Monday, December 5, 2011

PROLOGUE I: The Incident

The Incident
Ten klicks underground, a girl was screaming.
MOM dutifully delivered the sounds to the miners’ aural implants. But Josh Reynolds, at 12 the youngest on the shift, thought he heard her right through his bubble. He had MOM flip the local/common ‘dim feed off and on and off again. Sure enough, he could hear her despite the thin Martian air. She was nearby, he only had to follow her voice. He began moving toward it, grateful for a clear-cut task to focus on, since everything else had become surreal.
Time was either moving too fast or too slow - he couldn’t tell which. The clarity of a few moments - minutes? hours? - ago was gone as if it had never existed. The world was all pastel shadows now. It felt like a dream. More than that, Josh knew, it felt like his dream. He flipped his ‘dim feed back on again to keep tabs on the others.
The crew wasn’t sure what to make of - whatever was happening. Then there was a stillness. ‘Is it over?’ they wondered. The answer came in the form of a fresh explosion and another rumble of falling rock from some corner of the vast space. Then there was a great clash of metal that seemed to come from everywhere at once. Suddenly they knew what it had to be: It was the thing they’d been assured could not happen - not again, not here, and not to them. But it had happened, and it was happening. ‘Of course,’ thought Josh, ‘The thing they tell you can’t happen is exactly what happens. It’s just not the way you expect, is all.’
The mine was collapsing. They felt the sudden certainty of it in their stomachs. The soupy haze in the air turned a shade darker. The enormous Staging Area they occupied - ‘the largest man-made excavation in history’ as the owners billed it - began to feel claustrophobic. They were gripped by a sense that fresh danger could emerge from anywhere, at any moment.
Two things stoked the fear. One was inexperience - this all-teen shift had never been through a collapse. They’d endured all the simulations and drills the law required, but none of it prepared them for the real thing.
The other was that the miners didn’t carry air tanks. Most days, tanks were a cumbersome nuisance. Instead, air was pumped in along dozens of bundled pipes running everywhere along the walls, and the miners hooked their hoses into the feed wherever they went. But now at least some of those feeds were broken, and the rest were buried. No one knew which feeds still worked, or how much air remained. Their pressure suits held about fifteen minutes reserve, max.
Josh kept following the cries piercing his bubble, but his local ‘dim connection now threatened to drown them out. His fellow miners were unconsciously streaming their bargains with God, appeals to absent parents, and bursts of uncontrolled sobbing into each others’ heads. They were tumbling into panic. Josh shut down the channel.
His path was lit by electrical sparks, swaying light fixtures and miners’ lanterns trying vainly to pierce the dark. The shifting light made the ground seem unstable - which for all he knew, it was.
Josh was amazed that a cavern this size - clear and well-lit a short while ago - could fill so quickly and completely with this clingy floating muck. It was as if it had been tucked away somewhere waiting for this moment. He remembered one of the owners saying Mars was ‘just a ball of dust stuffed with money’. No doubt he was right on both counts, though Josh could only vouch for the former.
Since it posed such headaches for the owners, new miners had to sit through a lecture on Martian dust. Josh recalled it as he pushed ahead. 
‘Eons before man declared Mars a god, it was covered with a dust that had nothing better to do but blow around and sandblast the planet. Which it did - hour after hour, day after day, for years beyond imagining. The result is the most finely-milled naturally-occurring substance ever found, and it’s proved to be the biggest obstacle we’ve encountered. It gets into everything. You’ll smell it, taste it, live with it.’ All of which was true enough, and Josh had heard endless complaints about breathing it, rashes from it, killer storms of it, and the slipperiness of it. Since he was Martian-born he was accustomed to the dust, but it drove newcomers to distraction. He remembered an Earth-Firster in the Phase 2 Dome saying, ‘If God had wanted man to get a foothold on Mars, He wouldn’t have made it so greasy.’ It was a popular expression among that crowd.
It grew murkier. The ceiling-mounted enviro-scrubbers were outmatched, if they were working at all. The dust was reclaiming a piece of Mars that man had literally carved out for himself.
To his left, Josh could make out a group that seemed to be trying to escape through one of the access tunnels. Josh knew that was a mistake - his dream had shown him that. He thought about trying to dissuade them. But as he looked over, he felt no pang of urgency. He assumed that meant something would keep them out of those tunnels, so he kept moving.
There were only two women in the crew. Josh hadn’t asked for a location out of fear of learning it was Emily in trouble. She’d known mine collapses - her family went back generations in the West Virginian mining culture. That’s why she was on Mars. In fact, it was why her whole family was there, and why there was a shift just for people her age. ‘She’s not one to panic, but who knows?’, he thought. He was about to ask MOM for her location when his proximity alarm went off. As it did, a small silver-and-black Armor-Dillo tag on his torso glowed a bright, hot orange. An electric jolt passed through him, and he went limp. At the same time, the exoskeleton woven into his suit tucked him into a ball with his hands over his head and his knees bent. As he fell, his suit’s outer layer puffed out into resilient curved ridges. A ‘fetal Michelin Man’ was how Kat had described the pose to him, though Josh had no idea what that meant. The process took under two seconds.
One of the giant scrubbers had torn loose from the ceiling over Josh, its fall triggering his Armor-Dillo. As the scrubber struck the nearby ground the ‘Dillo released its grip, leaving him shaking and with little control of his limbs. The hulking steel box shuddered and bounced his way. It groaned and tilted menacingly over Josh, casting a great shadow over him. He flailed about with rubbery arms and kicked at the ground as if to swim away. The grit he churned up pinged musically off the approaching intake grille. Finally, the scrubber lost momentum and settled back with a great metallic clatter.
Josh rolled to his side, coughed and spat stomach acid into his bubble. ‘Great. On top of everything else, now I’ll have to smell that.’ He felt dizzy and his hands and feet buzzed. Then Kat’s voice was in his ear. “Hey. You OK?”
“Who,” Josh croaked, his throat sore from the acid, “who thought that was a good idea?”
“The ‘Dillo? Well, the ‘Dillo guys made it worth the insurer’s while, the insurer reached out to the Party, and the Party leaned on the owners. You know: Same way anything else gets to be a good idea around here. You forget who you work for?”
Josh rolled his eyes. “That thing wasn’t going to hit me. Even if it was, I’d rather have taken my chances with it than go through - that. Ugh.” He could not get the vile taste of the acid out of his mouth, and knew he probably would not get a chance to do so for hours. ‘Unless it’s the last thing I ever taste,’ he thought.
“So, this is ‘the doors’, right?” asked Kat. “Where we have to build new ones?”
Josh had told Kat about his recent dream, where he was in a dark, murky room with many doors. Most of the doors didn’t work, and the few that did led nowhere. The only way out was to build a new door, on top of the old door. Somehow the new door made the old door work. That was the riddle. Josh hadn’t understood its meaning when he’d told Kat about it. Now he thought he did, and apparently so did Kat.
“Right. We need to make new doors.”
“It’s ten kilos, you know, to the surface. Most of the heavy equipment is buried in the side tunnels. We don’t have the tools or the time.”
“The trick is knowing where to dig. Only certain ‘doors’ will open. I think it means large parts of the existing tunnels and access-ways are clear - but we have to find the right sections, ones that are near other clear sections, that lead to other clear sections. It’s a giant puzzle. We dig from one to another till we’re out. But first I want to know who’s doing all the screaming.”
“It’s not Emily. I just spoke with her.”
Josh felt relieved, and also guilty for feeling relieved. “It’s Mary, then. I’m going after her. If I don’t, no one else will. When I find the spot for the first ‘door’, I’ll call you.”
“Need me to do anything in the meantime?”
“Grab any utility pods and light converters you can get your hands on. We’ll need them when the lights go out.”
“The lights…?” Kat was about to lecture that the lights couldn’t go out - they were military-grade and drew power direct from MOM thru the interdim. Even a completely collapsed tunnel should have working lights. But before he could launch into his spiel, the lights flickered. In a rare moment, Kat fell as silent as if some Omniscient Being had toggled the switch.
“Forget who you work for?” Under different circumstances, Josh might have relished the modest karmic payback.
“Right. Pods, lights. Later.”
Kat rarely missed a chance to display the world-weariness of all his 17 years, and Josh thought that, of all the things in the world to mock, his imaginary (or at best, unseen) ally should have been near the top of his list. Yet he never condescended to Josh for being half a decade younger, and he never slighted his visions or The Guide.
As he walked, Josh called MOM for stats with a bit of body language, as people did when they had no device at hand. A backward tilt of the head, an upward lift of the eyes, and a small upward open-palm movement brought him MOM’s attention. The data he requested floated before him as he went along. Flipping through the panels (sent from MOM to Josh’s ocular implant, via his comm-pod) his hand left swirling trails in the clinging smog around him, and his fingers made small dents and ripples in the data where MOM determined he’d ‘touched’ it.
• Your location: Acidalia Planitia (Mars) Chinese/US Martian Mining Consortium’s Mine No. 1, 10 km below grade. [map]
• July 6, 2231, 11:10 AM U.S. Eastern Time. [option: Mars time]
• Local seismic activity and an explosion detected. [map]
• Maintenance-bots battling an ongoing fire in an oxygen-feed passageway. [map / vid]
• 30 workers assigned to the current shift are in the mine. [list]
• All pressure suits are intact. [inventory]
• Smoke has been detected in the vicinity. [map]
• Oxygen conduits throughout the mine have <20% pressure. [diagram]
• There is a possibility of additional explosions from the ignition of oxygen trapped in crevices. [more]
• All elevators are inoperative. [damage report]
• The full extent and cause of the collapse is undetermined. [status report]
MOM confirmed that the trapped female was Mary, and showed her exact location. Josh noticed her Armor-Dillo had kicked in, too. ‘Maybe she had more luck with it than I did,’ he thought. ‘Maybe she’ll walk out of here and become their company spokesman.’ She was just in front of him, to his right, but her muffled voice seemed further removed. As Josh drew nearer, he saw she had been cut off by the collapse. She was behind a pile of rock - or beneath it.
Her pleas had devolved into frightened little animal sounds. She was giving up, withdrawing. Josh tried to coax her back with assurances that he was right there with her, digging her out. He told her more help was on the way. That was a lie, but he was losing her. He even looked around to see if anyone might really be coming, but no one was. Everyone had their own urgent agenda. Their pressure suits, designed to glow in a crisis, were ghosts drifting through a foggy graveyard.
Josh pulled out a tool all the miners carried. It was a collapsible, hydraulic-powered claw that fit over his hands and arms, attaching to the exoskeletal threads and conduits woven into his suit.  As it snapped in place, a pattern of varying-sized glowing hexagons formed over parts of his limbs and torso. His pliant suit assumed a rigid structure that supported and powered the claw. This let him grip the rocks powerfully, and he began to shove them aside.
The comm-pod woven into his belt buzzed against his skin. A message labeled ‘Alert from the Chinese/US Mining Consortium Management’, popped up before him. Josh hated his employers’ passive-aggressive, broken-English corporate-speak. He began reading: ‘Dear workers in our beautiful mine...’ It was a waste of time and he flicked it away, annoyed.
They would probably all run out of air soon. Maintenance-bots should have been out among them by now, toting spare tanks and making their presence known, but for some reason they’d made no appearance. That was no big surprise to Josh, who figured they were either out of order or rented out elsewhere for a few quick bucks. There were emergency tanks along the walls, but most had been buried in the collapse. There was no telling how much air they held, or how many still worked at all. Even MOM wouldn’t know for sure. Odds were, Josh knew, if they stayed here they wouldn’t survive ‘til the molebots could find them. 
Assuming that molebots would be sent for them. With the amount of construction taking place all over Mars, the big diggers were in short supply.
Signaling MOM to switch back to the common/local band, Josh heard the others searching for and fighting over the backup tanks. Morale sounded about as bad as before, so he figured he hadn’t missed any good news.
On a hunch, Josh re-checked Mary’s location. She’d been whimpering like a puppy, and he imagined her curled up in a fetal position. But she wasn’t still, as he’d expected - MOM showed her moving. She was already a few meters away from where he’d started digging.
Josh tapped one of MOM’s floating info panels to check her physical condition again. Her suit had lost structural integrity, and her bubble was losing pressure. She was suffocating, yet she was moving.
Josh knew what had happened: The rats were taking her.
Rats had been on Mars almost as long as humans. Lacking predators, they had naturally-selected their way to the size of housecats. They could even survive on the surface for short stretches. They nested mostly in the bygone passageways and temp structures that had been eked out and then forgotten by man as he secured his foothold on Mars.
The rats liked the mines especially. They lived in tunnels that had been plundered of treasure and closed off. Usually there was enough trash and air left behind for a smart rat to get by on. And they had learned to sniff along fresh trails of O2 leaks to find food.
All the miners carried small pellet guns to keep the rats at bay. But actual encounters were rare, and no one Josh knew had ever used one. He wondered now if Mary had used hers, and if it had made any difference.
Mary stopped making sounds, at least any that Josh could hear. She no longer had a heartbeat. MOM showed that she was still moving, but Josh knew she was not so much moving as being moved.
 Josh stopped digging, and removed his ‘claws’ as he asked MOM for the location of the shift supervisor. He was the only one older than a teen on this shift, and they should have heard from him by now. For just a moment Josh feared the worst, but MOM found him out on the surface. ‘That figures’, thought Josh. He’d been known to blow off a shift. Sometimes he’d take a buggy and joyride around the dunes, pretending he was on MarsRace. ‘No point getting upset,’ Josh told himself, ‘He’d have been useless anyway.’
MOM told Josh that Emily had checked his location and was headed toward him. Josh checked his O2: Seven minutes before he’d have to recharge. He knew he should head for the spare tanks and battle or beg his way to a nozzle, but he had other priorities.
Emily suddenly appeared at his side, her emergence startling them both. It was getting difficult to see beyond a meter. “Tell Elvis, Big John and Kat to find me. I need them to help me dig to the next section. Anyone you find with ten minutes or more of air, try to get them to come to me, too. Say I’m taking us to the next O2 source, and they can be first-in. Tell everyone else who’s short on air to follow my comm-flag after they find some. Say I found a way out.”
“You did?”
“Not yet. But I’m about to. I don’t want to broadcast that and start a stampede. If you tell them a few at a time, it may lower the panic level a bit. By the time they reach me, I’ll have something going on. But get Elvis, John, and Kat first.”
Emily turned and went. She was 4 years older than Josh. He flashed back to when she was a little girl and played at being his mommy. She’d been better at the role than his real mother. She hadn’t asked how he planned to find a way out, though Josh supposed she more or less knew.
Josh called up a map of the Staging Area. They weren’t far from the cargo elevator they’d come down on, but that had been demolished. He looked at the connecting tunnels and other passageways, especially those with backup O2. They were lucky the shift had just begun, and they hadn’t yet moved into the smaller, narrower tunnels where the actual material extraction took place. Many of those had caved completely, and they could have been buried alive. Unfortunately, most of their excavating equipment was in those tunnels, and could not be easily reached.
With a backhand sweep of his arm, Josh enlarged the floating map so it overlaid and correlated to the actual space around him. It formed a glowing wireframe-matrix that seemed to float in the dark mist. Now he had something he could see and follow. He walked over to the debris blocking one possible route, and stretched his arms over it. A sick fullness in his gut told him this could not be gotten through in time. He glanced around the room for something more promising, but though he could see the glowing matrix clearly, there was too much smoke and confusion around him. He’d have to walk the space and get near the right spot before he would know it. But that could take a while, and time was growing short.
He found a happier-feeling spot on the third try, at the same time Elvis and Big John found him. “Here,” said Josh, moving his hands over the rocks like antennae as he looked for the exact place to begin, “is where we dig. There are O2 tanks not far beyond this pile, and I think they’re operational.”
“OK, let’s start digging,” Elvis said, climbing up the pile.
Josh stopped him. “No, not there… here,” he said, pointing to a rock near the bottom. “Why?” Elvis complained. “If we pull that out, all the stuff on top will fall on us. Besides, that one’s got the weight of all the other rocks on it.”
“If we all grab it we can pull it free and still get clear of the slide. This is where we need to start. Please don’t touch anything else.” Josh guided Elvis down off his perch, put his hands on his shoulders so he bent down to his height, and touched their bubbles together ‘til they flattened slightly. Through their connected bubbles he said, “Humor me.”
They pulled out their claws and fitted them over their hands. The three pulled together and yanked the keystone free. Or possibly Big John pulled the rock and the others free. Either way, four of their six feet left the ground. They all stumbled backwards, which cleared them of the resulting slide.
As they regained their footing, Kat showed up, hauling equipment. They watched the rocks slide loose. A support beam that had been buried came into view, keeled over and jammed in the falling debris, forming a crude archway. The remaining loose rock settled and locked it into place.
“Old door/new door,” said Kat. “Neat!”
“That’s about halfway through to a small anteroom. There’s still a few meters of rock to get past, but we should be able to shove most of it into the space behind it,” Josh said, moving to the rocks to run his hands over their new configuration. Divining the key point, he said, “John, I think you can move this one, but there’s no ‘grip’ to it. You’ll need something to use as a lever. Let’s look around.”
Soon they broke through to a small enclave housing working, portable oxygen tanks untouched by the cave-in. This was just in time for Josh, as MOM alerted him he had a minute of air left. He signaled Emily that they had reached a new oxygen supply. “If you need air, guys, load up before the others get here. This buys us some time. Now we have to figure out where to dig next. Kat, I think there are some explosives stored back there. That’s your department. John, how about you and Elvis moving the portable tanks out so everyone won’t fight to get in here? Anybody know if they’ve started the molebots down?”
“No,” snapped Kat, “It’s like when that Chinese crew got trapped a few years back. The bosses are dragging their feet - they won’t risk a molebot until they know what caused the cave-in. Molebots are expensive, we’re expendable. And they never liked having a teenage shift anyway.”
Josh noticed the other miners gathering around them. MOM displayed all their names, which appeared to float in front of them. You could barely recognize someone inside a pressure suit even on a good day, and this was not a good day. He signaled Kat to set the lights up. Then he switched to the common-local ‘dim, and signaled for the others to do the same. “Here’s where we stand,” he said. “We’re in the most stable part of the mine, and we’re all together. So at least we’re not pinned down in the side tunnels. We’ve got O2 now, so there’s no immediate crisis there. Lots of connecting tunnels start from this spot. All we have to do is look for the right path out, and we’ll find more air along the way. We’ll be fine, we just have to get rolling.”
Big John, who rarely spoke in public, spoke. “They want us to stay put.” Elvis made a puzzled sound. “The bosses texted us a little bit ago,” John explained. “They said wait for the molebots.” Murmurs among the group suggested others were also leaning towards following orders and simply waiting for a rescue, now that there was air to breathe.
Josh replied, “Remember the Chinese crew that was buried alive down here? Two hundred of them. What do the owners call that? Not ‘the tragedy’, or even ‘the accident’. If they acknowledge it at all, they call it ‘the incident’. Well, there’s only fifty of us. To the bosses, we might not even rate as an ‘incident’.”
Kat chipped in: “Maybe the Chinese were told to wait, like we were. It doesn’t take an explosion to kill you down here, you know. You could just die of old age waiting for the bosses to act.”
Josh went on: “Remember last year, when they replaced all that steel we knew was faulty, even though they denied the problem? Maybe they know there’s a structural issue behind this collapse, and they’re willing to bury us along with the evidence.”
“There’s something else,” Kat added, “MOM’s showing a rising level of ambient oxygen throughout the mine. We catch a spark, we could have a fireball in here. Emily knows about fires in mines. On Earth, coal gas gets trapped in pockets and explodes. Same thing could happen here.”
“He’s right,” Emily said. “Waiting around while the O2 builds up is not a good idea.”
Murmuring and disagreement among the assembled group increased. One of the opposing voices spoke up: “The Chinese didn’t have a staging area this big. The leaked oxygen will disperse, and everything that’s going to collapse already has. You’re asking us to take risks we don’t have to. We’re safe enough here.”
At that moment, the lights faltered and everyone fell silent. The lights rallied at a fraction of their former wattage, but Kat had placed his backup units strategically near Josh, creating a spotlight around him.
In the newly-minted quiet, Josh continued his pitch. “Look. We work down here, at least most of us do, because we don’t have anybody on our side to help us get something better. That’s the sad truth of it. We’ve all learned to play the victim. We’re spending our lives waiting for someone else to do what we ought to do for ourselves. Well, we can learn to help ourselves, starting now, or keep on waiting like we’ve been taught to. I don’t know about you, but I’m sick of waiting. I want a say in what happens to me, and since no one will give it to me I’m ready to take it, any way I can.
“I know the bosses said wait. But they’re not down here. And things might get worse if we stay. We could have more explosions. This could be the calm before the storm. I say we have a right - no, we have a duty - to decide what’s best for us. That’s more important than what anyone says.” Josh tried to read nearby faces through their bubbles, but with the haze and the lights shining in his eyes that was impossible. There was still a fair amount of uncertainty, and in the murmur of voices Josh sensed a lingering uneasiness about disregarding the bosses’ orders. If anyone spoke for the ‘silent majority’ here, he thought, it was John. He’d worked the mine longest, and the others quite literally looked up to him. “John, what do you say? Should we take our fate in our hands, or sit here and hope someone will save us?”
“No, I’m with you. Gotta look out for yourself,” said John. “Wanted to hear you say it, is all.”
The fault line of opinion began to shift, and a consensus emerged that they would find their own way out. A moment ago the bosses were authority figures looking over their shoulders, and obedience meant security. Now the bosses seemed far away because obedience meant being left behind.
With Josh divining the strategic passages, they worked their way toward the surface. Ten hours later, they encountered a molebot sent to find them. After all that time, it had burrowed only 500 meters. Kat said, “They must have thought about the PR of not sending a molebot for their workers after two cave-ins. Once they realized we were most of the way out anyway, they went into butt-covering mode. Now they’ll tell the world their molebot saved us. Yeah, it saved us - it saved us about an hour’s work.”
The exhausted group spilled onto a small grotto that opened onto the surface. A few of the miners approached Josh to thank and congratulate him. Emily noticed, and took him aside. “See, you’re a hero!” she said. “Depends on your point of view,” Josh replied. “To the bosses, I’ll be the one who staged a mutiny.”
“Oh, come on. They’d have to believe you now,” she said.
Josh knew full well no one had to believe him, or any other 12-year-old he’d ever heard of. But this was always her answer - that his life would be better if everyone knew about The Guide. “Joan of Arc told people she talked to spirits. Look how that worked out.”
“If people knew, you could change your life! You don’t have to be stuck in the mines like us. You’ve got a gift.”
“If people knew, I’d have to explain it. How can I when I don’t understand it myself? Besides, The Guide shows up when he wants to, not when I want him to. My own mother thinks I have an imaginary friend, or maybe a strange personal religion. The best thing to do is keep it quiet. I’m fine with that. I only talk about him with you and the guys, and that’s all the support I need.”
Kat approached them. Since he was a friend, they both saw a pop-up note informing them that Kat would be added to their conversation. “The buggies should have been here waiting for us,” he said. “But they’re not. That proves the bosses planned to bury us down there, along with whatever caused that mess.”
“You’re giving them too much credit,” countered Emily. “If they seriously planned to get rid of us, they’d have had the buggies waiting so they could be seen doing the right thing. They’d have sent the molebots right away, too, and arranged for them to not find us. Let’s face it, our bosses don’t plan anything past lunch.”
Kat mulled it over. “Yeah, maybe. Maybe they’re just incompetent.”
“No ‘maybe’ about that,” Josh agreed.
Satisfied for the moment, Kat smiled, said “Later,” and walked off.
Josh turned back to Emily. “I’ve been thinking about your offer to go back to Earth with you and your family when your contract runs out. I think you’re right. There’s no future here.”
“Really? Where’s this coming from?”
“You’re kidding, right? We almost got buried alive down there. Besides, I just spent ten hours inside a bubble I barfed in. That’ll change your worldview right there. You’ve been nagging me about this for months, you want to talk me out of it now?”
“I don’t nag,” Emily huffed. “And I’m surprised is all. You usually balk for one reason or another, and now you’re ready to pick up and go - just like that. Usually you bring up the Program, or your Mom…”
“Hey, nobody likes the Program. Even you complain about it.”
“OK, sorry. Look, you know we want you to come back with us. You’re family. I just want to see where your head’s at. What about your Mom?”
“I have to make the decision for her. You know that. So I’m making it. Maybe it’s the change she needs. That we both need.”
A moment passed while that reality sunk in for them both. Then Emily said, “I wonder what happens next.”
“The owners need a scapegoat. I’m sure they’re making a list right now.”
You’re not on it, if that’s where you’re going.”
“Why not? After what happened last year, they’d love to get rid of me. Make an example of me, even.”
“They won’t be able to blame you. Everyone who was down there will say you led them out. You’ll be a hero.”
Josh thought about it. “Maybe. So they’ll move to the next name on the scapegoat list. Or pay the Party off to look the other way, like they did last time.” He paused to think about that. “Scapegoats are cheaper than bribes, though. I wonder who else is a candidate?”
“Maybe the shift supervisor.”
“No, he’s connected. That’s how he gets away with being AWOL all the time.”
“I know! Industrial espionage!” Emily declared.
Josh laughed. “Yeah. I don’t think they’ve tried that one yet.” Then he turned serious. “They won’t forget that I undermined them. They’ll pay me back, you’ll see.”
“Do you resent it, sometimes?”
“Resent what?”
“This isn’t the first time The Guide has shown you something that’s helped others. But when it’s over, the best you can hope for is to stay out of trouble.”
“I’ve made my peace with that. I do wonder why he talks to me, and not someone else. Or anyone else. I wonder what he wants from me. Sometimes I think he just does this to amuse himself.”
“I’ve never heard you talk that way. You used to say you were afraid you’d be leaving The Guide behind if you left Mars.”
“I did feel that way. But now I’m thinking I only need The Guide because I’m on Mars. Maybe I’d be better off someplace where I don’t need a Guide just to survive.”
“You saved your mother because of The Guide.”
“Maybe not,” said Josh darkly. “Maybe I just postponed the inevitable.”
“Well, you met me because of The Guide. What’s ambiguous about that?”
“You’re awful needy, for one thing.”
Emily snorted in surprise and laughed. “Damn you!”
A moment passed, then Emily said, “You saved lives down there, Josh.”
“We’ll never know for sure. If it did get worse after we left, they’ll never admit it.”
“Always a mystery, huh?”
“Yeah, it is. I don’t know what The Guide is, or what he wants, or why he shows me the things he does. So keeping it to myself seems like more than a good idea. It’s what I have to do to survive.”
“Why don’t you just ignore him, then?”
“Well… I didn’t say the things he shows me are bad. They’re just…” Josh searched for words, “inconvenient and weird, I guess.”
“They’re inconvenient because you keep them hidden.”
“No, they’re inconvenient because they’re inconvenient. Trust me.”
Their comm-pods buzzed. A pop-up message from management said the buggies were arriving. Josh flicked his message away: They could all see the dust devils on the orange and purple horizon, silhouetted against a rising sun. He called up an injury list. “Not bad. We’ve got three broken hands, some cuts, a couple of broken ribs, lots of bruises, and a whole lot of, uh, wet pants. We should save that ‘wet pants’ list. It might come in handy some day,” he said. Emily laughed.
The miners’ escape was the talk of Mars, and a fair part of Earth, for an entire week. Then a far larger story took hold.
- from The Patriots of Mars


  1. Very cool. Well written and entertaining!

  2. You got me interested to read more! I guess that is the point isn't it. =)