I was a young man just out of certification when I took the job with BrainStream. I hadn’t even had a single bio enhancement installed yet. I was quite the romantic, yearning to explore the heavens and all that. In reality I was there to set up neural network relays on a number of the bodies orbiting Odin. We don’t really think about it, but there are thousands of them crisscrossing the sky. Most of them are useless for colonizing, but plenty are perfect for communications outposts.
We could always just put manmade satellites exactly where we want them, but there is a lot of extremely sensitive equipment on the net relays that needs to be shielded from radiation. And there is a lot of radiation coming off of Odin. It is much cheaper to bury the equipment in rocks already in orbit than it is to build bubbles are around each and every comms relay. The Freyans would have used robots for the job, but the Odinians have cheap labor for that – which is exactly what I was.
We didn’t know what we had landed on when we did it. To me, it was just moonlet Epsilon 0967 – a lifeless piece of real estate less than five kilometers across. Long and brown and lumpy. Essentially a space potato. I had landed on a dozen rocks more or less just like it. It wasn’t until we performed the geological survey that gave us a clue that something was different about it.
“Can you see all of those caverns?” I asked Cassandra, my survey partner. She was tall, blonde, and gorgeous, although at the moment her face was obscured by the visor of her vacuum suit. I was lucky enough to be the only other soul in a million kilometers of her, give or take.
Even then, I figured my odds were not great. I never stopped to think that she was as much of a neuro fanatic as myself. Why else would a girl like her have taken a job like that?
I might have been a genius when it came to the human brain, but there were some basic details that I completely missed when it came to behavior.
“Its like a honeycomb in there,” Cassandra said. “I’ve never seen anything like it. None of the caves are open to the surface?”
“None that could be picked up by the scan.”
Cass kicked up some dust in exasperation. The particles floated off, never to see their home again. “Let’s not waste any more time on this pebble. I wish we would have done the scan sooner.”
“You don’t want to see what’s in there?” I asked, trying to convey my grin in my voice.
“Of course I do,” she replied. “But we’re on company time. “And they don’t pay us for space spelunking.”
I shrugged. “How many hours do we waste jetting from on rock to another? BrainStream won’t begrudge us a little time to make extra sure that we can’t use this one.”
She thought about that for a long while.
“C’mon,” I said. “It will be fun.”
“Ok,” she said finally. There was a hint of mischief in her voice.
We jetted back over several brown lumps and craters to the survey spacecraft we had anchored to the surface of the potato to get our drilling rig.
Normal practice was to find a suitable location on the moon – preferably a high point on the surface, and drill into that until were just deep enough to shield all of the relay. This time, we did the opposite.
That might raise some eyebrows. But if Corporate wanted to investigate our use of time, they could take it out of my pay.
Our little drilling rig was an ancient piece of equipment, even back then. Completely manual, no remote. One of us had to actually sit in the open vacuum operator chair and jet it over to the drill site and clamp onto Epsilon’s surface.
We weighed our relative skills and experiences, and then went through our usual decision-making process to decide who would be the one on the drill.
“One, two, three, shoot!” I called. I shot out two fingers, and was met with her closed fist.
This time, I could hear Cassandra’s grin. “Rock beats scissors. I win.”
The rules were clear, and I relented. “Fine, you go.”
Cassandra flew to the survey ship strapped herself into the rig before she detached it from the rest of the ship. She maneuvered the rig to the drill site we had designated, and clamped the rig to the surface with its grappling spikes.
It made enough sense. Even though I was trained to operate the rig, I was the cyberneticist. She was the engineer. I was just there to install the equipment.
My job would be to observe at the site of the drill just in case I could catch anything the sensors missed. Given the rickety state of the rig, it was not outside the realm of possibility.
So I float-stood as close as I could to the tower’s man-sized drill bit resting against the moonlet’s surface. As close as I could, while still being safe. Okay, maybe a little closer. I held onto one of the struts to give me some height to give me a better vantage point. Then I gave Cassandra the thumbs up.
“Here we go,” Cass said.
She switched the machine on and the drill bit came to life, its jagged teeth slowly rotating, spinning faster and faster until they were little more than a cylindrical blur. Cass lowered the boom, and as soon as the drill bit into the rock, the vibrations rippled through my skin even through my vacuum suit, chattering my teeth.
I tried to concentrate on the survey data. Cassandra was drilling through the surface at a swift pace, and soon enough we would find whatever lay beneath the surface.
I felt a rumble from the surface. A silent geyser of white gas sprayed from the bore tunnel, blinding me in a thick cloud. The rig teetered violently. I lost my grip on the strut of the rig and dropped into the cloud, hitting the surface at slow motion.
Cracks shot through the rock under my feet like lightning bolts. The rig’s grapples broke free from the surface, sending debris flying into space. The tower slowly and inexorably toppled on its side. The rocky ground beneath my feet collapsed, and I slid, thrashing and writhing, into the sinking hole, buried in asteroid rubble.
It should have immediately struck me as odd that pressurized gas had found itself naturally trapped in those caverns, but I did not have time to ponder on it.
I hadn’t heard anything over the radio. That was a bad sign. I maxed out my suit’s thrusters to escape the rubble that buried me, but velocity governor of my vac suit kept me from breaking through.
Gas and debris continued to spew out of the cavern for what seemed like a long while, collecting together in a cloudy blob, eventually blessedly losing steam until finally the obscuring white fog had dissipated. The slower moving debris began to settle to the ground.
I could see through the gaps in the rubble that the rig had fallen across the gap the geyser had ripped open. But Cass was nowhere to be seen on the fallen tower. It was only when I saw the broken safety harness slowly rippling to hang across one of the rig beams that my heart jumped.
That geyser of pressurized gas had shot her from the surface like an air cannon.
The gravity of that moonlet was low enough that I could have broken orbit by jumping. Cassandra would have hit escape velocity ten times over.
And with my damaged vac-suit there was no way I would get out of that hole in time to find her.
Even with the low gravity, digging myself out from under that pile of rocks and dirt was long and difficult work. I didn’t think about the strange makeup of the debris I was digging myself out of, the thin, jagged, flexible material.
Epsilon 067 had to grab me by the scruff of the neck and scream at me to pay attention. I picked up an especially light bleached rock, focused only on tossing it out of my way.
But when the finger of my glove slid into the eye socket of the broken human skull, I paid attention.