Big Alice was always hungry.
And with her skilled hands on the controls it was Stephanie "Roulette" MacBaren's job to keep the big bitch fed.
Following a path laid down by two seasons of steady work, Rue guided the insanely massive paddle wheel excavator on its way up and over a lobate scarp that made the big machine work for its meal. The slow turning blades in the front -- each "tooth" carving out a three-ton scoop of powdery silica regolith and tossing it into the hopper as they rotated -- dug the offending hillock down another ten feet as they and the treads dragged "Big Alice" up the stony face and over. With a jar, the massive machine settled back onto the more leveled ground and moved forward more easily.
Eating more and more of the surface of Mercury as it went.
The speaker above her head crackled and squawked. ~"Roulette?"~
Grabbing down the mic, Rue put it close to he lips and pressed the side button. "Yeah, Minnow, what the hell do you need now?"
~"What the fuck was that?"~ A sound like metal on metal clattered through the speaker.~"You just jarred all the tools out my toolbox down here! I'm trying to rebuild chiller three and now I've got parts and spanners scattered all to hell and gone."~
"Sorry about that. Alice just took another bite out Hill-167424." Another shuddered quaked through the excavator, but then it leveled and rumbled forward at its normal steady pace. "It's all flatlands for the 20 hours, give or take."
~"Rodger that. Just no more wheelies, how about it?"~
Rue laughed at the idea of a 65ton -- Mercury-weight, at that -- excavator managing a "wheelie" in any fashion. Hanging up the mic, she checked her rear cameras. Hill-167424 wasn't even half the mountain it had been, to begin with, but the monitors showed the trailing ass of "Big Alice" crawling caterpillar-like over the smaller bump. A hod-tender robot peeled away from its flanks and scooped up the compacted "shit-brick" of Mercury ore that Alice had dropped in its wake and darted away at speeds the big crawler could only envy. Roulette absently watched it go, a grin at the cha-ching sound of credits in her pocket it represented.
The spidery hod-tender vanished out of sight, racing to meet up with the mag-lev train that would ferry the block of ore -- and five thousand of its rocky brothers -- up the cable line and into orbit.
Check the radar, Rue saw that the two excavators on her flanks -- Charley Bucket and Black Betty -- were struggling to keep within a mile of the faster A-Rig. Fat Mabel and Dopey were all but lost off the screen. With a smile, Roulette picked up her cup and took a sip of tepid coffee.
Leaving the controls, Rue took the offending cup to the battered auto-chef and got a refill. The scorching hot brew was just what she needed given all the easy driving coming up. Looking out the windows at Mercury passing by had lost its appeal after the first year, but the surface of dead scorched Mercury at night was all there was to look at.
Well, she could check the news, but that was about a stale and boring as a radiation-blasted hunk of rock.
~ "B-Rig actual, calling A-Rig. You got your ears on up there?"~
Going back to her command chair, Rue dropped down and grabbed up the mic. "Yeah, talk back at me B-Rig. How the Dust?"
~"Yeah, yeah, laugh it up. Look I've got Black Betty pegged out to the red line. How about slowing that behemoth-mother down a peg?"~
Rue grinned and nudged Big Alice's speed another notch forward. "Worried I'll leave you for the scorch?"
~"No. Worried you will drink all the gin at base-camp before I get there."~
Roulette settled back and watched the monitors. She pulled up the magnification on the high gain and zeroed in on Black Betty. The sun-scorched excavator an inky shadow in the trailing dust cloud that A-Rig was spitting out. Her pilot, Wayne Gunn, would be cursing her name and calling A-Rig names all shift given the dust he was having to drive through.
She cued the mic "Now, you know I'm more of rum girl, B-Rig."
~"HA! Yeah, like we've got rum. Let me tell you--"~
A loud squeal-squawk cut through whatever it was he had been about to say.
~"Cut the chatter. Keep the channel cleared for emergency communications only."~ A warning light lit up on the dash of Big Alice's control board, next to her speed indicator. ~"A-Rig, dress the line."~
Rue snarled at the officer-in-charge. "Suck the piss stains out my panties, you fucking station-hugging prick." Taking a slow sip of her coffee she picked up the mic. "Rodger that, Base. Was only gunning it to get over Hill-167424. Idling back to standard."
That he didn't answer her back showed her the contempt her boss felt for her and all the other excavator drivers in a way that nothing else could have. Roulette, returning that contempt with gusto, eased A-Rig down to a lower speed and eased back on the speed of the massive cutting wheel.
Cuing the mic for inner-rig communications only, Roulette pressed the side button. "Yeah, Minnow, what now?"
~"I heard a change in engine pitch, we slowing down?"~
The excavator's chief mechanic had a twin to all of her control panels down there with him but apparently, he found it easier to bug her that to check his own instruments. With a sigh, she picked back up her coffee and sipped it.
"Yeah, Minnow, we're doing snail speed. Top, upstairs, didn't like that we weren't in a nice even line with the others."
A squelch of the mic hid part of a cuss word. "--ck that prick! What's the point of having the biggest and fastest ore rig on all of Mercury if he has to toddle along with the others?"
Rue nodded her agreement but didn't give it voice.
Minnow wasn't so ready to let it go. ~"I want it in a report that I have protested. I'm telling you if I have to keep Alice geared down to the point Dopey can keep up, it will take years off the life of this engine."~
"So noted, Minnow. So noted."
Sitting back, the auto-guidance system doing the driving. Rue propped her leg over the arm of her chair and tried to relax. It was going to be a long ass shift. She idly looked up at the blackness of Mercury night. For a second she wished that she could again feel the warmth of the sun on her face but then the realities of where she was intruded. Far overhead the silvery band of the orbital ring glittered for a second. She half imagined she could see the ore barges coming in to gather the shit-bricks that Alice and her dozen excavator sisters where spitting out from their metal asses. She could picture the mag-lev train as it rolled over to the top of the orbital ring and launched its rocky cargo into waiting orbit. The grabbers where there, Rue could see them, silvery sparks like shooting stars in the black night, darting around and around the heaves ... picking up excavator shit-bricks.
As the hours passed like molasses, and Big Alice crawled her way forward at her blistering pace of 6.7 mph, Rue thought of many things. Of mice and string and pocket jet wings, but most of all she thought about how much her ass hurt from the cheap padding in the lousy chair. Again she promised herself to bring a cushion from her day cabin at base-camp the next time she drove. But, even as she made the promise she secretly knew she would forget. When she wasn't at the controls of Big Alice she wasn't the same person. And that person didn't think about a thing that the driver of the excavator had to concern herself with.
Only coffee and the ever-present, but unpredictable, bitching of Minnow kept Rue awake as the low rumble of Alice's cutting wheel and the darkness of Mercury night clung to her.
** ** ** ** ** ** **
Since crawling over the top of Hill-167424 Big Alice had silently rumbled its way across the face of Mercury hundreds of fused together bricks had been "shit" from the rear of the excavator to be gathered and taken to the mag trail.
It was a simple job to drive an excavator. Oh, how often Rue had heard that statement when she off shift. Upon the stations in orbit, or deep underground back at base camp. Everyone said it was a simple job. Hell, unless there was a problem all you had to do was sit there.
Roulette wanted so badly to make one of those vacuum-sucking pricks sit their buts in a continually rumbling seat for a full twenty four hour shift. To try and stay awake, knowing that if sleep took you and anything went wrong ... anything at all, that death would come quickly. And not just for the pilot, but for the whole four-man crew and for possibly the rig itself. In the first years here on Mercury, there had been a few smaller rigs lost. Somewhere up at one of the poles, there was said to be a plaque that there contained the names of all the lives that had been lost.
Hell, even Black Betty had come close to being destroyed. Her blistered-to-the-steel paint still showed the fury of the morning sun here on Mercury. A sunrise that was always only a dozen hours behind the slowest rig. An eight hundred degree monster of flame and smoke, which would burn a rig down to bare metal, melting every component not made of steel. And certainly devouring something as delicate as human flesh.
And as the rear camera showed the next season relief crew landing on the platform at the rear of Alice, Roulette certainly felt incredibly delicate. The small gas thrusters oscillated the tiny craft till it contacted the surface and the magnetic clamps grabbed hold of its metal feet. Metal legs lowered and the hatches meet and merged into one seemingly seamless airlock.
Standing up, Rue gave the monitor one last look then began to gather her stuff. She was shrugging on her worn jackets, stuffing the last of her crap away in its pockets when behind her the door into the control room opened.
"Why does it always smell like sweaty pussy in here?"
Shaking her head, Rue tossed her bag's strap over her shoulder."Didn't smell that way till you got here. Must be coming from you, Spanks."
The pilot dropped his bag by the pilot's chair, looked over the monitor then back at her. "Nope, not me. I'm sure it's you. Poor loner Rue, sitting up here all by herself with her cunny rumbling against that leather seat. Come on, be honest. How many times did you rub one out this shift?"
"You and your perverted mind, Spanks." Rue settled her bag into the crook of her shoulder. "Alice is running smooth. Nothing to report."
Spanks took off his coat and draped it over the back of the pilot's chair. "Same as always, huh? Gotta love A-Rig. It's a shit storm up topside. I would stay at base-camp and sweat it out if I was you."
Rue stopped halfway to the door. "Why, what's up topside?"
"Some company bigwig coming to do an 'inspect and fire' from what I heard."
"Oh, just what I fucking need." Roulette wanted to spit. "I spent last break stuck at base camp, I be damned if I had planned to spend this one doing the same crap!"
Spanks shrugged. "Honestly a day in the "hole" beats a pink slip any day. But it's your choice." The pilot hopped into the seat with an energy Rue couldn't have matched after a day sitting in it. "Oh, the seat is still warm from your ass. You didn't leave used makeup sponges and dirty tampons all over the bunk room did you?"
"Hey, come on Roulette, someone's got to keep you straight. Otherwise, you would end up being some messy haired, grungy smelling, bitch with no prospects to ever catch a man." Spanks looked back over at me, grinning. "I see it as my duty to the male species to make sure a looker like you doesn't end up an old maid or a lesbian."
Flipping him a bird, Roulette turned to leave.
"In your dreams, sweet ass."
Rolling her eyes, Roulette left the con room and walked down the pipe-lined, smoky and dust-filled passages to the back of the massive excavator. She saw Minnow step out the bunkhouse with his ratty old duffle bag over his shoulder. Old Frank, the second mechanic was right behind him. Rue waved but ignored the conversation they were having, not wanting to get sucked into it. It was about the rig and at the moment the quicker she could get away from Big Alice the better.
Not that the hopper could take off before the whole crew was aboard. Still, she had spent far too many days trapped on this rig, doing twenty-four hour on, twenty-four hour off shifts with her crew.
Listening to these two talk about the rig.
Ahead of her, she saw Big Alice's second pilot among her own crew. Jack'o Brian was an asshole, but she had to put up with him. He shared her bed in the bunkhouse after all. Not that he ever got to do more than smell her sweat on a pillow. Truthfully they only ever interacted for a few minutes out of every day as they changed over control.
Crawling into the airlock it cycled with its normal whoosh of air. When she stepped into the hopper she saw that Jack'o had already taken the pilot's chair, per normal given, that she had done the last shift with Alice. He smelled of sleep and coffee. Rue knew that she smelled of tension, anxiety, sweat, and exhaustion.
"Rough shift?" he asked when she secured her bag and bonelessly collapsed into the seat next to him.
"Same shift, same shit."
Jack'o nodded understanding. It was the monotony that made the job a bitch. Behind them, the other three crewmen piled into the ship.
"What's keeping us?" Minnow pushed at the back of Jack'o chair. "I've got some serious need for time on something that does-not-move to get caught up on. Move this heap's ass."
"Si lets go please." Hondo's polite rumble was gravel and steel. "My familia are waiting."
Rue looked back at the big Latino laborer. The man responsible for every small detail on the rig -- who unlike the rest of them was always on call -- he was as filthy as anything living could ever become and not die. His normal brown-ish skin tone a regolith black everywhere except around his mouth. The outline formed by a respirator a shocking contrast.
"What the hell have you been up to, Hondo?"
It was Old Frank that answered.
"We popped a hatch rivet down in Conveyor Twelve. Flooded the crawl way with about two tons of dust before we found it." He nodded at her raised eyebrow. "We fixed it."
"Why didn't you let me know?" she asked.
"It was a rivet. We pop a dozen of those a shift, sometimes." Old Frank shrugged and Minnow nodded agreement. "It's just standard Op to fix them and move on."
Jack'o Brian shook his head. "Let us know, guys. We're supposed to add stuff like that to our daily reports."
Minnow chuckled. "You really think anyone ever reads those reports?"
Big Alice's other pilot slung around in his chair. He silenced the humor with a look, something that Rue envied.
"It covers all of our asses! Whether they read it or not doesn't fucking matter." Jack'o pointed a finger at Old Frank. "If anything should break back there behind us, and it be something vital that Roulette and I didn't report had been previously damaged ... the hammer will fall. Let me tell you two fuckers, I'm not taking the chop for you. It's all on you and Minnow. Top will eat your asses with pepper and bacon."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah." Minnow made a rude noise. "Like any of those fuckers would dirty their hands to come down here to check why something broke."
"Look you grungy fuck--" Jack'o began, turning even more around till he was half out of his seat. Minnow was starting to stand. Rue called them to stop.
"Guys, knock it off! Settle the fuck down. It's been a long shift and I'll kick all of your asses if you get us down-checked for our off planet leave for fighting. Let's get to base, get cleaned up and get some real food and rest. Then if you two jackasses still want to duke it out, put on gloves and knock each other silly." Rue pointed a finger at the two mechanics. "Report what you repair. Even if it's something small report it." She turned back to her fellow pilot. "Lift or I'll fly us, and I make no promises about not falling asleep halfway there."
"Si, please let's go."
It might have been Hondo that stopped the argument before it became a "fight-fight," or maybe it was Roulette herself. Maybe it was simply the fact everyone was too exhausted to really fight. Jack'o placed his hands on the controllers, keyed the mic and told Base Camp Two to expect us, and launched the little hopper off the back of Big Alice. As they lifted clear, Rue leaned her head on the view port and watched the big excavator till Jack'o turned the ship and headed towards the rising sun.
Behind them, the massive rig gnawed away more of Mercury's surface, seemingly uncaring that its pilots for the last season had left it in other hands.
Big Alice simply ate. She was always hungry.
** ** ** ** ** ** **
The flight from Big Alice to Base Camp Number Two was fairly short but, for Rue, it was too long. About halfway there her eyes grew heavy and -- by the time the landing struts touched down -- she was fully asleep.
The stone-topped landing platform descended slowly on its hydraulic pistons lowering the hopper deeper and deeper under the radiation-blasted surface and into the shadowy bowels of Mercury. Roulette missed seeing the largely fading numbers some early dweller here at Base Camp Number Two decided was needed to let his fellow miners know just how deep they were underground. Or more likely, some vacuum-sucking ass up top side sent down an order to paint a huge number on the side of a stone shaft, which had been bored into the Mercury crust by a drill bit the size of a skyscraper's foundation.
The sudden jolt when the platform touched bottom shook Rue awake. With a start, she blinked her way into consciousness and tried to hide that she had been asleep from people that had been listening to her snore for the last thirty minutes. Undoing the harness straps she stood with a groan and moved to the webbing to dig her bag from among the grape-like cluster of similar bags.
"Oh, man I am so ready for this time off." Minnow stretched his full height, fingertips trying to touch the ceiling but missing it by inches. "There is some topside pussy with my name on it just waiting, for Mr. Moneybags Minnow to appear."
"Roulette you going topside?" Jack'o asked as he unhooked his bag from beside hers. "I heard they got some new man-meat for you ladies to gnaw on."
"Nope, I have no need to blow eighty-eight days worth of hard work in a few weeks of drinking and fucking company hookers. Y'all dumb fuckers go right ahead with that shit."
Old man Frank laughed. "Another lost soul thinking she's going to save her money up and get out of this life one day, huh?"
Roulette gave the grizzled veteran miner a look. "I've heard of worse plans."
"Oh, yeah it sounds great and all, but something will come up and take it all away." He cackled. "Something always comes up, the Company works it that way. You think Queen Space Industries gotten as big as it did by Caesar Queen letting trained workers retire?"
Jack'o rolled his eyes cutting a look at Rue "Oh, please don't get Frank started. Please, please no more Queen Industries conspiracies."
Minnow was laughing and Old Franks was giving his shift's pilot a snarky look. "You'll find out, youngster. You will find out. I'll probably just be a bunch of bones by then, but you'll see the shit I've seen for yourself, and then you'll think back to Old Frank trying to warn your dumb young ass."
"Yeah, sure Frank." The airlock opened and the smell of the base camp flooded the hopper. "I'll be all contrite, and sing your praises, and drink a drink to your memory. I'll tell everyone it was you that told me the company I work for causes small accidents to make it's workers miss work, lose their seniority, and have to force them to pay for their hospital stay so to use up their savings All, so they can't retire."