The airlock opened with a rush of oven-hot wind. I donned my great-uncle’s fedora, the heirloom I had reinforced with Kevlar before my first off-world assignment, the most stylish hard-hat anywhere. It’s family tradition to wear it in the field, and frankly, I prefer to be known as the hat lady rather than the blonde.
I still felt like pulled taffy from the downshift to sub-light. The longer the trip, the harder the transition, and this was a grueling twenty-one days without stopping. An unhealthy amount of time to spend in FTL, but rest breaks were a luxury this mission couldn’t afford. It had taken that long for the SOS from the Trovidimar colony to arrive: Miners trapped by dragons. Send help.
Mine Superintendent Eddie Amato, a round-faced man with ruddy skin, was the only person waiting for us on the rig-top landing deck.
“Where is everybody?” Howie Blevins, Trovidimar Extractors’ Chief Operating Officer, was already angry. “You didn’t lose any more men, did you?”
“No, no, no.” Amato walked us to the elevator. “I got a crew trying to dig out the guys that’re trapped. The rest are surveying other sites in the range to relocate our operations.” He gestured to the volcanoes that defined the northern boundary of a desert three times the size of Earth’s Sahara. He looked from me to trauma physician Dr. Marcy Lavoie. “Which one of you’s the Exo?”
“I am,” I said. “Stephanie Vesuvian, Exozoologist and paleontologist.”
He frowned. “We’ll get you a hard-hat. A mine’s no place for fashion.”
“No need.” I tapped my fedora. “Brought my own.”
“Dr. Vesuvian studies those dracosaur fossils we sometimes find near the mines,” Blevins said. “The institute insisted she was the only one qualified to investigate your so-called dragons.”
Amato grimaced. “You’ll see. I’m not making this shit up.”
The four of us piled into a crawler waiting on the ground. The basin where the mining rig was parked had a pervasive sulfur smell that filtered through my particulate mask. Little eddies swirled on the surface, occasionally rising to dust devils that petered out on the slopes of the volcanoes.
“When are the survey crews expected back?” I asked. “I’ll need their full reports.”
“No way are we giving you access to that,” Blevins said. “If they find any more dragons, we’ll let you know.”
“Your call,” I said. “I can accept them for the institute, otherwise the daily fine accrues until you deliver them yourself.”
“For leaving the full site survey out of your application to establish the mine.”
“I wasn’t aware the survey was missing.” Blevins looked embarrassed. Of course he knew. No application went out without the Chief Operating Officer’s signature.
Amato seemed annoyed. “Not that it matters. You’ll sign off on the IDHL as soon as you see what they did.”
IDHL. Inherently Dangerous to Human Life. The rating that permitted extermination was the biggest controversy in Exozoology. I’m of the mind that humans should leave if the native species are hostile, an increasingly minority opinion where carbolodite mines were concerned.
“Tell me about these dragons,” I said to Amato. “How did they come into contact with your crew?”
He looked over at me, as if assessing the lines in my face. “Ever been in a carbolodite mine before?”
“I’ve been in a few.” In fact, I’d been in every mine within five FTL days of Earth, and another dozen beyond.
“Well,” Amato said, “then you know, we’re usually digging it out of rock or dirt, and sometimes it’s a little powdery when you pull out a chunk and break it up, but it doesn’t fall apart on its own. But this site, I’ve never seen anything like it. Carbolodite piled up in rocks we can pick up with our hands. And some of it’s soft, like clay—”
“She’s not here for the carbolodite,” Blevins interrupted. “Stick to the dragons.”
“But that’s the whole reason it happened,” Amato continued. “See, we’re trying to dig it out, but it keeps falling down on the crew. So we sent a couple of guys to climb up, knock it down in a controlled manner. Next thing you know, this, this thing comes down.” He extended his hands to demonstrate largeness. “It’s dark and scaly and sliding all over the place, making this god-awful sound like a shot dog. Then a bigger one comes out of I-don’t-know-where and divebombs my crew, the ones who’re trying to get the little one out of the bucket. Three men, up in flames, like that.” He snapped his fingers, a quiver of emotion in his voice. “It took out three more with its talons and another five with its wings. And then the damn thing actually tore a rock from the cave wall, blocked our entrance, and managed to smash the router for the security cams in the process. We got a dozen men trapped in a side cave with a narrow vent we’re using to pass food and medical supplies, but there isn’t enough room for us to blast a hole big enough to get them out.”
“Injured?” Dr. Lavoie asked.
“Nine, four in pretty bad shape.”
“And those who didn’t make it to the smaller cave?” she asked. “Any survivors?”
Amato shook his head. “If any were alive when that thing knocked over the pile of carbolodite, they’re gone now.”
“The dragons weren’t in there before you started?” I asked.
“I don’t know, exactly.” Amato’s face reddened. “We need to get the damn things out.”
Or they need to get you out, I thought. Excavating under a brood nest was the kind of infraction that put smaller companies out of business. If this deposit was as rich as the data suggested, Trovidimar might consider the fine an affordable cost of doing business.
Maryanne Knight’s short stories have been published or are forthcoming in the Santa Barbara Literary Journal, The Yard: Crime Blog, On the Run, and Grand Dame Literary Journal. Born in Brooklyn and raised in Vermont, she now lives and writes in Southern California. MaryanneKnight.com