real lj idol | week 35 | 1977 words
Sins Of Omission.
People don't talk much anymore about what went down at the colonies. Maybe they don't remember, or maybe they don't believe it happened.
It happened. I'll tell you that right now. I've got the heartache and the scars to prove it.
We came in on the freighter, those of us in that first wave. We were going to work the mines, extracting new minerals for Zantaris Corporation back home. We called ourselves lucky for where we hoped the opportunity might take us.
"We're building the future," the company said.
What they didn't tell us was that their damned planet-of- the-future also had a past.
The survey team that made the deep assessment was gone now, of course. They'd been split up and reassigned to new asteroids and planets, in the ongoing cycle of exploration. Once their analysis was finished, they always moved on to the next thing, leaving survey reports and rumors behind them.
"Compatible atmosphere," the miners were told, meaning you could go without masks or air filtration systems on the surface, as long as you got regular injections and an annual cleanout of your lungs. The company also described the planet as "Good for children," a rare prize in our business. New-planet work was hard, not just because you were the first and had to get the machines and track and structure in place to smooth the operation along. That was expected—you didn't go into mining if you weren't cut out for drudgework. No, it was the isolation and loneliness that wore you down. The loneliness could kill you, those long seasons or years spent thousands of miles away from your family. Free synch-chats on the vid every week didn't make up for a cold bed and all the things you were missing back home.
Those of us with families jumped at the chance to join Project Celares. A long-term deployment to a planet where we and our loved ones could be together, and where we could set up our own homes and form our own civilization? The company could hardly keep up with the flood of people rushing to sign up for that.
The job was good at first—maybe one of the best I've ever worked. Getting things set up was a chore, of course, but better than most projects. The equipment and supplies were sent in ahead, leaving room on our ship for our own possessions and extras like aqualizers and hydroponics. For once, we didn't lack for the things we needed. As mining startup operations go, this one seemed halfway to luxury.
The company was very strict about the access points for the mines. Based on the survey report, they said, there were prime locations that would minimize the blasting and drilling needed to reach the richest veins. Nothing out of the ordinary there—it's all about quick returns at the beginning. Those early hauls bring in the money that funds the next part of the operation.
What didn't make sense were the rules about the tunnels. On most planets, you make use of the tunnels and crevices that already exist. Saves time, and time is money.
But for Project Celares, we were told to steer clear of them. The company stressed the danger of "structural weakness" caused by the planet's evolution, and banned working in the tunnels and expanding new veins nearby. We were miners, we feared cave-ins more than anything else. So we listened.
In the end, even that didn't save us.
The first seven lunar cycles were fine: no real difficulties, just the same old grind. But then, some of the miners started to report noises that couldn't be explained. Others said they saw strange shadows—a change in the light, or a flicker of motion out of the corners of their eyes.
Before long, people started refusing to work alone. The overseers wouldn't hear of it—we were professionals, hired to do a job. We couldn't throw out demands or act like children, not when contracts were involved.
They sent us down under the surface, day in and day out, and threatened to suspend us and dock our pay if we didn't stop complaining. We worked the vein, sending up half a metric ton of precious ore a week. I heard later that the corporation broke even only a third of the year in—the minerals were just that valuable.
We found the first body in a side-tunnel, about half a kilometer in from the northwest access. God, the blood—I never knew a person had so much blood in him, and I'd seen accidents that would turn your hair white. A couple of the men threw up, and I didn't blame them.
We found the head farther down the tunnel. The victim was Greeley.
Poor old Mick. Ten years with the company, and he'd even survived a couple of bad explosions, and now this? And what the hell happened to him? We could see his drill unit pointing at the tunnel wall, and a huge hole right in front of it. Had he broken into one of the tunnels by accident?
Even if he had, how did his head get cut off? Flying shale coming off the drill? God, what?
After the cleanup, we went back to mining the ore. We left the side-tunnel alone. It had probably been too small to show up on the original survey report, but we weren't taking any chances.
In hindsight, we should have blocked the whole thing off. But we didn't.
Menendez was the next victim. My god, the screams—I can still hear them, all these years later. You never forget a thing like that, no matter how hard you try. Menendez… he was cut in half.
The whole planet was in a panic then, I won't lie. Had we brought a killer along with us? If so, where was the evidence to tell us who it was?
We messaged the company immediately, asking for assistance or protection or whatever they could give us. We were told instead to stick to the operation until the next freighter arrived.
The hell with that, we all said. No one went down in the mines after that. We locked ourselves up in our houses, only going out when we had to and eyeing each other suspiciously. Who was it? Who killed Mick and Manny?
We found out just a few days later. They—those things—came for us after dark.
A few of them got Vitalyevich and Dutreux, who were walking back home from the booze shack. One minute it was just the two of them, and then suddenly they were mobbed by these dark shapes and only pieces of them remained.
Bugs. The creatures looked like bugs, like some kind of beetle, right down to the giant pincers.
At first, we thought we'd be safe inside. Then a couple of the bugs broke through the windows of Anna Jenkins' house, tore into the walls until they breached the place and took her down. A lot of us started running, then, grabbing whatever weapons we could find and heading for the cave up on the eastern slope.
The cave had been carved by the wind, a couple of slits in the rock letting the wind circle through over the years until a big room opened up inside the cliff. The openings were still fairly small, wide enough for people but too narrow (we hoped) for the creatures swarming the planet's surface. We crowded in there, stumbling past each other in our rush to get inside.
When the creatures came, we fought them with fire.
It seemed like we spent days in that cave, burning through the supply of engine fuel Traylor had snagged on the way. We torched every single bug that came near the openings, wondering what would last the longest: the bugs, the fuel, or our ability to go without water. Finally, the bugs stopped coming.
We never knew why. We waited half a day before we even thought about leaving the cave, and I was the lucky man they sent out to take the lay of the land. There were bug carcasses everywhere, most within ten meters of the cave. They were piled up against each other, all dead enough from what I could tell. Maybe the rest decided we were too dangerous to bother with, and went back underground. We sure hoped as much.
We crept back to our houses, or what was left of them. Some of us lost everything in that attack, our homes filled with blood and death and the rest of our lives already destroyed. Others had gone to the caves as a family and survived, and still others had left their families behind when they came to the planet, for a number of reasons. Janet Ryan's wife was still on Earth, waiting for her twins to be born, and Yebo Mbatia's young son was in long-term treatment for a genetic disease. For them, colony medicine just wasn't worth the risk.
The team leaders sent messages out to the company again, demanding emergency retrieval. Anyone who hadn't used up their synch-chat time was on the vid, talking to family back home or searching for someone who would listen. It turned out, those vid sessions were what saved us.
The company was prepared to write us off as a bad investment, but word leaked out and the government launched a rescue mission. We waited ten, long, nerve-wracking days for that ship to arrive.
A two-year government follow-up investigation found out the truth behind our catastrophe and a few others, every one of them the result of corporate greed.
The original Project Celares survey team was gone, they discovered. The members had disappeared, replaced by other people who used their IDs and credentials to maintain the impression that they'd moved onto new projects. In the cyber-age, stealing and reusing other people's IDs was as simple as hacking a database—especially if the company itself was altering its own records.
Only a small upper-management team had seen the original survey report for our project. It mentioned a native life-form, but noted that its members seemed primitive and lived entirely underground. The report concluded that any mining operation had an eighty-percent chance of remaining safe, as long the workers and the original inhabitants stayed far apart.
Eighty Percent… That meant our lives were only worth the twenty percent that was risk and overhead.
Zantaris claimed that it hadn't lied directly, and that its workers had all signed waivers. The government argued that withholding key information was still a crime, especially when people (including children and other non-contractual personnel) died as a result.
Me? I think they should have shipped the higher-ups to that planet and left them there to see how much good money and waivers did them.
Our colony wasn't the only casualty during those years. There was an epidemic of corporate speculation that regularly factored in worker deaths as "acceptable loss." There'd been questions about the missing Deneb IV extraction team, and four or five other mining or exploration project colonies—some of them no bigger than a shantytown and a single booze shack. Now we knew how little chance they'd had to begin with. Project Celares was simply the latest and the worst.
Some even said that encouraging the families to come along had been pure Zantaris Corp cynicism, aimed at lowering the payouts to survivors if something went wrong. All I know is what it cost me, and too many others like me, on that mission so long ago:
I lost my son to that planet, and to the secrets Zantaris kept from us all. Late justice would never change that.
There is no forgiving such a thing.
Now, my life is spent making sure there will be no forgetting, either.
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