doing just that.
The Consortium is the metaphorical short shout a person gives to break the quiet desperation of Cryzer life. Metallic tables, chairs, and a steel-colored bar are arrayed to take advantage of the thirst a man develops on his way to gamble. Alcohol sweetens any victory and, if you haven’t had too much, can numb the losses.
A mixed haze of condensation and smoke hangs in the air, catching the strobing neon lights of the slot machines and card tables. Ghostly faces, robbed of their features by the particulate-filled air, move along with their monochromatic silhouettes amongst the riots of intermittent casino color, looking for the big break which, statistically, can never come.
I look away to the vid screen over the steel-colored bar. I can’t hear the audio over the chatter of the miners and the whirring of slot machines, but I don’t need to. Some mid-level corporate exec is discussing profit margins and worker efficiency. The screen cuts away to a line of workers. They’ve been convicted of laziness. They are right now what I will be tomorrow.
I move past the tables into the neon haze, trying to find something worth doing, trying to shake off the weight of ten years of Cryzer exhaustion.
I find myself at a roulette table. I need credit. If there’s anything worthwhile to be done in my last eight hours, it’s going to require credit. With a shaking thumb, I put my one hundred on black. The little metal ball dances across the spinning checkerboard.
I’m drawn back to the bar’s vid screen and I watch my fellow workers enter the killing booths. The lights over each booth change from red to green, one after the other, signifying that they’ve been cleansed. Signifying that the chemical structures which were once their bodies have been broken down and are now ready to be recycled into products the rest of us can use.
The anger gets me, pressing against my invasive emotional suppression conditioning. I feel hate crawling over the right side of my body. My face is twitching. My right arm is shaking. My right leg gives out and I topple to the floor. The hot emotion springs up within me but I have to keep it buried.
Some miners hover around me, ones from the roulette table. They help me to my feet.
“I’m fine,” I lie.
I shuffle my way out of the door.
My right arm is still shaking.
I need to destroy something, anything, so long as it’s part of this system.
“Letting her off easy?” a voice taunts. “Hoping to get in her bed, Jack?”
In the alleyway I see a group of Cryzer supervisors. Four of them are picking on the fifth. I don’t give a damn about Cryzer on Cryzer violence. Hell, I applaud it. Let them hurt each other. Heaven knows vicarious sadism is the best I can hope for.
I feel a twinge of empathy for the victim, though.
Jack’s the one they are picking on. He’s got a mistress amongst the workers, named Shemi. I bet they’re picking on him because he’s been soft on her. He probably loves her. I don’t know her that well, but she’s a nice enough girl. After this, though, Jack’s bound to hurt Shemi bad, if only to make a point of it. If only to prove to his peers that he isn’t no softy.
But who’s Shemi to me? Nobody, that’s who. I don’t care if she gets hurt. So what are they going to do, put her in the box? She’ll live. Not me. I’ll be dead tomorrow. Besides, I couldn’t stop them if I wanted to. They’ve activated a panel on the wall, and setup some sort of transaction. They’re wrestling Jack’s thumb toward it. I take a few steps closer so I can see the panel.
They’ve got Shemi’s record up on the monitor. That means they have a punishment set up, and they’re trying to make Jack give his thumbprint authorization to hurt her against his will. And that means Jack’s fighting them, fighting four supervisors to try and save Shemi. It means Jack’s a good man.
My right arm gets to shaking again.
I pick up a temp pad from a docking station and head right toward them.
Maybe I can trick them. They turn to see me as I realize that this could be the very last thing I do.
I bump into Jack, hard. That’s a pretty severe offence in itself. They can give me two hours in a hotbox for running into a supervisor. I stumble away from them, hitting the ground.
I get up on my knees and put on my best fear face. I flash them the temp pad, hoping they don’t notice it’s still on the login screen. I’ve never been much of an actor, but here goes nothing.
“I’m sorry! I’m so sorry! I’ve got to find Jack. I’ve got a message from the overseer, and I have to make it back to my shift or I’ll be redlined. I didn’t mean to rush!”
Jack’s angular face is as shocked as his fellows. His jaw hangs open like an offline K8 pod. He better start catching on quick.
“What are you talking about?” one supervisor asks, grabbing me by the collar and hoisting me up to my feet.
I’m so full of real terror that it’s easy to play this part. “Overseer Wylan. She sent me here with a message for Jack.”
“What message, man?” another supervisor shouts, cuffing me on the side of the face.
The lie comes easy. “Jack forgot to file the clearing roster. Wylan says it’ll screw all the daily reports. You’ve got to help me find him. He needs to thumbprint my release back to work or I’ll miss quota!”
The one with a hand on my collar lets me go, shoving me backward against the Drink Consortium and Casino’s outside wall. I fall into a heap, crying what might be real tears.
“Got Alzheimer’s, Jack?” one taunts.
Jack isn’t doing the best job of keeping his relief from showing. Does he know I’m acting now? Does he remember filing the report. Behind him and the supervisors, the screen with Shemi’s file on it times out.
“Wait,” I say, doing my best to mimic surprise. “You’re Jack?”
The supervisors laugh.
I hold out the temp pad. “You’ve got to sign me into work, Jack. I’ve got to get back to the mines. I’ve only got an hour.”
He smiles cruelly. “Maybe I will, or maybe I won’t.”
Oh no, br’er Jack, don’t keep me from the mines.
Suddenly the cruel faces of the Cryzer supervisors are focused on me.
“Come on, Jack,” one of them says, “time to get some drinks. You can file the report after this one’s shift expires.”
I fall to my knees. “Don’t leave me. Please!”
They walk away. I can see the confused look in Jack’s eyes. Maybe he knows I’m trying to save him, maybe he doesn’t.
“Please!” I call after them.
They leave the alleyway, and I get caught up in the rush of a fresh set of workers. Fresh workers means a shift just ended. It means I’ve only got seven hours left. The anger comes back, and it’s bolder now. Maybe, after all these years, that conditioning is failing.
I’m going to break something. I’m going to hurt Cryzer.
It’s not easy to stay awake, even in the noisy bar. If I wasn’t dying tomorrow, I don’t think anything could keep me up. As it is, I start to nod off. Finally, the throng of the last shift passes. Thirty minutes, right there, wasted. I move from my table to the now empty bar, sitting down on a stool and putting my elbows on the counter to help support my head. The last drink set here left a residue of condensation. It seeps through my shirtsleeve at my elbow. I ignore it.
The barkeep is a balding man with a bulbous nose. He’s like Jiles, a man between worlds. Stereotypically, he’s cleaning out a glass with a white towelette.
“I’m looking for the Wicker Man,” I tell him.
He fumbles the glass, almost dropping it. He regains a hold of it and of his composure.
The Wicker Man is a legend. The Cryzer babies say that secret agents from a rival corporation have infiltrated their workforce. One of them is supposedly called the Wicker Man, and he can help a dissident get something done—even if it breaks Cryzer law. Remember, though, the Cryzer babies are superstitious as hell, and half their legends are complete bullshit. I’m gambling that the Wicker Man will be real, not because I believe in him, but because he’s all I’ve got left.
The bartender leans in close, getting his own elbows wet. His bulbous nose fills my vision. “I’ve met men who claim to be who you’re looking for,” he tells me, “but most turn out to be Cryzer plants, trying to entrap men like yourself.”
“I’m a dead man,” I tell him. “Dead men don’t care if their hope is a mirage. They just want something to believe in.”
The barkeep nods. “Go sit at the back table in the corner. I’ll send him to ya.”
My heart comes alive, beating like a K8 siphon pump.
Another shift finishes. And another. That means I’ve got less than five hours left. These are my final hours, and I’m wasting them away. My head keeps nodding. Maybe I’ve fallen asleep already. For all I know, I might have missed a few hours.
A worker comes up and sits at my table.
“Seat’s taken,” I tell him, trying to muster up as much vitriol as I can.
Honestly, if the fellow decides to fight me for it, there won’t be much I can do to him. He’s well rested, and he looks fairly well nourished, too.
“Taken, huh? Maybe one’s saved for the bartender’s friend?” he asks.
The shroud of fatigue which had settled over me burns off my shoulders. I sit up straight.
He takes a seat. His fingernails, well trimmed and with small white cuticles, drum against the metal table for a moment. “What’s your story?”
“I’m redlined. I’ll be dying tomorrow. I don’t belong here.” There is no longer any reason for me to be cautious. What can Cryzer do to me if they find out what I’m planning? Kill me? Who cares if this is a double agent? My words spill out of my mouth, and not only am I helpless to stop them, I don’t care to. “I was born on Milan. Cryzer came and killed everyone I knew. They stole my life. I remember when I saw rainbows in the sky, not on the glass of my K8 pod. I remember when soft breezes would jingle wind chimes. I remember when I ate real food, sustaining food, when I’d never heard of oil-based yeast rations. I remember when I had a future. When I could dream. I remember wishing I could fly.”
The Wicker Man nods. “You know what a genie is?” He asks.
“Comes from a lamp. Grants wishes.”
He purses his lips. “Well, I don’t come from a lamp.”
“And the wishes?” I ask.
He holds up a single finger. “You’ve got one.”
That anger hit me again. Hard. My right hand trembles against the table. I can hardly speak, and when I do it’s slurred. “I w-want to hurt th-them.” Slurred words, but I mean them.
“I can grant your wish.”
Oh please, whatever gods be in heaven, please let this man be real. “How?”
“What’s your section?”
A knowing smile creeps across his face. “The supervisors are in the mines’ observation stations. If it weren’t for the safeties on your K8, you’d be able to drill right into them.”
Blood drips down onto the table. I look above me to see where it’s coming from. I feel a substance on my upper lip. It’s coming from me. My nose is bleeding.
The Wicker Man hands me a tissue.
“Doesn’t matter,” I tell him. “The supervisor can shut my machine down or eject my pod.”
I hold the cloth under my nose. The cloth is pure white. My blood is a brilliant crimson.
“Maybe they could,” the Wicker Man says. “But who’s to say that the supervisor’s panel won’t malfunction?”
“I don’t know.” My voice sounds strangely nasal as I speak around my bloody nose. “Who is to say that?”
“I am,” the Wicker Man says. “Take care of yourself. You’re in bad shape. Get into your K8 tomorrow. It will take me a few hours to get all the sabotage finished. You just have to trust me. If I’ve been successful, I’ll leave you a red rose petal to let you know. If you see it, then point your K8 at the nearest supervisor’s observation station. You’ll be able to drill through the safety glass ... and, if you’re quick, you might even be able to kill him with your drill before the ice and pressure get him.”
He helps me to my feet. I feel the world spinning around me.
“Get some rest.”
“I’m fine,” I lie.
Another shift is letting out. Four hours left.
Jiles is bent over at the waist and packing up her shop when I come to her. The display of earrings jingles like wind chimes as she boxes it up.
She stands and looks at me. Her eyes widen with concern. I must be in pretty bad shape.
“Doll!” she says, rushing toward me, “are you okay?”
She wraps me up in a hug. “Is everything in order?”
“I’ve done what I need to do.”
“Did you find another woman?” she whispers in my ear. “Someone for tonight?”
“Jiles, I didn’t even look.”
Her soft lips find mine.
Jiles’ bedside alarm goes off. It’s loud, high pitched, and impossible to ignore. I’ve got to get up.
I have to die today.
I wheel out of bed and touch the panel on Jiles’ wall to stop the alarm. My ears ring in the sudden silence. My pants are lying next to the bed. I put them on.
Behind me, Jiles stirs.
“Go back to sleep,” I tell her. “That alarm was for me.”
She’s a lovely woman, so she ignores me. She watches me pull on my shirt.
“I’m worried about you, doll,” she says.
She sits up, covering herself with her white sheet. “You’re acting like this is just a normal day.”
I look in the mirror. Big mistake. My hair is a tangled mess and my face is terribly swollen. The black circles under my eyes have become purple bruises. I do what I can to make myself presentable. I’ll be on the monitors tonight, after all, when I go into a killing booth. Hell, if the Wicker Man is real, I might even get to have a murder trial first.
I shrug again. “I’ve done what I need to do.”
She smiles. “I love you.”
She means it and she doesn’t. She doesn’t love me like she wants to marry me. She loves me in this moment. It’s the same way I love her.
“I love you, too.”
Not much time before my shift starts. If you’re late, they kill you, and there’s no sense in dying early. I kiss her goodbye and head out the door.
“Do not go gently,” she says.
I nod. She has no idea how violently I intend to die.
I’ve got enough left in me to be nervous as I make my way through the sea of half-dead workers to my section. I see some Cryzer guards along the walkway. Maybe they know what I’ve planned. Maybe they’re going to stop me. Maybe the Wicker Man is just some practical joke.
They don’t even look at me, though, so I enter my pod. There upon my seat sits, in an answer to my most hateful prayers, a single dried rose petal.
My right hand starts shaking as my conditioning tries to fight me. It hasn’t got a chance. I can feel myself smile. Oh, please let this be real. I clutch the petal tightly in my fist as I sit. I slam that fist onto the drop button, and my pod descends like a rocket down into my K8.
Over the last year I’ve gotten used to this particular K8. Her controls are familiar, her sounds, her response times—she’s a part of me. Today, just like me, she’s about to become a murderer. I turn her on and activate my drilling arms. My view through the pod window shakes with the vibrations of her power. I look at the map of my section. There’s a flashing dot where I am. There’s the red light indicating the supervisor’s observation station.
With abandon, I drill toward that red light. I still have to avoid the ammonia bubbles, but after bursting the big one yesterday, moving deeper isn’t so bad. The supervisor probably isn’t thinking anything is odd, yet. All of us workers know that they won’t put an observation station in an ammonia patch, so mining along the edge of station is a fairly standard tactic.
Even so, I see the sizzling blasts of the smaller ammonia pockets covering my pod’s window in rainbow colors. It clears up a bit as I get closer to the supervisor. I find a small cache of lithium, but I pass it by. My quota today is for blood.
I hit a patch of dense ice that’s tougher to mine through. I punch up the RPMs of my drill arms and push forward. The familiar rapping of the ice on my pod gives me a sense of comfort. I look down to adjust my heat dissipation, and I see the dried, red rose petal has broken up into a thousand tiny pieces. Some of its dust is falling like a dismal snow onto the floor. Some of it is stuck on my hand.
A warning bell goes off as I get near the observation station. That means my K8 is about to be shut down by the special protocols which will prevent my machine from endangering the station. Now the supervisor is probably getting suspicious.
I put the K8’s drills to full throttle. More warning sirens go off, letting me know my machine will overheat in roughly sixty seconds. I have one minute left to kill him.
Steam fills the air as the ice evaporates on my rotors. I feel blood thumping in my ears. My fingers are tingling.
I rear my drilling arms back and then thrust them forward. The station’s protective glass vibrates from the impact, filling my pod with a low hum. It’s working! Blood from my nose is dripping down onto my arms, but I don’t care.
Now the supervisor has got to be scared. He’s probably furiously trying to eject his own pod, but the Wicker Man said those systems would be disabled. I look though the rainbow-colored glass, through the sheets of flying ice, past the steam of the drill and the cracking glass, to see the supervisor. I need to make sure there’s someone here to kill.
There is. I see the silhouette of the supervisor, frantically trying to work his own controls. I press my K8 forward to add its engine’s power to the drill’s. I’m so close I can even make out the man’s terrified face.
Instinctively I pull back my drilling arms. The RPMs decrease. Heat warning bells are going off, but I ignore them.
He’s a Cryzer supervisor, same as the others. So what if he wanted to do something nice for Shemi? So what if he’d fight for her? Would he fight for any other worker? Surely he’d abused us, the same as everyone else in his position had. Surely he deserves to die. He has to. He just has to.
My drilling arms fall to the K8’s sides. I take a moment to wipe the blood off my upper lip. I can see into Jack’s eyes now that the steam and ice has cleared. He’s as afraid as I’ve ever seen any man be. He’s saying something. I’m hearing something. He’s on my comm link.
“Can you hear me?” he asks.
That may have been the third time he’s asked that.
I have never felt so tired. “Yeah.”
“It’s not your fault. All the safety systems are down. I’m going to have to reboot my system, okay? When it’s done coming up, I’m going to eject us both.”
I could still kill him, but I can’t feel any anger at all. Not at him, not at Cryzer, not at the cruel universe into which I was born ... not at anything.
“Okay?” he asks again.
I wait for him to reboot. The warning alert sirens going off from the damaged observation station are almost peaceful, like a lullaby.
I think I may have fallen asleep for a second. I hear Jack’s voice again.
“What?” I ask, shaking myself awake.
“I’m going to eject us. Are you ready?” His voice sounds distant.
“Yeah, Jack. Yeah, I’m ready.”
The pod fires upward. The blood from my nose drips off my forearm and mixes with the rose petal’s dust.
I can barely stand as I exit the pod. I see Jack jogging down along the corridor. When he stops, I see he’s shaking almost as badly as I am.
“Controls must have been sabotaged,” Jack tells me. “Don’t worry about it, it’s not your fault. Normally we don’t let workers switch sections. Fairness has to be maintained, you understand, but I’m afraid in this case we just can’t get this K8 operational until the repair crews find out exactly what went wrong. Might even take a couple days.” Jack reaches out and grabs my shoulder. “Go to section 112X28. Make sure it’s 112X28. Understand? You remember it?”
“112X28,” he repeats.
There’s no shift change going on so I walk alone. I’ve never seen the service corridors this empty. The solitude is strangely comforting. I stop when I see the section he asked me to go to. I enter the pod and drop it.
I’m not sure why he was so insistent that I take this section. Maybe he gave it to me because it has a similar ammonia content, and fairness would be kept. Or maybe it’s just the only other tunnel he has access to.
Each K8 is different. This one has its pump controls on the left hand side. That always annoys me for some reason. I power up the drill.
Sometimes there’s so much lithium-compound-number-five in an area that it stops the ice from freezing into a solid mass. Sections that rich are called snow cones. Jack had sent me to a snow cone. I forgo the drill and just put in my siphon. The moles of lithium start pouring in.
Oh, thank you, Jack.
I’m redlined, and tomorrow they’ll probably take me back to my ammonia-soaked section, so this lithium is going to have to make my quota for the week. It’s not going to be easy, but if I work hard, and the lithium stays this thick as I go deeper, I might just make it.
I realize I’m going to live.
I don’t know what living means in a place like this. Maybe it means that I get to spend one more night with Jiles. Maybe it just means that Cryzer can torture me a little longer. I don’t know. But one thing is sure, I’m no longer a doomed man—so maybe it means that this frozen Cryzer Hell is a place where all women are beautiful, every meal is a feast, and each moment is numinous.
Shaun McCoy is an active chess player, 79th ranked in South Carolina. He has also competed in Mixed Martial Arts competitions. His stories have run in “M-Brane SF,” “OG’s Speculative Fiction,” and “Child of Words.” He has written eight novels.