Karya clocked in five minutes before the start of twelfth rotation and caught the next lift down into the mines. It stopped two levels down at the substation, where she hopped into her pressure suit, loaded a caff tank onto her back, and checked the tunnel conditions. It was a good day – no gas leaks, volcanic activity, or equipment malfunctions – so she reboarded the lift and headed deeper down.
Even with the pressure suit on, Karya thought she could still feel her ears needing to pop. She opened and closed her jaw, but, as usual, nothing happened. When she started this job over a year ago, she needed anxiety meds, something that took her mind off the claustrophobic suit and the crushing depths and the ever-present threat of erupting volcanoes. Even going “home” to the employee dorms couldn’t soothe her – those were also underground, sheltered from the brutal Martian surface. Karya was born on a geostationary satellite complex positioned over the Atlantic, but somehow the vacuum of space and all its associated horrors never scared her as badly as this mining operation.
She needed this job, though, so she adjusted. It had been three months since she’d needed the meds. Most of the other caff girls who were hired along with Karya had been promoted or left, but Karya stayed.
The high-pitched whine of the speeding lift became a low hum, then disappeared. The lift doors opened and Karya emerged at the dim, sweltering bottom of the mine.
She’d seen old photographs in her Earth history textbooks depicting miners in the ancient coal mines. They were dressed in sturdy work clothes and heavy helmets, their exposed faces indistinguishable under thick dirt and coal dust. The miners of Mars were also difficult to tell apart thanks to their bulky, red-dusted protective suits. It had made finding Marko even harder than she’d expected.
The first group of miners shut off their laser picks as she approached. Karya felt a familiar surge of anticipation – maybe this time – but she recognized their faces as they turned towards her, all of them heaving audible sighs of relief while her own hopes trickled away.
She forced a smile onto her face. “Hey, Col.”
Col was a shift captain, one of several miners Karya knew by name. He looked overworked at only half past noon, and judging by the sheen of sweat under his helmet and the unintelligible grunt that accompanied his outthrust glove, it had been a long morning indeed. She clipped the caff dispenser spigot to the valve on his glove, pumping his afternoon dose of cool, refreshing caffeinated air into his suit.
“Better?” she asked while she refilled Maria.
Col raised one stubby finger while he inhaled slowly. He grinned and held out his wrist for more.
Karya hesitated. Giving a worker a second fill-up in the same shift was grounds for having her wages docked – if she was caught. The entire mine was watched by security cameras, but only some of the cameras were monitored some of the time. She suspected she was one of few who knew this, considering she’d found out by sneaking into the company archives to try to find proof her brother was here. On weeks when the budget was tight, the company simply shut off cameras, saving power but sacrificing safety and accountability. Whole days were missing from the archives. Some of those corresponded to low-earning weeks, but others occurred ominously close to what the company had labeled mass layoffs, promotions, or retirements.
Those, in turn, corresponded with periods of high volcanic activity below the mines.
Karya had last heard from her brother fifteen months ago, but they were lousy correspondents even when channels weren’t disrupted by outages, radiation, or hackers. Marko could have been missing for two months, or fifteen, or none, but until Karya found proof in the records, or came across him among the hordes of miners she refilled twice a day, she refused to leave Mars.
She turned back to Col. “You want caff refills?”
“You want them on the regular?”
He glanced at the cameras. “You need help finding someone?”
“How did you know?”
“Nobody stays a caff girl for as long as you unless they’re looking for someone,” he said with such gentleness it nearly made her cry. “Who is it? Boyfriend? Sibling?”
She clipped on the spigot again. “Brother. Marko. Can you help me?”
He breathed deeply and grinned. “Let me do some digging.”