I spend my day swearing at rocks. In the middle of nowhere. By. My. Self. “It’s your own fault, Goonface.” Yup. If it weren’t for that over-eager geology graduate I no longer bear much resemblance to, I wouldn’t be out here. I can see her sitting in the cushioned chair in the air-conditioned office taking nervous sips of ice-cold water and nodding happily as she signs “D Corp. Standard Entry-Level Surveying Contract for Planet Vrikor, sector 75.” She’s wearing slacks, flats, and a soft gray blouse, has an athletic figure, and smells of Umber’s Finest Botanical Shampoo.
Shampoo attracts gira rats. Did you know that? I didn’t until I woke up to three of them gnawing on my hair. That’s one way to become a hoarse bald insomniac.
My hair hasn’t been the only thing to go to pot. Five of my bore samplers have spun out and broken. The fifth shattered on a shard of fhlkite last week. The shrapnel took a chunk off my forearm. My hands are raw from the kroosh vines covering my current place of employ (a.k.a. Rock Face 4783), and I’m down to one intact shirt.
But all of that is pretty secondary to being out here on my own. The contractor supply store ought to stock insanity meters. Of course, no surveyor would know to buy one until it was too late.
There’s no contact with D Corp this far into the Ofph unless you count the Pukel. It’s a fist-sized box with an antenna the length of two gira rat tails. The Pukel works like this: I push a button, and it sends a signal to satellite 720, which transmits to Base. I’m supposed to push it once a day to let them know I’m still operating (a.k.a Not Deceased). If a surveyor misses three days in a row, Base sends a reverse-trigger pulse that initiates a three-beep signal on the Pukel for 24 hours. At that point, the Not Deceased should respond with a six-second beep if alive and okay, or a 12-second beep if requiring assistance. If Base doesn’t hear back, or the Not Deceased sends a 12-second beep, Base will, at some point, as circumstances allow (a.k.a weight of budgetary restrictions versus public image), send assistance (a.k.a. recover body of Now Deceased).
My point is: pushing a beeper once a day is not the same as saying hello to a living, breathing human being, even if you rename your Pukel Alfredo. I’ve forgotten to push the button once or twice. But never three days straight. At least, I don’t think I have. Unless Pukel Alfredo has malfunctioned and sends a signal 690 times an hour. If so, Base hasn’t investigated.
So I talk to rocks. And since they talk back by spewing shrapnel at me and bashing my knuckles, talking usually escalates to swearing, and swearing to screaming, and screaming to shattered equipment. And shattered equipment to blubbery sobs. You get the picture.
Why am I still here? Why no 12-second beep? Let’s just say I bear a certain resemblance to Rock Face 4783. A.k.a: Dense. Tough. Immovable. Idiotic.
I signed the contract. I don’t want that kind of assistance.
That’s why I’m taken off guard when a single-man low-energy flyer zooms over the Ofph while I’m taking a sample from seam X, quadrant 24b.
Quadrant 24b has been giving me trouble. It is difficult to manage a ten-pound core sampler with a bent spinner head while dangling from a harness and ripple cord at a height of 5 meters in the baking hot sun. At least I had the foresight not to wear my last intact shirt. Instead I’m wearing what used to be my third-to-last intact shirt. Which I’ve put 5 new holes in since this morning.
Third-to-last intact shirt became sixteenth ventilated-shirt the night I spilled bean juice on it in the dark. Since then I’ve taken to keeping my laundry in a 20-gallon metal canister with a locking lid. I didn’t bring enough ammo to exterminate the gira rat population. Which I suspect lies somewhere in the range of 3091 and counting.
The single-man flyer catches sunlight while it’s still a quadrant off and moving fast. It’s halfway across the Efkikl divide and showing no signs of turning before I find my wits. I have to power down the bore sampler, lower it to the ground, and repel after it. By then the flyer has settled in a puff of dust right in front of my tent. I’m running as fast as I can, hucking my core sampler up and down on my thigh. I almost twist my ankle on a loose chunk of marbled bwkite, jump across the gully, and power the core sampler back up.
I’ve heard of surveyors who’ve gone bonkers. One guy from sector 16 modified his core sampler, visited the neighboring quadrant, and went cannibal. That was a good ten years ago now, but still. There’s been other stuff since, not quite so grisly, but nothing I want to happen to me. Heck, whoever this is might steal my last-intact shirt, or my box of hoshi grits, or my generator. What if he’s come for female company? I’ll take a core sample of his gut and feed him to the gira rats.
Mmm. Maybe not. I wouldn’t want them to develop a taste for human flesh.
As is it, I don’t say “hello” or “welcome” to the first human being I’ve seen in… don’t even ask. Instead, I turn the dial on my core sampler to setting 7. I point it at the man emerging from the flyer and scream “#%&!” and “%&@!”
His face turns white, but he makes no sudden moves. I tell him to put his hands spread-eagle against his flyer. He complies. By now my heart is pulsing faster than my core sampler. My lungs must think they’ve almost drowned. They’re pulling in air by the 20-gallon canister.
My brain checks back in. I walk around the flyer so I can see the man’s face. I power down the core sampler. “Hello.” My voice is so calm I smile in surprise. “Would you mind telling me what you’re doing here?”
The man blinks. He clears his throat and lifts his hands off the flyer.
Core sampler, setting 3. He puts his hands back down. I click to setting 1, then zero.
He looks so hesitant, so confused, so clean. Doubt flicks through me. I didn’t miss a Pukel, did I? No, I don’t think so. There haven’t been any reverse pulse triple beeps. I’m certain. So what’s he doing here? Can’t he talk? Maybe he’s mute. Wouldn’t that be a joke. But no, no. I scared the beekla juice out of him, that’s all.
I grin. Then I laugh out loud. The man’s forehead creases. He’s kinda cute. “You’re the first person I’ve seen out here,” I say. “I thought you were coming to eat me.” Tears run down my cheeks and I don’t even care. It’s too funny.
“Oh,” he says. He runs a hand through his hair, then remembers and puts it back on the flyer. “Oh man.”
“Sit down.” I wave my core sampler from him to the ground, then plop down myself without waiting. My legs can’t hold me up anymore. I’m still laughing too hard. The silent kind of laughter that shakes feet, guts, and shoulders. The man sits down on his side of the flyer. We’re by the tail, which folds to vertical in landing position, so we can see each other.
“How’s it been out here?” he asks after a minute.
I wipe tears off my face and grin. What a goon. “Oh,” I say, “not so bad. I’m following a xordamatine seam up the face, quadrants 10 through 24b and counting. Holds promise. And there’s a load of geuthrite in quandrant 8.”
He nods. “Plan to stick it out through your contract?”
“Heck yeah. I’ve only surveyed a third of the face.”
“What about after?”
Until now I hadn’t noticed that my lungs aren’t acting half-drowned anymore. They’ve gone quiet. “I’ll have to see once it’s up, you know?”
“It ended five days ago.”
He grins. “Base sent me to make sure you were Not Deceased. They got your Pukel signals, but sometimes they malfunction, you know? Most surveyors come in at dawn on the day their contract is up.”
For some reason I’m staring at the scab on my forearm from core sampler number five. I’m staring at my hands, raw from the kroosh vines on Rock face 4783. My frazzled, gnawed-on hair tickles my face. There’s a slight breeze from the Ofph. It meanders through the holes in ventilated-shirt sixteen. I take a deep breath. And let it out.
“Want to renew?”
“You’d get a raise and a half-load of equipment courtesy of D Corp. And if you want, another surveyor will come work with you. From what you’ve said, this face is more than promising enough for two. Base figured it was when you didn’t come in.”
He pauses, ruffles his hand through his hair again. His voice goes quiet and hesitant. It’s like he’s shy. But why? “Mining teams come as soon as the survey is finished. You both get a .02% commission and a new quadrant to work. Quicker turnaround, larger profits. But you’ll have heard all this before.”
Well yeah. But my mouth’s been hanging open since that bit about my contract running out five days ago. Eventually I realize he’s stopped talking and is waiting for a reply.
“Huh,” I say. I close my mouth. My eyes narrow. “That all sounds fine, but what about this other surveyor. Who decides who it’s going to be?”
“You do.” He grins. “I’m hoping you’ll pick me.”