This story is by Daniel Lukin and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
A memory – I’m a cop. I accept the invitation of Dr. Malcom to tour his facility. I approach the hollow planetoid Mankind-B—an unusual almond-shaped rock with a massive split opening on one side. From my angle in the drop-ship, it forms a toothless mouth. And I am headed inside.
* * *
Dr. Malcom and his men changed into mining suits rigged for work in a vacuum. “Can we offer you something to wear, Lieutenant?” asked the Doctor.
“No thanks, but you can call me Drake,” I said with a smile, opening my pack to reveal the trusty old Mk3 encounter suit I took everywhere. Sure, it’s patched and smells dusty, but I’ll take my chances rather than wear the weird suits the miners wore. “They look like blue condoms,” I thought, wondering how anyone could breathe in it.
* * *
I had trouble yelling over the roar as I found myself in the middle of an argument. “Air isn’t free on MANKIND, Doctor!” I bellowed, swallowing hard as the mining car continued its rattling descent along two metal rails into the planetoids’ hollow mineral core.
“You’re right,” replied the Doctor with a grunt as the car was thrown into a hard turn. “These days, the wealthy breathe free.”
Outside, the darkness faded away, and I could see our descent through the floor. The inner surface glittered with metal spikes sticking out at irregular angles. “What are those?” I asked.
“Atmospheric rehydrators over a mile tall built by terraformers 40 odd years ago. They are digesting the remains of several comet bodies deposited inside the core. My grandfather managed the project,” answered the Doctor.
“Is the atmosphere breathable?” I asked.
“No, not for at least another ten years.”
“According to our geological analysis, there isn’t enough free convertible oxygen in a hundred square yards of this ball of dirt planetoid which wouldn’t have been exhausted decades ago. Too much sulfur and silicates with some other exotic trace elements mixed in as well as a large cache of crystal and glass,” I said.
“I’m not sure I understand your point, Drake.”
“I’ve gone over your expenses; everything from contract fees, delivery surcharges for hauling freight, staff, and the cost of running a mining operation underneath the construction of a new colony. But something didn’t make sense to me. I didn’t see the connection right away, but do you know what I found?” I asked.
“No, Lieutenant, but I’m sure you’re going to enlighten us. Isn’t that right, gentlemen?” the Doctor laughed as he looked at the other miners.
I looked him right in the eyes so I could nail him with the clincher.
“Your miners stopped paying for air about a year ago. The air we pipe in from half a parsec away. Miners who don’t breathe don’t work. By the book, your whole facility of close to 7,000 miners and maintenance crews should be in extended cryo-sleep to pay the oxygen tax, yet profits here continue to rise. Can you explain that?” I continued.
The speed of the mining car slowed suddenly as the lights dimmed. The braking reverberated through my whole body and shook the car with tremendous force. After a moment, we lurched to a halt, and the airlock opened.
We unbuckled and crawled out of the car into a vast machine room. Thousands of pipes of all sizes entered from above and below the floor. As I looked, one of them deposited unprocessed ore into a nearby bin. Noticing my interest, Dr. Malcom reached in and pulled out a ball of glass, and handed it to me. It was a purple oblong sphere with a few bubbles inside.
“Did your team discover something involving these spheres?” I asked.
“Yes, but we were reluctant to share the discovery at first. I agreed to see you, Lieutenant, because I hoped to come to a mutual understanding,” said the Doctor.
“You see, Drake, I grew up too poor to afford free air. On my thirteenth birthday, we blew out the candles, ate cake and ice cream, and enjoyed the freshest smelling air I ever knew. I can still smell it. Tangy and electric, like after a rain. Only hours later, I rocketed off to college while without my knowledge, the police froze my whole family in cryo-chambers with a two-year sentence for tax evasion.”
“Imagine my surprise,” continued the Doctor, “when no one came to greet me after I returned from deep space four years later. After several months I discovered their fate. Impoverished families like mine who couldn’t pay were eventually put on ice permanently. My family, Drake, became the victims of a computer data breach, were misfiled by political red tape, and finally buried alive when a fleet of factory robots paved a brand new resort right on top of their sleeping corpses. So I won’t lie to you, Lieutenant, I care if my miners live or die.”
Stunned, I reached out and shook the man’s hand for the first time. “Your honesty bought you some time, my friend. I’ll do my best to hold off the corporation. Just show me what all the fuss is about,” I said.
* * *
The cargo elevator descended slowly and, it would be another four hours before we arrived, so the mining team took turns sleeping.
I walked the perimeter, trying to catch a glimpse of the bottom through the observation windows, but I couldn’t see anything except swirling yellow mist and faces from my imagination.
The Doctor sat beside a lantern, leaning over a map of some kind, so I joined him. “Where are we going now?” I asked.
His finger pointed to a spot on the map. “Here’s us,” he said. Then he dragged down the map until the terrain opened into a cavern. “That’s our destination, Drake.”
He turned to me with an expression I couldn’t read. “You know, we’ll be the first humans to see it.”
“What’s so special about it?” I asked.
“It’s located in a region of the planetoid’s core where science tells us we should have hit a deposit of sulfur or magnesium. Instead, we drilled into a hollow cavity over ninety miles wide.
With a swipe of the screen, he showed me a reconnaissance photo.
“It’s like the inside of a geode,” I said, marveling at its beauty.
* * *
Dr. Malcom and I and Palmer, his assistant, walked along the powdery shoreline of a vast sea of frozen crystal occupying most of the cavern interior. Beside us, the tractor’s headlights lit the beach and bounced refractions around us for miles.
“Palmer here has brought a portable field generator,” said the Doctor, gesturing to a box his man carried. Inside was an orb of purple glass.
“Like the ones I saw earlier,” I said.
“Yes. The field it creates is similar to a power node that exploded two years ago. The energy released from that explosion transformed hundreds of tons of glass into a gelatinous liquid, and the flood buried my miners for two days without any suits to breathe in. And you know what? None of them drowned! Palmer, activate the generator,” exclaimed the Doctor.
Palmer pressed a button, and blue sparks danced around inside the box for a few seconds as the glass liquefied.
“Since the accident, new life-saving discoveries have been made every day. Our latest suits with let you work without oxygen for months. Can you imagine the lives we’ll save with this breakthrough? Millions will be able to leave the prison of their freezers,” he said as he turned with alarm towards his assistant.
Palmer, you can turn off the field generator now”, the Doctor said.
“I’m trying, Doctor,” he said, frantically turning a round knob.
Sparks showered out of the box, falling all over the white powder at Palmer’s feet, igniting the crystal snow into green embers. Palmer dropped the generator, and it cracked open, sending a whirlwind of fireworks for dozens of yards in every direction. Palmer began to scream as a green light started working its way up to his body, yet he didn’t move a muscle.
“Move, Palmer. Why aren’t you moving?” I shouted. He didn’t answer but just looked at me with empty eyes.
I turned back to Dr. Malcom, and my breath froze in my lungs. His suit was glowing green too.
“I can’t move my feet, Drake. You better get to the tractor,” said Dr. Malcom. I turned to run and noticed all the other miners were now glowing bright green.
I sprinted up the shoreline towards the safety of the tractor when the first wave of the crystal sea caught me and lifted me above its mouth in a tentacled embrace. Below, the others’ bodies were dissolving like drops of oil in water, their colors fading from green to red to crystal clear, and then I joined them.
A memory bubbled up in the depths of the glass. “I am Drake…,” I thought.