The Komatsu Wombat and the Fantastical Anticlimax
A lower suburb was unstable. Dirt falling through cracks in the ceiling, some of the reinforcements moving beyond safe deformation points. A house crumbled. Geologists were in there, testing things with vibrating probes, convinced nothing would fall for another 10 years.
The cave-in didn't happen there. The cave-in happened in the area where we diggers were working to make a new suburb, seeing as the old 1 was falling apart. The process was fast-tracked, which meant as us diggers were starting on the last street, the interior designers were hanging the final curtains in the first street's houses, and turning on the porch lights for welcome.
We'd about finished the digging part when the entire side of the stratum fell on top of us.
On the dark side of the fall, there were:
5 hydraulic engineers
3 structural engineers
9 civil engineers
1 doctor and 3 paramedics, who were treating one of the diggers for heat exhaustion
7 demolition experts
3 pest controllers, because the rats and cockroaches had followed us down
4 project managers, one of whom was visiting
the quantity surveyor
1 network administrator, who was working at the worksite's communications hub because it was glitchy
2 construction managers
55 concreters and surface treatment workers
3 council members
5 building surveyors checking standards
130 of us diggers
I know this, and 300 names, because we spent years in the dark together not dying. But if we had died and been dug up years later, we'd be a perfect fossilised example of an on-site partnered contract construction team.
The dark didn't come until the third day, when the air was getting tight. The small houses and smaller streets were painful to be in, psychologically or what, so the 300 of us were sitting in the new suburb's commercial street, which had higher ceilings and more lights.
The lights were browning out. The network administrator shifted her gear into the communications hub, trying to use those fresh-installed data lines to get into contact with the outside. The fall had crushed the site office. Arunta had been working nearest to the fall and raced his Wombat over, digging out the shipping container, the computers and Kyr, the network administrator.
Everyone argued over Kyr's head about what to do when she stood up, and just waited for silence. She was a patient person, the most patient person I had ever met. Give her any problem, and she wouldn't try to solve it. She'd think about it for as long as it needed, and then she'd just bloody well fix it. Trying just wasn't a part of the game.
'I have contact,' Kyr said. 'HQ's getting someone from CoP who knows what's happening. They've been talking about us out there.'
She didn't say: they've been working out a way to get you out. Which was good, because we might've cheered, and there's nothing worse than misplaced cheer.
Because they couldn't dig us out. Not yet.
That was ok, Kyr typed. We can wait, we can turn off the lights and lie down and meditate, or something, there's probably air for another couple of days.
Uh, yeah, said CoP. Then there's the other problem.
Turned out the undetected fault dropping the Pit's face was directly above our point of access. We practically were the fault. The depth of the blockage was so shallow a Wombat could fart it clear in about 4 days, but the action would trigger a larger fall really fucking things up below. If they were going to dig us out, they'd bulwark the entire side of the Pit face to do it.
You'd have to do that anyway, Kyr said. So do it.
Yeah, said CoP, no arguments there. It's how long it's going to take. 10 years long.
Of course, they weren't telling us everything. 7 years later, when we got out, we saw the damage from the fall. They under-exaggerated how big the fall was, and over-exaggerated how long it'd take them to fix it. They didn't want to get out hopes up or down.
Kyr didn't say, 10 years, you fuckers? Which is probably what Arunta would have said.
What Kyr did, real patiently, because we had time: she talked to the construction manager, then a few of the others, then sat down and thought. She eventually typed back: we have houses, streets, shelters. Thanks to the fast-tracking, we have various supplies, for example, every household's very important emergency rations. We can dig access to a rain tower, surely. The growing fields have been installed, too, hydraulics finished off today. Air is going to be the problem.
And electricity, CoP said, because at the moment the cables you're using are damaged, and bleeding into a large segment of the ground. This is not sustainable. The damage is in an area we can't reach to fix. We have to cut you off. Goodbye to your growing fields.
How bad is the leak? Kyr asked.
2/3 of us out here are browned out to keep you live and running.
Kyr spoke to a couple of diggers, then went back to the console and said, 1/2 of the Komatsu Wombats are fitted with backup generators, and we've fuel for power, if we had air. Can you send me a 3D schematic of the areas around us? The air shafts here have already been installed, we need to connect them to a duct going to the windpods above.
Uh, yeah, said CoP. They sent the slowest email in the world, which was slow because they got their geotechs to mark on the map exactly where we would have to dig to reach that blessed airshaft without triggering the fatal fall outside.
A worm couldn't have squeezed through some of those tolerances.
Kyr called me over then, because I was the diggers' supe. She showed me the schematic on screen. 'You got anyone who can dig this in 3 days, probably while half-dead from anoxia?'
I didn't know what was going on. I recognised the air shaft, and that it wasn't the exterior, and I said, 'I do, but why don't we dig out instead?'
Kyr showed me the email where CoP had told us how and why, under no circumstances whatsoever, was anyone to even hiccup near the fall, and certainly not a Komatsu Wombat.
I would not have believed how good a breath of fresh air made me feel. Trees are nice, but air is everything.
Kyr let CoP know we'd tapped the air flow. CoP said, 'See you in 10 years, best of luck,' and cut our power.
Only then, in the dark, did Kyr explain our circumstances. She did what HQ had done, though she hadn't known they'd done it, and told us 12 years.
Of course we panicked. She let us, too. There wasn't much else to do in the dark.
We spent 5 days not believing. Then we spent 5 days going mad in the dark, wasting the lights and the fuel on the Komatsu Wombats, breaking into the houses and emergency stores we'd just finished stocking up, and hoarding the rations within. We claimed houses, claimed allies, made enemies and claimed food, and did it very politely, mostly by not talking to each other.
Kyr talked to us, 1 at a time. She got paper, sat with a hand-made hurricane lamp in the corner, and made lists. She sat down with the engineers and worked out how many hours of light we had, how many hours of power for the sunlamps, which would grow our food. There were dry rations, sure, but no one wanted to live on those for 12 years running.
When she had it worked out, she talked to us in groups of 3, then told us to go and talk to other groups of 3 until everyone knew what we could do. It took another 3 days of argument before unanimous accord was reached. We did it in torchlight, in broken light, occasionally in floodlights, because we couldn't decide what would waste more of our fuel.
This was what we did to survive:
For 1 hour every day for 12 years, we would have low light, for tasks and for sanity. For 2 hours every day for 12 years, the growing fields would have their sunlamps on. It was the minimum light necessary to grow our super GM vegetable crop.
Kyr showed us the tally of food rations she'd made, too. The quantity surveyor didn't believe her, so redid the whole tally and came to the same conclusion.
For 6 years, we ate 2 meals a day. Then we ate 1.
It could have been worse. Around year 3, we discovered mushrooms growing out of the underside of the potato boxes. It was like mana, I tell you what.
Mana was old word for providence, which was another word for divine intervention.
Those mushrooms weren't divine intervention any more than the cave-in was a divine retribution, or the Alien was inevitable. It was luck, plain luck not good or bad, that mushroom spores had clung to the dirt coming with the potatoes, and that they'd managed to hit the right conditions to thrive.
And how's this for luck:
Mushrooms weren't even from our planet to begin with. That was why they never really fit in our classifications of Animal or Plant. Plants needed light to survive, by human definitions, you see, whereas Animals, like us, could live in the dark. But Animals could move, could think, they had mouths and stomachs, and mushrooms didn't have any of those things. They didn't fit anywhere in our standards.
There was a theory that mushrooms shipped a ride on a rock just like the Alien. Millennia ago, their rock hit our planet, and they scattered across the surface. After the impact winter faded, they unfroze and managed to find the perfect conditions for life. That was lucky for them and for us.
I knew mushrooms were as much aliens as the Alien because we had nothing else to do in the dark except talk. Some of that learning was bound to stick.
In low light, we set up the commercial shops off the main street like theatres. Instead of a screen, 1 person sat in front of us. In the dark, we'd take turns to tell stories. 6 rooms, 6 storytellers. The rest of us would wander back and forth and listen where we wanted. Sometimes the stories were angry stories about how life sucked because we were in a hole. Those stories weren't real popular, I tell you what. 1 guy had watched every episode of some ancient screenshow, so he told us the whole saga over a year, 1 night a week, that was great. So much sex. Another girl was religious, so she told us about the Old Testament, which is where I got some shut-eye and incidentally learned about mana. Once a fortnight, a civil engineer told us stories about how he'd banged women in Austria, Bangladesh, Carpentia, Denmark, and so on down the alphabet, that was a year of entertainment. The architect told stories about cities, walking through cities, seeing cities gone by now. The project manager told us stories about her children growing up, right from giving birth up to their tenth birthday, every single detail.
Sure, we'd forget to talk after a while. It was easy to forget to talk in the dark, not seeing any faces. We'd be slack about things like wearing clothes, especially after they started to wear thin. 7 years in there, it was never perfect, we'd stop telling stories or get bored or maybe we even ran out of stories. Someone would always start it up again. We'd filter back to those rooms and listen.
We had to work at sanity, like it was a marriage, or maintaining weight or fitness.
Arunta told stories about zombies walking in the dark, which was not good, because every scrape in the dark brought back the chills from his stories. He told other stories too, about his family, which he'd never even told me before. I couldn't tell you what was worse, his family or his zombies.
Arunta told me the cave-in lifestyle reminded him of being in correctional, back before he came to the Pit. 'Us boys,' he said. 'Nothing to do except eat, read recycled books, beat each other up, then work out with heavy weights so we could beat each other up but with the positions the other way around.'
'We're not beating each other up yet,' I said.
'Give it time.'
'Got nothing else to give it,' I said, but Arunta didn't laugh.
Continue to Chapter 8 →
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