All my life I wanted to be a prospector, as far back as I can remember. I couldn’t have been more than six when my father and mother took me to a fair in Cheyenne. Hot dogs and popped soya, colored-paper hydrogen balloons, a circus with dogs and horses, wheels of fortune, games, rides. And there was a pressure tent with opaque sides, a dollar to get in, and inside somebody had arranged a display of imports from the Heechee tunnels on Venus. Prayer fans and fire pearls, real Heechee-metal mirrors that you could buy for twenty-five dollars apiece. Pa said they weren’t real, but to me they were real. We couldn’t afford twenty-five dollars apiece, though. And when you came right down to it, I didn’t really need a mirror. Freckled face, buck teeth, hair I brushed straight back and tied. They had just found Gateway. I heard my father talking about it going home that night in the airbus, when I guess they thought I was asleep, and the wistful hunger in his voice kept me awake.
If it hadn’t been for my mother and me he might have found a way to go. But he never got the chance. He was dead a year later. All I inherited from him was his job, as soon as I was big enough to hold it.
I don’t know if you’ve ever worked in the food mines, but you’ve probably heard about them. There isn’t any great joy there. I started, half-time and half-pay, at twelve. By the time I was sixteen I had my father’s rating: charge driller — good pay, hard work.
But what can you do with the pay? It isn’t enough for Full Medical. It isn’t enough even to get you out of the mines, only enough to be a sort of local success story. You work six hours on and ten hours off. Eight hours’ sleep and you’re on again, with your clothes stinking of shale all the time. You can’t smoke, except in sealed rooms. The oil fog settles everywhere. The girls are as smelly and slick and frazzled as you are.
So we all did the same things, we worked and chased each other’s women and played the lottery. And we drank a lot, the cheap, powerful liquor that was made not ten miles away. Sometimes it was labeled Scotch and sometimes vodka or bourbon, but it all came off the same slime-still columns. I was no different from any of the others… except that, one time, I won the lottery. And that was my ticket out.
Before that happened I just lived.
My mother was a miner, too. After my father was killed in the shaft fire she brought me up, with the help of the company creche. We got along all right until I had my psychotic episode. I was twenty-six at the time. I had some trouble with my girl, and then for a while I just couldn’t get out of bed in the morning. So they put me away. I was out of circulation for most of a year, and when they let me out of the shrink tank my mother had died.
Face it: that was my fault. I don’t mean I planned it, I mean she would have lived if she hadn’t had me to worry about. There wasn’t enough money to pay the medical expenses for both of us. I needed psychotherapy. She needed a new lung. She didn’t get it, so she died.
I hated living on in the same apartment after she was dead, but it was either that or go into bachelor quarters. I didn’t like the idea of living in such close proximity to a lot of men. Of course I could have gotten married. I didn’t — Sylvia, the girl I’d had the trouble with, was long gone by that time — but it wasn’t because I had anything against the idea of marriage. Maybe you might think I did, considering my psychiatric history, and also considering that I’d lived with my mother as long as she was alive. But it isn’t true. I liked girls very much. I would have been very happy to marry one and raise a child.
But not in the mines.
I didn’t want to leave a son of mine the way my father had left me.
Charge drilling is bitchy hard work. Now they use steam torches with Heechee heating coils and the shale just politely splits away, like carving cubes of wax. But then we drilled and blasted. You’d go down into the shaft on the high-speed drop at the start of your shift. The shaft wall was slimy and stinking ten inches from your shoulder, moving at sixty kilometers an hour relative to you; I’ve seen miners with a few drinks in them stagger and stretch out a hand to support themselves and pull back a stump. Then you pile out of the bucket and slip and stumble on the duckboards for a kilometer or more till you come to the working face. You drill your shaft. You set your charges. Then you back out into a cul-de-sac while they blast, hoping you figured it right and the whole reeking, oily mass doesn’t come down on you. (If you’re buried alive you can live up to a week in the loose shale. People have. When they don’t get rescued until after the third day they’re usually never any good for anything anymore.) Then, if everything has gone all right, you dodge the handling loaders as they come creeping in on their tracks, on your way to the next face.
The masks, they say, take out most of the hydrocarbons and the rock dust. They don’t take out the stink. I’m not sure they take out all the hydrocarbons, either. My mother is not the only miner I knew who needed a new lung — nor the only one who couldn’t pay for one, either.
And then, when your shift is over, where is there to go?
You go to a bar. You go to a dorm-room with a girl. You go to a rec-room to play cards. You watch TV.
You don’t go outdoors very much. There’s no reason. There are a couple of little parks, carefully tended, planted, replanted; Rock Park even has hedges and a lawn. I bet you never saw a lawn that had to be washed, scrubbed (with detergent!), and air-dried every week, or it would die. So we mostly leave the parks to the kids.
Apart from the parks, there is only the surface of Wyoming, and as far as you can see it looks like the surface of the Moon. Nothing green anywhere. Nothing alive. No birds, no squirrels, no pets. A few sludgy, squidgy creeks that for some reason are always bright ochre-red under the oil. They tell us that we’re lucky at that, because our part of Wyoming was shaft-mined. In Colorado, where they strip-mined, things were even worse.
I always found that hard to believe, and still do, but I’ve never gone to look.
And apart from everything else, there’s the smell and sight and sound of the work. The sunsets orangey-brown through the haze. The constant smell. All day and all night there’s the roar of the extractor furnaces, heating and grinding the marlstone to get the kerogen out of it, and the rumble of the long-line conveyors, dragging the spent shale away to pile it somewhere.
See, you have to heat the rock to extract the oil. When you heat it it expands, like popcorn. So there’s no place to put it. You can’t squeeze it back into the shaft you’ve taken it out of; there’s too much of it. If you dig out a mountain of shale and extract the oil, the popped shale that’s left is enough to make two mountains. So that’s what you do. You build new mountains.
And the runoff heat from the extractors warms the culture sheds, and the oil grows its slime as it trickles through the shed, and the slime-skimmers scoop it off and dry it and press it and we eat it, or some of it, for breakfast the next morning.
Funny. In the old days oil used to bubble right out of the ground! And all people thought to do with it was stick it in their automobiles and burn it up.
All the TV shows have morale-builder commercials telling us how important our work is, how the whole world depends on us for food. It’s all true. They don’t have to keep reminding us. If we didn’t do what we do there would be hunger in Texas and kwashiorkor among the babies in Oregon. We all know that. We contribute five trillion calories a day to the world’s diet, half the protein ration for about a fifth of the global population. It all comes out of the yeasts and bacteria we grow off the Wyoming shale oil, along with parts of Utah and Colorado. The world needs that food. But so far it has cost us most of Wyoming, half of Appalachia, a big chunk of the Athabasca tar sands region. . . and what are we going to do with all those people when the last drop of hydrocarbon is converted to yeast?
It’s not my problem, but I still think of it.
It stopped being my problem when I won the lottery, the day after Christmas, the year I turned twenty-six.
The prize was two hundred and fifty thousand dollars. Enough to live like a king for a year. Enough to marry and keep a family on, provided we both worked and didn’t live too high.
Or enough for a one-way ticket to Gateway.
I took the lottery ticket down to the travel office and turned it in for passage. They were glad to see me; they didn’t do much of a business there, especially in that kind of commodity. I had about ten thousand dollars left over in change, give or take a little. I didn’t count it. I bought drinks for my whole shift as far as it would go. With the fifty people in my shift, and all the friends and casual drop-ins who leeched on to the party, it went about twentyfour hours.
Then I staggered through a Wyoming blizzard back to the travel office. Five months later, I was circling in toward the asteroid, staring out the portholes at the Brazilian cruiser that was challenging us, on my way to being a prospector at last.