“Using problems as solutions to make good into better.”
-Founders’ Square corner statue, Paper Metal Quebec City campus
Muscles burned. The headlamp beam made the world jump out at her in circles. The exertion and sensory deprivation made her feel paradoxically alive and strangled. Across almost every centimeter of her arms and torso crossed straps and metal plating and balance-enabling counterweights, helping her lug the huge but surprisingly light bit clamped to her back despite her millennia of inactivity. Her backpack of supplies was almost as heavy, and-
Just up to the next landing, and the next.
As Jeanine adjusted the drill’s posture, she half considered just letting the fatigue win and lying down in the stairwell to sleep for another few years. It wasn’t like it would somehow make her MORE tired. The cool underground air helped the sweat of her brow do what it was supposed to.
She’d survived the age of the Snipper Illness. She wouldn’t be beaten by stairs.
Lugging the equipment, she oh so slowly climbed to the base of what the plans claimed was a titanic mineshaft. It went up instead of down, but otherwise looked like it would have fit in any construction or extraction project from…
She shivered a little to remember the world from her past. No more of any of that. No more jammed transit because someone crashed their ride at an intersection. No more low level anxiety over problems like world hunger. No more survivor’s guilt over having a stable job in the midst of volcanic socioeconomic meltdown. No more chocolate shakes. No more idly thinking about finding someone to share her whole life and the raising of a baby, or at least a cat.
Her eyes sharpened.
Time for that later; for now, “no more hindrance or assistance with digging” was what she cared about. She had an average or slightly lesser level of intelligence about most things, but even she knew this task could kill her exceptionally easily. Assuming, of course, that using her huge drill was both necessary and sufficient for advancing the enclave’s return to the surface.
It was her calling, though. Someone had to put things in order. Someone had to be the go-between for the new earth and the old people.
At the next curve in the stairwell, the world expanded past a wooden doorframe. Exiting into a huge echo chamber, she found herself slightly awed by the size of the shaft they’d dug for the project. She’d known that the team would be transported far underground after being freeze dried. She hadn’t known it would put them somewhere in the boondocks of Hades.
Spars crossed a ten meter wide round bore, both lending the silo structural support and serving as a base for the guardrail that spiraled up to a landing fifty meters above. At least, that was what her light seemed to suggest. Channels or corridors had gotten ripped out of the wall. Rather than rely on the inconstant strength of metal platforms and risers, the builders had gone with letting stone serve their purposes wherever they could get away with it - handrails of rock, for example. The closest things to color in her world were the set of warning stickers on the wearable drill and the tan-orange-beige-something of her Caucasian complexion.
Through the spiderweb of supports she could see the overhead landing was metal or metal-like, but it didn’t look to have suffered any fatigue or perforations. If it proved weaker than she guessed, well, she’d leave her big drill at the edge of the platform and test it by foot. If she fell and died then at least the next poor soul would have a body as a learning opportunity as well as another intact drill.
She went over to where the wall had been excavated, looked up the spiraling path to see it appeared clear, and started climbing.
Steps approached her. Steps fell away. The light’s grasping circle bobbed as feet pushed and hands wrestled with the safety railing. She huffed and puffed and might have gone on a tear of uninventive profanity if not for her breathlessness.
Climbing up and up, she found herself peering down at her bare forearm.
It hadn’t hurt at all since she’d survived the scalpels of the medical unit. The machine had warned of later potential for pain, but from wrist to nearly elbow she now had a casing of synthetics in place of flesh. She wasn’t keen on thinking about it. Sacrifices were alright in the abstract, or in doses so large they amounted less to a change of you and more to a change of the world. Screwing around with your body for the good of the mission, though…
Well, it was almost purely helpful, but acceptance came hard. The benefits were nice, though.
She let the drill’s control arm dangle a moment on that side. Holding the hand out, she clicked a new muscle in her wrist. It birthed a metallic fan. Said fan resolved into a straight razor thing roughly the dimensions of a Bowie knife. A silver length hinged out from her wrist onto her palm, wickedly sharp at its edge and point. Minimal upkeep, and good for all sorts of uses.
Flick! A strong but light mallet.
Flick! A prybar with a mean crook at the end.
Flick! A set of broad-mouthed pliers.
The place which now occupied a no-man’s land between “Jeanine” and “not Jeanine” would need occasional maintenance, at least if she still wanted the whole do-neat-things-with-built-in-tools part to keep being a thing, but if needed she could do that with a visit to the big old medical unit again.
Her utility wrist went back to a mostly normal body part as she reached the first landing. A big crisscross meshing of metal and plastic and other stuff stretched across the shaft, like a filter in a pipe. Her feet voiced complaints, her knees threatened mutiny, and her back said its patience was short.
She slumped against the wall, looking up. Above, the light showed another landing. Painful to think about the distance.
She had to take a short breather, just had to, but she kept it short. Too easy to get complacent.
She got her wind back, and she kept doggedly ascending. A bit more. A bit more. More climbing. The MRE she’d scarfed down like a woman who hadn’t eaten in a hundred lifetimes kept her going, but she’d need to eat again soon as well.
And so went the time. Darkness and tiredness and steps and wheezing. If she’d possessed the slightest nyctophobia she’d probably have gone mad, but she’d long thought of the dark as a cozy womb surrogate.
Precisely once in her journey, she found an obstruction. Part of the ceiling had collapsed onto the stairs. A big lithic club bouncer, the rock pile stood there and said “nope” as she approached.
The drill, it turned out, was like a diesel engine if the diesel engine drew power from screaming souls instead of petroleum byproducts. It managed to make her numb, shaky, and deaf, and gave her a smile that almost could have fit a banana sideways.
Half a minute of drilling, and she freed the path forward. For a couple of moments she considered grinding the debris to a fine powder and sweeping it away. Her unhappy muscles reminded her that she just needed to clear the stair. She considered the most strategic places to demolish the chunks and reduce them to manageable size.
Four minutes later, she had numerous fragments small enough to be lifted over the rail and dropped. Half a second after letting go of the first she swore and tried to claw it back up the meters of its descent, hating the way her brain got punished by the exertion.
Fortunately for everybody involved in the unfolding drama, the rock didn’t cause the metal landing below to snap free and fall to become a twisted forest. A loud and surprisingly high report came as the rock bounced, and that was it.
More rock chunks followed. The grunting associated with the task embarrassed her to the threshold of death. If she later discovered other people had listened to the grievous moan-growls, she would have no choice but to wander into the wilderness and leave humanity to its own fate.
A drink of water to replace her lost fluids. Her ugly progress continued. It continued continuing for a good long time.
Gasping for air, she essentially fell onto the finish line an indeterminate number of heartbeats later. Her slow pants made her circle of light shift a bit. A throbbing pulse gave it a harsh venous border. If some monster had snuffled along out of the dark and decided to slowly eat her she’d have just told it to work faster.
The brain processed the words “EXTERIOR ACCESS” on a cross-reinforced door. Her briefing told her that breaching that opening would put a far shorter lifespan on the facility. Introduction of a major point of environmental weakness. Heat loss from a now-imperfect seam. Potential for debris or flooding to damage the shaft.
So before taking that step, she might as well set up the climber stored in a boxy container to one side.
Taking her break time seriously, she confirmed the container looked as she’d expected, also from her briefing. An icon on the side showed a spidery silhouette. Instructions in very thorough pictogram ran its long axis, showing a stick person pulling out struts and an engine, snapping them together, hitting the button on its anterior to wake it up, and fitting it to the incline carved into the shaft side. If she was reading it correctly, it’d start the long way down on its own, using gravity to help charge its battery, then head back up when instructed to do so - or when a call button got pushed on its original container. A little manual cranking every few ascents and descents afterward would keep it functional.
“Suffering, thy name is physical exertion,” she said. Tried to say.
A wheeze came out in the rhythm of words, in any case.
About two hours later, she’d put together the space rover type thing. Not entirely idiot proof, but the challenge for her was more endurance based than conceptual. A button was pressed.
In the shaft, a faint yellow light. That ambient glow, thanks to the climber’s diagnostic LEDs, was like the tiny warmth of a candle on a cold-toothed night. With its wide platform for goods or a couple human riders, it bore the faintest familial ties to a deep-sea cyborg crab, thin legs and bioluminescence and all.
Heaving with the help of the unlocked wheels, she moved it. She fitted the jointed legs and their wheels low against the sides of the carved rock channel. Warning lights snapped on, little laser arcs to give people above and below warning about the machine’s presence as it moved. You didn’t want it chugging down as you went up, and only letting you realize it in time to dive over the handrails.
And like that, it started creeping down far more silently than a buffalo-size robot ought to be capable of doing. She used her sleeve to bypass the container’s panel computer and connect straight to the robot, then instructed the robot to return up when it reached bottom.
A few deep breaths, and she twisted in semi-agony.
Just this last task for now, Hercules. Ten minutes of rest and restoration, then time to break out of Hades.
Six hundred seventy two seconds later, the access door cracked open, her ears throbbing as pressure hissed its way to equality. It spread wide. An extended carved-rock tunnel led away, putting some distance between potential cave-in and the hatch itself. It dipped enough so that even if it flooded, the shaft would be safe. The tunnel’s end was an earthen plug sloping to the ceiling.
Jeanine readied her drill.
A long time passed.
Near the glow of high noon, a mad whining sound came from a big depression in a lightly forested area. Groundcover sprayed up, tree roots cracked. A dirt explosion sent clods of stuff close to twenty meters. At the side of the depression, a thoroughly filthy creature stepped from the mouth of a dark and very gradually sloping passage. The screaming object in her hands slowly wound down as part of the passage’s very end fell in. She didn’t care.
She half fell forward, half stumbled into a rosette of light where the forested canopy broke up a bit. Smiling so hard it completely failed to emerge on her face, she went to her knees and lay down. For what might as well have been the first time in her life, she felt the nuzzling cheek of the sun.