Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The Desolation of Vesta (Story)

Month of Poetry is over - alas! it's always one of my favourite things in the year - but as part of my creative goal, I also signed up to do Write Every Day for a Year Challenge. Without my daily poem to fill the requirement, today I've tried a little short-short that fits within the general universe of one of my novel WIPs, The True Size of the Universe, but is not directly related to the novel's story and doesn't involve any of the novel's characters. It's science fiction insofar as it takes place in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, and about 300 years in the future, but it's not a science story - it's a human one (I hope).

The ships stopped coming when I was nine, or maybe ten.

Before that, things were busy all the time, the port humming with life, people swarming everywhere in the City dome. Belt-miners, mostly; hard-edged people, some watchful-quiet, some over-loud, all with their hands firm on their pockets. Mining the belt paid exceedingly well, and those who did it kept their money close and their secrets closer. It was a knacky sort of business - sensors and probes could only tell you so much, and there was an element of intuition to it that couldn't be replaced with robotics. Miners held their veins as close as any grubstaker in the goldfields, back on Earth, before the guts were all ripped out of the rock.

They were all guns for hire, of course; the Guild of Moons controlled all the mining in the Belt, in the days when there were still things of value to be ground from the planetismals that circled in the air like fireflies in the climate gardens of Demos Attina. A good miner, though, could make a lifetime's comfort from ten productive years in the Belt, with the danger money and the finder's fees the Guild corporates lavished on them.

"Why do they always have so much?" I'd asked my father, resentful, as I sipped at the bland protein slush in front of me, watching as a tableful of miners carved up a Phobaen octopoid beside us.

"Their work ... it's risky," my father had said, his eyes creasing against the sudden flare of the flambe as the bananas foster arrived in their chafing dish. The party of miners set up a ragged cheer at the sudden caramel sweetness of the air.

"But I don't understand why -"

"Hush, Ren." My father's voice was distracted, his eyes drawn outwards to the view of the port from the window.

"They wouldn't even be able to land here without us," I muttered, but mostly to myself. Even though it was true enough - Port-adapted Vestans all took a hand in piloting the chunky round-bellied mining rigs into the little jagged docking array, even the kids, once we were old enough for some responsibility.

My mother had explained why, once - the piloting mind-mutation was specialised, and difficult to replicate artificially, so the easiest and best way to keep a Belt port staffed was to create new pilots through in-breeding the traits to strengthen them - the old-fashioned way.

Of course, that also meant a lifetime in the Belt, for those of us born to it. You could move around among the stations - my cousin Pilani was Assistant Portmaster at Ceres Base, a great honour, as my father never ceased reminding us - but port-adapted pilots were not permitted to settle outside the Belt, by Guild edict.

"Not the fairest thing, perhaps," she'd said; then, catching my father's eye: "But we have food enough, and good shelter, schooling, books, good medical care ... and the function is vital."

"We are needed where we are," my father had said. "And one day I'll take you to Mars Prime, you'll see. We can walk the Twenty-Seven Levels together, top to toe."

That night, I'd asked my mother: "Is Mars Prime beautiful? As beautiful as they say?"

She sighed and tucked my hair behind my ear. "I don't know, Ren," she'd said.

"But you must have been," I insisted, sitting up in bed to gesticulate grandly out the plas-glass window. "The system, you and Daddy must have ... He says we'll go to see everything ..."

She shook her head, her eyes clouded. "I've never been further than Hygiea," she said. "Your father's been to Ceres once, to visit with Pilani. That was before you were born. Port-Adapts ... we don't leave the Belt. Not really. It's hard to get the permits, hard to go -"

"But you want to," I'd said, rubbing the back of her hand onto my cheek. "You want to go. Don't you, Mummy? We could go together?"

I remember that she lay down with me a long time, that night.


My father said, "They're coming in too hot."

I stared at him, at the flat shock in his voice, and swung around to the picture window. Dimly, beside me, I heard the shouts of the miners as they surged towards the glass, faces shelled open in alarm. Somewhere, a beaker smashed on the hard rock floor.

And the ship hit the deck hard, too hard, much too hard, and exploded.

Even from where we were, tucked up behind triple-sheeted plas-glass in the City dome, I thought I could feel the heat of it, radiating forward as the entire dock spurted into green-orange flames. The cursing of the miners, watching their ships and loads burn, mingled with a sickness that grew and grew until I said, loud, too loud:

"Who was piloting the ships?"

My words fell into a sudden dead puddle of silence, the chaos of the moment crystallised into a still point rotating around my lilted Vestan accent. One of the miners, a small woman, not much taller than I, came up to my father and I, her eyes as red as the burning ships behind her, and said, in a voice like deep space:

"Yes, Portmaster. Who?"

And in his agony, I knew. I knew what had happened and why it had happened, and I knew that I would never leave Vesta if I lived to be hundred; that none of us would, and that the ships would never come back here again.

Detrimental mutation, they said, and fundamental instability, in the gene pool now, can't be trusted.

Like a kind of escape psychosis, it seems. A sort of franticness, like an animal in an old-Earth zoo. It can't be remedied, sadly.

Too much risk. Let them live their lives out, keep them comfortable, but Vesta's done as a port.

Now it is quiet here, in the City dome. There are no children - the inoculations took care of that. There is only us, Vesta's last port-adapts, wandering the gentle, empty streets, like a soul in search of a body.

Oh, we are comfortable. Our food is better now than it ever was when Vesta was a living port, and the medical facilities keep us all in good health, ravages of advancing age notwithstanding. I have had the leisure, these seventy years, to vicariously live many lives, our access to the system's collection of art, entertainment and literature unparalleled. We have had our love affairs and our micro-tragedies, no different to anyone else.

But sometimes, at night, I put on my suit and I walk the kilometres from the City to the ashes where the Port used to lie. I find the one twisted pillar that still stands, amidst the rubble and space dust, and  I lay my cheek along it, imagining that I can feel its coolness through my visor, like a hand on my face. And I look up into the milky sky, and dream.

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