Quantinium, p.1Reasus Shelly
Copyright 2012 by Reasus Shelly
Chapter 1 - Panic
Chapter 2 - Discovery
Chapter 3 - Greed
Chapter 4 - Spooked
Chapter 5 - Theft
Chapter 6 - Adrift
Chapter 7 - Reckoning
Chapter 8 - Destiny
Chapter 9 - Rubicon
Chapter 10 - Equilibrium
Chapter 11 - Fischer
Dedicated to my daughter Annabelle
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Chapter 1 - Panic
A young woman is walking purposefully through a tunnel carved out of rock. She's holding a flash-light, wearing a tight fitting mining suit with padding here and there, with a bulge at the back for her life support system. A couple of pipes lead from the suit to a clear mask shaped to her face, covering it entirely. The Smart Mask is listening to her breathing, giving a readout appearing in front of her eyes, of gas levels outside and inside her lungs. It's also a radio and video communicator, so she can talk, see what her mates are doing, check her emails, watch sport, read news, send messages using her eye movements and thoughts.
Megan has never been to this part of the labyrinth before, cut by a new Mark 10 drilling machine she's helping to commission, through rock strata not far from the surface. The tunnel walls have emergency lights, stuck on the walls at head-level every 2 meters. They illuminate as you approach for 20 seconds and take another 5 minutes to recharge by sucking quantum heat from their surroundings – a forced quantum heat pump. Most of the tunnels are long and straight, but you get short runs with lazy curves and some dead ends. Instinctively, she regularly looks behind whilst walking and has somehow forgotten why she's there; always dislikes going out alone, but has to put up with it when needs must – not enough staff to cover all the jobs. For some reason the suits cause the local atmosphere down there to form a light steam, which is probably CO2 or dry ice. It means, if people stay still, eventually, the tunnel will fill with a light mist that takes a while to clear. It's also cold, about minus 5˚C and someone who took off their mask once said, the atmosphere smelled like “Something has gone off and died somewhere.”
Megan reads her head-up-display to check what she's supposed to be doing: "Find Jes, tunnel B61, check status, report back 10:50 latest.”
“It's 10:30, so gotta find him in 20 minutes,” thinks Megan, looking back as she starts the next curve. As the lights go out behind her, the light mist she's generated swirls gently. Sometimes you see odd things down here and get spooked, but it's better not to think too much, as panic is a luxury you don’t have on Mars. "In any case, what the hell is going to affect me down here?" One of the problems controlling fear and letting go of panic is: you can forget what you're supposed to be doing.
She picks up the pace and her life support system NANNI (Neuro-Analytical Navigation & Notational Instrumentation) is recording her increased breathing, heart rate, blood chemistry and pressure. The emergency lights in front are too slow now, switching on almost as she jogs past them. The torch is useful, but jogging makes the beam flash about. As she looks behind, the lights are illuminated way back to the last corner.
Megan's NANNI displays a message: "URGENT - Jes stopped breathing, possible mask-off."
Running now, she's hoping there's nothing to trip her over, the torch only lights up where you point. The dark tunnel is rushing past, emergency lights are too slow and hopefully the torch will illuminate where she's running. Standing on a hammer someone left, she nearly twists her ankle. Megan stumbles into the wall and hits it hard with her backpack, temporarily hissing at her, and banging her head slightly.
Her pack immediately goes into diagnostic mode after the impact and flashes up: "TAKE CARE – DIAGNOSTICS".
"OK, this is too much," thinks Megan, "if there's more junk lying around, I'm flat on my face." Looking back, she sees no lights now in the tunnel behind her and thinks, “someone was here recently, within the last 5 minutes." The flash-light catches sight of a pair of Life Pods a few meters ahead. A safe haven where two or more people can lock themselves in, sealed from any danger outside, like poisonous gas, a tunnel fire or rock fall.
Life pods have enough power and food for 3 months, they make their own water, oxygen and recycle the waste. Full neutrino communications (plus an old hard-line to call Base in an emergency), they are sat in pairs, cut into the walls of the tunnel, one each side, pods A and B, every 500m. On Earth they would be every 100 to 200m, but on Mars compromises are part of working life – you just have to make less mistakes. Technology these days is unbreakable though, especially on Mars, where things have to work every time. Most electronics use quantum physics to work, but today component designers use quantum quarks to get the maximum possible out of every component. They are called x-quantum electronics. Megan's NANNI, for example, has no batteries like the emergency tunnel lights. Each electronic component has its own forced quantum power supply, taking heat energy from its surroundings and changing it into moving electron holes (electricity), so the component can do its job and talk to its neighbours.
Megan's training says, she has to wait in the safest possible place when her back pack throws a fit and allow her NANNI diagnostics to finish. She knows the back pack cannot fail, but decides to use a life pod anyway. They can be used as a telephone box to phone home or somewhere to sit at a table for a break, but actually she's panicked, having seen a few new things in the mist today, always finding these difficult to get used to. She could clearly see spinning triangles.
She has a quick look in Pod B for Jes, just in case he's hopped in there and keeled over, but it's empty. Looking back at the moving mist, Megan jumps inside Pod A. She locks the door and feels safer. The seal is made and the cabin pressurises with a hiss of breathable air.
Megan is looking out through the pod window. It's black, the emergency lights are off now for the next 5 minutes. Life Pods have 5 outside cameras (up, down, left, right and forward) and matching mini-monitors inside, but without light in the tunnel the screens are black. The Pod has a strobe light with each camera to light up whatever is outside for a fraction of a second. Switching on the strobes – everything is clear except the right camera, which is facing to the tunnel she came from. "Those moving coloured shapes again, what the frick is it?" thinks Megan. She feels her palms beginning to sweat under her gloves and ducks down, the mask mists up for a second before clearing itself. Patching into the pod cameras using her smart mask, she watches, as the moving objects draw nearer, distorting the mist with sharp rotating triangles. One of her multi-job disciplines is a mining engineer, so, naturally, her first thought is: "Is it a new type of drill? How can this be operating here with people in the tunnel? Jes and me are the only ones down here." Megan's unsure she's protected from whatever this is, so shuffles to the back of the pod. Within seconds a light scraping and tapping starts against the outside of the pod and gets louder. "The drill has reached the pod and will soon rip the front off!" thinks Megan.
"Urgent, Meg Pod 16 to Base, come in please, Meg Pod 16 to Base!"
“Go ahead, receiving. Did you say Meg? Over."
"Dangerous drill operating in Tunnel 61, reached Pod 16, people present, over."
The pod starts to shake now and the rattle is deafening. The pod cameras are shaking so much the monitor images are blurred out. "Turn off the drill you idiots, there are people down here!
The pod diagnostics have started, the display says "STAY HERE – DIAGNOSTICS".
"Base, what the hell was that?"
"You’re not listed for this area, Meg and nothing is operating anywhere near you, the nearest Mark 5 drill is off-line awaiting repair."
"Well, there's a drill outside my pod. It was trying to kill me and it's just been switched off. Are you still using Mark 5s here? I thought the last one was taken to a museum on Earth, 20 years ago? Over," Megan smiles, thinking he made a mistake.
"There's nothing on our system at your location," the Base operator has heard things like this before, "Meg, would you look outside please and give me the drill mark and serial number, I'll double check? And yes, we’re still running Mark 5s here."
Meg looks through the pod window, but can't see anything in the strobe light. She looks at the displays in turn, zooming in and out, nothing there either. Confused, she tentatively opens the pod door and slowly pokes her head out. Nothing, the tunnel is clear. Moving slowly round the door to look right, expecting to see a large machine parked there and steaming away – nothing there either. "Where the heck is it and what was that?" thinks Meg.
“Base there's nothing here now, the drill's gone, I don't understand what just happened!"
"Don't worry, Meg, this stuff happens all the time, we call it a Mook – a Martian spook."
"Great, that makes me feel much better!" replying sarcastically, "so what's the status of Jes? Was his problem a Mook too?"
"Who’s Jes? We can’t find either of you on the roster. Can you return to base and sign-in please? Do you have the Base on your locator?”
“Yes and yes, will do, Base, but Jes is still missing, and I’m getting no telemetry from his mask. Leaving Pod 16 A now, turning left, over and out." Meg switches off the strobes and her torch on. As she exits the pod, she checks the tunnel again. Still nothing there. She turns to close the door and raises her flash-light. A strange guy is stood right behind the door, facing her: expressionless, behind an old-style gas mask, torch light under his chin.
"Whoa, who the frick are you?” panics Meg, as she takes a step back.
“My name is Drew,” tapping his name badge with a fore finger, cockily, “I’ve come to talk to you about your drill.”
Meg shines the torch about and picks up another four people stood behind him.
“Who are you, guys? We’re working down here alone. I need to see your permits,” demands Meg.
“We’re mining inspectors, Meg, and our permits are here,” Drew pulls open a flap in his suit to reveal a large gun, “you’re not authorized to drill in this area, so take us to your machine Ma’am, we have to perform an ID check and safety inspection.”
“OK, calm down. My partner is working just up here. Follow me,” beckons Megan, “our communicators are down, so I’ve just used the hard-line to call in,” reports Megan.
Meg and the others continue down the tunnel and eventually find Jes making adjustments to the new drill, displaying the name, “Fischer - Mark 10”.
The team leader introduces himself, “Hi, erm, Jes (looking at his name badge), I’m Drew, we’re here to inspect your drill. If you’d like to gather round, I need to stop your machine and explain what we’re doing here.” Drew pulls out a metallic cylinder about 200mm long, 50mm diameter and aligns it along the tunnel axis. Sliding the device open to reveal a button. Drew presses it and waits for the drill to power down. The cylinder begins to glow as they look on, then a blinding light fills the tunnel.
Quantinium by Reasus Shelly / Actions & Adventure / Science Fiction have rating 2.4 out of 5 / Based on34 votes