From the author: Celebrity host Jack Trumbull is set to interview an unlikely hero: an engineered man who--some say--has rescued children from certain death. When Jack's interview reveals how the maintenance worker's personality and actions leave questions about motive, Jack finds himself worried about his own home life, the person responsible for his children, and his own motives at home and at work.
The video was largely gaps and silence. The footage very low quality, barely more than a grainy black and white photograph. The rocky landscape blended with static. In the foreground vibrated the iron-lung-hood of a rover vehicle.
Jack Trumbull pointed at the screen. "Now, again, this has been enhanced as much as possible, but the quality is very poor."
The guest watched Jack's hand gesture. He's puzzled by it, Jack thought. The man raised his hand as well. "The camera is only intended for operator evaluation in the event of catastrophic operation failure." The guest moved his own hand into a perfect imitation of Jack's.
Jack's hand fell to his side. He took another drag from his ecig. The water vapor tasted like used miso soup, but sponsors get to make demands the way children get to make wishes, and the anti-anxiety meds the mix was laced with pulled a warm cloud around him. He could stay in the cloud if he didn't look at Carl. The audience might be interested in him, but Jack was unnerved by the nearly all-white eyes.
"They call you Carl."
The man--"Carl"--slowly lowered his hand. "I have been called Carl."
The name had been pulled from the name of the mining operation. KRL-M8 was a rig in the belt between Mars and Jupiter. Just an anonymous rig in space providing anonymous elements that made cell towers and satellites work. People at home were watching this very interview thanks to something that Carl may have pulled from some rock in space.
"Someone was being clever giving you that name, huh?"
Carl lowered his hand. "Someone was clever."
Jack tried very hard to remember not to shake his head. When he was uncomfortable he shook his head and smoked more. Not smoking more was easy. He was only allowed so many on-air puffs. And this vapor tasted awful.
The video changed to a walking shot. Carl's helmet-mounted camera had recorded his approach to the mining station. A large mushroom-shaped structure squatted in the dark, its gray metal reflecting light from kliegs mounted on the building itself. In front of the station lay rows of conveyor belts that met the robot diggers, each line feeding large chunks of rock into the mouth of the plant. The belts looked like metal centipedes, trapped on their back, legs wiggling, rocks bouncing from set to set.
Carl's camera swung low to examine the operation of the lift. He carefully pulled loose a chunk of rock stuck between two legs and then lifted the chest sized rock onto the belt.
"Impressive strength." Jack puffed nicotine vapor.
"Gravity on KRL-M8 is insignificant compared to Earth."
Jack coughed. "Of course."
The rock tumbled into the mouth of the machine and disappeared. The camera panned across the machinery revealing valves and vents every twenty feet. Beyond the machinery lay a dark horizon. The upper right quadrant of the screen fuzzed into a bright light. From KRL-M8 the sun was a white pea on the horizon. This was brighter and oblong. It sparkled and appeared to be moving. Carl's camera swung as he turned to look at the light directly. A squiggle of phosphene trails faded out in a wake behind it.
The oblong spark grew in length and became a reverse teardrop, tail pointing down as if falling up. The camera held remarkably still.
Jack turned to Carl. "What were you thinking when you saw this?"
"There was a bright light."
Jack looked at his hands. What was he doing, interviewing this man?
The light scattered brightly burning pieces of itself along the horizon as it grew, and then it became clear that it wasn't just a light but a thing, a burning. It turned along a subtle arc. Instead of growing in size, it moved perpendicular to the camera. Its shape was that of a giant insect, like a wasp, the tail engulfed in light. Sparking bubbles of energy tumbled from the tail, burning, crashing onto the asteroid's surface. They disappeared in clouds of dust and debris that rose and hung in the air like suddenly grown mushrooms, extinguished themselves from the massive release of energy. Suddenly the light went out. Some great fuel was exhausted and only debris trailed the great luxury liner as it slowly spun, dying. It began to roll and lumbered over the mining installation. Had the asteroid any greater gravity it might have been pulled into the mining installation. The camera followed it as it came low, moving sideways now, the lights in the cabins and along the sides of the ship flashing on and off. It banked toward peaks of what looked like a mountain, nothing to show how far away they were until the ship hit one, and then it was obvious they weren't distant peaks but nearby hills. The impact carried the debris with it, and the ship caught its nose in the rocks and in a slow, minute-long display, somersaulted over the peaks and was lost in the fog of dust and floating rock, some chunks large enough to cast shadows like slowly moving puddles of water across the surface.
Jack had watched the recording before. It was hard not to be in awe of the size and speed of the crashing ship. He sighed and looked at the nearest camera to share his ongoing amazement but when he saw how Carl stared at him the words died in his throat.
The video changed again. Carl's camera was on the move. He drove away from the mining installation toward a horizon surprisingly close. Ahead lay debris and the slowly lowering clouds of dust that would eventually settle into splash patterns. When he reached it the dust field obscured the camera and there were several minutes of nothing but bouncy driving, the only visible object Carl's right hand resting on the steering wheel. This should have been edited to make the trip shorter, Jack thinks. No one tunes in to watch someone drive a car. The camera and arm jostled occasionally. Lights appeared only briefly, looking like handheld flashlights in the distance but could have been errors of the camera. Either Carl knew the path well, or he had guidance the camera couldn't see. Just as Jack was about to apologize for the video dragging, the footage jumps forward several minutes.
What was left of the liner rose from piles of rubble and rock. The head of the wasp was gone. Only the lower half of the second segment and most of the tail remained. Along the side were bubble windows of the cabins in sets of three, all black, the hull littered with ellipses. Where the tail had glowed with white-hot fury before it now flickered like distant blue lightning.
The camera moved closer.
The camera's low angle gave no view of the ship's front section crumpled in the pit. At this spot so much of the dust and debris was thrown clear and it all looks quiet and peaceful. The black metal looked cool to the touch. The headlamps of the rover slid up the side plating and catch on some of the portholes, black mirrors. The rover stopped, its light casting a circle over the two portholes which make black eyes like an empty skull.
The video changes. Carl is on foot. The plating of the ship to his right, the arid landscape to his left. He walks over rubble and stones in large leaps, arcing twenty feet above the rock and dust surface. Landing with a skip step he launches himself again. He covers the terrain from the tail to what remains of the middle section in a under a minute, despite it being nearly a quarter-mile. The fuselage had twisted and buried itself into the terrain so that it was half as tall as it should have been. What sat level with the mouth of the crater was, in fact, the middle of its height. All across it was easy to spot the escape pods. The lamp mounted to Carl's helmet shined into one after another. They had refused to eject. Some critical failure in the system kept them from releasing properly and in a bubble after bubble were the dead, either slammed by impact or canopies cracked leaving chambers without air. The bodies were dressed as if for a party. Women's dresses covered in sequins, some ripped from the fabric, sparkling clouds settling to the pod floors. Men's suits were fitted and ties knotted. As the helmet lamp hit each bubble another face waited. Some were bloody from impact, others purple from decompression.
Jack heard gasps in the audience. Had his producer watched this? Had he warned the audience of the gore? He'd catch the flak, he knew it. Another day when blacked out segments would have saved him so much trouble, when some silences were better than saying anything, even truth. Sponsors didn't pay for the truth. He'd wanted an exclusive by showing this, but the complaints were sure to come.
The video continued. Carl didn't stop at any of the windows. His headlamp hit each, he bound forward. Until a flutter of movement caught at one window. In mid-leap, he could stop no more than skipping stone, but the flash of small hands on the transparent canopy was clear. Carl skidded to a halt. The skid took several seconds and he lost his footing. When he turned and looked back at the ship he found his way back with a shorter hop and in his headlamp found the pale face of a nine-year-old girl.
A smattering of applause and awes from the audience. Perhaps they'd forget the bodies, Jack thought.
Another leap forward in time. The perspective is hard to understand until his fist comes into view. Standing on a neighboring pod, Carl is able to reach the bubble with the girl. He holds onto the lower lip of the pod and pulls up. The video is too close to the metal of the pod to see anything until he comes to the edge of the window. Inside is the girl. She wears a nightshirt and her blonde hair is pulled into a ponytail. There's blood on her face. She kneels on the floor of the pod. Behind her, curled into a ball is a boy of six. His thumb is in his mouth. He stares at the wall.
Carl lowers himself to the space between the pods. There is enough room between them for him to crouch and move closer to the hull of the ship. If the pod below had released he would have nothing to stand on, no way to reach them. Carl examines two of the four bolts that hold the pod into place. If the ship's power had worked correctly it would have released, along with the others, and a small canister of pressurized gas would have propelled the pod away from the ship. It did not release. Carl begins to torch the bolt.
The video cuts ahead an hour.
Jack realizes his producer has seen the video. Has edited it. His producer left the gore and bodies in.
The pod is behind the rover. Reclaimed cabling ties the pod to a section of the ship's plating which is being used as a sled. Panicky movements in the pod window show the girl is still alive. Despite gloved hands Carl is nimble in this work. The camera focuses on the details of attaching the pod to the sled. He does not linger to look at the girl. He does not work to communicate with her. He climbs aboard the rover and begins to drive.
Another gap. Again the barren landscape filled the image. The arc of Carl's helmet-lamps wrapped over the rover's steering. Beyond the rover was the dead terrain. Nothing in this spoke of concern or panic. Nothing spoke of purpose. There were rock and dust. Ahead hung two blinking lights mounted to a tower. One light is red, the other white. The white one blinks on and off, slow, ten times a minute. Six hundred times an hour. Jack runs numbers in his head. Carl had seen it blink eighty-thousand times since he last spoke to another person face-to-face.
Jack looked again at Carl. The man looked at him with white-in-white eyes. They unnerve Jack even though he's one of lucky few who sees eyes like that almost every day. The lucky few. Those with white-in-white eyes were supposed to only be available for large-scale maintenance. Construction. Not for the lucky few. There weren't supposed to be any lucky few. Jack knew something the audience didn't. He saw a pair of those eyes every day. He wouldn't mention that.
"What were you doing here?" he asked.
Carl looked at the screen. "The pods were damaged and didn't eject properly."
"So you were taking it home?"
There was a chuckle from the audience. Jack ignored it. He'd been told again and again that Carl referred to the main base with living quarters as "home." He didn't bother to explain this. He wanted the interview to end as soon as possible.
"Yes," said Carl. "I was taking the pod home."
A change of perspective: a camera mounted inside the rover's garage. Carl pulled the rover into the bay. The pod almost fit. Inside the pod, two blue lights blinked and a pale light illuminated the girl and the now sleeping boy. From this distance and low-quality footage, they were little more than ghosts. The camera tracked movement. It followed Carl dismounting the rover. Suddenly it swings toward a flash of light beyond the garage doors, from beyond the wide, smooth path of hull slab skid, from all the way to an open plateau and then a valley through which could be seen the hills that obscured the ship. Something on the horizon changed and the image whited out, then fades back in. The engines of the liner had gone critical and released thousands of tons of raw energy, like a local sunrise, one which Carl never had in his home on KRL-M8. And yet Carl didn't turn to view this one time only spectacle, this peculiar moment that could never be again. As the image faded back in he could be seen working on the cables of the skid, ignoring the light around him. He never turned to face the light that was already fading behind him.
The flare sank into the horizon. Carl walked past the pod. The girl pressed her hands against the glass. She slaps her right palm against the glass to get his attention. She might have been speaking, shouting, screaming. Words he wouldn't hear because of the glass and lack of air and he walked away, unlooking, toward the door to enter the pressurized mining installation.
Time leaped forward. It was the next day. Once again the view was from Carl's helmet-mounted camera. He exited the station. He walked to the pod. Through the glass both children can be seen sleeping. They hold one another with a single blanket over them. Carl tapped at the window with a wrench. The little boy sat up and stared at him. Carl kept tapping until the girl also sits up. He waved at her as she rubbed her eyes. His hand tapped on the glass, pointed to the cabinets which line the starboard side of the pod. The girl opened it. Tools slowly tumbled out. It might have taken a minute for them to reach the floor. Carl waved and gestured to the next one. She opened it. Her face broke into a half-smile. Small vacuum-packs fill a bin inside. With clumsy gloved hands Carl makes a turning gesture. The packets fall. He pantomimes eating.
Inside the pod the girl looks from the food packet to Carl and back. She opens a packet and pulls a thick brown mass from the packet. She holds it in front of her. Says something. We can read her lips.
"Eat it?" She asks. Her face is dirty. Tear tracks are visible.
The camera nodded at her emphatically.
"Thank God you were there," Jack can't help but say.
"I was there."
The girl bit at the corner. A small piece. This followed by another. Soon the boy had joined her and they ate even if not with enjoyment.
When the recording jumped ahead again Carl was dragging a monitor to the pod. Someone told Jack it took Carl at least three hours to disconnect it from the station console and another two to pull enough cable from other systems to rig the unit with power. The unit was a station monitor, built to withstand depressurization. As a result it was nearly as tall as Carl. He pulled it to within sight of the pod and from this angle the girl was visibly jumping up and down inside.
"What were you doing with that monitor, Carl?"
"I was moving it to within sight of the escape pod."
"The monitor is a useful tool through which I am able to see instructional recordings."
"You thought the kids might want to see an instructional recording?"
"I did not."
The audience laughed.
Jack says, "In cases of emergency it's important everyone can handle maintenance duties on a remote mining colony."
The audience laughed harder and Jack thanked someone above that the interview was almost over. Carl's all-white eyes were a bother, but now something odd was tickling at the back of his thoughts. It wasn't fully formed, but there was a question. Jack wasn't sure yet what it was.
The final images of the recording played out on the screen.
The girl was still jumping. In the low gravity it was a slow affair. She pointed past Carl, past the monitor. She pointed back the way they came, toward the valley. Toward where the horizon had been aglow with the explosion of the spacecraft. The camera angle was from above, from the garage-mounted camera. The girl looked like a ghost, pale and inhuman through the pod glass and distortion and cheap lens. Like a spectre she raised an arm and pointed as if in warning.
A quick switch to Carl's perspective. He followed her gaze. The lights of two rescue vehicles bounced back and forth in the valley.
An hour later the first rescuers arrived on the dock of the mining installation. Eight of them. They stood in the dock, in a line, along the lip, as if posing for a photo. Their headlamps moved slowly over the camp, most of them focusing on the pod and the crying faces of the children. Carl stood in the doorway to the living quarters, one hand on the doorframe. The puffs of exhaust vapor from their helmets rose in bursts. Little engines that made their way to find no one to rescue. The logo on their shoulders matched that of the crashed vessel. Their expressions were lost behind reflective visors. Slowly they moved to circle the escape pod.
The image froze.
After the viewing, Jack asked Carl all the same questions that had been asked already, the questions everyone knew the answer to. He asked about the health of the kids, the trip back to Earth, his shock at being given permission to stay. He wouldn't ask the prohibited question: Why not take the kids inside? The question the mining company wouldn't allow, and as the rightful owners to Carl the questions had to meet with their approval. Questions that would reveal that the station was unpressurized and unprepared to deal with any sort of rescue, the fact that the children had no suits, only short term oxygen tanks. The owners of the mining company wouldn't allow those questions, they'd said. Legal action would be taken, they'd promised. To ask the question was impossible. There would be no revealing that Carl, and all those like him, lived forever in containment suits, that they had no training or expectation of rescue in the event of a catastrophe, that they could only call for help in one way: by not doing work. That read as a call for help to the company. But there would be no revelations of that sort.
There was another question, one that he hadn't been told to avoid. Jack swallowed it down. He didn't want to know the answer.
Jack puffed on his ecig. The taste wasn't any better but he no longer tasted anything. The audience was silent. Jack felt numb. He wanted this to be over.
"So, what is it you'd like to do now? You've been granted something no other installation worker has been granted: citizenship and a government stipend. You're on earth. What will you do?"
The audience was silent. Jack watched Carl's face through the haze of water vapor. His expression was unchanging, his nearly all-white eyes measuring Jack in a way that made Jack more cognizant than he'd ever been of the cameras and audience and the unnecessary gaudiness of the set. It made him aware of the sponsor delivered ecig in his hand and of the taste of the vapor in his mouth. And as Carl sat, contemplating, the question was painted indecipherable, the audience coughed and shifted uncomfortably and broadcasting tablets and phones were lowered and stowed.
There was no answer in Carl, Jack thought. Not to that question. But there was a different question that did have an answer. Jack knew Carl had an answer to this silent question. And that's why Jack wouldn't ask it. It would be a bombshell, a question to blow up the interview and everything everyone had said about Carl and the children and the rescue. It was a bombshell and the views would skyrocket and Jack would benefit for weeks if not months. But there was something in the question that terrified Jack. He was one of the lucky few. He saw white-in-white eyes every day. Others knew them as workers on construction and maintenance crews. Not Jack. Jack had one in his home, watching his children. The white-in-white eyes of his at home many belonged to someone just like Carl. And that was why the question terrified Jack. It was why he would never ask it.
Carl had pulled a monitor from the station to the pod. It had only instructional videos on it. Jack had almost accidentally asked the question earlier. He had almost asked what kind of video he'd planned on showing. Something told Jack he knew.
The unasked question was this: Did you pull the pod to your home because you wanted to rescue the children, or were you only interested in figuring out why the pod failed?
The interview ended as the video had begun, full of gaps and silence.