(Prequel to the story “Home Soil”)


Anika Markelson had only been to Mars twice before. Dreadful place, she thought to herself as she sat in the shuttle. Filled with trashy people, slummy accents, and, of course, the ever-present dust. She was proud of her pink skin and brown hair, which was pulled up in a bun for convenience. She was an Earther and looked it. Why are some people so devoted to this ball of rock? she wondered. It had domes instead of blue skies, rocks instead of oceans, and thousands of subsurface tunnels and compartments to house workers, ore miners, and their families. Well, the last piece she understood. There were countless valuable minerals stored beneath the Red Planet’s surface that could be removed and put to good use, so a large workforce was necessary. She had studied the underground schematics thoroughly, and the tunnels’ structure and access to all parts of the planet’s interior was quite impressive – one good thing she could say about this place.

Now Anika was making her third trip, this time in the capacity of Salvina Corp.’s Chief of Labor Relations. The miners were threatening to strike over their pay and working conditions, and it was her duty to investigate their claims and do whatever was necessary to get production back up to maximum capacity. Her shuttle’s skids made contact with the red, dusty landing platform on the planet’s surface, and the engine’s whine stopped. Once the clamps secured the craft, the platform began to descend to the underground deck of metal and rock. As they moved downward, she unstrapped from her seat and carefully gathered her things. Although Mars’ light gravity made movement easier, she was the product of a 1 g environment. She found it a bit unnerving when she overcompensated by moving too quickly.

“Touchdown, Ms. Markelson,” the pilot informed her.

“Yes. I figured that part out,” she snapped, then drew in a deep breath. It would not do her well going into this confrontation with a chip on her shoulder. “Thank you,” she amended.

“One minute until pressure equalization,” he added, his tone unfazed. Clearly this was not his first diplomatic run.

Anika stood by the shuttle’s door, waiting for it to hiss open. When it did, she walked down the short ramp into the hanger bay. She was dressed in the ubiquitous orange-and-tan jumpsuit of Salvina Corp., complete with the same logo emblazoned on the shuttle’s hull and on her briefcase. Her boots made even tones on the metal deck plating, and her eyes swept over every person and object in the bay. She was quick to note the line of guards in riot gear that lined the hanger’s outer ring, holding off a mid-sized group of workers yelling insults as they pushed into the guards. They wore the same orange-and-tan, though most suits were not as neatly pressed as her own and bore traces of silvery ore or engine grease. A bottle thrown in the shuttle’s direction shattered near her feet, but she barely flinched, and watched as the guards tackled the perpetrator.

“Control your rats, Sergeant,” her voice carried above the noise of the crowd, “or we’ll control them for you.”

“Sorry, ma’am,” a uniformed man answered. “It won’t happen again.”

“No, it won’t, or I’ll hold you responsible.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

She walked the 50 meters to the hanger doors where two jump-suited Martians were waiting for her. She nodded curtly to them and they escorted her without a word into the mining colony proper. Good. She disliked having to make small talk.

The 23 levels of tunnels were bustling with activity – miners, electricians, mechanics, and porters, all busy with their daily routines – and Anika wondered what the mines proper must be like, filled with workers day and night. Despite the activity, her escorts managed to clear a path for the group as they descended and even headed down lesser-used tunnels when necessary. Briefly she wondered how they were able to navigate at all – to her, it seemed like a giant maze of same-looking passageways.

As they traveled deeper into the planet, Anika got a good view of the tunnels’ structure. Solid rock reinforced with metal bands every meter or so and lit by simple photocells placed at intervals along the top and bottom of the walls. They were no doubt powered by solar collectors on the planet’s surface, but the light was dim compared to what she was used to. Another difference: Martians were used to a fainter sun than Earth, so their eyes would be comfortable in the dimness of the interior. It made her feel claustrophobic.

At last they came to a stop in front of a door mid-way down one of the twisting tunnels. One of her escorts knocked lightly, and then stepped aside to let Anika enter.

The room was small and functional, hewed out of the same rock and metal of the tunnels. The larger of the two people at a rectangular table stood up and extended his left hand, fingers curled. Anika had learned the Martian handshake before her first trip here, and she curled her fingers briefly around his, not staying in contact more than was absolutely necessary for politeness and protocol.

“Ms. Markleson, I be Hevor, the administrator,” said the tall, dark-skinned man of about 30 sols. “We been expecting you. Not gonna go for any chit-chat. We need sort this out and soon. Sit and we get started.”

Anika wasn’t sure if she was surprised more by the man’s dark skin or by his own brusqueness. Most of the Martians were pale, the result of living underground in dim light. She could tell, though, that he was a born-and-bred Duster; his thick accent gave that away, so his ancestors must have been even darker. Unusual for this environment. As for the brusqueness, she was glad for the chance to dive in and get this over with. She strode toward the table and sat down facing the two men.

“This be Nayan. He in charge of the diggers and equipment,” Hevor added. Anika gave him a curt nod.

“You no need associates? Paper-pushers?”

“I’m fine by myself, thank you, and since you want to get started, let’s get right down to business. Salvina Corp. has been in control of mining on this planet for 150 years. We have built a solid reputation in that time – good workers, good product. And now you’re threatening to bring that all down for … what exactly?”

Hevor scoffed. “You sit back and watch credits come in. We ones minin’ the ore, makin’ you comfortable. And what we get? Less pay than before, less food, bigger tax. You charge high for air and water so we no make living enough for our kids grow up good. And you surprise we not grateful this?”

“You are employees of Salvina Mining Corporation, and you will fulfill your obligations to that company and to Earth if you want to stay employed.”

“And what you do if we no get out ore for you?” Nayan chimed in. “You come get it ‘selves? No. You shrivel and die, Earther,” He looked to be slightly younger than Hevor, with the light hair and skin typical of native Martians, but equally vehement.

“Piece of equipment break?” he continued. “We got replacement on next shuttle from Luna. Bad equipment hurt miner? They lucky if doctor patch up good before they cut off benefits. Sick, can’t work? No work, no pay. Kids go hungry. Company do nothin’ for them. Company all in it for what it get. We the ones makin’ your lives good under your blue sky.”

“You knew the nature and risks of this job when you took it,” Anika shot back. She pulled a data pad out of her case, looked at it briefly, and pushed it across the table toward Nayan.

“See, there’s your signature saying you understood what you were doing when you signed on. How is that Salvina – or even Earth’s – fault?”

Hevor held up a hand to stop Nayan before he let loose with another angry outburst, though his own rage rumbled beneath the surface of his words. “If you Martian, what other choice you got? Only job supposed to pay well diggin’ ore – no job, no food. Want job, gotta sign.”

“Well, I’m afraid that’s the way it is, gentlemen,” Anika said. “No one forced your ancestors to come to Mars. They came because we offered them jobs with more pay than they’d get on Earth for the same thing. And no one told you that you had to be miners while you were here; you could have gotten another job or left at any time. You chose, gentlemen, it was your choice, not ours.”

“Another job that pay nothing. And we go where? With what money and no other trainin?”

“That was entirely up to you.”

“No, it were Earth’s decision. After we settle and ore start flowin’, you pull out help,” Hevor said, his voice now hushed but still full of anger. “Slowly you take away what you once promise, and we Martian. Nowhere else we can go now. Earth no have us, and we not go back if could.”

“Then what, exactly, do you want from me?” Anika asked, leaning back in her chair. “I’m very curious to hear what you think I can do for you.”

“We want right pay for work that do. We want food enough to feed families. Less charge on air and water. We profit, you profit. Seem simple put that way.”

“And if Salvina agrees to your terms, you’ll call off the strike you’re planning?”

“We just want what fair, like Earthers do,” Nayan answered.

“Well, I’m just a representative of the company. I’ll have to take your concerns up with the  board and see what they have to say.”

“And how long that take?” Nayan spat out. “We wait long enough for you come here and this best you can do?”

“I’m just a cog in the machine, much like you are,” she stated, a faint smile playing at the corners of her mouth. “I have to answer to others.”

“You answer to us!” Nayan was on his feet now, his pale face splotched with angry red blotches. “You labor relations, you relate!”

Anika stared at the two men, her eyes seeming to bore holes right through them. “Or what? You know we could just as easily gas the tunnels and send in replacements to do your jobs.”

The threat hung in the air for a moment before Hevor responded, quiet and controlled.

“You not gonna do that.”

“What makes you so sure, Martian?”

“Cause skippies no good. You have to find and train. Spend lot of time no producing and you lose money while that goin’ on. That what you really want? No, you gonna give us what ask cause you lose more than us if don’t. Better to settle and go forward.”

“You don’t scare me. You have nothing to bargain with.”

“We got everythin’. This be our world, Earther. The dust be in our blood. We not gonna lay down and let you take it from us. We fight with everythin’ we got, even if mean dyin’ in the attempt. You wait and see.”

As it turned out, Anika – and Earth – would not have long to wait.

(c) 2017 Miriam Ruff All Rights Reserved