“Edison!” shouted Jiaying. “Wait!”
How could anything so big move so fast?
The gorilla’s leap ricocheted off the metal carapace of a deactivated tunneler, up to the stone ceiling of the underground gallery. Edison scrambled into a dark passageway.
Jiaying launched herself after it, underclocked compared to Edison. Her exhausted muscles couldn’t pace his, even in Martian gravity. Sweat plastered hair against her face. She couldn’t brush it away because of her suit helmet.
Before she lost the transmitter link, she snapped the telemetry from Edison’s suit: power, water and air all 100%. Her suit recycled her urine, but she was below 50% on everything else.
“Bring it back,” Blake had ordered. “Before the damn thing starts taking tunnelers apart!”
You reap what you sow, she thought. She reached the upper passageway, stone walls gnawed away by a tunneler. Her suit lights panned the empty length.
No trace of the gorilla.
Jiaying had glimpsed Edison’s dark face through his helmet before he’d leapt away. No anger or desperation burned in those deep-set eyes, only sadness.
Now she wasn’t even picking up a signal from Edison’s transponder. He was too deep in the warren of Martian tunnels. Which made her claustrophobically aware of millions of tonnes of rock pressing down above her. She took slow Tai Chi breaths. The way in is the way out.
Jiaying and Edison had arrived on the resupply ship from Earth 26 Martian days ago. But two days ago, Edison had refused to come out of Warren #2.
Blake and his mining crew could hardly believe their good fortune.
They’d never concealed their dislike of Edison; he’d gotten the project back on schedule after they’d failed miserably. Edison was a gene-spliced idiot savant, a miracle worker at repairing heavy machinery. Half the tunneling machines had been out of service when Jiaying and Edison arrived. Thanks to Edison, everything was running again, excavating a deep radiation-shielded expansion for the colony.
But then he ran.
Reaching a tunnel intersection, she looked up at the camera-comm router on the ceiling. Edison had neatly disassembled it, leaving all the parts for future repair. Over the past two days, he’d disabled hundreds of them, enraging the men. The heads-up display in her helmet showed a wire-frame image where she was in the warren, but the dots marking all the cameras were unlit. That was also why her radio didn’t work underground. If an accident were to happen…
“It trusts you,” Blake had said. “It won’t let the rest of us near it.”
Then he’d given her the blaster: the kind that only ship captains and security chiefs were allowed to have. She’d tried to refuse it. “It’s too dangerous!” He wouldn’t let her.
“Use it if you can’t coax your pet out of the warren. Or if you see any more signs of sabotage. Then your job is to take it out. Blast it out of existence. We don’t have time for this. The project has to finish on schedule.”
“He’s already bought you time: months, maybe a year!”
“Edison served its purpose. The company created it. The company can decommission it.”
“He’s not a machine!”
“Cyborg, wild animal, whatever. Not a citizen of Mars.”
When she hadn’t found him yesterday, she’d spent the night in the warren, further depleting her air and power. She’d barely slept, waking either from a nightmare of being trapped in the warren, or of Edison taking the blaster from her pack. I wish I’d never taken the damned thing. She’d slept with her arms around her pack, suit heaters keeping her from freezing in the dark.
After training with Edison for over a year, she thought she knew him.
But Mars wasn’t the Congo; it wasn’t even Earth. There were no forests, no birds, no insects. Something in Edison had snapped in the tunnels, like a soldier with PTSD. Who knew what he’d do? If my life depended on it, could I shoot him? She hoped she wouldn’t have to find out.
Jiaying turned off her suit lights and switched her cameras to infrared.
Edison’s footprints in the gravel appeared as faint heat images nearly washed out by the heat radiating from her suit. She jogged down the tunnel lit only by ghostly infrared. Soon she came to the top of another gallery. Here, Edison’s heat trail vanished in the vast open space. He’d leapt, taking one of the tunnels leaving the gallery. If she picked the wrong one, his trail would be cold by the time she picked another. Choose, woman. The gallery had a tunnel sloping up to the surface. She picked it.
A minute later, she realized it was the wrong choice. Dammit, Edison, where did you go? At this point, so close to the surface, she decided to go all the way up.
The thick pressure door at the top was closed. Although the tunnels weren’t pressurized for colonists yet, all the surface doors were kept sealed because of the radiation. She reached out her right hand, ring glowing through her translucent glove. In response, the door forged of Martian iron slid aside. Once she walked through, it slid shut behind her. Her ring opened the next door as well. Now she stood at the exit of the bunker, looking out on the polar landscape. Pale brownish-red desert surrounded her; no CO2 frost in this season. The surface was bathed in weak sunlight. She scanned the sky till she spotted the small bright disk of Sol.
Her suit’s online interface chirped. She had reception.
“Did you get it?” asked Blake.
It. She clenched her jaw. “I saw Edison near a tunneler.” She made a point of using his name.
“Did you damage the tunneler when you fired?”
“I didn’t use the blaster.”
“Why the hell not?! I showed you how to use it, girl! If you had a clear shot…”
She didn’t reply. I’m so tired. Her dreams of coming to Mars had been crushed like gravel in the tunnels weeks ago.
She heard Carlos’ voice in the background. “Tell Jane-girl to get her ass over–”
She heard the shuffle of Blake’s hand covering his communicator. Jane was what the men called her behind her back. They called Edison Cheeta.
Blake spoke again. “Jiaying, you’re at grid C5. I want you to head across the surface to the bunker at B3. There’s a tunneler in the gallery below, one of our small rock cutters. I’ve loaded a command sequence in your ring to order the tunneler to surface for new programming.”
“Programming for what?”
Silence. Then Blake growled, “We’ve got a project to run. Maybe you forgot while you were pet-sitting. B3. You want me to send you mapping–”
“No.” She bit back a retort that would only cause more trouble with the men. “I got it.” The sooner she was beneath the surface, offline again, the happier she’d be.
She took her bearings from the heads-up display and loped across the surface: high, leaping strides like a princess of Mars. Her feet kicked up rooster-tails of brown sand behind her.
The warren was laid out as a grid, bunkers sprouting like prairie dog hills. It didn’t take long to get to B3. Her ring opened the outer door. It slid shut behind her and she opened the inner door, unveiling the mine-like depths. She felt the vibration of a tunneler through her boots.
She took a few Tai Chi breaths, then descended toward the gallery. The vibration through stone felt like a rocket under thrust. Dust churned in perpetual motion: a quantum whirlpool, rock chips bouncing off her suit and helmet. The haze kept her from seeing more than a couple meters ahead, but her ring glowed red through her translucent glove, indicating proximity of a tunneler. She pirouetted slowly, holding out her arm to see which direction glowed brightest.
She followed the ring’s direction, arm outstretched. Abruptly the vibration ceased. As the dust slowly sifted down, she saw the tunneler embedded halfway in rock. A dozen mechanical arms gripped the stone wall like a metal tick. The dust-coated tunneler was smaller than most, engineered for drilling service crawl tubes. Atomic power pulsed within its belly. “You see me, don’t you?” she said.
A beam from her ring darted to it through the dust, conveying Blake’s commands. The tunneler extracted itself from the opening in the wall and turned jerkily, camera-stalk eyes regarding her. Then it ascended toward the tunnel where she’d come in.
She should have recharged her suit’s power and air when she was in the bunker. Well, I’m not going back up there with the tunneler. She sipped water from the tube in her helmet, then set off through the tunnels back toward C5.
Just let me talk to you, Edison.
After two hours of hiking through the nightmare maze, there was still no trace of the gorilla. She knew Edison had smuggled supplies into the warren, but where? I can’t even find his caches! Jiaying’s mind was playing tricks on her, imagining Edison lying in wait around every bend. In the darkness all the tunnels looked the same. If not for the HUD guidance, she’d be hopelessly lost. She walked back toward B3 to recharge her oxygen generator at the surface bunker. What are the chances I can avoid talking to Blake?
She was nearly to the gallery beneath the B3 bunker when she noticed crude scratches on the wall: the Chinese characters for her name. She’d taught them to Edison back on Earth. Still no trace of his transponder signal. Footprints imprinted the tunnel floor, both from Edison and a tunneler. She kept going, searching for more scratchings on the walls. She found another set of characters by the entrance to a side tunnel.
Did you go in here?
After a hundred meters, it dead-ended with no more marks on the walls. She felt vibration through her boots. Only then did she notice the red glow from her ring: a tunneler.
Thunder rumbled through her boots as the roof ahead of her collapsed, tonnes of rock crashing down near the intersection with the main tunnel. Dust shook from the walls like the skin of a drum. Rubble bounced toward her. She scrambled backwards, heart racinc. A nightmare.
Except I’m awake.
As the clouds of dust settled, she saw the exit was plugged. No way out. She noticed the glow of her ring fading as the unseen tunneler retreated.
What wretched timing to be so near a digging tunneler! If she was lucky, it had recorded her presence and was going for help. But she couldn’t count on that. As Blake had said, “We’ve got a project to run.”
She shone her suit lights over the fallen rock. On Mars, her Earth-trained muscles made her a superwoman. But she was running out of air, and with this volume of rock…
If ever there was ever a time to use it, this was the time. She took it from her pack, examined it in the lights from her suit, and flipped off the safety as Blake had shown her. Power hummed through her glove.
Backing up ten meters, she raised the blaster and gently squeezed the trigger.
There was a blinding flash. The shock wave hurled her backwards, and her helmet-protected head struck the rock floor.
Sitting up, hands shaking, Jiaying switched the safety back on. She got to her feet, eyes taking a minute to adjust from the flash. She tasted blood from biting her tongue. As the dust settled, she could see the blockage. The blast had collapsed even more of the ceiling. The blaster wouldn’t get her out of this. She felt panic rising and took slow breaths. Stay calm.
The alternative was simple: clear the opening by hand, one stone at a time. Her air processor was good for a couple more hours. Maybe that was enough. It would have to be.
She stepped forward and picked up a rock.
Hours later, still trapped in the passage, Jiaying drifted in and out of consciousness. Her suit was keeping her alive, just barely. It had turned off her suit heaters to divert remaining power to her air processor. Freezing to death wasn’t the worst way to die, but it was taking a long time. I just want this over with.
She lay with her eyes closed, curled on the floor of the tunnel, helmet pressed against the rock. She could feel the vibration of rocks shifting in the stone dam plugging the tunnel. Hallucinating, she imagined the rocks tumbling closer, stacking themselves on top of her body. Turning her into a Martian fossil for paleontologists.
A paleontologist shook her shoulder. She was too groggy and cold to open her eyes. She wondered if he would put her fossilized skeleton in a museum or leave her in situ, encased in glass.
The paleontologist lifted her body. Her stiff eyes fought their way open. It was too bright. She remembered her suit lights were off. Someone else’s lights. A man in a huge spacesuit was pulling her through a narrow passage in the rubble.
Her mind floated in a cottony wad of cold and CO2. It wasn’t till she was in the stone gallery that recognition trickled into her brain: Edison. He carried her over his shoulder like a pillow; she weighed almost nothing.
A bulkhead door opened. Edison laid her on the floor. As she wrapped her arms weakly around her pack, protecting the blaster, she felt recharge connectors click onto her suit. Fresh air hissed into her suit. Warmth began returning to her hands and feet, tingling painfully.
The gorilla peered down at her in concern, touching his helmet to hers.
“Edison,” she wheezed.
He propped her gently against the wall, checking the hoses and cables connected to her suit.
“You came,” she whispered.
“We can go back,” she said.
He shook his head and held up his hands, signing, “No place for Edison.”
And with those words, all her pre-rehearsed arguments to bring him back collapsed. This wasn’t the Congo. Edison would never be a citizen of Mars. And the company would never fly him home. There was no cost-benefit payout.
Abruptly the outer bulkhead door behind him slid open, letting in the dim Martian daylight. As Edison turned, metal arms reached in, clamping onto his suit. They dragged him through the doorway to the surface of Mars.
Jiaying’s ring glowed red. “No!” she shouted.
The door slid shut.
Fumbling with stiff gloves, she struggled to disconnect herself from the recharge station. Finally she staggered to her feet and stretched out her hand. The door slid open, revealing the polar desert.
She stumbled outside the bunker, looking for Edison.
Her suit’s communicator chirped.
“Jiaying?” said Blake.
She spotted the tunneler that had pulled Edison from the warren. It was the small unit she’d surfaced for reprogramming. How long ago had that been? Hours? A day?
“Where’s Edison?” she asked. She was still gasping for air.
“Shit,” said Carlos in the background. “Cheeta’s fucked up the tunneler.”
She walked toward it, turning her head from side to side, searching for Edison.
When she got closer she noticed a spacesuit arm sticking out from beneath the weight of the tunneler.
Reaching the tunneler, she knelt by the arm. The gorilla was pinned beneath the heavy machine. The ring on his dark finger glowed red through the clear glove, fading as the tunneler’s power died. She felt along his arm, tugging desperately on it. As her hands reached his shoulder, she discovered his suit was torn open, shredded by metal claws that could grip rock.
Or carve Chinese characters on walls.
Within the tear, blood bubbled, boiling away in the thin atmosphere.
She scanned the telemetry from his suit. No air pressure. All his vital signs were flatlined. Jiaying blinked at tears she couldn’t wipe away inside her helmet.
“Girl? What’s going on there?”
“Yeah,” said Blake. “And I’m reading total shutdown from the tunneler.
Your pet put up a hell of a fight.”
“It was just a matter of using the right bait,” said Carlos.
Jiaying heard the shuffle of a hand muting the communicator.
She let go of Edison’s dead hand and stood, looking in the distance toward the operations center where the men were. Carefully, she unsealed her pack and flipped off the safety on the blaster.
What a great snapshot–I could feel the history and depth of the world, but it never got in the way of the story. And I love how you ended it!