Merrick knew he was only able to keep a hard stare in answer to Judge Ingott’s malevolent gaze because he’d been dead for the last fifteen months.
Whatever reputation the judge had, and it was a tough one if one took notice of the televid news, was dwarfed by what Merrick had learnt during his time in the cells. Stories of sentence extensions if a suspect merely looked at Ingott wrongly, whispers of beatings for the more recalcitrant convicts, the encouragement of charge upon additional charge, laid on a man’s shoulders till he buckled and broke under the strain.
But Merrick didn’t care. Beyond the dome of the Opal Detention Centre, trapped in the centre of a raging inhospitable jungle ringed by swamp, nothing awaited him. Not anymore.
“You stand charged of a serious crime, Mr. Hardcastle,” Ingott said, and Merrick was damned if one corner of the judge’s mouth didn’t twitch with amusement.
He clenched his fists and remained silent.
“Beyond circumstantial, there’s enough recorded evidence for me to pronounce the death sentence six times over.”
Yes, that would be for the six so-called “Peace Officers” who had trapped his wife in an isolated section of Marine Two. If it were possible, Merrick would have killed each of them again—no, several times over—for what they did. What they had taken. Her life. His dreams.
Ingott’s pale eyes were bright and predatory. “Sometimes, I regret the fact that Venus has become civilised, that we’ve declared a temporary moratorium on the death penalty. Part of me even wonders if that wasn’t a motivation for the timing of your crime in the first place.”
At this point, any other man would have lunged over the slick, plasteel desk, vaulted onto the judicial platform, grabbed the judge’s pudgy throat between two hands, and squeezed. But Merrick knew that was exactly what Ingott and his heavily armed security squad were waiting for. He could tell by the way the uniforms’ fingers twitched next to the triggers of their stunguns, how their hips subtly shifted, making sure the shocksticks were ready for instant deployment. In his time at Opal, he had heard a lot of anecdotes about such “amusements”.
He didn’t move. The judge looked disappointed.
“However, while a death sentence is off the books, it still leaves me in a quandry, Mr. Hardcastle. You see, incarcerating a prisoner for six lifetimes is a very expensive undertaking.” He blinked a few times, as if expecting sympathy from the accused. “We’re doing well here on Venus, maybe not to the level of Tellus or Europa, but we’ve made fair strides. At least we’re not Mars.” A small titter of laughter rippled through the main sentencing room.
Merrick, lips pressed in a straight line, swung his gaze across the enforcers and toadies that let bullies like Ingott and the six Peace Officers trade justice for impunity.
I got six of them for you, Emily.
Then, a second later:
“I don’t know that I’d call it fair for a man caught so flagrantly killing our planet’s finest to get a lifetime of accommodation, free meals and rehabilitation opportunities for the rest of his life.” He stretched out a hand. “And I doubt the average Venusian citizen would be happy either, knowing what’s being done with their tax money.”
Ingott paused theatrically.
“Luckily, there’s a solution to our insurmountable problem.”
Merrick’s head whipped around from regarding the guards and clerks and eyed the judge. He had been prepared to pay for his crime, to be a dead man walking for the rest of his life, but the smirk on Ingott’s face told him that there was a worse fate in store. If that were possible.
Ingott leaned forward. “I’m setting you free, Mr. Hardcastle.” He saw Merrick’s frown of incomprehension and nodded emphatically. “Oh yes, free as a sparrow. Except, unfortunately,” he held up a finger, “not on Venus.”
He sat back, took up his gavel and banged it once on the specially manufactured strikeplate. The gong reverberated through the room, making the bones in Merrick’s head vibrate.
“Merrick Martin Hardcastle, you are herewith revoked of your Venusian citizenship and all associated entitlements and privileges and will be transferred to the ownership—”
“—of the Inner Sun Transworld Mining Corporation for a period of no less than thirty years’ hard labour. May God Almighty have mercy on your soul.”
It was as if they were killing him all over again. He could only stare in incomprehension at Ingott. Was the man serious? Was he being sold to a company? Was he now…a slave?
The judge’s eyes danced with glee as the guards led Merrick’s unresisting form out of the courtroom.
“All the conditions have been read out to you,” said the bored intake clerk. “Your new name becomes valid when you accept the agreement. Do you understand the terms? If so, please repeat that name and the word ‘affirmative’ at a loud volume and recognisable in the language of your choice.”
The trip from the Opal had been swift: bare minutes to collect his meagre possessions before being unceremoniously shoved into a three-person fast transport already waiting for him on the detention centre’s landing pad. The glimpse of the transport’s exterior hadn’t been promising and the interior was no better. The seat upholstery was cracked and stained, the harnesses frayed. There were no portholes, nothing to provide a final glimpse of the planet he had called home for the past thirty-eight standard years of his life.
He was the only passenger.
No guards accompanied him aboard, but he’d been told that the pilot, safely ensconced in a separate compartment in the bullet-shaped nose of the craft, could easily kill him if he proved to be a restless passenger, either by turning off the oxygen supply, stopping the ventilation system or shutting down the cramped cabin’s climate controls.
Merrick said nothing but buckled himself in.
The transport rumbled upwards and Merrick’s grip on the thin armrests tightened. Maybe they’d evacuate his section once they were clear of Venus and dump him in space? He’d heard of people dying from explosive decompression and a part of him even wished for such a death but, as time dragged on, it became obvious that Ingott had been correct. The Venus Justice Authority had sold him to Mercury and, as the metal plating beneath his prison-issue slippers began heating up, he knew they were at last approaching his new home.
He was met at the docking ring by the intake clerk, his voice as equally dead as his eyes, his expression not changing by so much as a flicker. His words, however, were horrifying. Martin Jones (his new name) was sentenced to corporate servitude for a minimum of thirty years, after which he may be eligible for parole. His new identity would be the one he wore for the rest of his life, Merrick Hardcastle’s demise only one computer operation away. Merrick couldn’t stop staring at the clerk’s index finger, unwaveringly poised over a green button on a small console full of buttons and lights. Was that the movement that would end his life? Was that button the one that would declare him dead throughout the System? The clerk didn’t notice Merrick’s fixation, but droned on.
Should he be approved for parole, he was never to set foot on Venus, Tellus or the Jovian moons—the most prosperous regions of the solar system—for as long as he lived. Seventy-five per cent of his earnings would be garnished by the Venusian authorities as “compensation” for his crimes and basic food, accommodation and medical care would be provided, in return for mining duties. Small bonuses may be paid for the mandatory testing of new industrial prototypes.
“What happens if I don’t agree?” Merrick asked. “Don’t give you an ‘affirmative’?”
The clerk stared at him and his index finger curled towards his palm. “Think you’re the first to come up with that line? Your transport has already undocked and is halfway back to Venus, but feel free to take a step back through the ring if you’d prefer.”
“And what if I don’t want to be one of your guinea pigs?”
“Not want to bravely test and report back on the very latest in space technology?” The clerk shrugged. “Then there’s no medical or bed for you, party boy.” His voice hardened. “See, I read about your case. You may have had your fun murderin’ those six Peacers, but here on Mercury, we do things differently. Disagree with the conditions and we toss you into a dungeon and throw away the magkey. Know what I’m sayin’?”
Merrick should have said no, should have told them where they could stuff those “conditions” of theirs, but he was too weak. He had loved Emily like life itself, but couldn’t bring himself to deliberately end his own.
Squeezing his eyes in shame, he let his head droop.
“Affirmative,” he muttered.
“What was that? Couldn’t hear ya.”
Merrick took a deep breath, lifted his head and opened his eyes. “Martin Jones. Affirmative,” he repeated, more loudly.
“Thought you might say that, Mr. Jones. Contract accepted. Welcome to Mercury.”
It was a hellhole, in its most literal sense. Seen via one of the many schematics that dotted the complex, the Inner Sun Transworld Mining Corporation resembled a giant ant farm. The company made its money carving precious metals and minerals out of the solid core of the small planet, then saved additional expense by repurposing the ensuing caverns. After fifty years of operation, a maze of chambers had built up, connected to each other via straight or lazily spiralling corridors, each corridor just wide enough to take the lumbering mining equipment on which the planet’s economy depended.
Merrick learnt all about it during his month-long orientation course. How the forerunners of the corporation had braved fiery deaths while landing on Birchfeld Plateau on the dark side of Mercury. How their very first action was to drill into the protective shell of the fiery planet, making it their refuge from the plasma storms that wreaked havoc on the surface. How they discovered that most rare of metals, palladium, often intertwined with that most coveted: gold. If the pioneers of Inner Sun Transworld had fantasised about a certain path to success, they couldn’t have come up with a better way to make money.
But man paid for such riches. Hardly anybody ventured out onto the surface, not even to that delicate ribbon of terrain that marked the boundary line between indescribable heat and bitter cold. Most stayed safe, miles underground, while the Sun’s corona waged war with Mercury’s eerily smooth surface, solar flares of immense power melting and reshaping the small planet’s sunside terrain in the space of minutes. Instead, their thoughts and dreams turned outwards, to talk of retirement on one of the outer planets. The blue cool of Tellus. The majestic windswept splendour of Mars. The self-sufficiency of Europa. The dripping rainforests of Venus.
That last one was what captured the miners’ imaginations the most, and every mention of his previous home sent a shaft of longing and sorrow through Merrick’s body.
Venus. Rain. Water. Falling from the ever-cloudy sky. No fees. No shortages.
“Just stretch out your hand,” was the usual talk in the canteens, “and it’ll fall into your palm. You don’t even need to do nothin’. Water all around for the taking.”
And Merrick knew it was true. Mercury, with only its mineral wealth, had to ship in everything it needed: food, equipment, clothes. But the one thing that cost it the most was water from Venus. There were chambers where vegetables were grown under giant lamps, where even some livestock were kept, but they all depended on one thing. Water. It was the most precious and rare of resources and so became an object of longing for the few thousand who called the mining planet home.
Water was guarded even more preciously than oxygen, needing to come via specially fortified heavy spacefreighters from Venus. That jacked up the price, making the liquid too precious to waste on the mere task of cleaning. Merrick had to get used to the custom of strigilling, using a thin curved piece of metal to scrape the sweat and dirt off his skin. He thought it a disgusting habit but, over time, got used to it, as he got used to most things.
The next most valuable element was oxygen. It was the breath of life and couldn’t be monitored as strictly, but there were obvious privileges associated with it. As a result, the job of atmosphere scrubbing was hotly contested. Unlike the miners or small team of suiters, the scrubbers worked deep in the shielded processing plants, the safest areas in the planet, and their jobs gave them opportunity to siphon off pure oh-two and sell intoxicating sniffs of it on the informal market. The conditions of his indenture had made it clear that Merrick couldn’t ever expect to get such a job. He was to be part of the mining teams, unless a special assignment sent him to the surface to test equipment that was to be used under extreme conditions throughout the system, a job called being a “suiter”. The judge had made the priority explicit—Merrick was a suiter first and a miner second, meaning his remaining life could be measured in months, if not hours. Merrick would have thanked Ingott for such consideration but didn’t think it would have been appreciated.
The third most valuable resource on Mercury was women. There weren’t many in the tunnels, beyond the medical and some administrative staff. The senior managers had wives who lived with them down in the tunnels, but nobody else on the planet did. If a woman had a brain, she took an employment contract on Mercury, worked her two years for a fat reward then left the moment the last salary (with obscene bonus) hit her account. Only the crazy ones stayed—the ones who didn’t have lives to go back to, or the ones who wanted the money, or the ones who thought they were doing what they did for a “higher purpose”. They weren’t the most stable of women and Mercury was full of unstable men, so maybe they suited each other. But every time he caught a glance at the sway of hips or heard the feminine lilt in an animated voice, all Merrick could think of was Emily, and the thought of his murdered wife was enough to extinguish any interest he may have had towards a member of the fairer sex.
In such a way, by surviving rather than living, Merrick grimaced and toiled through his first two years on Mercury. He came to be known as a good worker, strong, smart and dependable, although often on a short fuse. He found the fight scene and, off duty, worked out his pent-up aggression by pounding other men into the dust for rewards of water, oxygen or extra food rations. He was frequently sent to the surface to test the suits that would then be either refined or mass produced and sold throughout the system. “Designed on Europa - Tested on Mercury” became a standard tag-line that blurred into the scorching background of his new life. Merrick didn’t mind being a suiter because it meant extra pay and welcome solitude from the tightly-packed warrens of sweating humanity working beneath the planet’s crust. He thought he would end his life on Mercury, paying off his debt till either a fight down below or a sudden solar flare on the surface got him, and he was grimly resigned to such an end.
What he hadn’t bargained on was a special prototype suit, the stubborn insistence of Comet Wear and a fateful walk down a narrow ribbon of rock between death and death.
“I don’t see why I need to.” Merrick’s voice was toughened steel.
His group supervisor, Viktor Hall, tilted his head and grimaced. The man was shorter than Merrick but iron all the way through. Even his voice—rough and rumbling—reminded Merrick of abrasive ore.
“You want a reason why? Because Comet Wear is payin’ for it, that’s why.”
Merrick shook his head. “Twenty minutes out is standard procedure, and everyone pays for that. You’re asking for an hour. Nobody’s done that before.”
Hall threw his hands up. “That’s because nobody tagged on extra credits for an extension before.” He stared intently at his subordinate then sighed. “Look, Jones, I know it’s against the rules, but we do a lotta things here against the rules. According to ‘the rules’, you shoulda been pitched out an airlock for the illegal fights you been indulging yourself in these past years. Not to mention the purchase of those informal water rations.”
Merrick remained silent, unwilling to admit his weakness. He was—slash that, had been—a Venusian, used to the regular silken touch of water over his body. As red and scraped as he felt after a strigilling, it wasn’t the same as a rinsing with cleansing jets of clear, sparkling, astringent liquid. He remembered drinking the water as it tumbled from faucets and showerheads, something he couldn’t do with the sticky oil he had to rub onto his dirty skin before scraping the softened muck off.
“Look,” Hall said, interrupting his msuings, “you do this and we give you a bonus. That’s only fair, ain’t it?”
Merrick focused on him. That was the kind of language they both understood. “What kind of bonus?”
“One week doubled water rations. All legit. No under-the-panel stuff.”
“I may not survive the extra forty minutes outside. One month’s doubled rations.”
“Are you nuts? You wanna start a stampede? You remember what happened the last time some lunatic dropped word of his bonus. Inner Sun had to terminate two dozen asses and the rest of us had to work overtime to maintain production levels. Nobody wants somethin’ like that happening again.” Hall hesitated, obviously calculating something in his head. “Maybe I can give you two weeks and double off your monthly loan payment,” that’s what they called the debt every indentured was saddled with. A ‘loan’, “but all that’s on the quiet, you understand? You let on to anybody else what our deal is and we terminate you like we terminated those others. That’s my final offer, Jones.”
Two weeks of feeling like a human being again? The next twenty-eight years loomed, hard and lonely, in front of Merrick. He had barely made a dent in the debt he owed to the Venus Justice Authority, so the month of double loan repayments didn’t mean that much. Then an imp of mischief inserted itself into his thinking. So what if he died wearing Comet Wear’s stupid new suit? What could anyone do? Sue him in Hell for outstanding sums? But if he survived, he’d have two weeks of pretending he wasn’t cowering inside the shell of a planet so close to the Sun that, even outside, he hardly ever saw the stars. Two weeks of pretending he had a real life, and that Emily was just outside the door, waiting for him. Two weeks of fantasy.
“All right,” Merrick finally said. “I’ll do it.”
Hall frowned. “You sure? One hour outside? Minimum?”
Merrick nodded firmly. “I’m sure.”
But Hall still wasn’t taking any chances. The moment he got Merrick’s confirmation, he hustled him into the upper levels, snapping commands through his wrist-com as the lift tubes sped them closer to the surface. Already, Merrick felt a fine sheen of sweat beginning to cover his skin.
They stopped at Level Three. It was a bare place, with smooth hard floors and a long corridor lined with anonymous grey panels. Some were wall; others, Merrick knew from experience, were doors that led into small briefing rooms. Hall motioned him into the closest room and, on the table, Merrick saw the cause of his potential demise: the Comet Wear Extreme Endurance Suit.
It looked like a high-quality piece of merchandise. After completing more than a dozen previous assignments, Merrick could tell that a lot of thought had gone into its design. He walked over to it and lifted part of it.
Heavy. That meant lots of insulation.
He peered down the sleeves. Internal tubing, covered by a smooth fabric overlay. No snagging.
It was quite a job to turn the suit over. By the door, Hall merely stood and watched, not saying a word.
Merrick identified the oxygen inlet and carbon dioxide outlet. Clearly marked. Not much room for error there. There was another outlet on the lower back. He bent down and read the small label. “Waste disposal.”
“What’s the endurance figure on this suit?” he asked, straightening again.
“This one’s meant for the ‘roid miners out in the Belt. Comet will be advertising ten hours max.”
Merrick nodded. That explained why they wanted an extended workout on the surface.
The helmet was another revelation. Merrick was used to a solid alloy case with a fair-sized multi-visored front window. Comet had given them a completely transparent bowl.
“The miners need to know what’s coming,” Hall said without prompting. “Peripheral vision, the need to turn their heads and see if a rogue is bearing down on ‘em.”
That could mean either rogue rock or rogue miner. Merrick nodded again, turning the high-tech goldfish bowl over and over in his hands. “How safe is it?”
“They say it’s stronger than the standard materials used. It’ll bend but won’t break.” There was a note of doubt in Hall’s voice that he couldn’t disguise. “Filters are built into the glass and activated by the control panel on your left forearm. The usual. But it uses some special tech to change the glass. Electromagnetic induction it’s called or something fancy like that.”
Merrick set down the helmet, only half listening. “Okay,” he said, turning to face his supervisor. “I’ll get suited, then I’ll be ready to go.”
“You sure?” Hall was watching him closely. “Right now?”
Merrick shrugged. Having already agreed, he wasn’t going to back down. “Why not?”
His supervisor finally nodded. “Alright. You know the drill. Strip off, get into the suit. We’ll plug you in and seal you up on the way to the surface. I’ll go rustle up a tech. Meet us at Elevator One.”
Merrick didn’t watch as Hall left the room. He pulled out a chair, sat down and took off his creased, grimy boots, followed by his trousers. He left his short-sleeved, close-fitting shirt on and reached for the suit, unzipping the back and folding himself into it. His feet slid into the integrated shoes, the plasgel moving and moulding itself to his contours. In a few minutes, the heat from his feet would activate the gel and it would harden. He stood and walked around to make sure that he still had enough room to shift within the footwear. He then spent a few minutes attaching the plumbing fixtures to his body. He’d never had to use such equipment before but was happy to note that the connections were obvious, if a bit alarming to look at. After he was hooked up, he took a few more experimental steps and grimaced. It felt as if he was carrying a coarse-skinned basketball between his legs. He only hoped the sensation would lessen over time. The gloves were last. They were bulky, but they locked into place with a satisfying click. He looked down at the small rectangular panel on his forearm and pressed a few of the raised buttons. They gave good feedback, even through the thick material encasing each digit. The rest, the helmet and the backpack every suiter wore, he would need help with.
Rotating his shoulders, Merrick felt the weight of the suit as it moved against his body. It was comfortable and didn’t constrict movement. As long as he didn’t think about the tubes snaking out around his groin area, he couldn’t remember wearing better. He shuddered to think what Comet Wear was going to sell the market-ready suit for. Probably the price of a small shuttle. Then again, for the ‘roiders, it was probably worth it.
After a quick scan of the room, Merrick picked up the helmet and headed for Elevator One, his thoughts focused on his upcoming reward.
Two weeks of double water rations.
And all for just sixty minutes bouncing around on Mercury’s surface. He couldn’t wait to collect.
Hall and a suit tech were already waiting for him when he entered Elevator One’s anteroom, the shielded backpack resting between them. Without saying a word, the tech turned him around and completed the suiting up.
“Lot of ‘roiders are solitary,” Merrick said, as much to try out the helmet’s comms system as to satisfy his curiosity. “They’re not going to have someone around to help them into their suits.”
Hall moved to a console propped up against a wall and pressed the two-way comms button. “Prototype,” he said, before launching into instructions. His voice came through the helmet loud and clear. “They want ten minutes in the hot zone, forty on the dark side, the remainder in between. Comms will be on throughout. Hop around a bit. Jump. Bend over. Kneel. Get up. The tech is fitting a toolbelt on each thigh now.” Merrick felt tugs against his legs. “Take out each tool, use it a bit, put it back. Report on ease of use and quality of tools. Gloves too.”
Merrick’s lips twitched. “Is that all? No flaming hoops of fire to jump through?”
He felt two taps on his upper arm as the tech indicated that he was done. Everything was ready to go.
Hall ignored his attempt at levity and jerked a thumb at a wide metal door. “We’ll be timing you.”
Merrick glanced at the hatch leading to the Evacuation Room. He turned his head and was pleasantly surprised to see that his line of vision wasn’t suddenly cut off. Maybe Comet Wear was onto something. Hall looked expectant.
Merrick grinned. “What are we waiting for?”
Bravado was easy with a hundred feet of rock between the threshold of safety and the interior of a furnace, but Merrick’s cocky self-confidence evaporated as the elevator lifted him upwards. Two thousand people toiled within Mercury for the Inner Sun Transworld Mining Corporation, but fewer than a hundred had ever walked its surface.
The elevator shuddered to a halt and the large doors haltingly slid open.
Merrick felt the change in surface beneath his boots as he exited the metal floor and stepped onto gravel. He was in a deep rectangular well, protection for the frail electronics and mechanisms of the elevator. Before him was a heavily fortified stairway hewn into rock. He took a breath before ascending the roughly crafted steps…and stepped out into a wondrous vista.
The top of the stairs was facing the Sun. Without needing to do a thing, his helmet darkened and he felt vibrations from his backpack ripple against his spine as the refrigeration function kicked in. Still, nothing could distract him from the awe-inspiring sight of being so close to the centre of humanity’s solar system. The Sun dominated the heavens, its bulk and brightness crowding out sight of any other stellar object. This close, and with various protective filters activated, it appeared as a living thing, pulsing before him in tones of yellow, orange and brown. Licks of red-tinged gold played across the star’s immense surface, like sprites chasing each other in a game. It was as if Merrick was gazing straight into another world comprised of beings who were both more powerful and more playful than he.
He looked down from his vantage point between the planet’s hot and cold zones, and watched as pools of molten rock facing the Sun solidified, melted and flowed into each other. Small plates would darken to stone as they hardened, then fissure open again as the stresses of heat broke them apart. Like ice floes, regions of cooling rock knocked against each other, collided to form higher, angled structures, or disappeared under a glowing river of molten minerals. It was a slow, rippling dance as old as the solar system itself.
Merrick took a few moments to lose himself in the spectacle before he reported in.
“Jones here. I’m on the surface.”
There was a pause before Hall answered him and, when he did, his voice was crackling with static. This close to the Sun, a lot of the technologies the rest of the system took for granted were next to useless.
“…have started the clock…you walk…DMZ? I’ll let…when time’s up.”
That’s what the workers on Mercury called the thin strip of rock that circled the planet between the infernal tempest in front of him and a landscape of near absolute zero behind him. The DMZ. The Demilitarised Zone. The only region of relative safety on the planet’s surface.
He knew what he had to do—he really didn’t need Hall babysitting him—but his supervisor was also a psychological link. It had been before his time, but Merrick had heard of suiters losing their minds on the surface, unable to withstand the illusion of a giant ball of gas about to fall on them. The problem was, nobody knew whether a particular man would crack or not until he was on the surface and, in that case, the first test was also his last. But what some men couldn’t cope with enthralled Merrick. Reluctantly, he tore his gaze away and turned, dutifully trudging forward along the DMZ and careful to keep one side of his suit facing the Sun at all times. To be alone with his thoughts was already a delight. Inner Sun packed them in like sardines below the surface and nobody could cough without at least a dozen others hearing. But on the surface, he was surrounded by blessed silence and in the presence of the most magnificent object in the system. If his suit malfunctioned, if he slipped and fell into the turbid sea of lava, if a solar flare flicked out towards him at the wrong moment, he would be dead within seconds. It was a terrifying prospect. But also exhilarating.
“…around now,” Hall said.
Merrick did as he was told, turning and walking back the way he had come, interspersing his walk with small jumps, bends and kneels. He knew the suit would be recording each of his actions on a data unit that the techs would extract once he finished the trial and descended to the safety of Mercury’s interior.
He did the requisite time at the very edge of the DMZ, as close to the eternally bubbling pools of lava as he could get while still remaining safe, making sure all sides of his suit were exposed to the heat and hard radiation of the Sun. Near the end, however, he noted that the internal temperature of his suit was rising, something the atmosphere-control unit in his backpack, with its deeper vibrations, was trying gamely to combat. Frowning, he looked down to the suit’s control panel on his left forearm, but the status indicator still glowed green. Still, he moved further into the DMZ with a sense of relief, and carried on with the exercises that Comet Wear had paid for.
“…going now?” Hall’s voice interrupted.
“I’m in the DMZ now,” Merrick replied, “just running through some sequences.”
Merrick nodded, even though he knew Hall couldn’t see him. Although the hot and DMZ sections were important to the suit manufacturer, it was really performance in the cold zone that interested them. After all, ‘roid miners didn’t usually ply their trade while surfing the Sun’s corona.
“Heading there now,” he said.
The dark side of Mercury was a complete contrast to the light. The light side was dynamic, in constant movement, smooth and blindingly bright. The dark side was static, sharp-edged, and plunged into eternal abyssal darkness.
Merrick turned his back on the Sun and trudged across the DMZ, watching as his shadow slowly melted into the approaching gloom. Here, if he looked straight ahead, he’d finally see some stars, the white pinpoints of the brightest ones steady against the relative blackness of space. He did this as he reached the fuzzy border between light and dark, idly wondering what constellation he was currently peering at, when the ground beneath his boots suddenly gave way. Flailing, Merrick reached out, attempting to grab something, but there was nothing to grab onto. He tried to gain purchase by kicking back with a leg, but it didn’t help. In a sequence of movements that seemed to stretch out to eternity, Merrick felt himself fall and tumble head over feet, down a steep slope he should have taken notice of. Mistakes like that could get a suiter killed, he thought to himself, trying to capture an outcrop, a large boulder, an angle of rock, something!, but failing. He felt an impact to his fishbowl helmet that caused his head to jerk, saw a quick flash of multicoloured light in his left field of vision, then it was darkness and vertigo as he continued to plunge downwards.
Somersaulting in zero point four g shouldn’t have hurt, but it did. When Merrick finally came to a sliding stop, he felt as though he’d been put through a commercial vortex sorter. His breath came in loud gasps and his ribs hurt.
“Hall,” he called, “I’ve taken a fall, but I, I seem to be alright.” He steadied his breathing and listened for a moment. “Suit seems to be holding, but I don’t know where I am. Get a team with a salvage winch ready, just in case.”
To his consternation, he didn’t even hear static but a dead silence.
Raising his voice, Merrick tried again. “Hall? Hall, can you hear me?”
There was no response.
Groaning, Merrick lifted his head and looked around, but all he could see was blackness.
Of course! He needed to reset the filters in his helmet. The fall must have messed with the automatic controls. With effort, he lifted his left arm but couldn’t see a thing. With his right hand, he felt for the rim of the panel, oriented his fingers and punched at where he thought the right buttons should be located. Nothing happened till the second press, when his surroundings were suddenly bathed in the faintest green, except for a spear of black to his left and…what he was lying on. Frowning, Merrick looked right towards a far crater wall then back down at the ground, wondering why contours of rock appeared so fuzzy and far beneath him. That should only happen if…if…he was somehow suspended in mid-air!
With an energy he didn’t know he still had, Merrick gasped and scrambled backwards across the strangely smooth surface, panic overriding the pain radiating throughout his body. His gloves could feel solidity, so why was his helmet telling him nothing was there? He stumbled against a rising slope of rock and threw himself against it, getting as far away from the mysterious surface as he could, air escaping his lungs in panicked spurts.
He lay there for many minutes, willing his body to relax, for his ribs to stop hurting, for his comms unit to start working again. From the corner of his eye, he noticed the panel on his forearm blinking amber and red. Something was wrong, but he didn’t know what. There was writing beneath the warning lights but it was too dark to make out the letters. Something else to inform Comet Wear about. He took a deep experimental breath and held it for a moment before exhaling, but his suit still felt okay. No obvious signs of a puncture. The heater was working. Maybe the refrigeration unit had taken a hit?
Merrick angled himself up on one elbow. There was no feeling of dislocation, no betraying hiss. His backpack still appeared to be firmly attached. His head was turned, staring across the slope’s transverse, drawn to the far end of the crater and the smooth nothingness in between. The crater bottom was a hazy blur a dozen feet beneath him, but it was still visible, when it shouldn’t have been.
“Think,” he said to himself. “Why didn’t you fall down there? What exactly were you on?”
When he thought he got control of himself, when the tremors in his hands subsided, he let himself sink back against the slope and stared upwards. The Sun’s nimbus was visible directly overhead, dimming the starscape.
“What was that I fell on?” he asked aloud.
Hall would be going crazy right now. Or maybe he was expecting some communications glitch to occur. They weren’t unheard of. How long would it take before a rescue team was despatched? Would they find him with all the electromagnetic disturbances around?
With growing impatience, Merrick finally levered himself into a sitting position and stared out over the mysterious surface he had landed on. Blinking hard in an effort to clear his eyesight, he ignored the blinking warnings and punched another filter button. This time he saw a play of yellow light overlay the green. That didn’t look right. He deactivated that and tried a third filter that turned everything black, except for glints of silver deep below the surface. One at a time, sometimes with several together, he cycled through the filters. He could take a guess at what each did, but didn’t know for sure as it was too dark to read the text on the small control panel.
He went through the overlays several times, trying to make sense of what he could see, and his eyes widened when he finally realised what it was he was looking at. The coloured lines were sharp at the crater wall but grew fuzzier as they descended because…they were following the contours of rock plunging deep beneath the surface Merrick had collided with. Beneath the surface. Lines that he shouldn’t be seeing if the surface was also rock. Which meant that the surface of the crater he was in wasn’t rock. With rising excitement, Merrick cursed the clumsiness of his gloves as he looked from crater floor to rim and back again, shocked into silence when he got the answer he was hoping for. Somehow, he had stumbled across a lake of frozen water!
Ice! On Mercury!
How? When? Why? He knew he couldn’t answer those questions, but it didn’t matter. All that mattered was that he had found a lake of ice seventeen feet deep in one of Mercury’s craters. And where there was one, he thought to himself, there must be others.
“Hall!” he shouted, with a tongue suddenly thick. “Can you hear me?”
With effort, Merrick turned over onto his stomach and began the arduous task of climbing back up the steep slope, stopping whenever his body protested. But at least he could still breathe. At least there was air in his suit.
When he reached the summit, he fumbled for a pick from one of the tool belts and stuck it into the ground. It would do as a temporary marker. Having done that, he tried getting to his feet, but couldn’t.
“Hall,” he rasped.
His head spun as he half-crawled in the direction of the elevator. Or, at least, where he thought the elevator should be.
Why was his body still hurting? Why did his limbs feel so heavy? Why was he feeling so dizzy? Why didn’t Hall answer?
Blearily, he thought he recognised a landmark. If he was right, the Sun should be to his east.
Why was it getting so hard to think? East! East was…right.
Merrick, blinking hard, used to the limited-vision helmets, shifted his shoulders to bring the helmet around. He gazed at the huge pulsing orb for a moment, before its heat seared through the damaged left-hand section of his helmet. Too late, he remembered the flashing warnings. And now he knew what they meant.
Fifteen feet from safety, Martin Jones screamed his pain. But nobody heard him.
Travis Ingott stopped and stared at the old damaged suit on display outside the Controller’s office within Inner Sun Transworld Corporation’s brand-new (and plush) tunnel complex. The words “Comet Wear” were still faintly visible running across the suit’s torso and down one leg. The antique helmet, with cracks crisscrossing it, was a mess.
“That’s the suit that changed history for us,” the aide beside him said, her voice full of pride.
Travis tried hiding his distaste. Yes, he knew all about the suit. Ever since that suit, things hadn’t gone well for Venus. The discovery of ice on Mercury two decades ago had cut water shipments from his planet to almost zero. Now Tellus had moved into first place on Mercury’s trade table, sending foodstuffs to a hungry and prospering population on the system’s innermost planet. Europa was sending engineers, experienced in low-delta exotic technologies, and the Outer Consortium was buying up palladium as fast as Inner Sun could plough it out of the rock.
Travis hated everything about Mercury: its disconcerting lack of gravity, the upside-down settlements beneath the surface, the smugness of its workers. But, most of all, Travis hated the fact that he’d been sent by the Venusian authorities to try and negotiate larger shipments of precious minerals from what had previously been the solar system’s penal colony.
“And see if you can’t sell them more goddamned water,” the Trade Minister had growled, irritation lacing his voice. “Lie about it if you have to but we need a two hundred per cent increase at the very least.”
It was all very well for the minister to give him orders, but he didn’t know the gruelling conditions Travis had so far endured: transport on a ship barely above scrap; only one assistant, to be left at their assigned quarters during the negotiations themselves; accommodation that looked like it dated back to the foundation of Inner Sun; not to mention the appalling food. Travis had tolerated all this for the past two standard weeks because he had to. Now, finally, he was poised to meet the power on Mercury’s throne and this simpering fool was delaying him.
“Let’s get moving,” he said. “I didn’t come here to sightsee.” He knew he was being rude, but he didn’t care. The young aide was a nobody, one of a wave of poor anonymous young women who’d been drawn to the system’s newest money frontier. He, on the other hand, had descended from one of the most renowned families on Venus. The difference could not have been more stark.
The aide seemingly took no offence, bobbing her head and gesturing Travis further down the corridor to a set of double doors. The door panels were made of a black ore. They were ornate, garish, Travis thought. They depicted an underground industrial scene, each figure and accent line meticulously outlined in gleaming gold and palladium. Tasteless. The aide pressed a decorative pin on the lapel of her jacket and the panels slid apart.
The office itself was large but sparse. Modern. High-quality. Subtly lit and furnished. None of the words that could be applied to his so-called “hotel room”.
Travis had been briefed on the way to Mercury, knew what to expect, but as he faltered to a stop, he realised that he was still unprepared for the reality of what confronted him. Behind him, the doors shut and he knew the woman had not accompanied him inside.
The Controller of Inner Sun Transworld Mining Corporation politely stood up. He was a tall man, broad-shouldered and still trim, despite his obvious years. But that wasn’t what made Travis draw a quick breath. It was as if the Controller’s face was divided in two: the right side normal, handsome even; the left, burnt black, wrinkled and immobile. Two eyes, one natural, one bionic, tracked him as he edged closer.
Swallowing his distaste, Travis stuck out a hand. “Thank you for making the time to see me, Controller, er, Jones. I’m Travis Ingott. I represent the Trade Authority of Venus.”
The Controller’s right eyebrow twitched. “Ingott? I think I know that name. Any relation to Judge Ingott of the Venus Justice Authority?”
That was more like it! Travis straightened and couldn’t conceal the triumph that curled his lips. “That’s, I mean, that was my father,” he said. “In his time, he was one of the most respected magistrates of the inner system.”
Controller Martin Jones indicated the empty chair next to Travis.
“In that case,” he said, “please take a seat. I’m looking forward to our negotiations.”