I confess that when I awoke from my vacation for one blissful moment I forgot who and where I was. Sadly, the view of the grey bulkhead a handsbreadth from my nose reminded me of my occupation, my whereabouts and, most depressingly, my companions.
Whether my momentary amnesia was intentional or not I cannot say, but on becoming fully cognisant of my circumstances my spirits sunk. I am Giles Fletcher, an associate mining executive for the ubiquitous UberCorp.
“Why Giles,” I hear you say, “Associate Mining Executive, that sounds like a cushy little number”. Well you could not be further from the truth. I am sad to say that my life is not spent hobnobbing in the boardroom of some Martian skyscraper, or yachting on the Sea of Tranquility. I wish.
I have spent the last four years holed up in this dismal little mining station on Praxis (a dismal little moonlet in an erratic orbit around Jupiter), overseeing the gradual decommissioning of UberCorp’s extensive, and largely unprofitable, mining operations here. So tedious is my existence on this barren wasteland, so starved of meaningful human contact, that I choose to spend my vacation in a chemically induced coma.
Unfortunately, my vacation allowance was now exhahusted.
With considerable thrashing about I unstrapped myself from my bunk, removed the intravenous drip, decatheterised myself and pulled on a somewhat clean pair of overalls before hobble-bouncing down the corridor. I emerged, swearing to myself, into the communal area of the now defunct mining station. Here I was disappointed to find Darren.
If I am UberCorp’s dogsbody in these parts (which I am), then Darren is the dogsbody’s dogsbody. Sadly he has all the charm of an overweight idiot with body-odour (which he is). If UberCorp has not suspended my hiring and firing rights he would be on the first shuttle off this rock.
“Al’right Fletch,” said Darren.
I vigorously disabused him of the notion that I might be ‘all right’.
“I don’t know why you don’t save up your vacation, catch a ride out on the supply ship to Ganymede and part-ay. Like me,” he offered.
“I dread to think what banal amusements you get up to on Ganymede.”
Darren started to speak.
“No, don’t tell me. I can’t imagine that you have the gumption to get up to anything truly sordid. So what has been happening in the last five days? Have you broken anything?”
At that point Darren began to look sheepish (if said sheep was responsible for a potentially employment-threatening industrial accident).
He was stalling.
“… Crawler 3 has stopped responding. It is just sitting at the bottom of the pit.”
This was worse than I thought. The crawlers are the huge autonomous robotic mining machines which munch away at this little rock in search of exotic minerals. Over the years they have dug up so much of Praxis that the moon is beginning to resemble a Venusian cheese (you know, the one with holes in it). They are also so reliable that UberCorp are content to leave the entire operation in the hands of dog-brain and myself. However, if one of our few remaining crawlers were to go out of action this would have serious consequences for the profitability of mining on Praxis, and for my renumeration.
“And what have you done about it?” I asked politely.
“Uh, I waited for you to get back from vacation,” was the predictable response.
At this point I though that was appropriate to lose my shit.
“What?!? Haven’t you tried to reboot it? Are you retarded? Don’t they have genetic screening on your planet?”
Despite my screams Darren wore the same vacant slack-jawed expression that makes me want to stick my head out of the airlock.
“I thought about waking Jessica up,” he said.
A shiver went down my spine. Jessica is UberCorp’s solution should Darren and I screw-up so badly that the operation would go tits-up without immediate intervention. An ex-military fixer, Jessica is currently earning her pension in deep freeze in the basement.
On the first occassion that I ventured down there I peered through the window of her stasis pod to see a bull-necked woman of indeterminate age glaring back with a perma-snarl frozen across her face. Since then I have delegated basement related activities to Darren.
Jessica is also rumoured to be psychotic. My predecessor told me in hushed tones of how she led charge to suppress a riot aboard a prison ship; an act of wanton violence which has become corporate legend. If we had to wake Jessica up my life would not be worth living.
“Don’t you dare,” I hissed before propelling myself towards the exit.
If you want a job done properly do it yourself.
I may be an associate mining executive, but I know how to hard reboot a crawler. In the absence of any comms I was going to have to leave the comforts of my cosy little moon-base and go down into the pit to flip the switch on Crawler 3 by hand.
Standing suited and booted in the cavernous hangar of the moon-base I briefly considered donning the mechsuit for my little trip into the pit. However, if I couldn’t get the crawler restarted no amount of mechanical grunt would help. Besides those exoskeletons are so clumsy one can barely walk in a straight line.
Instead I took the buggy. It’s a little old-school I know, but bouncing about Praxis in a uranium powered moon-buggy is one of the few pleasures that I have in life. So I hopped in, fired her up and tore out of the hangar like a boy-racer in an asteroid belt.
Outside, I hurtled through the morbid, featureless, moonscape dotted with industrial wreckage.
As always during the drive I was careful not to look up. Through the ephemeral atmosphere of Praxis the fierce intensity of the stars is breath-taking. Unfortunately all that one sees overhead is Jupiter oppressively boiling away. It is so massive that it gives me vertigo to look at it; as though its gravitational pull would pluck me screaming from the surface of the moon.
Within half an hour I was perched on the edge of the pit, an enormous scar which has been carved into the side of the moon over decades. From here it was simply a matter of driving down the tracks used by the crawlers to the bottom of the crater.
Unfortunately the clouds of dust normally generated by a 12 tonne robot chomping through solid rock where predictably absent, but I eventually located Crawler 3 at the foot of the southern edge of the pit. The base of the pit was in deep shadow and it was hard for me to make it out, but as I got closer I saw that it had been burrowing away at a deep fissure running vertically down the cliff face. It was probably following a rich seam of Iridabilium ore, or whatever.
After a spine jangling drive over the debris at the base of the pit I pulled-up beside the inert crawler. It did not take a level 5 robotics technician to work out what has happened here; the protective plating over the crawler has been pulled off and the guts of the great machine have been ripped out. Smashed electronics lay strewn about, and ruptured piping spewed oil and steam. It was wanton vandalism… or sabotage!
I wandered about the crawler clutching my helmet in disbelief. On a moonlet with a population of two (three if you count Jessica) who could have been responsible?
In retrospect I suppose by this point in the proceedings I should have been on my guard. Well I wasn’t. Standing by the crawler with tears welling in my eyes calculating just how much corporate poo was going to be coming in my direction I did not spot the movement within the fissure. Nor did I see the malevolent eyes watching my every move. Instead I was on the radio to Darren.
“…you moron, of course I cannot reboot it…”
I was also oblivious of the yellow-green tentacle snaking its way towards my boot. To late I realised the threat, leaving me no option but to scream my head off.
“What is it, Fletch?”
The concern in Darren’s voice was quite touching really, but my attention was elsewhere. By now the monster had me suspended by the ankle and was drawing me back into the fissure. Inside was a creature that resembled the spawn of hell emerging from the underworld. A multitude of failing tentacles surrounded a gaping toothy maw towards which I was being inexorably dragged.
I am afraid to say that my response was unoriginal.
But then my luck changed. In a last desperate attempt to prevent myself from being gobbled-up by a every mining executive’s worst nightmare, I grabbed hold of the wheel arch of the crawler and held tight. I was damned if I was going to let go. The monster’s grip around my ankle tightened as it pulled and twisted to wrench me free. It turns out that I am not that stretchy. With an audible pop my right shoulder dislocated. The pain was incredible and my hold on the crawler failed, catapulting me toward the creature.
The monster was caught unawares because its grip loosened, just as as I clattered into the cliff face. Falling to the ground I took my opportunity and scrambled away on all threes, my right arm hanging lamely beside me. I took refuge between the massive wheels of the crawler. The creature appeared to have lost me, and for moment I remained unmolested.
I tried to raise Darren on the radio but there was no response, which was bloody typical. Shivering from shock I hunkered down beneath the crawler scanning desperately for any of those wretched tentacles.
After what seemed like hours crouched in the dark growing increasingly cold, miserable and sore I began to devise a plan. Thoughout my vigil there had been no sign of the tentacles, and the creature appeared not to know where I was. Now all I had to do was make it to the buggy and I might just have a chance of escape. Once I was back to the moon-base I would demand that UberCorp nuke this wretched little rock into oblivion.
I crept the length of the crawler until I could see the buggy about fifteen meters away. I peered around one of the giant wheels as far as I dared; still no sign of the monster. Summoning what little courage I had into one last desperate act I broke cover, bounding towards the buggy clutching my injured arm against my body. With relief I clambered into the driving seat, but I struggled one handed to power it up. Shaking with adrenaline my gloved fingers fumbled the controls.
At that moment I looked up and damn near soiled my spacesuit.
Emerging, at speed, from the fissure was something which resembled a giant psychedelic millipede. Along the length of its undulating body thousands of tentacles writhed and thrashed. It was easily the length of the crawler, and there was no end in sight.
The buggy powered up, but in my haste I only succeeded in accelerating wildly past the creature, before crashing into the wall of the pit. I was upended onto the ground as the buggy cartwheeled away. Now the fight had gone out of me and I lay waiting for E.T. to come and do its worst.
Resigned to my immanent extinction within the jaws of an overgrown bug my mind turned to a lifetime of regrets. I thought then about my mother; a vicious hard-hearted woman so obsessed by her herd of domesticated piglets that she had little time for her precocious young son, enrolling me with the corporation at the tender age of six. How I hated her. But despite it all perhaps I should have been with her at the end. She died alone in an apartment full of pig shit…
At that moment then I was dazzled by an intense light… The halogen flashlights of the mechsuit! I was torn between relief and disbelief; Darren had finally done something useful. He had woken Jessica up!
The mechsuit sprinted towards the creature. It was a vision of steel and hydraulics, each step exaggerating those of the space-suited figure inside. The suit leapt high into the air, landing astride the creature and punching a metal fist into its back.
The monster contorted and twisted, enveloping the mechsuit in a mass of tentacles. I watched as the mechsuit struggled valiantly against the onslaught, but gradually, inevitably, was swamped before my eyes. As the creature wrapped itself in knots about about my supposed rescuer I wondered if perhaps Jessica’s fearsome reputation was undeserved.
I was considering making a run for it when the monster’s contortions ceased. Coil-upon-coil fell away before, finally, its head collapsed, inert, to the ground. From the morass emerged the mechsuit, using a mining laser to slice its way free in a spray of gore, finally standing astride its vanquished opponent in a victory salute.
Through the ichor smeared helmet I could just make out Darren’s gormless features. He smiled and gave me a cheery thumbs up.
Next year I intend to holiday on Ganymede.