From Dust, Chapter One

                It was always three shots. Two in quick report, a third maybe a second or two later. It could have been one had circumstances been slightly different, one shot and the whole situation would have played out completely differently, but it was dark and the shooter was untrained and so it was three shots instead. It was never intended to be two shots, that much was certain.

                For Deacon Thane, the third shot was the metallic bang of the automatic lock on his cell door being forced back into the wall at six am every day, as it had been for the past four years. He lay awake, one hand behind his head, staring at the ceiling while he rested his other arm across his stomach after it had shot to pull the pistol from his side that he hadn’t carried for those same four years.

                He knew it was 6:15 when somebody thumped the door, slid open the letterbox window and peered in with a muffled call of “Thane” to ensure he was awake and – more importantly – alive. Deacon sat up, turning and placing his bare feet on the cold cement floor while resting his face in his hands for a moment and caressing life into his features. He rose, removed the light grey vest and briefs and swapped them for the fresh linen which had been deposited in a storage cabinet overnight.

                The fresh clothes were, as always, a replacement vest and briefs, socks and overalls in the same light grey colour as almost everything else. Deacon dressed and stepped into his black work boots, lacing them tightly, and got into position behind the door in time for it to automatically open outwards.

                Deacon stepped forward in time with the other occupants of the facility. Three steps and they were out of their cells, coming to a halt in a uniform line, staring at the man opposite. Deacon knew the man he was looking at across the ten foot space between them was a convict sent here to serve out a labour sentence, but the line between a volunteer like Deacon and a convict here was blurry at best. Deacon ostensibly had the freedom to leave whenever he wanted but here he had regular food, recreation and work to occupy his mind so there was little waiting for him if he did cut his ties.

                The floor supervisors finished their summary inspection and a klaxon at the far end of the hall released one short blast of noise, prompting the lines to turn 90 degrees to the right and start marching forward. The man in front of Deacon now was also a convict, once, but had finished his sentence before Deacon had even arrived. Age had sent him bald now, stripping him of the layer of stubble worn by every other miner in the facility, but he continued working here. There had been a time in the last four years Deacon had wondered what kind of man this person had been but any curiosity Deacon had about the other inmates had long since vanished. The facility was carefully designed in this way.

                The lines marched to the bottleneck in the hallway where both lines became one, the man occupying the cell opposite Deacon fell into step behind him while the man he’d previously been marching behind was pushed ahead with another worker occupying the space between them. The line had stopped now, taking slower movements forward as authorisation permits and work orders were allocated to the steady stream of men.

                Deacon was intimately familiar with the process from here. The line moved forward until he reached an occupied staff station, one of the few visible parts of the facility run by staff from the mining company itself. There his face would be scanned, his identity verified, and a barcode imprinted onto his uniform using light irradiation. His journey continued then to a junction containing three doors. Whatever scanning tech was invisibly hidden in this section recognised the branding on his uniform and the rightmost door opened, permitting him into the area beyond.

                He was free of the lines now, able to pick up his work gear and head to the canteen for breakfast where he sat alone eating a bowl of cereal engineered to contain all the nutrients, vitamins and proteins his body needed. It managed to taste as close to nothing as he believed solid food was capable. After breakfast he headed to the bathroom and equipped his gear – an arm mounted personal computer and a utility belt. He picked up a few snack bars from the canteen and stowed them in one of the spare pockets of the belt before heading downstairs to the motor pool.

                Deacon’s length of service and volunteer status had gifted him with a quick move out of the physical act of mining and he now worked as a driver. This could be seen as a promotion if he’d been getting paid for the work, but as it was it granted him access to his own personal equipment and a job that took him outside the confines of the facility itself. He found an unoccupied truck and climbed into the cab, taking out the ignition key and running a hand along the wire to find the connecting end, which he plugged into his arm terminal, adjusting the sleeve to bring the face of the machine towards him more clearly.

                Such terminals were familiar to him long before he started working for the Deepstar Mining Corporation, though he’d had access to far more advanced tech. This machine was little more than a holographic display and touchpad, a touchpad he tapped twice now to power up the device. He held his thumb to the highlighted area of the display and waited as the orange glow turned a bright green and approved his identification before taking the ignition key – a thick, business-card sized piece of plastic and silicon – and inserting it into the open slot by the steering column of the truck. The truck purred into life in response and Deacon started it forward, driving through the open loading doors and out into the courtyard beyond, navigating through the myriad traffic to the storage depot.

                The traffic yard was always a flurry of activity. While Deacon and his cellmates – he could think of no better term to describe them – worked on a rota from 6am until 6pm the facility housed several living blocks of staff who worked varying hours. It wasn’t really relevant in any case, time was measured only as Earth standard and out here on the moon Hyperion the proximity to the brown dwarf Eos meant the landscape was bathed in a perpetual dusky glow, amplified by the light from the major star of the system, Helios, as it caught the dust particles high in the atmosphere.

                Deacon knew the naming conventions surrounding the system were all backwards in terms of  relevance and importance but it wasn’t down to him. As far as he was concerned, one dust-swept brown mining moon was no different than any other. He’d worked for two years on Titan before coming out here and had gotten used to such sights.

                He pulled the truck across the front of the storage depot and reversed into position against the automated loader, releasing the roof of the trailer section and disconnected the ignition key from his terminal to leave the truck running – something frowned upon and against policy but the chance of an inspection this early in the morning was low enough to take the risk. Deacon walked around to the automated loader and keyed in his four digit access pin before returning to the cab to wait as the machinery filled its purpose and loaded the varying containers in the storage depot into the back of the truck.

                His cargo varied from day to day between parts and equipment for other mining facilities, excess food or clothing supplies and occasionally the varying yields of the mining operation itself. Hyperion was a rock mining facility which meant hauling solid state goods and made it suitable for the kind of operation Deepstar was running. Gas mining and ice cracking operations were much more automated and required significantly less manpower.

                The cab shook as the automated loader finished packing goods into the trailer and replaced the roof, prompting Deacon to reactivate the pressure locks and pull the vehicle out of the depot, taking it slowly along the tracks towards the main exit and out onto the road beyond. He turned right out of the facility and towards the docks.

                The unimaginatively titled “Hyperion Camp” was a typical frontier outpost. The mining facility comprised the largest collection of buildings and raw space, housing numerous living facilities, loading and refining stations as well as administrative support buildings, transportation hubs and the mines themselves. The rest of the camp was luxury and support buildings subsidised and used for recreation by the miners; a bar, a small hotel, a couple of luxury goods stores, a gym and a pool hall. The civilians running the various businesses had their own houses or shacks built on the edge of the camp and provided varying levels of service to the miners present. Prisoners weren’t permitted outside of the mining facility and so those milling around were either off-shift volunteers or the occasional infrequent traveller passing through on their way to elsewhere. There would be the infrequent volunteer who had just left Deepstar service but wasn’t yet able to leave the moon but transportation was usually available to service such needs.

                Deacon left the camp behind him in a growing trail of dust as he continued along the only road on this side of the moon towards the docks area. As he continued he nodded greetings to the two or three trucks he passed as well as a civilian crawler making its way up the dirt path. It had been a while since he’d seen non-company personnel or vehicles on the road but it wasn’t completely unheard of.

                He managed four complete trips before lunch. There was some kind of hold-up in the docks themselves which complicated the unloading procedure, delaying his travel, as well as an additional work assignment coming through which forced him to drive to the other end of the docking facilities to pick up cargo for the mining facility itself. He ate a snack bar at around 10am and listened to the company radio for an hour before lunch – music was on a strict rotation and licensing laws in the colonies restricted the material available, so the music he listened to was the same music he’d been listening to for the past four years, but it was a welcome break in the travel tedium. Lunch was taken in the canteen again, alone, before he set back out on the road and completed another five deliveries before the end of his shift, eating his second snack bar just after 4pm.

                Ending a shift was a simple matter of returning his truck to the transport hub and handing over his personal computer and utility harness. Off the clock, he was free to do with his free time whatever he liked and stuck to his usual routine of crossing out of the compound and spending two hours in the gymnasium before returning to the canteen for dinner. His workout completed and having finished eating, he returned to his cell and lay on his bed staring at the ceiling until the recall at half past nine, at which point all mining staff, convicts and volunteers alike, returned to their quarters and were locked in. He took this time to remove his overalls and socks, putting them back in the storage cabinet where they’d be collected, unseen, in the night.

                Lights went out at 10pm and he soon fell asleep, not noticing the difference between the dark expanse of the ceiling above him and the void of unconsciousness until he began to dream.

– oOo –

                He remembered thinking how dark it was, despite the effect of the light-amp eyepiece he was wearing. Perhaps he should have avoided his traditional, single-lens approach in favour of proper goggles, but he preferred having one eye exposed to true lighting conditions. He alternated his vision, keeping one eye closed at all times as he slowly circled the upper rooms searching for signs of life.

                Entry had been simple enough and he’d been surprised. His quarry was trained and fully aware how to ensure security and seeing the open window on the fourth floor had originally seemed like an obvious trap as far as Deacon was concerned, but he scaled the outer wall anyway to investigate and, being satisfied by the tactical readout provided by his initial scans, had entered the building through this helpful entry point.

                Intelligence had suggested the abandoned building was vacant aside from his target but it was clear to Deacon this wasn’t the case – if it was, then this was only a recent development. The detritus and varying types of debris scattered about the rooms of the top floor suggested it had been used as a squat by probably three or four impoverished people, at least one of whom was using narcotics. Deacon crept slowly through the corridors, peeking into open doors and rooms, noticing overturned mattresses and broken bedframes here and there.

                It had been a hotel once, or so he’d been told. Here and there he could see signs of this, but it wasn’t likely to be fit for such a purpose again.

                Deacon froze at the sound of movement from one of the floors below. He listened intently, his breathing shallow, for any other signs of life, though none came. He didn’t believe he’d been detected, and eventually reasoned the noise was his target moving from one room to another. It was late at night and it could have been the sound of them retiring to bed. Deacon found the stairs and carefully moved down them, placing his feet where he could on the supports and edges of the stairwell itself to avoid treading on the worn, wooden steps themselves.

                The dream shifted, then, unconcerned with further details. He was stood in what had been used as the living room, taking stock of the items contained within – his target was not here alone, there was too much used cutlery and dining implements to suggest this and here and there suggestions a child was also present.

                Deacon saw the movement by chance. He’d inclined his head very slightly to get a look at a news tablet left on the side of a chair to try and catch the date and in doing so had closed his natural eye to look through the light-amp lens. The enhanced view let him see the reflection of a vague shadow through the door behind him and he turned quickly, drawing his pistol and dropped into a crouch, the soft soles of his shoes scraping on the wooden floor.

                The first shot rang out as he dropped onto one knee. The shot was both high and wide, possibly enough of both to have missed Deacon if he hadn’t dropped down in the first place. He knew now this wasn’t because of his evasive manoeuvres, but because his shooter was untrained and had been spooked by his sudden movement. As the gunshot was still echoing around the quiet and near-empty building Deacon responded with prejudice, the report of his custom blaster short and infused with the hiss of heat as the round was pushed through the plasma funnel. The shot hit the shadow just below centre of mass, pitching them backward out of the corridor, into and through the door behind them.

                The light was on in the bedroom and Deacon saw he had shot a dark-haired woman in her late twenties wearing a blue hooded sweater and track pants. She hit the bed and rolled onto the floor like a discarded rag doll. His blaster was built for kill shots and he’d hit her somewhere just off her stomach, meaning she was likely dead before she even heard the shot.

                The final shot came as his true target launched into vision from inside the bedroom door. He was unarmed, his face twisted into a mixture of shock, fear, anguish and rage. The sight of the woman had been a tragic one for him and Deacon was spooked, not expecting to have come into contact with anybody else. Deacon tightened his grip on his blaster as the man closed his mouth to voice some kind of response and, without thinking,  he fired again, catching the man firmly in his chest and dropping him out of view.

– oOo –

                With the third shot complete and the image of the blonde-haired, tanned man staring at him in anguish, Deacon woke to the sound of his cell door unbolting. While the phantom stared at him, as real to him as the ceiling he was trying to fix his attention on, Deacon knew it was only supposed to be one shot and would never have been two.

He lay awake, one hand behind his head, staring at the ceiling while he rested his other arm across his stomach after it had shot to pull the pistol from his side that he hadn’t carried for four years. He waited for the terrified visage of the tanned man to fade away into the murky depths of his subconscious.

                He knew it was 6:15 when somebody thumped the door, slid open the letterbox window and peered in with a muffled call of “Thane” to ensure he was awake and – more importantly – alive. Deacon sat up, turning and placing his bare feet on the cold cement floor while resting his face in his hands for a moment and caressing life into his features. He rose, removed the light grey vest and briefs and swapped them for the fresh linen which had been deposited in a storage cabinet overnight.

                It was time for another day to begin.

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