Sunday, October 24, 2010

Mine 642

Mine 642 wasn’t anything spectacular to look at, just a giant rock floating through space along with thousands of other giant rocks. The only thing that distinguished it from the others was the large “Property of Interstellar Minerals” sign and the big “642” painted on it. You couldn’t even see the mine proper from the angel the transport ship was coming in on. Steven sighed. He expected it to be a bit more romantic.

Still, it was a good job, and it paid amazingly. Steven made more in the signing bonus alone than he did in three months work back in Texas. And all of it would go back to Pam back home. He would miss her during his year long rotation at the mine, but it would be worth it. He was just glad he didn’t have kids. A year was a long time to miss out on kids.

The shuttle docked, which meant it attached its rear hatch to the hole cut into the side of the rock. Steven had a brief moment of concern. He knew that the mining company had air pumped into the rock, and that there was a green house to help with the air purification, but the idea that rock and a few inches of steel were all that kept him from the cold of space was frightening. But, he had little choice. He needed this job. His family back home needed this job. So, he said a quick prayer and took a deep breath as the hiss of pressurization took place behind him.

Once he walked into the mine he found himself in an area that was much like an apartment building, clean and well lit. He and the other six men on his transport were greeted by a man named Oscar, who would be their direct supervisor. He took them on a tour of this main facility. There was a main hall for eating with a cafeteria, that reminded him of high school. There were even a few shops to buy entertainment in, and one movie theater that was showing movies three years old back on Earth. Still, working in the rock was lonely, and entertainment such as that was worth it.

Then they were shown their rooms. This is where the analogy to an apartment building really took shape. Each man got a room that had a small kitchenette, a living room and a single bedroom. It was small, but comfortable, and private, something Steven approved of. On Earth, he had worked in places where all the miners lived in bunks, including the supervisors and management.

As part of their orientation, they also got a brief tour of the mines. Back at home, Steven knew people that still thought of mining as a group of guys in a tunnel hitting at a wall with pick axes, despite the fact that it hasn’t been like this for a few centuries now. No, like the mines back home, this mine was done with a room and column approach, and lots of modern machinery was in place here. Lights were all over, making the place as bright as noon time in the summer, and in the places that had already been mined out, there were tables and chairs for breaks, including plants, making it all rather comfortable.

Steven’s job was going to be running one of the remote controlled digging machines. He always thought that terms was kind of odd, given that he was going to be all of three feet away from the thing. He met his co-driver, Jose, who was from Argentina. The two would be working the same shift, but there were two other men who would be working the other shift of the mine. he digging was a twenty-four hour processes, but no one referred to anything as day shift or night shift, given that such things were meaningless both in space and underground.

The strangest part, and that which was the most different than the mines he worked on Earth, would be the gravity. Or rather, the lack of it. The living quarters and upper levels of the facility, the place everyone called the Station, was covered in the new “gravity plates.” These were expensive, state of the art technological marvels that gave the quarter mile facility the same gravity as Earth. But the mine itself was left to its own devices, which meant no gravity. A series of hand rails ran throughout the facility, and every man was required to wear a tether, called the life line. Most men worked in machines, so it was just a matter of strapping in. Those few that weren’t in machines wore special boots that gripped the rock and allowed them to move about slowly. He was told that it wasn’t uncommon for men to get gravity sickness during their first few days of work, and the company expected it, so no one would get docked pay. At least, not for the first two days. After that, you were on your own. But, everyone seemed to get used to it pretty quick. Or at least, that’s what Oscar said.

And that was pretty much the end of the tour. They would have the rest of the time until their first shift to settle in, unpack, eat, sleep and do whatever else they wanted. Oscar closed out the orientation by asking if there were any questions. There were a few, and Oscar answered them all with friendly smiles. He was a knowledgeable man, aware of the unique conditions of working in a rock floating through space. Obviously, this wasn’t his first time at the rodeo. But, he was also patient and friendly, traits that Steven had rarely seen in a foreman. He found himself looking forward to working with this man.

The next few days went smoothly and easily, and by the end of the week, Steven had fallen into the grove of work. He even began to like the little apartment building/town that made up the Station. He rented movies for his own personal viewing pleasure, sent messages back to his family and hung out with his fellow miners, making quite a few friends. At the end of three months, Mine 642 had become home. That, of course, was when the accident happened.

He was working in the mine as normal, on his machine with Jose. While they were working out a stuck gear when the cave rumbled. They looked at each other for a moment.

“You hear that?” Jose said in his thick accent. Steven still wasn’t used to hearing Y’s pronounced as J’s. He nodded at Jose, and then looked around, waving to get another Miner’s attention. This was Rocco, a short, skinny man that worked on the filter assembly. He claimed to be from New York, but Steven always thought his accent sounded fake. Rocco had obviously stopped working as well, and nodded when he saw Steven waving at him.

“Everyone calm down,” Steven could hear Oscar’s voice, coming down the tunnel. “What just happened was not a big deal. A smaller asteroid hit us, is all. Just keep working, we’re fine.”

Steven nodded. That had been mentioned in orientation as happening sometimes. The company did their best in picking a stable asteroid that didn’t get hit often, but it was unavoidable in the belt to find one that never got hit. He nodded to Jose and the two returned to their controls. That was when the second shake happened.

It was bigger than the first one, and included a loud nose that sounded to Steven like a bomb going off. He immediately shut off his digger and turned around to see that the main tunnel leading back to the Station was collapsing. He thought he saw fire in it. Then, he noticed that there were men in that tunnel. Immediately, he unbuckled his harness and pushed himself across the room towards the tunnel.

The whole complex was still shaking, as if it were in the throes of a huge earthquake, but flying across the weightless chamber, he didn’t feel it anymore, only watched it. It was an odd sensation, but he pushed those thoughts out of his mind and tried to angle his trajectory towards one of the emergency tethers. He grabbed it and the hand hold next to it, landing slightly harder than he intended. Then, calling to the men in the tunnel, he three the line to them. Before they had even grabbed it, however, he felt a presence behind him. It was Darrel, a large, mostly silent man who worked one of the other diggers. He grabbed the tether behind Steven, nodding in readiness to pull.

Steven turned back to the three men, who were now blocked from going back up by falling rocks. One looked like he had been hit by one, but the others had tied the line to him. Then, they tied it around themselves and gave Steven a thumbs up. Steven and Darrel pulled. It a weightless environment, it didn’t take much. The three men hurtled into the room out of the tunnel, which continued to collapse. As soon as the men were clear, Steven and Darrel both let go of the tether and pushed themselves away from the dangerous falling rocks and collapsing tunnel. A few moments later, the shaking stopped.

Everyone just stood there, looking back at the tunnel that lead to the Station, their only way out of the small room they were now stuck in. A quick look around revealed to Steven that there were twelve of them, counting Oscar. No one quite knew what to do next. Everyone turned to look at the foreman.

“Okay,” he said, “let’s not panic. First, let’s get a head count and check on injuries.”

He went around the room and confirmed Steven’s initial estimation. Then, they learned that three of them were seriously injured. The man from the tunnel, Dmitry, a Russian, had a broken leg. Another man, David, had done the same, and a third, Steven’s own partner, Jose, had a blade from the digger sticking out of his arm. Apparently, the machine had been pushed into the rock wall, breaking off a several of the blades, one of which hit Jose. Steven was grateful that the injury was only to his friend’s arm, and not someplace more serious like his head or chest.

Oscar continued to direct things. He had two men check the tunnel, to see if it would be possible to dig their way out. He then went to his station to check the phone and see if he couldn’t get a hold of the Station. He quickly found out that there was no connection. All he got was static. Finally, his computer was able to access one of the outside cameras that watched for incoming asteroids. He pointed one around and saw something that made him gasp. Steven rushed up to see what w as going on.

It was the most horrific site he had ever seen. A second asteroid, probably about half the size of Mine 642, had smashed into the rock they were currently trapped in. It landed right where the shuttle bay and the Station were located, smashing in and completely destroying the complex. There were bodies floating in space, and a few fires could still be seen through the leaking atmosphere.

Steven backed away, his had to his mouth, trying to not throw up. There were over one hundred men in the Station. All were dead. And the devices that provided fresh air down to the caves were destroyed. The men in this cave were still alive, but Steven realized right away that they wouldn’t last. They were all dead. All of them.

Twelve men. Steven couldn’t bring himself to look around at them all, because all he could think of was how terrified he was for himself. His kids and his wife went through his mind. What would they be told about how he died? Because he was now certain he was going to die down here. With these twelve men. And he couldn't look them in the eye.

The other men came up to see what was going on, and when they got a look at the screen, they all came to the same conclusion. Steven expected it to be pandemonium, but surprisingly, nothing happened. When he finally made himself look, he saw that they, like him, were shocked into staring off into space. Even Oscar couldn’t bring himself to look at anyone else.

“We’re dead,” Jose said. “There’s nothing that can be done. We’ll die here, floating into what’s left of this rock. Dead.”

That seamed to shake Oscar awake. He looked around and glared at the men in that room.

“Now you all listen here,” he said. “We are not dead yet. There is still a chance that we can be rescued.”

“Right,” Steven said. “A slim one at best.”

“A slim chance is better than no chance,” Oscar said, which caused Steven to actually look at him.

“Listen to me,” Oscar said. “We are NOT dead yet, and until such time as I see that we are most assuredly dead, then I will let you all give up. Until then, we continue acting as if we can get out of here, and do all we can to survive.”

“Oh, yeah?” Richard, one of the men that Steven pulled out of the tunnel, asked. “And what can we do about that?”

“Well, for one thing, we can go check out the other abandoned tunnels,” Oscar said. “One of them was our break room, with refrigerators, and another one had the backup generators that we used here for our equipment. We might still have food and power for a little while. I mean, after all, I was able to use my station, right?”

Even Steven had to nod his head about that.

“Okay,” he said. “So we got some food and some power. Maybe we can even hook up the power to the food. It still won’t last that long. It will take another week before the next shuttle comes by.”

“True,” Oscar said, “for the regular shuttle. But we also keep in regular contact with Earth. A report would be sent every night, relayed through the string of satellites. It’ll take a few hours to reach home, but still, they’ll know something is wrong when they don’t get that message.”

“Hey,” Richard said. “Maybe we could use your phone or computer to tap into that satellite network? Send our own message, at least an SOS.”

“That’s an idea,” Oscar said. He glanced back at his desk. “I’m not really the best guy for that, though. I only use the computer to file reports on. Anyone here know how to use a computer enough to hack into the network?”

Slowly, one of the men raised his hand. Everyone turned to look at him.

“My name is Michael,” he said in some accent Steven couldn't quite recognize. “I was caught trying to hack the company’s mainframe several years back, stole a few thousand dollars. My punishment by the court was to pay back every cent. As I couldn’t, I was assigned to work here, until my payment was done.”

“Wow,” Oscar said, then shook his head. “So, you can work this computer? Hack into the network?”

“Well, I don’t know,” Michael said. “Those are government satellites, I’ve never done anything that big before. But, I’m willing to give it a try.”

“Good,” Oscar said. “Good enough. Get to it. Meanwhile, I want other men to check on food and power.”

In a few minutes, Steven found himself on a team that was set to check on the power generators. Jose and Dmitry were also on this team. Together, the three went down the tunnel that led to the chambers where the generators were stored. It was pretty easy going, as far as traveling down a tunnel with no gravity was concerned. But it had Steven worried. This tunnel was going in the direction that the other asteroid hit Mine 642. He had a bad feeling.

When they got there, he felt his feeling was justified. Fully half of the chamber was collapsed in on itself, and they could see chunks of the other rock through the rubble. Three of the four generators were smashed or buried completely, totally unusable. That left just one generator. He shook his head. It wasn’t going to be enough.

“It’ll do,” Oscar said. Steven tried to protest, and Dmitry was right there with him, but Oscar just wouldn’t hear of it. “It’s all we got, there’s no use in trying to make the situation worse than it is. It’ll do, because it’ll have to. Will do things like shut off lights in areas we’re not using. We’ll move the fridges here, and shut off lights there too. Everything we can do to preserve energy. We’ll make it.”

The food hunting group had a little better luck. It turns out that the shift before had a pot luck, and there was plenty of left overs, including stew, pot roast, chicken, sandwiches and even pizza. Combined with the food left in there from the other minors and staff, there was enough food to keep everyone fed for a week. Steven hoped that would be enough. Oscar decided that they would need to ration right away, so as to drag out the food supply. Everyone would only eat once a day, bringing the food supply to three weeks. It would be tough, but they could make it.

Harder would be the water supply. It didn’t fare as well, being that the majority of it was back at the Station. Still, there was a tank with a good thirty gallons of water left. They would ration that as well. Now, really, all they could do was wait. Oscar couldn't force them to follow his orders, but they all agreed to do so anyway. Not that there was much to do. Over the next few days, they mostly sat in the dark, with the lights off. Dmitry and Jose told ghost stories from other mine jobs they had worked on, but other than that, there wasn’t much in the way of entertainment. Steven couldn’t bring himself to join in conversation most of the time. He still felt that all they had done was delay the inevitable.

Finally, things started to look up. One day four, they received a reply via the satellite network. The company was sending a rescue crew, and was being back up by the Earth government. Specialists in Asteroids were already on the way, and in fact would probably arrive not a day after they received this message. They were asked to preserve as much generator power as possible, and also to try not to expend any energy if not necessary, so as to preserve the oxygen. Steven snorted, as they were already doing both of these.

“Why do you do that?” Dmitry said. “Snort like that. They are coming. We will be rescued. Why do you snort?”

“Why?” Steven asked, the whole thing getting to him. “Because it’s ridiculous. What do they think we’re doing in here? Running in circles with the lights on? Of course we’re preserving oxygen and electricity. We don’t have a choice, and I’m sure they know that. It’s all pointless, anyway. They won’t be able to simply dig down to us, we’re too deep in. It would take them days to simply dig down. We’ll run out of oxygen before then.”

“You are very negative,” he replied back. “You only try to help when Oscar commands it. If you’ve given up, fine. But don’t try to make the rest of us give up.”

“Make you?” Steven said. “There’s nothing to give up! We’re already dead!”

That seemed to set Dmitry over the top. He swung at Steven, hitting him square on the jaw. Steven leaped at the other man, grabbing hair and punching in the gut as he went. They took a few more swings at each other before Oscar got to them and pulled them apart.

“Are you two idiots?” he yelled. “Don’t you realize that by fighting, you’re just waisting oxygen? You’re only killing us faster. Steven, I know the situation is dire. But it’s not hopeless, and as long as we’re alive, I’ll keep fighting. Dmitry is right, you want to give up? Fine. Go do it over there and leave the rest of us alone.”

Steven nodded and moved across the chamber. He didn’t quite leave the light, though. He couldn’t do that. He pulled out his wallet when he was alone, and looked at the pictures he had there of his family. Tears ran down his face as the others got back to planning.

“Guys,” Richard said. “We’ve got some trouble. We’ve been conserving as much energy as we can, but according to what they need from us when they get here, we’re short several hundred terrawatts. I don’t know what else we can do to give it to them.”

Everyone kept silent. What more could they do?

“can we shut off all the lights?” Oscar asked.

“It won’t make that much of a difference,” Richard replied.

“There’s gotta be something we can do.”

Steven turned to look back at them. It all seemed so hopeless. And cold. He realized it was cold over here, but warmer over by Oscar’s desk. That made sense, his desk had a heater by it. Then, something occurred to him.

“The heaters,” he said. Everyone turned to look at him. “We could turn off the heaters. It would get damn cold in here, and quick too, but we could do it. There’s some thermal blankets in the storage bins by Oscar’s desk.”

“Richard?” Oscar asked.

“That... would work,” Richard said. “If we shut them all off, including the one around the generator. It would give the rescue team what they need.”

A few moments later, everyone was huddled under thermal blankets. There wasn’t enough for each man to get his own, but there was enough that they only had to huddle in groups of three. Dmitry and Jose welcomed Steven into their group. He nodded and came up with them. Steven realized that he really wanted to live. He wanted to get out of here, to see Pam again. And he wanted it bad enough to believe that they might be able to make it out.

Even with the blankets, it was pretty cold. Mostly, Steven tried to sleep, as did most of the other men. One meal a day didn’t give you a lot of energy, which was fine, as they couldn’t do much anyway. On the next day, they got the signal from the rescue crew that they were beginning their efforts. They asked for a head count and were please to find that all twelve men were still alive. A few hours later, Steven thought he could feel a breeze.

“Hey, guys,” he said. “You feel that?”

The others started to stir. Then, they nodded. Richard went to the computer and checked for messages. There was one waiting for a reply, so he responded that they were still here, but that now they could feel a breeze. Was it the first signs of a leak?

“Not a leak,” Richard read. “It means that phase one worked. We managed to snake in a small tube through the small space between the other rock and yours to pump in air. This will save us a lot of effort We’re working on how to get you food and water. We might be able to do something similar. In the mean time, hold tight and enjoy the fresh air.”

“How are they going to send us food via a small tube?” Richard mused.

“Protein shakes,” Oscar replied immediately. When everyone looked at him, he shrugged. “This isn’t my first mine collapse. Oh, its the first one I’ve been trapped in, but I’ve helped rescue men from being trapped before.”

Sure enough, the next day, they got a water tube down to the men. They kept in pretty constant contact with everyone down there, and Steven was even able to get a message to his wife, and heard back from her as well. She was terrified, and he couldn’t blame her. He was too. But, he told her, have hope. It’s all they had down there, in that rock floating in space.

For another week they huddled down there, cold under their blankets. They ran out of food, and occasionally, the water was replaced with that protein shake that Oscar mentioned. It tasted horrible, but it kept them all alive, so as far as Steven was concerned, it was the Nectar of the Gods. Tensions were high. Communications were pretty steady, twice a day, to let the men know of the rescue team’s progress. The digging was progressing, but very slowly.

Then, things started to turn really bad. Jose got sick. He broke out in sweats and a fever, and his wound started issuing puss under the bandage. They told the rescue team, but there wasn’t an immediate response. The next hour was extra tense. Oscar ordered the men to move Jose to a separate part of the room. They lashed him to the sifting machine, and wrapped him up in the blanket. They washed his wound as best as possible, and used the first aid kit to give him a clean bandage. But, he didn’t look good.

Steven felt real fear at this point. It was different from the numb fear he had when this all started. This was sharp, jabbing right into his heart, and hurt. Jose was his friend. It was one thing to think they were all going to die down here. It was another entirely to think that one of them, especially one he cared about like he did Jose, would go first, and in a painful way like that. Steven didn’t consider himself a religious man. He left that mostly to his wife. But he prayed now. For the first time during this entire ordeal, he prayed. God, let Jose live. It was a simple prayer, but it was the best he knew how to do. He just hoped it was enough.

Finally, after that hour, they got a response from the rescue team. They were asked some questions about Jose’s specific symptoms, and after getting the responses, they disappeared again.

“This is bad, isn’t it Oscar?” Richard asked.

“Maybe,” Oscar said. It was the first time he didn’t sound positive that all twelve of them were getting out. “If they’re not talking to us, it’s because someone topside as told them Jose won’t make it. It means they’re trying to come up with a faster, but riskier, method of getting us out of here, so they can rescue Jose as well.

A few hours later, the team responded. They confirmed what Oscar said. The doctors topside said that if they didn’t get to Jose quickly, he just wasn’t going to make it. So, they were going to try a very risky plan, but they weren’t going to do it unless all the men agreed. They were going to use explosives to blow a huge hole in the rock. It would cause another collapse, which could injure them more, or even bury them. But if it worked, it would provide a tunnel to the room they were trapped in. It would also cause explosive decompression. Some of the men might be thrown out into space. They had a back up plan for that. They would be putting a dome around the explosion, so as to keep the air in and prevent as much decompression as possible. They also had teams watching all around the asteroid. They had special boxes to try and capture anyone thrown outside before the vacuum could kill them. Ideally. There was still a chance that everyone down there could be killed. As much as a 40% chance, and a 90% chance that more people would be injured.

“But they could rescue Jose, “ Steven said. “I saw we go for this option.”

Several other’s nodded. Oscar raised his hands for attention.

“This has to be unanimous. We either all agree, or this doesn’t get done,” he said. He looked around the room, one by one. Everyone slowly nodded, or raised their hand, indicating that they were agreement. They would go with this plan. They sent the message back up top.

It only took the rescue team an hour to set up. They told the team to take what cover they could and hang on. Everyone gathered around the sifter with Jose. Then the countdown began. It was the longest ten seconds in Steven’s life. Four. Three. Two. One. The entire cavern shook violently, and the roof and floor both started to collapse. Steven, in one of those weird moments where your mind goes someplace different than the danger around you, wondered why he didn’t hear an explosion. A large rock came down and him him, cutting a gash across his arm. More came down, and the men raised their blankets to protect themselves. That helped for the most part, but the bigger rocks still hurt them.

There was no explosive decompression. That was good, it meant their dome worked. The shaking and rock falling only lasted a few minutes this time, but when it was all done, they found that they were buried again. This time, all around them rather than just the tunnel mouths. Their large cavern turned into a small circular chamber only big enough to hold them. Everyone had wounds now, and Oscar only avoided a head wound because of his helmet.

A few moments later, Steven could hear something.

“Did you hear that?” he said. “It sounds like...”

“Drilling,” Oscar said quietly. They all listened. It was drilling. The rescue team was drilling through the rubble that had sealed them in. This was it. In a few moments it was all over. Steven and these eleven other men would all be rescued. Freedom. He knew then that he would leave behind their cavern and return to his wife. And he couldn't be happier to be rid of the place. But he also knew that he would never forget Mine 642.

The End

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