Just Gravel

21 November 2020

I could really use a beer. A nice, cold IPA. Hell, at this point I’d take a Martian Light. Just one beer. But there’s no beer on Ceres. Not yet anyway.

“Don’t let that beam fall,” Amy said.

“I got it,” I said, “don’t get in a bunch.” But on the inside I was glad she mentioned it. My mind was starting to wander. As a precaution I checked my ox level, but it was fine. I was just getting bored.

“How many more of these do we have to land today?” I asked.

“Fourteen,” Amy said. I sighed. We were only half done, and we’d been at it for six hours. It was mind-numbing.

That’s what they didn’t tell you when you signed. Great pay, see the solar system, there’s a chance you could die. Sure, all that. But “you’ll be bored most of the time. Mind-breakingly bored like you’ve never been…” Nope, not a word about that.

This was my third build. The first two were on Vesta, and now this one on Ceres. Each was basically expanding the drop-ship bases that were already there. Dig a hole, set up a flatpack container, and fill it over. It was the same each time. You’d think the process could be automated, but there were just enough small issues that it is better to just send a crew. And since it takes a bit of skill to do the job, it isn’t worth training the locals. So they ship us out with the parts.

That’s where most of the boredome comes in. Fuel is costly, but labor is cheap. So they send us on the slow routes. Several months of slow acceleration from job to job, with only crap food and outdated VR to pass the time.

“The beam is set,” I said, “Time for another hole.” Amy was the welder, so she spent time bonding beams and sheets together while I set them up. I needed to drill for another post, so I hopped over to the auger.

It looked like a wheeled bug threatening to tip over. Far too front heavy by appearance. But in light gravity, looks can be deceiving. I grabbed the remote and hopped back, then told it to go forward. It locked on to position with a double flash of light at its tail, then down went the auger.

Ceres regolith is pretty easy work. Mostly fine dust with a bit of ice and gravel. It’s the gravel that gives the auger the most trouble. Sure enough, after a couple minutes the auger started to shudder. As long as it didn’t shutter too much, it was fine.

“Hit gravel again,” I said. After a moment the pale gray chunks started rising to the surface. The same gravel we’d seen all over the site. But then the color started to change. Slightly pink, and oddly uniform in size. I shut the auger down.

“Anything wrong?” Amy asked. She could feel the rumbling stop.

“Probably not. Just making sure.”

After the auger settled, I reached down and grabbed a handful of the pink rubble. Rather than roundish pellets, it was spiraled, and each about the thickness and length of my pinky. I held one of the pieces up, and it clearly wasn’t gravel. It looked organic, vaguely like a mollusk shell.

“Amy, take a look at this,” I said, holding one up. She turned to me, and immediately sighed.

“Shit,” she said, “not again.”

“Not again?”

“Ignore it. It’s just gravel. Finish the hole.”

“This isn’t just gravel,” I said. “Look at it!”

“It’s gravel,” Amy said, turning away. “Finish the job.”

“But I think it’s alive. Was alive.”

“Don’t start with that,” Amy said. “Stuff is all over the asteroid belt. It’s gravel.” Her tone made it clear I should let it go. And she was my boss, but I had to push.

“This could be huge! Evidence of life on Ceres,” I said.

“Dead life. Long dead. Forget you ever saw it.”


“Look,” Amy sighed, “you make a deal of this and the job ends. Not just yours, and mine, but half the company. Those Green Earth whackos even get a whiff of life on Ceres and they’ll make it a preserve. They did it with Mars, Europa, even Titan. So shut it.”

“That’s for science missions,” I said. “We’re private contract.”

“But our charter requires we report evidence of life, if we find it.” Amy glared at me. “So you didn’t find anything. Got it?”

I got it. I needed this job. At my age, I’d likely never find a job that paid as well ever again. “Crystal clear,” I said.

I started up the auger again. Pink gravel began to churn out of the hole. Just gravel.