David Louis Edelman David Louis Edelman

Mathralon

Originally published in The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction, Volume Two in February, 2008. “Mathralon” copyright 2008 by David Louis Edelman. For more information about this story, read An Introduction to “Mathralon.”

Listed on Post-Weird Thoughts’ List of Best Short Stories 2008.

*

Here is how you mine mathralon.

First, you must trace the Bohrer Trade Routes out to the galaxy’s Upper Spiral, beyond the reach of the Consortium, out where the transmissions of the Great Weave unwind. Follow the caravans to the corporate headquarters of a third-rate company founded by a third-rate house with the prosaic name of Howard. Look at the very bottom row of Howard’s profit statements and find a line item for miscellaneous mineral exports. Trace that line item to its source. You will find a small moon just on the near side of the Particulate Ocean which has never merited any name other than Howard 27.

Howard 27 is our home. Howard 27 is also the galaxy’s only known source of mathralon.

Mathralon does not give up its secrets easily. It is a coy mineral, mercurial, too shy to reveal itself to any but the Howard Company’s spectroscopes, and the Howard Company has patented those. So to have any hope of finding mathralon, you must keep an ear open to the daily prospecting reports from the central office. Don’t dawdle. Not because of any fierce competition for prospecting sites, but because mining mathralon is an all-day job, and you don’t want to be stuck in the mines during a Howard 27 night. Then gather your crew — for you must have a crew, and your crew must be licensed — climb onboard a six-wheeled transport and bust ass over the broken clay. Once you arrive at a dig site, plant a borderstaff to claim your spot. The site is now officially yours.

The crew’s driller will take command, directing the mechanical excavators to dig deep into the moon’s hard shell. Before the sun has hit its midway point in the sky, he will clear you to descend into the pit. You will strap yourself into the bucket that drags under the transport like a limp metallic phallus; lower yourself deep into the blue-gray soil until even the sun’s anemic glow is a memory. Handheld spectroscopes will guide you to the telltale discoloration in the rock wall that signals buried treasure. You will alert the crew’s sapper, who will descend and use his precision laser to carve fist-sized chunks from the wall. And then, as the day begins its inevitable decay into night and the windstorms rev up, you will pull several handfuls of mathralon from the bowels of Howard 27.

Mathralon is cool and smooth to the touch, but as brittle as chalk. It smells vaguely sulfurous. Howard 27 shat this mineral from its volcanic depths three million years ago, and then bathed it in the glow of a very particular (and very classified) isotope for another two hundred thousand. Mathralon does not like oxygen, and so you must place the rocks in a special airtight container for the journey back to the surface. There the containers will be delicately stacked and then ferried to the dockyards at the end of the day.

You have now mined mathralon.

*

But this is only the first stage of the pilgrimage.

Wake yourself up early at the end of the week and find a nook dockside in which to sequester yourself. The Q-903s arrive with the first feeble spurts of Howard sunlight. They’re enormous vessels, unpainted, pockmarked with the debris of interstellar travel. Watch the Q-903 slowly unpack its mechanical limbs and begin to excrete remote units engineered for the sole purpose of retrieving crates of mathralon. Watch the Howard 27 mechanicals creep onto the Q-903 to retrieve crates of food, clothing, and miscellaneous supplies ordered from the company commissary.

The whole operation is a miracle of efficiency. Not one screw or bolt has been wasted in the construction of these mechanicals; not one wheel turns but that it turns in the service of ferrying chalk black mineral off Howard 27. You will believe that you are watching a dance of enormous clockwork crabs.

Now you must wave the Q-903 goodbye and give the mathralon your best wishes. It will be thirty-three years before these rocks see daylight. You will never see them again.

There is a long and many-legged trade route that winds around the Upper Spiral, and the mathralon you mined is now on it. The ship will make dozens of stops along the way to gather and drop off other Howard Company assets. Residents of these other backwater moons must find our mathralon just as mystifying as their own products strike us: karillo eggs, fenten gas, leechi data cylinders. Who could want the repulsive karillo eggs, we wonder, hard as diamonds, foul-smelling, toxic, oily to the touch? Someone must, for someone pays the Howard Company to import them, and you only pay for what you want or need.

So the mathralon we mine sits in the cold hulls of a Q-903, inching its way through the void. Decades pass. Political movements ebb and flow, economics whistles and steams, the Q-903 moves on untouched. There are sometimes accidents along the way and ships that break down. But if there exists any organization in the galaxy desperate enough to hijack an interstellar shipment of mathralon, word of it has not yet reached Howard 27.

Finally, a generation after it’s been pried from the depths of our moon, the ore reaches its destination. The Q-903 touches down on one of the satellites of the Rasha’ell Belt, some forty thousand light-years corewards. There the dance of the mechanical remotes is repeated in reverse, and the stacked crates of mathralon are unloaded. Within hours, the chalky black substance is carted off to the condensers where it is slowly pulverized and combusted for fuel. Because of mathralon’s astounding atomic properties, it is the only known substance capable of powering these condensers. One fist-sized chunk of mathralon, they say, is capable of running a single condenser for eighteen months. Without these condensers, life for the diplomats of the Kelvin Congress would be sticky and unpleasant indeed.

The process is now complete, and the cycle begins once again.

*

We ask your forgiveness for the lack of a traditional narrative structure or plot in this account.

The subject of story, they say, is transformation, and there is precious little transformation on Howard 27. We still use the same sappers and spectroscopes and transports and borderstaffs our great-great-grandsires used — literally the same items, now patched together countless times by diligent repair bots. The social framework that holds us together is necessarily limited by the edge of the dockyard; the landscape is capacious enough for conflicts to be easily avoided.

That’s not to say that human drama is unknown here. We could recount the story of Billy Khann, who killed fourteen people and led the authorities on a brutal three-day chase through the mines before impaling himself on the drill bit of an excavator. We could tell you about Lilian Farjoler, the inquisitive orphan who stowed away aboard a Q-903 and was never heard from again. We could tell you the legends surrounding the mysterious counting boy of our ancestral home world, who has been sitting on the same rock reciting numbers since the beginning of history.

But these are the same stories you can find at any outpost in the galaxy. Babies are born, the old are buried, love is tragic, the ineffable remains ineffable. The mere act of summarizing these stories here has stripped them of whatever narrative weight they might have otherwise had.

Perhaps the only proper story to be told of Howard 27 is the story of the moon itself. A thousand years ago, this was an uninhabitable and desolate place. Then came the discovery of mathralon, then the first sapper robots, and then the first in a long series of companies to discover that it’s nigh on impossible to make a profit on Howard 27 with mechanicals. Finally there came the Howard Company with its labor force of plague refugees, our great-great-grandfathers.

It would be quite a story. The slow transformation over a thousand years of dead rock to human ecosystem. The protagonists: oxygen generators, stubborn moon plants, imported soil. The antagonist: the entropy of the universe.

But it’s not a story that a miner could tell. We have no expertise here in botany or terraforming, only mathralon. You would need to consult the scientists and historians of the Howard Company, if indeed they exist, if indeed the Howard Company still exists.

*

Just as we ask your forgiveness for the lack of plot here, we would also like to acknowledge the dryness of the prose. Mathralon is a dry subject. Here on Howard 27, we have songs about scaly Howard birds and pungent Howard vodka and the difficulties of fucking on Howard clay, but we have no songs about mathralon.

This might seem strange, considering that the black rock is the central fact of existence for those twenty thousand of us who work the mines. The prospect of steady employment mining mathralon is what brought our great-great-grandfathers out to this end of the galaxy in the first place. It is the only real industry on Howard 27, and certainly the only one that produces anything resembling a profit.

But do you have songs about air and water? Do you celebrate gravity or the forward motion of time?

It’s possible to live so close to something that it effectively becomes part of you. There are thousands of microscopic life forms that eke out a spare existence in the hills and gullies of your skin, beneath your threshold of perception. But when the details of your life are so unwavering and predictable, when day follows day with brutal regularity, you become attuned to these microscopic life forms. You stop looking outside and look inside instead. And so if you were to spend a week in a Howard 27 campsite, you might be surprised to see not the drunken brawls and raucous orgies of the clichéd stories, but rather the epistemological gabble of a hundred amateur philosophers.

The Q-903s, the Charons of the interstellar economy: what does Q-903 stand for, we ask? Are there, in fact, Q-902s or Q-904s in service somewhere across the galaxy? Our grandfathers speak of a P-788 used by the Howard Company many decades ago. What the differences are between the two models we can only speculate, and vaguely at that, since the insides of the galactic caravans are not built for human access. Was the phasing out of the P-788 for the Q-903 a kind of progress, an advance up the alphabetical ladder? Or perhaps it was a cost-cutting measure, a cheapening, a denigration?

We sometimes wonder if the Kelvin Congress or the satellite worlds of the Rasha’ell Belt even exist. These diplomats whose lives we are enriching: what are they like? Are they good people or bad people? No one from Howard 27 has ever seen them, or if they have, then they’ve never returned to tell the tale. Do we have any proof that our hard-earned lodes of mathralon are actually reaching these condensers?

This is not merely the idle speculation of the armchair philosopher. There are hard and scaly economic realities in the galaxy that work against us. What if someone has discovered an alternate fuel for the Rasha’ell condensers? What if our mathralon isn’t going to Rasha’ell at all, but is being stockpiled in some Howard Company storehouse? What if the entire trade route has been abandoned or the Kelvin Congress disbanded? What if the perpetually troubled Howard Company has been sold off or dissolved?

Hundreds of years ago, there was a plague called the Shirker Disease that ravaged thousands of worlds. It was this plague that caused our great-great-grandsires to accept Howard Company contracts in this remote outpost to begin with. What if the Shirker Disease was never cured? What if the disease continued its rampage unchecked and proceeded to wipe out the rest of humanity?

Would anyone tell us?

Would the Q-903s notice?

In an unpredictable universe, the Howard Company engineers must have found ways to work around temporary displacements of its human workforce. Would the Q-903s continue their mindless march of efficiency without us, decade after decade until the end of time? Automatons gathering our shipments of mathralon ore, automatons unpacking the crates on Rasha’ell, automatons firing up the condensers. Automatons harvesting the food that feeds us, automatons keeping warm the empty seats of the Kelvin Congress.

The Howard Company’s vaunted profit-and-loss statements: are there still human beings left to read them? Will the company’s accounting programs continue to scrape tiny profits like barnacles off its mining worlds long after the customers for these minerals are dead and gone? Are the computational agents for the empty shell of the Howard Company bartering with other empty shell companies? Does a mechanical process carefully study the prospectuses of these humanless companies in search of a place to invest the company’s profits?

*

It is important to reiterate that these are not mere questions of whimsy. There are no representatives of the company on Howard 27 anymore. There is no communication with the outside galaxy, and there has been no communication for more than two decades.

We have many questions, but no one to ask these questions to.

Mining mathralon is not a complicated enterprise, and it does not require a lot of human stewards. The paltry officials who were stationed here years ago were largely figureheads, pleasant faces pasted atop a thorny branch of bureaucracy. They had few important decisions to make. And if the best they could achieve was a career as a caretaker for a backwater operation in a backwater company in a backwater location in the galaxy, perhaps these officials were not the most qualified to make such decisions anyway.

Nevertheless, several decades ago, the Howard Company began pulling its management presence back. We were fed a variety of vague rationales for this — “reshuffling,” “restructuring,” “new operating philosophy” — but there was an underlying sense of desperation evident behind the lies. We wondered if perhaps the Shirker Disease had begun to take its toll on the Howard bureaucracy. At the beginning there was a delegation of 340; later 60; for many years, a dozen; briefly we shared a team of three managers with the moon that produces the karillo eggs; and then, there was no one.

This is not to say that we were left with no way to communicate with our superiors in the Howard hierarchy. We have the telecomp machines.

But these telecomp machines raise more epistemological questions than they answer. Once upon a time the communications we received were penned by real human beings — if Howard Company bureaucrats can indeed be classified as such — and the logic behind them was human as well.

Now the answers we receive are answers derived from machines. Our questions are fed into an algorithm, the algorithm churns through vast databases of business logic, and pertinent answers are generated. Is there a harried human being somewhere rubber stamping these answers, or merely a team of three shared with the moon that produces the karillo eggs? Or, God forbid, is there no one?

How can we tell?

*

Before the last human officers left Howard 27, protests would erupt on occasion. We mathralon miners are not horribly mistreated, we do not live in conditions of squalor; yet like every labor force since the dawn of time, sometimes we have demands that must be addressed.

And they would sit down with us, these last remaining Howard accountants. It’s all a question of economics, they would say. They would lay the spreadsheets and the profit statements on the table and show us the numbers. The Howard Company is in a brutal struggle for its very survival against the larger and more profitable cartels advancing from the core, they would tell us. Be very glad you work for us and not for them. The men that run these cartels have little tolerance for slack weight. They wouldn’t hesitate to shut down operations on Howard 27 and strand all twenty thousand of you here to scratch out a living from rock and lava. How long can you survive without the supplies we send? Can you eat mathralon?

We don’t ask for the moon and stars, we would say. All we ask for is a few luxury items. We ask for news feeds. We ask for more efficient tools.

And where would the money come to pay for these things? they would ask us in return. We’re willing to be accommodating. You study these accounting statements and you tell us where the money will come from to pay for these improvements.

We would threaten to strike. We would vow to bring mathralon production to a halt.

The accountants would just shake their heads sadly. And what do you think that will accomplish? Do you think Howard will pay to send a military force here and defend such minimal profits? No, take our advice, a strike would only force the company to shut down the mathralon trade and abandon Howard 27. Imagine that one day the Q-903s simply didn’t arrive. What would you do then?

*

And so we drink and we philosophize and we sing our songs about scaly Howard birds and the difficulties of fucking on Howard clay, and the next day we go back to the pits without fail.

Sometimes we like to posit the existence of a mirror Howard 27 on the other edge of the galaxy, a Howard 27 whose residents toil away for the sole purpose of crafting the drill bits for our excavators. Perhaps our continued presence here makes their continued presence possible there. It’s an encouraging thought. Certainly there must be a cosmic balance sheet that records all labors, that works diligently to ensure the continuing profitability of the universe.

In the meantime, it’s not a bad life. We mine mathralon. We wait expectantly for some word of validation from the outside that Howard is there and Howard is listening. We watch the arrival of the Q-903s and look for some hint of a human life form on those ships, a human life form who can reassure us that the condensers are indeed churning away the same as they ever have. Perhaps one day we’ll meet a diplomat from the Rasha’ell Belt, and he will tell us how our mathralon keeps the glorious Kelvin Congress cool and comfortable.

Anything’s possible.