Now everybody knows you have to be mad to sign up with the Company to mine the stars. So here I am, on my first five year jaunt, and already, only just waking up from Deep Sleep I’m regretting it and wondering how I come to do it, why I thought I was the stuff miners are made of.
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“Hey Kid! What you talking about, crazy? That’s no kind, talk about folk like that!”
I looked around wildly, and saw a dim reflection in the metal wall of the bunker. The man on the bunk above had come round from Deep Sleep and was sitting up. Sennacherib Jones his nametag read on the door outside. He had showed me how to open the container under the bed, how to strap myself in, and climbed onto the upper bunk and settled himself for Deep Sleep.
“Hi, Sennacherib. Didn’t know you was woken.” My voice was nervous, I realised, and he sucked in stale tasteless air and firmed it up as I continued. “Not speaking about anyone real. Just - speaking. Never had one of these before.”
I held up the small cube. They had been issued to every miner, but I had never been able to afford one before. They were used to record all your messages, all your private notes, the things you wanted to do. Like all the garbage shovellers on Level G of City One, I had scrawled messages on the walls for my mates to read, and kept my thoughts to myself.
“Oh that. Yeh, they likes you to use them. If it keeps the crazies from you - ”
“I’m not crazy!”
“No? But you signed up, didn’t you?”
“Wasn’t any other exit sign that I could see, down there in the muck, Sennacherib.”
“You going to make it rich, then, out there in the stars? Going to make your fortune and come back and lord it over your mates?”
“I don’t reckon I’ll ever go back. Not many do, when they sign up. But I reckon I’ll eat proper food, and get to breathe proper air.”
“You’ll maybe wish for the garbage when you see what they got lined up for us, Kid.”
“I won’t. If you’ve never been down on the garbage levels, you wouldn’t know.”
“Kid, I been shovelling garbage of one sort of another most of my days. That’s what most people do, only they got pretty names for it, on the upper levels. You reckon they just float about doing good works, eh? Going to parties, strolling in the parks, eh? They fights, Kid, just as much as you or me.”
“What they got to fight about? They’ve got it all, up on those levels.”
“They fights to keep there, Kid, not to end up with you and me and the rest of us.”
He lay back down and I stared at the opposite wall. It reflected the two bunks, with my own rumpled covers, the box holding the wires and needles for Deep Sleep. I had experienced a moment of deep gut wrenching terror when those had come out of the wall, and realised I was too firmly belted down to avoid them. It seemed like a moment ago, but in the time we had been in Deep Sleep, the Company ship had moved them out of the System and out into the far depths of space towards the mining planet. I took a slow considering look around. The bunker was small, just the two beds, the shallow containers under each for personal possessions, the folded up sanitary facilities.
It was a lot better than I had had on Level G, I considered. Down there in the shadow of the chutes and the grinders and the digesters, I had lived in a twenty bed bunker with my fellow gangers, and there had been no privacy. We kept our clothes on all the time to prevent theft. We kept our personal effects in a waist-belt under our clothes, or in a bag around our necks. Anything not on a bunk was common property, and even leaving it on a bunk was no guarantee it wouldn’t be thieved. There was only artificial light, and the atmosphere stank with the residues of garbage, and every so often the digesters would vent back, the hot steam making people choke as their eyes watered and their skin erupted in rashes.
I took a surreptitious sniff at myself, but for the first time in my life I could not smell anything except clean clothing and the faint whiff of my body from the long sleep. Like all the men who had come on board, I wore a blue combination suit and a pair of grey soft shoes with gripping soles. Unlike most of them, I had come on board with nothing but the clothes I wore and a clumsily wrapped parcel. They had put me through decontamination twice, I remembered with a squirm of embarrassment. I reached under the bed and popped the lock on the container. There was a second suit folded up in the container, a jacket, and the regulation issue miner’s pack. My parcel was there, still wrapped, and the miner’s pack as well. I had explored the treasures in that as soon as I had come on board. The note box; a seat voucher for meals; a games voucher for the computer games; an ELRE for reading any textdisks I had brought with me. I fingered the controls on the ELRE and stared at the blank screen. I did not possess any textdisks; I had never even had the money for a library ticket to enable me to go and read them. Occasionally I would rescue a page of writing from the garbage; those were in the parcel I had brought. I had wondered at the wealth people on the upper levels must possess, to enable them to have real writing on real pages.
A sound pinged through the bunker room and I half rose to his feet.
“Time for eats, Kid,” my bunker mate said, swinging long legs over the side of the bunk and sliding down without using the ladder. I stared up at him, taken by surprise once again by his size. He was tall and thin, with a long thin face, deep set blue eyes under white eyebrows. His hair was about an inch long all over his head, and was a startling white. I realised he was being studied as carefully.
“Not much of you, is there Kid? Thought they was big and strong, down there in the lower levels!”
“I’m strong enough, Sennacherib. You’ll see. Just - none of us had space to grow, so they always said.”
I put everything away and locked the container, and we came out of the bunker. There were more people around, a stream of men walking down the corridor, talking and laughing, the sound absorbed by the metal walls when I would have expected it to echo. We joined the men and walked with them, and I exchanged wary greetings with some of them. I wasn’t used to this, I thought. You didn’t make eye contact with anyone except your own gangers, and you didn’t walk with anyone except your own gangers.
I knew no one here except Sennacherib Jones, and he was talking and laughing with someone who spoke the same as him, cut the words the same, moved them around the sentences the same.
“You bunking with Jonesey?” someone asked with a snigger of laughter. “That’s some burden!”