Warning: This work has been rated 18+ for language and violence.
Edward Buck sat with his back to the large power converters. He was gazing out the glass dome, thinking. He could hear the deep thrum of the converters and feel the great vibration of the grinders at work. Now was not the time for thinking though. With a sigh, he stood up and climbed back up the ladder onto the catwalk above the converter. He always felt peaceful up there, gazing down into the biofuel star-core. All you could hear was the thrum of the converters, the star-core took up your whole sight-line. Luckily for him, being an engineer meant you spent most of your time repairing faulty machinery. The machinery on Decken was always breaking. You couldn’t go a day without some sort of sandstorm or hurricane plowing through the settlement. The climate on Decken was strange as well. Forty percent of the planet was desert, forty percent was ocean and the final twenty percent was scattered jungle oases. These were kept alive by underground springs. Turning his mind back to the star-core, Edward looked at his job report. Apparently this particular converter was only functioning at around sixty-two percent capacity. Strange, he thought, the lowest they’ve ever been is seventy-three. Something must really be wrong with this one.
As he set to work, his thoughts turned to his old home back on Terran-Firma. It had been so normal and calm there. There weren’t dust storms every night. He didn’t have to work his hands to the bone just to make sure the lives of one hundred people stayed here. But his choices were his own and he couldn’t do anything about it. If only he had just…
“Jesus Christ! Dave, you almost made me fall into the core.” Dave Lugton was the friendliest person at Ground Zero. He was the first person off the craft that brought the settlers there and was the self-declared welcomer for the whole planet. The man’s cheeriness was infectious and Ed couldn’t help but smile.
“High time your lazy ass came up here Dave.” he said.
“Oh you don’t know me very well at all do you?” responded Dave.“Someone, me, is up for promotion, and I just came up here to rub it in your face before I zoom right up the ladder.” Ed turned to look at him.
“You may be up for it,” he started to grin evilly “but it would be a shame if one of your partners gave you a bad recommendation because you wouldn’t help him with the star-core.”
“You wouldn’t dare!”
“I might.” Dave resignedly climbed up the ladder and took his place beside Ed.
“You know, it’s only a matter of time until I get promoted to commodore and can take my rightful place as a captain. And then you'll be workin' for me” mused Ed.
“And I’m already there.” said Dave, mocking him. Ed threw a wrench at him.
The pair of them worked at the star-core for a few hours. Ed got up to stretch his legs and check the functioning capacity. The monitor read ninety-two percent.
“Ninety-two percent, Dave!” he called up to the catwalk.
“Not bad considering I was working with you!” No snide reply came down. Ed didn’t think much of it. Dave had a tendency to fake his hurt feelings and then bite back suddenly with a vicious barb.
“Come on, let’s go to the canteen. Grab a drink, sift through the same forty girls?” Silence. Now it was strange. Dave never refused booze and girls.
“Dave? You still there man?” Something dripped at Ed’s feet. Something red. Ed rushed up the ladder.
“Shit!” Dave was lying face down in a pool of blood. His head was covered with the stuff.
“Goddammit! Stay with me Dave! Stay with me!” Ed picked up his friend and rushed him to the infirmary.
The doctor came out to meet with him. “Well Ed, you got him here just in the nick of time” said the doctor. “Any longer and he was in danger of bleeding out.”
“That’s great but do you know what caused this?” asked Ed.
“I was hoping you’d answer that question for me. All I can tell is that he’s sustained severe head trauma. You don’t know what happened to him?”
“Well, the grinders are damn loud, maybe something fell off the ceiling, hit him, and fell in the core. The cores usually vaporize anything that falls in. That’s probably it. How long is he gonna be bedridden?”
“Hard to say, but I shouldn’t think anymore than a week. After that, he’ll of course be prohibited from doing most engineering work. He’ll probably be a server for a couple of weeks and then return to engineering.”
“Thanks doc. He really owes you one.”
Ed turned to leave. Just as he was walking through the doorway, the doctor called to him,
“Yeah, what is it?”
“This means he’s gonna miss the promotion exam. You need to tell him that.”
“Why can’t you?”
“Everybody always blames the scrubs, and I’m sick and tired of it.” Ed smiled.
“Thanks doc. I’ll try to let him down easy.”
“You’re a good man Ed.”
Ed returned to his dorm, his head awash with questions. Yes, the grinders were loud, but you could still hear your coworkers. The safety regulations required it. He tossed and turned. Something wasn’t right. Something was missing. Restless, he got up and trudged to the canteen. Maybe a drink would soothe his nerves. At the very least it’d suppress them. He walked through the door and found the canteen deserted. It wasn’t surprising. Work nights never filled the canteen except for the drunks, and they kept well hidden. The barman wasn’t there either, but it wasn’t a problem for Ed. A while back he fixed pretty much everything in the bar, and struck a deal for free drinks for life. He reached randomly behind the bar and took out a bottle of scotch. Nice, he thought, tonight I’m classy. Whenever he drank during the nights, Ed always liked to put himself in the character of whoever might be drinking the same thing. Some nights he was a high-living aristocrat, others he was a lowly wino sitting in the gutter.
He was just polishing off his second glass and was engaged in a lively conversation with a fellow hunting lodge friend, when he heard a peculiar sound. A metallic whir echoed down the corridor. Thinking it was a cleaning bot, he turned back to his conversation. As he was halfway through his third glass, he heard a soft thump from down the same corridor. Meat tenderizers don't usually start this early, he though. He lurched off the stool and staggered down the corridor. As he neared an intersection, he slipped on something on the floor and crashed to the ground. He felt for one of the light switches in the corridor. His drunk eyes could barely register what he saw before a piercing scream issued from his mouth.
"Are you sure you didn't see who or what got him Ed?"
Ed stood in the colony morgue with the mortician. The corpse of the man lay on a gurney in front of them. He too, had sustained a massive head wound. Unlike Dave, he hadn't had a friend to carry him to the infirmary and had died before Ed found him.
"Honest to God Hugh, I didn't see it. Even if I did, I was too drunk to see what it was."
"That's too bad Ed. It's obvious something's wrong here. We need to find out what."
"I can look into it so long as the Commodore signs off on it. Nothing else is breaking so I can take care of it."
"That's real good of you Ed. I'll give the Commodore a note saying I think it's a good idea. He and I go way back. He might listen to me."
"That'd be really helpful Hugh. Listen, just between you and me, a colony doesn't just start falling apart. In one man's opinion, I think somebody went off the chain."
"What? Come on. You're saying we have a murderer on the loose?"
"I'm not saying that. The pieces don't fit to me, that's all. Why do you think I was up late drinking last night?"
"Ed, don't take this the wrong way, but you're crazy. There's nobody here with a wrong thought in their head. Go see the Commodore before I change my mind about that note."