From orbit, the vast area known as The Pits looked inflamed like a recent wound.
Upon the world’s surface continental tracts of earth had been whorled into fiery chasms by immense machines, resulting in a tectonic blister, a planet churned. Some things are their own omen, but Sasharn was in no position to turn back. His whole life had been a road devoid of exits, leading here.
He tried to accept this unnerving sight for what it was: industry replicated at an intimidating scale. No apocalypse, merely a gradual leeching of an otherwise useless rock, hanging in far-flung void.
Besides, Sasharn was no stranger to global devastation, having laboured amongst it his whole life. His own home-world was a mausoleum, its atmosphere a shroud, shanty-cities existing in the cracks between polluted zones. It too had been consumed by due process, though with less careful hands than the ones at play before him.
Sasharn would never in his life see a sky not wasted by dust. As the heavy transport descended into smoke-clotted atmospherics, he considered what it might be like to sample a single clean breath, whether it might taste different on the tongue. As space sealed itself away behind smog, Sasharn’s imagination thrummed with cliche.
Once grounded he and a thousand others moved as a herd across scorched earth, along crooked highways populated by trucks carrying fuel and supplies to parts unknown. Company attendants, their gleaming skullhubs clicking as they relayed secretive communications, corralled the pack of newcomers. Those workers who had been assigned blue or green cards were pushed towards trains that shunted them towards a local transit spaceport, there to be shipped to other nodes along the operation where the executive demand for fresh workers had reached critical urgency.
Sasharn soon learnt from a searingly bright holographic notice projected from an attendant’s chassis that no such journey was necessary for him and the other reds. Pit 7-D, his assignment, was just over the next ridge. Their transports had been diverted due to some pressing need. They would walk on even as more trucks swept by.
Violent flares of information rose above the bellowing attendants, ensuring that rules and instructions reached the crowd where it was thickest. Sirens blared, and the noise of men was deafening. Each step along the long arid road towards their camp felt somehow inevitable; they shambled forward in the desultory manner of animals. Sasharn knew well that higher beings did not come here to this wide barren place, at least, not via this dreadful road. He kept his head down, unwilling to engage with anyone lest they soon be wrenched off to some distant corner of the world, leaving him alone once more.
In the distance against a horizon laced with nebulous greens and purples a city-sized shadow lurched across a mountain range on articulated limbs. As Sasharn watched a bright lance swept from the hulk and cut the night, illuminating a distant peak. The noise of the destruction that followed swept over them, then a blast of air that tore caps and possessions away from their owners. For a moment, Sasharn thought that his lungs were filling with hot poison, that the rushing, obscuring wind would leave him bloated and dead, but the hellion gust passed and once it had he saw that the mountain was no more. Smouldering ruin, sky-high dust.
He was already formulating a letter to his family, who had never been off-world. Destitute in their squat, they would read: Ma, Pa, I have seen landscapes transformed by flame…
It was for them that he had signed the contract. Here, the advertisement had promised, he would be fed, sheltered. Work here would be consistent, at least for the next century or more. A pit miner could sign up for five year terms, ten, twenty, each with varying rates. Company commitment bonuses, they were called. His heart was sore that this would be the altar upon which he sacrificed his youth. But on his wage his sisters would live a transformed life; a new home, an education. Perhaps salvation in the form of a one-way ticket.
As the horizon was lit again by some immense flame, Sasharn reminded himself of his love for them, reminded himself that love was resentment’s best and only antidote.
What surprised him was that it was no worse than the life he had already known.
He had heard grim talk on the shuttle, weeks of rumour mill about worker collateral, of the proliferation of disease, of shift patterns that were more abusive than demanding.
Certainly, all of those things were true. But these were The Pits, he wanted to scream. This was work. This was what work looked like for people like them. He didn’t have time for those who claimed it should be otherwise. To have unrealistic expectations, he knew, was the sharpest slope to misery.
No time for that type of talk at all.
It was no worse than pearl shucking amongst the gaseous pollutants of the uninhabited zones, no worse than scrap diving, no worse than brothel work or long nights in the textiles hubs, no worse than playing courier between the rival armed groups in the slums. No worse than begging.
Anything to put food on the table, drink to his parent’s lips. Who else would clothe his sisters? Who else would afford them their creature comforts? What about the gun he had had to discharge over a dozen times from the holes along his shack’s corrugated walls, and never once out of paranoia, always at a real thief, a real enemy — how else would they protect themselves?
You did what you had to do, you did what you had to do.
Pit 7-b was a trench cut into the base of a great ridge of red stone, almost thirty miles long. The heat here was intense, though the suns were often hidden behind the rising fumigants, lending a sallow darkness to the whole place. Here, they cut deep of the earth in teams, carrying hose-like tubes that spat searing lances of power. Machines toiled with them, bulked insectoid caricatures that dragged away the detritus of their excavation, their remote pilots wallowing in darkened warehouses somewhere along the line, their asses presumably going numb.
Attendants watched, their visors radiant with information about the ores they were mining. What their ultimate purpose would be, who in the universe would benefit from which newly-made products. Nobody was under any disillusionment as to the real purpose of these watchers; the sheriffs of the executive class looked on through hidden cameras, eyes peeled for breaches of contract. They became invisible, for there was always the task at hand; the wall that demanded hurdling before rest could be allocated.
When it came, rest was absolute. It was a force that blotted out all other desires. Sasharn would lay in his bunk, his muscles inconsolable. He would fall into sleep the way some would fall into love; with hopeless abandon, with instant submission. When he woke, he noticed that there were many on his rota who would be out in the sprawling messes at the rear of the camp, inebriating themselves, presumably. Attending showings of action movies, watching sports that he had never even heard of. He spoke little to others, too drained to seek camaraderie. Such bonding was rare in the slums.
He wondered if he was weak. Or whether it would take time before he had built the resilience needed in order to live a life beyond the gruelling workload. Yet when his evenings of rest came, two evenings in every ten days, he would stagger back and sweat and shake, and he would notice how he was one of the only ones that did.
Once or twice he wrote letters, it being the most reliable way of contacting his family, what with the stringent company confidentiality policies and the lack of viable connections in the squats. He found more and more that there was little to say. His brain switched on each morning in order to guide him through arduous patterns of bodily abuse. It brought him no joy to describe to them the pump of the hoses of white flame, the clank of the loading belts, the unforgiving heat that left rashes spreading across his already-mottled skin.
But still, as months passed, a hardness grew in his heart. Sasharn sent the majority of his wage promptly back home, and no word of thanks had been sent in return. The sleep that he so often craved allowed him to escape his obsession on the fact. But still, a sense of betrayal would rear up to haunt his dreams.
One day, rattled, sick, sore and on the verge of a twenty day onslaught, he asked one of his more exuberant bunkmates, a giant man with a permanent gleam in his eye, how he managed to stay so active during his rest allocations.
Well, it’s not exactly a secret, mate. You can get the powder at the back of Sintorri’s shack, corporate doesn’t care.
Sasharn grimaced. Of course it would be narcotics.
The man laughed saying how in hell have you been going along without it, bud? Blanks you out for a while afterwards but way better than the alternative. No, mate, I’m not trying to twist your arm. Do what you want. But Sintorri’s is where you’ll need to go if you want to try.
Sasharn asked how much. He almost choked on the reply.
A lot he said.
Yeah a lot. Less than what gets taken from us already in my opinion. Places like this drain us, we have to claw something back or what keeps us going.
A future Sasharn suggested.
Thing is about the future is that it’s the furthest thing away to right now isn’t it. Anyway it’s there if you want it and — look, I’m glad. I’m glad.
His eyes were white as stars his eyes were wide like the clearest skies.
The letter said:
We are glad you are well. Things are as usual here (he had not done this to himself so that things could be as usual he had done it so things could be better). Is something the matter? Pa is angry that you’re sending us less and less (it was enough to live on wasn’t it, more than enough when you are practically nothing) and you’ve stopped writing. PLEASE contact us we need to repair the home before the rains come in (supposed to have been fixed in the very first month, that was the agreement) and things here are getting worse (thank you for your concern but I am finer than I have ever been I have stopped fixating on what hurts I move in a void). We miss you (I will be here for a decade).
Yours, (and where will you be)
The landscape, awash in gas and fire and movement, was losing its solidity. Days swept by, dragging the weeks and months along behind them. Sasharn had found a system he could work with, selecting carefully the days in which he could be numbed, the one which he could be enhanced. He had found friends. He had been inducted into a marketplace of delights; living without them was not living, it was hurting. He knew that now.
He had stopped writing letters. He would continue to send some money but he could not control what they did with it, so he would not try to intervene. It felt so very far away.
How could they explain to those they had left behind the necessity of being numb? The pressure to stay standing as the body became brittle from the inside out? He couldn’t articulate to them the cost of waiting and working and waiting and working and how little there was in-between, or the worthwhile price of sleeping soundly.
A future was coming for him, so distant that to believe in it was an act of deepest faith. To get there, he would suppress the sense of infinity that lay in the fabric of each identical day; the tangibility of each passing second, each accumulated ache.
Sasharn knew better than most: you did what you had to do, you did what you had to do.