The heat of the newly risen sun cut like a thousand scythes across Miner 457’s arching body as he toiled in the layered soil. The strip mine was expansive. Total area of four-hundred feet by five hundred feet, sinking down with mechanical specificity some fifty-five feet below ground. It was one of fourteen which dotted the scoured, patchy landscape of the desert.

The earth-shifters surrounded him like giant steel spiders, tearing at the silt and stone and clay in dull rhythmic undulations. He was one of only three other miners who had been dispatched to the barren waste by The Unity. The mine had no name, like as it’s workers, only a formal designation: Zone 8-83.

Miner 457 moved to the edge of the newest pit, gazing down the slate walls to the basin of Zone 8-83; in the shadow of that rectangular abyss Miner 400 remained. She had taken a seat upon the ground. Breach of protocol. A dangerous one at that, the slate was unstable, it’s hissing uncertainty could be heard even over the clanging of the clockwork earth-shifters, tearing at the skin of the world as if the whole of the globe had committed some dire treachery deserving of punishment.

“Miner 400!”

Her visor-clad head snapped instantly to the ledge. Biosensors alight and swarming the visual plane of her helm-covering, affixing itself to 457, mapping bio-metrics, hers and his alike. Bio-chemical spikes, indicative of anger. The woman’s heart knocked against her ribs like the bellows of some mad-dash furnace, fear overtaking exhaustion; the whole of her form.

“Sitting down on the job – in a slag pit nonetheless – is a direct contravention of protocol. The slate-walls could collapse at any moment! You trying to get yourself killed, 400?”

“I’m sorry – I was very tired. I just… I had to sit down…”

“Don’t apologize, woman, just move! Can’t you hear the stack crumbling?”

The nearest earth-shifter turned upon Miner 457, hissing out a message. A crackling, mechanical monotone that echoed off across the vast flatness of the strip-mine and vanished across the red sands of the outer rim.

“Elevated stress levels detected. Miner 457, please remain calm. Aggression towards co-operatives is unacceptable.”

“It doesn’t matter right now – can’t you hear the stack? It’s collapsing, we mustn’t have braced it properly! You need to get down there and protect our worker!”

“A reminder, 457: These co-operatives are not ‘our’ workers. They belong to Unity. As do you. As do we all. A true Unified owns nothing.”

“We really don’t have time for this right now. Get down there and get her out of the pit! 400, you need to move – NOW!”

The walls of the slag pit were wavering, layers of dirt, silt and stone shifted down in sputtering clouds of dust upon Miner 400 who scrambled to the left-most bracewall and began climbing the ladder their affixed as fast as her arching body would carry her.

“457: Elevated aggression levels further increasing: untenable. Administering ana-gel.”

The massive drone scuttled swiftly across the shattered skein to stand before Miner 457, long, jointed legs moving out towards the young man like a crustacean preparing to pluck a husk of carrion.

“I don’t need the damned gel, you stupid hunk of junk!”

457 diverted his back-up power to the core, shoulders and arms of his exo-suit scant moments before the claws of the earth-shifter would have reached him. With a grunt of supreme exertion, Miner clasped upon the underside of the drone’s claws and shunted them aside. Muscles afire, he shifted, turning heel and dashing towards the pit as the shifter static-bellowed behind him.

“Invective will not be tolerated, you should comply with protoc-”

No time for protocol. Only time to act. Purely. Intensely. Decisively.

Miner 457 tuned out the drone’s crackling-radio static voice which continued to fizzle through the rarefied mid-morning air and rushed to the edge of the slag pit, his heart pulsing like a serpent coiled about it’s prey. Miner’s shadow evaporated into nothingness under the radiant brands of the fulminate sphere as his eyes slide left then right over the wasted plain of sand and stone. Miner 401 and 402 were nowhere to be seen.

No time to think about them; too far away to help, he mouthed to himself as he ran, feet rooted to a restless shadow.

Kneeling and grasping on to the ladder as the northern-most wall began to collapse, the miner lowered his torso down as far as possible into the chasm, extending his steel-plated hand, hoping to feel fingers shortly grasping back. The mining suit lent considerable strength and durability, the whole of the exo-skeleton grafted directly into the inhabitant’s nervous system. With an exo one man wielded the strength and speed of ten, the titanium-ceramic body plating able to withstand a heat-blast from a industrial furnace and the weight of a fully equipped earth-shifter. Yet the exos had their limits. Miner 400’s suit was fully intact, indeed, newly fitted, but no amount of external armor could save her should the rock-face of the mining pit swallow her in it’s tenebrous maw. Nothing could.

“Faster, 400! FASTER!”

Palled in darkness he could hear only her ragged breath, it’s sharp in’s and out’s and the quick collapsing brace-wall which screamed against it’s imminent dispossession like the spirit of some hideous shade.

Then all was chaos as the brace-wall gave way to 10,000 tons of rock which sundered the metal binding like gelatin and careened to the earth with all the destructive alcahest of some great and vengeful god.

 

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