Don’t breathe. Don’t twitch. Keep your slicer ready, Casey thought, regretting going down an unfamiliar maintenance tunnel. A rookie move deep in this twisted underground of warrens and passages. The distinct sound of slithering tendrils, scrapes across cold metal, chilled her oily sweat, knowing it was hunting, sniffing down her carbon dioxide trail.
She needed space, needed time. Her face filter had slipped down when the upper strap snapped, its elastic fatigued by too many days’ exposure to acid air. Fingers inched to her vest pocket, knuckle creep by knuckle creep, toward a decoy canister. In the faint light, two rats ran across her boots. Casey’s natural response was to crush their little skulls; they ate her food, gnawed wires. She didn’t flinch, let them pass as they fled certain death. Rats are harmless compared to what was seeking her.
An echoing thunder and thumping reverberation showered her in dust and rust flakes, raining from above, confusing her sensor pack. Knowing the roiling noise would cover her movements, she tossed the canister around the corner, discharging a carbon dioxide fog to divert the searcher. Casey ran, using one hand to grip the mask against her face. The other, her knife hand, bumped along the dank wall to her right. This was an inbound access, slanting down. She knew if there were any traps, they would be on the left. The searchers never caught on; it wasn’t in their programming. She’d been down similar tunnels, layered with their shredded mechanical bodies. Fifty steps further, she discovered a ladder welded to the bulkhead. Above, an open hatch, one too small for the searcher to ooze through. The glimpse of her pursuer confirmed something was building more of these creepers. The new units were a better design, not cobbled together from old parts.
Once through, she slammed the scuttle shut, not caring about the noise as she spun the dogging wheel tight. Wiping stinging sweat from her eyes, she set to work repairing her mask. Every harvester has a healthy dread of acid lung, a debilitating, wasting walk to premature death. Before moving on, she reached for her canteen, found it missing from her rig.
Too far from a clean water source, she had to turn back, knowing Mitch would be pissed about the missing bottle and her return a half-day early, but the treasures in her bag should soften his anger—she’d avoid a beating. Casey stood, read the sensor pack screen, set her bearings, and started back. She hoped there would be enough water to rinse off the three-day grunge from working in the dead zone. Probably not, she guessed. Not for one like her.
Except for the searchers, Casey liked being alone and in charge, relying on nobody. She saw the up-there as her private domain.
“Whatcha got?” Mitch was never one to welcome a harvester home, never one to give up sleep over those who didn’t come back. Distracted by the bauble Casey held out as she approached, he didn’t spot her missing canteen. She shifted, hiding the empty harness slot from his probing eyes.
“Some hand tools, a few manuals, and a control circuit board for a fabricator.”
“Does it work?”
“How would I know? Everything’s dead up there, except some lighting. The machinery’s in decent shape, but it’ll take a jack-crew to get it out.” Casey knew she was edging toward insubordination and a face slap, but was too drained to care.
“Watch your mouth. Anything else?”
“Some canister caps and a roll of plasti-sheet, the thin kind.”
“In three days, that’s all you recovered?” He stared her down until she dropped her head. “All right, log it in and give it to Leroy.”
“Still low… No washing today. The tank men are due back tomorrow. I heard they located a source deeper in, cleaner. Now get going.”
Once out of sight, she took a detour down a passageway choked with boxes, crates, and barrels, looking for the welcome face of Rig Master Wanda. She’d taken Casey under her wing when her father failed to return eight years ago. Sliding open the metal gate to Wanda’s territory was like reaching an oasis.
“How was it out there?” Wanda asked.
“More searchers, new ones, quicker.”
“Crap. Did you tell Mitch?”
“Hell no. I’ll trickle it down to the clave.”
“How was the air? Any better?”
“Worse. I used up six purifier packs. Was on my last one when I reached home.”
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.”
As Casey unbuckled and unstrapped, she asked, “Got any new boots?”
“Not much call for your small size, but yeah, I put a pair aside for you. Best ones to come through here for some time.” Wanda examined Casey’s rig, checked off each item. “Where’s your bottle? You need to turn it in.”
“Lost it in a chase.”
Wanda reached under the counter, pulled out a crushed canteen. “I’ll throw this in. The boys in repair will never know. Sign the inventory.”
“Thanks, I’ve got too many work-off points as it is.”
“Who… Is it Mitch?”
“Don’t say anything to him. Just make things worse.”
“If it keeps up, I’ll recycle one or two of his kidneys, or toss a fragger under his bunk.” Wanda slung a new rig on the counter. “Do you need gloves?”
“No. These are still okay, thanks,” said Casey.
“Don’t mention it, especially to Mitch. He’s got something going on, and it won’t be pleasant for anyone but him. You headed to Dev’s?”
“Yeah. We’re still co-habbing.”
Wanda’s nose scrunched. “You might want to wash the stink off first.”
“Mitch said no washing until the tankmen come back.”
“He’s lying. Bet he’s auctioning off your clave’s supply. We have plenty. You can use the shower here. I got some of that nice soap again.”
“That’d be great. Hot?”
“Warm. The heater needs a new coil, but you won’t freeze your ass off. See if you can find one on your next run. Dev’s place have water?”
“No, not rated for it.”
“Towel rags are in the bin. If you have time, toss your clothes in the tumbler. They stink as bad as you do.”
Casey rested her head in the nook of Dev’s bare shoulder as they caught their breath.
“We think we’re near to breaking through,” he said. “Lots of damage and scrap in the way. It was closed off deliberately.”
“Yeah, some. Gnawed.”
Casey liked listening to Dev talk about his jack-crew work, enjoyed the close rhythm as his chest rose and fell. When they were together, she could shove aside worrisome thoughts and terrible memories. Casey reached between the wall and pallet. “Saved this for you.” In the dark, she found Dev’s hand and put a veggie bar in his palm.
Dev shifted. “Is this from your duty rations while you’re searching? Supposed to turn in any you don’t eat. You’ll get in trouble again.”
“They’re to keep up our enzyme levels. I’m not big enough to need so many. Nobody frisks us, and Wanda doesn’t care. Anyway, I don’t like the red ones. Too salty.”
“Want me to wake you before my shift?”
“Yeah, I want to talk with Emma.”
Casey fell asleep in the safest place she knew.
Daily clave gatherings weren’t joyful occasions. They served as communal feedings, exchanges of gossip, and wonderings of what happened to those missing or still harvesting in the big empty.
“Jad, you seen Emma?” Casey asked.
He raised his chin. “Over there, last I saw, talking to Bender.”
“He’s not part of our clave. What’s he doing here? Was he eating?”
“Relax, he’s not taking any of our food. I think he’s trolling for a new co-hab.”
Casey found Emma and Bender sitting in huddled conversation. It didn’t seem like a co-hab negotiation to her, so she dropped in next to them. “What’s doing?”
“Not much. You?” Emma’s head swung around, checking to see who was nearby, who might be listening.
“Got back yesterday from a three-day. New searchers are out there, fast, not clunkers. Pass it along.”
Bender’s brow narrowed as he leaned in. “Where were you? What sector?”
“L139, up in the junker region.”
“L section,” Bender whispered. “I told you, Emma.”
Casey moved closer. “Bender, what do you know?” For her and the other harvesters, new information about the upper spaces, any sliver of detail, might mean the difference between returning or being listed as lost.
Bender shifted his eyes. “Emma?”
“Tell her. Too many are wondering.”
Bender’s eyes took the same trip Emma’s had, looking for eavesdroppers. “L, M, and N sections, the dead empty. Squad clave sent in six of theirs four days ago. Nobody’s come back. The squads aren’t talking, but my sister heard from a friend who co-habs with a squaddie. Something’s going on up there.”
“The machines,” Emma said, shuddering.
“Dev, where’s your group tunneling?” Casey asked.
“N section, not far up. Why?”
“Emma and Bender think strange things are happening at the M boundary, right next to where you guys are working.”
“In the M? Naw. It’s all crushed, according to the records. Bet the air in there’s too polluted even for the masks.”
“My section is only one over, on the other side.”
“It’s a long way between L and M spokes. Probably solid rock between them.”
“So why is someone setting a perimeter with searchers in those sections? More aggressive ones. They always stop at the boundary, don’t follow us further down.”
“Someone? Come on, Casey, those mechs are just holdovers, maintained by some automated repair unit. They were made for security augments before the crash. Can’t be more than a few residuals now. We haven’t found any in the N corridors.”
“There are new ones, shiny new ones, bigger.” Casey propped up on an elbow, whispered, “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 still have a two-day before I go out again. Take me to where your crew’s pushing through.”
“It’ll have to be third shift when no one’s working.”
“Fine with me. I’ll bring my sensor gear.”
“We got some units on-site,” said Dev.
“But nothing portable. I want to do a deep snoop.”
“Okay, nothing dangerous.”
Casey snuggled closer. “Sure. Just a look-see.”
Dev legged over a warped support beam and reached 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,” said Dev.
“I’ve been in tighter crawls than this. Look over there, near the deck. I’m gonna check it out, see how far back I can get.”
Before he could object, all but Casey’s feet disappeared under a tilted structural block. In a few seconds, she wiggled further in, out of sight.
“Come on, Dev,” Casey’s voice echoed. “There’s a void tall enough to stand in. Only four meters from you. Watch out for the snags.”
Dev crouched, checked at deck level. He could see Casey’s light at a narrow bend. Being larger framed, it would be a tight squeeze. Thoughts of getting stuck didn’t sit well with him. If he had to cut his rig, the jacker-crew boss would not be happy. With a flat elbow crawl, he maneuvered around the corner.
“Nothing here. Why did you want me to come through?”
“Over here, behind this slab. There’s a hatch. Doesn’t look damaged.”
“Don’t open it. You don’t know what’s on the other side.”
Casey held up her sensor probe, waved it at him. “That’s why we have this. Standard kit for harvesters.”
“Won’t tell you what’s over there with the hatch shut.”
“It will, as soon as I make a hole.”
Dev shook his head. “You can’t drill through. Too thick.”
“Watch me.” Casey pointed. “Right here, next to the dogging lever. There are thin spots on each side of the door where the internal cam mechanism slides. I’ve done this before. Should make it through easy. I need you to dribble some lube while I drill.”
Casey squatted, leaned in, centering her tool in the small divot she’d punched in the metal. She increased the drill speed, being careful not to snap the thin bit.
“Squirt some lube. This is just a pilot hole.” A patient minute later, the drill bit hit air. Casey mounted a larger spiral bit. “One more after this to make a hole large enough to start on the other side. Put your mask on.” Casey reached into a vest pouch, handed Dev a small gray cylinder. “Hold this.”
“What is it?”
“Plug goop. Keep it ready for when I punch through.”
Casey began drilling again. After breaking through, her eyes studied the sensor readout. Three greenies: Negative explosive gases, negative acid, positive breathable.
“Everything’s okay. Pressure’s equal on both sides.” She enlarged the holes to accommodate a fiber optic scope, pushed it through, and peered into the darkness. The next probe was a microphone. She listened—heard nothing. Sliding a switch sent a series of high-frequency sound waves into the void on the other side. As her sensor pack analyzed the return, she sat back, waited.
“What? What?” Dev demanded.
“Calm down. Look. Behind the deck plate.”
Dev jerked his head around.
“The manual equalizing valve is sheared off. We didn’t need to go through all this. The warped deck 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? My readings show a short tunnel. Probably an airlock.”
“All right, but be careful. Want me to lead?”
“No, I’ve got more experience in this sort of thing.”
With a heave of the dogging lever and a shoulder shove, the hatch creaked inward. Casey stepped inside, scanning with her headlight. She spotted the equalizing valve at the next hatch. “Put your mask back on.” With a quick open-shut, she ran more air samples.
“Some airborne dust and rust, but nothing bothersome.” Before Dev could object, Casey opened the hatch to a long corridor. She stood ready to slam it shut if readings detected a searcher or movement of any kind. Their headlamps showed a dusty hallway, ending at a T intersection. Removing a remote sensor ball, she rolled it down the passageway, aiming for a rebound into the right hand passage so it could watch both ways.
“Infra-red clear, no motion. Let’s go.”
At the head of the T, to the left, was another hatch. On the right, a huge, multi-level space opened like a maw. Casey set a thick bead of glue on the left hatch to keep anyone or anything from getting through behind them without making a racket. She left the remote in the passageway, set to alert before they moved to the metal cavern.
From the entry, the pair swept the interior with light. Casey tossed her last sensor ball. The place was empty except for catwalks around the upper five floors. The open passages on each level made Casey’s skin crawl. Any of those could hide searchers. She waited, listened, watched the readouts, felt Dev’s breath on her neck. She was accustomed to waiting. Dev wasn’t. Ignoring Casey’s hissed, “Wait,” he stepped over the hatch coaming, strode into the room, footsteps echoing.
At the center, he turned to fill the upper levels with light. “All clear. Dead as a tomb.” Casey wished he’d picked another word. She joined him as Dev shined his light straight up. A hundred meters above was a segmented dome ceiling.
“It’s too big here. I don’t feel safe in big places,” said Casey.
“Looks like it retracts. What do you think?”
“I’ve never seen this type of construction. Not a trace of acid air. There must be an open connection to home’s ventilation system, or this section has a working one of its own.” Casey backed up, closer to the tunnel they’d come through, eyes sweeping the upper levels.
Dev pointed to a series of stairs. “Want to go up?”
“No, it’s too hard to climb down to an escape route. There’s another passage over there, opposite the way we came in.”
Dev walked to the other tunnel entrance. “Lighting systems are still powered farther down. Air’s flowing in that direction too.”
She followed, jogging across the cavern’s floor, retrieving the remote as she passed.
Casey stopped, moved her hand behind, placing it against Dev’s chest. They’d walked this path for more than a kilometer. “Wait. Smell that?” She checked the remotes left behind. Still clear.
“Something’s not right. Take a knee against the bulkhead. Make yourself small.” She grabbed a remote, kissed it before tossing it down the dark corridor. The rolling sound and her heartbeat, rushing in her ears, left a sense of dread.
She activated the video. Releasing her breath, she said, “Now we know what happened to those squaddies. Place is blown to bits. And so are they. Must have been the rattle and shake I felt a few days ago.” Casey used her pad to rotate and move the ball. On the viewscreen, six bodies sprawled on the deck. The walls were charred. A pipe was pulled free from its brackets, ruptured, ends ragged, bloomed out. “All shot to hell, too. They used kinetic rounds. I’m gonna see if I can link to their gear with my pack.”
Dev studied the video screen. “An explosion. Shell casings all over the floor. What were they shooting at?”
Casey traced the broken pipe back to their location, seeing a hydrogen icon stencil every five meters.
“They might have been spooked and started shooting, hit the gas line… Boom. I don’t see any debris from whatever they thought was there. Can’t get a connection to their gear, either. I’m going in.”
“I’m not leaving my last remote. We may need it. Besides, this happened days ago. Sensors say all clear. You can stay if you want.”
Slow stepping into the carnage, the pair knelt by the first squaddie, lying face down, the back of his rig melted. Dev rolled him over, exposing a weapon, gear belt, and puffy, red-skinned face. “You know him? Ever seen this face?”
“No, but I don’t hang with squaddies.”
Dev knelt. “I’m taking his weapon; we may need it.”
“Do you know how to use it?”
“Had some training, a few years ago, when I thought about joining up. His rig’s got three ammo canisters. Should we bag a weapon for you?”
“Don’t know how to use them,” Casey responded. “Wanda slipped me a few fraggers when I told her where we were going. I wanted someone to know, in case we don’t get back. I’m gonna try a line-link to this guy’s rig to see if there’s any video of what happened here.”
Casey heard Dev gag as he rolled over the other squaddies. Except for the first one, furthest away from the blast, their gear and bodies were burned and blackened. White-faced, Dev squatted next to Casey, “I don’t see any signs of them having been in a contact fight. You got anything on the vid?”
Casey unjacked the feeder cable from the squaddies’ unit. “Some dumbass on point was spooked, sprayed a load, the others started firing, hit the gas line. Everything before was normal-normal. Must have made a hell of a hot flash-out.”
They moved on, moved up, far up, into the dead zone.
“As good a place as any to sleep,” Casey said as she wiggled through a ventilation slot to an inlet plenum large enough for them to stretch out.
“Jacker boss is gonna be pissed I’m not working,” said Dev.
“I got you covered, had Wanda put you on the medical list for three days.”
“Three days? You planned for us to be gone three days?”
“Said I got you covered. We need to get some rest.” Casey wagged her eyebrows. “Or do you want to fool around first?”
“This is spooking me. Not taking my clothes off for anything until we're back home.”
Casey grinned, “Don’t say I didn’t offer.”
“Do you even have a plan? I mean, an actual plan? We’ve been moving upward all day.”
Casey checked the feed from the remote she left on the deck outside. “That’s my plan. As long as we can find water, up we go. Get settled. I’ll take the first watch.
While Dev rubbed his sore legs, Casey wiped the grime from the hatch window, brought her face to the glass. “People! There are people in there.” She stood aside to let Dev peek through the round viewport. The well-lit scene was strange to Casey. Their gear, equipment, and clothing had an unfamiliar look, not cobbled together from salvage, not patched and re-patched. She savored the thought of owning something new.
Dev moved his face from the small window. “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. They’re eating. I didn’t see any weapons. Did you see the crates marked explosive?” Casey grabbed the hatch wheel.
Dev put his hand over hers. “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, and three of them are old. Stay here, keep your weapon ready.” Casey swung the hatch open.
When he heard the squeal of hinges, Hector turned, surprised to see two ragged people standing there, one of them held a gun. He lifted his hands to shoulder level while others of his group sought cover behind equipment boxes. Four ran for the opposite passageway.
“Hello, care to join us?” It was the only thing Hector could think to say. This place is supposed to be deserted. No squatters or re-settlers were within a thousand miles of this squashed place. Hector watched the nervous young man near the hatch, shifting his weapon, pointing it down, but ready.
The young woman took a few tentative steps forward, then asked, “Who are you? What clave? What are you doing here?”
“My name’s 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?”
The pair looked at each other, then back at Hector. “I’m Casey, and this is Dev. This is our home.”
“Please, come sit. Would you like to eat? We have food prepared.” Hector spread his hands. “Join us?”
Casey sniffed the air, stepped closer. Dev edged a step back to the hatch.
Hector turned his back, calling to his companions. “Come out, everyone. You’re hiding like frightened children.” Hector hoped his words would fortify his group and soothe the visitors. Casey continued toward Hector. A friendly sign. “How long have you been here?” he asked.
Casey tilted her head. “All my life. We’ve been here nine generations, I guess, since the collapse.”
“Collapse? You must mean the asteroid strike.”
“Yeah. There are other 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 away from the coasts, some sheltered in prepared undergrounds like this one. How many of you are in this mash-up?”
“Over fifteen hundred.” Casey hung her head. “There used to be more.”
“We can take all of you to a better place.”
Scritchy mechanical sounds, frightfully familiar to Casey, came from an upper level. A searcher, big and shiny, slithered into the room from a dark passage. Dev fired, shredding the monster.
“Hey, hey!” shouted Hector. “Stop shooting, stop shooting.”
“A searcher,” Casey screamed. “Those things are deadly! Haven’t you seen them before?”
“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.”
Casey yelled, “Those things have been killing us! Did you bring them? Why?”
“Killing? 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.”
“Not ours. We brought them in only three weeks ago.”
Turning to Dev, Casey said, “That was one of the new ones I’ve seen on my last runs.”
Hector’s eyebrows raised. “Have any of these harmed anyone?”
Casey answered, “We always run. No one’s been killed in a few years.”
“Yando, bring me a delta unit.”
The woman Hector motioned to opened a case, removed a small blocky thing, and handed it to Hector. It unfolded in his hand, stumpy legs emerged, followed by tentacles, waving, sensing. “See? Harmless, except to rats and such. Here, take it.”
Casey backed up, away from the miniature horror. Hector put the crawler back in its box. “Have you ever been outside?”
Casey shook her head. “No one goes out there. Everyone knows it’s a wasteland, broken bare rock, glassy surfaces, radiation. Nothing alive. Safer here.”
“There’s no radiation, never was, but you’re right about this sector. Life is coming back at the edges, a long way from here.” Sensing their unease, seeing their wary eyes, he asked, “Would you like to see?”
Hector took Dev and Casey up the new lift to the surface. On first seeing the blue sky, Casey reeled, overcome by the expanse. They stood together, close to the edge of a wide ledge, ten steps from the deep shaft they’d ascended. The young pair never saw a horizon, a vista from such a high place.
Casey held tight to Dev’s arm, and whispered in his ear, “This place isn’t for us. It’s too big. I don’t feel safe.”
Dev took a step closer to the rim, assessing the steep drop. He turned back to Casey, her eyes passing information. He nodded.
“What’s that? This thing under the ledge?” Dev asked.
Hector moved closer to see what Dev was looking at. As he leaned, a push from behind unsteadied him, arms windmilling. Casey’s second shove sent him tumbling three hundred feet to the craggy rocks below.
“Back down?” asked Dev?
“Yeah. May need to shoot a few. The rest can carry equipment back down for us. We can hide the stash in the big dome room and get them to show us how to control their searchers. After that…”
Dev nodded. “After that, we bury them in rubble.”
Casey had bigger after-that plans, beyond the immediate day. She smiled at the thought of tentacles wrapped around Mitch’s neck, him having fewer days left than he thought. “With their explosives we can bring down five levels. They’ll never dig us out again.”
Dev took Casey’s hand as they stepped onto the lift platform. “Let’s go home.”