Day #57: Wild West

People used to envision space exploration as some kind of massive operation governed by great big bureaucracies that were there to make sure everything went smoothly.

Others imagined Cowboys and Indians with a totally wild world of unfettered freedom.

The reality is the twisted off-spring of both.

The fact is, you got to have money to play in space. Getting people up and keeping them alive is a no-joke serious venture. Even with costs slashed, it takes $30M to get a single worker to the asteroid belt. That is an enormous amount of money. And yet, people do it. Not individuals of course, but companies. Giant, powerful, corporations with tremendous financial resources and huge bureaucracies.

Why do they do it? Because of unbelievable wealth.

Trillions and trillions of dollars of minerals and other commodities. Some are sent back to the surface of Earth where they are valuable. And some are brought back to Earth orbit, where they are incredibly valuable. But all find a use as mankind builds and expands beyond its home.

You’d think things would be nice and orderly under these conditions. But they aren’t. First, the asteroid belt is a long way away from home. It can be hard to discipline people when it takes six years to get to them. But secondly, it takes six years and $30M to replace somebody. So, unless they aren’t productive or unless they prove to be a real danger to lots of other workers, pretty much anything goes.

And pretty much anything went.

The mining companies weren’t the only sorts who sent people to the Belt. Others got together, seeing a prime opportunity to liberate workers from their very very high wages. There were purveyors of drugs and alcohol. And purveyors of more, well, human, pleasures. There used to be huge logistics companies selling high-priced water and air – but then the mining companies figured out how to get those from the Belt itself.

One enterprising fellow even developed and patented rockahol. Use your imagination to guess what that is – and it will still taste twice as bad in reality.

So, old west or corporate control? Well, both. There was a corporate control, but it was loose. There was more than a fair share of old west, with rough rules, zero-gravity bar fights and prostitution. The fact of the matter was, if you killed somebody, and they deserved it, nobody was testify against you. And if you didn’t make a pattern of it, the company wasn’t going to bring you down. In the titanic struggles between order and chaos – chaos as definitely ahead.

There was one rule though. No matter who came up, they’d better be willing to spend a long time up. If they weren’t, it wasn’t worth the company’s budget.

As a result of this simple rule, and our overall environment, no decent women ever came. You know, the kind that held out some hope of family. The kind that understood that the environment they’d be in was sexist and far less than wholesome.

That was true, at least, until Mary.

It was May 13 and the latest transit ship had come. It was full of workers and of those many materials that could only be manufactured on Earth. And among those many workers was one named Mary Monroe. She wasn’t a barkeep or a prostitute. She was a manager.

We were all in Cooperstown mess hall. It was actually a food ship belonging to the Hyore Company. The Hyore company was in charge of mining our particular little rock – a ten mile by 1 mile wedge of high-value minerals. The ship went around visiting the various mining sites on the rock – we’d work it from all angles. When it came, miners would hop off the job, enjoy their meal and perhaps a little R&R and then get back to work.

Beyond containing a mess, the ship was, truly, a mess. The hall was a vast windowless dodecahedron – you know, a near-sphere with 12 faces. There were quite a few dark corners and structural cross-struts. In the absence of gravity, food was available at 3 of the 12 ‘faces’ of the structure. Of course, it all came in little pouches. You’d think it’d be nice and sanitary. But it turns out that when you’ve got a whole crew of men hanging out together on a very high stress job, things do get messy. There is the occasional food fight, people vomit after a too hard a night – and they bleed when they fight. No matter what the cause, when there’s no gravity, it is very very hard to clean up.

When we were in Cooperstown, we mostly ignored the stench and the flying biohazards. Nonetheless, it did eventually get to be too much. So, about every month, the mess hall would get vacuumed out (literally). And just before that happened, the whole place smelled of decayed food, vomit and old iron. Afterwards it only vaguely smelled of decayed food and vomit. The iron didn’t change a bit.

When the transit ship docked, it was just before the mess hall was supposed to be cleaned. As soon as we heard (and felt) it clump into Cooperstown, our curiosity was peaked. We were like prisoners – waiting to greet the fresh meat joining us in captivity. Of course, the whole ship wasn’t going to deboard. The transit ship had to visit other sites, other asteroids and other companies.

We weren’t expecting the whole ship, but we were expecting three people. Our crew had lost three people that month. One insulted another and a mistake was made on the job while the other two simply vanished. That tends to happen because of suit leaks.

As we’d lost three people, we’d requisitioned three replacements. Of course they’d been shipped up from Earth years earlier. They’d only just arrived in the neighborhood. For a few days, they’d been waiting in limbo of sorts while companies bid on them and their work site was selected.

We expected three. But we got two, and we got Mary.

She strode into the place as if she owned it. Her nose wrinkled, but she didn’t say a word. She was wearing a well-tailored dark gray business jacket with a low-key blouse and slacks. In no way was she a fit for Cooperstown.

But I noticed, as did quite a few of the other fellows, that the miners who came with her cussin’ and hootin’ and hollerin’ as new miners tend to do. They were sedate and restrained.

For her part, Mary didn’t waste any time.

“Folks,” she said, as soon as she walked into the room on a wave of catcalls, “I’m here because you guys are a bunch of screwups.”

The catcalls stopped.

“F-ck you,” came a voice from a dark corner. I could have traced her future life on a very small piece of paper. People like her weren’t liked and they didn’t survive.

Surprisingly, she didn’t respond in kind.

“Who said that?” she asked, schoolteacher in her voice.

Nobody came forward.

“Coward,” she muttered, loudly. She waited a moment, giving the coward the chance to face her head-on. But nobody floated forward. She’d broken a man.

“You are screwups,” she continued, back in speech-making mode, “And 23 people – $690M worth of people – have died at this site alone in the past year. I’m here to stop that.”

“Hah!” came a voice. Chuckles could be heard from all directions.

She just raised an eyebrow, and it stopped.

With that one motion, my diagram of her future life changed.

We were all afraid of her. But we weren’t afraid in some way we’d understood. It wasn’t a fear of pain or death. It was a far stronger fear of embarrassment. She was respectable. And anybody who had any respect for themselves wouldn’t want to appear the rube in front of her.

Mary’s very presence demanded decorum.

She looked around the room, one eyebrow raised. “Any questions?” she asked.

There were none.

“Then let’s get back to business.”

With another clump, the transit ship lifted off leaving Mary behind.

In five minutes, our world had changed.

In five minutes, the wild west had been tamed.