The kid with the clean fingernails eyed my headgear like I had a coiled dog turd stuck on my forehead. His pale, baby-fat face looked like an unbaked roll, and by the scrunch of his doughy little nose I knew he was aiming a question my way. It was his first day on a job he was about to hate, so I did the neighborly thing and spit my tobacco juice on his new boots rather than where I wanted to spit it. The cart rumbled from the bunkhouse toward the main mine shaft with a metallic growl that nobody wanted to talk over. Nobody but him.
“What’s that word on your helmet?” he asked.
“Proctologist,” I said, quiet enough that I thought he’d miss it and give up conversation, but I guess his ears hadn’t been through what mine had.
“What’s it say that for?”
“Because we work in an asshole, kid.”
He laughed a weird little laugh that flopped his shaggy blond hair into a different shape on his round head, then he stuck out a hand to shake.
“I’m Evan. I guess I’m just supposed to observe today, but I don’t know why I can’t start real work.”
“O’Brien,” I said. “You’ll see.”
“It isn’t actually an asshole,” he added, as if I had asked for clarification.
“I read up on the drifters’ anatomy before I took this assignment. They don’t have assholes. They’re more like planet-sized single cell organisms, absorbing radiation and matter from surrounding space and metabolizing it into organic substances.”
“You don’t say,” I answered with mock interest. “Gosh, I must have been confused. I don’t know why I thought we worked in an asshole.”
The timing was perfect. I almost smiled. Just as I finished my sentence the cart tilted downward and we started into the weird pinkish light and high-pitched whine of the shaft. At the same time, a hot, wet, utterly indescribable stink hit us like a brick to the face. Most of us learned to shut off the part of the brain that registered it, but that takes time. Evan was fresh.
His face was comically expressive. Initial shock. Horror. Panic. That’s all I registered before he crumpled into a retching heap on the floor of the cart. When he finally looked up at me, shivering and glazed with sweat, I just poked my index finger towards the word on my helmet. Evan looked like he was about to sob.
When he finally spoke again, it wasn’t the question I was expecting.
“What’s that noise?”
I guess he’d given up trying to understand the smell. “Immune response,” I answered. “At least that’s our best guess. Surprised you didn’t read about it.”
The urge to break his balls further was diminished by the look of him. The rising dough of his face had been deflated. He looked like shit. I guess that made him one of the guys.
To his credit, he was able to transfer most of the vomit from his face onto his sleeve and get himself more or less upright again. I’d seen people do worse on their first time down. Hell, I had done worse.
I pressed a couple foam earplugs into place and handed Evan a fresh pack of spares, the pink ones my eight-year-old daughter Gwyn had given me last Father’s Day on my furlough back home. I hate pink, but I couldn’t bring myself throw them away. I figured Gwyn would want Evan to have them. She had a fondness for strays and sad sacks.
Jarod Anderson’s work has appeared in Apex Magazine, Daily Science Fiction, Escape Pod, Fantasy Scroll, and elsewhere. He also has work forthcoming in Shroud Magazine and Midnight Echo. jarodkanderson.com