His gaze dropped down the trunk of the nearest palm tree, the crenulations in the bark casting miniature shadows down across a surface scarred by careless tourists. The bright sun hung motionless directly overhead searing the sand to a bleached white while, in the distance, a gentle swell oozed up and down the shore. A few idle beachcombers loitered there, heads down in a facsimile of concentration.

      An insistent beeping cut through the muted sounds of a gentle breeze mixed with distant laughter. Blotting it out he prepared for the appearance of his brother. There he was now, popping into view to the left, a big, goofy grin plastered all over his tanned face.

      “Hey, hey heeeey bro!” He said, a laugh inches away from that infectious smile of his. “Wish you were here!”

      Again the insistent beep sliced through his contemplation of the image before him. Flicking his wrist he snapped the e-card from its curved active state back to a rigid stasis. His brother froze just as he was about to start a speech he’d heard a hundred times before, and the dark vista of the asteroid field reclaimed his attention through the small window in front of him. Pushing the e-card back beneath the elastic straps he had rigged around the bulkhead, Alber Bitoo looked out at the hulking rocks before him and sighed.

      For a third time the proximity alarm went off and again the autopilot deftly rotated away from the looming rock that had spun into his flight path. He knew he should be paying more attention to the approach but, in all honesty, he really wasn’t that bothered.

      He yawned, his mouth opening wide, a large cloud of condensation ballooning in front of him. It was cold in the cabin of the Stendec. In fact, it was cold throughout the whole of the prospector, but Alber remained impervious. His body had reacted well to the gene therapy and, as a result, his pelt was one of the thickest among the Hillbillies. A walking success story as far as the company and their inventive cost cutting was concerned. Why build complex and expensive heat exchangers when you could simply gene switch all your pilots back to a primal, more hirsute state? Certain genetic rights groups had protested against the policy back on Earth, but that hadn’t concerned Alber.

      All he cared about was the company’s generous bonus scheme. One tour of the asteroid field out in the second system and he’d be able to spend the rest of his life in a clean-shaven lap of luxury. Even the increased risk of skin cancer that came with the treatment did little to blot the otherwise immaculate horizon.

      He pushed a finger into the thick hair that coated his torso and started a long, slow, deep scratch. He shivered in pleasure. Personal hygiene was a drawback, sure, but having the scientists back on the research ship call him and his fellow prospectors Hillbillies was a small enough price to pay.

      Beedap! Beedap! Beedap! Another proximity warning and another slow rotation onto a new vector. Reaching out to one of the many screens in front of him, Alber called up the data sheet on his current target.

      The rock was big. Even when compared to the ancient giants of the home system – motherloads like Ceres and Pallas – it was big.

      An image of it, relayed by the company’s long-range camera probe, flickered up onto a screen. D2706, a rock large and regular enough to present the perfect landing platform for him and any excavation team that followed. It hung in space like some massive, dusty ping-pong ball that had accidentally been crushed down one side. Craters pocked its vast surface and there were numerous patches of fresh ejecta streaking the drab greyness with splashes of white. This was obviously a rock that was still in the process of growing.

      He pulled the image out and surveyed the area of space D2706 was located in. Pretty sparsely populated as far as the asteroid field was concerned which made the likelihood of further impacts unlikely, at least for the time being. He zoomed back in to the rock and ran his eye over the readings running beneath the image. Man this thing was huge. Not exactly a rock, more moonlike in its enormity. Rock, planetoid, planet… It was becoming increasingly difficult to define where one stopped and the next began out here on this new frontier. Alber sniffed. No point trying to argue it out, he’d leave that to the number crunchers back on the research ship. All he had to do was get down safely, find enough mineral deposits to ensure a profit and then radio in his report. A cinch. So why were his guts starting to knot, his temperature rising to the point where he suddenly felt the urge to pant?

      The Stendec was a sturdy, smart little craft. It had carried him through a hundred of these operations before, but he still felt uneasy. Perhaps it was the fact that he had to suit up and leave the safety of its shell that got to him? That had definitely been the case about a month ago when he’d set down on a small, fast spinner whose number he’d already forgotten.

      Zip, zip, zip… Around and around it went. Too fast, the stars and rocks around him merging into a funfair ride minus the fun. It had taken him ages to clean the vomit from his pelt, but at least the experiment had changed company policy. No one after him would ever land on a fast spinner again.

      He felt the glands in his neck contract, his mouth filling with saliva at the memory. He needed to get his mind off this right now. Punching open a communication channel he squinted at another screen and saw the familiar face of Elouise Malafon snap into place.

      “Hiya Alber. How you doing?” Her Parisian accent helped pull him back to a recognisable frame of reference.

      “Alright. Bit sick, but I’m starting to feel better.”

      “Sick as in ill, or sick as in nauseous?” He savoured the concern in her voice regardless whether it was professional or personal.

      “Still getting over that fast spinner, I guess.” He managed a weak smile that probably looked more like a snarl behind the hairy mask of his face. Elouise smiled back and then moved slightly to refer to something off screen. The light form an unseen display ran across her attractive features, a cascade of small blue windows reflected in her glasses.

      “You’ve still got…” her eyes shifted left, “… about three hours until you reach the rock. How’s the autopilot coping with that area? Telemetry’s indicating a lot of thrusters action.”

      “AI’s doing well.”

      “Then take a break Alber. Pop a couple of antichucks and go lie down. I’ll send you a wake up call when you get there.” Again that smile making everything – the cold, the sickness, the solitude – seem a hell of a lot more bearable. He liked her.

      “Yeah, you’re right. As always. I’ll go lie down.”

      “Good. Oh, and Rekka and Beebop just got back. Big catch for Beebop, empty nets for Rekka, though. A pity. They both say ‘hi’.”

      “Say ‘hi’ back for me.”

      “Will do. Okay, I’ll send you that call in one-twenty. Now you go rest.”

      “Yeah, yeah. Rest. See ya later Elouise.” Static, then a placeholder ad for the company rotating where her face had been.

      Boosting himself up from the command chair, Alber floated over to the conduit that ran the length of Stendec’s superstructure. As he did so the lights behind him gently began to dim, while in front other areas of the ship brightened at his approach. It was another of the company’s energy saving strategies and the AI triggered crossfade was supposed to be imperceptible but it always left Alber feeling like some kind of zero-G Neanderthal, torch held aloft as he drifted through the cave system he called home. He shot a doleful glance at the straps of the mini gym as he passed, before propelling himself on into the soothing blue bolthole where he slept.

      A quick rummage through one of the mesh pockets dotted about his bunk produced a flip-top dispenser of antichuck. Clicking out two of the slim green tabs, Alber nudged himself over to the far side of the cabin and sucked both down with a squirt from the water gun. As he did so, he tried to avoid the only bare patch on the mirror that clung to the bulkhead in front of him – he’d covered the rest with e-cards from his brother. Inevitably, though, his eyes strayed to a recognition of themselves and, for the hundredth time, he attempted to remember the gaunt, black-haired, thirty-something with crow’s feet that lay beneath the fur. He pulled a face and moved back to his bunk. The light elasticated sheet laid its familiar constriction about him while his mind began to chant its usual litany of, “I’ll never be able to get to sleep. I’ll nev…”

*****

      The wake up call was channelled through to the cabin from command. No picture of Elouise this time, just a pre-recorded notification that slowly built in volume until Alber’s eyes reluctantly flicked open. He tapped the release on the sheet and shook himself before floating back towards the conduit. A brief sleep, yes – something more than a nap but not quite a doze – but it did have the desired effect.

      He felt refreshed, ready for another rock regardless how big it was. What he wasn’t prepared for was just how big D2706 looked close up.

      The bulk of it already filled most of the cockpit window. It was massive. A monster that had cleared the local space of smaller asteroids, feeding and growing with every rotation. Alber looked at it, looked away and back again in a slow, surreal double take. He was reminded of the first time he seen the Bay Bridge of San Francisco as a child. Too large. A massive edifice of concrete and brutal engineering that was directly at odds with the beauty of breeze kissed water it stood in. The same was true of D2706. This was a moon, perhaps even a planet, just waiting to happen.

      The command chair seemed even more cramped in the presence of such enormity, but the necessity of pre landing checks soon shook Alber back to his more mundane reality. With a diameter of 2820km and a multitude of open stretches without any evidence of impact, finding a landing spot wouldn’t be difficult. Plus the size of the thing and its slow rotation would drastically reduce any disorientation. In fact, the more Alber checked the readings being fed back from the rock, the more he liked what he was seeing. High concentrations of surface magnetisation, which usually indicated iron deposits, as well as a few exotic hotspots in the infrared band – he had no idea what they could be but he knew instinctively that they’d get the boffins twitchy.

      Selecting a plain next to one of the larger craters with, what looked like, pink tinted ejecta Alber began to plan his descent, his fear rapidly turning to excitement. He’d been stuck inside for way too long. It was time to go for a walk.

*****

      The ground beneath him was covered in a fine grey dust and the boots of his Vitro suit blew out small clouds of matter with every step. He shrugged his shoulders and let them drop as quickly as rock’s weak gravity would allow. It felt good to have some kind of weight once again, no matter how small. Turning awkwardly against the bulk of his coverings, Alber tugged at the umbilical line that connected him to the ship’s systems. The auto pay out released the spindle and gave up a couple of feet of slack. Why the company favoured this permanent tether to the vehicle was no mystery to him. Another cost factor, and a not so subtle means of keeping their employees within a 1000m radius of the ship.

      It didn’t stop the odd prospector from fooling around, it only pushed the level of inventiveness when it came to pranks at the company’s expense.

      There was one famous incident when old man Rodreigez had used a thermal lance to carve ‘alien’ hieroglyphs into a large outcrop of rock. He created this ‘instillation’, as he called it, on the day his contract expired and the joke wasn’t discovered until a mining crew arrived to dig out the payload. After much head scratching, sample taking and boffin worrying the ruse was finally uncovered and the graffiti obliterated as the operation dug in.

      It was enough to earn the old boy a permanent place in Hillbilly folklore. Even now, when his name was mentioned in the presence of company execs, they were always keen to state that their lawyers were still billing Rodregiez for the delay in extraction. But, as long as the old man remained elusive, there was still hope for everyone being ground down by the increasingly restrictive policies.

      In lighter mood, Alber grabbed the ropes of the tool sledge and trudged away from the lander’s toad-like crouch. Behind him the umbilical spooled as the onboard AI anticipated his movements, checked his vital signs and piped through a random selection of his favourite audio tracks. He needed the music. It always felt lonelier outside the craft even though the only real difference in communication was that out here everything was audio. No reassuring smiles from Miss Malafon, just the repeated condensation of his own breath expanding and contracting over the helmet’s various displays.

      Alber looked up towards his destination. The pinkish ejecta was visible as an iced encrustation topping the nearest crater wall. Out here the glow of the system’s primary star was nowhere near as bright as that of Sol, and yet the illumination was still strong enough to make the crystals glint and sparkle as he moved in relation to them. He began to get excited. The more he looked at the sparkling pinkness, the more he realised he could be sitting on a one way ticket out of here. If the lab rats saw this rock as the scintillating treasure trove it appeared to be, God only knew what the mining rights might be worth. Pink was good. Pink was rare in this colourless world. And if pink was worth something to the company, then his bonus might instantly double or treble. A small internal alarm flashed to the right of his vision.

      He was breathing rapidly and the Vitro suit was indicating an increase in CO2. Okay, Alber, take it easy. Let’s do this by the numbers. No point getting excited until you’ve thoroughly analysed the stuff.

      By now he had reached the slope of the crater wall, which was neither impressive nor steep. He surmised that the initial impact had been small due to the crater’s narrow perimeter and shallowness. Rummaging through the toolbox on the sledge, Alber hefted a hand pick and began to chip away at the pink crystals in front of him. The rock ice proved to be a lot less durable than he had anticipated. Large flakes readily dropped into his fat gloved hand and it took only a few minutes before the sled’s analyser was crammed with samples. Peering at the readouts Alber felt another wave of excitement wash across him. The high concentrations of oxygen, hydrogen, methane, trace minerals weren’t that impressive but… There. Something else. Something subtle enough to be missed by the orbital probe. The scanner worked rapidly configuring and reconfiguring the results but the mysterious section of the data remained elusive. Eventually, after a blur of possible permutations, the legend ‘unknown’ snapped into place on the small screen before him.

      “Hah!” Alber had never known the analyser to come up blank. This stuff just had to be special. He looked at the sample chamber and saw that the rocks had quickly liquefied when exposed to the heat of the machine. More ice than rock then. He’d need a chill flask if he was going to get any of this stuff back to the scientists intact. A second rummage through the contents of the sledge produced a large plastic cylinder with a lockable sliding top. Flipping the tube onto its roof, Alber quickly checked that the cooling unit was fully charged and then began the short climb up the crater wall. He’d noticed that the ice formations increased in size towards the rim and, as he ascended, their clustering became more and more frequent. The real gems, however, measuring the size of his fist, were located beyond out on the otherwise featureless crater floor. One symmetrical beauty caught his eye. It was isolated about two meters from the edge. He stepped towards it and immediately his foot sank up to his ankle into the fine dust. Confused, Alber looked down only to see a strange welling of pink liquid spill inexplicably up his leg. He wobbled back, his trapped limb no longer responding to the commands sent by his brain.

      He threw his weigh forward to counter balance the effect and instantly felt his other foot sink lower than he assumed he would. Everything went fast forward. A momentary glance at his feet. The disturbing view of both legs encased to the knees in crystallising pinkness. A painfully slow topple… He instinctively put his hands out and felt both break through the thin crust of the crater floor upon contact. Again spurts of pink liquid shot up from the fractures and immediately froze against the material of the Vitro suit. He was pinned; a strange acrid smell in his helmet indicating that something had possibly shorted out. It took an age for the domed faceplate to finally come to rest on the crater floor but, as soon as it had, Alber became painfully aware of how erratic his breathing had become.

      “Fff-huh. Fff-huh. Oh shit. Fff-huh. Fff-huh…” Come on, keep it together Alber, “Suit. Fff-huh. Switch to self diagnostic.” A series of readouts flicked across the helmet’s surround. Less than he would have liked. He tried to contact the ship, but the suit’s encounter with the pink liquid had somehow severed communications. His oxygen levels remained stable, though, which meant the other functions on the umbilical remained undamaged. So, calling for help wasn’t an option. What did that leave? He put a huge effort into freeing one of his arms and was rewarded only with the appearance of a small pink dot on the faceplate as he sank further into the saturated dust. He didn’t understand. It felt as though he could move his fingers but, above his wrist, everything was locked. Craning his head round he looked to the right where he could just see his right arms plunging into the pink splattered surface. Pulling was having no effect. Perhaps if he pushed… He put as much weight as he could behind his arm and watched as a number of smaller crystals shattered with the strain. As he did so his fingers tightened into a fist beneath him. Yes, there was definitely some movement there. He lay still for a while, catching his breath, feeling the sweat begin to build at the base of his pelt. Out of the corner of his eye he noticed an increase in the intensity of the pinkness and turned to look at the dot on the front of the faceplate. It was bigger and, as he watched, he saw the edges of the blob slowly grow. It made no sense. He looked to his right arm again and saw the elbow a lot closer to the ground. He was still sinking. The realisation sent a spasm of panic throughout his body.

      Muscles over tensed, arm joints twisted against their flesh and material coverings, his spine arching and contracting like a thing electrified, his face a agape with terror and fruitless exertion. Even banging his head against the back of the helmet couldn’t free the now stuck faceplate. He was, he thought after collapsing in exhaustion, more screwed than he ever had
been before.

      The circumference of the pink blob had increased in size again and his feelings of claustrophobia grew in proportion. If it weren’t for the fact that he now had some movement in both hands, the sense of helplessness would have been overpowering. He was, he suddenly realised, in the same situation as a man trapped in quicksand back on Earth. But with one vital difference. His O2 supply was good for as long as the Stendec’s reactor remained online. He’d sink slowly down, a fly trapped in resin without even the release of suffocation to look forward to. What would get him first? Dehydration? Starvation? The pressure of the sediments beneath slowly constricting him? Insanity? He shivered and concentrated on the feeling in his hands. Perhaps if he dug down, shifted away from this freezing crust, he’d be able to haul his body round and use the umbilical to pull himself free. Putting his weight behind just one arm, he was rewarded with a mini avalanche of frozen crystals tumbling away from the exposed elbow. There was definitely some give to the surface there. He pushed a second time and felt the weight of the pink suspension gradually slide higher.

      “Well Alber,” he said, resignation heavy in his voice, “if you want to get out of it, you’ve got to get into it.”

      Breathing deep he pressed, pulled almost willed himself down beyond the surface of the rock. The pinkness in front of him grew in intensity, which seemed strange as he assumed things would get darker the further he submerged. He increased the visor tint during his next rest and, at the same, time discovered that the suit’s memory buffer still contained the last six audio
tracks he’d requested. It was to the ancient sound of Sufi chants that the final sliver of the asteroid’s surface slipped from view and Alber felt the weight of the dusty pinkness smother him.

      He stretched his body as soon as he was free of the freezing
surface and the renewed movement made him realise just how hot and wet he’d become. His hair was matted into knotty clumps that pulled at the roots whenever he flexed against the suspension around him.

      But flex he could. He revelled in the slow expansion of his arms and watched in fascination as graduals of moist soil slid across the faceplate and away to the sides. He’d feared that the umbilical would ice up, dangling him in place like a four-legged spider who’d run out of silk. The motion about him, however, told a different story. It meant it was either taking time for his body sized hole to freeze solid, or maybe the small surface area of the umbilical was keeping it loose. Whatever the reason, the effect was physically apparent. He continued to sink.

      Summoning enough strength to hunt for the umbilical required a huge act of will, but he had to move quickly. The overall payout on cable would leave him just over half a kilometre beneath the surface, a distance he’d effectively have to crawl up if he was to escape. By then exhaustion might have got the better of him, or the ground itself might have frozen so solid it was impenetrable. So many uncertainties. At least now he felt more in control. His theory had worked, he’d regained movement and with it a chance to get himself back to the Stendec.

      You couldn’t exactly call the renewed motions of Alber swimming; it was more a cross between sky diving and mud wrestling as he attempted to grab the point where the umbilical locked to the back of the suit. He half rolled one way and then the other, felt an increase in tension as the pipe pressed against his buttock before returning to his original face down state. He then tried to swim/dig himself into a forward roll so that the cord would appear between his legs. But again the viscous nature of the suspension, the positioning of the lifeline and low gravity all thwarted his efforts. He killed the music and hung, hot and exhausted, while pink particles continued to slide across the faceplate. Their speed seemed to have increased, as though the material he was falling through was now more liquid than solid. He kicked his aching legs and found that, yes, there was less resistance. Good news and bad. This freeing up would give him a better chance to grasp his lifeline, but it also meant he was now falling faster, reaching the full payout mark at a…

      Clunk.

      The jerk was dull. The meaning, however, was like a quicksilver knife thrust into his belly. That was it, he’d fall no more. There was a momentary backwash of particles across the faceplate, and then… Stillness.

      He realised he’d been holding his breath in anticipation of something and let it go. The slow hiss filled his universe with a drawn out curse. Why hadn’t he activated the suit’s HUD chronometer? He was isolated, with no point of reference; of course it’d be difficult to gauge the passage of time. He called it up now, watched too many minutes slip by as he hung contemplating his next move and decided to shut it down again. He rested, thought about another round of aimless flailing and baulked at the idea. Defeat and exhaustion washed through him wrecking rescue plan after rescue plan until he lay limp, a new depression somehow doubling the weight of the suspension that engulfed him.

*****

      Time passed. Alber vainly called up some music, varied the density of the visor’s tint, bugged out for a while – kicking and screaming against the injustice of such a death – slept and woke with one final plan. Reaching up he shoved his gloved hand against the emergency release beneath the suit’s helmet. Yes, he thought bleakly as his fingers gripped the stubby lever, there were always options. Always…

      He began to wonder how long it would take before the processing rig sent scouts out for him. There’d be Elouise’s routine comms check when she came back onto her shift. But, if the ship reported that he was outside the vessel, it’d be another eight hours before she’d consider the drop in connection suspicious.

      His nearest companion had been Beebop but, as Elouise had said, he’d just returned to the rig, which meant he was on his own out here for another seven days at least. Seven days. He’d read historic reports of folk lost in the Australian outback surviving four, maybe five days without water. Here, though, sweating in his pelt he’d last, what? Two, three at most? He called up the suit’s AI and turned the heaters down to their minimum setting, but the expectant chill never came. The insulating properties of the material at this depth had to be… Alber blinked. The particles in front of the faceplate had just moved despite the fact he was motionless. There it was again, a sudden sideways flow as though he’d just turned his head quickly to the right. He felt something brush against the inside of his thigh, a light tapping down by his knee, a sense of a presence around his left arm. He blinked again, transfixed, confused. Then suddenly something large and multi-segmented skimmed across the visor.

      Alber recoiled in horror, his head bumping the padding at the back of the helmet. Eyes wide he let out an involuntary gasp as a largemouth sucked onto the fragile layer of plexiglass in front of him. It began to pulse, a bizarre array of internal organs flexing down inside the orifice, colours he had no words to describe. He felt other pressure points manifest throughout his suit and for each he imagined a probing mouth like the one inches from his face. He screamed, thrashed against the creatures and immediately the pressure desisted, the mouth before him fading away into the pinkness.

      His thoughts scrambled to bypass his emotional response. What the hell were they? Snakes? Eels? No, that didn’t ring true with the environment. Worms then. Nematodes. Alien life regardless. How long had they been here? Baffled, part of his brain desperately tried to dig up ancient biology lessons. Perhaps they were some sort of spawning, rock hopping life form that could withstand the rigours of space? Alber moved his head around, suddenly doubting whether he had experienced the encounter at all. Had he been asleep? Hallucinating? He laughed, a hysterical edge to the sound.

      As if in reply the large mouth reappeared against the faceplate. Alber flinched but resisted the urge to flail at it. Instead he forced himself to watch, to try and understand.

      The sucker-like opening shifted this way and that across the plexiglass, snaking trails of pink soil seeping down the visually obtuse gullet whenever it pulsed. Again that confusion of unreal colours standing in contrast to the washed out blue-grey of its external skin. Alber braced himself, waiting for the renewed interest of the other creatures around his body, but they didn’t return. Bizarrely, he imagined a gang of curious school kids discovering something strange while out for the afternoon – the group cajoling the biggest among them forward to investigate. It seemed to be exactly what the mouth in front of him was trying to do. Not feeding, rather tasting, exploring every element of this new interloper with its soft, insistent orifice.

      His fear began to subside, replaced by wonder as the creature moved to the side and revealed the briefest glimpse of its flank. Segmented grey sections stood in pallid contrast to the vivid flashes of purplish orange dorsal ridges that ran the length of its body. Again it dropped away and he was left starring at a bright, blank wall of pink.

      The thing slammed back against the faceplate and Alber yelped in shock. There was renewed vigour to its efforts, a purposeful bent to its undulations. Inside the now seemingly fragile helmet Alber noisily began to hyperventilate. The sensation of the others returning closed in around him. Constrictive pressures settling on all parts of his body now as if he were being trampled underfoot by a slow moving crowd. He was pushed, his back arching and turned this way and that as his face-to-face companion, assailant now, moved out of view. The solid core of another body appeared running vertically down the visor. Dear God, this one was huge, thinner than the others, metallic in make up, minus the same sharp stripes of colouration…

      Suddenly Alber realise it wasn’t a creature at all but the trailing umbilical of the suit. His depth perception was shot due to the poor visibility but, somehow, he managed to get one hand to it, then the other. He tugged down hard and felt himself shift away from the pounding attentions of the creatures. The respite was only temporary, however. He felt a renewed sense of pressure across his buttocks and down his thighs as hand over hand he attempted to pull himself away from the threat. The more he pulled, though, the more the creatures pressed. Pink particles flew vertically down the faceplate and Alber suddenly realised that he was shifting upwards through this alien pink medium at an alarming rate. The creatures pushed and he pulled in a panic to get away from them. At times his hands slipped and were left clutching at nothing as he missed a series of holds altogether. Still the relentless upward surge. Collectively, their combined energies meant that they were ascending at an unknown but obviously smartish rate. Speed, force, a focused point of impact against the frozen crust above and perhaps, just perhaps…

      The blow reverberated through his head and neck making popping sounds inside his skull as teeth and vertebrae slammed together. His thoughts swam, emergency air bags hissed into life around his throat, nausea rising, arms and legs suddenly feeling light and strangely disassociated from his torso. His eyes flickered back inside their lids and a peacefulness swept through him. No pressure, no sense of movement, a few gentle, almost friendly slaps on the back then… Blackness.

      Alber awoke slowly to the sound of his own ragged breathing. He opened his eyes. A large, bright disc faded into focus and gradually transformed itself into the familiar view of his visor. He groaned with the recognition that he was still stuck, submerged and lost with the worms on this obscure lump of rock. The faceplate remained a uniform shade of pink accept for one ugly black spot above his left temple. He blinked and focused on the blemish. A rock? Some part of the creatures left behind by their assault? A tooth perhaps? He peered at the discolouration, sensing something familiar. A small pinprick of white glowed in the centre of the blackness. A what? A what…? A star?

      The revelation was a spark of life to his inert body. He raised a hand up to his face and scratched clumsily at the spot – a palpable joy racing through him alongside a sudden, new-found freedom of movement. Crystals of ice dusted away creating a small slash of black. He rubbed the flat of his gloved hand back and forth and, there it was, the black sky full of pinpricks of light.

      Alber sat up in amazement. He was lying with his back against the inside lip of the impact crater. A few feet away from him a large, irregular scar had appeared in the ground. Already the upwelling of material he had triggered with his violent exit had begun to form into massive pink crystals. He had obviously been thrown well clear of the binding liquid/rock suspension. But how?

      He imagined the worms below him, swimming and chewing their way back and forth within that deep pink sediment. Perhaps they’d seen him as an intruder, a foreign body that need to be surgically removed. A gang of colourful nematode surgeons keeping their homestead healthy. Alber laughed and, loving the sound of it, laughed again long and hard. No, no that wasn’t right. Definitely not surgeons, more like radical environmentalists, or perhaps soldiers on some kind of boarder patrol. He laughed again realising that trying to figure out what had happened and why, was akin to juggling water. Who cared why they threw him out, he was just monumentally glad that they had.

      He picked himself up and trudged back up the rim to where he’d left the tool sled. At the top of the rise he was able to see the Stendec again. The squat, ugly bulk of it was one of the most welcome sights he’d ever seen.

      Elation punched out from the base of his spine, electrifying his skin and, sinking to his knees next to the sled, he began to weep with joy.

      Time passed. Alber held his head back and blinked the remaining moisture into the corner of his eyes. His vision cleared and he looked at the sled where a residue of pink goo clung to the inside of the analysis chamber. He thought of the faces of the lab techs back on the refinery when he transmitted the data. He thought of the company agents still chasing Rodregeiz from colony to colony, and of the creatures beneath him protecting their home. He thought of being made to land on that fast spinner and what a one way ticket out of this isolation would look like. And, as he thought, he broke out a spare vacuum chamber and began to fill it with the most boring looking rocks he could find.

*****

      “Nothing. A blank, despite its size. I’m sending the data through now.” Alber had erased the sled’s initial files the minute he’d stepped back onto the Stendec. Now, under the scrutiny of Elouise’s bespectacled gaze his resolve was starting to waver.

      “Not to worry Alber. I’d hoped it might be your ticket home.”

      “No such luck. Maybe next time.”

      “You’re due back here in seven days to restock, right?”

      “Yep, that’s correct.”

      “I… I’m going to reconfigure the probe. Send it off to find another likely candidate for you. Look…” Alber frowned at the screen. Elouise was… Was what? Different, somehow unsure of herself.

      “You okay?”

      “Yeah, yeah fine. I just… I was just wondering if you’d like maybe to hook up for a drink. When you get back. Of course.”

      Alber quickly looked away from the screen his mind racing to catch up with what had just been said. Had he heard her right? They obviously got on well, but… Maybe the company had somehow found out about what he’d just done. Was her advance just a well-disguised in road to teasing a confession out of him? He looked up and caught a glimpse of his reflection in the cockpit’s windows. A dark, hairy, troll-like face leered back at him, his furrowed concern turned into something monstrous by the treatment.

      “No. No, I don’t think…”

      “Oh.”

      “Sorry” He looked at the screen and saw a flash of hurt and rapid indignation race across Elouise’s features. If she was acting, she was doing a great job of it.

      “Look pal,” she started, grabbing his full attention. “I’m not in the habit of doing this kind of thing every day. Get that straight. You think you hotshots have a hard time of it out there, well you should try being stuck on these shifts. But if you want to worm your way out of it then…” A burst of uncontrolled laughter shot from Alber.

      “What? What’s so funny?”

      “Nothing.” He struggled and failed to control himself.

      “Yes,” he finally said.

      “Yes what?”

      “Yes… Yes, I’ll come for that drink.” To hell with it. If she was a spy she was the nicest one in the whole of the mining corp as far as he was concerned and, if she wanted to get the truth about what happened on D2706 out of him, she’d have to get him really drunk first.

      Alber smiled at Elouise and she smiled back.

      “Cool,” was all she said before ending the transmission.

— THE END —

(Copyright © 2004 by J. E. Bryant. All Rights
Reserved.
)