They hooked me up into their system and gave me the device.
"This will be your primary source of contact with headquarters," the man said. "Guard it with your life," he added with a smile before breaking out into laughter. "Naw, just kidding. You can always come back for a replacement." He hit me on the arm as if we were old friends. I cringed, but took the device anyway and left the station.
Messages were already flooding into the device, pointing me at where I could go for additional information and directions. I joined my new crew on the ship and we were off. Some of us were new recruits, and some were veterans. It was a pretty good mix, and it seemed we got off on a good start.
The friendly banter died down a bit as we approached our destination, the mine we were being paid to explore, and the reason we were told to remain in contact with headquarters at all times. It wasn't considered a particularly safe mine, but not really a dangerous one either. Depending on the person and their circumstances, reactions ran the gamut. Many before us had encountered things that required months of recovery, but each new encounter added to our database, and HQ was always ready to send us their latest directives on how to react to any given situation.
Occasionally HQ was pretty annoying though, constantly squawking at us with their micromanagement, but at other times, we were so lost that we welcomed any suggestions HQ sent our way. It was the solo missions that made me the most nervous, but in some ways, there was a calm beauty floating there in the blackness, though I couldn't help myself from restlessly checking my comms every few minutes, as if half expecting to be swallowed up by some space whale.
In general our missions were a success - HQ was constantly on top of things. Each of us served as their eyes, in addition to the drones they employed. In theory we could defy what HQ ordered us to do. That was fairly rare though. Some have done it with great success and congratulations, while others were blacklisted from the organization.
It was the blacklisting part that got to me. I didn't think I could survive without their support - I relied on their wisdoms far too much. Maybe I shouldn't have. In some ways it may have slowed my development, while more independent thinkers were able to contribute to HQ's database much more effectively. But at least I had the safety of HQ's approval as long as I followed all their orders to a T, though I was a bit afraid to admit they had the tendency to overwork all of us. Sleep was one of the things I treasured most in those months out on mission - or at least it was one of the few things I could talk to my peers about. Other things we wanted could not be discussed for fear of word getting back to HQ.
It wasn't such terrible work though - or at least that's what we told ourselves to keep our own spirits up. But it seemed some of the veterans had things figured out - apparently they knew which suggestions from HQ could be safely ignored without much consequence. They told me it was a reflex I had to just pick up by working there as long as they have. Many did seem to enjoy themselves much more than the new recruits though. Apparently we still had a ways to go before we had our sea legs. I suppose many veterans even had some internal version of the HQ databases instinctively mapped out in their brains, and they only had to check comms on much more rare occasions than the rest of us.
On the other hand, in terms of raw physical ability, they usually couldn't match us, since the years it took them to learn the mine had taken a toll on their bodies. I suppose many probably belonged back at HQ, sending us the orders rather than taking them. But I could see the draw of the wild frontier, the romance of the danger, as opposed to the sterile boredom of the office. This was where they had grown up and they didn't feel like leaving what they called "real living" for life in the gray coffin back at HQ.
We were mostly safe though. That was the purpose of the constant micromanagement after all. I suppose some of those who were blacklisted went off and started pirate outfits, without the benefits of HQ watching their backs. We weren't really supposed to talk about them though. It was an unspoken rule that any temptation to leave HQ would be frowned upon, and not good for our personal futures. On the other hand, if nobody ever talked about the pirates, it was quite possible their life was much better than ours. That was the fallback plan we all had in our heads, in case we ended up on the bad side of HQ. We've definitely heard rumors of veterans going to the other side for much better rewards, but it was sometimes difficult to distinguish between fact and urban legend here.
I think the general consensus was that as long as things were good enough with our deal, we didn't try too hard to ask questions, except maybe the question of what is or isn't "good enough". Sleep was something that still eluded me - or at least it was a bit hard to balance getting enough sleep, and actually living enough of a waking life that I enjoyed. We spent many late nights up, tired, but not wanting to go home, for fear our lives would be wasted if it consisted of only sleeping and following orders from HQ. And the orders never stopped, even during the hours that were supposed to be our own. In some cases, it wasn't totally unwelcome, since they offered important information about conditions in the mine. At other times, we just had to collectively ignore HQ until the next day. Many times we were so tired we just couldn't be bothered.
Sometimes I wonder if I should've made a different decision back at the recruitment station, but I tried not to dwell on that too much, staring at the silence among the stars, not having any idea where else I could've been at that point of my life.
My comms device was beeping again. Back to work.