The Service
Posted on August 13, 2013

Star Date : 663161

“Dig. Dig. Dig. It’s a temporary gig.” I whisper as I toss over a shovelful of dirt. Today is my first day on Nero-12. 

A mist of dust twirls in the air caressing my cheeks. When I raise my hand to wipe my face, a thick, leathery, dirt-covered glove prevents me from doing so. The sense of urgency to continue my task battles with my curiosity and I take a moment to look around. Dozens of other human silhouettes are mining into the floor in a mechanical rhythm, lowering their shovel and raising dirt like robots, in a straight line snaking through a ditch whose gritty walls stretch upwards over twelve feet.

My arms catch up to the tempo reverberating in the cave; crackle…shush, crackle…shush. Dig. That’s what I’m supposed to do. Keep quiet and dig.

From the corner of my eye I see the controller speaking into a handheld device. “A possible situation,” he says, and then floats away in a hover vehicle. 

“Keep digging,” a man behind me whispers and I jerk my arms in response for a millisecond before returning to the rhythm.  “Take it day by day, repeat your mantra and you’ll survive.”

“Dig. Dig. Dig. It’s a temporary gig,” I mumble once more. It’s difficult to keep your mind from wandering when your body is performing monotonous labor. Being a history teacher, my mind often wanders into rich stories of the past. Recently, I've been thinking of the history of The Service and Nero-12. 

The Service was formed to find another suitable home for the people of Volari. After the meteor destroyed three quarters of our planet and practically drained our oceans, the surviving population started to die of starvation and dehydration. There just wasn't enough water to drink and even less for crops and farms. We had to find another home. But, instead of finding another home, The Service discovered the Nero solar system and its planets with abundant amounts of clean water under their surfaces. Nero-12 was the most stable of them all, so we mined its water and transported it back to Volari. Unfortunately, the atmosphere was too volatile to colonize.

The long lines of volunteers diminished after a few years and re-enlistments to The Service dropped drastically within a decade. The state had to find other means to employ workers, but who would do manual labor on a distant planet for months, maybe years at a time? When the black market became full of rare water pellets and new narcotics to make you think you drank water, the state stepped in and changed the question. Who should do the manual labor? To that, the public replied almost unanimously. 

Violent criminals were sentences to decades in The Service as diggers. Some of the worst killers, child molesters and rapists spent an entire lifetime on Nero-12, digging until their hands could no longer hold up a pick ax. The people of Volari survived extinction with only the vermin of society as the cost. It was a small price to pay for a population of now only two million people. 

After wasting time and effort on building machines that failed to successfully prospect on Nero-12, manual diggers were still required. But after three decades, the violent crime rate dropped to all-time lows and the number of workers were drastically decreasing. As a result, the state became stricter and laws were modified so significantly that misdemeanors were given sentences to The Service. Riots broke out and demonstrations were held in protest to these new regulations, but the fact remains that water was needed to survive. Even the state’s opponents knew that without The Service the people on Volari would die.  

Minor theft will get you six months on Nero-12. Arson gets you a year, maybe three years if you destroyed a government installation. I beat up a guy at a bar for grabbing my wife’s breast. He and I had been drinking too much, but I was just that much stronger. Felony assault got me two years in The Service. 

“Keep digging,” the man grumbles at me again. I hadn't noticed my shift in pace. “If you lose your rhythm, they’ll start monitoring you. Just another few hours and we’ll be done for today. Don’t let your mind wander and just keep digging.”

“Dig. Dig. Dig. It’s a temporary gig,” I mumble as I return to my task. Crackle…shush. Crackle…shush. I feel something on my neck and I rub it away. The bugs on Nero-12 are tiny, ant-like. I remember a news program stating that these bugs weren't a threat to the diggers. Representatives of The Service insisted that the inmates worked in a disease-free environment and that the bugs were more of a nuisance than a danger. But I wonder, would they tell us otherwise? 

I shake my head to force out the thoughts. “Dig. Dig. Dig. It’s a temporary gig,” I repeat under my breath, keeping with the beat. I've just got another few hours of work and then I can ask this guy more questions. He seems to know how things work on Nero-12. I wonder how long he’s been here.

Not everyone survives their sentence in The Service, as is common with prisons throughout history dating back to the times of Earth before its sun burned out. The rumors are that some inmates die from cave-ins and unexpected sink holes in the unstable caverns, some kill themselves before the controllers could catch wind of their insanity, and some are killed by other inmates for no good reason. Most of those that come home after finishing their sentences say they remember nothing but digging. Only an unlucky few finished their sentence still able to recall every painful day away from home. Those guys eventually go crazy. 

There were leaks about memory wipes being used to control the inmates. Representatives from The Service didn't deny the claim. They insisted that the technique was only used for the safety and sanity of the inmates and that it left no lasting effects on the inmates once they returned home. “There are some inmates who need it more than others,” the representative had said on the news program.

I stop shoveling as a dreadful question pops into my head. “Hey.” I whisper to the man digging behind me. “What day is it today?”

“Shut up. Don’t think. Repeat your mantra. Just keep digging.”

I return to the motions, but the moves become harder to execute. I shake my head again and again to stop my mind from drifting. I concentrate on the black ground underneath my feet, the shadow of my body casting down from the light post above, and the bugs crawling in the dirt in my shovel. I suddenly feel a million tiny insect legs crawling all over my body. My hands brush the creepy sensation away and I try hard to continue the tempo. I have to fight my neurosis. I have to keep it together. It’s only my first day. I have to keep digging. Don’t think. 

I remind myself of all that is important to me, of why I have to survive this. I see visions of my wife, my newborn daughter, my two year old son, my family. I fight back the tears welling up inside my goggles. Ignore the bugs itching along the back of my neck. Ignore the pinching flesh. It’s not there. I grind my teeth until I hear squeaking along my molar surfaces. “Stop it, Erik” I mumble to myself. “Just keep digging.”
After a few seconds I feel my body slathered with bugs. I drop my shovel and begin tugging on my wet suit.

“Not again! Snap out of it, Erik. There’s nothing there!”

I can feel them swarming up inside my sleeves, burrowing underneath my skin, tearing at my muscles, eating my flesh, sucking the blood directly out of my veins. My nerves feel like they are being tugged, plucked like guitar strings all the way up my spine. They’re marching in my hair, inside my ears and nostrils, towards eyeballs, and…they’re everywhere! My throat closes up and I can’t scream for help. The insects are suffocating me, riding my saliva down my esophagus and into my stomach. I gag, fall to my knees, and begin heaving. 

“There’s nothing there, Man. Get up and dig before…”

The whirring sound of the hovering vehicle gets louder until it stops directly over me. The controller jumps down to my side, takes out a white pistol and points it to my shoulder. I feel a shock and I see memories of my life reeling before my eyes:  Cynthia’s pink lips, her smooth thighs, Jerome’s silly little giggle, and Karina’s tiny newborn feet. My memories dig into my gut, wrenching each muscle until my chest aches. Reality hurts. Two years before I will see them again. Two years…

I feel another shock. Slowly, painfully, and then almost thankfully, I feel nothing at all.

Star Date : 663162

“Dig. Dig. Dig. It’s a temporary gig.” I whisper as I toss over a shovelful of dirt. Today is my first day on Nero-12. 

* * * * * 

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