I’m alive. This last week has been … a challenge. The littles are just now into the swing of full-time school, and I’m trying to figure out my own head space in that. It’s not proving particularly easy, but then, transition never really is. Adding to that, the weather has taken a turn for the unpleasant, and I’d just gotten used to taking a walk every day. I hate walking in the rain. It’s unpleasant, and everything’s gray out, and there’s too much water in the air.
It’s been a fairly unpleasant week, all told (there I go, using that word, again. weird), and I’m ready for Wee Dave and Wee-er Dave to settle into a routine without fighting us tooth and nail over it. The more introverted Wee Dave lost his proverbial shtuff at his mother yesterday after school, and so we’re going to institute a mandatory Wee Dave Gets Some Freaking Alone Time time when he gets home. That’ll also knock out his required reading. Especially once he actually starts reading. This whole parenting shtick is extra complicated. Still not sure I’m a fan. Ask me when I have grandchildren.
Still, this is where my schedule opens up so I have significant undisturbed writing time. Yesterday was a more or less ineffectual mental health day, and today I’m getting into the thick of it with another chapter on the space fantasy- what? I didn’t mention that part? Oh. Um, gimme a chapter. Maybe two. I’m setting up a couple of things. This afternoon, I’ll be working on some stuff for a collaboration in the works. I’ll report back next week with my progress.
Chapter 7: Orientation
Prison wouldn’t have been so bad if it weren’t for the filth floating at the top and the whole thing about my entire existence being circumscribed by rules. And guards enforcing rules with control rods. And the food wasn’t great. It wasn’t bad. I mean, I’d eaten worse in my life, but that had been a long time ago, and my time with the Guard had gotten me accustomed to a certain level of quality.
The beds were pretty bad, and the clothing was crap. Even the cleanser was rough on the skin. I sure missed my ultrasonic shower. A three minute sluice of water and high frequency vibrations was better for waking up than a gallon of coffee. And the coffee was possibly the worst thing about prison. I knew Jaems and his favorites got good coffee, because I’d fixed it while undergoing the training for the mining work. Us prisoners got not good, and not enough, so the “coffee” was weak, sour, and pale. I just stopped drinking it after a couple of days.
It was the same with the food. Very, very basic. I’d spent some time in the Assault Corps working on logistics, and I recognized a lot of the codes as the same suppliers the AC used. The dates, however, suggested the food we ate was of the lowest quality, and the outright oldest I’d ever seen. The AC complement that ran the infirmary, the ground-to-orbit shuttle, and the outer perimeter ate standard AC rations. The few civilian specialists ate better than them, and Jaems and his favorite ate the best of all.
And then there was Crind. Crind was bad news, and he was always around. He seemed to have something personal against me, though I couldn’t figure out what. At least once a day, usually more, he’d wander past my cell, or through the mess, or the galley, and I’d have to hold very still. Because sure as vacuum sucks, he’d start playing with his control rod and I’d just hurt. I cut a finger pretty bad the first time he did it while I was cutting open ration crates.
Really the only part of prison that didn’t suck was the actual work, itself. I’d spent my childhood and questionable youth as a belter in the Casfrian system. We crammed a semester of school into a quarter by going until we crashed, sleeping, and doing it all over again. The rest of the semester, we worked with our families learning how to mine asteroids.
So I thought I’d be ready. Not even close. Mining Tartarium is a very strange process. The trainers were civilians, or at least they weren’t prisoners. I later learned they had all been prisoners at one time, but that they were offered a stint as an instructor at the end of it, once they’d “worked off their debt to Her Majesty.”
Those of us new to Tartarus were in the mess after cleaning up breakfast. The prisoner mess functioned as a sort of all-purpose room. The tables and benches could be lowered into the floor, and a stage could be raised at one end. Thebes had always been big on stage drama. The focus of our attention that morning was a man up on the stage with a handful of devices on a table, and the viewspace around which we sat.
“This is the Ultrasonic Geologic Extraction Device, Mk. 4,” grated the lead instructor, Mr. Grenton. We’d all been cautioned to simply call him “Sir.” He wore a salt-and-pepper beard trimmed to the same length as his mostly gray hair. He looked like a lump of rock, and sounded like it. He also looked like he could lift an assault shuttle unaided. Even Crind avoided him. He ignored the guards with an equanimity which I respected.
He held up a device so we could all see it. The thing looked almost like a cut-down and oddly shrunken plasma rifle, if some crazed engineer had removed the barrel and welded on an oversized bayonet. There was a bulky stock obviously meant to be snugged into the shoulder, and a pistol grip with a control stud. Forward of that was what looked like a magazine well, though I imagined that was for a power unit, considering. Then there was a forward grip for fine control work.
“But you will call it what we call it: a vibropick, or just a pick. You will receive training sufficient to bring you to proficiency in its use, the cutting and extraction of lithic material surrounding the desired ore. Before we get to that, however, you need to understand why you never, ever use it on Mineral 35697-Q, known in common parlance as Tartarium.”
The lights dimmed at his command, and the viewspace sparkled with its loading cycle graphic before the photons coalesced into an image. Men and women were at work in a mine, using vibropicks similar to the one Mr. Grenton had shown us. They dug at the face of the rock, driving the pick blades in and forcing them through the rock. After a few such cuts, a chunk of rock would fall out of the space carved. It seemed inefficient.
One of the men in the recording stood after clearing several such lumps of cut rock away from the face he was working and gestured excitedly. Several of other workers clustered around him as he retrieved his pick and set to work. After a moment, there was a flash that temporarily overloaded the recorder. After a few seconds, the image in the viewspace cleared, and someone on the other side retched.
My eyebrows shot up. The camera had moved in the presumed blast, but the rock face where the miner had been working was scorched and appeared melted. The miners – and parts of miners – lay tumbled about, many with visible wounds and skin and clothing blackened. The center of the explosion was a now-cleared face of dull, silvery metal.
“So you see,” Mr. Grenton said, “we don’t apply the vibropicks to the Tartarium ore. Unless you want a quick route out of here.”