Inspired by Chuck Wendig’s 50 Characters Challenge. The challenge is to write a 1500 word story including five characters chosen from a list of fifty. This story includes:
- The philandering architect searching for purpose.
- The strong, contemplative prospector.
- The unhealthy jailer.
- The domineering assassin looking for a challenge.
- The brutal businessperson.
Warning: may contain textual nudity and juvenile humor about a certain outer planet whose name should not be mentioned.
Uranus would never be sexy, tourism board advertisements notwithstanding. A featureless green orb, its name the butt of jokes, Uranus carried none of the majesty of Jupiter, nor the romance of Saturn. Thrill-seekers skipped right past it for outermost Neptune.
Its unpopularity didn’t matter to me. No one much cared for Alabama back when my namesake and four-greats grandfather moved to Huntsville. We were alike in so many ways. Same pointed chin. Same blue eyes. Both architect/engineers — him for NASA, me for the Corporation.
Of course, I was taller and slimmer, but the analytical part of my brain knew that was mostly due to the low surface gravity on Puck.
We both realized impossible dreams early in life. He was barely out of college that summer evening when he and his coworkers gathered around a television and cheered to see an astronaut first set foot on the Moon.
When I was not much older than him, I and my colleagues at Puck Station monitored the holovids as the Uranian Space Tower — a space elevator — descended into position. They said it was impossible. We did it in less than three years.
What do you do when your lifetime achievement comes at the beginning of your career?
Staring into the bathroom mirror, I tapped the lightpanel to its dimmest setting. “Ugh.” My face was flat and featureless in the dull lighting.
“Where you going?” Shona mumbled from bed. Blonde hair slowly spilled over her sleepy face in the low gravity. Her naked form embraced her pillow. The bedsheet lay crumpled on the floor.
“Boss called a meeting. Hush-hush.”
“Hmmph.” She sprawled out across the bed and fell back to sleep.
“If they won’t leave voluntarily, I want them killed!” Ekkehardt always came straight to the point.
One of the interns raised a shaky hand. “Sir? I think that’s illegal.”
“Illegal my rock-climbing buttocks! The nearest sheriff is 500,000 kilometers away on Oberon. And he’s so deep in the Corporation’s pockets he’s pooping pocket lint.”
“We cannot kill these men,” Marchenko said. “We are engineers. We have no formal training in such things.” He was the most pragmatic of our team.
From the corner of the conference room, a woman approached Ekkehardt and stood beside him. Yet another Corporation suit-and-tie — practically an Ekkehardt clone — this newcomer somehow managed to be a metric buttload more intimidating. It could have been the way her red hair was forced into that severe bun. Or the determination in her Uranian green eyes. Or the multiple survival knives tucked into her belt.
“Delgado!” Ekkehardt shouted. I startled at the sound of my name. “You’re closest to these ice miners. Remind them — they now have only eighteen hours to accept our last proposal and vacate Puck permanently.”
“And if they don’t?”
It was a scary thing when Ekkehardt smiled. “Then I’ve hired Ms. Nessa here to take care of the matter. She is a specialist in difficult business negotiations, and she produces results.”
“They’re just ice prospectors,” I protested. “They’ve been trying to scratch out a living here since before the Corporation came–”
Two hundred pounds of solid muscle wrapped in an Italian suit glared at me. Rumor had it Ekkehardt was raised in a centrifuge. “Until they are gone, our near-Uranian plans cannot proceed! Ms. Nessa has been given strict orders: by this time tomorrow, if they are not on the spaceliner for Neptune, they’re dead men.”
As usual on a Saturday night, I found Mo in the local lockup. It was more a utility closet than a proper jail, but although drunk and disorderly was the only crime that occurred on this mining station, the jailer took his job seriously.
“Hi Jekyll. Paying bail for Mo.”
He rose from his chair, pausing briefly due to a hacking cough, and insisted on patting me down before unlocking the door and admitting me to the jail/closet.
“You should get that cough checked out,” I told him. He just shrugged.
I found Mo cross-legged in midair, pinky finger wrapped around an electrical conduit near the ceiling to support what little weight Puckian gravity gave him. He was lost in meditative thought.
“Mark! It’s been awhile. Heard anything from your wife?”
I shook my head. I had received no messages from Earth in months. “Three billion kilometers puts a strain on a relationship. Have you reconsidered the Corporation’s offer?”
“Not a social call, I see.”
“He’s hired an assassin. Being forced from your home isn’t fair, but if you agree to move to Neptune, the other miners will follow.”
“Have you ever read the poetry of Matsuo Bashō?”
“I don’t read much poetry.” Most poetry on Puck was found in the bathroom stalls, in limerick form.
“He wrote ‘Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home’.” Mo let go of the electrical conduit and slowly fell to the floor in the microgravity. “I have discussed Ekkehardt’s generous offer with my fellow roustabouts, but we must respectfully decline. We have our own plan for dealing with this situation.”
“Puck is not home to us. It’s a place where we found refuge. The Corporation’s offer would make us all wealthy, true, but where could we go? Some of us are wanted criminals in the Inner System.”
“You could go outward. Neptune.”
Mo shook his head. “Delaying the inevitable. That creeping disease called civilization has spread from the Inner System to the Jovian moons, to the Saturnian system, and now it has reached Uranus.”
I shrugged. “That’s progress, I guess.”
He waved a finger at me. “Ah, but with that progress comes a smothering metropolitan lifestyle. Laws and lawmen. Taxation and train schedules. White collar workers and world class wine. And an overarching bureaucracy meddling in all of it. Corporation.” Mo spat. The spittle ricocheted off the floor and spattered across the wall. “And no room for rough men like me and my kind.”
“So what’s your plan?”
It took me less than fifteen minutes to find a willing accomplice for Mo’s plan. The idea was just the right mix of crazy scheme and common sense to appeal to Marchenko.
Puck’s ice miners had long foreseen the coming of the inevitable. When the Corporation first arrived, Mo had convinced his fellow prospectors to pool their money. Cashing in credits for commodities, they retrofitted a cargo carrier in secret, stocking their refurbished vessel with supplies for its new mission.
That morning, the Queen Anne’s Revenge set metaphorical sail, descending the nanotube cabling of the space tower. They would flee, not farther to Neptune, but deeper, into Uranus itself. Marchenko and I used our system access to grant them clearance.
The science station at the bottom of the tower would be the last humans ever to see them. Deep within the featureless green orb of Uranus, Mo and crew would ply the dismal water-ammonia seas for the remainder of their lives, dodging icebergs of diamond. Rough men, eking out a harsh life, on a planet so inhospitable that civilized man would never dare encroach.
“Goodbye, Mo. Smooth sailing.”
Shona spooned up next to me in bed. We were naked, except for the bedsheet. A wan light from the bathroom lightpanel spilled into the bedroom.
“You’re lucky you didn’t end up in jail.”
“I did! Ekkehardt was so furious, he had a Corporation judge sentence me to thirty days.” I rolled over to face her. “Lucky for me, Jekyll decided to see a doctor about that persistent cough. Strange that he left the door unlocked.” The nearest real peace officer was half a million kilometers away on Oberon. I wasn’t worth the time or the rocket fuel. “I’ll have to lay low for awhile, though.”
“What about that assassin? Do you think your boss will send her after you?”
“Nessa? She’s tenacious as tungsten. Her last known position was inside a pressure sphere, descending the space elevator in pursuit of Mo and his crew.” Uranus had fifteen times the surface area of Earth, none of it land. Ms. Nessa had her work cut out for her.
“Do you think they’ll be ok?”
“If anyone can survive that planet, it’s Mo. I think they’ll be fine.” Better than fine: Mo had found his journey, his home.
“Shona? Do you ever think about your husband?”
For a long time, she was silent. I had broken the unspoken rule: we never talked about our spouses with each other.
“Corporation life is rough.” Her voice cracked. “These long-distance assignments are hell on relationships. Seven years is a long time to be alone.”
We lay together, separately, in silence for a long awkward time. I wondered about home. Could I ever go back? Would I even be welcome?
Finally, Shona cuddled up with me again. “Seven years is time enough to figure things out, too.”
Someone recently told me that home is the journey. As I held her close to me, I wondered where my journey would lead.