This morning, I grabbed a quick shower before heading in for my first day on the new job. The porcelain tiles have a red grit ingrained into them. I bet no amount of scrubbing will ever bring them back to normal, not that much effort seems to have been made though. I got dressed in the work clothes I was given yesterday, grabbed a quick bite of food from the fridge, and picked up the gear bag. The bag has some unusual tools that I haven’t seen before. There was also a length of rope, a battered first aid kit, and a CO2 conversion mask. This last little gadget is the difference between life and death in the Martian atmosphere.
I left the apartment and showed back up at McCarthy’s office—the hole in wall with the desk on the edge of the hall.
McCarthy glanced at his watch, and frowned. “Cutting it close there Chase.”
I just shrugged, and resisted an urge to tell him that for five-hundred bucks a week he’d been lucky I showed up at all, considering what I was likely in for. I kept my mouth shut though, not because I’ve got the slightest aversion to speaking my mind, but because I needed this to work so I could find Baxter. That is, if he was even still here.
McCarthy led me to the double doors at the end of the hall. A large red sign read “Co2 Hazard, masks required.” He grabbed the converter mask clipped to his hip pocket, and put it over his face. “The dioxide leaks in from the materials, and you can pass out if you don’t have a mask on,” he explained.
I dug the mask out of my bag and slipped it over my face. I could hear the whine of a fan spin up inside of it, and felt a light breeze against my lips. The mask covers only the nose and mouth, and leaves the rest of the face open to the outside. Somewhere in the device two oxygen atoms separated from a carbon atom, creating free breathable oxygen. This setup will let you breathe on the Martian surface, but the lack of pressure would have your insides boiling out in a few minutes without a suit to hold everything together. Mars suits have to be custom made. They use mechanical pressure and aren’t air tight. A technological blend of nano fibers and electro-plastics, that when powered, tighten against the body to prevent decompression. When men first arrived on Mars the atmospheric pressure was thousand times thinner than earth normal. Fifty years of terraforming had brought that pressure up to hundred mb, but they’d never achieve the thousand millibars that Earth had in the low gravity of Mars.
McCarthy opened the doors, and I felt the air whoosh in behind. The air pressure was lower in the chamber in front of us, so we had to process through a small airlock—my least favorite thing about living and working away from Earth. We spent about twenty minutes depressurizing and looking at each other. There was nothing to talk about while the life-giving air leaked out of the room in measured slowness. When the doors in front of us finally opened, the remaining pressure difference was released. Again the air whooshed out from behind me and I felt my ears pop. The mining area pressure was maintained slightly lower than Earth normal, which doesn’t boil your blood, but sure does feel awful. This was better than the agricultural lava tubes, but not by much.
The chamber was a cavern in rock with smooth walls, and I guessed that it had once been a lava tube, kind of like the ones that were used for the farming at Olympus. This one was huge though, and looked to be almost three hundred yards wide. I couldn’t see how long it extended, but it could have gone on for miles.
“This is where we load the ores into the processors.” He shouted to be heard, and waved his hands toward towering hoppers that belched red dust into the air from their tops.
A short man with a full red beard approached. It was impossible to know if the color of the beard was due to the dust that permeated everything, or if it was his natural color. He nodded at McCarthy and then reached out and shook my hand.
Desoto’s grip was firm and he looked me in the eye. I didn’t see anything that bothered me. The man seemed confident and sure of himself. His face gave the appearance of hiding nothing behind the dirt and the hair.
“You’ll be working with Van today until we figure out where to put you permanently.” McCarthy grinned a smile that was not meant to be friendly, then turned away and walked back through the airlock doors.
“A bit of an ass isn’t he?” I said.
“I see that didn’t get by you,” Desoto replied.
“Sort of like being hit by a hammer.”
Van Desoto grinned back. “Aye. That is the truth of it.” He turned and motioned me to follow him deeper into the converted lava tube. “Come on, I’ll introduce ya to the guys you’ll be working with.
We walked along past the deafening machinery cah-chunk cah-chunking, sending their plumes of dust into the air high above our heads. Further in, conveyor belts loaded with rocks and soil rolled along feeding the huge processors. Beyond that, six wheeled loaders with scoops fed the line. The vehicles dumped their cargo into funnel shaped chutes that guided the contents onto the belts.
“The loaders are automated.” Desoto shouted over the noise, waving a hand at the driverless machines as they passed by. I eyed them as they traveled up a ramp that led out of a tunnel in the ground. Desoto followed that path, sticking to the side of the tunnel.
“Make sure to stay out of their way. They have crude programing. They’ll run you over and not even notice.”
The six wheeled vehicles towered over us as they passed. I could feel the tonnage rumbling along, vibrating through my feet. Desoto was right, you’d be just so much jelly sandwich under those wheels.
Desoto pointed toward a small platform attached to a single rail that ran along the side of the tunnel. As soon as we sat down on the seats that were bolted to the thing, it lurched ahead with a jar, and accelerated us down the tunnel. The trip was rough, and slung us hard to the left and right like a cheap rollercoaster ride at a budget carnival. I held tight to the frail-looking handrail that framed in the seats. If the metal gave way I was going to grab Desoto and take him with me.
The cart finally slowed, and jerked to a halt well past where I’d seen the last loader. It was quieter here. The barrage of noise was now distant and we could talk almost normally.
“You’ll be working the drills today.” Desoto charged ahead at a no-nonsense pace. There was a sudden blast and the floor of the tunnel lurched underfoot for a moment.
I caught myself against the wall of the tunnel to stop from falling.
“What the hell was that?” I asked.
Desoto grinned. “You’ll be drilling the holes that we put the explosives in.”
“Ever been around explosives?”
“Enough to know to stay far away from them.”
“That’s the idea. You’ll be given plenty of notice of when and where to clear out.”
“Couldn’t this be automated?”
“They tried it, but there were too many mistakes. Some things are just too complicated for machines.”
Bullshit, Angel suddenly cut into my thoughts.
Don’t get all huffy. He’s never met anything like you, I told her.
I continued following Desoto until we caught up to a group who walked along the tunnel. The four were covered in brown dust, head to foot. Here, below the ever-present red of the surface, the rock had given way to a light brown or sometimes a chalky white.
The group stopped when they realized Desoto was behind them.
“What’s up boss?” A large man with shoulders as wide as a bus gave me a dubious look-over.
“The usual, Sledge. This here’s Chase. McCarthy’s sending him down to get ground up.” Desoto smirked.
The others chuckled and I noticed the tone of one them was higher. I searched the jawline around the mask, and identified finer bone structure and refined features. It was difficult to tell with all the dust and protective clothing.
“He don’t look like he’s cut out for this,” she said.
“Neither were you Carly.” Desoto grinned at her.
“Alright.” Sledge grunted. “We ain’t going to get shit done today baby-sittin’ a rookie, but there ain’t no help for it. Com’on. We’ll get you to drillin’. Hope you’re stronger than that gut on you looks.”
Raccous laughter erupted from the other three and they continued on down the tunnel. Desoto followed on my tail. The soil had been freshly scraped here. Ahead there was a rugged wall of rock and the slight smell of something acrid. Explosives.
Sledge led me to a spot on the wall. The man examined the rock for a long moment.
“You gotta get a feel for the rock.” He looked at me to see if I was listening. “And then you choose your spot. See how this crack runs down here where the color doesn’t match? You wanna sink your hole right about midway. It’ll be easier drillin’, and when we trigger the blast, it should split it wide open in here. Give ’em his drill, Stumpy.”
One of the other two men, a short guy, about two feet shorter than me, held out a four foot drilling tool and dropped it into my hands. The thing was heavy, and I grunted when I caught the weight of it, but managed not to drop it. Stumpy looked a little surprised. I’d apparently just passed some sort of litmus test.
“We’ll see how you hold up after eight hours of drillin’ with that thing.” Sledge laughed roughly, a gravel sound that slid out of somewhere deep in his gut.
“How’s it work?” I asked.
Sledge grabbed the drill from me, and slung it easily up against the spot he’d indicated earlier on the rock. “Push it into the rock hard, pull the lever here, and hold on like on the devil. Thing’s powered by a hicap, so watch yourself. It’s got a ton of power, and it’ll heat up enough to burn if you aren’t wearing gloves.” He held the drill out and I took it back. I pushed the drilling tip back into the rock where Sledge had put it. When I pulled the trigger, the drill tried to twist violently in my grip. It bucked like a bull in my hands, but I held on and continued to push it into the rock as the dust poured out of the hole and sent clouds into the air. The sound of metal grinding on stone filled the chamber and drowned out everything else.
Sledge cuffed me on the side of the head and I let go of the trigger.
“Don’t forget to use your ear plugs if you don’t want to be stone deaf by the end of the day.” Sledge grinned.
I wanted to do some cuffing of my own, but I just dug in my tool pack, found the two small orange plugs, and stuffed them firmly into my ears. The sounds of my own heartbeat thudded dully. I thought I’d toss this guy a curve ball and see if he knew anything about Baxter.
“So where’s Baxter?” I asked hearing my voice too loudly from the inside of my skull.
Sledge’s voice came across muffled. “Died right here in this tunnel. Dumbshit didn’t clear far enough away when the explosives were triggered. Blew his ass right up.” Sledge shook his head slowly, a serious look on his face. “Didn’t make no sense at all.” He shook his head some more and turned, “No sense at all.”
I stood for a moment. Oh yes it does make sense, but only in the right context. Then I went back to drilling.