Fiction

The Ballad of Kal Riken

“Hey Newb, lay the cable from there. Frig, did everyone wake up half-loaded today?”

Jaxon ran the thread out with his head down. His throw was clumsy compared to Lars’ smooth, fast feed.

“I’m watching you. You think we’re stupid? Cause we don’t do the brain games? I can put two and two together. No one has their first trip out at your age.”

“I’m only twenty-three.”

“Yeah and we start hopping when your lot are still waiting to vote. Sil’s the same age as you and her flight record is as long as your arm.”

Jaxon handed over the spool of glass thread. “I’m sorry, they told me to not mention it.”

“Yeah well honesty is worth more out here.”

With the perimeter marked off by the glass thread, the two men picked up the long sticks they call probes and, each at one end of the narrow rectangle, started to sweep them back and forth.

“To be honest with you though,” Lars checked over the instrument, “I have the advantage of having been on-hop with the most famous Ludos of all. Kal Riken.”

“I’ve never heard of him.”

“Well up here everyone knows him. All because of a mission I was on. And he’s the reason they tell folks like you not to enlist. See, all your brain games make you guys real smart. You can figure out things quickly and game the system. So Kal spent the first day of the mission in his pod, playing with his suit. We didn’t know what he was up to, just had him pegged for a slacker. The next day he goes out to dig solo and he pulls in more than the rest of us. I mean, this guy just got off the shuttle! I’ve been mining for near a dozen orbits, we had two other guys more experienced than me, and in comes this greensuit, dragging a load worth more than any of us had gotten over the two days.”

“He made a game of it?” Out of habit, Jaxon’s mind started flicking over the many possible ways one might theoretically make a game of it. Assigning points to individual actions, maybe achievements to unlock.

“Ha! No, he cracked the suit. We didn’t realise until the auxiliary power started to dip. Life support runs in sequence after that, so I went out to his rectangle to call him back in until we could stabilise the systems and I see him on his knees in the dirt and his hands were a blur. I mean an actual blur. The fastest thing I’ve ever seen. He’d found a way to soup up the suit but it was using our power!”

Jaxon had stopped sweeping with the probe. “Did you, uh, I mean, is he-“

“-Dead?”

Jaxon gulped. Lars roared with laughter.

“Frig what do they tell you down at the shell? No he’s alive. We brought back a massive payload, everyone got plenty of dollars, but he was burned. Everyone that got assigned to his next mission quit as soon as they were registered. So his name is on a crew list for that flight and has been ever since. He never takes off because he’s got no other crew.”

“Maybe he learnt his lesson?”

“Maybe, but he threatened the power. That’s life and death. If he did learn anything he won’t ever get the chance to show us. Just the way it has to be. You going to swing that probe or lean on it?”

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