“Those are the ice fields,” his Dad said. ”There must be a few billion cubic meters of hydrogen slush. All we have to do is watch the 'droids process it and then it’s Triton Station for good. No more of these backwater armpits. I promise.”
The engines roared as they throttled up for landing. “What happened to the last operator Dad?” Allie already knew. Usually a contract ran for two and a half standard years. To pick up a six month contract only meant one thing.
“Some kind of accident”, his Dad said. ”He left the company holding the bag for six months of his contract. That’s why they are paying me at double the standard rate and I was guaranteed the Administrator slot at Triton.”
The shuttle thumped down on the landing pad of the fuel-harvesting complex— a massive array of buildings, tanks, cracking towers and hundreds of miles of pipes, all run by a single engineer. The entire complex was automated, but occasionally something would happen that would surprise even the computers and require skilled hands to correct. A lot of people wanted to be operators; it looked like fun to sit on your ass and watch vids or write the great galactic novel. It only took a month or two for the novelty to wear off. Six months and people were screaming. By nine months, many were suicidal.
The company tried using family units, and they did last a while longer. Finally they began to psychologically screen applicants. The few found suitable for such long term isolation could become very rich.
The pad elevator slowly lowered the shuttle into the hanger— a large cavern of dark finished metal illuminated by red blackout lights— and came to rest. The outer door slid closed and airlock seals hissed shut. Suddenly white fluorescent lights illuminated the hanger making it look like a huge, dirty garage. The shuttle pilot came out of the cockpit with an abrasively cheery attitude and a clipboard under his arm.
“Welcome to IX, folks he said. “Beautiful scenery and beach front lots available. I need for you to initial the transfer papers and we’re all done.”
It was difficult for Allie to leave the comfort of the shuttle. He took one last look and walked out into the dirty hanger. It amazed Allie that hangers could get so dirty, until he realized that every time the damn things depressurized, carbon dust got sucked inside. The microscopic dust picked up static charges and clung so tightly to almost any surface that it was nearly impossible to dislodge. After hundreds of opening cycles, the pristine white hangers became permanently dingy.
Dammit, Allie thought. Why had Dad let the company talk him into another contract? After his Mom’s accidental death on their last assignment— there were a lot of accidents at these remote stations— the damned company should have cut them some slack. He knew deep down that it was his Dad’s choice to take the contract.
Allie and his Dad picked up their family cargo pod and walked through the dingy hanger to their quarters. They were halfway there when they heard the shuttles engines spool up for launch. On his way to his quarters, he felt as much as heard the shuttle taking off back to civilization. It only served to remind him that a real life was a long way away. Over the last six years he had only seen twelve different faces. Eight of those were at transfer stations.
His room wasn’t bad. It was big, carved out of the iron-silicate crust of the little moon. The bare rock had been polished and buffed so the metallic crystalline structures glittered and sparkled in the light. There was a nice gel double bed, a big video screen, study and workstation.
There was a big bookcase but none of the titles jumped out at him. Books were a ridiculous waste of mass and bulk. The Literature of England, The Catcher In the Rye, Norse Mythology, Plato, the Holy Bible, Wisdom of the East, Great Western Thought, quite a collection. Allie didn’t care one way or the other. He had six months to kill. He pulled Norse Mythology down and tossed it on the bed.
“Courtesy of the former management.” Allie spun around, startled. It was his father of course but any sound seemed to offend the silence.
“Sorry I startled you son. I’ve got some equipment repairs to make out on the collectors. Could you keep an eye on the control room?”
“Yeah, sure Dad. Watch your seals.” His Dad gave him thumbs up on his way out of the room.
Allie wasn’t the greatest of conversationalists. He threw his bags in the closet for later. He was pleased to have something useful to do so he went off to find the control room.
On the way the corridors seemed dirty and forbidding. All of these deep space industrial complexes seemed like dark labyrinths with no end in sight. Just lonely groping in the eerie twilight of the red caged bulbs that lit the corridors.
The control room seemed to be a fairy kingdom of flashing lights and video monitors. On one of the monitors he saw his Dad half inside an access panel busily keeping the company’s machinery running. On another, a bulk hydrogen sled was being loaded for its long trip sunward.
Since the gravity of IX was very weak, the mass driver could send the fully loaded pallet on its way at a blistering .1 C. Having no organic crew, little things like inertia and acceleration was not a consideration. The big interstellar ships operating out of Titan would be topping off their bunkers in just a few weeks.
Allie sat and daydreamed about worlds those ships would visit like Iota Sephi-IV, land of the green sun. HD 32267, an oceanic paradise world of warm salty breezes and beautiful sea birds. Scorpius 3116, a world so close to the event horizon of a black hole that time itself was dilated.
There was a small book sitting on the console. He picked it up and thumbed through it pages:
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure dome decree:
Where Alph the secret river ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
“A sunless sea.” The thought seemed to make the star lit darkness of the outer solar system seem even heavier. The monitor directly in front of him endlessly scanned the hydrogen sea. Slowly and wistfully the liquefied gas gently swayed as a poison wind of methane caressed its surface. His mind wandered to a planet that he had never seen before and an ocean that he had never felt. He remembered the sound of surf crashing on the Great Barrier Reef off of holovids. Visions of gulls and sailboats formed on the Gas Sea. How he longed to feel a fresh sea breeze on his face that hadn’t been recycled hundreds of thousands of times.
He shook the notion. The sea that he longed for was 32 astronomical units sun ward. The tiny sun showed up like a yellow gem on a jeweler’s velvet. Down there, somewhere, were 6 billion people. What he wouldn’t do for the company of just one of them. He sat dreading six months of dark loneliness, far away from the warmth and cheer of that friendly sun.
“Damnit!” He yelled, “I am so fucking bored and lonely!”
The silence returned indifferent to his anguish.
Then something caught his eye. A color that wasn’t supposed to be there. He wheeled his chair over to the auxiliary power console. Just underneath the keyboard was a small reseal able baggie with a fine deep cobalt blue powder.
Holy shit he thought. Is this what I think it is?
He walked over to the communications panel and keyed the mike, “Hey Dad, you still need for me to ride shotgun for you up here?”
There was a pause. “Not really Allie. Just keep an open comm circuit while I’m outside OK?”
“Sure Dad. Will do. I’m going down to the lab for a bit. I’ve got some chemistry homework to do.”
“Roger that. You always get an A.”
Allie clipped a comm unit to his belt and went down the corridor. There was always a fully equipped lab in a Company mining facility. It was too cheap an investment for the possibility of astronomical returns for the Company to overlook.
He fired up the equipment and ran a calibration test on the mass spectrometer. Then he ran an organic calibration just to be sure. He took a very small sample of the blue dust and put it in a test module and slid it into the sample tray. He started the program to identify the compound.
The mass spectrometer ran a Xenon laser through the test material. The excited molecules absorbed the energy and released photons at very discrete wavelengths. Slowly the spectra of the unknown substance began to assemble on the computer display. A matching program began analysis of the spectral profile checking it against a huge database of known compounds.
The answer came flashing on the screen: Di-methyl Pyruvic Acetate! Only the most powerful hallucinogenic drug in 180 known star systems.
Jackpot. Allie had just found enough DPA to trip for months. He pocketed the baggie grinning at the possibilities. Maybe this contract wasn’t going to be as boring as he thought.
It was an ordinary day like any other. Allie was doing his school-work, his Dad was running a six month inspection rotation on the number four harvester array and his Mom was watching the Control Room. She got a red light on the master board indicating that the main sensor junction for harvester array number two had failed.
It was an easy fix but it was a repair that had to be carried out immediately. Without those sensors, the system was blind and couldn’t properly regulate the temperature and pressures inside the collection pipes. If the liquid hydrogen froze in those pipes, the pressure could build up and cause the pipes to rupture and create months of difficult repairs.
Allies Mom was no shrinking violet. She was more than capable so she didn’t even think twice. She got a spare junction box out of storage, suited up and went outside to make the repair.
She was nearly finished when the blow out happened. The explosion was a bad one creating thousands of shards of shrapnel and chunks of hydrogen ice. Allies Mom was eviscerated.
Allie was first to arrive on the scene hoping against hope that she was all right. She looked OK until he turned her around. When her suit was pierced, she exploded from the inside out. Her eyes were bulged out of her horrified face, a mask of pain and gore, quick frozen by deep cold.
Allie screamed, “Nooooo!”
He sat bolt upright in a cold sweat. The nightmares were getting worse. He got out of bed and went to his bath room. He ran water over his face to fight the nausea but he still puked.
Allie took some water into his mouth to rinse the taste of bile out of his mouth. With shaking hands he went into the medicine cabinet and took two Company approved tranquilizers.
He told himself there was nothing I could do for the ten-thousandth time as he lay back down in bed to try to get back to sleep.
Several days later while his father was tied up for a long while fixing a flow problem in one of the collector arrays, Allie sat in the observation lounge. The glass-domed room offered a spectacular view of the roiling, stormy surface of Neptune against a stellar background that no one any closer to the sun than Jupiter could ever see.
Allie opened the baggie, dampened his index finger, dipped it in the cobalt blue powder and tasted the seeds of madness. It didn’t take long for the drug to take effect. A rich variety of colors assaulted his senses from all sides. An almost orgasmic rush of pleasure overloaded his senses. His mind gained speed and seemed to think faster and on different wavelengths than he had ever explored.
After ten minutes of euphoria, Allie opened his eyes and saw his reflection in the dome. He hadn’t really seen too many other people to compare himself with to know whether or not he was handsome. His typically Swedish features were tempered by growing up a Belter. Allie hated being skinny but he would turn 17 in just a few weeks. His Dad told him that there was plenty of time to fatten him up.
Belter: that’s what normal people called the crazies that worked out here. The low G gravity made Belter tall and very slim for the most part. His profile, his intense steely blue eyes, his light ash blond hair would be considered a gift by anyone on earth but there was no one here to appreciate them.
Sure, he had communicated with kids his own age over the distance learning net. A couple of girls had even told him that they though he was cute but they were so far away that Allie even wondered if they were real. Sometimes he would touch their time-delayed faces on the video monitor and dream of what it would be like to touch them.
For a moment the vision of a lovely woman appeared and caressed his face. Was this his mother or some one else?
His father’s image invaded his trance. “Get away you bastard. You brought Mom and me out here to this hellhole. It killed her. Now it’s killing me. All you want is your God damned credits.” He lashed out at the vision and it was gone.
Why had he reacted so violently to his father? How long had he felt that way? He wondered what other things he might discover about himself with his inhibitions destroyed by the blue powder and his subconscious running riot.
He sat there taking in the starscape when he heard a voice, “You are not the first to come here nor will you be the last. This moon is as old as the universe. It was here before your sun and will be here after it is gone.”
“Who are you?” Allie whispered.
“Look at it.”
“What is it?”
“Is it dangerous?”
“Who is there?” Allie asked, completely at ease.
“We are the spirit of what once was”, the first voice said. “We came, we built, and we departed as will all people.”
“We can feel your sadness. Don’t despair. You are never alone here. Our race left our works, our hopes and our dreams an eon of eons ago in the face of an exploding sun. This place is merely a fragment of the debris.”
Music filled his perception; like singing but different somehow. The colors vibrated in a soundless ballet akin to music but very different. The tones were thoughts, the thoughts were energy.
Then there was nothing but bright white light. He looked around and saw nothing: no walls, no floor, no ceiling. It seemed as if he was suspended in space.
“You, Allie Svenson, now stand before us accused a heinous crime”, a deep voice boomed. “You belong to a race that kills its own kin, rapes entire worlds and exists only to feed its own greed. Your blindness is only exceeded by your ignorance and shortsightedness. You poison your own world, now you spread your filth to new worlds. You are charged with humanity. How do you plead?”
Allie shuddered. He felt ashamed and covered his face.
“How do you plead?” the voice demanded.
“Guilty.” Voices murmured.
The spectral judge pounded his gavel. “Do you offer any defense naked ape, for all the worlds that you plunder and peoples that you rape? We know why you hide your face. It is a shameful thing, the human race.”
Allie stood and composed himself. “If you want me to defend the human race, I won’t do it. I hardly know it. I don’t even know what it is beyond the pall of my own experience. Humanity is sometimes good, sometimes bad. Sometimes beautiful, sometimes bestial. It is the beautiful that I remember and long for.”
Again there was murmuring, “How can you be lonely for the race that hung Christ on a cross? Especially here where the spirit of this world that once was is still strong?”
“But sir, I can’t see it”, Allie stuttered.
“Open your eyes!” the spectral judge commanded.
Suddenly, hundreds of beings appeared around him. Beautiful beings, humanoids of all descriptions. Allie fell to his knees, the weight of it too much to bear. One of the beings extended his hand in friendship. Filled with emotion, Allie embraced it, unabashedly, joyously, enraptured to be near another thinking, living entity. Again the court began to murmur.
The being put its hand on Allie’s forehead and their minds became one. Memories and visions of distant stars flooded his consciousness. Lovers and friends, enemies and rivals: faces painted themselves like a gallery of some mad artist work: a trance within a vision, a vision within a trip. Somewhere in the beings mind he touched something that lay dormant in his on mind: madness. The shock of it broke the trance. The being faced the court.
“This one is beautiful”, he said. “Freely he gives his love and freely he receives it. He is more than human. I feel his pain and sense his need for healing. “
The judge hammered his gavel. “Allie Svenson, I find you not guilty of humanity. You may enter our realm at any time and be welcomed. However, I find your race guilty and sentence it to a lonely, groping existence until the day of its final judgment.
Allie awoke exhausted. He had heard that DPA trips were wild but this was something beyond any expectation. What had happened? Was it the drug or something more? For days he puzzled over the question. He felt different somehow; not so alone, not quite so isolated. His dad even commented on the improvement in his mood.
In the days to come, Allie often put on a pressure suit and went out onto the surface looking for traces of the ancients. He searched far into the rocky highlands, along jagged ridges and deep into the caves.
His searches were fruitless until one day while straining to get up a high ridge; his body chemistry triggered a flashback. He found a flat, safe place to sit out his trip.
Allie closed his eyes and when he opened them there were two bright suns in the sky. He saw the landscape of the dead world transform before his eyes. Trees and grass covered the surrounding hills. Birds sang and children played in the golden light of the twin suns.
One of the blue skinned humanoids came and sat beside him. He spoke with a voice that Allie could only hear in his mind, “This is how it once was human. All traces of it have been wiped away by the supernova that destroyed our world. Only spirit remains.”
Allie trembled and felt great pain at the thought of all those gentle, peaceful people being wiped from the universe. “Why..” Allie stammered. “If there is order and purpose in the universe, why did this race have to die?”
“Things of this nature I can not answer”, the spirit said. “I am only a shadow of what once was. If you seek meaning in the universe, don’t. There is neither justice nor order. There is only what was, what is and what will be.
They sat there on that ledge, boy and spirit, and watched as one of the twin suns collapsed and exploded. The death of a race: unknown and unmourned.
The next day Allie tasted the drug and put on a pressure suit. He went down to the flats where the cold lifeless Hydrogen Sea stretched out as far as he could see. He felt the twin suns warmth on his back and the cool sea breeze in his hair. On the horizon he saw the white sail of some passing ship.
There are a lot of people on the beach today he thought as he waded off into the surf.