Science Fiction Jupiter moon political persecution genetic modification mining volcano Space Station Jupiter industrial dispute

In Place of Darkness (Io, #1)

By Elinor Caiman Sands
Mar 3, 2020 · 3,444 words · 13 minutes

Infernal flames Halloween project 😈

Photo by Paweł Czerwiński via Unsplash.

From the author: An apparently rich and privileged young man is sent by his industrialist father to deal with a potentially explosive labour strike on an Io mining colony. The miners are strange, troll-like, radiation-adapted beings who most people dismiss as barely human. The young man nevertheless agrees to meet with their leader and ultimately comes to question whose side he's on, the miners' or his father's? Originally published in Strange Bedfellows: An Anthology of Political Science Fiction.


NO ONE ADMIRES THE view from Station Io. This is unfortunate. When Jupiter rises above its little tempestuous moon there’s nowhere quite like it in the Jovian system, nowhere as beautiful, as exotic, as deadly. But only the Iods are here, trapped aboard the windowless Station, the Iods and me.

The granite-skinned ones are assembled in the dismal mess hall arrayed amongst the beer-stained dinner tables. Their eyes are like pits and their hands like shovels. The mess hall stinks with their tar-like body odour, what substances run through their ash-coloured veins is a Company secret even I’m not privy to, though I imagine rivers of methane and lead, spiced with pure extremophile DNA.

These ominous grey faces watch me as I loom over them from the raised steel gantry, their mouths like caverns, their teeth like Stonehenge.

I hug my jacket close against the chill that runs through me. I suck air into my lungs, grasp the balustrade and address them all: “I’m Lucian Float, Acting Mining Director of the Beyond Ceres Company; I’m here to settle this strike of yours.”

“We know who you are.” A thick-set Iod far below shouts back. “You’re the little rich boy with his nose in the honey.”

I hold my head up even though what they say is true; they have nothing while I have everything.

But they don’t know Daddy; all that could change in the space of a Jupiter cloudburst. If I fail to end the strike the Company will never be mine, and worse, Tanick will inherit the chairmanship. My treacherous little brother does so try to relieve me of everything.

I look back down and there is Steward Joffi pushing his way to the front of the gathering, yellow and black in his sulphur-smeared boiler suit. “Listen to the kid,” booms the Iod. “We need him on our side.”

I turn back to the mob. “What will you take to go back down to the surface and start digging?” The Station is just a transition point. They're meant to be down there right now, building their base, seeking out rare earths. But nothing can make them move.

They’ve rejected the usual things: more rations, improved conditions. There’s no knowing what Daddy will do if the strike drags on. I worry for them; they rely on a dangerous strategy. With no legal rights, they are Company property, as disposable as a paper cup.

Another Iod pushes Joffi aside. “We’re not afraid of you. You go to Io, in your fancy suit.”

The Iods are laughing now and one throws a gob of rotten veg that hits me squarely on the lapel; it oozes down my shirt, the stench drowns out all other smells. They’ve already trashed Io Station once, perhaps they want to send me to my death. It’s a possibility I’ve considered.

“Only you can dig Io and endure the radiation environment,” I point out. “You can take pride in that.” But inside I think they really do seem cornered beasts, trapped on this leaky station, scarcely human, although they are human, at least in part.

Joffi speaks again: “Talk to Kanunjai on Io and then maybe the men will hear you.” It’s not the first time I’ve heard that name. I feel a spark of irritation at the mere mention of it. “Kanunjai is smart,” continues the Iod. “He has all the answers. He’s our representative.”

“Kanunjai!” And the miners are chanting now. “Kanunjai!” I’m right here and trying to help them and all they can do is call on that infernal name. “Kanunjai!” The name echoes on the craggy lips of the assembled men, shoulder to shoulder in the crowded space.

Exasperation flows like lava through my veins. “Why Kanunjai? Why not me?” I raise my voice at last, “I’m not going to Io!”

The crowd surges forward as one. It assaults the gantry. The structure sways precariously beneath my feet.

I clutch at the balustrade as my heart pounds. The Iods roar, they pile up the steps before me. Heavy feet crash on the metal treads.

The security personnel lock arms. They stand between me and the enslaved men of Io. An angry face lunges across an armoured shoulder, I see the hatred in its eyes.

The face is thrown back into the seething mob. Rough hands seize my elbows.

I’m shoved through the access door and out into the draughty tunnels. Anxious guards hustle me back to the relative safety of my cabin. Lockdown ensues while the Station rings hollow with the sounds of fists and batons.

Eventually the corridors quiet. I close my eyes and rest my head on the metal bulkhead of my cabin. I’m sleepy now but in no mood for bed. If only I had a bottle of bourbon but I’ve given all that stuff up, that and the wild parties. Those days are past, I’m not so young anymore.

I activate my cerebral network. As I thought, Io basks in a shocking 3600 rem of radiation a day. The Iods can tolerate such levels but my DNA isn’t like theirs. The shielding tech and medications have come a long way so it’s not impossible but it’s a risk.  The miners know all this.

I don’t want to go to Io. I tell myself they’re being unreasonable. I could talk to Kanunjai from up here but the man uses the radiation as a communication shield, he can’t or won’t talk to anyone, like some kind of lunatic hermit. Still my choice is plain. I must take a trip to hell if I want to win my inheritance.

I try to sleep at last but now my fears for tomorrow and thoughts of Starlie, my fiancé, fill my mind. Will I ever see her again? I'm not sure she really loves me.

I can almost hear Daddy saying I told you so while my plans for our future sink into a pyroclastic flow. And tomorrow I go down to the pits as surely as Dante to the inferno.

I’m clutching the arms of my auto shuttle seat; my knuckles turn white as the vessel comes in to land. Touchdown is beset with danger on this demonic little world. Only a slight path deviation and I’ll land in a field of bubbling lava. But there’s a satisfying thud as the ship settles. Soon I can hear the noisy clunk of docking mechanisms.

The ship sings at me to disembark. The atmosphere hisses in my ears as the airlock springs. I wrinkle my nose at the soot and sulphur breeze that wafts in through the grimy access tunnel.

The air here might be bad but everything else feels light, the gravity much less than on the endlessly spinning station. But there’s no sign of Kanunjai.

I prowl around the deserted metallic living space. The place is a wreck; ripped out bunk beds and empty tin cans litter the floor. Paper sheets plaster corrugated walls; spectral figures sketched in ink dance across rocky landscapes. In one corner there’s a messy hydroponic garden. The garden has climbing corn and a tangle of red tomatoes. I pluck one of the tomatoes and devour it. It proves to be remarkably sweet and juicy.

I retreat to the one remaining bunk bed and slump down on it wearily. A graphene reader rests by the pillowcase. And yes, I know it’s prying but Kanunjai is hardly showing me hospitality, his lack of attention fills me with indignation. So I pick up the device and fit it to my ear.

The neurobot is full of books, titles like: The Geology of Hell; Angels on the Moon; Demons and Dimensions and Preaching to the Congregation.

I put the gadget aside feeling increasingly uneasy. Human history is littered with wildly popular religious leaders, and not all were forces for good. I can’t help wondering if Kanunjai’s influence is more than just secular.

That’s if I ever find him. I figure he must be Outside, on the surface of Io.

A tremendous thump echoes through the habitat. I wake from my stupor and fall with a crash out of the narrow bed. The airlock wheel is spinning wildly.

I climb to my feet rubbing my knee as the door clangs wide. A figure enters, his pressure suit helmet clutched in one granite fist. Kanunjai.

He’s no larger than the other Iods, and no prettier either, but whether it’s the way he stands, or something more subtle, he has a remarkable solidity about him.

“Mr Kanunjai, I’m…”

“I know who you are.” His voice is soft with a hint of basalt. “We’ll talk, Outside.”

“No, not Outside.” At last I have proof of his lunacy; only a madman would take me Outside.

“Don’t be a fool,” he says. He seizes a spare Io suit from the airlock compartment. “Put this on. It’ll block the rads as much as this module.”

I take the offered suit, doubtfully. From this angle Kanunjai looks like one of Jupiter’s smaller, more irregular moons, just as bleak, just as unwelcoming. His grey skin is pitted and cratered. “We could talk in here.”

Kanunjai turns his back, he won’t answer. Instead I’m forced to examine the reflective suit; it’s the latest tech. The Iod wouldn’t deliberately lead me to my death, surely. He’d only lose if I die out there.

But I’ve only just met him, can I really trust him? My head tells me no but my heart tells me otherwise; there’s something about the man that makes me want to follow him. He has a striking authority that other men lack. Much like my father.

I encase myself completely in the unit and test all the life support systems—pressure, ventilation, heating and cooling. The suit is rather large which I hope won’t be a problem, but it still feels claustrophobic. Finally I step into the airlock behind Kanunjai.

The Iod hauls on the massive leaden door. The vibration resounds through my feet. I’m not sure what to expect of Io; I can’t imagine what’s out there that Kanunjai is so anxious that I see. I won’t be seeing Jupiter—now that would be a magnificent sight for sure. Io is tidally locked and the mine is set on the farside of the turbulent little world. It permanently faces away from the giant planet and into the darkness.

The hatch to the vacuum creaks open. I hear Kanunjai breathing. I take a deep breath of chilled and tanked air and step over the rim.

The landscape of Io is utterly black.

Of course with no moon to relieve the darkness, only the myriad stars light the sky, more than I can count. At times the anaemic sun crosses the heavens but it isn’t here now.

The Iod switches on his helmet lamp and a sickly yellow frost appears at my feet. I can almost smell the sulphurous stink while off to the left there’s a sudden glow and a fiery column blasts into space: one of Io’s many volcanoes.

Kanunjai stalks forward with gentle bouncing steps into the deeper darkness. Io is a giant dynamo; it twists and turns in the magnetic fields of mighty Jupiter. From its near surface,  beyond the horizon vast lightning bolts stream down electrifying the tangerine clouds. Even beneath my feet the static crawls like sparkling dynamite under my rubber soles.

Then Kanunjai stops and turns off his light. “Now we wait,” says the Iod while the night comes deeper than ever. Neither of us move; my patience withers as time slips into a singularity.

Slowly the Event begins that Kanunjai brought me all this way to see. It’s almost invisible, a pale reflection, a misty veil. Then the vision becomes clearer; blue-green ghosts dance across diamond-decked heavens. It’s a strange but oddly beautiful sight that few can have witnessed; I feel honoured to look on it.

“There they are!” exclaims the Iod.  “The demons.” Kanunjai’s voice rumbles with genuine affection. “We stand on hallowed earth. We cannot mine here, not at any price. I stay here to study the spirits, to speak with them.”

My lips narrow with displeasure. At first I don’t answer him; I just shiver beneath the curious sky.

This aurora-like haze isn’t demonic. I don’t fully understand it but it’s well documented; just another of Io’s outlandish features. I see physics, not spirits.

I feel heavy beyond reason in such light gravity. How am I going to deal with Kanunjai if he holds such beliefs? He’ll never listen to a sceptic like me.

My head aches, the impasse must finally be draining me as I run out of options.

“So there’s nothing that’ll dissuade you, not even doubled rations and trebled supplies?”

“That’s right,” says Kanunjai, gazing up, his voice a distant echo. “One day you’ll understand.”

But I’m sure I never will. The Iods might as well believe in the tooth fairy. I’m offering them as much as I can extract from Daddy, but it might as well be dust.

As I stand here feeling the onset of despair something brushes across my visor: sulphur-dioxide snow drifting softly from the heavens. And I feel nauseous and faint. The moon starts to spin. I grasp at the clouds in a futile gesture, willing them to support me.

But the blue-green spectres are in my helmet, in my hair. And my legs are made of paper. The translucent skies above me transform, now they hold familiar-looking demons.

My body is falling. My mind is dreaming. Beyond the visions as I hit the frozen ground and close my eyes I see the truth at last: the spectres are my father.

My head is pounding; my arm, throbbing. An intravenous drip snakes heavenwards. I don’t remember returning to the module.

“So the suit didn’t save me,” I croak. My throat feels dry, my voice sounds harsh. I wonder how long I’ve been out and how much radiation I’ve taken.

“It wasn’t the suit,” says the Iod, lying back on his bunk, neurobot behind one ear. “You took my tomatoes. Stupid.”

And I guess I should have realised; eating Io-grown fruit was a foolish idea. “Thank you for saving me,” I say.

Kanunjai grunts. “You have some balls though, going out there. Most would have chickened.”

I lick my dry lips. “Maybe. But we need a solution.” The Iod nods and leans back in his seat but says nothing. So I continue: “The BCC needs the rare earths here, Europa needs them, and Ganymede. Your men need to mine them. I’ll give you more rations, the station will be better maintained. But I’ve seen nothing but clouds. You can have a church--if you want to build on top of the mine.”

“On top of the slag heap you mean.” Kanunjai’s stony face is unreadable.

I meet his dark gaze. Surely he knows he can’t stay here forever, picnicking. “We must find agreement, you and I. If we don’t there’s no knowing what Daddy will do, cut off your supply ships, leave your men to rot. I know my father, I can’t save you. I’m offering you a chance.”

And Kanunjai’s eyes blaze now. I realise too late that I’ve said too much. I didn’t intend to provoke him to anger, that’s the last thing I wanted, trapped here the two of us on this horrible little moon.

The Iod’s mouth is a snarl of spikey tomb stones, he rises from his chair and takes a heavy step towards me. I taste adrenalin as I squirm beneath his enormous shadow, my back against the wall, wondering in horror if he means to hit me.

My medication tube writhes like an eel. One strike and he’ll probably kill me. His strength must be that of ten men and his fury is plain, his mood volcanic.

But he doesn’t hit me. Instead he grasps my arm in his granite fist.

“You’ve had enough,” he says, pulling the drip from my flesh with remarkable gentleness. “You’re clearly recovered.”

I wince but my heart rate eases. His face has lost its terror.

“I apologise for my anger,” he says. “I know we must mine this world, it’s our fate, for now. Forgive me. Let’s find another site and keep this one pure for the Church.”

I dab at my bleeding arm with the swab he offers. I’m still unsettled but he is what he is, potentially as volatile as the moon itself, a crazy man, a genius, a prophet, all those things perhaps.

As my strength returns I think about his plan. How Kanunjai can regard anywhere on this hellish little world pure is strange to me but it’s worth considering. “It’ll be a hard sell,” I say, tentatively.

Kanunjai smiles. His teeth are tinged with blue. “I have faith in you. You can persuade your father.”

“Daddy is a difficult man.”

“I know,” he says, and looks at me. I lower my head; I swear he can read my soul as plainly as a Shakespearean tragedy; he can see straight through to that dark place where the secrets of my troubled family lie; where hide the true demons and the pieces that make me what I am, an odd little rich boy perhaps, misused, abused and with an affinity with the underdog.

Kanunjai adds, “Do you see why we need our Church?” He knows that I don’t. It’s all tea leaves to me. He says, “We need it to be free.”

And it seems obvious now: it’s their first step on the long road to liberty, it’s much more than just a Church they’re after. Kanunjai will use it to lead them, to give them strength. I wonder now if he even believes in his spirits, but maybe that’s not the point.

Kanunjai laughs. “You think I use the spirits? You assume much, young man. Go back to the station, talk to your Daddy.”

I would not have him think I doubt his sincerity, but I know better than to argue, I may as well hurl stones at Mt. Tvashtar. Kanunjai is younger than me, but it doesn’t show.

“We can talk more on the Station,” I say, “If you’ll come with me.”

“I’m already packed,” he says. “My job here is done.”

We return to the orbiting outpost, me in my shuttle, he in his capsule. I intend to stay on the Station for some time. Europa holds little appeal even though Daddy is content with all that I’ve done here; I’ve managed to persuade him, my inheritance is secure.

Kanunjai is working in the neglected garden when I find him. He’s settled back into life aboard with extraordinary ease; he’s been helping to repair the damage from the riots; I’m impressed by how little Io’s low gravity has weakened him.

“So you’ve split with your girl,” he says as I sit beneath the warming sunlamps. "It sounds like you did the right thing, if she didn't love you.”

“She's been seeing my brother, Tanick. She admitted it to me last night. How did you know?”

“It doesn’t take a prophet to see. And besides, you talk in your sleep." He smiles as I feel sad once more.

“The spirits didn’t tell you then?” I say. I still wonder if he believes in them.

“You joke about these things.”

But I tell him I don’t, and I mean it this time.

“That’s good, it’s a start. I’m holding a meeting of the new Church tomorrow. If you’ll join us you’ll be welcomed.”

And I expect I’ll go, too. I’ve had occasion to think. I might not have found God in the brief time I’ve spent on Io but maybe I’ve found something as worthwhile: a mission, a calling, a cause to strive for beyond my own immediate wellbeing.

Kanunjai mixes up mineral nutrients. Soon he’ll be going down to Io again to build his house of spirits and move the mining gear to the new site. Whether he’s crazy or not I’m still not sure; he’s a strange sort of prophet.

But I know one thing: he’ll not rest until his people are free. And I intend to him help where I can. And maybe in doing so I can find my own kind of strength, my own kind of freedom. Indeed, I think in some ways I already have.

END

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This story originally appeared in Strange Bedfellows: An Anthology of Political Science Fiction.


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Elinor Caiman Sands

Elinor Caiman Sands is writing science fiction and fantasy.