Burnt

Burnt

As the shuttle hovered towards the colony, Kanen looked out the viewport and marveled at the familiar terrain. He'd rarely seen it from this height, his face far too close to the dirt, and the last time he'd left the place he hadn't been in a state to enjoy much of anything at all.

The towers poked out of the ground like nails dropped into sand. The colony stayed in intense communication not only with nearby colonies and travelling starships, but with authorities much farther away. Its operations were regulated according to policies that Kanen had never really understood. Sometimes the crew was worked harder than usual, and sometimes ... well, sometimes nothing. They always worked hard. It was a question of calluses versus actual cuts.

Beneath the towers, the familiar rock and mud and mess. And, in the distance, the roiling magma that made it viable for human beings even to eke out a living on this rock. This was an active place, full of active people harnessing some very dangerous equipment, all sitting on top of what was effectively a big, crackling, active celestial volcano.

And beyond them, Kanen saw sky-wide nebulas streaking through all viewable space, dotted by planets in their thousands. Each one of those planets, Kanen reflected, by the sheer dint of their glow, would be large enough to eclipse his colony.

He looked down again. The burning glow from the magma reflected off the shuttle, casting it in red and orange hues.

"Goddamn," Kanen muttered to himself. As the shuttle started to descend he felt the light pull on his stomach and hands, as if someone wanted him away from the seat and out of the vessel; out for inspection by the stars that watched his every move from above. Away from the colony.

***

The hardest part in anyone's life isn't the crises they encounter, and if someone tries to tell you different, it says more about their lack of spine than it does about whatever problems they've had. Anyone can have a problem, or make mistakes, or suffer a goddamn breakdown. The question isn't what happened to you or what scars life inconsiderately raked over your hide - it's what you did after. How you got up again.

***

He walked slowly through the corridors of the colony's main operational section. There was no rush: he was expected by some people, and not by others, and he would take the time he needed to get this thing done right.

It was odd to be back, particularly without a task to work on. When you have been active for long enough in a particular place, you no longer see how it truly looks in brick and mortar, and instead experience it solely as the accumulation of tasks, needs, pauses and schedules at which you, of course, are the center. This giant wall, reaching to a ceiling many man-heights above, is no longer a wall; it is a route to someone's office where that meeting needs to be held, or a support structure that will need to be relocated as soon as the company moves on to the mineable rock beyond it, or simply a quiet place where you can take a breather for five minutes in between shifts and bum a cigarette from a pal. But when you leave - not merely this place but the web of duties, actions and results it has woven you into - and then you come back, you come back to it as a dead thing. You stand outside the life it contains, like a ghost.

He walked down corridors that held few people, even fewer he knew and none of whom seemed to know him. A door at the end bore the moniker Betel Saraanen and the title Supervisor below it.

Kanen knocked and entered. A man sitting at a desk looked up from a slew of reports, blinked a couple of times before he recognized the visitor, and said, "I want you gone."

"Don't we all," Kanen said. He closed the door behind him and leaned against it. There was a chair in the room but he did not sit down, nor did Betel indicate he was expected to.

"I want you gone," Betel repeated, "but there's rumors of Sansha coming in, so we've got the usual panicky flights off-base, and the capsuleers have wrecked nearby colonies to the point where we can't pull in new teams."

"And the ore needs to be mined."

"The ore doesn't need the likes of you," Betel told him, then confirmed with a sigh, "But the ore, yes, does need to be mined."

Kanen stood there in silence, listening to the rhythm of the colony. The regular beats that drummed up through the floor proved the mining works were operating at full swing, and the occasional tremor through the wall against his back indicated that the explosives experts were gleefully earning their pay.

"So you better get to work," Betel said at last. "The details are in your datapad."

***

You don't spring back to action. That's what I learned. After breaking away, and taking the time off you needed to recuperate, you're not exactly raring to go again. Rather, you need to slowly rev yourself up, like an old, worn, grimily oiled piece of mining equipment, spluttering and coughing in the poisonous air of the mines, sidling and sliding into action one more time. You haven't had a broken part replaced; you overheated and were given time to cool down, but nothing in you is back to new. Just a little tattered, perhaps a little broken, and uncertain how much it'll take before you give way again.

***

The workers' changing rooms were a ways down to the far end of the colony. Kanen knew his allotment, locker and equipment had been left untouched, likely less out of respect than a feeling of bad luck. Miners cared about luck. They'd run out so often that they viciously hoarded what little they managed to scrounge.

There was a good while left of the current shift, and when it ended another one would begin. According to his datapad entry, Kanen had been assigned an area to oversee, but not a particular team of people; rather, he would be present along with any other midlevel overseers on shift to guide operations in that particular part of the mining grid and to jump in as needed when brute force was required. He could walk in at any time and start picking up the slack. The active team wouldn't be happy, but that was no worry of his. The active team working in the depths of an unstable asteroid colony, floating around unprotected in deepest space, was not expected to be happy.

So it was with no pressure but that of the churning dread of guilt that he turned and headed not to the changing rooms, but to the living quarters on the other side of the colony. He got in at least a minute's walk before a familiar voice called out his name, and a body marched straight up to him.

"Corwan," he said to the approaching form. He walked on at the same pace. The younger man, who was about his height but rather less built, sped to keep up.

"Good to have you back, man," Corwan said. He seemed about to slap Kanen on the shoulder, then reconsidered. "How you doing?"

Kanen gave him a look. "What can I do for you, Corwan?" he asked.

"Well, I'm just wondering. I'd heard you were back and wanted to see if we could have a chat about some, uh, staff issues."

"If we could talk about staff issues?"

"Certainly."

"Would those be," Kanen slowly said, "staff issues that occurred before or after I pile-drived a massive operational piece of mining equipment into a pit full of an intensely, if briefly, surprised group of people? Are those the ones we should discuss?"

"That wasn't your fault," Corwan quickly said.

"It was very much my fault, unless you want to pick out someone in that pit as having deserved what happened to them."

"No! No, no, not at all. But, uh, we do need to think about some changes that have been occurring here, or needing to occur, even before the incident. Are you coming back full time, by the way?"

"Supposedly," Kanen said.

"As an overseer?"

Kanen ran a hand over his face as he walked, then shot the man another look. "Corwen, it's not that I don't appreciate having at least one person here happy to see me. But the mere fact that I'm back here in my old position, however temporarily, means there's one less slot for you to grab if it's overseer status you're angling for; and don't –" He raised a hand at Corwen, who looked very intent on saying something. "Don't pretend that you're not climbing, because we've seen you from afar, coming up, knife in mouth. So let's skip all the camaraderie and the united front dumbass farce, and engage with the real issue instead. What is it you really want?"

Corwan was silent for a moment as they walked, visibly gathering his words. Eventually he said, "You can't be gone."

"I was gone for a while, son."

"But you weren't gone gone. They still held your position. Even before the Sansha rumors and the capsuleer attacks, they wanted you back."

Kanen was impressed. Anyone who'd caused the kind of accident he did would have been out on his ass. He certainly wouldn't have spared any member of his own team if they'd done what he did.

He quelled that thought. It would only lead to pride, and he had not earned that feeling. He hadn't even earned relief, though he hoped the end of this walk, if Corwan ever let it end, would help him on that path.

Corwan continued, "I won't get pulled up while you're here. No one will."

Kanen considered this. "That's the point, isn't it? You want me gone because I'm holding you back from promotion, but even while I'm here, at least nobody else will get the job, either."

Corwan nodded miserably. "I, uh. I need a bit more time to iron out some issues."

"Some issues."

"Some issues with the boss," Corwan said. "Just some... well, like I said, stuff I need to iron out."

"Make your position clear," Kanen said and couldn't help a little grin.

"Yeah, I–" Corwan caught the sarcasm. "Anyway, yes, I'd like you here so I don't lose out on a promotion to someone else. But I'm also glad you're back."

"Thanks," Kanen said. He believed it. Corwan was a climber, but he wasn't dishonest, at least no more than someone needed to be if they intended to make their way to the top by dint of being too oily to hold back. "We'll talk about this later. I need to see someone else now."

"All right. Thank you," Corwin said. "And, uh. Welcome back."

The younger man walked off, leaving Kanen to make the last of the trek alone. Despite himself, he couldn't but appreciate Corwin's honesty. The problem with career climbers was that everything they said tended to be tainted by want. There was the direct meaning of their words, which was always clear and usually more than a little flattering, and then there was the hidden one, the real motivation, which involved their own desires and which you had to discern like you were looking through a darkened glass. Having one of them break cover, as it were, was something to cherish.

He passed a few others on the way, and noticed the way they spotted him, but tried to ignore whatever they said. Snippets of one conversation did pass through his filters.

That's him. Over there.

That dude?

That dude.

He's the one? The guy who–....

That's the one.

Oh. Wow.

There was a pause.

He's old.

Kanen grinned again, and marched towards the personal quarters.

A knock on a particular door, a deep breath, and when it was opened by a woman her eyes went wide and she slapped him hard in the face.

He didn't raise his hand to his cheek, though it felt on fire. Her nails had broken skin. "Hi, Beth," he said.

"How dare you show up here?" she said to him in a voice so quiet it approached a whisper.

"Can I come in?" he asked. When she made no move to let him in, he added, "Beth, I'm back. I am going to be on the colony for some time."

She glared at him, her lips pinched together. Then she stepped aside without a word. Kanen walked in past her, into the living room, and sat down on a couch.

It was a sizeable living room. The apartment was meant for two people.

"I don't have a lot to say," Kanen said to her as she walked into the room. She did not sit.

He added, "Not as much as I'm sure you'd like to say to me. Nothing's going to help much. I just wanted to let you know I'm sorry from the bottom of my heart, and that I'm trying to make amends."

"By coming here?" She stared at him. "You think you're making amends by coming back... here?"

"I was asked to come back–"

"By who?"

"Saraanen. He needs people right now, and I've recuperated enough."

"That's nice. That's nice. I'm glad someone has."

"Beth, I–"

"My husband nearly died because of you."

"If I could do anything for J–"

"Don't say his name! Don't you say his name. He was seriously hurt." She looked away for the first time. "He's still in there, on his white bed in that horrible room, and he nearly died. They won't even let me see him except on weekends."

"Has he ... come back at all?" Kanen asked.

"A couple of times. We spoke a little, but he drifted off. They think it might be all right some day but we don't know when, and the brain injuries mean he might not be able to..." Her voice sputtered, then failed her. She breathed deeply. "Why did you return? What can there possibly be left here for you, except more people to hurt?"

"I don't know, Beth. Some way to show I'm not a tired old man who's lost it for good and who puts his friends in terrible danger," he said. It was an honest thing to say, or at least it felt that way to him, and for the first time in their talk she met his gaze with something that didn't resemble hatred.

He got up. "I didn't want to make this long. Just wanted to let you know, before you heard from anyone else, or saw me around. I won't be getting in your way. But if he gets better, I do hope you will let me know. I really do."

He turned and walked to the door. "Take care, Beth," he said before leaving her quarters.

***

You know you have to go when you start to fail, little by little. The final break that pushes you out - which will always be terrible, and far more costly to other people than it was to you - is not some single event, some great explosion that is isolated from everything else. Not a single grand failure but a cascade of smaller ones that you just can't grasp, no more than the pebbles falling through your hands. They add up and they keep adding up in a monstrous framework of dangerous failure until finally, by some banal coincidence, something finally tips the whole thing over.

 

And people get hurt.

 

All those little mistakes, the ones you wouldn't have made if you weren't so tired, and you want to say: It wasn't me. This is not how I live my life. This terrible wreckage, this is not the work of a man like me. But you only think like that after the fact, and by that time you can no longer attract attention to what you did. You are advised, by those few who will still talk to you when you surface as a human being again, to ‘let go of the past.’ Let go of the past and ‘live in the now.’ Never mind that my past includes several decades of not fucking up, before everything started to slide, and that my Now involves an old man about to work on a ratty piece of equipment on the hard edge of a rock floating in deadly nullsec. To hell with the Now. I'd live in the past if I could; the view is infinitely better.

***

He walked on. He didn't know what was driving him on: atonement or sheer stubbornness. There was one person who wanted him here, one who wasn't sure, and one who wanted him dead and gone. If he did this, it wouldn't be noble, but it wouldn't be for a debased reason, either. It involved pride and selfishness, yes; but mostly, he suspected, it involved the need to do something – anything – with the rest of his time other than watch it pass him by.

As he passed into the corridors that would lead him to the changing rooms, he saw, through the glass alloy walls, the world outside this place. There were asteroid mountains in the distance, and beyond them, the sun shining bright. He felt the thrum of the earthworks as he walked on and on. And every face, even those who resented him here - and there were plenty - still showed a grudging respect, if only for the fact that he had lasted this long; he lasted this long and he returned.

He walked on, losing track of time. The harness of his old machine was there; he could see it now. It was empty. It was waiting for him.




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