February Web Feature by Blake Kilgore
I’d been at Harbor Station for three months when I took my first injection of U4.
Our family was poor, nearly starving. So when the recruiters came, I knew somebody had to go, and told Mama I’d be the one. She was afraid, though, knew all the rumors about the mining communities, and how people went away, got into trouble with drugs, and never came back. She believed me when I said I’d be ok, because I believed it too. And I tried real hard to stay clean, but it was basically impossible.
Something about the minerals got into you, turned your mind inward and got to gnawing on your soul. Other dudes who tried to stay clean eventually just flipped. One guy walked outside into space without his suit and lickety split, froze up and fractured into a thousand icy pieces.
Another guy started eating the Xap, or Xapandine – the mineral we were mining. The corporation used it to create pills for our soldiers fighting on the front lines. It gave them super human strength and focus for long periods of time. It even enabled them to resist radiation attacks, but it had to be altered in laboratories for effectiveness without side effects.
Well, this dude ate it raw. What a dose! Seconds later his whole head was swollen and blood and flem were pouring from his ears and nose and mouth. His corneas liquefied and slid down his cheeks when he dropped. Everyone in the room had to rush to the decontamination chamber and then we were quarantined for a week. It was horrible. I was puking blood by the second day. I thought I was gonna die.
That experience was my conversion moment. The only thing that could keep you from losing it was the U4, or at least that’s what all the miners said. But they were all addicts, so who knows? Anyhow, my workmate Cutter, a veteran miner who’d been at Harbor Station for over a year, took me to his U4 spot in a desolate cluster of buildings half way between the mines and the colony.
On the way we passed one of the hives of the Cemar. These were the original inhabitants of Harbor Station. A decade before, when the Asag Corporation for Mineral Development came to this rock, the Cemar were subjugated. Now they lived on fenced-in reservations, where they were present but silent, a mystery.
Sometimes the guys got pissed off thinking about those aliens, sitting out there on their cushy reservations, doing what appeared to be nothing. They conglomerated at the center of their towns in a state of group meditation or something. Big supply trucks went to the reservations, steady, meeting all their material needs. I mean, I got the reparations, us conquering their world and all, but some of the guys really hated them. We could hardly get enough food and were always running short on everything. Meanwhile we were busting our asses and daily exposing ourselves to radiation from the Xap, while the aliens just sat around getting handouts.
I only ever saw one or two of the Cemar up close, and it kinda made sense, the guys despising them. They had these huge blocky heads covered in pale fatty skin. But – no eyes, ears, or mouth. Kinda freaky, really. And they never spoke, just sort of shuffled around.
Anyhow, Cutter cursed the hive as we passed and started revving me up about the U4.
“Dude, something about it – you just forget about all this shit out here, all the long hours risking your life digging beneath this godforsaken corner of the universe. You sort of start to float and the good vibes just come in slow and steady, cleansing. You’ll definitely notice the difference. The Xap won’t bother you much after this.”
“Cool, I guess. I just want to stop getting so angry all the time.”
The Xap was making me edgy and weird ideas started hanging around in my mind. A couple of days before that miner had eaten the Xap, I had been out on the rock, in a deep cavern, dragging my extractor along. The tool is heavy and you get real sweaty inside your suit, lugging it around. Anyhow, I was soaked, and got this crazy idea to let in a little of the cool. Crack my mask with a jagged rock. Tear the suit below my armpit to let in a little chill. At first I shook it off easy – you know I’d die and all – but it just wouldn’t go away. Luckily Cutter found me banging a stone against my mask and jostled me before I could kill myself. That was when he told me about his spot.
“You just go in and sit in this reclining chair. Then they come in and pull some tubes out of the wall and set up a line to your femoral artery. You gotta be still for that, you know, or you might bleed out. Then they cover your eyes and ears with these soft, dark pads. Feels like you’re in a cave. Real nice. They got air- conditioning in there too, keeps you nice and comfy. Then the U4 starts flowing, and right away you’re drifting off to Heaven! First time is on me, ok, to celebrate.”
“Yeah, got my blood checked this morning. Seems my system is strong enough for promotion to Seymour Station. I’ll be able to buy plenty of U4 once those checks start coming in. Anyhow, Cheers!”
Every month we got our blood checked to see that our bodies were properly diffusing the Xap. Some guys just couldn’t stand it. They’d be gone in a week or so, head back to wherever they came from. For those of us that stayed it was a waiting game. Over time, our bodies would build up immunities to the mineral which would allow us to move up the ladder, so to speak. Harbor Station had fairly low accumulations of Xap, but in other places like Seymour Station, the composition was denser, and so the pay was better. But green recruits couldn’t survive there straight away. You had to build up to that. Some said the U4 helped with your resistance, but I was skeptical. Either way, I was glad for Cutter. He was one of those with the most time in at Harbor Station, and he was due a raise.
“Cheers to you, buddy. Hopefully it won’t be too long until I join you. And, thanks for this trip.”
So there I was plugged in, the U4 pumping, and wow, Cutter wasn’t lying. Best feeling I ever had. I was hooked right away. Every day that first week I was back taking another hit, and feeling good. My brain was hyperaware, like I was one of those monks that levitate. Well, my paycheck started getting real thin over the next few weeks. But I couldn’t stop. And when I wasn’t getting high, I still had a sort of lingering cheer, and best of all, my aches and pains almost completely subsided.
But after a while, it started to kind of fade. I had to take doses of the U4 for longer sessions. This cost more money, sure, but it also put me out during the daily eclipse, which was fine by me. That was kind of spooky, the sky turning black in the middle of the day. Some of the guys who’d been around for a while said you got used to it, but I decided it was the perfect time to go flying on the U4.
During one of these blackouts, something went wrong, and the attendants forgot they had me hooked up. Eventually the U4 ran dry, and I woke, soaring and manic. I was out of it, and nearly killed myself pulling the IV out of my groin. But I started stumbling around all cheery like and walked into the next room. I saw this other person, hooked up, just like me, and I was feeling so jolly I strolled over to chat him up.
But then I saw that it wasn’t human, but Cemar. I was so high I couldn’t stop staring, and then I saw the tubes leading to the wall directly opposite of where mine were hooked in. The machine was pumping away, but there was nothing in the tubes. There was no movement, no sound except the wheezing rhythm of the machine that had pumped the Cemar dry. I was about to shake the alien when I heard a door slam and frantic voices.
I panicked, rushed into the hall, found a supply closet and shut myself in. Seconds later attendants were right outside the door, and one of them was yelling.
“Oh shit – this machine is still pumping, and nothing is coming out! Who was he hooked up with?”
A smaller voice, almost a whisper, responded.
“Oh man, there was a newbie in there, been coming for the last couple of months, taking longer and longer doses. I forgot about him.”
“You forgot! Get in there and wake him now, before he dies. This guy is already dead.”
I heard running and a gasp.
I could hear the other man follow, and I knew I had to jet. I opened the door and looked toward the exit. But the dudes were returning and I couldn’t make it to the entrance, so I retreated down the hallway toward the other end of the building, trying each door along the way.
One opened and I stepped in. It was dark but noisy. There was a constant gurgle and wheeze of machines, a rhythm and space between them, indicating that many were in operation. When my eyes adjusted, I saw five stacked rows of Cemar hanging on the wall. Looked kind of like the Cemar hives in the wasteland. Each was restrained and enclosed in a glass cylinder, tubing running into their bodies. There must have been a hundred Cemar, all of them silent, unconscious.
The attendants were in the hall, outside the door. I ran to the edge of the room and fumbled along the wall, found another door, and slipped out. With my hands for guides I passed down a wide hallway and finally opened a door to the outside. I was standing on a loading dock, and the eclipse was just starting to end, little rays peeking from behind Vakna Moon, and I could see a stack of Cemar bodies lying still in a nearby garbage container. Then I heard one of them stirring.
The attendants would be on me any second, but here was a living creature, left for dead. I climbed in to shift the dead and uncover the living. But just as I started to move him the attendants burst outside, still agitated and yelling.
“You better hope that guy is just wandering around high. Oh, god, if he figures out what is going on here, if he understands what this really is, Asag will turn us into Cemar tomorrow, bruh. I’ll keep searching for him around here. In the meantime, you get those bodies out of here.”
They were right next to me and then they threw another body into the dumpster, right on top of where I was laying. So I couldn’t move when they loaded the garbage container on a truck and headed out into the waste.
When we got to the dump site, the U4 employee pressed a button on the truck which raised the canister until it dropped its contents into a giant pit. I came tumbling out as well, but kept real still, hoping the guy wouldn’t see me. He didn’t, but I almost gave myself away. The stench in the pit was so foul that I started to gag. Luckily the dude wasn’t paying much attention and after lowering the canister back on the truck, simply drove away.
I waited until the sound of the truck was gone. Then I started to dig my way out from under the bodies. The ground was lumpy and hard, but covered with some sort of slimy substance. I pulled myself to the edge of the pit just as the sun, Zembula, was pulling a quarter past Vakna Moon. The blue-gray twilight shone across the pit, revealing hundreds of Cemar bodies, in various states of decomposition.
I jumped up, my skin cold and tingly all over, my brain racing and bewildered.
But when Zembula was half full in the sky, I saw what truly lay before me, The fatty skins of the Cemar were melting away and something was underneath, shimmering like bones peeking from a deep gash. I covered my nose and darted back into the pit, climbing toward the first of the Cemar whose skin was nearly gone. I started digging at the skin and it fell away in putrid chunks, revealing a familiar form beneath, though altered. The skin was shrunken, bleached and matted to bone, but the face was still recognizable. My heart was pounding and tears were in my eyes. I turned and fled, climbing the banks of the pit until I stood at the fence, beneath a gray sign.
In bold letters it read SEYMOUR STATION.