“Fiction,” rasped Micho, his voice falling into the recycled air like a dying match. “That’s all this is.” His hair, cut close to his scalp, was like everyone else’s on the boat. Long hair was not frowned on in space, it was forbidden. Working in the bowels of an asteroid hauler meant working in close proximity to open and unprotected machinery of dubious intent.
Rock jakkers were a superstitious bunch. Each boat that plied the vacuum between the asteroid belt, Mars, and Earth had its own personality. Each boat was “temperamental,” and jakkers had soon learned that most boats despised long hair and went out of their way to punish anyone who dared wear it long. “Follicle malfunction” had caused many a jakker fatality before it had become SOP to keep it trim, male and female alike.
Micho’s short hair, as such, was not surprising. Unexpected was the gray and silver that touched his head above his ears – a bold and obvious sign of age. Jakkers rarely lasted more than five years. Or three round trips to the Belt from Earth. The statistical probability of death rose exponentially and, at five years, the gap between the line on that graph and Death was almost imperceptible.
Mochi was a legend. He’d been a jakker for fourteen years.
The steady thrum through every deck plate, wall, and bulkhead of the ion drive provided comfort as the crew of Rock Hard settled into zero-gee hammocks at the end of the day shift. Four hours sleep, wake, twenty minutes of ablutions and dietary needs allowed, then back for another fifteen hours of work.
Even so, the crew allowed themselves the luxury of listening to Mochi speak as they strapped themselves in.
“You make sure that strap’s a-tight, Wylla, you hear?” Rather than trust the Company-assigned Superior Officer to fix the strap herself, Mochi floated over and adjusted the offending rig himself. The unexpected age lines around his eyes creased as he worked the strap, “You remember Bryon?”
Around the cabin heads nodded, fingers were kissed and pressed to foreheads as the crew acknowledged their fallen comrade. Mochi paused during the ritualistic display and nodded, either in approval at the ritual or his work with the strap. Either way, he floated back to his rig and began strapping himself in.
“Bryon was a Karosh,” said Mochi into the dimming lights of the cabin. “You know what that means, do you?” No one answered. They all knew. Karosh; dead on the job because he fouled up. He didn’t do his job, put the crew at risk, and paid the price, the ultimate price, of this failure. And his selfishness had created more work for those left alive. His death had stolen his time, talent, and productivity from the crew of Rock Hard. Maybe if he’d have checked his strap he’d have gotten a full sleep cycle and not nodded off.
Mochi’s soft laughter, mocking and cruel, floated through the darkness. “You only think you know what it means. You only know what those fat cats on Earth and Mars tell you it means.” Steel added itself to the rasp of his voice, “Fools, all of you. You’ll be dead in a year.”
No one spoke into the silence. Mochi often teased them, berated them, threatened them, and called them fools. There was knowledge he possessed that the others didn’t understand, but they did know that their survival chances were better with Mochi than without him. Wylla was Superior Officer, but Mochi was the ‘Old Man,’ and that meant something else altogether.
As such, they tolerated his outbursts even as they didn’t understand them. And they turned a blind eye to the sounds of weeping that on occasion emanated from his bunk in the middle of the night.
But tonight was different. Tonight Mochji didn’t end it by proclaiming them all ghosts with pulses in the void. After a moment, he resumed speaking. No one thought to admonish him for infringing on their precious sleep cycle. This was something new.
“Fiction, I said. It’s all just a game of make believe.” A soft light threw gentle illumination across the veterans face as he used his bunk light to spotlight focus on himself. He looked over at Superior Officer Wylla, “You know why we haul rocks from the Belt to Earth and Mars?”
“Raw materials,” she answered almost before he had finished asking the question.
“Yes,” he nodded, “but why do they need them?”
Another softball question, “Because Earth has mined itself dry and Mars doesn’t have nearly enough ore that it needs.”
Mochi shook his head “Has it now? The Earth has mined itself dry?” He gestured towards the aft section of the hauler, “So that’s why we’re hauling two and a half billion tons of ore to Earth? Because they’ve ‘run out?'”
Faces that had been certain in their answers were now beginning to turn inward.
“We work fifteen hours a day, every day, for years separating and refining the ore as we sail through space BECAUSE EARTH HAS RUN OUT?” A small nodule of spittle flew from Mochi’s mouth and formed into a near-perfect sphere, to float in the space between bunks.
No one said anything. Even Wylla seemed nonplussed. This was an outburst like none before, and there was no way to respond. Of course the Earth was out of ore – that’s the entire reason they were out here. They provided life-saving materials for an increasingly over-crowded Earth and fledgling Mars colony. Jakkers were building the future.
The silence stretched to the point where crew members began nodding off, chalking Mochi’s lecture as just another in a long string of oddities about the man.
“Karosh,” Mochi’s salty whisper floated back out of his corner, jolting the crew back to awareness. “Bryon was a Karōshi, not a Karosh. Karosh is what you’ve been taught, that Bryon let us all down, he let Earth down, by not working well enough, or hard enough.”
Mochi laughed again, the cruelty gone, but replaced with weeping, “The irony, and genius, is that they took turned it around to make you, the worker, look like the bad guy.”
“You don’t understand, you stupid fools. Karōshi was a feudal Japanese term, from my country, that meant ‘worked to death.’ It was never supposed to mean the victim was to blame. The worker,” he pointed to each of them with a bony finger, “me, you, all of us are not to blame. We will all end up Karōshi, worked to death by a system that cares nothing for us and doesn’t even need what we provide. “
He fell back into his bunk, a weary sigh pushing against the bulkead. “Somewhere along the way ‘Karōshi’ became ‘Karosh,’ and it became our fault.”
The silence stretched again until it was again broken. Not by Mochi, but by Gero, the guppy on the boat. Not even into his first year, he was the new guy almost certain to die by accident or radiation in the next six months, according to the Company actuary tables.
“What do you mean they don’t need the ore?”
“Just that,” said Mochi. “Use your space-addled brains, you morons. Ore doesn’t evaporate and disappear. Not in any appreciable quantities, anyway. It’s all still there, on Earth. They’ve just tied it up into masturbatory monuments to themselves and would rather kill us getting them more than reallocate their gilded mansions to help the people.”
He sat back up and looked around the cabin, “Do you really think an entire planet could be so easily mined dry? More concentrated and readily-available ore than anywhere else in the solar system all used up in just three hundred years? Phhaaw.” He laughed again. “I don’t blame you for not realizing. You’re all idiots but none of you was born on Earth. I was. I’ve seen it for myself.”
Frown lines, more signs of unusual aging in the Belt, creased Mochi’s face. He looked into the blank space between bunks, addressing everyone and no one at the same time, “And that’s why I had to do it.”
If a micrometeorite had punctured the hull and created an air leak, the crew wouldn’t have sat up faster. The cabin became a flurry of activity as Mochi’s ominous works galvanized everyone to action.
“What have you done, Mochi,” asked Wylla as she struggled to climb out of her bunk. The old man didn’t answer. He lay back in his bunk, tears clinging to his eyes in zero-gee puddles.
Karosh was a very real phenomenon among jakkers. Personality changes, megalomania, paranoia, suicidal, and homicidal acts were not uncommon if not caught early. It always hurt the crew, the company, and Earth. Crew members endured compulsory physiological checks every six weeks via tightwave to Earth by a Company phsyche.
The entire crew of Rock Hard had completed psych eval only days before. Mochi should not be about to go Karosh, but the man had dropped an emotional bomb and and a not-so-subtle threat on the entire crew.
“Engine status nominal!” came a cry from below.
“Atmospherics in the green,” yelled a crew member from the starboard side.
“Cargo,” yelled Wylla, “What’s cargo status?”
A pregnant pause filled the tiny boat and dread filled the face of every crew member as Gero looked up from his station.
“Cargo status,” the guppy said, “critical. We’re not hauling anymore.”
“Check the logs,” snapped Wylla. “Find out when we stopped hauling. I need velocity and trajectory of the load immediately.” She pushed herself over to Mochi’s bunk.
“What have you done, old man? Where’s the load going?”
Mochi looked over at the Superior Officer, his voice calm and his tears gone. “I sent most of it into the sun. Two and a half billion tons of ore is almost as massive as New York. That would have caused an extinction-level event.”
Wylla’s mouth opened into a perfect “o” as she connected the dots. “How much?” She whispered. “How much will strike the Earth?”
“Just enough to send them back to the Stone Age. A century of global winter. There are twelve billion on Earth. Humanity will survive. Any maybe next time, we’ll do better.”
All around the boat, all activity stopped as the horrifying truth of Mochi’s words were confirmed by instrumentation. The Old Man had committed the biggest mass murder in the history of mankind. There was no way to stop or divert that much mass from striking Earth.
More figures poured in from Rock Hard’s sensors. Mochi’s plan was perfect in that it allowed no opportunity for stopping or diverting the cargo from striking Earth. All the crew of Rock Hard could do was watch in helpless frustration as death stalked the home planet. Twelve weeks. That’s all Earth had.
“Why,” asked the guppy, his face a mixture of fear and rage at the old man. “Why?”
“Because if only some of us are free, none of us are free.” He closed his eyes and rolled over on his bunk, turning his back on his crew, and on Earth.
A few years ago, good friend Ron Gavalik and I started a website called "Truthpunk" - dedicated towards exposing the truths of human nature. We never really got the idea off the ground, but this story was one of the initial pieces we were going tp publish on it. I recently learned that Japan has an actual problem with young workers dying from heart attacks and stress as a result of corporate and social pressure to work themselves literally to death. This is a horrifying thought to me. The workers who die trying to achieve cultural, corporate, or social approval should not have to sacrifice so much. These are chains than bind us and enslave us. In Japan, the USA, or any country in the world, no one should have to work themselves to death just to survive to the next day. That is not civilization.