I bided my time, sitting in the mess hall and watching the others eat. I didn’t have much of an appetite, not when images of that severed hand, the flesh all full of water and flaking away, kept on popping into my head. I managed to shoved in some of the slop, telling myself that I needed the calories, but a few bites was all that I could keep down.
I waited for a lull in the conversation. It took a while, but I knew what I wanted to ask.
“Say, anyone heard from Lyman since he left?” I asked, once that opportunity finally arrived.
I tried my best to keep the question casual, but it still attracted a few curious glances. “Lyman? Mister Optimistic, off to marry his girl?” asked Gonzales, pulling back his teeth in that curious version of a smirk that he liked to flash around. I guessed that he did so because it highlighted his gold tooth. He claimed that he lost it in a gang tussle, but most of us suspected he was full of it. “Why, you missing your bedroom partner?”
A couple people chuckled politely, even though Gonzales never really managed to be actually funny. “Yeah, him,” I answered, still trying to sound light, only vaguely interested. “Just curious if he actually married his girl, or if she turned out to have been double-timing him the whole time.”
A couple more chuckles, but no one volunteered any actual information. I turned towards Charlie, the guy who’d probably be most likely to keep in touch. “Charlie? You talked to him?”
He blinked at me, his eyes magnified by the thick lenses on his glasses. Charlie claimed that once he got back, he’d get the surgery to fix his eyes, but I suspected that he liked having the lenses between him and the world. “I haven’t gotten anything from him, Kennedy,” he answered me. “But I could probably send him an email if you want?”
What would that accomplish? If the hand that I’d found belonged to Lyman, he wouldn’t be able to type out a response. Hysterical laughter gurgled in my chest, and I fought to keep it down.
“Nah, that’s okay,” I replied. “Just wondering if he made it back. For all we know, the skyplane could have had an accident, crashed before making it to the launch port.”
“Someone got a fear of flying?” Gonzales cracked. We all ignored him.
Horst, sitting across the table next to Charlie, cleared his throat with a bass rumble. The big man wasn’t the fastest thinker, but he carefully constructed his thoughts before speaking. “If there had been a crash, they’d tell us,” he boomed.
“Would they?” A crash would answer my questions, I supposed. And it made sense, in a way. Some sort of mechanical failure forced the skyplane down in the water, Lyman couldn’t bail out in time, something big ate most of him, and the hand washed up on shore. Easy explanation.
But they’d tell us, wouldn’t they? We’d teased Lyman, but most of us considered him a good guy. We’d be happy to pitch in a few bucks for his girl, maybe for some flowers, if he was dead.
Another laugh fought to get out of my chest. Dead? Of course he was dead! If not, he’d be showing up here soon, one handed and demanding his ring back from me!
“Actually, we could check.” Charlie pushed up his glasses with a thumb. “There’s logs for everything, including the skyplanes. It seems pretty easy to just hop on the library computer and see whether the plane touched down successfully at the skyport.”
“You can do that?” I asked, surprised.
He shrugged. “Sure. Everything has logs, these days. Company insists on it. Plausible deniability, health and safety, government inspections, all of it.”
“Can you show me how to check?”
His eyebrows drew together. “Sure, but, uh, why are you so curious?”
“Yeah, what’s the matter, Kennedy? You have a bad dream about your lover being dead, something like that?” Gonzales cackled by himself.
I really didn’t want to take the object out of my pocket, let anyone else see. Not yet. Not until I had some idea of what was going on. “Yeah, a bad dream. Got it in one, Gonzales.”
Horst’s massive hand, big as a dinner plate, patted me on the back. “Sorry,” he rumbled.
I gave him a wan grin. Horst was simple, but nice enough. Guy didn’t seem to have the brain power necessary to be mean or hold a grudge. “Thanks, Horst. Here, you want the rest of this?” I slid my meal tray over to him.
As the big man tucked in behind me, I stood up, nodding to Charlie. He hopped up as well, picking up his tray to carry it over to the disposal unit. He fumbled it, of course, nearly dumping its contents onto the ground before he regained control. Charlie twitched, sometimes, like he had some sort of muscular spasm. He claimed that it was uncontrollable, but I suspected privately that it came from nervousness. Social anxiety, the books called it.
I didn’t say anything to him about it. Telling the poor guy about it would probably just make him feel even more nervous, right?
Charlie and I headed out of the mess hall, over to the library. All the areas were connected, linked by metal tubes, most not even showing any windows to the outside. After all, the Company probably reasoned, what reason did us grunts have to see the outside at all? We were here to dig, and that’s it. Not to think, and especially not to think about what would happen to all these pretty flowers and trees outside once we’d stripped away half their planet’s core.
Even getting the library had been an uphill battle, apparently. The Company didn’t want to give us a library, mainly because it meant extra weight and materials that had to be shipped out with us, extra construction on the base, one more chamber to monitor and control. Grunts didn’t need to read, to have even the most intermittent communication with the outside world, not even through Company funded channels. We just needed to eat, sleep, and dig out millions of dollars of rare minerals. But someone – a group of minors, some civil rights group, somebody like that, I don’t remember – had raised a big stink about it, and there’d been some rumblings of a legal battle. That finally forced the Company’s hand, and they gave in to the demands and built a sad little excuse for a library, with a few shelves of old public domain books and a couple cheap, highly locked down computers, on each mining site.
The fight for libraries had been before my time, but I appreciated the outcome. H.G. Wells had some wild ideas, but they made for better entertainment than some of the vids that the other miners preferred to watch. Hell, most of those, especially the ones that Gonzales preferred, were basically just thinly veiled softcore porn.
The library had two computers. One of them, the one with access to digital media and downloadable vids, was always occupied by somebody, generally with someone else looking over their shoulder to make sure they weren’t jacking it at the station. Some of these guys went a bit crazy without any female companionship for a few months, although a good ass kicking was usually enough to set them straight.
The other computer, however, only provided access to schematics, schedules, and official base-wide documentation, so it was usually unoccupied. Charlie headed over to plop his skinny little butt down in front of this one, waking it up by tapping on the space bar.
“See, all the automatic systems on this ship generate logs for all their activities,” Charlie explained as he logged in, blinking from behind those glasses. He reached up to push back his shiny black hair, although half of it immediately fell in front of his face again. “And all the logs are stored on the central servers, so that the systems can remember what they were doing and can use that data to plot out what they do next.”
“Great,” I said, not bothering to understand this. “So you can check to see if the skyplane made it to port with Lyman?”
“I think so.” He hit a few keys, brought up a black terminal with blinking green text overlaid on it. “How long ago was that, about a week?”
“Six days,” I counted back.
“Okay, that should still be in the system logs. See, here’s the plane ones. We just need to bring up six days ago…” Charlie lapsed into silence as he stared at the screen, his fingers typing away at the keyboard. I watched, not understanding any of what he was doing. Growing up poor, like I did, I didn’t get much experience with computers, and I still felt like a bit of an idiot when I tried to use one.
“Here we go,” he said finally. “Well, you don’t need to worry, at least.”
He tapped the screen, and I leaned forward to peer at it. “See, here are the skyplane records,” he explained, pointing at a row of numbers. “Here’s six days ago. This is the log entry for when it landed at the compound. See, zero passengers on board, since it was just the autopilot flying.”
“And then what?”
His finger moved down to the next line. “Here’s where it took off from our compound – see the one, right there? One passenger on board.”
“Lyman. He was the only one who finished his term that week, so he was the only one going back.”
“Right. And the plane heads to the skyport, which is shown on this next line. Successful landing. It then heads off to its next destination, and this one must have been some sort of automated run, since there’s no one on board again. So Lyman must have gotten off at the skyport, which makes sense, since he’d want to catch the next off-world shuttle to head back to Earth.”
Except he hadn’t. Charlie’s nice, neat little story didn’t match up to the ring sitting in my jumpsuit pocket. “Thanks,” I said, my words sounding woolen. “Thanks for checking on that for me. I guess I was just concerned for nothing.”
Charlie turned to blink up at me, his eyes appearing larger behind the glasses. “Say, do you want me to see if I can send an email message to him?” he asked. “Getting something back from him might put your mind at ease.”
I wouldn’t get anything back. “Sure, go ahead and send it,” my mouth replied, as my brain shrank back and stared blindly around, trying to decide what to do next. “Just send him congratulations on getting off this rock, especially after three years. Thanks, Charlie.”
“No problem, Kennedy.” He turned back to the terminal, typing away. I pulled back, retreating.
I headed for my bunk, dropping down onto the thin mattress, closing my eyes and laying back, trying to think. What the hell was going on? The easy theory, the theory that seemed the neatest, made the most sense, wasn’t measuring up.
I slipped my hand into my pocket, flipping that ring in my fingers. I knew that it would be best for me to just let this go. Stop thinking about it, don’t raise questions. I had less than a year left on my own contract, and once it finished, the payout would give me more than enough to get back to Earth, start my own business, make a better future for myself than my parents ever had. I needed that money, that payout, and I couldn’t go putting it at risk by doing anything stupid.
Damn, but I wish I’d listened to my own advice. I should have stopped there, not thought any longer.
But no, like an idiot, I kept on turning over the conundrum in my head. I needed, I decided, more answers. I’d need to think carefully about how I got them, but I had to find out more about this, figure out what happened to poor Lyman.
As I closed my eyes, trying to get some shut-eye, one last, devastating thought appeared in my head, refused to leave.
What if Lyman wasn’t the only one?
My dreams, few as they were, had me underwater, out in the ocean. I saw dead bodies, dozens of them, floating there. They grinned at me, waved me closer with the stumps of their arms – all their hands were missing. Lyman grinned especially wide, drifting closer to me than the others. I tried to back-pedal, get away from him, but I couldn’t move – and he kept on coming closer and closer, his mouth growing wider and wider until it was about to swallow me whole, eat me in a single chomp-
I sat up in bed, gasping, sheet falling off my chest.
It was pitch black, middle of the night. Just a dream. I slumped back down, closing my eyes, trying to slow my thumping heart. Just a dream. That’s all.