How long had he been down here? The earthy smell of the dirt was like second nature. On the rare days when the wind picked up, he could almost smell the trees. The smell was foreign. He used to love the smell. Now he hated it. It reminded him of the warmth and light of the sun. He shielded his eyes at the thought. How long had it been? He could still see the etching in the sky, but he couldn’t remember how it moved. Was it always there? How did they live above with the constant bother?
Shards of dirt fell near his feet. His feet were grotesque and the wrong color. When had they changed? He couldn’t remember. It had happened so fast. It had been too long ago. His clawed fingers poked and prodded, picking through the dry crumbles along the ground. Something small and warm wiggled free. He skewered it. It made no sound. Did all things die so quietly? More dirt fell. Footsteps thudded above him. Another alien smell wafted through his nostrils. His claws guided the struggling thing to his mouth. He opened wide, exposing sharp teeth before slicing the thing in half. It tasted like nothing. He remembered sweet tastes and sour taste. This tasted like neither. He swallowed the two halves down into his stomach. It growled. Or was that him?
A shower of dirt fell again. What were they doing above him? His eyes scanned the enclosure. It was dark, but he could see everything. They had been there for a while. He wasn’t sure what they were doing. He wasn’t sure what they were. Something that lived with the sun. He shuddered to think of the wicked creatures. Dirt hit him in his eye. It stung. He blinked to clear the abrasive substance. Did they not know he lay down below? His hands picked another thing from the growing pile below him. His hand was also the wrong color. The wrong color for what, though? He knew it was different before. It had been smaller. The worm tasted the same. It was larger, but he still took the two halves in a lazy gulp.
He moved away from the cascade. Three sections of what he called home had previously collapsed. He wasn’t sure when. He couldn’t keep track of something so small. He didn’t know days. He slept when he tired and woke when he wasn’t. He ate when he was hungry. It was a simple life. His mind tingled when he tried to remember what it had been before. There was a time when he could fly. Not with his own body, but somehow, he flew. It was too hard to remember that now. He touched his belly. It was hard. A memory of the smaller things he had seen in the dirt came to him. Did he used to call them something? He was sure they had a name. The tunnel collapsed. His head swam from the impact. What was going on?
“General Graman, sir.”
The General turned from his thoughts. Beside him Scriber Lintel busied himself with work only he knew. Everyone around the place new him better as Paper, which was a play on archaic forms of scribing. No one had used trees for paper in over a hundred years. With such an uninspired crew, Neil Thompson found it surprising anyone even remembered the process.
“Sir, it is urgent that we discuss a certain matter.”
The General held aloft his index finger. A tiny signal, but easily picked up by Paper who was intoned to such displays. The specialized VenoPen halted in mid-stroke. A pad with the capabilities to send notes over thousands of light years balanced on Paper’s open palm.
There were things beyond Neil’s paygrade and the thought of how that thing worked was one of them. All he knew for sure was that Paper transcribed each day on Vobis and sent back home to Earth. What they did with the information or why they cared could stay their problem.
The General eyed Neil, deciding if he wanted to have this conversation. What he saw was a head of dirty brown hair that was uncombed. Neil hadn’t cut his hair in over six months. He barely bothered with it at all. Keeping it dirt free was enough of a task.
“Report,” said the General.
Neil looked around. People filled every inch of the communal area. They all pretended complete interest in their daily chores, but Neil could see the shift in their eyes as he spoke.
“If I could request a walk, sir?”
The General sighed. Lintel placed his pen in the side holder of the VenoPad. The General didn’t miss this action.
“No, Lintel, walk behind. I must finish the notes.”
Lintel nodded, and Neil fell into a slow stride beside them both. The General rattled off a set of issues while holding a finger for Neil to wait his turn.
“Six trapped in section 4, have a team of rescue workers trying to extract them now. The air vents are clear and should provide clean oxygen for at least three days. Hope to have them safely in their bunks far before that time.”
The VenoPen glided over the device. It made absolutely no sound. The light sent by the pen evaporated into the screen.
“No reports of Richard Clarkson, head biologist. Have continued to receive reports from Jennifer Daily in biology.”
Neil knew Jennifer. She was a middle-aged ecologist. She had long, wavy brown hair. Brown eyes with a hint of green in the middle. She was everything Neil loved about women-which is why he married someone exactly like her back home on Earth, but that was over seventy-five light years away. Here, all he had to look forward to daily was Jennifer Daily. He shook his head. He had a wife and an unborn child. Well, unborn when he had left. He supposed it was more likely a year old now. Aside from that, Jennifer also had a husband and two kids.
“There seems to be no hostile life upon the planet. As has been the case for the past two months. We have witnessed nothing larger than a small dog. The creature is strange to look at, but it remains docile.”
The General talked about what the men called snuffles. A small red and brown scaled lizard-like creature. There were thousands of them upon the surface of the planet. Though only the exploring team went above ground anymore. The mining team hollowed out over a hundred feet of tunnels and paths within the first month. The issued machines were amazing. They cut through dirt and rock like melted butter. Now, the grates of the metal pathways echoed beneath his army-issued boots.
Neil tried not to show the boredom on his face, but he guessed he had failed in the attempt. General Garman looked at him with saggy, tired eyes.
“Is this report not important enough for you, Neil?”
Neil tried to feign surprise. He failed at this as well.
“Oh no, sir. I am sure it is of grave importance. It’s just, I don’t quite care about the knowledge I already have attained.”
The General smirked. “I forget sometimes how forward you miners can be. Shoot your report, Neil. Lintel do not transcribe unless I order it.” The pen halted. Lintel’s red-faced betrayed his embarrassment. “I suppose you already wrote those words?” The nod was slow. “Great, now when the call comes from home you can answer.” Lintel looked down at his feet. The General knew full well Lintel could not access the direct line, and Neil doubted they would waste the time for such a trivial thing anyhow. “Well, Neil? I don’t have all day.”
Neil snapped from his daydreaming.
“Yes, sorry, sir. I have been down in the mining pits all day today, with the men. We have heard strange noises from the old corridors. The ones we blocked off over a month ago. Men say it sounds like a man on the growler.”
The General held up his hand. “Just what is a growler?”
Neil should have remembered the correct term. It became a habit to use the talk of his men. “The latrine, sir.”
The General shook his head. “Very well, carry on.”
Neil tucked the lesson of words into his memory bank. “Sir, what I mean is, it is loud, and grunts have been echoing through the dark. Also, on another note, we have found droppings of something larger than the lizard-like creatures. My men have claimed to not make them. I suggest having Miss. Daily have a look.”
The General bit the inside of his cheek. Neil waited for a reply. “Yes, I suppose she should.” The General turned to Paper. The man lifted his eyes and stood straight, ready for his orders. It was sad to see.
Lintel James Monroe was a man with a dream. At twenty-three, they offered him hyper travel. He accepted without knowledge of his duties. His days as a space explorer were short dreamed, now he was unnoticeable without his VenoPad.
“Lintel, I want you to find Miss. Daily and notify her to report to Neil at the mining pits. Tell her this could be crucial. So, I appreciate her every effort to comply hastily.”
Jennifer had a habit of waiting until the last minute for things. She had never wanted to get aboard the flight, Sk1001:, it was her debt that decided for her. Lintel’s hand flew to his chest. The correct salute for acknowledgment of the task; the General turned to Neil.
“Anything else?” Neil shook his head. “Then I shall return to my duties.”
Neil nodded. He had not saluted. He wasn’t a soldier. He was a miner.