Camping

Camping
By James Goodwin

This story came to me when I was thinking about how the Sheriff’s would punish people on Enjay. The Hole is not that different from a prison, and sending them off world would be just what people would want and too expensive in any case. So the idea of camping came to me as a cost effective solution short of just executing people.

A kind of autopilot guided Charlie Ross’ erratic steps through the twisting hallways of level one of The Hole, an enclosed city protruding from the side of a giant open pit mine on the planet Enjay. It had to be autopilot because Charlie was so drunk he would probably fail the “What is your name?” part of the sobriety test. This wasn’t unusual, he had been pretty solidly drunk whenever he wasn’t working for the last five years. His Sheriff’s Deputy blue coveralls were filthy and had holes from stabbings and some from blaster bolts. He was comfortable in them though so he let them be, and fuck anyone else. He still lived on level one, the oldest and some would say the nastiest level of The Hole. Closest to the surface the temperature was all over the place, and it was so old many of the corridors were just sprayed polymer and concrete over rock. It had some perks, many of the living quarters there were larger than anywhere else because they were actually converted mining galleries from the first mining operation.

Charlie turned the corner where his quarters were, dragging his shoulder along the wall until his course corrected and he aimed for the door. He mindlessly palmed the lock and it opened and he veered into the large irregular chamber where he slept off his binges. Like any good habitual drunk he’d arranged the mattress that he slept on so that it was pretty much where he usually passed out upon making the journey back from the still rooms on level eight. And so it was now that he keeled over onto the mattress only bouncing his head off the floor a little on account of being a slightly off track when he started to fall. Charlie wasn’t a big man, he was about 5’ 11” and a wiry 150 lbs, but he was tough and wrinkled and dark as the root of an ancient tree. His long grey beard was streaked with tobacco juice stains from a pretty much continuous chew habit. Now he lay there snoring, dead to the world.

The mattress was the center of a circular cluster of empty bottles, clothes, food containers and other assorted debris. Outside that circle however was an apartment, dusty but organized, with evidence of a couple living there. There were pictures of a smiling clean shaven Charlie with a red haired woman slightly taller than him, always gazing at him like he was a holy man. If you looked down on the scene from above it seemed like current day Charlie had tunneled into this apartment and decided to be a squatter in the livingroom. As the night wore on, the dreams started to claw their way past the liquor and Charlie would yell “Winifred!” or “No!” or “Please!” and then sleep garbled gibberish. Finally, in the early morning, or what the city’s programming simulated as a morning, he lurched up from the mattress, rushed to the bathroom, the only other part of the apartment apparently in use, and threw up.

Charlie got himself together, shaking a bit from the paroxysm of vomiting and stripped off his clothes and took a shower. He steadily reduced the temperature of the shower, numbing himself and driving off the remaining intoxication. He pulled some shorts and a t-shirt out of the mostly clean pile, put them on followed by his jumpsuit, gun belt and boots. He was working today, so he’d need coffee and actual food so he left his quarters and headed for the greasy spoon that was two hallways over. He always caused a slight ripple when he went into the place, it was frequented by people who were technically criminals. However in The Hole there weren’t technically any laws, just a sort of balance. He sat at the counter and Drew the owner came over and poured him some coffee and then gestured to the cook to make the usual. Charlie didn’t have to speak in this joint. The ripple in the room died away, Charlie wasn’t after anyone. He drank his coffee and scanned the messages on his communications device, nothing of interest. Which sucked. It meant a whole day trying to dodge his thoughts and his memories and the images from his dreams. He drank his coffee and ate his eggs, pseudo-bacon, and fake-potatoes.

After breakfast he boarded a lift down to the twentieth level where the Sheriff’s command center was. He was away in his thoughts and hadn’t yet consumed enough coffee, this is why it didn’t strike him as odd that the lift was empty except for him. By the time it started to occur to him, the doors opened on level twelve and two men with knives leapt through the opening and onto him. He was fast and he’d drawn his blaster, but one of the men’s knives transfixed his gun hand wrist and his blaster dropped to the floor as his hand involuntarily opened. He screamed with pain reaching with his other hand for his blade, but the other guy clamped an immobility cuff onto his wrist and that took out that whole side of his body. He fell under their combined weight and they pummeled him until he blacked out.

Charlie woke up feeling beat up and sick for the second time that day and the bad feeling he usually had about not recognizing where he was didn’t go away this time. He was laying on his side in immobility cuffs, his blaster, knife, gun belt were gone. He was in a nondescript living quarters someplace in the teens, hard to tell because they all looked the same down there. He realized that there was someone behind him, silently watching him. He painfully jerked his shoulders around to get a look. He recognized the man, in his late twenties, sandy hair, nose broken and healed a few times, one cheek bone a little more pronounced than the other, ears that looked like growths rather than normal ears. Jonnie Crispe was a bare knuckle fighter, a pretty successful one, meaning he wasn’t dead yet. “The fuck you doing Jonnie Crispe? Sheriff’s going to turn you inside out…” Crispe didn’t let him finish, and prodded him with a stick which turned out to be a shock baton. Charlie convulsed and nearly bit his tongue off. 

“Hey Charlie, no need to fill me in on the consequences of my actions. I’m not planning on hanging around after we’re done. I was going to move on anyway but I wanted to take care of this before I went, or actually on the way.” Charlie was still paralyzed by the shock and could only spit and cough in response. “You probably didn’t know that Bill Mansel was my dad, not many people did, we didn’t spend a lot of time together since he was a busy smuggler. In any case, he was, and I loved my dad.” Charlie’s eyes bulged and he managed to stutter “I tried to give Bill a chance, he was smuggling in counterfeit drugs, killing people, he wouldn't stop! Anyone else would have…” Jonnie shocked him again, Charlie’s head slammed back into the floor a trickle of blood flowed from his nose and ears. “What you did was send him ‘camping’. You boys think it’s funny to call putting a man in a survival tent in the middle of nowhere for a week with no suit and barely enough O2 and food and water to survive ‘camping’. About a 50/50 shot at survival as it turns out, most folks here only have cursory outside survival training. I was told that camping referred to a leisure activity that people did with their kids in the old days, a tent out in the forest whatever that is.” His eyes welled up “Painful irony for me.”

“So, perhaps by now you’ll have figured out where this is going…” Charlie tried to bring himself to his feet, but Jonnie shocked him until he fell unconscious. The men worked quickly to put Charlie into an emergency atmosphere protection bag, used to rescue people who were injured outside. They looked at Jonnie and he said “Ok, when I trigger the electro-magnetic pulse we’re going to winch down lift shaft number five all the way to the bottom and go out the mine tractor exit. Suit up, the shielding on the suits will keep them working through the EMP.” He went over to a box under the sink and pulled it away to reveal a spiral device with glowing super capacitor that had been quietly building up charge for six months, so slow none of the security systems detected it. Once they had their suits on, he pressed the black button on the top of the device and there was a brilliant flash which fortunately their suit’s sun shield blocked or they’d have been blinded permanently. Everything around them shut down, air, light, monitors, door locks. They picked Charlie up in the bag and left.

Outside the tractor entrance they carried Charlie to a ravine where Crispe had hidden horses for them. Horses were four legged walking robots that were used for transportation on the surface. They were better than wheeled vehicles because they were able to clamber over the cracked and broken surface with ease. They threw Charlie over the back of one of them, activating the O2 in the bag and seeing him gasp and then mounted up and started riding out into the giant wasteland that was the bottom of the Paramus mine. The total area was about a thousand square miles, give or take. The land was cross hatched with mining roads but there was nothing out there except for mining waste and the deep dark holes of abandoned shafts. They rode for several hours before Charlie started to come around.

Charlie knew where he was and why, and for some reason it really didn’t bother him too much. He hung over the horse, his wrist was throbbing as were the injuries from the shocks and beating. He looked around but from the angle he was at, all he could see was the back legs of the horse and the road surface, not very helpful. ‘Hey Winifred, Looks like this is it, I’m just about done, maybe if the religious fuckers are right I’ll get to see you again, that’d be cool. But more likely it’s just going to suck for a while and then it’ll be lights out. Easier than you had it.’ he thought. He tried to think about the happy times. He’d married Winifred Hastings after meeting her at the Lawman’s Ball fundraising dance when he was a rookie. They’d latched onto each other like it was just the obvious thing to do. They were very different people, she was a Phd. geologist, scholarly, well read, driven and intellectual. He was a cop, he came from a cop family, he loved being a cop, he loved his fellow deputies almost as much as he loved her. They turned out to share a lot of interests in between and were a great complement for each other.

The next thing he knew, Charlie was being thrown violently down off the horse, landing on the ground in the atmosphere bag, which he hoped didn’t rip. Crispe got down from his horse and came over and pressed his helmet against the window in the front of the bag so Charlie could hear him. “I don’t know how long these survival bags are supposed to be good for. My dad was supposed to have enough in his shelter for a week and then they’d come back retrieve him. He lost his mind from the stress around the third day and tried to run back to The Hole without a suit. The atmosphere stopped his running after about a half a mile and then killed him by burning his lungs out in about an hour. So, if you can keep it together you’ve got the better option of just suffocating.” He stood up, mounted his horse and all of them rode off out of Charlie’s field of vision.

As Charlie lay there looking up at the sky, the two suns marching along in their daily path he couldn’t help but think about when everything went bad. He’d come home one morning after an all night shift and found Winifred still home, sitting at the table, drinking bourbon. She looked at him her eyes red from crying and said “I had my physical last night at the end of my shift, I’ve got Tarbell’s syndrome.” Charlie had heard of Tarbell’s syndrome, a few people in The Hole had been diagnosed with it. He knew that it meant certain death with no hope of a cure. He knelt in front of her and hugged her to him and and wept. The progress of the disease was relentless and excruciatingly slow, she had digestive problems, liver problems, kidney problems. All the doctors could do was try and manage the symptoms and the pain. This went on for two hard years. One evening he came home and she was asleep. He took off his blaster and put it on the night table. He turned around to take off his coveralls and he heard her yell from behind him “Who the fuck are you ? Why are you in my bedroom? If you move I’m going to shoot you!” He turned to look and saw she’d grabbed his blaster right before she pulled the trigger in panic without aiming. The bolt went through the back of his leg. He managed to disarm her and restrain her. He showed her pictures of them together, he told her who he was, told her about her disease. She wept with frustration, he wept with horror and loss. She was hospitalized for a few days, but then she became catatonic and remained that way until she died a month later. His life had been a tunnel of work and drunkenness since then. He’d been half hoping that someone would finally take him out for a long time.

Both of the suns had set and the brief night on Enjay had come, the stars were very pretty, the tiny moons sped across the sky. It was sorta peaceful, and Charlie was feeling light headed. It was either from lack of oxygen because the survival bag had been depleted already, or from the blood loss from the stab wound in his wrist. Charlie smiled, and tears streamed down his face. “Winifred, I’m so sorry I couldn’t save you, I would have given anything, done anything…” his voice trailed away. Just then a light shone down through the window of the survival bag and Tom Ditson’s helmet came into view as he pressed it to the glass. “Who are you talking to Charlie?” Ditson asked. “Winifred, Tom I was talking to Winifred…” Charlie said. Sheriff Tom Ditson nodded and then connected another O2 tank to the survival bag. He said “We were on to Jonnie as soon as your blaster left your possession and your location sensor said you were horizontal and not in a place for that. The EMP slowed us down a bit, the office is shielded so all our stuff stayed up. However, we had to use the emergency mechanical lift to get out. That thing is really slow. Seath is managing the restarts on all the other levels. Fortunately people in The Hole are so used to shit breaking all the time, there really isn’t any panic. Anyway, sorry it took so long, we’ve got you.” He and Deputy Longley hauled Charlie up onto the back of a horse and headed back to The Hole.

A few days later Charlie was back at work in the Sheriff’s office and Sheriff Ditson called him into his office. “They got Jonnie Crispe and the other two over at The Stink, they’ve been dealt with.” Charlie looked pained and started to say something but Ditson cut him off “This isn’t about you and them Charlie, it isn’t about his daddy, it’s that we’re the only law here at all and we can’t have anyone in any of the cities getting the idea it’s ok to come after us.” Charlie nodded. Ditson looked at him and squinted, “Is that a new coverall Charlie ?” Charlie spit tobacco juice into Ditson’s waste basket, an action that Ditson had repeatedly tried to discourage in the past. “So what if it is? You trying to sexually harass me now Ditson?” Sheriff Ditson smiled, “Get the fuck out of here Charlie… go do some lawman shit.”