Long Distance

by Chillaxtronaut

Working on Europa was no better than a layer of hell in Sean Deleck's mind. Well past the fire and the prodding sticks. The deepest layer. An eternally frozen plane of agonizing loneliness. And Sean had been damned to Jupiter's frozen moon for the last seven years. The only thing that keeps him going was the knowledge that his family would be waiting for him in three years when he came home. The first time he would see his son.

Glistening white fog, slowly drifting from the frosted terrain rolled by Sean's black wingtips. The air was frigid, passing through his dress pants as if they were gauze. Thermal gear is essential when temperatures drop below -260 degrees F. Sean's consisted of a black skin-tight bodysuit here interlaced with thin tubes filled with hot liquid, which was constantly being pumped by a small turbine device on the back of his belt. No part of the suit seemed to bring him any comfort. The synthetic plastic material was uncomfortable and the areas of his flesh not covered by one of the heated veins felt as if they would fall off from frostbite. With a slow, constricted movement Sean twisted his head, glancing at the digital clock on the corner of a sign stabbed into the ground half a meter from him. In bright green letters the square, rubber-coated sign read "115.32 ORD", a measure of time telling Sean that the meeting took longer than he expected. Trudging closer through tan pebbles of condensed, dirty ice, he reached the sign and leaned on it with a gloved hand for support.

"I'm not cut out for this kind of work." he said in an exhausted voice. Speaking under his breath caused the windshield on his airtight helmet fog up. Several irritated jabs at the box of controls on his hip to turn on the internal wipers. Through the repetitive sliding of the wipers, Sean saw the faint dispersing glow of a supply train's headlights; reflecting into hundreds of tiny streams of light by the prism-like particles of ice. It was one of the only two on Europa. The train crossed in front of the hotel he lived in for his prolonged business trip to Jupiter's most industrial moon. It did so every 15 ORD's, making various deliveries to and from the scattered communities inhabited by Europa's residents. The supply train once bewildered Sean with it's magnetic rails hovering it nearly a meter above the ground, and the sonic burst of energy it released after dropping off it's cargo and beginning another trip around Europa. The technology seemed spectacular to him, but the new generation would think nothing of it. If they had lived through the major advancements from 2230 to 2264 they wouldn't be so oblivious to the work that goes into the technology they had today. The invention of the quantum propulsion engine would be one such example, the very device that allowed transportation between Earth and Europa; now seen in almost every vehicle in some way or another. Short range teleportation would be another.

Mostly used for placing cargo into space transportation capsules, the technology was now beginning to be tested for long distance space travel.

Sean continued along, now only a few meters from the tracks. The hotel residence lay just over these rails; leaving Sean only a short distance away from warmth, shelter, and the closest thing to home for him on Europa. Looking down at his leather dress-shoes through the smeared and ice encrusted windshield surrounding his face, he gingerly stepped over the tracks. He was careful to avoid the center chord. The thick, ridged cord in-between the side rails could be potentially lethal at the slightest touch, providing the victim with an unhealthy amount of electrical energy.

There once was a crossing platform that collapsed down to form a bridge, but like the rest of the run down equipment on Europa, that broke long ago. It was difficult to repair these delicate devices, and transporting new utilities from earth requires lots of fuel and power, not to mention time. Sean was now approaching the front entrance. It consisted of two crumbling cement pillars and an automatic sliding gate, shaking sporadically; as if it could feel the bone chilling cold too. It clicked at the other side, and Sean stumbled through with his hands pressed far into the pockets of his coat and his back hunched over for warmth. Directly in front of the gate there was a large, plain-looking, gray building. Pipes of various widths and materials branched from large heating ducts, embroidering the edges and creating webs of metal across the surfaces. Sean stepped closer to the massive structure now looming over his head. Sean reached out to a large lever to the right and struggled to push it to the left; his muscles pulsing with the use of energy the cold had already taken from him. Finally the metal handle slid out of place, making a loud screeching sound and unlatching the door lock.

"Hello Sean, another late day?" the woman sitting behind the counter of a stainless steel bar.

"Yea..." he loosened his tie and walked up to the counter.

"What was that?" she asked politely. Sean's face mask was still securely tightened, muffling his answer beyond recognition.

"Sorry," he repeated while twisting the dial on the neck strap and pulling the rubber mask from his head. "I wear it so much I keep forgetting it's there." he added in a worried tone.

"You should take a break. All that time outside can't be healthy."

"Maybe you're right Sally, I need some time off."

"Before I forget Sean, I've got something for you." Sally disappeared behind the counter and came back up with a large cylindrical shaped capsule covered by two inches of solid steel. Inside there was a grid of metal separators. All of the sections were empty, except for one. That block contained a small rectangular device about the size of Sean's fist and about half as thick.

"The capsule landed this morning; the retrieval crew got it back a few dozen ORD's ago." she explained.

The device left in the capsule was a recorded message from earth. This particular tape was two years old, told by the date engraved on the base: 2262.

"Thanks Sally." Sean said, carefully taking the recording from inside the capsule. Messages from his family were rare. There were two others like this one in his room on the third floor that he received in the previous years of his life on Europa, they were now stacked on top of a desk to the right of a picture frame of his wife and son.

Sean said goodnight to Sally and rode the elevator to his room. The room wasn't very spacious, but it was enough to live by. On the left side there was a small end table adjacent to a plain, gray, rectangular bed. On the opposite side of the room was a medium sized desk covered mostly by paperwork except for a small area conserved for his two most prized possessions: a photo of his family and his diploma, outlined by a chrome colored frame. His degrees were a Masters in Engineering Mechanics and a PhD in Nuclear Physics. Unfortunately, his hard work and advanced skills were useless after the fourth stock market crash and there were little available careers in those fields. The very reason he was stuck on this icy wasteland was because of his lack of experience in the business field; one of the remaining profitable professions.

"It could be worse," he told himself, remembering the miners still outside, "I could be doing the manual labor."

In the far corner of the room there was a L-Tech heating system; a large, dark, metal cylinder covered by grooves as if it was made by a pottery wheel. Bright, orange strips of neon lights also encircled it, giving off rays of heat. To the Right of the heater there was a flat screen in the position of a window. A panoramic 3D projection camera relayed information to the screen. An actual glass window would lose too much heat, this way the room could stay comfortably warm and have a nice view of Jupiter in the morning.

Sean stepped in and pulled his shoes off by the door. He walked over to his desk, swiveled the chair backwards and flopped his body into it. On his right hip there was a warped pad shaped frame: a LuxPlate.

This common utility was the most essential piece of technology of the era. He pulled it off and placed it on the desk. Then he set down the dark black rectangle next to it. With expert precision he pressed on three elevated buttons and the box split in half; the top piece rising and sliding backwards on thin metal tracks. This motion revealed a flat interior with a small square depression in the center. Inside this depression was a small chip no larger than his fingernail firmly pressed inside. He slipped off his right glove and used his fingernails to pinch the chip containing his family's message in-between his fingers. With his other hand he grabbed the LuxPlate and slid the chip into one of the smaller slots on the side. Suddenly the frame sprung to life; projecting three dimensional letters saying, "Hardware recognized." in the center. A progress bar appeared below it. The message dissolved and a new one that read, "Downloading video information." took its place. Sean reclined back in his chair and kicked his legs up on the desk, scattering papers everywhere. His wife's face appeared on the screen.

"Hi Sean" she said. Her hair was auburn red, and she was wearing a blue tank top with a light gray jacket. She was in the living room, stark white walls and a silver metal stripe ran across it, about halfway up. A window behind her showed bright green, leafy bushes overcome by shining red berries. The sun's rays were gliding through the windows, adding a supernatural glow to everything.

"Josh is at Soccer practice now, but he should be getting back any second now." she continued. Her smile is almost more radiant than the sun itself.

She looked to the left, seemingly past Sean's shoulder. There was a door slamming sound.

"Mom, I'm home." Sean's son Josh called from the door. "Oh! Are you making a new video for Dad?" he jumped into the side of the screen and waved.

Something was wrong. Sean's fingers went numb and an expression of dread grew across his face. Frozen fingers closed around his mind from all directions. He had seen it before.

"Hey dad!" the video relayed in Josh's voice.

He felt as if the frigid ice of reality was crackling throughout his head; slowly running down the grooves of his brain. The warmness of his home breaking away to the horrible realization that this video was the same. An exact copy of the one he received five years ago. His face turned pale. He couldn't breath. He frantically grabbed the other box labeled 2259, knocking over the photo of his family. He pulled it apart with both hands and contorting the tiny metal arms into disfigured shapes. The tiny chip fell out of place and bounced on the desk with a trembling tapping sound. He picked it up with a shaking hand and slipped in into another slot under the other one. His LuxPlate now said, "Hardware recognized." again and went through the whole process. Hot sweat ran down Sean's forehead, leaving stinging trails where it cut through the frozen mask covering his face. The video finished downloading and he swiped through the air with his index finger and pointed to an option saying, "Run together." it began to play the video again, this time with an exact duplicate above it.

"No!" Sean yelled with tears running down his face. "No." he added in a softer tone. He looked away for a moment, but a slight detail caught his attention. Something sounded peculiar. He rewound the video. On the bottom video the picture quality would split apart and blur occasionally. The sound would cut out too.

"That's strange..." he said to himself. He turned off the original video. The chip he was now viewing looked as if it had sustained gamma decay. This is when the nucleus of an atom has too much energy, such as in some radioactive elements, it releases gamma rays, a type of electromagnetic radiation, to 'drain' some of the extra energy. Internal wiring in these memory chips was made from the element Thorium, a radioactive material that also worked as a good conductor. Because of the malleable properties of this metal in it's refined form, it served as a good material for the intricate wiring inside of the tiny chips. However, this particular chip must have been much older than the previous one. Sean picked up a small set of tweezers from his desk shelf and removed the chip from his LuxPlate. With the tweezers he pulled it apart, bending the metal case slightly. With the same tweezers he pulled out a small piece of wiring. Pulling open another drawer, he rummaged through a variety of metal and plastic objects until he came across his old atomic scanner, a device he used in college to check the atomic makeup of an unknown solution. Sean held up the thorium in his tweezers with his right hand and awkwardly waved the cylindrical tool across the sample of thorium.

"Cobalt, Nickel, Iron, Carbon," he said reading off the abbreviations appearing on the side of the atomic scanner, "More Cobalt, Thorium. Got it." he pressed a lock button underneath the screen, revealing the full information of the given atom. The amount of neutrons, the atomic number, magnetic charge, and energy state were all listed across the screen.

"But that's impossible..." Sean thought aloud, "This is the new chip. It can't be more than three years old. However, if there were some kind of field of photons in open space it could have- No, no, the capsule would block out any forms of radiation. Besides, the Thorium in the wire was at much too low of an energy state, as if it was drained of all of its energy."

Sean put his hand on his face and shook his head in disbelief. He looked at the bottom corner of his LuxPlate for the time. The numbers seemed to pulse and waiver. He had a fleeting thought that there was something wrong with the device when he suddenly got a stinging pain in his head. Clapping his hands over his face in agony, he stumbled out of his chair. He watched helplessly as his surroundings blurred together until he collapsed. Everything faded black.

He awoke to the sight of passing lights. Giant bars of light speeding by. Regaining full consciousness, he noticed these were fluorescent lights on a high ceiling. Echoed voices were shouting, but they seemed distant and were barely audible.

"He's going into cardiac arrest!" one man's voice said. "Get me the paddles!" Sean tried to turn his head to see who was speaking, when he felt a strong jolt in his chest. "Clear!" The force pushed him against some sort of table he was laid across. Sean clawed at it with his hand. It was plastic and covered in small ridges.

"It must be some kind of stretcher." he thought. His vision slowly returned to him. He was in a hospital, being pushed down a hallway. The nearest hospital to his hotel was at least sixty ORD's away.

"How did I get here so fast?" he thought, "How did I get here at all?" he clarified. His body jolted as the stretcher came to an immediate stop. Sean was now in a small enclosed space, a single patient room. A tall, blond woman in hospital scrubs and a surgical mask held up a sleek shiny gun shaped device and held it up to the inside of his arm. A small prick later and a thin metal needle was inserted into his arm. The gun made some high pitched beeping noises, and the nurse pulled it out and quickly inserted an IV. She said something to another man with short black hair. It sounded like seventy something. A two digit number. "Wait," Sean tried to say, but he knew the words weren't coming out in any comprehensible form, "That's not my body temperature, is it?"

"Everything is going to be OK sir." The blond nurse said to Sean, noticing the worried expression on his face. A steady stream of various vitamins and chemicals was now being pumped directly into Sean's veins. He suddenly felt a wave of pain flow through his body, immediately followed by wariness. Once again everything faded into darkness.

Ch 2

Sean awoke to the steady beeps of a hospital heart monitor. He turned his head to the left, squinting at the bright lighting in the room. There was a small end-table directly across from him; lying on top of it were three items: his LuxPlate, the strange duplicate video chip, and the atomic scanner he was holding when he passed out. He looked at the items, and slowly pieced together what had happened to him; the gamma decay, the wire's power level, the stabbing headache.

"I've been an idiot." he mumbled to himself. The memory was damaged because the wiring inside the chip was releasing gamma rays as its energy state decreased. Before he pried it open the casing was keeping the radiation inside, but after it was opened the gamma rays not absorbed by the chip's other components rushed out. Holding the chip and the wire so close must have given him minor radiation poisoning. Sean rubbed his face and looked down on his chest. There was a faint, bluish glow quivering from underneath the thin, papery blanket. He grabbed the edges of the blanket and yanked it upwards, revealing a strange device with an 'L-Tech' logo imprinted onto it fastened to his chest. As Sean stared at the glowing chest brace, a male doctor walked up to the side of his bed.

"I see you have woken up." he said with a smile.

"What happened?" Sean asked, "And what is this?" he added, gesturing to the device on his chest with a nod of his head.

"Ah, yes..." The doctor said, looking down at his clipboard. "That's to regulate your blood temperature. You were in hypothermia, it's really a wonder you survived. Your blood was near seventy degrees when we rushed you down that corridor. We put that on to prevent your body from going into shock by warming up too fast. It's a good thing you were taking those antifreeze pills for outdoor work; I think they kept your blood thin enough to keep circulating at such an abnormal-" Sean put up his hand to stop the doctor from talking.

"How did I get hypothermia?" He asked. "Tell me everything that happened after I blacked out from gamma radiation exposure."

"Radiation poisoning? Oh wow, we didn't run any tests for that. I was wondering what was wrong with you. Jeez, how the hell did you manage to do that? Sun-tanning? " he said, almost laughing.

"It's a long story. You tell me what happened first." Sean demanded.

"Well you seem okay now," the doctor said, looking over at the heart monitor. "So yea, I'll tell you what happened. It all started when we got a call from your apartment building from a woman named Debra Geraldson. She sounded scared, shouting about how she saw you lying on the floor of your apartment with blood running down your face." Sean tried to look up at his forehead and felt around to find an injury. There was a small bandage to the right side where his face met his hairline. "Yes, we believe that was from hitting your head on your desk. Nothing major, the human head just tends to bleed a lot. Well anyways, we sent people over ASAP. Ms. Geraldson made it sound pretty bad on the phone, so we tried to get you to the ER as quickly as we could. Unfortunately, you weren't covered up well enough when they brought you outside. I guess some people don't understand exactly how cold negative two hundred degrees is sometimes." The doctor looked over at Sean with a slight smile and an uneasy look on his face.

"You mean to tell me," Sean said with a borderline angry tone in his voice, "that the only thing wrong with me is the hypothermia that you caused?"

"Hey, don't blame me, I wasn't even there when they picked you up. I just took over after they pushed you off of the medical train. You also have a few freezerburns. I recommend some pain killers for that. Here's your prescription." He added in a professional way, handing Sean a slip of paper he quickly signed.

"Well at least I have an excuse to take some time off work." Sean said, addressing more so the slip of paper than the doctor.

"That's the spirit." The nurse said joyfully, "I'll be back to check on you in thirty minutes." He looked back down at his clipboard and walked out of the room.

"What a night." Sean thought to himself. He sat up straighter in the stiff hospital bed and reached towards the chip on the end table. Just then he remembered that the nurse had forgotten to ask him about the source of his radiation poisoning. "It doesn't matter now anyways." he thought. The half life for that particular isotope was only a few hours, so the chip probably wasn't dangerously radioactive anymore. Sean looked at the bent piece of covering on the chip. The little strip of a sticker that said the date and chip number was peeling away because of the curve in the metal. Sean pinched the end of it and peeled the rest of it away. To his surprise, there was another sticker underneath it. "That's odd." he whispered. As he brought it closer to his face to read it. "What the hell?" He whispered, squinting at the small lettering, "That can't be. No really, that's not possible." But it was clear as day. The date on the chip said 2259. It wasn't just a copy of the video. It was the same chip. Literally the same exact chip. The same object, taking up the same amount of space, at the same time. The only thing that separated this chip from the other, was that this chip seemed to have been around for much, much longer.

Just then a doctor walked inside his room with the clipboard. "Well the tests came back, and you were right, you do have minor radiation sickness. We have a treatment here for you..."

"That's not going to be necessary." Sean said with determination. He tossed the sheets off of himself, pulled out the IV with a spurt of blood and shoved the doctor out of the way.

"Wait, you can't leave yet!" he shouted after him, but Sean continued to rush through the hall.

"I need to figure something out." he replied, breaking into a run towards the door. Sean pushed past surgeons and doctors making his way to the end of the hall. He had a fleeting feeling of distance. Not from the door, but from everything; almost like a dream. The exit sign's lights began to shift and waver in Sean's vision. "Oh no." he thought, "This isn't the radiation again is it?" Putting his hand to the side of his face he began to slow to a steady jog. People's hands were covering him now. A crowd of nurses reached out and held onto him. Sean twisted his head to the side; noticing a small hypodermic needle in a female nurse's hand. "Get away from me!" He shouted, and shoved the nurses back. Everything started to blur together. Shapes distorted before his eyes. He twisted his neck back to the side and noticed the needle sticking out of his shoulder. "Dammit." he shouted, feeling the effects of the sedative. Sleep began to take over, but he knew he had to keep moving. Sean continued to shove his way through the crowds of people, the exit growing slowly closer. The stark-white walls stretched further into the horizon and the low ceiling sank lower. Sean shouted in agony as a piercing whistle jetted his mind a mile further from his body.

Suddenly Sean noticed that he had stumbled far enough to reach the exit. He put his hands up to the glass on the door and saw the airlock chamber. Sweat condensed in an outline of his hands. Shivering drips rolled down from his palms. He hit the button on the emergency switch on the side of the door.

"What the hell do you think you're doing?!" a security guard wearing an air mask shouted, grabbing his shoulder. Sean stared back with a blank expression. Sean stepped backwards into the airlock and hit the close button.

"What am I doing?" Sean thought out loud. Then another bolt of pain shot through his head and his judgment was once again scattered. "I," Sean grunted in-between gasping breaths, "need... to get... Out of here." and he slammed his fist into the air tight door, causing it to give off a high-pitched squeal and jolted open. A burst of pure pain blew into every pore in his body. A cold so severe it went beyond any temperature his sensory nerves could understand. As his muscles shook uncontrollably in a feeble attempt to warm his core, he twisted his head towards the heavens and stared upon it in the last seconds before the humor in his eyes could freeze solid. Through crackles and blotches of blurred vision Sean witnessed an event so catastrophic it seemed like the end of the world. As Sean glanced up at Europa's sky that moment, he saw a gigantic, flaming bullet pierce through space. A shape even larger than the frozen rock he had lived on for seven years but never called home, blasted directly through the center of Jupiter. A disk of red and orange gassed like the clouds formed from sonic jets formed on the opening of the giant of a planet. Bands of gold and crimson red distorted and twisted, changing the perfect orb shape into a stretched out ellipsoid. The entity of destruction burst out of the back of the planet, bringing a trail of smoke and particles with it, spreading the sphere of gas across the sky like a drop of dye diffusing in a black ocean. Just as Sean's final senses faded away, his skin scarred and burned from the sub-zero temperature; time stood still. He couldn't help but think it was the end for him, but it wasn't. Not by a long shot.

Ch 3

"Oh good. He's waking up" a distant man's voice echoed.

"Should we sedate him?" another replied.

"What? Why?"

"You don't think he'll go into stress related shock? I mean, he might have trouble comprehending his... predicament."

"Oh I think Mr. Sean Deleck will understand completely. I've read his file, and he's a very logical man. Yes, I think he'll catch on right off the bat."

These weren't the same voices he heard in the hospital. These new people; they seemed calm. Almost like they expected him, like they planned it. Sean had a splitting headache. He tried to open his eyes, but his eyelids were heavy as lead. Instead, he croaked out a question, attempting to ask the men what was going on.

"Oaah... Unnng..."

"Mr. Deleck. I see you're awake." the older man said.

"Aach...dwaa..." Sean tried to open his eyes again, but only managed a squint. He saw a tall man standing over his body. He had his hands in the pockets of a white coat. There was a blurred red insignia on the top left corner.

"Na ah ah." he said. "I wouldn't try to open those if I were you. You might tear the stitches."

Sean flinched.

"Yes that's right. Stitches. I also wouldn't recommend moving your arms... or legs." The man's hand moved up to his chin and he crossed his other arm underneath the first. "Well, I think it would be safe to say don't move at all; At least until the skin grafts heal."

Instinctively Sean bolted upwards, but immediately wished he hadn't. Searing pain burned across his body, a sensation like his entire body was a blister, and the top layer was being peeled off. The man in the lab coat quickly pushed him back down. Sean was now breathing heavily. Even his lungs burned with each breath he took, and he could never get enough air.

"What the hell did I just tell you?!" The man shouted, running to his side. "Jack, restrain him." He commanded a second man in a coat, irritated. "What, you think all the skin on your body would be just fine after your cells exploded from the rapid temperature change? Are you telling me you didn't expect the vitreous humor in your eyes to freeze completely solid? You're lucky we could salvage enough nerves to repair your vision. You should've had a transplant, not that that's a possibility here. Not 50%, not even 70%, I got you 90% of your vision back. I'm just that good. The least you could do is calm the fuck down and listen to what I have to say." he was getting angry now. Sean could hear the stuttering in his voice.

"You were right Jack, we should've kept him sedated." He calmed down.

"It's not entirely his fault Dr. Harrison, the psychiatrists think it was stress-related anxiety."

"Regardless. Sedate him. Actually, go ahead and induce a coma, we'll wake him when he's all healed up." Dr. Harrison said calmly.

"A coma sir?"

"Yes. Just use that stuff we give to the blanked soldiers; the Triseterate. 1.2 grams every hour should keep him stable. That won't react with the cell reparation steroid we gave him will it?" Jack checked the Lux plate he was holding; swiping through a few pages then finally read the label on a prescription drug bottle. No... No, I think it should be fine.

"You don't get paid to think, you get paid to know." Dr. Harrison berated.

"It won't have any adverse effect." he said with more confidence.

"That's better. Start him on the dosage right away." The doctor left the room and closed the door behind him. "I'm sick of dealing with these idiots." he said to himself. "Hopefully this 'Sean' guy will be as smart as his files say he is, once he's coherent anyways." Dr. Harrison stopped a nurse walking down the hallway. "Hey, can you go get me a coffee?" he asked her.

"Yes right away Dr. Harrison." she said in reply.

Sometimes Dr. Harrison liked to be the most important person at the base. It came with its perks. But most of the time he hated it; the pressure it put on him, the way people talked to him, having to be the 'bad guy'. Someone had to take charge. "It's better to be the villain in here than a hero out there." he assured himself.

Chapter 4

Sean looked down at his gloved hands. The reflection of the starlight on the snow emitted dancing patterns of light on the glossy black leather. He trudged on forwards towards a Helium mine. The goliath melting rods, designed to melt through the thick Europan ice like butter, cast an eerie orange glow on the surrounding area. Workers in bright red jumpsuits wandered around a 500 meter wide crater in the ground, some climbing down to unimaginable depths, some climbing up from god knows where. Most of these workers had been on Europa for two or three generations. Outsiders would see them as uneducated laborers, working for slave wages, but a good amount of the older generations knew their trade exceptionally well, and could explain processes that would go over most people's heads.

The magnetic rails buzzed as a supply train decelerated behind the mine. A large transport car on the train unfolded with large hissing noises from the hydraulic arms extending out a conveyor belt which in turn attached to a larger network of belts encircling the crater. Here workers transported large rocks rich in Helium 3, a source of energy abundantly found on Europa, but desperately needed on Earth. After supplies of this precious resource were depleted on Earth's moon, Europa became the closest destination for Helium 3.

"Well if it isn't Mr. Delick! Why do we alway see you 'round here? Doesn't corpo have anyone better to send?" laughed one of the workers, wearing a yellow vest and tool belt over a thick padded red jumpsuit. His voice crackled in Sean's ear from a tiny speaker inside his rubber mask.

"You know I'm the best they've got." Sean replied; a small mouthpiece relaying his voice through short range radio waves.

"Oh, we know, we know. Just givin' you a hard time. We should be calling you doctor Delick, with that fancy degree of yours." The worker patted Sean on the shoulder, leaving a tarnished snow handprint.

"No need to call me that. I'm not any more important than anyone else. At least according to my job title." Sean brushed the snow off his suit.

"If that was true, you wouldn't have that fancy skintight warmer and those classy ties while we stand out here like a bunch of cherry popsicles, wearing holes in our boots!" He laughed, turning towards the mine and beckoning Sean to follow him.

"I'm guessing corpo needs another sample?" The worker walked along one of the conveyor belt tributaries picking up a smaller rock and looked at Sean.

"They say they need one from the bottom, something about the new shipments not being pure enough; they think this mines reaching its limit." Sean explained, despite the minimum information he had been given.

"No sir, Mr. Delick. Decline is because of the melting rods. Set too high, all that extra heat sucks the helium right out of the ore. I've been saying this for months. My guys are trying to meet deadlines. Some of them set the temp too high to get the work done faster. I set it back when I'm down there but the dial never stays put. Have you been down there recently? Feels like a sauna! We're wading through ice melt just to get to the machinery. You tell corpo if they want better rocks, they need to slow down production."

"I understand." Sean nodded.

"Oh, and when you do that," the worker slumped over towards Sean with his thickly gloved hand cupped over his mask like he was whispering, although the audio feed came in all the same, "You see Anthy over there?" he pointed out another worker sitting down on a rock with his head in his hands. "You know, the new guy. Anthy Grant? Well he just got a message from some family back on the moon colonies. But it was a repeat. You know how corpo sends a repeat when... Well, just ask corpo to give him some early vacation. He works hard."

"I understand..." Sean mumbled, thinking of his own family.

"Oh and Mr. Deleckā€¦ It's time to wake up."

"What?"

"I said, it's time to wake up."

"Mr. Deleck, time to wake up." the voice of the doctor's assistant roused Sean from his drug induced sleep.

"Where am I..." Sean muttered back persistently.

"My name is Dr. Jack Levy. It's been 92 hours since you last woke up here, but something tells me you don't remember that. That would be 390 Europan ORD's, by the way; not that anyone will be using those anymore. Sorry for all of the confusion we must have caused you. I'm afraid you have a lot of catching up to do."

"Where's my Luxplate?" Sean asked, sitting up and looking around the room. "Where's my scanner?"

The room consisted of four equal length white walls with a red magnetic power strip running along them at waist height. Beside Sean's bed were three perfectly rectangular gray towers displaying his vital signs. On the far side of the room opposite to Sean