59. TROUBLE ON CH 4*

Who is stealing tools from the mine on Ch4?

The Troubleshooters guard it, so it shouldn’t happen again.

 

Tony and Bea go to Ch 4, where drills and shovels have been stolen from a deep mine. They visit the mine – and don’t like seeing how young the miners are. And what’s the mysterious message on the rock, deep in the mine?

 

1

“TROUBLE IN MINE.”

 

I faced the door. “Open.” It slid aside, and we went into the transporter, a metal room like a lift. “Close.” The door shut. “Operate.” I felt the twist in my guts, as the transporter took us to the planet Ch 4. The glow of the ceiling went out, leaving us in total darkness.

We switched on our helmet torches, making bright patches on the door. “Open.” It slid aside, and the beams disappeared into the darkness beyond.

The people on this planet didn’t need light. They sensed their surroundings like a bat, using ultrasonic rays.

Two of them appeared, out of the darkness. Guards, in black uniforms. Their bodies were the shape of cornflakes packets, with rounded corners. At each bottom corner was a stumpy leg. At each top corner was a long, bendy arm.

I spoke into my wrist unit. “Greetings. I’m Tony, and this is Bea. We’re Troubleshooters from the Galactic Federation. V-Y-K asked to see us.” (The people here couldn’t pronounce vowels. Their words, including names, are consonants, with kind-of breaths between.)

One guy swung his wrist unit to his mouth, in the top of his body. “Follow.”

As we followed, I looked around. This was a cave, deep underground, but it must be huge: my beam couldn’t see the wall or the ceiling.

The first thing we did see was a grey pipe, about as thick as my arm. The open end, level with my chest, faced the transporter. The rest curved down to the floor. The guard walked beside it.

Before long, we reached a long hut with no windows. The guard opened a door in one end, and stood aside for us to go through.

We went in – to a square room in the end of the hut. Another native was sitting behind a table, facing us. His black uniform had white edges. Behind him, the door to the rest of the hut was bolted. The guard shut the door behind us.

I said, “Greetings. Are you V-Y-K? I’m Tony, and this is Bea. We’re Troubleshooters from the Galactic Federation. You asked for help.”

“You are young.” That’s what they all say.

“We’ll do our best to help you. If you want an older agent, you may have to wait.” That’s what we always say.

“No more copper on Ch 3. Opened this mine on Ch 4. Ore to Ch 3.”

A few words at a time, he was going to take all day to explain, so I said, “Our leader gave us the background. Bea will tell you.”

The Bean squeaked, “Me?”

“Yeah,” I said. “You’re good at explaining.”

I thought she was going to argue, but she said to V-Y-K, “This planet, Ch 4, was once inhabited. You can still see the faint remains of cities on the surface. Nobody can live there now, because the air is poisoned by bacteria. Federation scientists suspect they were produced for warfare. Someone used them, or they escaped.”

The Bean stopped. V-Y-K didn’t speak. The Bean frowned at him, and went on, “Your people live on Ch 3. That planet never had much copper. It’s run out. The Federation gave you permission to open this mine on Ch 4.”

Again, V-Y-K didn’t speak.

I asked him, “What’s your problem?”

“Trouble in mine. Tools stolen. Equipment damaged.”

“Who goes into the mine?”

“Miners.”

“Only?”

“Yes.”

“Then they must be doing it.”

“Questioned. Not guilty.” I didn’t like the way he said that.

I said, “We’d better have a look at the mine.”

“Follow.” The guy led us out of the hut, and farther along by the pipe. It soon swung right, on the bank of a river.

I didn’t like the look of that river. It swirled along a channel, cut in the floor of the cave. It probably wasn’t too wide for me to jump, but I wouldn’t’ve fancied trying it. The water was so dark that I couldn’t see the bottom. The surface was smooth, except at one place, where masses of little bubbles hissed to the surface.

V-Y-K stopped. “Air.”

The Bean explained. “Our computer told us. You pump air from the surface, and bubble it through water, to remove the bacteria.”

V-Y-K moved on without speaking, but I glanced back at these bubbles. What would happen if a few of these bacteria escaped? In a day, we would die a painful death. Victor, the Federation computer, had assured us that so much fresh water would certainly catch all the bacteria, but….

After two or three minutes, the river went into a tunnel in the side of the cave. V-Y-K followed the pipe, which swung into a man-made tunnel nearby. It was high enough for him to walk upright, but I had to duck.

The tunnel ended in a square room, cut from the rock. The pipe snaked across the floor, and disappeared under a knee-high slot in the opposite wall. Three Federation scooters were parked on the floor.

Yes! Scooters are one-person hovercraft. They’d be much more fun than trudging through this mine on foot.

The usual Federation scooters are about a metre square, but these were longer and narrower. And the usual scooters have a seat facing a control stick, but these were low, with only the platform above the bank of jets, and a short column with a control unit.

V-Y-K told us, “Room 2.” He lay on one of the scooters, and gave an order. The scooter lifted to hover, then slid under the slot.

I grinned to the Bean. “This should be fun.”

“I’m glad you think so.” She didn’t look keen.

I lay on my front on a scooter – and saw the reason for the shape: it was designed to take a Ch 3 native. I eased as far forward as I could, but my feet hung off the end. When I lifted my head, the control unit was in front of my face. I ordered it to obey orders in Sol 3 English, then told it, “Room 2.” The scooter took off, and I felt the jets of air on my feet as it sailed smoothly to the slot.

I had to duck, to get under, and I looked sideways as the scooter took me through a tunnel. It swung uphill. I braced my fingers in the grid of the platform, but it wasn’t steep enough for me to slide off. I did feel the air from the jets, blasting against my toes.

Did I enjoy the trip? Y…yes. It was a thrill, but I couldn’t forget I was in a tiny slot, running through solid rock. I hoped the scooter wouldn’t break down: I didn’t fancy wriggling back through that tunnel.

The trip took longer than I expected – at least five minutes. I was starting to worry by the time the scooter stopped.

As the bank of jets switched off, and the scooter sank, I stood up – carefully – but the ceiling was (just) above my helmet.

I swung my beam around. This was a small square room, cut out of the rock. The slot was in the wall behind me. The other three walls had low slots all the way across, with only narrow posts in the corners.

After an age, the Bean’s scooter appeared. She stood, and looked around. “I didn’t really enjoy that.”

V-Y-K waved to the right. “Old. Done.” To the left. “New. Working.”

I waved a hand into the slot at the bottom of the wall. “Is this where you took out a layer of ore?”

“Yes.” He waited a moment, then asked, “On?”

I looked at the Bean, who answered, “Yes.”

“Room 4A.” He lay on his scooter, gave it the order, and disappeared, into the slot at the left, beside the pipe.

I grinned to the Bean. “Here we go again.”

“Yes.” She didn’t look keen. “You go first.”

“See you later.” I lay on my scooter, and ordered, “Room 4A.”

It moved off, following V-Y-K’s scooter, for another trip like the last one, except that there was no rock at the sides, just empty space, with the grey shape of the pipe at the right.

Sometimes, the ceiling was higher. I lifted my head, so that I could look ahead. Until my helmet scraped the rock. Then I kept my head down.

After about five minutes, I came out into Room 4A, where V-Y-K was standing beside three scooters. This place had a blank wall facing me, and wide slots in the other three walls. The top of a ladder stuck out of a hole in the floor.

A crack ran down the wall opposite. Beside the upper part were little nicks, which made Federation symbols for the Earth sounds ‘GWRP’. V-Y-K was standing beside the pipe, which swung into the darkness under the slot at the left.

The Bean’s scooter appeared. She stood, and looked around. “The layer of ore stopped here.” It wasn’t a question, so V-Y-K didn’t speak.

I said, “D’you see these marks at the crack? They look like….”

“Tony!” The Bean interrupted me. “Don’t worry about details like that.”

“But….”

“No! We’re here to find out about the sabotage in the mine. We don’t have time to worry about anything else. Definitely not.”

Definitely! That’s a secret code word the Bean and I use. If we’re suspicious, and can’t say anything in front of other people, we say, “Definitely.” It’s a warning.