Murph cursed as the power went out on his cutting torch. Moments later he heard and answering curse from his partner Jamse as the lights went out next, leaving them in the inky blackness of the Ore mine. They had been following this vein of Tillium for almost 3 weeks, and ever since they’d begun, the plant had been plagued by frequent power failures. “There goes the lights…again.” muttered Jamse, “that’s the third time today, and the 12th this week. How can they expect us to dig, when we ain’t got no power to work our tools?” Jamse spat against the rock for emphasis; the splat of spit on rock echoed in the darkness.
Murph waited a moment before replying. “We can’t work without lights or tools. Left give it a couple minutes to see if the power comes back on, otherwise we’ll head back and take a break.” With that, Murph settled down and tried to find a comfortable seat against the rock. The darkness made the waiting harder, however since the Corporation charged for each disposable emergency light, the two men would wait until necessary before cracking open any of their supply.
Once Murph wrist chrono indicated that 15 minutes had passed, it seemed unlikely they would be able to return to work any time soon. Before the two men cracked their emergency lights, Jamse checked his radio once more for an update from the Foreman. “I’ve been trying since the lights went out, and I can’t get anything on this stupid thing. I thought that power and comms were on separate power supplies, now we’re gona be out credits for the e-lights.” Jamse continued to grumble in a low tone as Murph opened the pouch containing the light sticks. They each had 3 e-light sticks, and each one would give off good light for 6-8 hours and dim light for another 2-3 after that.
Murph activated the light, and shook it to bring it up to its full illumination. In the pale green light, the mine shaft had a haunted appearance, and their tools cast ominous shadows which moved with the light. “Ok, let’s get moving. I figure without the powered cart, we’ve got 2-3 hours of walking ahead of us.” Grabbing his laser cutter (the company charged for lost or damaged tools) and his canteen of water, Murph started walking towards their unit station, knowing that he carried the light; he didn’t bother to check if his companion was following. After a couple moments he smiled to himself as he heard Jamse trip and curse as he hurried to collect his gear and catch up. The two men walked for almost 2 hours before they noticed anything was amiss. “Shouldn’t we have run into some of the others by now?” asked Jamse. “We’re close enough to the Hab Unit, that even if we couldn’t see anybody, we should have at least have heard something by now.” Murph had no response, so the two men continued walking until they reached the branching point for the mine shafts. Their Habitat Station was only a short walk from this point. Normally, even in a power failure, there would be self-powered emergency lights in this area. In the darkness and silence, they both knew something was very wrong. Jamse’s voice dropped to a whisper, and he nervously asked, “I didn’t hear an evacuation alarm; did you?”
Murph placed his laser cutter onto a tool rack beside the wall, and grabbed a portable hand cutter along with its power pack. “We both would have heard the alarm if it went. No this is something else; maybe a cave in or accident. You grab that first-aid kit from that shelf over there just in case. We’ll make for the comms center first, and see if we can’t find out where everybody is.” The men, equipment in hand, walked in silence for the final 500 meters to the Hab Station. Built as an out-post for the miners, the Hab Station was comprised of equal parts living space, control center, power plant, and life support system in a “mobile” shell currently located 2 kilometers below the surface of an asteroid floating in space. During the operation, the unit generated power and equalized the atmosphere to tolerable human levels. Once the job was completes, the entire system could be retrieved and transplanted into the next asteroid on the Corporation’s list. Despite the brief walk remaining, the trip up the tunnel to the Hab Station seemed to take forever. Each step, each breath, each heartbeat seemed louder than the last. The tension built almost to intolerable levels before they reached the main door. Against all protocol (and automatic systems) the main door of the Hab Unit stood open and waiting, in the dim light of their glow sticks it looked like the open maw of some enormous creature lying in wait to devour them.
“I don’t like this. It’s too quiet, too dark, an how come the doors didn’t auto-close when they lost power?” asked a very anxious Jamse. Nearing the edge of panic, his whispers has increased almost to the level of normal speech, and were approaching hysteria.
Hoping to calm his companion, Murph passed him the light. “Here, carry this; it should have about 4 hours of light left in it. I know it’ll cost us, but I think more light is better at the moment.” As he talked in a soothing voice, Murph pulled out the second of their emergency lights, and ignited it. Although two lights together provided only a little more illumination than a single light on its own, Jamse visibly began to relax as the oppressive darkness lifted in a slightly larger area around them. Once he felt Jamse had regained some control, Murph spoke again. “Somehow I don’t think this is a practical joke. Let’s stick together and get over to the comms room. Hopefully we can figure out what went wrong, or at least call for help.” Making sure that his partner has nodded in reply, Murph cautiously took the lead and stepped into the open equipment hanger.
Even with the lights, the darkness of the hanger felt oppressive. Murph held up his light to maximize its area, and took a look around. The expected lengths of ore track and powered cards, normally stowed away in an orderly fashion, were spread across the room as if thrown by an angry child. The massive floor hatch to the mined ore cargo hold was standing open creating a hazardous pit in the middle of the room. Moving carefully across the room towards the lift on the back wall, the two men gazed at the chaos left of their otherwise orderly “home.” Jamse muttered under his breath. “Jeez lookit this place, it looks worse than after that riot…er celebration we had when we hit that mother lode 5 cycles back.” He pointed over to two overturned cases, and moved to investigate. “Look, they even busted out some fancy booze…I wonder who smuggled it in, it looks like the good stuff.”
“Common, forget about the drink, and come help me with this lift tube. Since we don’t have power, we’ll have to open it and climb the ladder. “ Murph struggled with the stuck door for another minute before turning to look at Jamse.
“Here use this. I picked it up with the first aid kit.” Jamse held out a small pry-bar and hefted a glass bottle of golden liquid. “Check it out; they even left us a bottle, how thoughtful.” Looking less afraid than he had in hours, Jamse took a long pull from the bottle and passed it to his friend. “Here, have some of this, you’ve earned it. I’ll take care of the door.”
Murph shook his head and passed the bottle back. “Maybe once we’ve figured out what’s going on.” In the end, it took almost 10 minutes for the two men to pry open the door, and for Jamse to finish off the bottle of Amsec. Once they finished, Murph stowed his hand torch inside a large pocket and began to climb the tube ladder. Jamse finished the last sip from the bottle, and threw it in a graceful arc into the open hole of the cargo hold. After a couple long seconds, the sound of breaking glass echoed back to him. Smiling slightly, Jamse followed his friend up the ladder.
The 6 story climb up the ladder to the command module was more work than the men expected. Fortunately, from the inside of the tube, the emergency door release was still working, and the pair was able to open it with minimal difficulty. They climbed out of the tube, relived to no longer have the 30 meter drop behind them. After a brief rest to catch their breath, the two men raised their lights to look around. The ceiling view port was open, the massive Glass Steel window revealing the massive entry hole that that the Hab Center had drilled to get itself down to the current 2km depth. Without power, glowing stars were faintly visible beyond the length of the mine shaft. “Murph , you better look at this.” Jamse’s voice was almost inaudible, and the note of fear had returned as well.
Murph tore his eyes away from the view port, and looked about. He hadn’t noticed right away, but the command center was in shambles similar to the cargo bay downstairs, perhaps even worse. A strange smell seemed to be in the air. Perhaps the air filtration was out as well. Realizing that this could present a significant problem; Murph began picking his way across the room towards his companion. He navigated the room’s debris and found his way to the comms console. Before he was able to see the computer, his nose identified the strange smell; blood, and excrement, mixed with vomit. Jamse retched, and then threw up beside the console. “Oh my god, I think that was Rolo.”
Murph moved to where he could see, and held his light to reveal what had made Jamse sick. The terminal station was awash with gore. It dripped off the computer screen, layered the desk surface, and pooled below on the floor. In the chair was Rolo, the (former) communications officer. He was sprawled backwards as if trying to escape his desk. His throat had been torn out, and he had been so thoroughly disemboweled that the white curve of his spine was visible. Murph could not tell if Rolo had suffered (although he probably did), as his face was entirely missing. It almost appeared to have been eaten off. It was also apparent that through the gore, someone or something had smashed the delicate radio equipment. Backing away from the console, Murph called to his friend. “Something bad happened here. I think we should get going. Maybe we can get some pressure suits, and get to the surface. I think we might be able to use the shaft beacon to call for help.”
Jamse stood up from where he had been noisily sick. In the dim glow of their e-lights, the left over vomit on his chin had the same color as the blood on the console. Wiping his face on his sleeve, Jamse replied “it’s a 2 kilometer climb up the shaft, can we make it?”
“Unless you want to stay here and meet whoever did that,” Murph indicated the gory mess at the station behind them, “then we’d better try.” Jamse nodded his ascent, spat once to clear the taste from his mouth, and followed his friend towards the emergency locker which contained the pressure suits. Murph moved quickly across the cluttered room, a growing sense of unease speeding his actions. He passed the open tube shaft, and took stock of the badly dented storage locker. “Jamse, bring that pry-bar. I don’t know if I’m gonna be able to open it.” Jamse nodded, paused to retch once more, and then began making his way towards the locker. Murph could see that his friend was unsteady on his feet, and watched as he stopped by the open shaft in order to vomit once more.
Jamse wrapped his arms around his stomach, and puked a second time into the void of lift shaft. After this last time he seemed to feel slightly better, and pushed himself to his feet. “Man Murph, I’m not feelin so great; here catch.” He tossed the hand tool over to Murphy and pulled himself the rest of the way to his feet. Starting towards the locker, he paused briefly “hey, did you hear something?”
Murph grunted with exertion, and then fell back suddenly as the dented locker popped open with a screech of metal. “What’s that? I didn’t hear anything.”
“I swore I could hear something in the shaft. Maybe one of the other crews is just coming back…like we did” With hope in his voice, Jamse held his light out into the shaft, hoping to see the comforting sight of friends climbing to meet him. The sound of Jamse’s terrified scream whipped Murph’s head around to see what had happened. His friend had dropped his e-light into the shaft and was staggering backwards, hands raised as if to ward off an enemy. “The walls…the walls are crawling up to get us.”
Now Murph could hear the sound as well. An eery wail, and the sound of claws skittering across metal rose up out of the still open tube. Wasting no time, he sprung towards the door, “quick, help me close it. we have to seal it shut.” Drawing his hand cutter with one hand, Murph tried to push the sliding door shut with the other. He shouted, “I said get over hear and help me,” but it was no use. Jamse appeared to be in shock, and had fallen backwards into a still upright chair; he covered his face with his hands, and moaning with terror, he began rocking back and forth.
Bracing his shoulder against the door pannel,Murphy pushed as hard as he could, trying to close the door before whatever creature was making those sounds could climb to reach him. The door moved with agonizing slowness, but it was moving. When it got to within centimeters of being closed, Murph thumbed the switch of his hand torch, and twisted the dial to maximum. Normally, these small cutting units could adjust their beam length from 2-20 centimeters in length. For the thickness of this metal, the door would usually only require the minimum length, however Murph wasn’t taking any chances. Just as the door closed, he heard the slam of a body striking the opposite side, and could feel something pulling against him. Working as quickly as he could, Murph began trying to weld the door shut. He had an initial moment of panic, as the creature’s strength was enough for it to momentary overpower him. Against all his effort, the door began to slide open. A single bony claw, almost the same length as his cutting blade reached through the crack, and began lashing the inside of the door, seek to tear him apart. It caught him briefly, and drew a ling of blood across his arm and shoulder before he could redirect his cutter. However a quick twist of his wrist, and the thing screamed in pain, and its claw retracted back into the shaft. Murph forced his body weight against the door, and it slid shut again with a slam. He wasted no time in running the cutter across the door creating temporary welds, which he proceed to strengthen thoroughly. Only once the door was as solid as he could make it did he turn back to Jamse.
The man had not moved from the chair, and was still rocking back and forth holding his head in his hands. Murph began making calming noises, and started to cross the room towards his friend. “It’s ok man, I closed the door so we’re safe for now. Lets get our suits and get out of here.”
Jamse looked up, a twisted expression of horror and pain on his face. In his hands he held large bloody clumps of hair. “We’ll never get out of here, we’re all going to die!” He screamed an inhuman scream, and lunged towards Murph.
Without even meaning to, Murph fell backwards and thumbed the activation switch on his hand cutter. The 20 centimeter beam sprang to life only inches from Jamse’s chest, and the combined momentum of the two men drove it upwards and out through the top of the miner’s head. Cut almost in half, Jamse fell to the side and hit the ground beside the trembling Murphy. The laser cutter had cauterized as it cut, and despite the terrible injury, Jamse stretched a hand towards his hand towards his old friend, and through his ruined face tried to speak “I’m sorry…I, I don’t want to….” His lifeless hand dropped onto Murphy’s chest, and a faint rattle escaped his chest.
Murph lay still for a moment, his heart beating like a jackhammer. After some time had passed, he moved the arm from his chest, climbed to his knees, and looked down at the ruined thing that used to be his friend. “I’m sorry as well. This wasn’t how you deserved to go.” Murph reached down to close Jamse’s one remaining eye. “Rest in peace my friend.” Rising to his feet, Murph returned to the emergency pressure suits, and saw that despite the requisite 4 suites, the locker only held 1 helmet.
As he finished the last of his suit checks, Murph heard a banging on the sealed tube door behind him. Ignoring it, he placed a chair on top of a desk in the center of the room. Climbing up, he grasped the bottom run of the retractable ladder, and pulled it down. Above him was a hatch to the roof of the Hab unit, and to a 2kilometer mine shaft which lead to open space. If he was lucky he could maneuver to the top without launching himself into space, and then reprogram the shaft locator beacon to broadcast some sort of distress signal. He didn’t know if he had the resources to survive until rescue, however the beacon was located inside a small surface dome which contained basic air and food rations for support staff on the surface during the initial or final phases of a mine. With luck and rationing, maybe he could last a week or two.
The odds weren’t in his favor, but the renewed banging on the door below him gave even slimmer odds. Murph whispered a prayer to whichever god might listen, and then opened the hatch and climbed onto the roof of the Hab Unit. Here, without grave plating, he would have to be careful. He cautiously turned, and applied his hand cutter to the hatch below him, and began welding it into place; no sense risking trouble.