March 3rd 3300
Oren Drake squinted in the harsh sunlight of the planet surface and raised his hand to shield his eyes while they became accustomed to the savage glare of the white star, especially when reflected of the orange/brown landscape, as he became more comfortable he set off toward a group of men working on one of a number of small patches of vegetation clustered around a sun scorched metal water tank. He looked down at the dust his boots kicked up as he walked, the light powdery soil swirling in his wake and he wondered, not for the first time, how the hell anything grew here, or indeed how anyone worked out here, even after his short walk his lungs were struggling in the thin atmosphere, and then there were the hidden dangers - don't expose your skin to more than four hours direct sunlight per week Pilots and Admins were warned, yet the Agris routinely worked seven hour shifts out here, back breaking labour with only rudimentary, often home made safety equipment. As he approached the group a siren sounded and the men either shouldered their tools or turned them into staffs, almost crutches and began shuffling back toward the settlement, the lights of the main buildings and the remaining functional hydro-dome beginning to become visible as the sun started to set. As the shambling column reached Oren one man broke ranks and limped over to the pilot leaning heavily on his mattock as he walked, there were some pointed looks from the group, some disgruntled mumbling also, audible even over the scouring winds, Agri's did not mix with Pilots, but Oren and Arte had known each other since birth, Arte born seven minutes before his womb-mate and the two had shared a bond ever since, a bond not even broken when Oren showed the mental aptitude and quick reaction speed to be trained as a pilot while Arte's strength and physical endurance made it a toss of a coin between an Agri or a Digger.
"Heard you were back." Arte said removing his mask."
"Took your fucking time to say hello."
"I needed to unwind."
Three days? Had it been that long? Three days of drink and drug fuelled oblivion to shut out the horrors. It was getting longer every time.
"Sorry." Oren replied.
"Let's get indoors, and you can share your fucking rations."
They sat together in one of the giant mess halls, a huge, dingy expanse of a room with half its lights no longer working, its paint faded and peeling and layers of grime from the legions of workers who ate there thick on every surface each with a steaming mug of Knor brew, an infusion of a local fungus with boiling water, it was a mild stimulant and also one of the few refreshments the colony could produce in abundance. Arte quickly devoured the bowl of thin gruel that was his own ration before making equally short work of the salvaged GalCop ration pack that was Orens share.
"How was it?" Arte asked when he had finished eating.
"We got what we were sent for."
"So how long till you go again?"
"No idea, the ships have to be used as sparingly as possible so I suppose it'll be the next time we get a solid lead on something we need, or the mines throw out something we can trade.. If there's anyone left to trade with."
"So I might be stuck with you for a while?" Arte snorted. "Good, I might eat properly."
"I don't know if I can take it anymore." Oren blurted out.
"So something did go wrong out there?"
No. Well nothing serious, it's just it grinds you down. We take off in ships held together with string and prayers, that shouldn't have flown in nearly a century, worn out parts and engines you know could blow at any time, we don't know what's out there, half our instruments don't work. Most of the time you spend shitting yourself because the scanner's showing something that isn't there."
"So you spent three weeks sat on your arse, did exactly what you set out to do and you can't take it because something MIGHT have gone wrong?"
Oren looked away, put like that it did sound ridiculous but how could he explain? Ships vanishing was not an uncommon occurrence, often never to be found, old and faulty scanners showed contacts that were usually not there but kept you perpetually on edge just in case, often vital systems would fail and have to be jury rigged while on the move, days on end spent in witch-space where who knew what was lurking, the choice of spending the entire voyage alert and on edge with only occasional snatches of sleep or trust an antique Stardreamer that had given more than one crewman a chemical lobotomy. After fifteen years the stress was starting to tell.
"Most Pilots are dead by thirty, how many ever reach forty? I'm thirty five, reckon I'm already on borrowed time, want a couple of years just to live."
"Fucks sake Oren how many of us see forty full stop? What do you lot do when you're not in space? Oh yeah. fuck all! When did you last go to bed hungry? or cough up blood from all the shit you breathed in on the surface or down the mines? You get all the grog and herb you want, you don't need a permit to have a woman and since Pilots are exempt from the mating program if you get her knocked up it's some other poor bastard who misses his chance, you risk your life for a few weeks a year and then say you can't take it while the rest of us flog ourselves to death nearly every day. You need a good dose of hard fucking work son."
"Maybe I could transfer to being an Agri?"
Arte's craggy face cracked with derision, "You wouldn't last a week you scrawny little runt." He snorted.
"Did you ever get on the Mating Program?" Oren asked to change the subject.
"Yeah, couple of times."
"No idea, the Admins don't tell you if it worked, guess it must have though or I'd not've got another go."
"You not curious?"
"Not really, Think I'd feel guity about bringing young into all this anyway but it's the only chance people like me get to go with a woman."
"Oren, the Veep wants to see you." A blue overalled Admin broke into their conversation. "Now."
"I'll be asleep when you're done," Arte called as his friend left, "same time tomorrow, and make sure you have your ration card with you."