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Trinity RPG - My Life As A Foot

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<H1>My Life As A Foot</H1> <H3><A HREF="mailto:flagator@gate.net">by Steven Otte</A></H3>
<HR>A foot climbed in the wrong side of a scoop the other day, and he died.

We didn't see it happen, but we saw the rescue ship from Fuyuoshi pass about six kilometers from where we were mining a nickel asteroid, and we all knew what it meant. An hour later, a crackle over our headset radios confirmed it. We kept working.

That's what asteroid miners do -- they work, and sometimes they die.

Nine hours later, when the shift was over, we found out the particulars. The guy who died was a "foot," short for "tenderfoot," meaning an inexperienced miner, and it was a typical stupid foot mistake. A scoop is a big funnel with an overlapping gravcrystal array ringing the narrow end. You point it at a trap -- a corresponding funnel on your mining ship -- and dump your cracked ore into the big end, and the phased grav crystals accelerate it down the tube and fling it at low speed across space toward the trap, whose own gravcrystal array catches it and routes it into the crusher/graders.

On occasion, a big or irregularly shaped chunk of ore goes into the scoop, and it gets jammed up. When that happens, you go down to the narrow end and clear it out with a long hooked metal rod called a poke. You don't shut the scoop off; without the gravcrystals pulling the chunks down the tube, you'd never get it clear. When the jam breaks, the worst that can happen is if you don't duck fast enough, you get whacked in the head or chest with a rock. He couldn't get the jam clear, and he thought he could do it better from the wide end. When the jam broke, it took him with it. Tumbling about, he couldn't orient his suit's jets in time, and the trap caught him. That's why they call it a trap.

His crewmates stopped just long enough to retrieve his remains from the crusher, then went back to work. It wasn't that they didn't care; that's just the way life and death is out in the Belt.

Asteroid mining is the deadliest job in the solar system. Every day that an asteroid miner spends on the job, there is a 1 percent chance he won't make it back to his bunk that night. Countless more suffer crushed ribs, smashed limbs, heavy-mineral toxicity, LAO-related fractures, deep-space privation psychosis, and similar career-ending disabilities each season. The injury rate is 100 percent.

Yet despite the danger, there is no shortage of grizzled long-timers, experienced spacehands and hopeful feet who come every 14 months to Fuyoshi or other, smaller Belt stations with yuan in their eyes. The pay truly is incredible. There's no such thing as job security or health benefits, but a typical miner on a moderately successful ship can expect to pocket &#165;1,000 a day -- often, tax-free. A &#165;5,000 day is not unheard of.

I arrived at Fuyoshi Station -- Absolute Zero to most -- in February of 2120, the start of the traditional mining "season." Though mining is not a seasonal trade, almost all miners schedule their work to coincide with the shortest travel distance between Fuyoshi and Luna, which occurs approximately every 14 Earth months. They spend an average of a year "out" and two months in dock, repairing and refurbishing their ships for the next season.

As the aging L-B Venture on which the magazine had arranged my passage approached, the asteroid housing the station was easy to spot: It was the one you couldn't see. The entire station was crusted over with mining ships attached like barnacles, some attached in daisy-chains to share docking ports, while more awaiting their turns to dock hovered and circled nearby like moths orbiting a flame. This is the busiest time for the station; during the season, no more than a dozen ships at a time can be found docked here. Apart from the ones that have become more or less permanent parts of the station, that is.

Last season, there were an estimated 185 ships in the Fuyuoshi mining fleet, ranging from converted Treys patched together with scavenged equipment to mile-long "processing ships" bristling with cracking towers and lit up like cities in space. Whatever their original color or composition, all were the uniform brown-grey of the all-pervasive asteroid dust. Miners in bright orange spacesuits -- easier to see if a miner gets hurt and falls off the rock -- clambered over them like ants, getting the ships ready for the coming season. Since our transport was scheduled -- and eagerly awaited -- we slid in beneath the Hyperion Venture, an Australian-owned processing ship known on Fuyoshi as the "Hyper-V," and docked at an unoccupied port near the heart of the station.

The station was absolutely jammed with miners and prospective miners. Ship owners held court at restaurant tables in the "promenade," the incongrously-named commercial core of the station, and received lines of candidates for perfunctorily brief interviews. No signs or ropes designated where lines began or which ships they led to; the candidates either understood the system instinctively, figured it out, or were corrected by a fist or knife to the gut.

I asked around and ended up in a line that led to a table in front of the Shogun Sushi booth, at which sat a man who himself could have been chiseled of the same implacable rock on which the station rested. I explained that I was inexperienced but knew my way around a VES, and was willing to sign on and work for nothing more than board and consideration. This was not uncommon, I'd heard; many "feet," and not a few experienced miners, will work a tour for no pay simply for the opportunity to get on with a favorable ship. My motive, of course, was to write an article about my experiences, which I freely admitted. This piqued his curiosity enough to get his attention, and he shook my hand with a knuckle-crushing grip. He warned me, though, that there was no room for observers on his boat - I'd be expected to work just as hard as the others, and there would be no time for the others to keep an eye on me.

My new boss answered my questions with surprisingly good graces in between evaluating candidates. I learned that his name was Jeremiah Reddon Deaver, and the ship that was to be my home for the next tour was a 185-meter erstwhile L-B Hercules named the Shadowhawk IV. I was somewhat relieved at this, since a tour lasts as long as it takes to fill up the holds, however long that takes. If I had happened into a line for the Hyper-V or one of the other large ships, I could be "out" for a whole year. My relief didn't last long, though, since the answer to my next question -- what happened to the other three Shadowhawks -- was "you don't wanna know."

Deaver inherited the 'Hawk from his father Isaac, who retired from mining when he lost an arm in a grader/crusher three years ago. Isaac still serves as the cook and mechanic on board the ship. I guess once you get the dust in your blood, you don't get it out.

Isaac was a foot on an independent ship named the Lucky Strike in 2098 when they came across a two-mile-long rock bearing a rich platinum vein. In that one season, enough profit was made that all nine crew members -- even the feet like Isaac -- could buy their own ships next season. That strike -- "The Ninety-Eight" -- is spoken of in hushed tones to this day. And for every miner who tells you that there are no more asteroids like that one, there are two who will swear that they know a rock that will make the Ninety-Eight look like pocket change. But nobody has hit anything like the Ninety-Eight since.

And of those nine miners who did, only Isaac is alive today.

Deaver hired six miners that day. Brian, a wiry fellow with a buzz cut, was a foot like myself. Ty and Karl were experienced miners, and the last two, Blake and M'kele, had worked for Deaver last season.

Rule number 1: If a miner doesn't offer information, you don't ask. I noticed that the side of M'kele's face was decorated with a pattern of scars, a semicircle of raised indigo bumps that gave him a fierce appearance. I inquired about them, datapad in hand. He answered that he got them in the Black Hole, and gave me a look that said not only was that all the information he would give, but further inquiry would be hazardous to my health. Whether it was the scars or prison time he didn't want to discuss, I didn't ask.

I would later learn that almost all belt miners have a criminal record somewhere. That's why they don't use last names. Even for those who don't, there is little attachment to a particular ship or crew, and a degree of anonymity -- or at least detatchment -- is preferred.

"Miners are whores," Ty said. "They go where the money is. They'll quit in an instant if they can get a better offer."

Deaver met me on board the next day and gave me the 2-minute tour. At 38, he is young for a skipper; only his soft blue eyes betrayed that youth. He has a sailor's laugh and an easy nonchalance, but he won't hesitate to tell you at the end of a 20-hour shift that you didn't work hard enough. His handshake is the kind that rearranges knuckles.

"Here's the galley; here's the bridge," Deaver said. "Here's the engine room, and here's your bunk. There's the deck. Go make yourself useful."

I threw my gear on my bunk -- six feet long, two feet wide, two feet from the ceiling, the top bunk in a two-man room. My bunkmate was Blake, the deck boss. Blake was not only physically huge, but metaphysically huge. His energy permeated the ship. He was an amazing, continuous ball of motion who never seemed to slow down. He did not have to eat, he did not have to sleep, he did not take drugs, he avoided caffeine. He could string together a remarkable series of expletives, and often did. He had been mining for six years; he turned 27 two days before I arrived. More than once, he had seen miners die. Though Deaver owned the ship, Blake left no doubt as to who was in charge. "This is my deck," he told me when we met. "Do as I tell you and you probably won't die."

With the exception of the engine room, which was spotless, the Shadowhawk IV was 185 meters of rust. The rear third of the ship, or the "house" as it's called, is where the miners ate and slept, and where Deaver worked the controls. The rest of the ship is ore bays, crusted with light towers, scoops, traps, lasers, crusher-graders, and other impressive looking hunks of machinery. The ship looked like a construction site.

The first week of our employment was to be spent getting the ship ready for departure. We checked crackers (mining lasers), scoops (gravcrystal-powered ore collectors), grader/crushers, engines, life support, VAS, and more. We also took on food for our tour: half a ton of frozen pizzas, soy/grain patties, hydroponic potatoes, tomatoes and carrots, concentrated fruit juice, and two hundred steaks. Yes, real beef steaks, all the way from Earth. Expensive as they are there, they're even more so out in the Belt, but a ship captain who didn't provide them would quickly find himself begging for crew.

The biggest part of our preparation was dusting. The cracking process not only generates a lot of dust, it imparts it with an electrostatic charge that makes it stick to everything -- ships, equipment, vacuum suits. It gets into absolutely everything and is practically impossible to keep out of the ship. In coming days I would eat dust, sleep in dust, collect dust in the corners of my eyes and the cracks of my mouth. I would come to hate the gritty, all-pervasive dust, as all miners do at first.

Over breakfast the third day of our preparation work, Karl, one of the experienced miners, quit. "I'm not mentally prepared for this," he told Blake, then quietly gathered his belongings and left the ship. I was told this was not unusual; miners quit all the time, especially just before the season started. Blake told me we were all better off that he figured it out now, instead of two days out of spacedock. There was no shortage of applicants to replace him. Deaver hired Carlos, a brawny former pro gravball player who had worked one turn as a Hyper-V crewman. I knew better than to ask why he'd been let go.

Carlos had a weird sense of humor. "The Belt," he once mused while staring out the airlock, "is the perfect place to kill someone. Slit their suit open, and give 'em a push. That's it." I noted with relief that he carried no knife.

Deaver later told us that the station's agent for A.N. DuPres-Mutesa and Company, the metacorp that purchases the vast majority of what the independent miners brought in, had set the buy price for Grade 3 semi-refined ore at &#165;72 per ton: not great, but not the worst. The buy price, which is set for the entire season, is determined by an arcane formula taking into account demand projections, past production trends, the number of working ships, ore quality delivered in the previous season, and -- some believe -- Clear predictions. This base price was multiplied by a set factor, depending on the type of ore brought in. Iron's factor was 1.0; copper, 1.2; nickel, 1.6; gold, 19.8; platinum, 30.2. Bauxite, not a particularly rare nor valuable ore, nonetheless had a multiplier of 6.5 because it takes so much more of it to make a ton.

He also announced that we'd been given clearance to leave spacedock as soon as the Southern Star, the largest of the processor ships, cleared the station; that was approximately two days away. We would have to work faster.

Our crew seemed dangerously haphazard. Brian, the other foot, was already threatening to quit; Carlos was little better than a rookie; and I had no experience. Somehow, we managed. The Shadowhawk IV left spacedock on schedule. Deaver said he would have liked to spend a little more time checking over the traps, but we didn't have that kind of luxury, so we laid in some extra spare parts for them and set off. Just before we left, Deaver called me up to the wheelhouse. "You're at 1 percent," he told me. It was the highest praise I could have received. He'd been watching me work, and decided I deserved a cut of the ship's net profits. I was a member of the crew.

We were bound for "The Bulge," the widest part of the Belt, about 25 degrees trailing of Fuyuoshi. We spent most of our travel time on continuing maintenance and dusting. Away from the station, we were able to eject the grit, gravel and detritus we'd been sweeping up without endangering other ships or the station. The debris gets dumped into the fusion wash of the engines so that it doesn't become a deadly projectile for the next ship to come along. The stuff sprayed away behind us, dancing like fireflies in the wash of the engines. Amid the rock and desolation in the Belt, there are occasional moments of beauty.

On the way out, M'kele and Carlos taught me how to play ju-shu, a card game quite popular with the miners. The name is supposedly short for two Nipponese words, but they couldn't tell me what they were. There are three suits of cards, twenty-two cards per suit, several rounds of betting and exchanging cards, and an arcane points system I only began to grasp by the time we got to the Bulge. My losses will go on my next tax return as business expense.

The asteroid belt is a deadly place. Space is normally nasty enough, but throw in a bunch of rocks and ice ranging in size from sand grains to small islands moving at up to 300 kph and it gets even worse. The key to survival is to work on the side of the rock facing away from the normal current of flow, and keep your eyes open for "rogues," asteroids bouncing against the flow thanks to a collision -- or a miner's mistake.

As we penetrated the thicker part of the Belt, the sound of sand and gravel against the hull -- originally a subliminal hiss -- built to a constant sussuration, like rain on a tin roof, that eventually drowned out even the engines. Conversation became near impossible. "We're lucky," Deaver shouted over the din. "This is quite light for the Bulge."

M'kele told me about getting caught in a sand and gravel storm powerful enough to crack 2-cm thick mylex. The ship was completely riddled; he and a few others were lucky enough to survive the barrage, huddling in an inner chamber in their vac suits, and signal for a tow back to Fuyuoshi. That was 2116, one of the worst years on record. The Mary Jean, the Mariko-chan, the Vanguard Ace, the Titan II, the Beautiful Dreamer, and the Noche de Estrella were all lost within a matter of weeks. In 2111 it was even worse -- 58 deaths.

Even pebbles, moving at high speed, can strike with the force of bullets. But you don't have to get your suit holed by an asteroid to get killed out here. If you aren't paying attention, a rock the size of a grav ball, even at moderate speed, can knock you off rock, break ribs -- or crush a skull. Since a miner's job is to break big rocks into smaller ones, there's a lot of those chunks flying around. And no matter what the salesman at the miner's supply store tell you, the impenetrable helmet has yet to be invented.

We were at the center of the Bulge when Deaver determined, mostly by instinct, that we had reached our mining grounds. We selected a rock to work on in under a day after arriving, which was rather quickly, as I understood it. Mining ships can spend weeks surveying before selecting the most likely ones to quarry. Some go by spectroscopic analysis of reflected light; some use rovots to take samples; some go by instinct. Deaver, like most, uses a mixture of methods, including collision modeling. Under this method, the ship's computers estimate the volume of thousands of nearby asteroids and predict their motions, plotting where collisions will occur. When an asteroid in a collision moves more than 3 percent slower than predicted by the computer, it indicates the asteroid has a higher density, which usually means a metallic content. The greater the difference, the higher the density, which can translate to a high content of metals like tin or nickel, or a smaller content of denser metals like gold or platinum. The asteroid Deaver settled upon was a four, indicating a moderate concentration of nickel, or less likely, a smaller concentration of heavy metals.

A miner is either "on rock" or "off rock." The distinction is much more than geographical. When we were on rock, though, we were working. There were also superstitions about being on rock. There's no whistling allowed ("you'll whistle up a sandstorm"); no chronometers in the helmet ("you're paid for ore, not your time"); and no money may be carried ("if you have cash, you don't need ore"). When we were off rock, in the "house" of the ship, we joked, laughed, swapped dirty stories, played a few hands of ju-shu, ate and slept -- briefly. We were equals. On rock, though, there was a strict hierarchy and a constant barrage of abuse.

The pace was furious. I tried to keep up, but I constantly felt like I was climbing uphill or falling down. About a half hour into it, I became light-headed, but remembered to slap the anti-nausea pad I had taped to the inside of my suit's sleeve onto my arm. Brian, the other foot, was having similar troubles, as was Carlos. Blake had warned me that feet often have a hard time acclimating to the conflicting signals sent to their brains by the shifting vistas, the lack of gravity and the rotation of the rock under their feet. The experienced guys, the ones with their space legs, were able to perform a wonderful sort of aerial ballet, jetting and bouncing off the rolling rocks like a trampoline.

Vomiting inside a suit is one of the most common ways for a miner to die. It's one of the reasons miners don't eat solid food before going out on rock. Blake had showed me, if I ever did have to vomit, how to open the "blow valve" just under my chin, let the vacuum suck out the liquid, then slam it shut and reinflate the suit from my emergency tanks. Theoretically, I'd suffer some frostbite and possibly lung damage, but I should be okay. I practiced, but I hoped I would never have to try it out in actual vacuum.

As feet, Brian and I caught the brunt of Blake's wrath. I knew that he wasn't yelling at me, per se, but at my mistakes. And I was glad for it. One misstep, one moment's inattention, and you'd be sucking vacuum. Blake scared me -- I suspect he scared the rest of the crew, too -- but if I took a hit and fell off rock, I have no doubt he'd be the first to dive into the void after me, aerosol emergency thruster can in hand. I'm not sure anyone else on the ship would do that. A miner's life, as I came to understand, is of no special value. Miners almost never use safety tethers. They just impede your movement, require frequent untangling, and make you look like a sissy.

I could not use the laser efficiently; Brian couldn't keep the scoop aimed at the traps, and more than once allowed a barrage of ore to pummel the side of the ship. I don't think Brian ever grasped the division between being on rock and off rock. We'd just finished "cracking" the rock, splitting it open with the lasers to expose the ore vein, when Brian lost his grip on his laser. Ty went after it while Blake lit into Brian. He was in the midst of an especially profane tirade when Brian snapped. I heard a new voice over the radio and turned to see Brian yelling back at Blake. Physical violence among crew on a mining ship is uncommon, but from the look on Blake's face, blows seemed imminent. M'kele, usually even more solitary and quiet than the others, stepped in between. Brian jetted back to the ship -- a smart move -- and M'kele calmed Blake down.

A few minutes later, I was sent to find Brian. He was in his bunk, and the door to his room was locked. "I ain't comin' out," he said. "I quit." This surprised no one. "Feet get out in space and they go nuts," Ty said. "Happens all the time." He told me of one person who drank ketchup and Tabasco and pretended to vomit blood, so he wouldn't have to work. To try and get the ship to head home early, horns have snuck out of their bunks and sabotaged the traps, or disabled the engines, or thrown the lasers overboard. One locked himself in the bathroom for a week; another hid in the engine room while the captain mounted a frantic search. Horns have pulled out their own hair and claimed radiation sickness. Others have run themselves repeatedly into walls. A new guy once handed Ty a twelve-pound spanner and begged him to break his kneecap.

Brian was true to his word. We didn't see him again for the rest of the tour. Except to sneak out and filch food while we were on rock, he never emerged from his cabin. He was a virtual prisoner. We had lost one-sixth our work force already, and we hadn't bagged a single chunk of ore.

Asteroid mining is a fairly uncomplicated job. Once you crack the rock, a guy with a laser boils the ore out of the rock. Once liquified, it expands and squirts out of the rock, floating free and almost instantly resolidifying. Another guy, called the hook, uses the poke -- a five-foot spoon-shaped device with a hook on the other end -- to guide the stuff into the scoop and keep it moving. Another kept the traps running and pointed at the scoops to catch the stuff coming in to the ship, and ran it through the crusher/graders, sorting the good ore into the bins and the slag out the chute, back into space, away from us. Hopefully, there were no big asteroids on the other side to bounce the rubble back at us.

Deaver's job was to decide when a rock is played out, and find a new one to work on when that happened. Every once in a while, he'd call over our radios. "Pull out," he'd say. We'd grab our equipment, shove it into one of the bins, scramble into the airlock, eat like wolves and fall into our bunks. Sometimes, we wouldn't even take off our vac suits. Two to four hours later, he'd rap on the wall to our bunks. "Let's go," he'd shout, and we'd pile into the airlock, pull on our helmets, and get to work cracking a new rock.

I was assigned the job of hook, the one Brian had failed at. It was mind-numbingly repetitive after a while: reach, pull, sling, shove. Sometimes, there would come a gout of ore, and the scoop would jam, and I'd have to scramble around behind and jab at the jam with my poke to break it up. At first, I spent more time clearing jams out of the scoop than making sure ore got into it. Blake cursed me almost nonstop. Eventually, I got the rhythm; I learned to hold back some ore until the scoop cleared itself, cutting down on the jams, and I only let the scoop wander off-target twice.

We worked until the vein was played out, then Deaver would call "Pull out," and I'd go inside, wolf down two steaks, half a pizza, and a couple of vegetable patties, wash it down with half a gallon of milk -- yes, real milk; LAO is a very real concern for miners -- and collapse on my bunk. I started sleeping in my clothes, no matter how crusted with dust they got or how bad they smelled. I stopped washing. I even stopped brushing my teeth; it wasn't worth it to lose that extra 90 seconds of sleep. Deaver kept the shipboard gravity turned up to full, to minimize the risk of LAO, but I don't imagine it really helped all that much.

The worst part of it all was the lack of sleep. My task was probably the safest one on rock, but it was also the easiest to fall into a lulling rhythm. After a few days, it took all the energy I had to keep from just falling asleep where I stood, letting go of my boot clamps and floating off the rock. I gulped Wak-Ems by the handfuls and slapped stim patches on my arms until they got inflamed, then shifted them to my legs. The other guys didn't even drink coffee; they felt as rotten as I did, but they were afraid of the crash that follows. "You get used to it," they all told me. I didn't believe them.

The constant repetitive motion, combined with the numbing cold seeping through my gloves, caused me to lose the use of my right hand. It eventually curled into a fingers-splayed position, and the fingers wouldn't bend any more. "Congratulations," Deaver said. "You've got miner's claw." I was not alone; Ty and Carlos had it too. Blake may have been suffering too, but he would never let on, nor would he stand for any complaining. Carlos had it worse than me, and he was already on trap duty, and I was no good with the laser, so I had to stay where I was. I started holding the poke in the left hand, to give it a rest. Eventually that cramped up too, and I shifted it back and forth until I could hold the stick no longer. Ty told me to pee on my hand. I did, and it actually helped. Turns out urine is the body's own Ben-Gay.

One day blurred into another, and I kept shoveling ore. I got sick once, and the blow valve did its job; the lungburn I suffered because of it made it all the harder to keep the pace up. I didn't even feel the frostbite on my face; I was startled to see the puffy, bloodshot face staring back at me out of the mirror when I went back on board hours later.

It became futile to try and group our hours into days. We were not working a week, or a month; we were working until the ship was full. And the ship held 5,000 tons. I found this excruciating; we were running a race, and nobody knew where the finish line was. I asked M'kele how he was able to pace himself. "Stop thinking so much," he said.

The problem was, I had to think. If I didn't, I could end up dead. At one point, I went behind the scoop to clear a jam, when another bunch of ore came in -- and knocked it loose. I took the flow of resolidified metal and rubble, jagged spheres and blobs the size of my fist, straight in the gut. It knocked the wind out of me, and sent me flying toward the trap. Blake saw it happen, shut off the scoop and radioed Carlos to close the lid to the trap so I wouldn't get pulled in. I tried to jet away from the ore, but I slammed into the hatch, and in a sort of detatched daze, I watched the solid nickel spheres shooting straight at me and wondered if it would hurt. I decided it would. Then suddenly my vision cleared again, the radio was shouting in my ear, and I fired my jets in time to get my head and torso out of the way. The volley of cannonballs pummeled my legs. I was too numb and cold already for it to hurt too much; my immediate thoughts were, well, that's it, both my femurs are shattered and I'll never walk again, but at least I can get some sleep now.

I was very lucky; thanks to Blake's quick action, the metal was moving slowly enough that I only ended up with a half-dozen fist-sized bruises on my thighs. Deaver turned down the gravplates to one-quarter gee to make it easy on me that first day. In three hours, though, I was back on rock, poking away. "Faster," Deaver would call over the radio. "Faster."

I shifted my poke from hand to hand. Spots came and went before my eyes. Bits of music or old vids would start repeating themselves in my mind like a broken holodisc. I kept my minicomp in a chest pocket under my suit, where it could pick up and record my observations as I worked. As time went on, those observations got shorter and shorter and less and less coherent. "Worms!" I said at one point. I was getting delusional; I was, for several panicked minutes, convinced that I was being eaten up by worms. Another entry was just the words "D, POWs, Coalition." People suffering from the Taint disease D had it worse than we did. Prisoners of war had it worse than we did. The people sent to meet the Coalition space ark had it worse than we did. Even later, I couldn't think of anyone else to add to that list.

"Faster," Deaver called. "Faster." Days (weeks?) came and went. Every time I brushed against Blake or M'kele reaching with the poke, they'd whirl and curse me like I was the devil. I fell asleep in my food. My hearing started to go; it became difficult to blink. "The Belter's stare," Ty called it. I became delusional. I was convinced that my wife had left me; I begged Deaver to let me make a call on the ship's cellular, even though I knew we were too far out to get ahold of anybody. I came to despise Brian. He was in his bunk, not working, and I was out here suffering. Carlos said if he showed his face outside his cabin, he'd break both his legs. I wanted to quit too, but became convinced that if I did, the rest of the crew would kill me. Slit my suit and give me a shove, just like Carlos said.

Then, one day, I just couldn't move any more. I dropped the poke, and with my head slumped against the inside of my helmet, started to drift away. Sobs broke out of my throat. Blake jetted over and caught me and brought me back to the rock. I expected the grandfather of all ass-chewings, but what he did I never would have expected. "Group hug," he said. Everyone put down their tools and surrounded me with their arms. It was the weirdest thing I could have imagined, and even now I'm a little embarassed to mention it, but there, under the endless night and the light of the cold and disdainful sun, we shared a group hug.

That night, before sleep, Blake told me he was surprised I'd hung on that long. "You're one tough little motherfucker," he said. He told me I was invited to come and join the crew of any ship of his, anytime. Three and a half hours later, Deaver came and rapped on our wall -- the wake-up call. He told me I'd earned Brian's share. I was up to 2 percent.

That day, on rock, I entered a weird sort of semi-conscious euphoria. I lived for the rock. I suddenly fell into the groove of the rhythm. Reach, pull, sling, shove. Grab the scoop, bounce over half a meter, lock it down, point it at the trap, reach, pull, sling, shove. Rock after rock yielded its ore to our lasers and scoops. I became determined to mine until we finished or I died, whichever came first. We filled the forward hold -- 2,500 tons -- and started in on the aft one. I picked up the scoop by myself and hauled it back to the ship, something I wasn't able to do without help when I started.

Then, the ore dried up. Rock after rock yielded paltry pickings of low-grade ore. All day we did this. Everything that went into the traps went out the chute; nothing went into the holds. "Blight rock," M'kele called it. Time reasserted itself. I started to panic. I could be out here for months. I asked Deaver if there was any chance we could turn back with the ore we had. He said we weren't leaving until the holds were stuffed. I hated him for it. My arms shook. I am not a religious man, but I started to pray. Not for my safety, not for my health -- I prayed for ore.

Eventually, we hit it again -- a rich vein of nickel-iron. We worked. I crushed a finger between two chunks of ore in the throat of the chute. We kept working. M'kele fired his laser into a hidden ice pocket, and was blasted off rock by the steam jet. He jetted his way back, and we kept working. That last 34 hours, we slept a total of maybe 90 minutes. Finally, the holds were full. "That's it," Deaver called, and we dragged ourselves back into the airlock. Isaac served us genuine Alaska king crab for dinner -- a treat he'd been keeping secret for this very day. It had to be the best food I'd ever tasted in my life. We then hit our bunks. My hands hurt so much I couldn't sleep; I just laid on my back with my hands crooked in the air and whimpered, like a begging puppy.

We had been out for a total of only 13 days. When we got back to Fuyuoshi, I wanted nothing more to get off that ship. Ty tried to convince me to stay on for another tour, or at least stick around and watch the unloading. "You'll never have a prouder day than when you see all that ore you mined being offloaded," he said. "Ton after ton after ton." It was unconvincing.

After we docked, Brian bolted from the ship, unscathed. I never saw him again.

Deaver told us we didn't work hard enough, and we'd have to be faster next tour. My jaw dropped. He handed me a check for 4,228 yuan -- my 2 percent of the take, after the ship's expenses. As rock boss, Blake earned nearly &#165;17,000. "Not bad for two week's work," he told me, clapping me on the shoulder. It hurt.

I spoke to crewmen from other ships. It turns out we weren't even close to bringing in the most ore. Some ships had been out and come back twice. They'd made nearly double the money we had. I decided I never wanted to see the inside of a vac suit so long as I lived. And so, without even saying goodbye, I packed up my stuff and walked off the Shadowhawk IV. I planned to catch the very next flight back to Luna.

Before I made it out of the airlock, there were 10 guys lined up to take my place.

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<font size="-1">This story was adapted from an article about the Alaskan crab fishing industry, titled "When Hell Freezes Over," written by Michael Finkel, outdoors editor for the Orange County Register's magazine P.O.V.</font>

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