Written by Allen Crowely
Chester Humboldt’s worries mount as his company scrambles to uncover the mystery of a missing one thousand metric ton Caterpillar mining truck and its crew. But nothing prepares him for the arrival of his 10 a.m. teeth cleaning appointment. Not caught up? Previous Chapter or Start from the beginning.
“There is no need for a piece of sculpture in a home that has a cat.”
Sculptor and Engraver
October 31, 2045
Copernicus City Erebus Montes
38°12’14”N, 172°22’06” W
Chester Humboldt thought about how he would have seen the writing on the wall if he had any walls. He lived in the newer section of Copernicus City, which had benefited from the advances in insulation from cosmic rays. Every surface was made of transparent or translucent Martian glass. The writing would have said his days were numbered at his company. That his wife had filed for divorce and moved to Overwatch for the next flight back to Earth. He couldn’t see ahead. He threw back the covers.
Per his daily routine, morning coffee and 5k on the treadmill, Chester Humboldt took his Siamese cat, Mr. Toots, in a grey and green pressurized pet carrier, and walked the pedestrian tube to his office at Smurfit Holdings in the Meghnad Saha Complex.
The office was a formality he held on to. It was old school, with opaque walls with shelves for holding objects of significance. It was a museum to his former life.
His eight o’clock meeting with the regional operations managers went as well as could be expected. Only a couple of jokes about the new establishments catering to the drivers on the truck routes. The point of these meetings with his Ops team was to make sure everyone was hitting their quotas and getting what they needed to do their jobs; extracting resources from at least 800 locations around Mars from the south to the north poles.
Smurfit Holdings was the largest player in the mining market on Mars. It also built infrastructure, and now tunnels, since recently acquiring the Boring Company. Only one other company came close to them and could have surpassed them easily if they hadn’t spread their resources across the entire solar system. That company was SARSA.
He was surprised to hear the airlock buzzer go off in his office. He had almost forgotten his suite had an airlock. He had never used it. Through the viewer he saw a tall thin person in a yellow environment suit with something large behind them. Of course, the dental hygienist.
He had tried to reschedule. Though in fact, he hadn’t originally scheduled the teeth cleaning at all. SyncLife informed him that his insurance required the cleaning, or his coverage would go up. He found the 30% increase a bit extreme but not suspicious, considering the strangeness of underwriters and the deleterious effects being discovered everyday of living in low gravity. They did what SyncLife does best, and scheduled the hygienist to come to him.
The speaker crackled a bit. “Hi, I’m the hygienist, Joanie Pendegrast, here for your ten o’clock tooth appointment.”
He continued to think of ways to reschedule the appointment, but said, “Come on in.” He pressed the admittance button to the outer hatch. He was trying to place her accent. While it had the high and nasal tone of a midwestern American he detected a trace of something else. Was it French?
“Sorry for coming through the airlock. I just arrived in town. I travel by cycle. She pointed down to the green and red teardrop shaped two wheeler parked near the air processor of his building.
Chester admired the beauty of the woman revealed by the opening inner hatch. She still had on the yellow E suit but had already removed her helmet and gloves revealing a shock of thick raven hair, olive skin, and jade eyes.
Maybe this would be a pleasant half hour after all. “It’s no problem. How far did you travel?”
“Oh, you're my second cleaning of the day. Just over in Tereshkova square.”
It was the way she said “Tereschkova”. Not American. German? “Where would you like to set up?”
“Here is great. Just give us a moment.”
He couldn’t place the accent. Not German. But like German.
The hygienist stepped through the hatch with a grace not matched by the boxlike contraption with six legs and two arms that followed. It startled Chester, who found the robot to resemble a giant praying mantis. “You got one of those Laurel things, huh?”
“Yes, it's an L3. Really comes in handy.”
She said ‘handy’ like it was a new word. Maybe Yiddish. It was starting to bug him. “I bet.” He paid more attention to her frame than the robot’s.
“Over here, L.” Her tone changed slightly with the voice command.
The bug-like box walked to the spot where the hygienist pointed. As it stopped its back unfolded into a medical fixture. A large arm was the dental engine that controlled the pneumatics and water. In seconds, the creepy robot became a comfy and only slightly less-creepy-looking dentist's chair.
Her perfume twisted into Chester’s mind like potent pheromones. He imagined her snuggled up to him, while he lay back in the chair. He tried not to stare as the yellow E suit fell to the floor, revealing a form-fitted periwinkle neoprene-like unitard. She was built like a dancer. She had an athletic frame, with pointy shoulders and long muscled arms.
“Please sit down and we’ll get you done in no time.”
Eastern European? He mused. No.
Chester averted his eyes and eased into the surprisingly comfortable chair. He felt it articulate under him and adjust to his shape. His arms relaxed on the padded rests. Behind his neck the chair adjusted to the shape of his spine and skull. He marveled at the intricacy of the equipment.
He decided to give his itchy nose a scratch before she got started. He reached for his nose but couldn’t move his arm. He tried moving his other arm and it too was asleep.
“My arms are asleep!” Chester shouted. But it came out as a whisper. He couldn’t muster enough air to make a sound. Terror slammed into Chester. Maybe he was having a stroke. He couldn't turn his head to see the hygienist. All he saw was the mandibles of the praying mantis head with it’s powerful LED eyes staring at him.
“How are we feeling, Chester?” Came the voice again. Now close to his right ear.
Chester could only move his eyes far enough to see how close her head was to his. She was wearing a green surgical mask that drew attention to her jade eyes.
“I can’t move.” He barely got out.
“It’s amazing, isn't it? It’s based on ancient Chinese acupuncture.” She rested her hand on his thigh. “L here knows just how to touch you to relieve pain or prohibit muscle use! My job, on the other hand, is to clean those fangs, Buster! I mean, Chester.”
Something seemed terribly wrong. Chester’s eyes widened in terror as he looked into her deep green eyes so utterly devoid of compassion. He felt her fingers tap on his chin in anticipation of something. He clenched his teeth and tightly pursed his lips. An unbidden survival impulsed mixed with his excitement at her touch. He resisted opening his mouth.
A cold slithering crossed the left side of his face. It found its way to his mouth and wet robotic fingers reached around his lips and began to stretch his flesh out into an oval shape. The oral spreader opened his cheeks far enough to give the young woman a full view of Chester’s teeth, gums, and jaw bone.
“That’s better. Now open please, as wide as you can.” She stroked his cheek with a warm finger.
Chester refused and clenched down as hard as he could.
“No worries, L’s got something for that too. L.”
Another finger-like appendage wormed its way along the side of his face. What felt like a shoe horn forced itself between his clenched teeth. Another cold metal object inserted itself inside his cheek along his jawline. A searing pain shot through his face and neck as his mouth was pried open. Tears dripped from his eyes. He was screaming, but no sound was coming out. He felt the cool air of the room and her warm minty breath blowing into his gaping mouth.
“Now Chester, this is not exactly your typical teeth cleaning. It is, I can assure you, one of the best you’ll ever get. I’m a very thorough hygienist. So relax, for now, and let me take care of your teeth. In about twenty minutes I’m going to ask you about your work. I’m going to ask you some specific questions about your mining operations, where and how you do them, and why all the secrecy lately.”
Chester couldn’t quite wrap his mind around what she was saying.
Her hands deftly scraped the hard plaque and tartar from around his teeth. He waited for pain but none ever came. It was the most diligent teeth cleaning he could remember. He started to relax.
She finished by using the electric brush and the gritty paste. After a bit more spitting and suction, she leaned back to admire her work. She wrapped her long delicate fingers with white dental floss like she was about to strangle a mafia boss. Her hands entered his mouth and gave him a flossing like he had never been given.
“Now, Chester, you’ve had plenty of time to practice what kind of BS you are going to give me about your limited clearance, how you're a mid level executive and everything with Smurfit is need-to-know and that you don’t know. So I’m going to give you this one warning. You will give me an honest answer for every question I ask, or I will acquaint you with aspects of your nervous system that you never dreamt of. Got that, Buster? How come I want to call you Buster, Chester?” She grinned. “You don’t have to answer that one.”
Chester prepared himself. He was no hero, and he just wanted to get out of this situation as fast as he could.
She paused, looking into his mouth. “Before I start asking questions, there are a couple of issues going on in your mouth that I want to address.”
She probed his tooth along the gum line with a sharp implement. “That’s your number three molar. If I dig around here …
Sharp pain came and went with each probe.
“Let’s just call that the number three dig. There seems to be some sensitivity there.” She held a sharp pointy tool close to his eye. “This is a number seven scaler.” She tapped the number three molar with it. “So help me out here. Chest, Bust, Chester right?”
“Yes.” Chester realized she was poking and prodding around the epicenter of this colossal mess Smurfit had run into. Everyone in the company was walking on eggshells, fear of asking the wrong questions and not knowing what to admit to knowing.
“Let’s skip the obvious questions, like, where had truck seven departed from and where was it heading?”
He had asked those same questions over the last couple of days and been met with unusual amounts of head scratching and hems and haws. He just stared at her.
Her hands went to the tray and came up with an enormous hook and needle. L’s mechanical appendages reopened his cheeks and jaw.
“How long have you been working on Dig Three?” She waved the hook and needle in front of his face. Then tapped the Lauren Unit that forced his mouth open.
The device retracted so he could speak. “Dig number 3 wasn’t even on my list of digs. I didn’t find out about it until after the initial report of a truck gone missing.”
She replaced the massive hook and needle on the tray without ever putting them in his mouth. She held up the number seven scaler. She winked at him and tapped his chin with it. “Once you found out truck seven was missing what did you do?”
“Nobody was talking about it. The report got erased. To get some accurate intel, I followed up with some of my lower level contacts. You know, the boots on the ground, mostly formen, dispatchers, some equipment operators. Mostly I got suspicion and tight lips.”
She tapped the robot again and it spread his mouth open. “Ah. Something had put fear into the normally rough men and women who ventured underground with tons of dangerous machinery on an alien planet. They were too scared to tell you anything?”
Chester Humboldt nodded in the affirmative.
“I told you, you only get one warning. So here is just a little coming attraction, just a teaser, ok. This, right here, is the most amazing nerve. It’s called the trigeminal nerve. It’s one of the 12 cranial nerves. It supplies sensations to your face, mucous membranes, and other structures in your head. And right here, feel that, is my little doorway into that nerve. Here, feel it.”
He felt the cold steel needle plunge into a crevice between his gum and bone and then he was hit with an explosion of blazing electric pain. But this was like no other pain, It was multiple pains and they came at him in a dozen different directions. He felt like someone had lit a match on the inside of his nose. A pry bar was tearing out his upper palate. Mucous poured uncontrollably from his sinuses all over her hands and a migraine started in his left eye and traveled around his temple and into his mandibles and molars. He felt her twist the needle and felt more steel enter into another side of his face. His ears began to ring at a terrifying decibel. He could see nothing but white hot spots, but was sure something was pulling the skin off of his face. He tried to scream but only a whispery thread of a guttural moan came out. The robotic chair suppressed his ability to make noise.
She moved her face closer to his as she wiped the viscous mix of saliva, tears, and snots from her gloves and his chin and neck. She spoke softly this time.
“Now here’s a heads up, old boy. I believe you know exactly where that truck went. What happened?”
By the time he regained enough composure to answer the robot had let go of his jaw so that he could. “The transponder and the satellite tracking of truck seven shows it had left what you’re calling dig 3, which was not a registered dig at all but more like a stop along a rarely used axis road only a kilometer from South-western Lycus Sulci.”
“Yes Lycus Sulci, or LS in the biz, a mountainous range suspected of being rich in heavy metals. But Smurfit doesn’t have rights for mining Lycus Sulci. Right, Chester?”
He stammered a “Right.” He saw her reaching for the tray and kept talking. “I wasn’t in on it, but I figured Smurfit had been digging diagonally into SARSA land to tap into a vein undetected.”
“So you slant mine across the boundary to steal other people's minerals or maybe to do something even more clever like introduce a creature that will eat their land and then come home and spit it out the best bits onto yours. That would be a neat trick, wouldn’t it? Somebody actually came up with it already, twenty three years ago. They got in heaps of trouble for it, too. But you know all about that, now don’t you, Buster? Because you were there when that was all going down, “Mr. Sea of Storms”. You came out pretty good then, didn’t you? I hear you’re still harvesting the pellets from those little moon maggots.”
Chester lay fastened to the chair, mouth pried open, and his past laid bare. He started to cry. He realized that whoever this person was, she was definitely an agent for SARSA, and she knew more about what was going on than he did.
She picked up another instrument, this time a longer needle-like device with a thin metallic snake on the end of it.
“If you didn’t like that, you’re really not gonna like this guy. But I promise not to use it or anything else if you just tell me what were you all doing diagonal mining in Lycus Sulci? What the hell did you put into that lava tube?”
Confusion coursed through him as the robot released his mouth. “What? We thought you had done that.”
“Done what? Drill into our own mine from your land?” She leaned in making a motion to the Laurel to open his mouth again. The machine swooped in and the cold fingers touched his face but abruptly stopped.
“No. No, We did a diagonal bore. We did, ok! But whatever it is you’re talking about, we found there ... in the lava tube. We didn’t put anything there ... I swear. Smurfit doesn't buh, buh, bioengineer..”
“Careful! As far as you know. Why do you think your dig 3 crew bored from where it did? Curious, isn’t it? There are geologic formations on Smurfit lands that would have probably yielded similar results. Why aim where you did?”
“The tunneler was ordered to bypass a basalt outcropping and cut easterly into a cavern or lava tube that was uncharted and obviously ran deep into the LS range.”
“I know what you did. I want to know why you did it?” Her voice was soft but her stony eyes bore into him for what seemed like a full Martian day.
“I honestly don’t know. Really I don’t know. Really...”
“I believe you.” she said.
At that moment a Siamese cat leaped onto the Laurel's rear haunches, which were doubling as leg rests for Chester.
“And what’s your name?” the woman cooed, stroking the cat behind the ear.
“He’s Mr. Toots.”
Another playful jab in the gumline and Chester told her everything he knew: that they extracted 500 tons of boring samples and loaded them onto truck seven, a caterpillar 832M, for examination in the Greytan facility, some 100 kilometers Southwest of Omega sector. But truck seven never reached Greytan. He was still not sure what happened to it. Everything went dark and headquarters told him to make no inquiries on any channels, even secure ones. How they could have expected to keep the lid on losing a truck the size of most early colonies was a mystery to him.
The bell chimed on Chester’s private channel. He caught his breath.
A voice left a message. “Hello, Mr. Humboldlt, it’s Sheriff Vlad Boyko, over in New Kiev. I have a very agitated fella here that says he works for you. He came into town an hour ago pretty shaken up. He’s not making much sense, and insisted we contact only you immediately. Says it's urgent. Something about a truck. Please call back as soon as you can.”
Chester could see that his interrogator was lost in a new train of thought. He masked his emotions. This coded message was the best news he could have received.
“Well well. Looks like your truck driver turned up. It’s been swell, Chester, and you’ve been a peach. L.” The chair suddenly made the slightest shift and its occupant passed out. As she nodded at the Laurel unit, she could hardly have realized that before her robotic henchman rendered Chester unconscious his last thoughts had been pleasant ones. He had finally figured out her accent and he imagined the look on her face when she ran into Jessup.
The cat leaped onto the salmon colored carpet as the L3 walked across the room carrying a seemingly comatose Chester. It’s armrests gently lifted and placed him in his chair slumped over his desk. The Siamese stared at the woman with its questioning deep indigo, almond-shaped eyes, as if it knew well the uncertainty of its fate at her hands.
Pillar Devereaux walked over to a picture window overlooking the sprawling structures, homes, and business from Copernicus City branching off into the wastes of Arcadia Planitia. She took from her pocket a piece of scorched and pitted metal and a round ball of clay. She pressed the clay onto the octagonal glass window and put the piece of charred metal on the floor about five meters from the window.
She slipped her E suit over her long legs and torso and put her helmet on as she entered the airlock, the Laurel following behind. She sent an encoded laser message to the SARSA satellite located straight above Copernicus. She drove southbound on the JLME (John Loudon McAdam Expressway).
Forty-eight minutes later the clay ball on the window rose to 1900 degrees Celsius, making a hole in the two inch thick primaglass. Then it exploded, instantly decompressing the suite. The office disgorged dozens of framed photos, autographed moon rocks, asteroid souvenirs, and a drill-bit from the first mine in the Sea of Tranquility, onto the frozen tundra outside the window. The exit wound was a public display of the remnants of Chester Humboldt’s life.
He would be found dead in his office, the circumstance dismissed as a curious and unfortunate micrometeor strike. Mr. Toots, however, was nowhere to be found.