‘I’m telling you,’ Gev said to the bedraggled man by his side as they stumbled past a tracked ore processor, its rumbling engines and the crunch of rock masking their voices, ‘this is it. Can’t believe they moved us here. We steal out of this mine, we got wilderness, not twenty more levels of penal hive.’
The man grunted and shook his head, stirring the nest of cables in his enviro suit. ‘Not happening,’ he rasped, strained and distorted through his mask rebreather. His pace increased slightly, taking the lead as he ducked under an uneven stanchion.
‘Air still getting to you?’ Gev asked, not wearing a mask though the dim flickering tunnel light revealed little more than the swelling of old bruises on his already round face. Scarred, pockmarked, and with the reddish tint of extended rad exposure, his face was straight out of the Encara Tertius manufactorums, a face that had experienced the hives. ‘Seems just fine to me. Benefits of being an underhiver; air might stink and fumes set your head spinning, but it makes you hard. When you’ve lived in that,’ he made a show of filling his lungs to capacity, ‘you’re hardened to anything. Still, doesn’t mean I’m sticking around in some mine ‘till one of those rock saws takes my head off or I’m in the wrong place when the brass melta-bore through the wrong tunnel wall. Ain’t that right, surfacer? They ain’t letting us out of here. You know it like I do.’
When no response came, Gev changed tac. ‘Where are we heading anyway? You got a better route out of here? Usho? What’s the matter with you?’
‘Yeah,’ Usho said. He waved vaguely down an uneven passage. The heavy air held the scent of freshly hewn rock. ‘Down here.’
The tunnel lacked the finish of the previous and the ore processors diminished to a distant hum behind them. They trudged uneven ground for minutes, not another soul crossing their path until the grind of rock saws grew louder once more. It was darker here. The first person they passed ground at the walls with a rock saw held in both hands. He worked only by the lambent bug-eyes of his enviro suit and paid them no mind beyond a short, sidelong glance.
They passed another two, similarly garbed, who paid as little attention as the first, or so Gev thought. Something about the fourth worker caught his eye. His stance was wrong for someone cutting rock, suited more to a prepared swing of the heavy cutting tool. Gev then picked up on a subtle gesture from Usho before the worker took up a stance more appropriate to mining. Far too appropriate, for the worker’s third arm gave him exceptional control of the tool.
Mutants. Not unheard of in the bowels of the underhive, huddled under cowled rags in dank, secluded corners. Not unheard of, but mutants always meant danger. Gev’s hand involuntarily moved to a cluster of pockmarks on his face. Always dangerous. ‘What’s going on, Usho?’
Boots scuffed on the ground behind.
Gev spun around and faced three miners in bug-eyed enviro suits blocking his exit, one with a rock saw and the other two with mining picks. ‘Usho? What is this?’
Usho reached up and removed his mask to reveal discoloured skin and a bald head with an elongated cranium. ‘A choice,’ he rasped.
The rock saws whirred to life.