Derrick stared at the red button. Jagged pieces of melted plastic stuck out at odd angles from the surface and sides. The button sat under a clear case, cut from some discarded item, the purpose long forgotten, which was tied down with a piece of old copper wire. Smudges of grease and dirt dotted the cover. Behind him, a clock on the wall with bright red numbers counted down from ten minutes. At zero, Derrick would have a ninety-second window to press the button. Ninety seconds to go home.
A light pulsed on a monitor built into the wall. Derrick tapped the screen and a graphical display of the inner solar system came alive. The inner planets rotated around a bright orange orb at their center. A green line connected the asteroid, which he had lived on nearly his entire life, with Earth. In just under ten minutes their orbits would align in such a way that, if he left in that precious ninety second window, he would slip gently into Earth orbit. If not, he’d have to wait a year to try again.
A red light blinked on the screen and Derrick tapped it. A diagnostic report detailed the status of his pod, the red button, and the explosives that he stole. Those explosives would fire when the button was pressed and push him out from the mining facility and towards Earth.
A ding sounded to Derrick’s right accompanied by the smell of burning chemicals and fried meat. His reprocessed protein dinner, pressed into a chicken thigh molded shape, was ready. The dinner was shit. Literally shit. Waste from a thousand people was churned, sifted, processed and refined until the feces could be served back to the miners. Nutrients and minerals were added to the meal along with whatever chemical cocktail the Corporate wanted to add.
Derrick pulled himself back to the button and ate his chicken-shit. A white light shone into his pod from the only window and illuminated the opposite wall. Derrick cursed. He had forgotten to put up the curtain. Doves and Phil had just returned to their pod and were getting ready for downtime. With his left hand he grabbed a metal support pole and pulled himself towards the window.
Joon waved from across the asteroid landscape at Derrick who smiled and waved back. Their pods were separated by thirty feet of cold dead rock and open space. A loud ring sounded from the old phone attached to his wall. Chips of plastic had fallen off and been replaced over decades with different generations of duct tape. Layers of dried grease helped hold the rest of the ancient device together. The receiver was older than anyone on the station but, unlike most of the miners, it still worked and that’s all the Corporate cared about. Derrick stared at the phone. He knew who was calling as only one person ever did. If he didn’t answer, she’d know. Besides, she was staring at him.
“Hello?” Derrick said.
“Why do you stay in that pod all by yourself? We have room in this one. Aren’t you lonely?” Joon said.
Derrick looked back out the window. Joon smiled, her head rested in her hand.
“I like being alone,” Derrick said.
“That’s a load of shit. That’s why we talk on this every night?”
“Didn’t say I didn’t like talking,” Derrick said.
Joon laughed, “You hear the corporate suits want another one percent efficiency hike on number four digger?”
“Again? When’d that come down?”
“After shift. Was on the wall monitors in the rec room.”
Derrick shook his head, “Great. What’s that, the thirteenth one-percent this month?”
“What do they care if a few dozen of us die on the drill heads? We’re just a part to get replaced,” Joon said.
Derrick didn’t answer. He took another bite from his food and swallowed. His mouth tasted like he threw up and choked the bile back down. But he needed to eat. Once his pod separated from the main mining facility his reclamation system would be self-contained and he needed all the calories he could get. Over his shoulder, Derrick checked the time. Bright red numbers flashed five minutes. He scanned his pod and checked off that everything was in place and tied down.
“You hear about Jase?”
“No, what happened?” Derrick looked back to the window at Joon.
“Got his arm yanked off by faulty worker-bee,” Joon said. She frowned as she looked across the small gulf between them.
“Christ. Can they reattach it?”
“Nope, the arm got sucked into a re-processor. It’s gone.”
Derrick looked down at his protein dinner and frowned. Any found biomass was thrown into the reclamation system by automated robots, including dead miners. Most people tried not to think about the cannibalistic nature of their meals. Nobody had died recently, and Jase’s arm was too recent, so tonight’s chicken was probably human-free.
He sighed and took another bite. “Where is he now?”
“Already has his transit order. They are sending him to one of the processing plants. Desk gig.”
“Nice if you can get it.”
“Tell me about it,” Joon chuckled once and smiled.
“You don’t seem so broken up.”
Joon shrugged, “Corporate must have already added some anti-depressants to the meals. Can’t even fucking feel bad for the guy.”
“Least we aren’t behind on the quota. I’ve had enough of the stimulants.”
“What, you don’t like not sleeping for a week and have your heart at 150?”
“Not so much.” Derrick poked his molded food with a fork. A large dry piece flaked off and floated next to the plate. Derrick flicked the floating faux-chicken with his finger. The force sent the piece downward to the floor. With his foot, Derrick pinned it down where the floor met the wall.
“You OK, Derrick?”
Derrick didn’t answer. He continued to poke at the remaining chicken on his plate and forced another bite down. He cringed at the synthetic feel. The former waste product slid down his throat and fell into his stomach like a lead weight. Over his shoulder, the clock was down to two minutes.
Outside, across the small gap of empty space, Joon pressed her head to the window. To the right the dry desolate asteroid surface stretched off to the horizon. Derrick looked at Joon and tried to smile. Though they did have occasional sex, they didn’t go beyond that. He had sex with others as well. Everybody did. Intimate contact was the only thing they could do to feel human. Whatever being human meant.
“Yeah?” Derrick said.
“What’s going on?”
“Nothing, just tired I guess,” Derrick said. One corner of Derrick’s mouth pulled up into a weak grin.
Joon’s face wrinkled into something between a smile and a frown, “Well, get some sleep. Shift’s in six hours.”
“You too, Joony,” Derrick said. He put his hand, filled with calluses and caked with dried grease, on the window. He looked at the cracks “Hey Joony?”
“Yeah?” Joon said.
Derrick looked at the piece of chicken on the floor. The once fecal matter lay there as if it was destined to. As if Derrick’s whole life, being sold to the Corporate, raised by emotionless teachers, having electrical implants installed to keep his muscles from atrophy, taught how to mine asteroid rock, all of that led to that piece inanimate matter at his feet.
“Nothing. Have good night, Joony.”
“OK, weirdo. See ya on number four tomorrow.”
“Yeah,” Derrick’s voice fell to a whisper.
A click sounded. Derrick watched Joon place her receiver in its cradle and wave goodnight. He put his own back but didn’t take his eyes off Joon. A piece of plastic from the phone broke free of the greased duct tape and fell. It floated downward and rested next to the chicken on the floor. Derrick checked the clock. Only three minutes to go. He pushed off from the window and floated to his air tanks. Pressure, levels, everything seemed fine.
The buzzer sounded from the clock. It was time. Ninety seconds. Derrick looked at the clock and nodded to himself. Motors turned on somewhere in the pod filling the room with a breeze. The air was a mix of smoke and stale bread. Derrick could barely smell it anymore.
Sixty seconds. Derrick ran through everything in his mind. The bolts were connected and installed. The explosion would propel him out with enough momentum to start the trip. With the extra calories he had been eating, his reclamation system would provide enough food and water if he rationed.
Fifty seconds. He had every right to go. So what if he was stealing and damaging corporate property? They wouldn’t care. Derrick had seen the automated robot constructors. They hopped from one asteroid to another building mining bases. There were countless facilities sitting empty on dozens of asteroids. Everything they did here was criminal. Once he wondered why they just didn’t replace the miners with robots but the reason was simple, robots were worth more than miners that eat their own shit.
Forty seconds. Derrick turned to the red button and lifted the plastic case. The malformed plastic button stared back at him promising freedom, fresh air, and real sunshine, even a family. He could find his parents, his siblings. Did he have brothers or sisters or both? Derrick couldn’t remember. What country would it be? Where was he even from? Would there be rain? Maybe he could even find a girl, reverse his corporate mandated sterilization, and have kids.
Thirty seconds. Derrick thought about Joon. There was no way he could invite her. There would not have been enough air for them both. She had told him once of the Atlantic Ocean. How birds flew just inches off the surface and whales bigger than half the pods glided through the endless blue, though he didn’t believe it. He remembered holding her at night when her best friend had died in an accident. Joon had refused to eat for two days. She wanted to feel something for her friend and had cried until morning.
Twenty seconds. Derrick thought about the explosive bolts again. The original ones weren’t strong enough to propel the pod far enough out. Derrick had found them in an old storage bin buried deep in the mining facility. He added high-grade explosives he grabbed from storage bins to the underside of the pod. Those explosives would give him enough force to send his pod on its way. But it wouldn’t just send him off. Those explosions would tear off the structural supports for this entire section, where Joon slept, and depressurize the entire facility, killing over a thousand souls.
Ten seconds. Derrick had every right to go. He never asked for this life. His parents were lied to. He was stolen and forced into being property, something the Corporate could declare that it owned. An object. With their chemical cocktails they could make him feel anyway they wanted. He wasn’t stealing anything. He was a free man and could come and go as he pleased and no one had the right to tell him otherwise.
Five seconds. Derrick put his hand on the red button. He could feel the jagged pieces poke his skin. The wiring underneath was put together from scraps found in a broken radio. He took a deep breath and focused on his decision to go.
Three seconds. Derrick closed his eyes. Flashes of his mother filled his mind. He tried to picture her face but he couldn’t remember. She had sold him when he was five years old so her other children could eat. All he could see was the slick smile of the well-dressed corporate recruiter; We will give them a home.
Two seconds. Derrick opened his eyes and looked at the window. Outside he could still see Joon. She waved to him one more time. She hadn’t chosen this life either. None of them had. Not Joon, or Phil or Jase, or anyone. But it was still theirs. As soon as he pressed the button, their lives wouldn’t be theirs anymore. Derrick would have chosen for them.
One second. The clock went to zero behind him. Derrick lifted his hand away from the button and sighed. He reached up to the plastic cover, pulled it down and tied it secure with the piece of old wire. He picked up the piece of plastic and chicken from the floor, threw them both into the reclamation system and turned to his bed.
The ringer from the phone erupted in his tiny room and Derrick spun his head toward the phone. No one should be calling this late with shift starting in the morning. He picked up the receiver and was shocked to hear the voice on the other end.
“Couldn’t do it, could you?” Joon said.
“Joony? Do what?”
Lights turned on in Joon’s pod. She sat next to the window smiling and holding up a handful of bolts. Derrick recognized them at once. He gulped down a lump in his throat and tried to smile across the darkness.
“How?” Derrick said.
“Are you kidding? Can’t do much on this station without another grease monkey finding out. And it was a piss poor job. You would have blown your pod to shit. Even if you didn’t, you think the robot patrols wouldn’t have caught you? And even if you got pass those, Earth would have blown your ass out of the sky as soon as you entered orbit.”
“Joony –” Derrick leaned into the window and tried his best not to look embarrassed. He failed.
“Shut up, Derrick. You think you’re the only one that tried to go home? Remember Nelson? Stuffed himself in a faulty waste reclamation system. How about Cara? Ate a pound of iron ore to fool the bio-sensors and tried to sneak onto a mineral transport.”
“They didn’t try to kill anyone else,” Derrick said.
“Neither did you. Though it’s a good thing you didn’t press that button. I rerouted your electronics last shift. Your pod would have filled with gas emissions from the pisser.” Joon snorted a laugh and cupped her hand to her mouth.
Derrick let his forehead rest on the window and looked out across the darkness. Joon smiled back and shook her head. She’d hang this over his head for years, Derrick knew.
“What happens now?”
Joon smiled. “Want some company?”
Derrick nodded. They both hung up the receiver and Joon left her window to walk the short distance to Derrick’s pod. Maybe he wasn’t going home tonight, but he would spend it with Joon. He climbed into bed and didn’t bother taking off his clothes as a wide smile grew across his face. For the first time in is life, he’d made his own choice. Maybe he wasn’t going home tonight. But then again, maybe this was home.
Header photograph: By włodi from London, UK (The Big Red Button Uploaded by Yarl) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons