Don’t breathe. Don’t twitch. Keep your slicer ready, it’s your only defense. Casey made a poor decision going down there, down an unfamiliar, gloomy maintenance tunnel. She could hear tendrils slithering, scraping on bare metal, searching, sniffing down the carbon dioxide trail she’d made. She needed space; she needed time, time to slip the filter back over her face, now fallen around her neck when the upper strap broke, fatigued elastic, weakened by too many days exposure to acid air. Dirty, sweaty fingers inched toward her vest pocket, slowly crawling digits, knuckle creep by knuckle creep, finding the small decoy canister, her only chance to evade. In the dim light, two rats ran across her boot. Casey’s usual response was to crush their little skulls; they ate her food, gnawed wires. She let them pass, didn’t flinch. Rats were harmless compared to what was searching for her.
Noise—thumping reverberations. One last echoing boom shook rust flakes and dust from above, falling flakes, confusing her sensor pack. With enough noise to cover movement, she ran, tossing the canister behind her, around the corner, releasing a CO2 fog to distract the searcher. Mask held to face in one hand, the other, her knife hand, dragging along the damp wall to keep to her extreme right. This was an inward access—if there were any traps, they would be to the left. That was how they’d survived so long. The searchers never caught on; it wasn’t in their programming. Some tunnels were layered with their torn-up bodies. Finally, she felt a ladder, a hatch above, one too small for them to ooze through. Somebody has been making more. She was sure of that now. The new ones were a better design, not cobbled together from pieces-parts. Shutting the scuttle hatch slowly, dogging it, she rested, wiped stinging sweat from tired eyes, safe enough here to repair her mask. Every harvester has a healthy fear of acid lung, a debilitating, slow, wasting walk to premature death.
She’d lost her water bottle. Too far from another source, she needed to get back home. Mitch would be pissed she lost it, but the treasures in her bag should soothe his anger—she’d avoid a beating. Restored as much as she was going to be, Casey stood, read the sensors, got her bearings, turned, and moved toward home. New boots, she thought, I need new boots. Maybe there would be enough water to rinse off the grime from three days in the dead space … Probably not. Not for one like her.
“Whatcha got?” Mitch was never one to welcome a harvester home, never one to lose sleep over those who didn’t return. Mitch was an asshole, an asshole who oversaw the harvester clave. He’d not spotted the absent water bottle, too distracted by the bauble Casey held out to him as he approached. She turned slightly, keeping the empty harness slot from his inspecting eyes.
“It’s a control unit for a fabricator.”
“Does it work?”
“How would I know? Everything’s dead over there, except some lighting. You know that. The machinery looks in good shape, but it’ll take a jack crew to get it out.” Casey was edging toward insubordination and a face slap.
“Watch your mouth. Anything else?”
“Hand tools, canister caps, and a roll of plasti-sheet, the thin variety.”
“That’s it? In three days, that’s all you found?” He stared her down until she lowered her head. “All right, log it in and get it to Leroy.”
“Still low … No washing today. The tankmen are due back tomorrow. I hear they found a fresh source, cleaner. Now get going.”
Casey left. Once out of sight, taking a detour down a passageway choked with boxes, crates, and barrels, needing to see a friendly face—Rig Master Wanda was that face. She’d taken Casey under protection when her father didn’t return eight years ago.
Sliding open the expanded cage-metal door to Wanda’s territory was like coming home.
“How was it out there?” Wanda asked.
“More searchers, new ones, quicker.”
“Did you tell Mitch?”
“No. I’ll trickle it down to the clave.”
“How was the air? Any better?”
“Worse. I went through six carbon packs. Was on my last one when I reached home air.”
Wanda slid a slate over the counter to Casey. “You’re due for a replacement rig. Take off your harness so I can do inventory.”
“Got any new boots?” Casey asked as she unbuckled, unstrapped.
“Not much call for your small size, but yeah, I put a pair aside for you. Best to come through here for some time. Where’s your water bottle? You need to turn that in too.”
“Lost it in a chase.”
Wanda reached under the counter, withdrawing a crushed and punctured bottle. “I’ll throw this in with your rig. The boys in repair will never know. Sign the inventory.”
“Thanks, I already have too many work-off points as it is.”
“Who … Is it Mitch again?”
“Yeah, but don’t say anything to him … Just make things worse.”
“Well, if it keeps up, I’ll recycle one or two of his kidneys, or maybe his liver … Watch him turn yellow.”
Wanda threw a new rig on the counter. “Do you need gloves?”
“Naw, these are still good, thanks.”
“Don’t mention it, especially to Mitch. He’s got something going on, and it won’t be good for anybody but him. You going back to Dev’s?”
“Yeah, we’re still co-habbing.”
“You might want to wash up first.”
“Mitch said no washing until the tankmen get back.”
“He’s lying. Probably selling off your clave’s supply to others. We got plenty. Wanna use the shower here? I got some nice soap again.”
“Yeah, that would be great. Hot?”
“Warm. Heater needs a new coil, but you won’t freeze your ass off. Dev’s place have water?”
“No, not rated for it.”
“Towels are in the bin. If you got the time, throw your clothes in the tumbler. They stink as bad as you do.”
“We think we’re close to breaking through. Lots of damage and scrap in the way still. Looks like someone closed it off intentionally … Not a cave-in or any signs of explosives.”
Casey liked listening to Dev talk about his work on the jack crew, enjoyed feeling his chest rise and fall, resting her head in the nook of his shoulder, lying together in the dark, worrisome thoughts and memories pushed aside.
Daily clave gatherings weren’t joyful events, just communal feeding, exchange of gossip, wonderings of what happened to those who were missing, and those not yet due back.
“Bax, you seen Emma?”
“Over there, last I saw, talking to Bender.”
“Bender’s not part of our clave. What’s he doing here? Was he eating?”
“Relax, he’s not taking any of our food, just trolling, probably—looking for new co-hab.”
Casey wandered over to where Emma and Bender were in a huddled discussion. It didn’t look like a co-hab negotiation to her, so she slid in next to Emma. “Hey, what going?”
Emma’s eyes shifted, head swiveled, checking. “Not much. You?”
“Just got back yesterday from a three-day. New searchers out there, fast, not clunkers. Pass it along.”
Emma’s eyes narrowed. Bender leaned in. “Where were you? What sector?”
“Same as always, R101, over in the junker region.”
“R section,” Bender whispered. “I told you, Emma. Something’s going on.”
“Bender, what do you know?” For Casey and the other harvesters, fresh information about the dead space, any sliver, might mean the difference between return or no return.
“Emma?” Bender asked.
“Tell her. We can’t keep this a secret, too many are already wondering.”
Bender’s eyes took the same trip Emma’s had, looking for eavesdroppers. “R, S, and T sections, the dead empty … Harvesters are having a hard time getting back. Squad clave sent in six of theirs four days ago … None have come back. The squads aren’t talking, but my sister heard from a friend of hers who co-habs with a squader. Someone’s over there.”
“Or something,” Emma added
“Dev, where’s your group tunneling?”
“U section. Why?”
“Emma and Bender think something’s going on in T, right next to where you guys are working.”
“In the empty? In that section? Naw, I bet the air in there’s too foul even for the masks.”
“My section is only two over from that.”
“Well, it’s a long way between R and T. I bet there’s even a gap between them.”
“So why is someone setting a perimeter with searchers in those three sections? All the harvesters who work those are talking about it. More aggressive searchers. They stop at the boundary, don’t follow us further.”
“Someone? Come on, Casey, we all know those mechs are holdovers from long ago, probably being maintained by some automated repair unit. They were made for security augmentation before … Well, a long time ago … just residuals, now.”
“But not the new ones, the shiny new ones. Dev, one almost got me last time out.”
“Why didn’t you tell me before? Put in for a section transfer. Do it today.”
“Mitch won’t approve it. You know that. Listen, I’ve still got a two-day before I have to go out again. Take me to where your crew’s pushing through.”
“It’ll have to be third shift when no one’s working.”
“I’ll bring my sensor gear.”
“We have some on site, big units.”
“But nothing portable. I want to do a deep snoop.”
“Okay, but nothing dangerous.”
Dev legged over a warped support beam, reaching back for Casey’s hand. Stark shadows moved in the shifting light of their headlamps.
“This is as far as we can go. Too much blockage ahead.”
“I’m a harvester, Dev. Been in tighter crawls than this. Look over there, near the deck. I’m gonna check it out, see how far it goes.”
Before he could object, all but Casey’s legs had disappeared under a massive, tilted structural block. In a few seconds, she’d wiggled further in, out of sight.
“Come on, Dev,” Casey’s voice echoed. “There’s a void big enough to stand up in only four meters from you. Come on. Watch out for the snags.”
Dev crouched, looked in. He could see light around a narrow bend, Casey’s light. Being larger framed, it was a tight squeeze for him. Thoughts of getting stuck didn’t sit well with him. If he had to cut his rig, the jacker boss would not be happy. Finally, around the corner, he was able to stand, adding his light to the scene.
“Nothing here, Casey. Why did you want me to come through?”
“Look over here, on the other side of this beam. There’s a hatch. Doesn’t look damaged.”
“Well, don’t open it. You don’t know what’s on the other side.”
Casey held up her sensor probe, waving it at him. “That’s what we’ve got this for.”
“That won’t tell you what’s in there, on the other side.”
“Oh, but it will, as soon as I make a hole.”
“You can’t drill through that. It’s too thick.”
“Watch me.” Casey pointed, “This spot, next to the dogging lever. There are thin spots on each side of the door where the internal cam mechanism moves … just a small void slot, but big enough. I’ve done this before, and I’ve got new bits that should get through. Probably take two, waste them, but I can get more. I want you to dribble some lube on the bit while I drill.”
Casey squatted, leaned in, centering the bit in the small star-divot she’d punched in the metal. Slowly, she increased the drill speed, careful to not bend the thin bit, cause it to snap.
“Squirt some lube on it. This is just a pilot hole.” A minute later, the bit hit air. Casey slowly removed the bit, exchanging it for a larger one. “One more after this should give me a large enough hole to start on the other side. I need room to get the lube tube in. Got to keep that one extra cool, no sparks. Get your mask ready. Might be acid air on the other side.” Casey reached into a vest pouch, removing a small gray cylinder. “Hold this.”
“What is it?”
“Plug goop. Keep it handy.”
Repeating the process, Casey was soon drilling the first hole to the other side. After breaking through, before she removed the drill, her eyes went to the sensor read. Three greenies: Negative explosive gases, negative acid, positive breathable.
“Looks good, pressure equal on both sides. Slip your mask on, just in case.” She did the same. Enlarging the hole enough to slip in the tip of the fiber optic scope, she looked through the eye cup: darkness. The next probe was a microphone. She listened—heard nothing. Sliding a small switch sent a series of high-frequency sound waves into the void on the other side. Her sensor pack analyzed the return—she leaned back, waited.
“What? What?” Dev demanded, slightly panicked.
“Look. Under that beam, on the deck.” She pointed.
“Dev, the manual equalizing valve; it’s sheared off. We didn’t need to go through all this. That canted deck plate blocked us from getting to where it was mounted. I wondered why the pressure was equal, and the atmosphere was the same on both sides. You ready to give it a spin? My readings show a short tunnel, probably an airlock.”
“All right, but be careful. Want me to go first?”
“No, I’ve got more experience in this sort of thing.”
With a few spins of the dogging wheel, the hatch opened. Casey stepped inside, Dev close behind. At the next hatch, with access to the equalizing mechanism, she completed the samples in a few minutes.
“All good, some airborne dust and rust, but nothing bothersome.” Before Dev could object, Casey spun the latch, opening the hatch into a long, wide corridor. She stood ready to slam it shut if her readings detected a searcher or movement of any kind. Their headlamps showed a clean hallway, ending in a T, left and right. Removing a remote sensor, activating it, she rolled it down the passageway, aiming for a rebound into the righthand corridor where it could look both ways.
“IR clear, no motion. Let’s go.”
To the left, another hatch. To the right, a multi-level cavernous space. Casey went right, but not before putting a glue bead on the left hatch to keep anyone or anything from getting through without making a racket. She left the remote in the passageway, set on alert.
The pair paused at the passage’s end, sweeping the interior with light. Casey tossed a ball-light into the center of the large circular room, followed by another remote. The cavernous room was empty except for catwalks. Seeing open passages on each level made Casey’s skin crawl. Any of those could hide searchers. With only one remote left and not a good enough aim to get one into the next level where it might be useful, she waited, listening, watching the readouts, hearing only Dev’s breathing. She waited. She was used to that, Dev wasn’t. He rose, stepped over the hatch combing, strode into the room, footsteps echoing. He ignored Casey’s hissed, “Wait.”
At the center, he turned to fill the upper levels with light. “All clear. Dead as a tomb.” Casey, wishing he’d used another word, joined him.
Dev looked around, shining his light straight up. Fifty meters above was a segmented dome ceiling.
“I wonder what’s on the other side? It looks like it retracts. What do you think?”
“I’ve never seen this type of construction. It’s clean. Must have an open connection to home’s ventilation system. There’s not a trace of acid.”
“Want to go up?” asked Dev.
“Definitely not. Too hard to get down to an escape route. There’s another passage down here other than the way we came.” Aligning herself to look down that hall, she was surprised. “Some lighting systems still powered further on.”
“I like more light. All this darkness gives me the creeps—the way shadows move in our headlamps.”
Picking a piece of lint from Dev’s shoulder, Casey let it drop.
“Air’s flowing in that direction too.”
Casey moved her hand behind her, placing it against Dev’s chest. They’d walked this corridor for a quarter klick.
“Wait. Smell that?” She checked the remotes, those left behind. Still clear.
“Smell what, Casey?”
“Something’s not right. Take a knee against the bulkhead. Make yourself small.” Digging into her rig, she grabbed her last remote, gave it a kiss before rolling it forward with forceful intent. The rolling sound and her heartbeat were all she heard.
She activated the video. “Well, now we know what happened to those squaddies. The place is blown to bits … and so are they. That must have been the rattle and shake I felt a few days ago.” Casey used her pad to rotate the remote.
“The place is all shot to hell too. Looks like they used kinetics in there. I’m gonna see if I can get a link from their gear with my sensor pack.” Six bodies lying on the deck, flattened in a sprawl. Black-streaked walls. One pipe pulled free, ruptured, ends ragged, bloomed out.
Dev whispered, “Looks like an explosion. Kinetic casings all over the floor. What were they shooting at?”
Casey traced the broken pipe back to their location, seeing a symbol embossed every five meters, an icon for explosive gases.
“They might have been spooked then started shooting, hit that gas line … Boom. I don’t see any debris from whatever they thought was there. I can’t get a link to their gear either. I’m going in.”
“I can’t leave that remote. It’s my last one. We may need it. Besides, this happened days ago. Remote says all clear. You can stay if you want.”
“No, I’m coming.”
Slow stepping into the carnage, the pair knelt by the first squaddie, lying face down, back of his rig crispy, melted. Dev rolled him over, exposing weapon, gear belt, and puffy, red-skinned face. “You know him? Ever seen this face?”
“No, but I don’t hang with squaddies.”
“I’m taking his weapon; we may need it.”
“You know how to use that thing, Dev?
“Yeah, got some training, years ago, when I thought about joining up. His rig has three ammo canisters. Maybe we should bag a weapon for you.”
“Don’t know how to use them,” Casey responded. “Besides, my rig’s already loaded down, and I want to run if we hit trouble. Wanda slipped me a few fraggers when I told her where we were going. I wanted someone to know, just in case. I’m gonna try a line-link to one of their rigs to see if there’s any vid of what happened here.”
Dev rolled over a few other squaddies. Except for the first one, the one furthest away from the blast, their gear and bodies were charred and crispy. Returning to Casey, he said, “I don’t see any signs of them having been in a close contact fight. You got anything on the vid from that rig?”
“Yeah, some dumbass on point got spooked, fired a load, hit the gas line. Everything before that was normal-normal. Must have made a hell of a hot flash-out.” Casey picked up her remote; they moved on. They moved up, far up, into the dead zone.
Casey wiped the grime from the small hatch window, then brought her face to the glass, gasping.
“People, Dev! There are people in there.” She stood aside to let Dev peek through the viewport. The well-lit scene looked strange to Casey. Their gear, all their equipment, their clothing had an unfamiliar look, not cobbled together from salvage, not patched and re-patched. She savored the thought of having something new.
“I don’t recognize their clothing. Everyone’s wearing the same thing, geared out the same. I count ten. You?”
“Yeah, six men, four women, no children. Looks like grub time for them. I didn’t see any weapons.” Casey grabbed the hatch wheel.
Dev stopped her. "Casey, I don’t think we should go in. Those people could be dangerous.”
“I don’t think so. They don’t move around like squaddies. Three of them are old. Stay here, keep your weapon ready.” Casey turned the wheel, swung open the hatch.
Hector heard the hatch open, turned away from his companions, surprised to see two people standing there, one of them holding a weapon. He lifted his hands to shoulder level, while others of his group sought cover behind equipment boxes, four running for the opposite passageway.
“Hello, care to join us?” The only thing Hector could think to say. This place was supposed to be deserted. No squatters, no re-settlers were within a thousand miles of this newly located, squashed place. Dev stood his ground, shifting his weapon, pointing it down, but ready. Casey took a few tentative steps forward. “Who are you? What clave? What are you doing here?” she asked.
“My name is Hector. We’re exploring these ruins for the historical society. How did you get in here? How long have you been hiding in this wreckage?”
Casey and Dev looked at each other, then back to Hector, not answering.
“Please, come sit. Would you like to eat? We have food prepared … Join us?”
Casey stepped closer; Dev edged a step back toward the hatch.
“Come out, everyone. You’re not very good hosts, hiding like frightened children.” Hector hoped his words would fortify his group, soothe the visitors. Casey continued toward Hector. A friendly sign. “How long have you been here?” he asked.
“All my life. We’ve been here nine generations, I guess, since the collapse.”
“Collapse? You must mean the asteroid strike that killed off everything on this quarter of the planet.”
“Yeah, that. What do you mean by this quarter? Were there survivors? Outside? The planet didn’t die?”
Hector’s eyes widened. “Originals,” he called out, “Kate, these are originals! Call it in.” He turned back to Casey. “Several billion survived. Lots of quake damage, but most people moved before the impact, spread out, higher ground, some sheltered in other prepared undergrounds. How many of you are in this mash-up?”
“Over fifteen hundred. There used to be more.”
Scritchy, mechanical sounds, frightfully familiar to Casey. A searcher, new and shiny, slithered into the room from a dark passage. Dev fired twice, shredding the monster.
“Hey, hey!” shouted Hector. “Stop shooting, stop shooting.”
“It was a searcher. Those things are deadly! Haven’t you seen them before?” asked Casey.
“You mean the quads? We use them to move heavy debris, jack up passages. We use the smaller ones to keep the vermin away during explorations. Lots of rats in here.”
“Those things have been killing us!” Casey screamed. “You brought them in? Why?”
“Killing? That’s not possible!” Hector said, countering Casey’s statement.
Casey hesitated for a moment. “They’ve been killing us since the collapse, every chance they get. They kill on sight.”
“We just brought them in ten days ago.”
Turning to Dev, Casey said, “Those must be the new ones I’ve seen on my last two runs.”
Hector tilted his head, “Have any of those harmed anyone?”
Casey answered, “We always run. No one’s been killed for a while, not by them.”
“Yando, bring me a delta unit.”
The woman Hector motioned to opened a case, removed a blocky thing, handed it to Hector. It unfolded in his hand, stumpy legs follow by tentacles, waving, sensing. “See? Harmless, except to rats and such. Here, take it.”
Casey backed up, away from the miniature horror Hector held. Ingrained generational fears can’t be set aside quickly. Hector put the crawler back in its case.
“Have you been outside?”
Casey shook her head. “Not me. We send out tanker crews when the ice comes, to collect. But no one else goes out there. It’s a wasteland, broken bare rock, glassy surfaces. Nothing alive.”
“Well, you’re right. But life is coming back, at the edges, a long way from here. Would you like to see?”
Casey and Dev stood outside, next to Hector, ten steps from the deep shaft, at the edge of a newly cleared ledge. Neither had ever seen the blue sky.