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A short story by

Micky Neilson

It had taken Isaac several precious minutes to A) impress upon the Kel-Morians that Commander Rindge and the Dominion had actually left them all to be blown up, B) convince them that he himself had been left behind, C) convince them further that, yes, he really intended to save all their asses, and finally, D) come up with something resembling a plan as to how he might be able to do that.

The answer to the last problem, as it turned out, was the FAFNR. If there was one thing the Kel-Morians were known for, it was taking parts from seemingly incompatible objects and machines and cobbling together something functional, if not always completely reliable. The FAFNR was no exception. The acronym stood for Forward-Accelerating Fragmentation/Navigation Rover.

Not many of these contraptions were still in use on Chunk, and in fact this specific beast had been undergoing repairs for a busted seal to the cab. The seat and various other non-essentials were hastily ripped out to allow for Isaac's bulky suit, which Isaac wore not for ventilation in the pressurized core, but for gravity assistance.

The noise of the various motors would have been deafening if Isaac hadn't turned down the gain on his external pickups. The vehicle was being driven remotely as six laser drills disintegrated the solid rock before him and massive side intakes sucked up the debris and shot it out the rear. Normally the waste would have been relayed to a cumbersome bucket/conveyor system that would transport it back for disposal, but in this case there was no time, so the fragments were simply piled up behind the FAFNR as the vehicle bored deeper like some kind of great metal earthworm.

Isaac had synchronized his HUD's chronometer with the countdown timer. He glanced at it now.


He had been drilling for 13 minutes.

Deep Core 6, the deepest of the excavation levels, had been sealed up tighter than a Umojan airlock. Philbin Gonsales, the supervising engineer, had ordered all access points to be backfilled. In most cases this was standard practice, meant to reinforce the core's integrity. In this particular case, it was a method of safekeeping enough ordnance to level half of New Gettysburg.

While waiting for the FAFNR to be prepped, Isaac had learned a bit more about Philbin and his cronies. There was a band of them, a tight-knit group of workers who had grown disgruntled with the meager pay and long hours of their jobs. Their grievances dated back several years, and their puppet master, the man behind what was now the Players' Club, was named Trevor Joe Jacobs.

"Smokin' Joe" worked with the mining crew on its last assignment six years ago, a relatively cushy gig on a temperate planet called Boone. Jacobs had performed several jobs, including demolition and, for a time, extermination. Boone was crawling with large dog-sized insects called mine weevils. TJ had been known for wading into the deepest shafts alone, trying out all manner of poisons. When that had failed, Jacobs had resorted to donning a firebat suit and burning the critters to cinders.

Unfortunately, at that point "Smokin' Joe" had already contracted cancer from his own toxic concoctions. TJ was fired, and according to the KMs' accounts, he'd had to fight like mad to get any kind of medical compensation from the mining guild, which argued that his condition was self-imposed.

It wasn't long after these events that Jacobs partnered with a band of thugs and formed the Players' Club, a pirate group bent on plundering any and all targets of opportunity.

Gonsales, Shoberg, and several others who had been friends with TJ all claimed to have severed ties with him once their outfit had moved to Chunk. Turned out that wasn't true.

The other miners had pieced together the rest, just as Isaac did while they told him the story: Gonsales and Jacobs had planned the attack together, and the ordnance was one last "fekk you" from the Players' Club, and from "Smokin' Joe" specifically, to the guild. He had fought obstinately against his cancer for years, but rumor had it that his time was just about up, and he had known it.

Once "Rosy-Cheeked Man" (whose name, Isaac learned, was Sammy) had gotten to this point in the story, it was finally time for Isaac to climb aboard the FAFNR. The KM engineers had plotted a course that would take Isaac through a backfilled crosscut. They estimated it would take 30 to 35 minutes to drill to the main haulageway of Deep Core 6, leaving Isaac 15 to 20 minutes to find and defuse the explosives. The trick, of course, was that no one knew exactly where Gonsales had stashed the ordnance.


So far, so good.

There was a loud click, followed by all six lasers shutting off and the motors winding down, and then darkness. The FAFNR came to a complete stop.

"Sammy, what's the defect?"

Isaac waited. No answer.

This was about the time any normal man would have been crapping plascrete and crying for his mommy.

Stay cool, Isaac. Stay cool. Solid as a rock, baby.

Sammy came on a few seconds later. "Uh... we got us a backup power failure. Whole system's shut down. We gotta reroute."

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