The crust of frozen dirt crunched underneath my boots as I shone my flashlight around in the twilight. This whole area had a layer of liquid nitrogen that extended three feet above the surface of the planet; Sergeant Kaplan called it Lake Inferior. I still had a healthy respect for it. If I didn't, I might not make it back to base camp before the mini-generator in my backpack gave out. Then my EM field suit would slowly begin to break down; the liquid nitrogen molecules would chip away at the mylar, then the insulation, then my Planetoid Exploratory Detail uniform I'd worked so damn hard to get...then, cell by cell, my skin would freeze and flake off.
I did not intend for that to happen. These were expensive boots.
"Martinez," crackled Kaplan's voice in my headset, echoing around the inside of the helmet. I still wasn't used to that, despite the year at basic training. "Report."
"Yup. 50 meters more on lakebed and closing. Estimated arrival time 1308 hours."
"Roger that. Radio base when you reach the edge of Lake Inferior. Repeat, radio when you have successfully left the surface of the lake."
"Yes, sir. Martinez out." This was my first assignment, at Base Lethe on planetoid Tango-15, known informally as Tang HQ. Fifteenth orbiting body in the Tango ring of flying objects. The rings of space junk started just after the last orbiting planet of our solar system, Neptune. First comes that poor rejected stepchild, Pluto, and then a whole series of irregular orbits that have gathered all manner of debris, from NASA garbage that they attempted to launch outside the solar system a hundred years ago to asteroids made of ice or silicon or unknown compounds.
'Course I didn't really expect to be here, out in the frozen, brittle waste of Tango-15. If I hadn't told my parents to screw off when I was fifteen, or if I'd managed to get into that robotics program instead of dicking around at clubs and getting a little too involved in the G scene, selling glitter for a big underground drug-running network...then maybe my life would be different.
Instead, the feds picked me up and tried to get me to spill what I knew about the big boys who were supplying me with G. I didn't know much; all I knew was I needed the money and this gen-mod club dancer named Shine was my hookup. The feds beat me up a little, did the good-cop-bad-cop thing, but I'd been street-smart for four years by then. Unfortunately, I wasn't a minor any more, so once they'd finished with me I was sentenced to five years in the American Defense Force--army boot camp for petty thugs. You got all the shit assignments, all the dangerous work that the government didn't want to risk their "real" soldiers on. The streets were littered with old, ex-ADF vets missing limbs or eyes--cutting-edge medical treatment wasn't a priority for us.
I could see the edge of the lakebed about ten yards ahead. The lights of Tang HQ shone dimly up the bank from there, diffused by the chemical fog generated by Lake Inferior reacting with the atmosphere. And then I felt something, heard a crunch in my boot that wasn't the icy dirt crust underfoot. I looked down.
A two-inch-long piece of the sole was hanging off the side of my right boot. I touched it gingerly with a gloved fingertip. It crumbled to the ground, shattered.
This week's piece was inspired by Northern Solitude by Flickr user NorthLight. Another sci-fi foray. I've been watching too many Star Trek and Futurama re-runs. Check the usual suspects for more Flickr Fiction: The Gurrier, Isobel, Elimare, Chris, TadMack, Neil, and Valsha. And maybe Dermot.