Illustrated by Jim Garrison
 
 

Darkness entombed the mining camp perched at the end of a kilometer-deep shaft in the lifeless but metal-rich surface of Mercury. The sharp pinpricks of a handful of distant stars penetrated far enough to be seen as the miners prepared their mechanical borer.

It resembled a giant, sharp-nosed animal resting on its haunches as the engineers adjusted the guidance vanes to the proper angle.

After making the final adjustments the engineering team retreated to the cover of their polymer workshed and the two-man crew climbed into the cockpit. A series of growls and whines emerged as its engines came online, capped by the roar as the massive boring tip came to life.

The vehicle crept forward. The tip bit into rock with a piercing squeal. Millimeter by millimeter the borer advanced. The crew adjusted air-conditioning and noise-deadening systems while monitoring their progress.

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Moments later a section of the ground collapsed as the tip broke into open space. The heavily shielded cabin shrugged off the debris with no damage, and the crew immediately brought the borer to a full stop. They had expected to reach the cavern quickly; ground-penetrating iradar had made them aware of its presence but couldn't tell them what they would find inside. The beams of their spotlights knifed across the cavern to the far wall, several hundred meters distant. Embedded in the rock were dark patches they originally took for tunnels or caves in the wall. Then they noticed those patches refracted the beams of their lights in odd ways, sending rainbows cascading across the walls.

Surprised by the unexpected light show, both the crew in the borer and the engineers watching remotely focused in on the weird anomalies in the walls. They scarcely noticed when the light seemed to bend and curl in on itself, then coalesce strangely and begin to move about, as though directed with a will of their own. Within seconds the cavern was filled with dozens of glowing shapes, flitting about like insects obeying incomprehensibly ancient instincts.

One hit the borer and a shower of sparks exploded outward.

The borer was insulated against all the hazards its designers had

 

foreseen--it was impervious to cave-ins, gas explosions, electrical discharges, even boiling lava. But the designers hadn't foreseen anything like this.

Overloaded circuits tripped their breakers, then exploded. Glass and plastic components shattered. Wires turned molten and burning insulation filled the cabin with toxic fumes. Fire suppression systems kicked in, spewing foam over all flammable surfaces. Environmental controls began scrubbing the air, but the circuits which controlled them shorted out and they died after a few seconds.

The crew, buckled into padded couches, worked furiously at the controls, trying to regain control and manuver the borer back out of the cavern.

Outside, the growing swarm of nebulous forms seemed drawn to the activity. They skittered and swooped about approaching the borer's metallic skin then angling away at the last second. A few ventured too close and ricocheted off, sending blooms of sparks flowering throughout the darkness.

*****

Solar Ranger Abel Brundage towered over the other people in

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the control room of Caduceus Mining's orbiting command center. He was staring at a wall-sized holo projection of the amorphous creatures flittering out of mine shaft, like confetti buffeted in a strong wind, then disappearing in the distance or over the horizon. "We've been working various sections of Mercury for eight years and never seen anything like this. And we can find no record of anything similar in any records." Fillard Mora, regional manager of Caduceus Mining, stood next to the Ranger and pointed at the screen as he spoke. "They seem to be alive, although I suppose they could just be some sort of bizarre energy discharge "

Brundage spoke without taking his eyes off the display. "I've never seen or heard of anything like this, either. They look like burning embers being carried along on the solar wind. Amazing." Brottran Kra, a dour Martian exo-biologist with skin the color of an over-ripe tomato, snorted. "Except there is no oxygen for them to burn." He waggled his antennae thoughtfully and pursed the vertical slit of his mouth into a perfect circle, an attitude of great concentration. Brundage and Mora waited quietly.

Eventually, he spoke. "Well, we have no record of such beings, and since there is no obvious process producing their behavior,

 

we must assume they are alive. They will be classified as previously-unknown species. This area will be off limits to all development, starting immediately."

Mora shot the Martian a scathing look. "We'll be more than happy to leave them alone, once you tell me how I'm supposed to get our crew and our gear out of there!"

Kra glanced at him, then turned back to the projection. "That is not my concern, Earthman. Protecting these rare and delicate creatures, that is my concern--"

"There are four miners down there still alive, or they were at last radio contact!" Mora turned to the Ranger. "We can leave the equipment, let the insurance companies worry about that. But I've already had to contact one widow. I'll be damned if I'm leaving here without bringing those men out!"

Kra froze in surprise. "I was told nothing about the creatures being aggressive." Brundage stepped between the two.

"One of the men in the borer was killed when it went over the edge of a cavern. That's what the engineers down there relayed before their radio went out."

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Kra shrugged his bony shoulders. "Never will I understand why Terrans are so set on saving every individual of your species. You are how many billions now? Fifteen? Sixteen?"

Mora balled his fists; his face lost all color. He started to move toward the gaunt figure of the Martian, but Brundage cut him off with one hand on his shoulder.

"All the same, we're doing whatever it takes to get those men out, alien life forms or not." The Ranger spoke with a voice of absolute authority, the issue was beyond any discussion.

Kra shrugged again. "Very well, if you really feel you must."

*****

Resources were gathered: the cabin from a disassembled borer, miles of unbreakable duralloy cable, a team of Neptunian assembly techs, crateloads of insulating materials. Under Brundage's direction the borer cabin was converted into a rescue vehicle; all electrical system were removed, the only things remaining in the cabin were a manually-operated winch and seven heavily-insulated couches.

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While the technicians prepared the vehicle, Brundage adapted his pressure suit and explained his plan to Mora.

Mora, now frantic with worry, seemed unimpressed. "If you descend into the shaft with no electrical systems, how can you communicate with the survivors? How will you get them into the rescue vehicle?"

Brundage tried to calm the man. "Details will be worked out on the fly. We don't have time to wait."

"We have to take the time to figure out how we can safely--"

"You said yourself the survivor in the borer may not last much longer. And we don't know how much air the miners in tunnel have. I have to try."

"But you'll get trapped down there and become part of the problem!"

Brundage put down the low-conductivity gel he was applying to his pressure suit. "Risk is inherent in everything. It's my job to try. I've upgraded the transmitter on my suit radio and it is well-

 

protected from all exterior surfaces, so at worst we should have a line of communication. But I can't waste time fretting about what might go wrong."

Mora shook his head. "I still don't agree. I'm going to go ahead with plans for a full-scale rescue mission as soon as the engineers can develop a working plan."

Brundage nodded. "Excellent idea."

*****

The interior of the improvised rescue vehicle resembled a padded cell--white insulating foam covered every surface except the reclining couches (scavenged from various Caduceus craft) and the large, manual winch in the center of the cabin. Brundage strapped himself into the central couch, tested the amped up suit radio, then gave the thumbs-up to the crewman to close the hatch. Alone in the noiseless dark he waited for clearance from the stationmaster to begin winching himself downward from the orbital station.

Brundage cranked smoothly at the big winch, lowering the capsule into the minimal gravity of Mercury. Several times he

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heard the sharp, brief whine of energy discharge as flare beasts ricocheted off the outer hull.

It took three tries for the orbital station to align itself precisely enough for Brundage to get the rescue vehicle into the mining shaft. He winched himself downward until he felt the capsule stop with a solid thud. He radioed the station to confirm that he was safely down.

Brundage had no way of knowing where he was in relation to the shed. He opened the hatch a crack and looked out, trying to get his bearings, while keeping a wary eye out for the glowing shapes. He noticed that there seemed to be fewer of them here than at the upper end of the tunnel, and that several of them swooped below the level of his cabin. He feared for a moment his rescue vehicle was perched on a ledge only partway down. Then he felt several thumps on the floor of the cabin in a distinct rhythm. He smiled--he had lowered his rescue vehicle directly onto the roof of the shed! He had been worried about notifying the stranded miners of his presence, but the sound of his landing on their roof had taken care of that!

Timing his move carefully, Brundage crouched in the hatch, the jumped out into the darkness, pulling the hatch closed behind him. He turned and looked around, and confirmed that the rescue vehicle had

 

landed on the sloping dome of the workshed. The seam where the dome joined the corrugated walls was bowed outward, but seemed more than capable of supporting the weight of the capsule.

The airlock to the shed opened, and outlined against the dim light from its interior he could see a figure gesturing toward him. A wayward light creature plunged downward in his path. He did a quick roll to avoid being hit, bounced back to his feet and slipped through the lock.

After the airlock finished cycling, he stepped into the shed and popped his helmet. The air was breathable but reeked of machine oil and sweat. The miners--two humans and a squat, green-furred Jovian woman--clustered about, asking questions and chattering excitedly. Brundage answered what he could, then gestured for quiet while he radioed the orbiting station.

Brundage had no way of knowing where he was in relation to the shed. He opened the hatch a crack and looked out, trying to get his bearings, while keeping a wary eye out for the glowing shapes. He noticed that there seemed to be fewer of them here than at the upper end of the tunnel, and that several of them swooped below the level of his cabin. He feared for a moment his rescue vehicle was perched on a

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ledge only partway down. Then he felt several thumps on the floor of the cabin in a distinct rhythm. He smiled--he had lowered his rescue vehicle directly onto the roof of the shed! He had been worried about notifying the stranded miners of his presence, but the sound of his landing on their roof had taken care of that!

After the airlock finished cycling, he stepped into the shed and popped his helmet. The air was breathable but reeked of machine oil and sweat. The miners--two humans and a squat, green-furred Jovian woman--clustered about, asking questions and chattering excitedly. Brundage answered what he could, then gestured for quiet while he radioed the orbiting station.

Mora's voice came through the speaker in his collar clearly. "Great work, Ranger! Can you get them to your rescue vehicle and bring them up?"

"Yes," Brundage said. "As soon as we get the rest of the team."

Mora was silent a moment. "Is that smart, Ranger? Shouldn't we retrieve these three while we have them in hand?"

"No. The man in the borer is the one who can least afford to wait for help."

Mora's sign was loud enough to be picked up by the radio. "Well, go ahead, I guess. But if you can't get to the borer safely, don't try."

 

Brundage suppressed a grin. "Roger that." He broke the connection and plopped down at a workstation, weary from the physical exertion of the descent. "OK. Tell me about the location of the borer."

What they told him wasn't encouraging. The borer had opened a shaft at a fairly steep angle, then fallen between 10 and 20 meters--enough of a drop to provide a serious crash at the bottom even in the low gravity of Mercury. The co-pilot, a man named Slade, had apparently been killed by the impact. The pilot, a woman named Elanya, had survived and been in radio contact with the shed for several minutes after the crash.

Brundage did some quick calculations and decided it was likely that Elanya would still have breathable air in the pressurized cabin, if it had survived the fall intact. If not, she probably had time to seal her suit and use its air supply. So there was a good chance she was still alive.

The borer had a winch and cable on its aft end, designed specifically as an emergency retrieval system. "If the winch is still working, you could bring the cable up, anchor it, then bring the whole thing up at once," one of the miners offered.

Trakan-Nalj, the Jovian, shook her head thoughtfully. ""Might work, jah. If winch work, borer not trapped in rocks, fire bugs no hit again, and Elanya not stuck in position where moving borer kill her. Many 'if's. But might work."

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Brundage nodded. "Lots of ways it could go bad. But once you're all in the rescue vehicle I'll go down and see what can be done."

T-Nalj reached a massive hand up and rested it on Brundage's shoulder. "I tink I help you, maybe. I know borer, am strong. We make good team, you tink?"

The Solar Ranger looked into her large, ice-blue eyes. Normally he would keep the public out of harm's way--he was, after all, rescuing her! But her eyes showed determination and a sincere desire to help a comrade. Her familiarity with the borer might prove useful, not to mention her obvious physical strength. And he didn't have time to agonize over the decision.

"Will you do what I say immediately, and without question?"

"Jah, jah."

"OK. Make sure you have a full air tank and stay close."

It took nearly an hour of ducking and dodging to get the two miners into the rescue vehicle. One of them took a glancing hit from a flare beast and nearly toppled from the hatch, but Brundage and T-Nalj each got a hand on him and kept him upright until his partner could maneuver him inside.

They sealed the hatch and made sure their suit radios were working, then turned to the shaft opened by the borer. The

 

flare beasts were still rising from it, singly or in small groups. Brundage tried to visually isolate an underlying form, but staring at any one individual only made blank shapes swim before his eyes and exposed him to risk from the others. He gave it up as a task for a later time.

T-Nalj screwed an o-ring into the wall near the opening to the side shaft, secured a safety line to it, and directed the beam of her spotlight into the opening. Brundage crept to the edge, waited for the opportune moment, then dove. The tenuous gravity carried him through the few meters of the tunnel. His luck ran out as he exited into the cavern of the hive. A flare beast rounded the corner directly in his path. He jackknifed his body in a desperate attempt to miss it, to no avail. It hit him in the left thigh, just above his knee. A bolt of pain lanced through him. Garish pinwheels of light exploded in his eyes. He felt himself tumbling helplessly.

After what felt like hours of anguish he felt himself being pulled upright by strong, unseen hands.

"You OK, jah?" The voice came through his suit speaker along with a squeal of static.

He shook his head and blinked furiously, trying to clear his mind and his senses. "Yeah, T-Nalj, I'll be OK, I tink--uh, think." He realized he was sitting on a ledge, the enviropac on his back bumping occasionally against the rock wall. They were in the cavern, less than a meter below the point where the borer shaft entered.

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"Not so much fire bugs here, you catch breath, I watch."

Brundage's head cleared. He realized she was right; the flare beasts were still coming from the far wall, flittering about, and swooping up the shaft. But few of them ventured below that point. The Ranger filed that information for later consideration and turned to T-Nalj.

"Thanks, friend. I owe you one."

The Jovian shuffled her circular feet awkwardly. "Jah, is no ting. But look." She pointed downward, aiming her spotlight into the inky recesses. Brundage saw a tumble of fallen rock and, projecting from it, the aft end of the borer.

Thanks to Mercury's low gravity it took less than an hour for the pair to remove the debris which encumbered the borer.

The cabin was open. Elanya, unconscious but alive and clad in pressure suit, was inside the half-open airlock. It looked to Brundage like she had tried to dig her way to freedom and lost consciousness before she was made it. She appeared to be reasonably uninjured, although her breathing seemed raspy and uneven. Brundage replaced the air tank on her suit for a fresh one from his supply.

T-Nalj had entered the borer and extricated Slade's body. Her gauntleted hands cradled his helmetless head with great tenderness. Brundage turned away and began rigging a sling to minimize stress on Elanya's body as he carried her out.

 

When he turned back to T-Nalj, she was rigging Slade's body the same way for the trip back up.

The climb back up tot the ledge was arduous enough to justify their taking a short break before continuing. As they stood side-by-side, looking up, Brundage had an idea. "Have any more of those o-rings on you? And some duralloy cable?"

"Jah, standard gear, I have much."

"How about a cutting device of some sort?"

"A small laser torch, in my toolbelt, fully charged I tink. What you cut?"

"I think maybe what this place needs is a nice, solid, door."

T-Nalj volunteered to climb up an place the o-ring. She was perfectly at home moving along the rock walls of the cavern, supporting herself as much with her arms as her legs, and dodging the flare beast with quick scrambles to either side.

After she clambered back down to take care of the two miners, Brundage worked his way back down to the borer and lased off a large swath of its outer skin. The duralloy cable, looped through the o-ring and then tied to the makeshift "door" allowed them to pull it into place easily. The section of metal was not a tight fit for to the shaft entrance, being slightly concave. Brundage hoped it would deflect enough of the bizarre creatures to allow them to carry their human cargo back to safety.

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T-Nalj went first; she waited while Brundage pulled the door open, then adroitly maneuvered into the shaft. Then it was his turn to pick a moment and pull himself up as quickly as possible, taking care not to injure Elanya and not to drop the cable which controlled the door. He made it with seconds to spare, hearing a flare beast ricochet off the door just seconds after pulling it into place behind them.

T-Nalj was all the way back to the rescue vehicle by the time Brundage exited the shaft. She handed Slade to her crewmates inside, then turned back to make sure Brundage was behind her.

The Ranger had just cleared the edge of the shaft when he saw something flash at the edge of his peripheral vision and crouched as low as he could. The flare beast almost skittered past, but one appendage grazed his shoulder. He struggled to stay conscious, to maintain his grip on Elanya. Grimacing, he raised his head, saw T-Nalj moving toward him to help, saw the flare beast slam directly into the breastplate of her pressure suit then bounce up her shoulder toward the surface.

He sprang without thinking. Somehow had put Elanya down, for his hands were empty as he swooped up and caught the Jovian's bulky mass. His arms encircled her and Slade's body. The force of his leap pushed them back and away from the edge of the shaft. The bounced on the frigid stone of the floor and rolled to a stop in a jumble of limbs against the wall of the shed.

"T-Nalj! Are you OK, can you talk?" He heard nothing but static through his suit radio. He pushed his helmet next to hers, saw her

 

nodding and moving her lips inside the helmet. He pointed to his ears and shook his head. She nodded her understanding, then laboriously stood up picked up Slade's body, and headed to the rescue vehicle.

Brundage found Elanya huddled behind a rock to protect herself from any more stray creatures. She had regained consciousness when he dropped her, and had dragged herself to cover.

*****

They gave Slade a funeral with full honors, ejecting his pressure-suited body from the command center with enough velocity to escape Mercury's pull and be drawn inevitably into Sol. Mora, an ordained Minister in some obscure faith, said a brief prayer for his soul.

They were all silent as they turned away from the viewscreens and headed back toward the control room.

Mora, trying to change the mood, wondered aloud if they would ever discover the true nature of the flare beasts.

Brundage shrugged. "I have some thoughts on that, not they're necessarily very profound or anything."

Kra looked up, interested. "If you don't mind, your theories might be of interest to me."

"Well, Mercury has been under bombardment from the sun since it was formed, right?"

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"Sure," Mora said. "Bombarded with heat, and light."

"More than that," Kra interjected. "The charged particles of the solar wind. It may have even been touched by solar flares during more active periods of Sol's history."

Brundage nodded. "Right. And, maybe some of those particles were trapped during the planets formation, buried under massive heat and pressure, and somehow never lost their energy; it was embedded in the crystals that formed. That energy might account for the glow, and the massive shocks that shorted everything out."

Kra waved his antennae speculatively. "So, you think they are not alive, just an energy discharge phenomenon?"

Brundage shrugged. "It seems to make sense. I think there was something in that cavern that reacted when exposed to the atmosphere of Mercury, an atmosphere made up mostly of charged particles directly from the sun."

"And why do you think the atmosphere played a role in their activity?" Kra asked.

"It seemed like there were more of them at the top of the shaft then in the cavern, which makes me think they were being activated by, or reproducing because of, the atmosphere."

Kra nodded. "If I have my way we will someday know for sure. But, as a working hypothesis, based on limited information, I have heard worse."

 

T-Nalj, her left arm still in a sling from her encounter with the flare beast, nudged Brundage with an elbow. "Almost we got too much information on tose tings, I tink!"

The End


Fillo by Jim Garrison