By James Goodwin
This story got started because I was tired of summer and was impatient for fall to come. Also, in my previous story “Cowboys” Seath didn’t have much of a role, it just worked out that way, so I started with her in this one.
Seath Holman sat straight up in her cot, suddenly awake, her blaster in her hand, her dark hair plastered to the side of her face by sweat, not at all sure what had awakened her. Her quarters were one room away from the sheriff's office monitoring center, she was never far from the pulse of life in Paramus ( AKA The Hole) on planet Enjay. After establishing that there was no threat in her quarters, she got up from her bunk, dragged her hair back into a ponytail, laced on her boots and put on her gun belt over her shorts and tank top and holstered her blaster. Normally she’d be wearing the blue coveralls of a Deputy Sheriff, but it was “Summer” in the Hole, an ironic reference to seasons on a planet that really only had one season, shitty. Summer in the Hole was actually the six to eight weeks a year that each of the secondary air processing systems was taken offline to be rebuilt in sequence. If they weren’t rebuilt every year a failure at the wrong time in the planet’s orbit would cook them all. Temperatures would go up an average of twenty degrees at peak when the two suns were shining on the face of The Hole that showed out of the side of the mostly defunct open pit mine it was named for.
Seath left her quarters and headed down the hallway towards the monitoring center passing a few similarly atired colleagues and grabbing an iced coffee from the break room on the way. In the monitoring center she dropped into the seat next to her boss Tom Ditson. He looked away from the monitors, surprised to see her. “What’s up Seath ?” he asked. “I don’t know, but something kicked me awake and I almost blastered my quarters, so I figured I’d have a look…” she said. Ditson knew that Seath’s intuition about the city and it’s inhabitants was finely tuned and very accurate so he just pushed the control panel over to her and leaned back. Seath’s fingers flowed over the control panel, bringing up dozens of displays spreading themselves across the enormous display surface. Soon she started to eliminate displays and combine others, working so fast Tom had no idea what she was reacting to in order to decide which ones were significant.
“I’ve got an idea.“ she said, pulling two cross sections of different levels in The Hole together in the center of the display area. She pointed at the temperature readouts. “Look at level nine, it is almost a degree higher in temperature than level eight and level seven.” Sheriff Ditson shrugged and and said “So what, there are temperature fluctuations all the time?” Seath brought up a historical graph of the temperature over the last few days and said “This isn’t a fluctuation, it’s been trending up for several hours, and that should be impossible, all of the levels should have equalized and absorbed any fluctuation in minutes.” Ditson’s eyes widened in recognition, and he said “The Crazy 8’s are at it again… fuck…” She zoomed in on a section of quarters on the eighth level and then overrode the privacy lockouts and looked inside. In most rooms families were asleep, in a couple of rooms illegal and officially ignored drinking clubs were supplying the hard core drinkers with their cheap product, and then there were four rooms in a group that remained black. “Super, I’m going to have to go down there.” Seath said, looking back in the footage to when the surveillance had been blocked, only few hours ago, that was why the alarms hadn’t triggered yet.
Tom Ditson stood up from the console and said, “Yes, but you should take Charlie with you. If he’s sober enough.” Seath frowned and said “I’d rather take Mark, Charlie would certainly get to the bottom of this fast, but then we’d have another problem that might take weeks to settle out. I think Mark can restrain himself from putting holes in everyone he meets.” Ditson nodded, “OK, but remember Mark’s new and he doesn’t know the Crazy 8’s and the Niners like you and Charlie do, so keep an eye on him” Seath paged Mark Longley and while she waited she reviewed the last few hours of surveillance from levels eight and nine.
Longley arrived a few minutes later and she and the Sheriff brought him up to speed. Then Seath said, “There are some interesting things in recorded surveillance, I’ve been looking in particular at the mass air returns on level eight, check this out.” She showed them a video of a man with a bald head tattooed with a large eight ball with a face and a screaming mouth full of teeth walking past the mass air return. The man passed it once then a second time in the same hour and then the third time he gave a jerk as he went by, a blur of something flying up into the air return was briefly visible but mostly blocked from surveillance by his large tattooed body. Mark said “What was that ? Did he throw something into the mass air return ? Why didn’t it just fall back out ?” Ditson scowled and said “It was an emergency atmosphere seal, it looks like a grenade, you arm it and then there’s a delay so you can toss it into a hallway or a room and it explodes deploying a fast hardening polymer shield that seals against atmosphere.” Seath continued “They’re in emergency kits all over the city, supposedly tamper proof and alarmed, apparently not.”
Longley looked back and forth between Seath and Ditson in mild confusion “Ok, so I get it that the Crazy 8’s and the Niners are rival gangs, and that they hate each other, but why would the 8’s do something that they know will imbalance the air system and hurt them too ?” Tom Ditson sighed and said, “Because this isn’t about the gangs, it's about something else, the 8’s want us to focus on this because it affects the whole city while they do whatever it is they’re doing. You two need to go up there and figure out what it is and shut it down. I’ll see if I can keep a lid on the Niners.” Seath and Mark went into the next room and started putting on their body armour and their blues, they were going to roast especially on the upper levels, but being cool wasn’t worth having no protection at all from knives and blaster bolts.
Soon, the two Deputies were sweating profusely as their lift rose from level twenty up to the lower numbered levels closer to the surface. The lower numbered levels were the oldest ones, built during the boom times of the mine, thrown together rapidly, without safety and comfort in mind. The communities there were the descendants of those original mine workers, used to hard work, hard drinking and sudden death. Now that the mining operation had shrunk to a precision operation extracting only very expensive, very rare elements from The Hole, a new economy had sprung up to support the unemployed miners. Most of them couldn’t leave, they didn’t have the money to pay for a jump ship, and they were too old and beaten for the company to bother with moving them. So they turned to gambling, whoring, bare knuckle fights, and drugs for their amusement and employment. None of these things was strictly illegal in The Hole, but excessive violence or acts endangering public health and safety in their pursuit was kept under control by the Sheriff and his Deputies.
“I was born on seven, not much better a place than eight or nine. My parents sold clothes made from recycled material, they were good at staying out of the way of the gangs. They managed to make enough money to keep me from having to become a sex worker like most girls on seven.” Seath said “I grew up around the Crazy 8’s and Niners and they didn’t like it much when I joined the Sheriff’s department. I always wondered if they had something to do with my husband’s killing.” Mark couldn’t think of what to say in response to this, so he just nodded. The doors of the lift opened on level eight and a wave of humid air smelling of human funk, drug smoke, and things best not discussed rushed over Mark and Seath. Mark almost gagged as he tried to draw a breath in the heavy air. Seath scanned the entryway before stepping off the lift, she beckoned for Mark to follow her as she headed down a wide corridor whose walls were emblazoned with screaming 8 balls. People glared at them as the passed, most of them partially clothed displaying their gang ink, selling things out of the doors to their quarters. Seath led the way towards the rooms that she’d seen blacked out, stepping over drugged out people laying against the walls and dodging naked children that pelted after each other fighting and playing in the hallway.
The Deputies’ communication units chimed and Mark said “Go ahead command center.” Tom Ditson responded “I had a word with the Markus the leader of the Niners. He had already noticed the rise in temperature and had sent someone to talk to the 8’s about it. They beat up his messenger and sent him back, so now Markus is thinking of sending a larger group with a different mission. I told him that the 8’s were trying to provoke him and that I didn’t know why yet. I asked him to give us a day to get to the bottom of this. He said he’d give us four hours, which he really isn’t giving us, his head tactical guy is on his way back from Newark and won’t be back for four hours.” Seath said “Understood, we’ll try and get this over with quick, we don’t want to be in the crossfire if they come down here.” Ditson continued “Another thing, the computer has been looking at the temperature increase, according to its simulation just blocking the air returns doesn’t explain it. Something on eight is generating a bunch of heat, and the source seems to be close to the blacked out rooms you found.” Seath and Mark looked at each other, Seath said “Acknowledged, we’re almost there, I’ll leave comms open.”
They reached the block they were looking for and noticed that unlike the blocks around it all of the doors on both branching hallways were closed. People across from them, upon noticing the Deputies, pulled their wares inside their quarters and closed their doors as well. “I don’t like that at all.” said Mark, flipping off the safety on his blaster and making sure it was free in it’s holster. Seath yelled “Ok you fucking gang bangers, if you think I’m going to kick in your door so you can blow me the fuck up with some booby trap you are out of your fucking minds!” Her voice rang down the silent hallways, and then she yelled “Here’s how it’s going to go, you are going to open up your doors nice and slow and come out here to answer my questions!” She pulled out a remote console, “If you do not come out here, I’m going to retreat to a safe distance and then I will fill those four rooms completely with sewage. I will begin counting down!” She backed out of the junction of hallways shouting “5”...”4”...”3”...”2”... and the door nearest the junction on the right side opened and a man stepped out.
“Hey shitbag!” Seath said, “Shouldn’t you be more polite? They came out...” Mark whispered, both Seath and Shitbag looked amused, “His name is Shitbag, his momma calls him that… I’ve known him for 20 years, isn’t that right Shitbag?” “Heh, heh, heh yep that’s right Deputy, my momma had a sense of humor she did.” Shitbag said through some of the worst teeth Mark had ever seen, his face was tattooed to look like the the screaming 8 ball and his mouth was a pretty good rendering of the scary teeth on the logo. “What do you deputies want ?” Seath put away the remote console and rested her hand on her blaster. “Surveillance is blind in these four units, that’s not allowed, we need it back on, and I need to see what’s going on in there.” Shitbag did something with his mouth that Mark decided to interpret as smiling “Sure thing deputy, come right in, I’ll show you around…” Seath drew her blaster and it’s targeting laser painted a red dot on Shitbag’s forehead right on the number eight. “No thanks, you have them open all the doors come out here with their hands where I can see them and stand facing the wall and then we’ll take a peek.”
Shitbag nodded and then he waved his left hand, Mark’s blaster was out now as well, but almost at the same time the doors had opened and a dozen 8’s spilled out and were now pointing their blasters at the deputies. “I’m sorry, we require privacy, so you two should go back where you came from, unless you want to get your ink and join us?” Shitbag said, and then made noises that were probably laughing. Seath said “OK, have it your way…” but instead of backing away, she stepped forward and shot Shitbag in the forehead, there was a rattle of triggers being pulled, but no blaster fire tore Seath to pieces. “All of you get on the floor, now, anyone hesitates I will put you down!” they all hit the deck assuming the approved position. Mark’s gun hand was trembling slightly, and once he’d composed himself he said “Why aren’t we dead ?” Seath leaned in and whispered in his ear “We intercept all of the blasters that get into this place and we make sure they all have a remote deactivate, that was what I was doing with the control pad. Be careful, can’t remote deactivate a machete.”
They put demobilization cuffs on the gang members in the hallway keeping watch on the open doors while they did it. Detention robots tracked to the cuffs came and removed the criminals and Shitbag’s cuffed corpse. Then they went in the nearest unit, Seath first, followed by Mark. The unit wasn’t set up as a living space anymore, it was filled with the heavy boxes that ore was shipped out of the mine in. Mark examined the box nearest him checking it with a scanner for explosives and trigger circuitry, the scan was clean so he lifted the top of the box. A gentle red glow emanated from the box and their radiation detector alarms went off, Mark dropped the lid and the alarms shut off. He looked at the reading and then at Seath “Whatever it is, that stuff is extremely hot, we’re probably going to need decontamination when we get out of here.” Seath said “There’s no radioactive ore on this planet, if there were the company would be here mining it” Mark replied “Well, we’ve found our heat source, this stuff is still reacting. Let's check the other units.”
Two of the other units were exactly the same, filled with ore boxes. It turned out that the 8’s had cut through the walls of the units, connecting them and the final room which was different. It had a big tunnel going out the back, the cut away wall section was propped next to it, to allow it to be plugged up again. The other openings were the same way. As they entered the room, an ore box hauler could be seen coming down the tunnel, they ducked behind an ore box and watched as the driver connected the hauler to another ore box and turned around in the cab of the hauler and drove back into the tunnel. “What the fuck is going on ?” Mark hissed, “They’re taking the ore into a tunnel ? I’m no miner but that seems like the wrong way.” Seath grinned and said “We need to wait for them to get done with their work.” She led him to a closet that was too small for an ore box and they pulled the door mostly closed. They watched the ore haulers clear out the rooms and then the drivers came out of the tunnel and levered the wall section back into place and sprayed a masking sealant over it hiding the seam. They did the same for the openings between the rooms. Then they pulled out a black market control pad and turned the surveillance back on and left.
Seath and Mark emerged from their closet and crossed to where the tunnel opening had been. Seath pulled a prybar out of her belt and levered the wall section back out and they shoved it aside together. They turned on the flashlights mounted on their blasters and headed into the tunnel. After about 100 meters the tunnel opened into a huge gallery, the walls were rough but covered with wire mesh and concrete, anchor bolts protruded everywhere. Their atmosphere warning started to chime, the air in this space was mixed with the planet’s atmosphere. It wouldn’t kill them right away, but more than a few hours and they’d be in serious trouble.
Seath went over to where there was a huge stack of ore containers and she rubbed the label on one of the containers so she could read it and it came off in her hand revealing another label. “It’s not an ore container, it’s a waste container and this is radioactive waste from someone’s illegal reactor. People needing power for unsanctioned businesses often use dirty reactors, but then they have a problem of an ever growing radioactive signature pointing right at them for any patrolling company cruiser to see. These knuckleheads have gone into business storing radioactive waste in the construction space around the enclosed city that they live in.” Mark shook his head “That is the fucking stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. But wait, how are they getting the stuff in here to start with? Only company ships come here, we get manifests from all of them.” Mark’s face showed dawning realization as he continued answering his own question “Empties, we don’t weigh the empties coming back from the processing plant.” Seath nodded, she’d gotten there a while ago. “And the cleaning and repair plant for empties is on the eighth level, so people moving empties around on this level isn’t strange at all.”
Just then there was a loud rumbling noise and a shockwave pushing a wall of dust threw them both to the ground. Once the dust settled a bit, they could see that the tunnel they had come in was gone. Seath tried to contact the Sheriff on her communications unit, but it wasn’t working in this space so close to a big pile of nuclear waste. She said “Don’t worry, Tom’s been watching us since they put the surveillance back on, he knows where we are, he’ll get us out.” Mark looked at the huge gallery they were in and it felt very small all of a sudden. They got as far from the stack of waste boxes as they could and sat down against the wall. After an hour or so, they heard a noise from above them and they saw a big plate in the top of the gallery slide away with a grinding noise. Charlie, unmistakeable in his nasty blueish coveralls in a harness descended from the opening on a cable. “Hey fuckwits, I got sent to get you out of here!” he yelled.
After more abuse, he put the harness on each of them in turn and winched them out of the pit and then himself. He used a rusty old lever mechanism to shove the plate back into place. “What is this place ?” Mark asked looking around at the dusty lockers and showers. “It’s the main entrance for the workers who built the city, there used to be an elevator that went down to the bottom of that gallery, they removed it a long time ago.” Charlie growled, “Tom’s rounding up the rest of the 8’s idiot leadership and he’s alerted the company assholes to trace the loads back and close down the source. If you two kids are ok, our next task is to reopen the bulk air returns and then we have to guard a bunch of ore haulers so they can take this shit out of there and ship it to a proper fucking disposal site.”
Later that night they were all in a bar back in their own domain on level twenty. Tom said “Bullet Head, the 8’s warlord, was under the mistaken impression that a) the waste was inert, wrong it was still reacting and generating a lot of heat, so that would have created a nice little nuclear pile and b) that the back wall of The Hole was shielded from radiation just like the front, wrong again, the company was too cheap to shield the back of the city as the rock behind it is plenty of protection from the Sun's radiation. So If we’d missed this little operation for any longer, it would have irradiated several levels of the city and then melted down and probably opened up the whole side of city making it uninhabitable. We’ve put in scales and radiation scanners in the empties return bay to prevent this stupid idea from reoccurring. ” He paused raising his glass of bourbon “Here’s to Seath and her weird senses!” Everyone drank to that. Seath said “Actually I don’t think it’s that weird, I realized that what woke me up was the backdraft caused by closing up the bulk air returns.” Everyone looked around the table and nervous laughter broke out, then another round was ordered and they got back to bitching about the heat.