Back in his habitation unit that evening, as he stared at the blaster sitting on his table, Nic considered the scale of the issue the fat bureaucrat had revealed to him, and he wondered how it could even be possible. The great General Novak, founder of The Company, had seen to it that children of all classes were conditioned from a young age to categorically believe the necessity of preserving order to ensure the survival of humanity. Yet, after nigh on a hundred years without even the slightest hint of rebellion, there were reports of mini-insurrections cropping up all over the lower levels. Over one hundred workers had already been fried, and the information gleaned from them didn’t exactly paint a coherent picture. ‘The beast with the fire in its eyes will make all men crumble before its might.’ This rather inelegant phrase, or other variations thereof, had been spoken by no fewer than thirty rebels in the past three days, as they begged for an end to the invasive mind probes of the truth chamber. No other details about where these strange notions came from were evident even after hours of inquisition. As he pondered the magnitude of the task ahead, he sank into his chair and fell into a deep dreamless sleep.
Nic woke in the morning still dressed in his beige officer’s uniform from the previous day. He stood in front of the mirror, carefully removed the badges and medals from his chest, and got changed into the dark green overalls of the Private class. The hardness of his face, and its lines, relics from his formative years in the darkness of the mines, were an asset when compared to the silky complexions of the higher classes.
The uniform brought back fond memories of his first promotion, when his immediate superior was killed in a mining accident. Nic took charge of the team and didn’t report the death until his team had met their targets for the day. His diligence did not go unnoticed, and his card was marked. Men and women who had risen through the ranks were not common among the population of the new free city of Hallogen. Intermingling of classes was strictly prohibited, and only a select few had any chance of changing their prescribed destiny. It was his unparalleled knowledge of life among the lower classes that had made him the perfect candidate for the task ahead.
Memories of his time as a young man swinging his pick into the mines’ sparse mineral deposits were as fresh today as when he was living that life. The black faces of comrades in arms, dripping with dirt and sweat, were happy in the knowledge that their labour and personal sacrifice would contribute to a better life for all decades, or even centuries, into the future. It was a glorious cause, and there was no member of society more revered in the conditioning program than the lowly pick-swinging Privates of The Company. No-one in those days even knew the meaning of the word rebellion, let alone would they consider it.
He carefully placed his new blaster inside its holster, hidden under his arm. The gift from above was a curious weapon. It emitted an energy pulse that could stun or kill depending on the setting, although this time he had been instructed to bring any suspects into the truth chamber for immediate debriefing and to have any information they held extracted, willingly or otherwise. The blaster had proved very useful back in section 72182, and he was sure he’d need it again.
The lift descended and Nic felt a tinge of apprehension as a harsh robotic voice announced their location.
‘Level Minus 188. Exit here for the Drilling Corps.’
Nic shuffled out of the elevator along with about thirty other privates and marched along the corridor to the registration room. He had his transfer papers in his hand and thrust them into the hands of the awaiting bureaucrat just inside the door.
‘Another replacement for work order reference 98392. That’s the fourth one today.’ The attendant muttered it to no-one in particular and looked up at Nic. ‘Head to the equipment room and follow the corridor to the very end. You’ll see where you have to go to reach the descent cars.’ Nic nodded, took two of the forms back, and made for the equipment room.
In the line for the journey down to that day’s work location, Nic closely observed the faces of the men and women around him, each with their pick in hand and visions of glory in their weary eyes.
‘They just transferred you over, did they mate? Not seen your mug round ‘ere before.’ The tone was friendly and came from behind him. Nic turned and saw the face of an old man, forty at least, with two decades of hard labour weaved into the lines of his face.
‘I got the papers yesterday’ said Nic ‘so now I’m here. I don’t ask no questions, just go where I’m sent. The General knows best. They’ve moved me three times this month!’
‘Bleedin’ heck! I’m hearing a lot o’ that these days. Privates ‘ere, privates there, privates fallin’ into the bleedin’ tunnel! Seems like new faces every day now.’ His enthusiasm was contagious, and another tired looking face chimed in behind him.
‘I’m hearin’ all sorts… apparently the bloody bureaucrats thinks we’ve lost our ways! Just as we’re close to finishin’ an’ all!’
‘How far are we now from the core?’ Nick asked as if he didn’t already know exactly the progress that had been made.
‘Just 500 miles to go and we’ll hit the outer crust. Let’s see if those blessed visitors above could do it without us!’ The second man exclaimed it with such pride as if he had dug the whole tunnel himself.
‘3,500 miles in just under four years. It ain’t half bad if I don’t say so myself! When we join them in the search, we’ll probably find them supreme, whatcha call ‘em? Bleedin’ God aliens or whatnot, in five minutes flat!’ The first man was beaming too, then he reached out an old callused hand and gave Nic a hardy pat on the back. ‘If we keep this up, we’ll all be off on our travels to find them marvelous alien chaps before the year is done!’
‘Here bloody here!’ Nic chimed in with the rest of the group as they all started to whoop and cheer at the thought. ‘To the General! The Company! And the greatest search the galaxy has ever known!’
‘What’s your name, friend?’ Nic said to the second man.
‘The name’s Charlie, and that’s Bagon.’ He pointed to the first man. ‘We both been living in section 98392 for 12 years now, and it’s always nice to meet a new face.’
‘I’m Jonson…’ said Nic, ‘…and I can’t wait to swing my pick beside such loyal comrades as yourselves.’ He followed them into the descent car and felt his stomach turn as the anti-grav thrusters propelled them towards the bowels of the earth.
Nic marveled through the window at the sight as they approached their destination. He was dazzled by lights covering the walls as they shimmered off the scaffolding and illuminated swarms of Privates, who, from a distance, looked like drone ants in a colony working hard for their queen. The mesmeric sight of picks glistening as they swung covered the walls as far as the eye could see. The diameter of the tunnel itself was a kilometer, and the opposite side was but a speck in the distance.
When he stepped out of the descent car, the deafening roar of construction and the sound of metal smashing through rock was everywhere. Drilling pods buzzed around the base of the tunnel smashing rocks into pieces and carrying waste to the extraction pipes leading to the dumping grounds above. The almighty din made it difficult for Nic to hear even the man standing beside him. He quickly put on his ear defenders and followed the other members of section 98392 to the rocky outcrop that would be their base for the next twelve hours.
Back at the surface that evening, the habitation unit in section 98392, home to around a hundred men and women, was crammed full of Privates queuing patiently for their evening meal. It was a slimy looking mess that consisted of what appeared to be rice swimming in a glutinous translucent liquid. Nic frowned as the automated server slopped it on his plate and a little spilled onto his sleeve;
‘Mmmm, looks delicious’ his apparent sarcasm drew an exuberant response from Bagon in front.
‘100% pure protein!’ Even a twelve-hour slog in the tunnel couldn’t dampen his spirits. ‘Everythin’ a workin’ Private needs!’ Nic hadn’t forgotten the tasteless rations that had once been his only source of nutrition. How he craved just a slice of bread and even perhaps some delicious beans to go on top of it. Being an Officer definitely had its perks;
‘Absolutely!’ Nic changed his attitude as he remembered his mission. ‘Let’s sit Bagon, you can fill me in on what’s what around here.’
‘Sure thing, Jonson.’ His beaming smile revealed a crooked set of teeth, mostly black. ‘I’ll tell you what mate, I ain’t never seen no newbie swing a pick like you before. Them visitors’ll be glad to have machines like you working for ‘em.’
‘The faster we dig; the sooner our journey can begin.’ That one was straight out of the manual. Bagon grinned and led the way to a table.
With nothing to report after a week, Nic started to wonder if it hadn’t all been an error. The bureaucrats whining voice crackled through his communicator more desperately with each passing day;
‘The General is not happy, Lieutenant …’
‘He needs these uprisings taken care of, Lieutenant…’
‘We’ve already fallen a month behind, Lieutenant…’
‘What if they might find their resources elsewhere, Lieutenant…’
Their last conversation had irked Nic somewhat, and brought an unwelcome question back to his mind.
‘Why the hell didn’t our supposed saviours, hovering in orbit for the last four years, just extract the resources themselves? Why did they even need us?’ He could feel a headache coming on and couldn’t wait to get away from the awful noise of the tunnel permanently. He remembered his place and blocked the idea from his mind. If the General wanted this taken care of, then Lieutenant Commander Nic Horshmire was the man for the job. Unfortunately for Nic though, there had not been even the slightest whiff of revolt in the short time he had spent in section 98392. Bagon, Charlie and company were all textbook Privates. Their enthusiasm and energies were all directed towards the goals of The Company. Dig, dig, dig. They ate together, slept together, and swung their picks together. Curiously, they made no mention of the previous weeks or the removal and reconditioning of 30 members of their habitation unit. It appeared they were all functioning normally within the parameters of their objectives. But it was toonormal. Nic couldn’t believe that even the most loyal Private would have nothing to say on such matters. Even if it were just fanatical obsequiousness to the cause. When Nic gently tried to direct conversations to whoever had been there before him, the rest of the Privates seemed to have no memory of them at all. Even the appearance of two armed guards in the mess hall doorway, dressed from their boots to their helmets in black and loaded with armour and weaponry, went completely unnoticed.
The evening after his eighth day in the tunnel, and while they were sitting down for their supper, Nic nodded towards the door as another new face entered the room. The woman was tall, slender, and her long red hair was tied back in a ponytail and trailed at the base of her spine. Nic thought it odd that she hadn’t removed her black goggles from the tunnel and watched as she made her way to the serving machines;
‘Who’s that?’ He asked Bagon, who was busy wolfing down his dinner. ‘Haven’t seen her before.’
‘No idea, mate. Looks like drillin’ crew wit’ them goggles.’ His reply was almost nonchalant. ‘Another new face, it seems.’ And he went back to shoveling his protein based slime into his mouth. Nic shrugged and went back to his dinner, but he kept watching the woman as she made her way to a table. He sensed something awry in her demeanor. There was something unusualabout her confident strut across the dining hall. He shifted uneasily in his seat, and opened his overalls slightly. He needed access to the blaster that was pressing into his underarm. He made sure he could reach it.
He watched as the woman glided across the hall, tray in hand, towards the table next to the doorway, but as she motioned to place the tray on the table, she drew it back and flung it like a frisbee into the throat of one the guards, severing his jugular and spraying blood everywhere like a broken tap sprays water. In a flash, she had bounded towards the other guard, and, with an almighty thwack, cracked him across the side of his helmet with her arm. Such was the force of the strike that his head went limp and his body slumped to the floor. Nick immediately went for his blaster, but he was startled by Bagon across the table, whose once friendly face bore a snarling rage as he leapt across the table, and managed to get him in a choke hold.
Pandemonium reigned across the hall as Privates turned on Privates, and once docile men and women turned into beasts who restrained anyone that tried to escape or stop them. The woman, who had managed to grab the guards’ assault blasters, one in each hand, had jumped up onto a table and was firing indiscriminately at anyone who looked like they were heading for the doors. Nic managed to loosen Bagon’s grip with a hard elbow to the gut, then he spun quickly and followed it with a forearm smash into Bagon’s nose that left him in a bloody, crumpled heap on the floor. Nic grabbed his blaster and turned, looking for a shot at the woman, only to inexplicably find her directly in front of him. He froze as he caught her gaze. She had removed her goggles to reveal eyes, the colour of which he had never seen. The mesmerizing shades of orange and yellow in her iris danced like flames that hypnotically licked the bottom of her eyelids. It was the last thing he remembered before the butt of the assault blaster crunched into his face and turned out his lights.