Gerro’s Giant Grongeduke
Of course there was endless speculation on how it had gotten so big. Gerro stuck to his official version: he didn’t know, but he’d found the carcass in blank territory. That made it his. And that was that.
Within two days, Gerro had ordered a full quad-square foam dome out of Main Town and hired Mickey Mackey’s leg-lifter to convey his grongeduke inside along with some proportionately enormous grongedueke eggs he'd also found. He then parked himself out front to charge admission to the only grongeduke museum in existence.
He also told his mother she should quit her job, given the income he now expected to make. She did not. But to her great surprise, people did indeed line up to see the giant grongeduke, and the stream of gawkers grew steadily. This success was all the more remarkable because Gerro’s museum was in Far Town, the most remote and least populated outpost on Ticket. Gerro was frequently lobbied to move his prize to Main Town, but he firmly ignored the obvious monetary advantage.
A little history is in order. Some thirty-two loops earlier, Ticket had been identified as the most mineral-rich planet ever discovered. The dense rocky ball had virtually every mineral currently in demand, and lots of it. Sadly, it was the least welcoming orb in a densely packed star system with fully six other habitable worlds that were much nicer.
Ticket had reasonably breathable atmosphere and not-too-burdensome gravity but the aged sphere, orbiting closest to the its even-more aged, bloated sun, had been nearly baked dry. It had only one remaining water source: a vast but intensely salty lake.
Nevertheless, claims were filed, money compiled, and a consortium formed: Burris Exploration. Numbers were assiduously crunched and it was determined that the lake, if plumbed with gargantuan desalination plants, could provide water for some ten loops of wanton exploitation, assuming a human population that did not exceed “X.” The number was kept secret so that it could be routinely exceeded.
Ironically, the ten loop maximum would also be exceeded several times over. That would arise not due to good planning, increased efficiency, determination, or even luck. It would be the direct result of gross corporate negligence in the initial analysis of the planet. But that revelation would come later.
For now, with feasibility established, more or less, the next problem was attracting workers to this exceptionally inhospitable place. High salaries were a given, but considerable thought also went into the aesthetics of work-place presentation.
The planet was dubbed "Fortunata," a name that no doubt elicited sidelong smirks even at the Burris meeting in which it was hatched. That salt water body became "Devonshire Lake" (after one of the consortium founders). The town to be raised on its shores was dubbed the rather awkward "Rhapsoda," because names like "Paradise," "Bliss," and "Eden" had been already been used ad infinitum on other planets in the crowded system. What would become Main Town was called, if you can imagine, "Ruralania."
The logic ran like this: cities on lakes are inherently more attractive than cities not on lakes. So it was assumed that Rhapsoda, where the crucial DSal plants were to be built, would be Ticket’s primary hub and planet-port. Ruralania’s role would be farming. But a sprawling dead zone surrounded Devonshire Lake – thousands of square kilometers of salt desert left by eons of evaporation. So Ruralania could be situated only on the closest fertile ground, some 1900 kilometers away. Water piped from the DSal plants would irrigate the enormous farms needed to feed the planet’s mine workers. Hydroponic farming was rejected as unnecessarily expensive, for even though Ticket had long been plant-free, its soil was unusually rich with nutrients atypical on most dry planets. Lab tests had shown that with adequate water, produce would be abundant even without fertilizer. It was expected that the farms could be tended by a relatively small number of local workers, and that Rhapsoda would be the base of all other operations.
But this assumption was made by people who had never, and would never, travel to Ticket. When the rank-and-file employees actually arrived, and the realties of local life became evident, distant corporate planning got a swift local makeover.
Devonshire Lake’s sulfurous stench, along with the suffocating salt storms that regularly billowed from the blindingly snow-white desert around it, made laughable the supposed appeal of living lake-side. Settlers quickly identified distant Ruralania as a much more desirable location. So Ruralania grew like a weed, if you will, while Rhapsoda languished. And, by the way, the ludicrous corporate names were ignored by settlers in all but official paperwork. Rhapsoda became Far Town and Ruralania became Main Town. Thus began a local tradition of coining nicknames for just about everything, especially to replace any label invented by distant and disliked company executives. Ticket underwent more ad hoc re-naming than any other previous orb.
Devonshire Lake, despite its imposing size, was unofficially dubbed "The Puddle." The parent corporation itself, Burris Exploration, became "Crush Co," a moniker that more accurately described the concern’s rapacious attack on Fortunata's resources.
The planet’s population was almost exclusively TempRs. Young and single, they came to earn the flash-cash needed to finance a move to one of the more hospitable worlds. With its high salaries, Fortunata was the ticket to somewhere else. Anywhere. Hence, it, too, got a nickname.
Over time, bustling communities sprouted around each mine site. But no mines sprouted at Far Town, because it sat atop thousands of meters of salt left by the relentlessly evaporating Puddle. There was nothing of value to mine. So Far Town ironically became the least populated and most out-of-the-way place on Ticket.
And, in the perverse way that prejudices inevitably develop, Far Town's DSal workers were looked down upon. They were paid less than miners because DSal was deemed less dangerous than mining. Further, despite the fact that without DSal's indefatigable output, not a single other activity could be carried out on the planet, the average TempR illogically felt that miners worked harder.
It was into Ticket's lowest caste Gerro was born. He was in fact the only resident to be planet-born. No one came here to raise a family. But his parents were atypical. They had met and married there, finding they shared a love of this arguably horrific place, even signing up for additional tours of duty with Crush Co. Gerro's father, Hammet, was an engineer responsible for construction and maintenance of the third phase DSal plants, built as fourth generation TempRs were arriving to work the mines. Gerro's mother, Ginny, was a Water Filtration Manager.
If asked, Ginny would tell you that Gerro was eight loops old. Committed to life on Ticket, she and Hammet felt that time should be measured by local standards. Most TempRs (and Crush Co, too, for that matter) preferred to follow the system norm, converting time to Home World Years. But Ticket’s star system was more than five lifetimes' journey from Home World. Gerro’s parents accepted that reality. Ticket, not some mythical planet reachable only by great-great-grandchildren, was home. For the record, Gerro’s 8 loops translated to about age 30 HWY.
He was a stocky fellow, considerably shorter and darker-skinned than his parents. “It’s the salt,” his mother said simply, but with a tinge of remorse; “It’s hard on a baby.” Nevertheless, Gerro’s lesser stature was more than offset by a ready smile and an eagerness to work that needed no nourishing. He grew up believing that to work DSal was to deliver Ticket’s life blood; that Far Town, despite its remoteness, despite corporate, political and popular neglect, was in fact the beating heart of the planet.
For Gerro there was no question where the Giant Grongeduke museum belonged. In his quiet way, he was striking a blow for his birthplace.
Gongedukes, by the way, were by far the best known of Ticket’s few remaining indigenous creatures. The others – some gnat-like sand dwellers, some slug-like cave dwellers, and a blobbish thing that survived on pure salt -- were of interest only to ecological purists. And even their interest was blunted by Crush Co.'s long-term plan for Ticket: decimate and leave. There was zero concern for damage to the Ticket ecosystem (what ecosystem?) or for any extinctions that might result.
Thus it was ironic that, while Crush Co’s business plan pointedly ignored indigenous life forms, grongedukes had quickly become notorious because they couldn’t be ignored. This was all the more surprising since no one knew they even existed until well after settlers arrived -- due to the aforementioned gross negligence.
The unfortunates who discovered them were the early residents of Ruralania. The farms had barely been established when farmers started turning up dead. And not just dead, but dead with their bones picked med-school clean. The unknown killers left no trace. Actually, they did: the skeletons were liberally dusted with minute particles of a chitinous material vaguely like fish scales. But investigators ignored the clue because the material had been identified in initial surveys as one of the happily abundant soil nutrients. It was ubiquitous, found practically everywhere on Ticket, and therefore, they reasoned, couldn't be a clue.
So the phantom farmer-killers remained an utter mystery. Authorities were stumped. Settlers were scared. Settler recruitment dropped to nil. And, most importantly, Ticket’s investors faced financial disaster.
It took just over a quarter loop, but eventually one farmer survived an attack and solved the mystery. He was the now legendary Durny Bonnanto, and he was found, dehydrated and half starved, but alive, in his tractor in one of the most distant fields. Luckily for him, the machine had an enclosed cab with tough Krystalon windows. His rescuers noted that the paint had been cleaned off its exterior as though by a sand blaster, the bare metal glinting eerily in Ticket’s red-orange sunlight.
Once safely back in Main Town, Durny eagerly explained all. He and his co-worker, Mallock Fowles, were manning the irrigation pumps on the newly planted thousand hectare field some seventy kilos from Ruralania. The pumps were not yet automated, since the optimum timing for watering had not been determined. So the men were making the long lonely drive from one pump to the next, starting them manually.
At the equally now legendary Pump Station 15, there were three pumps. The men had started two, and were walking toward the third. A strong wind was blowing a heavy mist of the spraying water back over them while they walked and, as Durny described it: “Suddenly that wet ground it just started to bubble, I mean boil like water in a pot. I’m thinking something like a volcano is happening, you know? Except it’s all around us, as far as I can see every which way. Not coming up in one place like you’d think. That dirt keeps bubbling and jumping and just frothing around.”
They were witnessing the first phase of a grongeduke bloom. Billions of the animals, at first nearly microscopic, were bursting from billions of eggs -- eggs that had lain dormant for, in some cases, countless ages, awaiting Ticket’s ever-more-infrequent rains. Awaiting water.
The grongedukes immediately set about doing what is most important after hatching: eating. Later it would be found that grongdukes evolved an elegantly simple solution to the problem of what you eat on a planet with virtually no remaining food sources. You eat each other. Rapaciously. Gluttonously. Very, very quickly. Half-eaten grongedukes have been shown to die still nibbling on their nearest neighbors. Nothing goes to waste; every part of every one is consumed by the one next larger.
And while they eat they grow. Very, very quickly. They have a cellular division rate unmatched by anything else anywhere else. They quite literally grow before your eyes. (Much later, the Main Town Welcome Center’s “See Them Grow!” exhibit would briefly be its most popular attraction until Crush Co.’s lawyers deemed it too dangerous to hatch grongdukes outside of a laboratory setting.)
So, like the luckless farmers before them, Durny and Mallock had inadvertently triggered a bloom simply by wetting the ground. And they were about to become bonus meals for the horde of ravenous hatchees. In minutes, the men found themselves in an undulating sea of tiny scrabbling crustaceans, all furiously tearing each other limb from limb and, coincidentally, chomping mini-chunks out of the men. It wasn’t that the grongedukes were attacking them deliberately. They were simply doing what they do, eating anything edible as fast as possible.
By sheer chance, Durny was closer to the tractor because, moments before, the hissing irrigation heads had given Mallock the urge to pause and relieve himself. Durny just made it inside the cab, his legs bleeding from thousands of minute grongeduke bites.
Mallock, a crucial few yards behind him, did not make it. And Durny watched him die. The bad thing about being eaten alive by thousands of very small carnivores is that you don’t die quickly. To hear Durny tell it, as he would almost daily for the rest of his life, it was more like Mallock dissolved. As he staggered toward the tractor, his clothes and boots swelled and then burst with the bodies of grongdukes engorging themselves on him. He fell. Unable to get to his feet, he crawled. And at last he vainly rolled over and covered his head with his arms. He thrashed and screamed as what looked like a living roiling carpet enveloped him. And slowly, inexorably, he was nibbled into non-existence, skin first, then still-twitching muscle. Not until the grongedukes reached his internal organs did he finally pass away.
With Mallock consumed, the grongdukes returned to eating one another. And more and more kept hatching, for the pumps were still running, and water sustains a grongeduke bloom. The frothing mass of them stretched over the entire area being irrigated, growing ever higher. Durny soon found himself in darkness, the tractor buried under a living ocean, meters deep. Their battle raged for much of a spin, or nearly 32 hours. He worried that the sheer weight of them would crush his cab and doom him to co-consumption.
The grongedukes that were most successful in killing and eating their brethren grew larger and larger. By the dim light of his instrument panel, Durny gaped in horror at now rat-sized monsters fighting, writhing, seething across his windows, drenched with viscous, blue-black grongeduke blood.
Eventually the irrigation pump engines, clogged with grongeduke bodies, overheated and failed. The ancient tide turned. Grongedukes stopped hatching. Survivors ate ever-fewer survivors as the chaos slowly subsided.
To Durny's surprise, sunlight now found its way back to him. “Oh Lord I can’t tell you what it was to see that light. I thought I must be buried under a mile of'em, never to be found by no one. But nope, suddenly they just like melted away.” That last claim was met with skepticism, but it would prove true.
His tractor was inoperable, but Durny was eventually found, and he began telling his fantastic story. Frantic research was begun. It was quickly confirmed that water indeed triggered grongeduke blooms. Live specimens were hatched, captured and studied.
Crush Co.’s official name was the typically uninspired “LF8” -- the eighth multi-cellular life form identified on the planet. Durny’s heirs (none living on Ticket) claim he invented the name “grongduke,” but this is unlikely. There is no record of him using the term until well after it appeared in other sources. More likely, it arose from Ticket dwellers’ penchant for nicknaming, its original coiner unheralded.
It has been proposed that the name is derived from the sound the creatures make when devouring one another. Some call it a gurgling noise, others a grinding noise, but all agree that it ebbs and swells with an ominous rhythm; and some insist that rapidly saying “grongeduke-grongeduke-grongeduke” in a guttural voice describes that rhythm.
Names aside, the discovery of the farmer-killers only increased the potential for economic catastrophe facing Ticket's investors. Durny’s vivid description of poor Mallock’s demise would probably have done this on its own. But images of grongedukes inevitably flooded the media, and this turned settler fear into near hysteria -- because the little beasts are unthinkably ugly.
Of course nearly every planet sports an ugly life form, but it is generally agreed that grongedukes take the cake, win the prize, top the charts. With uncanny precision, they embody everything humans find repulsive.
At first glance one is reminded of a spider or crab, due to the sprawl of scrabbling exoskeleton legs. Next, the dun-colored segmented body is a demonic blend of scorpion and wasp, mottled with glinting spots of pus yellow and mucus green. The mouth exceeds hellish fantasy with its bizarre combination of hinged claws and snake-like tentacles.
Finally, surpassing body, legs and mouth, are a grongeduke’s six eyes. Even though they are on stalks, the eyeballs are eerily human in both coloration and shape. Couple that with a built-in scowl (like that of hawks on Home World) and you get a six-fold expression of pure malevolence. In reality, that glare, so meaningful to humans, is probably lost on other grongedukes, as their eyes are generally the first things sacrificed in their cannibal death matches. It is thought that allowing an attacker to eat one’s scrumptious, nutrient-rich eyes gives one a few second's advantage, a chance to rip open the attacker’s more vital organs and/or complete another all-important phase of the life cycle, sex. The mouth tentacles, at first thought to be solely for holding prey, are in fact more like penises. While grongedukes are furiously eating one another, they are just as aggressively inseminating one another via these oral sex organs. In this way, all “victors” leave the battleground pregnant – an essential result.
In the final stage of a bloom, mature grongedukes turn to laying eggs. This task is undertaken by survivors of any sex, and some researchers argue that there may be as many as four sexes. In any case, grongedukes have distilled life’s stepping stones to a breakneck survival marathon. Birth. Food. Sex (sort of). Eggs. Death.
Even in death there is a curious finale. As egg laying begins, a subset of smaller grongedukes spring forth from eggs whose hatching is delayed by a mechanism as yet undiscovered. The newcomers attack and devour the bodies of the larger egg-layers. The torrent of frenetic life ends as it begins, with a nearly microscopic army salvaging every last bit of usable material. This discovery finally substantiated Durny's insistence that the millions of animals that had buried his rig suddenly somehow "melted away" and were nowhere to be seen by the time his rescuers arrived.
The members of the grongeduke cleanup crew, after eating everything left, enter a sort larval state and swiftly dry out. The husk-like bodies of this last wave of tiny cannibals are the nutrient-rich “scales” that were dismissed by the planetary survey teams. Evidently, the latecomers' reward for being on cleanup duty is, when water next comes, they revive before the traditional eggs hatch. Then, being somewhat larger than their egg-borne compatriots, they presumably have an advantage during the next feast/orgy.
All this fascinating science was of exactly zero interest to Ticket's human residents. No one wanted to be eaten alive by the ugliest and most depraved monster in the known universe. People, especially the farmers, wanted out. Resignations were rampant, legally-binding contracts be damned. While Crush Co. officials desperately tried to reassure settlers that photos of the bugs were highly magnified and the threat exaggerated, they also swiftly built grongeduke-proof shelters (g-shacks) and provided a flotilla of hastily retro-fitted grongeduke-proof farm vehicles.
These were interim solutions. A frantic reassessment of Ticket’s food supply was also made. Astronomical sums were diverted to replacing Ruralania's open fields with gigantic, enclosed, hydroponic farms.
Simultaneously, laws were enacted in an attempt to reassure residents that grongeduke blooms could be avoided or at least controlled. It became a criminal act to allow any moisture to touch Ticket terra firma. Outdoor plants were prohibited. Pets could be watered only indoors. Sewage was re-routed to huge incinerators. A man caught relieving himself behind a bar became the stuff of legend, summarily banished from Ticket minus his TempR earnings. There is even a record of a settler being fined for spitting.
All of this was of course a gross overreaction to the actual level of the threat, but it is testament to the morbid fear engendered by grongeduke tales and images. No law seemed too strict if there was a chance it might prevent a dreaded bloom.
This painful restructuring and reassessing took over a loop, with mining curtailed and profits nose-diving. But eventually the gargantuan Hpon farms were completed, grongeduke blooms were effectively eliminated, settlers were lured back, and Ticket’s exploitation regained its momentum. In the loops that followed, most TempRs came and went without ever seeing a grongeduke. Large blooms occurred naturally only after one of Ticket’s very rare rain storms. And every resident knew to run screaming for a g-shack at the mere sight of a cloud.
By the time Gerro was born, even small-scale gardening was permitted. It had been shown that, 1) grongduke eggs did not permeate every square inch of soil and, 2) a bloom unleashed by only a few gallons of water was self limiting and short-lived. Indeed, bored young mine workers, hot-headed and usually drunk, were known to sneak out onto the former farm fields at night and hold "gorgies" -- grongeduke orgies. They would mark off several equal-sized plots of ground and spray water over each, then retreat to the safety of vehicles to watch the blooms, placing bets on whose “team” would win the ensuing cannibal-fest. In one instance, an entrepreneurial and very inebriated gambler stole an 800 liter water tank and dumped the entire contents on his plot prior to his competitors' arrival. His bloom erupted much more swiftly than he anticipated. He failed to reach his vehicle and was eaten alive by his team, though technically he did win the evening’s competition. After that, participation in a gorgie was made punishable by immediate deportation.
While rarely seen by the average TempR, grongedukes never lost their grip on Ticket dwellers' imaginations, and Gerro was certain that a grongeduke a hundred times larger than normal was a money-making draw. He was right. Ticket's high population turnover assured a steady flow of new folk willing, on days off, to fly out and pay Gerro’s very reasonable entry fee to see the giant grongeduke.
Furthermore, practical and hard-working Gerro did not take his good fortune for granted. Over time, he added stuffed normal-sized grongedukes, information about their unusual life cycle, artifacts from Far Town's early days, mineral displays, and the like. His museum dwarfed the Main Town Welcome Center’s puny exhibits, and virtually everyone entering the Center heard: “This is nothing. If you can make it out to Far Town, you gotta see Gerro’s Giant Grongeduke.”
Also, while Ticket was hardly a tourist destination, a trickle of moneyed adventure-travel types began visiting the planet, and Gerro's museum was inevitably on their must-see lists. Finally, no biologist in the star system could resist examining the unique critter in person if a trip to Ticket could be financed.
So, Gerro was set for life, if you call living in Far Town living, which, of course, he did.
The story of how he'd found the giant grongeduke was common knowledge, and Gerro patiently told and re-told it almost every day. He'd been making the storied Long Run, carrying water to Jelly Mine and, just as he turned into Hurricane Canyon, well there it had been, right in front of him, already half dead and laying eggs. Somehow there'd been a bloom in the canyon, perhaps due to a geyser or the sudden appearance of an artesian spring (rare, but not unheard of on Ticket).
He would go on to explain that, since he had learned about grongedukes in school, he knew that this beast was far larger than any ever recorded. He also knew that the final-wave of clean-up grongedukes were about to consume this giant. So, he’d done the one thing he was still kind of ashamed of: He’d dumped an entire tank car of his water shipment (taking care to let it run slowly over a rocky area so as not to generate another bloom), and then transported the giant inside the emptied car. He had to get that grongeduke back home so other people could see it. It was special.
At the time, Crush Co, after hearing the circumstances, ruled that Gerro had not acted irresponsibly. Life on Ticket was tough. Genuine opportunities were rare. So there was a deep-seated belief that one could and should act in one’s own self interest so long said act did not jeopardize the self interest of the company. Sure, Gerro was required to pay back the full cost of the water, but the corporate lawyers advised that he had a rightful claim to the grongeduke, as it had been found in blank land where there were no mine leases. Crush Co execs, focused on mining, accepted the logic only because they failed to recognize the value of the grongeduke. By the time they did, legal advised them they’d face a PR catastrophe if they tried to take the thing from lowly Far Town resident Gerro.
Gerro’s museum thrived, and his story became historical fact. And it was fact as far as it went. But it was missing some key details.
The most significant one: before Gerro acquired the Giant Grongduke, there’d been one fellow on Ticket, quite literally the only one, who hadn't liked him. Kent Smythe hated Gerro with a passion. That in itself was ironic, since, the first time they met, Smythe had barely noticed him.
Smythe was an unusual Ticket dweller in that he was a TempR who had banked flash-cash, moved off world, then returned. This was unheard of.
He had arrived originally as one of Crush Co middle-managers in Main Town Admin, a C-rex as the locals dubbed them, due to the considerable local power they wielded. An assignment forced on only the most junior of execs, the job still had a few perks, including a side income from bribery. But even that held only modest interest for Smythe. His natural calling was that of con man.
Since he was now far from the home office, he felt a little embezzlement would go unnoticed. It did not. You may exploit subordinate employees with the company’s blessing, but you may not steal from the hand that gave you that opportunity.
He was caught, fined and summarily fired. Even so, through deft lobbying and a dash of blackmail, he was allowed to stay on Ticket as a TempR. His fellow execs mistakenly thought that this was fitting punishment, but for Smythe it was really the best option, for he knew it would allow him to recoup a significant part of his lost nest egg.
To appear contrite, he even moved to Far Town. There, he landed a position with Gerro’s father, who believed anyone could learn to appreciate the rewards of honest labor. This was when Smythe met Gerro and promptly ignored him. If anything, Gerro’s dedicated work ethic made Smythe uneasy.
Hammet patiently taught Smythe the basics of DSal operation. Smythe, a master of putting up a good front, worked diligently. He labored just as hard in his off hours running cons on the Far Town locals. While outright theft of P-tagged physical property was difficult even for someone with Smythe’s skills, age-old get-rich-quick cons worked beautifully in a population hungry to raise flash cash. As they have done throughout history, gullible folk willingly handed over their savings. When “invested” money was “lost,” Smythe made it appear that he’d lost even more than his victims. He was able to juggle these schemes for over a loop. Then, when it was clear his fragile empire was nearing implosion, he vanished, leaving Ticket for good, or so he thought.
He even managed to slightly tarnish Hammett’s stellar reputation, reporting to Crush Co that he quit due to Hammett’s mismanagement of DSal employees.
Smythe was absent for less than a quarter loop. But in that time the thing that would cause him to hate Gerro came into being: the Water Worm.
Crush Co’s number crunchers had determined the rate at which Ticket’s mineral resources could be gouged from the soil, and therefore the rate at which its water would be consumed. Pipelines had been planned accordingly, and built out only so far and no farther. But the original estimate did not take into account the significant scale of water conservation inadvertently brought about by the discovery of grongedukes. The shift to HPon farming extended Ticket’s exploitation window by at least tens of loops, yet there was neither materiel nor funding to build pipelines to the far-flung mines that could theoretically spring up. So there was considerable fretting over the loss of potential plunder.
Uncreative corporate hand-wringing did not take into account the creativity of people like Gerro’s father. The unassuming water distribution manager took his job, distributing water, very seriously. If Crush Co investors longed for distant mines, he would, with can-do spirit that thrives on any frontier, find a way to make that possible. He set about creating the Water Worm.
In simple terms, it was an overland train. At four kilometers long it was a very big train.
The “cars” were discarded 2nd phase DSal storage tanks, fitted with three-meter tall wheels taken off the monstrous earth movers used for excavating the overburden in open-pit mines. In the service of mining speed, the movers, nick-named "high chairs" because the driver's seat was some 15 meters above the ground, were usually abandoned and replaced rather than repaired, so Hammett had access to a considerable number of them. The Worm's "locomotive" was built by linking three of the big machines, painstakingly restored to running order. The lead high chair's control cab was enlarged and enhanced with insulation and a cooling system. The next two high chairs were driverless, slaved to its controls.
Even the most brain-dead C-rex had dreamed of transporting water overland, but the stumbling block had been power. Most heavy machines on Ticket, and all mining machines, were powered by “goose boxes,” local microwave transmitters. A water transport vehicle would need tremendous power, yet would have to travel far beyond the range of the transmitters. A solution eluded corporate thinking.
But Hammett matter-of-factly built a special car, the FCF, or Fuel Cell Farm. He paralleled hundreds of fuel cells, normally used to run small appliances and vehicles, into a giant unit capable of turning the massive motors of the three high chairs. The FCF was placed in fifth position. Just ahead of it, car number four held the super-cooled hydrogen fuel, already produced in abundance as part DSal's operations.
With no fanfare, Hammett made a test run, traveling a hundred kilometers beyond the end of one pipeline and safely returning. With that one matter-of-fact demonstration, he made distant mining a reality. New claims were frantically filed. More TempRs were hurriedly imported. New mines sprang into being. The Water Worm began making regular runs. Crush Co investors made even more money.
Surveyors were instructed to scour for more mining opportunities, and one was found that would dwarf all previous sites. Dubbed Jelly Mine, it was, predictably, beyond the calculated extreme limit of the Water Worm. Anxious execs cornered and queried Hammet. Could he do it? Could he get water to Jelly?
Hammet did the math. It would be a grueling 8-spin round-trip, across the salt flats south of The Puddle, then over Ticket’s undulating copper powder dunes, and finally through the newly discovered Hurricane Canyon.
Hurricane was a significant concern. Oriented east-west, it was a necessary dog-leg on the generally southward journey, for it sliced through an area of jagged lava fields that were otherwise impassable. Though technically traversable, it was a uniquely daunting place even for someone in an armored, insulated multi-kiloton machine.
First, Hurricane regularly experienced gale-force winds, due to its rough alignment with The Puddle, where temperature fluctuations produced rapid swings in local barometric pressure. Icing the hellish cake, Hurricane’s walls consisted almost entirely of wind-polished quartz. Sunlight ricocheting back and forth between the walls heated the canyon with the efficiency of a solar oven. Had anyone been interested in recording record temperatures on Ticket, and no one was, they would have confirmed what Gerro’s dad later noted on his trips through the place: that it was not only the windiest, but by far the hottest place on the planet.
But it was not Hurricane or even the daunting distance of the run that gave Hammett pause. It was the fact that, for nearly the entire trip, he would be without communication. Ticket’s few satellites were geo-synced over population centers. Crush Co wasn’t about to put up a new one just to service a single employee, even one who could provide the company with its single largest revenue stream.
Wife and son lobbied Hammet to refuse the Jelly Mine run if communication was not provided. But after deliberation, Hammett instead made a counter-proposal to Crush Co -- that he be allowed to haul slurried ore back from the mine after each water run, and be paid handsomely for hauling it. He pointed out the side benefit of increasing Jelly’s output by as much as 25%, as the available sub-orbital ore-lifters would not be able to keep up with Jelly's projected output.
It was a Ticket-shaking proposal. All residents were Crush Co employees. No resident went into business for him/herself. On the other hand, the profit potential of Jelly Mine was greater than that of any ten other claims. Furthermore, a hasty clandestine investigation revealed that no one could run the custom-built Water Worm as reliably as Hammet and that, even if they could, it was unlikely that anyone, even for triple wages, would be willing to risk piloting it over the worst landscape of an already awful planet. In the end, both Crush Co execs and Jelly Mine’s owners were willing to bend the rules regarding employee profiteering (inadvertently paving the way for Gerro's Giant Grongeduke museum).
The legendary Long Run was born. With Hammett's first water delivery Jelly roared into existence and became the most productive mine on Ticket. Since Hammett would now spend much of his time aboard the Worm, Gerro advanced to share DSal management duties with Ginny. And without meaning to, the Parvins were on their way to being the planet’s richest non C-rex residents. This was all the more ironic given that Crush Co’s generous retirement plan (predicated on the assumption no TempR would ever stay long enough to vest in it), would have already guaranteed a comfortable life for them.
The Parvins would never have hoped for more. Yet more arrived -- in the form of Kiata. Orphaned in the disastrous Middleton planetary flare-up, she had been bounced roughly through the system, becoming fiercely independent, and sought out Ticket at just under 7 loops of age. A job in DSal, always short of employees, was easiest to get, and she pounced on it with no other intention than banking flash-cash and moving on. But that choice caused her to collide with the warmly welcoming Parvins, a family like none she had ever known.
Everything she had had to be to survive - quick-learning, hard-working, low-profile, no-nonsense -- suited life at DSal perfectly. Plus, she took to Gerro's quiet tutoring (valve service, intake volume control, hydrogen sequestering) as though born to it.
Like him, Kiata was short, stocky and muscular. But though they were the same shape, the couple otherwise presented a striking contrast. Against his dark tones she shone like a translucent being, with frantically freckled white skin that resisted all tanning, and head topped with a dense close-cut frazzle of red hair that flamed even redder under Ticket's aged sun. A lifetime of hardship had set Kiata's russet brows in a permanent half-frown above squinted blue eyes. Gerro found this built-in expression of seriousness most becoming. In a slow, gentle, natural way, she and Gerro became an item.
It was as close to a fairy tale romance as Ticket would ever see. The orphan had found a home and a mate. The man had met a woman willing to stay longer than "a-loop-twenty-two" (1.22 loops being the average time it took to bank flash cash).
But, only 233 spins later, the fairy tale took a typically dark Ticket turn. Hammett was killed on the Long Run.
When he became overdue at Jelly, search parties set out from there and from Far Town. It was several spins before the Water Worm was finally found, broken down in Hurricane Canyon. Hammett’s body was on the maintenance catwalk that encircled the FCF, already mummified in the dry searing heat.
A G-Banger was immediately dispatched to Far Town to pick up Gerro and fly him to the site. (G-Bangers, nicknamed after the extreme speed of the grongduke sex act, were small, fast flying machines normally reserved for VIP surface travel.) The flight was not authorized for sentimental reasons, but rather because it was critical that the Worm finish the run to Jelly, and Gerro was the only one with the knowledge to repair it.
It required some detective work for him to discover what had gone wrong. Even though Hammett religiously ran a pre-trip checklist as complex as one for space flight, a fatal flaw in the Worm’s design had undone him, an ironic consequence of his own redundant safety features.
All fuel cell powered systems on Ticket had multiple sensor-controlled fail-safe valves to guard against leakage of explosive hydrogen. Repeated exposure to the heat in Hurricane Canyon had caused the sensors governing the flow of hydrogen to the fuel cells to overload and shut down. The Worm had ground to a halt, utterly powerless. Of course, Hammett had back-up valve units aboard, but these, even though “new in the box,” had been subjected to the same heat for the same number of trips. Each one had failed as soon as he installed it.
It was obvious to Gerro that his father had then valiantly tried to construct a line to bypass the valves. He had scavenged tubing and pipes from other parts of the Worm, but none was designed to withstand the super cold hydrogen and each had, in turn, shattered. Hammet's attempts lay around him in multi-colored pieces. He had died literally with a wrench in his hand.
Gerro knew Hammet would have been dismissive of his own death. He always said, “Everyone makes mistakes. Best you can do is try not to make them when they really matter.” Hammet was hurriedly laid to rest near the worm, any other option being deemed too expensive and time-consuming.
Returning immediately in the G-banger to Far Town for the necessary parts, Gerro repaired the Worm and finished the run. Then, much to Ginny’s intense but acquiescent dismay, and with his father’s matter-of-fact calmness, Gerro assured Crush Co that he would take over the Worm and continue the Long Run. Ginny became DSal overseer. Kiata advanced to distribution maintenance. Mine operations went on virtually uninterrupted. Indeed, in the end, the only lives truly disrupted were Gerro and Kiata's. Work, grief, and long separations due to Gerro's commanding the Worm kept the hopes and dreams of mere love at bay.
It was into this situation that Kent Smythe returned, or rather, came crawling back. In events predictable to anyone but him, his lifestyle had exceeded his flash-cash stake, and his amorality wore out its welcome on three other planets. He was in debt and hot water. A return to Ticket, to Far Town, was his only option. Fortunately for him, all Far Town TempRs he’d conned in his previous tenure had since left Ticket.
He accepted the exile with no clear plan. Two things quickly changed that. One, he saw the relatively fabulous house that the Long Run had built. Ginny and Gerro now lived in an eight room mansion (stacked quad-pods). Ginny was almost embarrassed by its opulence. Even Kiata, of whom Smythe had taken no notice whatever, now occupied the Parvins' previous domicile, a relatively spacious twin-pod (Gerro and Kiata did not live together, despite their strong attraction).
Two, he learned that Gerro’s father was dead. This was excellent news, for Smythe knew that Hammett would never have forgiven his earlier abrupt exit. But now he was free to attempt to regain his job in DSal. He concocted a story for Ginny and Gerro, replete with contrition, swearing that Hammett had been the only one in his life to give him a real chance, and that he’d been a fool to leave. He made the teary claim that he had realized he really loved Ticket and wanted to make it his home. This inevitably swayed the patriotic Parvins. Gerro and Ginny agreed to give him a second chance. Kiata, younger but with crucial off-Ticket experience, argued earnestly against this generosity. To her, Smythe's sob-story was as transparent as Krystalon. But she was overruled. It was the only major issue over which she and Gerro ever disagreed.
Thus Smythe returned to DSal, and the Long Run became his obsession. He had to have it. Short of being a C-rex or mine owner, it was the most lucrative enterprise on Ticket. Yes, it was a job he'd have turned down had it been offered at any other time. But while he hadn’t quite accepted that he might end his days on Ticket, there was no harm in becoming its richest TempR in the meantime. And anyway, once he controlled The Long Run, he would hire out the driving and retire to Main Town, where an enhanced income would make him immune to Admin’s vagaries.
Smythe was not untalented. In addition to a knack for lying, he had many legitimate skills. But deeply ingrained in his psyche was the conviction that these skills should be used only in the service of robbing, cheating, or defrauding his fellow human. Every honest spin’s work done for an honest spin’s pay was failure.
Despite that, he focused on his primary goal and indulged in no other cons. He toiled tirelessly, often volunteering for uncomfortable, lonely and even dangerous DSal jobs. After all, any con, properly executed, is built on a bedrock of apparent selflessness. It took a grueling quarter loop, but Gerro and his mother came to believe Smythe was truly a changed man, and to accept him as an exceptional employee. Kiata clung to her suspicions but could find no crack in his facade.
Smythe explored several other routes to taking over the Long Run before settling on murder. He probed Ticket’s laughably lax banking system for ways to undermine Gerro’s relative wealth, but was unsuccessful. He bugged Gerro’s and Ginny’s communications in hopes of uncovering incriminating evidence of something, anything; but learned only that they were pillars of the community in the truest sense. He even made an attempt to buy The Long Run with funds he did not have. But Gerro politely assured him it was not for sale.
Smythe had never killed anyone, nor even considered it, and it bothered him that it seemed necessary now. There was something inelegant about it. In the past he had always been able to vanquish opposition with lies, slander, blackmail, money. But his options were now too limited. Gerro had to go. The elegance would come from the orchestration of the departure: a tragic accident, of course.
The Water Worm was the key, since it spent so much time beyond the reach of planetary communications. Still, staging the right sort of accident presented a challenge. Gerro was even more meticulous than his father. He had re-engineered the Water Worm to be safer than before. So Smythe, in addition to his other duties, volunteered to do routine maintenance on the Worm so that he could study it for weaknesses.
The accident’s details began to evolve. Hurricane Canyon was the ideal spot. Not only was it com-free, Smythe felt sure that the irony of Gerro dying in the same place as his father would actually diminish suspicion. It was tragically perfect: son following father to righteous DSal martyrdom. Also in Smythe’s favor was the fact that most deaths on Ticket weren’t investigated vigorously. Pioneer life was dangerous. TempRs tended to be reckless and hot-headed. Accidental death was common.
After much study, Smythe focused on the Worm’s fuel supply, and in particular the safety feature Gerro had built into the system after his father’s death. The liquid hydrogen pipeline now ran forward from the storage tanks directly into the control cab, through a manually operated valve, then back to the FCF, bypassing all sensor-controlled systems. This was illegal of course, but no one cared, or even asked. It gave Gerro manual control of the hydrogen fuel supply (a main tank and two separately controlled auxiliary tanks) from within the safety of the heavily insulated, air conditioned cab, without relying on relays, sensors, or even electrical circuits.
In this robust simplicity Smythe found his solution. He reasoned that the constant flexing and vibration of the hydrogen line where it entered the cab would eventually fatigue its metal. What if the line suddenly ruptured inside the cab? Why, Gerro would be frozen solid in seconds, yet with ample fuel remaining in the auxiliary tanks. He need only engineer the pipeline’s failure.
The small explosive charge was easy to create from propellant-fired concrete fasteners; and just as easily hidden under the hydrogen line's thick insulation. It was the detonator that was a work of genius, Smythe modestly felt. It was built from an ordinary pocket-watcher. Required to be worn at all times by TempRs, pocket watchers were ostensibly safety devices, small I.D. units that kept track of employees' locations in case of emergency. Of course they also gave Crush Co detailed records of employees’ movements, calls, spending habits, etc. Smythe modified one to trigger his bomb, setting it so that it would start a countdown when it stopped receiving sat-com signals. That way the bomb could go off only when Gerro was beyond communication and very far from any sort of help. Knowing the average speed of the Worm, Smythe input a countdown that would place the machine deep in Hurricane Canyon at the time of the “accident.” If for any reason Gerro returned to communications coverage before detonation, the countdown would self-cancel and the bomb would not go off. Smythe was quite proud of that refinement.
However, the use of an explosive did present a potential problem: evidence. It meant that Smythe must be first on the scene of the accident. He would have to remove bomb fragments and replace the damaged fuel line with another he had laboriously pre-made, one clearly fatigued and ruptured under pressure. So, his plot evolved to include a believable explanation for why he alone would be first to come upon the scene of the tragedy. He began routinely volunteering to work at DSal 42.
It was the newest desalinization plant, and the most distant from Far Town, built under Hammett's direction at the southern most end of The Puddle. There Hammett had discovered an deep pool of lower-saline water, isolated by natural precipitate dams from the saltier main body of the lake, and therefore ideal for DSal.
When it came online, DSal 42 produced more water at less cost than a half dozen other plants combined. And, taking advantage of the advances in automation that had arisen over many loops, it ran mostly without human oversight. It needed maintenance only every thirty spins, unless sensors reported a problem. When a visit was required, it was a grueling two spin trek in a bone-rattling topcar. These small two-seaters had never improved much, as there was so little need for overland travel on Ticket. They were enclosed, had air conditioning, and were claimed to be bloom resistant, but that was the extent of their luxury.
Nevertheless, Smythe eagerly added DSal 42 maintenance runs to his already exhausting schedule. This had the side benefit of impressing even Kiata, causing her for the first time to doubt her distrust of the man.
In reality, the dual appeal of DSal 42 was that it was on the very edge of the regular communications network and it was about a third of the way to Hurricane Canyon. So it was believable that while there he might receive a faint distress call from the Water Worm if one happened to be sent.
Smythe would engineer that call himself. On his first Ticket tour he had easily learned to subvert Crush Co’s standard-issue personal communications units. While most people on Ticket didn’t care that Crush Co monitored all communications, Smythe’s approach to life demanded privacy, and he acquired a host of tools that allowed him to keep evidence of his lying and spying off company systems. It was a short step from there to building a clone of Gerro’s p-com from which Smythe could send a message that would log on the receiving end as coming from Gerro's genuine unit.
Smythe even custom-created the audio for the message. After recording many of Gerro’s calls, he assembled and edited and tweaked until he had one that sounded convincingly like a garbled emergency request for help. Loading it into his Gerro p-com clone, he could “send” it to his own p-com any time he wanted.
On the pre-determined fateful spin, Gerro left in the Water Worm, making the regular run to Jelly. And Smyth caused a phony sensor report to appear to come from DSal 42. It indicated a problem with the plant's automated radio unit, both justifying Smyth's unscheduled trip to the plant and explaining why he was unable to call in when he got there.
Once at DSal 42, he disabled the radio so that he could later “repair” it. Then he simply waited until his calculations told him the Water Worm should be entering Hurricane Canyon.
And so it was that Smythe, alone at DSal 42, was the only one to receive Gerro’s message that there was some sort of trouble with the Water Worm fuel supply.
What was Smythe to do? He could not call for help because DSal 42’s radio was down. Should he waste precious time returning to Far Town, or should he race across Ticket’s hostile surface in a fragile topcar, gambling his own life to come to Gerro’s aid? Of course Smythe chose the heroic option and set out immediately. Tragically he would arrive too late. But in the end he would save the Water Worm shipment, just as Gerro would have wished.
There was some risk, as there is in executing any worthwhile con. Smythe would have no way of confirming his bomb had gone off until he caught up to the Water Worm. Still, he was confident that he could, if necessary, abort and slip back to DSal 42 if he found the lumbering train still functioning.
Now, many kilometers from DSal 42, careening in and out of the Worm’s dune-sized ruts, he marveled at how hot his topcar cab was getting, even with the cooling system laboring at maximum. When he entered Hurricane Canyon, with sunlight reflecting and refracting from its crystalline walls, the temperature in his claustrophobic vehicle shot still higher. Even the heat-resistant silica gel holding the windows in place began to sag like melting wax. He was having second thoughts about his Plan B. If he did have to abort, the run back to DSal 42 was going to be uncomfortable at best.
But then he rounded a bend and saw salvation. There was the rear end of the Worm. Stopped dead. He congratulated himself. The timing of his explosive could not have been more perfect.
He sped forward. The little topcar passed easily under the hulking water tank cars and he zipped along between their gargantuan wheels. The shade was such a relief!
Traversing the length of the Worm, he skidded to a dusty stop under the lead high chair. He was elated to see frosty white curlicues of super-cooled air wisping down the machine’s flanks, flowing over his topcar in a gaseous and lusciously frigid waterfall. The high chair's cab was clearly very cold indeed.
He twisted around in his seat and grabbed a C-Zipper from behind it. Per plan, the circular-bladed cutting tool would be needed to slice through and square off the ends of the ruptured hydrogen line he knew he would find in the Water Worm's control cab.
He flung open the topcar door -- paused to gasp at the lung-collapsing heat -- and then rushed eagerly up the high chair's zig-zag access stairway. At the top, he triggered the door release and barged inside. It was instantly evident that the hydrogen fuel line had been blasted apart exactly as he’d planned. The cab had been drenched in liquid hydrogen, the interior caked in thick, brilliant white frost.
Yes, all was as expected but for one thing: there was no frozen Gerro. There was no Gerro at all. Smythe blinked. It was impossible. Nothing could have survived.
Rattled, nervously clutching the C-zipper, he stepped over to the bubble window that allowed a view down one side of the Worm and peered out. He saw no movement other than rippling heat waves. He spun around, raced back across the cab and out onto the access stair landing, squinting down the long arc of the Worm's other side.
Now he saw something besides heat waves. One hundred fifty meters behind him, a figure stepped out onto the catwalk that ringed the FCF car.
This was inexplicable to Smythe, but would not have been so to anyone who knew Gerro. While Smythe had amassed volumes of personal data on his quarry, missing from the trove was emotional material. The singularly unsentimental Smythe was quite unaware of something almost everyone else in Far Town knew: Gerro, on every Long Run, stopped to visit his father’s grave. He would spend as much as half an hour there, mentally replaying conversations, remembering advice, cherishing fond moments.
When Smythe’s bomb had gone off, Gerro had been outside the high chair cab, standing quietly at the grave. He had heard the muffled whump and turned to see his high chair's windows frosted over inside, to see water vapor freeze on the exterior of the machine -- even in Ticket’s hyper-dry atmosphere -- turning the hull a ghostly white. He’d felt a twinge of alarm as the softly rumbling engines of all three high chairs had shut down.
He had run to the lead high chair, climbed up, and triggered the door, ducking aside to avoid the rush of evaporating hydrogen he knew would erupt. The machine was in a slight depression, and a thick cloud of condensed moisture settled around it until it was an island in a milky cloud lake.
That exotic sight was lost on Gerro. When the air inside the cab became breathable, and less prone to a devastating hydrogen explosion should he strike the slightest spark, he had cautiously entered. He knew he would find the damaged hydrogen line, but he was horrified to see the extent of the damage. Not because he realized it was sabotage. He didn’t. No, he was horrified because, at first glance, the damage was a death sentence. A full three foot section wasn’t just ruptured, it was in pieces scattered across the cab floor. It was almost certainly irreparable with what he had on board.
He could not call for assistance. He would not even be missed until he was overdue at Jelly, two spins from now. Long before that Hurricane’s amplified heat would cook him alive, just like his father.
But after all these thoughts, Gerro, with the calm deliberation imbued in him by that same man, had kneeled down to further analyze the destruction. Experience quickly told him the break was unnatural. A moment’s further search revealed the alien fragments of Smythe’s homemade explosive. But they remained a mystery. Gerro had seen hardly any crime in his life. It was of course displayed rampantly in popular entertainment, but dramas on media screens seemed particularly distant and fanciful when viewed in Far Town. Gerro had, quite literally, never had a devious thought; so, he could not even connect the bomb fragments to an attempt on his life.
He could only focus on the problem at hand. Dad had always said, “You can’t argue with what is.” The destroyed fuel line was what was. So Gerro had calmly set about attempting the impossible. He exited the high chair cab, sealing the door to retain the cooler atmosphere as long as possible, and began a methodical search of the Water Worm for parts he might scavenge. Working feverishly in the FCF, he hadn't even heard Smythe’s topcar race past below him on its way to the front of the Worm.
Gerro had been disconnecting a hydraulic line from the lift used to raise banks of fuel cells into the car. He held the faint hope that it might serve as a temporary fix for the hydrogen line. But as he had stepped out of the FCF with his prize, he’d been utterly stunned to see a human being up ahead on the stairway of his high chair.
Had a third person been present as witness, it would have been a comical sight: two men, in a place as remote as human endeavor could reach, staring dumbly at one another, each with the conviction that it was impossible that the other could be there.
Smythe acted first, hurrying down the stairs while calling out, “Gerro, there has been a terrible accident! Your mother is badly hurt!” It must be said Smythe could think fast in a crunch.
He hurried down the stairs and walked briskly back along the Worm toward the FCF car, “I decided to try to catch up to you. Please don’t be angry. I know it was a risk. But I’ve brought a topcar, you see? You can take it and go to your mother and -- and I’ll finish the Long Run.”
It took Gerro longer than most would have needed to realize that Smythe intended to kill him. But the clues were there, and they percolated slowly through his naive mind. The Water Worm had been sabotaged. Smythe’s arrival within minutes of the act was coincidental in the extreme. And, perhaps most telling, Smythe was approaching with a powered-up C-zipper, a tool used only for slicing through the toughest of metals.
Smythe had just reached the top of the ladder to the FCF catwalk when the clues coalesced. It was just in time to save Gerro from Smythe's first vicious swipe with the weapon. He ducked sideways, swinging under the catwalk railing as the zipper blade ripped through it above him with a gout of molten sparks.
Gerro dropped to the ground and ran toward the rear of the Worm, applying his dispassionate thought process to this new problem. He could not hope to fight Smythe. The man was bigger, stronger, more motivated, better armed, and probably more talented at fighting. Almost anyone would be more talented, Gerro knew. As the only child on Ticket, he'd never been in so much as a tussle over a toy. Combat was a non-starter.
He glanced back. Smythe was running after him under the great rotund bellies of the water cars. Long as the Worm was, Gerro would soon reach the end of it, with no place to run except out into the killing heat of Hurricane.
His solution was both elegant and, to him, staggeringly drastic.
He would drain a tank car.
It was drastic due to his perception of water -- DSsal was the most expensive operation on Ticket. The fresh water it created was never, ever to be squandered. But his idea was also elegant in its simplicity. If he could drain a tank and secure himself inside, he was sure Smythe would not be able to reach him. It would take two hours or more to cut a man-sized hole in the car, longer than Smythe could survive in the heat of Hurricane. With the lead high chair disabled, Smythe would have no choice but to retreat to his topcar, whose batteries, Gerro knew, must be nearly exhausted with the drive to Hurricane. Smythe would either have to leave in the topcar or die. Since the tank cars had some minimal insulation, Gerro would be protected long enough to have at least slim chance exiting later to attempt his repair of the fuel line.
Plan accepted, it was still a close call. He slid to a stop at the controls for the dump doors on the next car. By the time he was able to trigger the release, Smythe was nearly upon him. Then the car's massive twin belly doors swung open and an inverted volcano of water erupted.
Gerro nimbly sprang onto the car’s nearest wheel to avoid the deluge. Smythe, caught unawares, was swept off his feet and carried pell-mell down a steep-walled wash that ran along the south wall of the canyon. Gerro felt lucky at that. It would give him just the additional time he needed.
He closed the dump doors, then, ever methodical, used a rock to crudely but effectively smash and disable their controls before scampering up the access ladder to the top of the tank. There he opened the fill hatch, a manual process requiring several nerve-wracking steps. All the while he expected to hear the whine of the C-zipper and the clunk of Smythe’s boots on the ladder.
He got the hatch open in record time, knowing it would be a simple matter to jam the latch from the inside, but as he was about to enter the tank, an unexpected sound brought him up short -- Smythe's terrified, anguished shriek. Gerro turned and peered down. From his vantage point, he could see into the wash. Smythe was determinedly clawing his way up the bank, driven not by murderous determination, but fear.
Gerro now realized that the earth all around them was “boiling.”
It was a bloom.
Rain had not fallen in Hurricane Canyon for untold loops. Nevertheless, millions of grongeduke eggs had lain there all that time. Waiting.
Gerro mentally kicked himself. It hadn't even crossed his mind that there might be grongeduke eggs in remote Hurricane. Yet now he had unleashed a bloom of apocalyptic proportions with himself and Smythe at ground zero.
It had been his intention only to save himself, not to harm Smythe. Thus, kind-hearted Gerro actually climbed back down to the bottom of the tank-car ladder and reached out a hand, calling, “Come on! Hurry! You gotta get up here!”
Smythe, struggling up the slope of the wash, had switched on the C-zipper and was sweeping it back and forth along the ground ahead of him. It was a life-saving strategy. The wind-blast created by the sheer velocity of the blade blew smaller grongedukes aside, while larger ones were pulped by the thousands. Smythe and his weapon were quickly coated in glistening, ugly blue-black grongeduke vital fluids.
Gerro gaped at the scale of the bloom. Grongedukes were everywhere -- a living, undulating froth, already inches deep on the wet ground. It flowed up the wheels, up the curved sides of the tank cars, up the ladder he was on. The stuff looked rather innocuous, like the tan foam atop a pot of simmering oatmeal, but Gerro knew it was made of millions of tiny mouths. He could not remain where he was and live.
So he scrambled back up to the top of the empty tank car, vainly shouting over his shoulder, “You better hurry!” before diving headfirst through the hatch.
Inside, losing his grip on the interior inspection ladder, he slid-fell to the bottom. As he landed, he could already hear the horrific echoing scuttle of a billion tiny grongeduke feet scritching on the walls outside. He looked up. The froth of mini-demons began to pour in. Smythe be damned, he’d have to seal the hatch. He scurried back up the ladder, fighting through the ghastly waterfall of bugs, and did just that.
Instant cave blackness.
Gerro slid back down and felt for the switch that turned on the tank’s battery powered interior inspection lights. Already he was feeling hundreds of pin-prick bites. And as the lights came on, he saw he was virtually covered in grongedukes. He swatted and flailed -- head, neck, arms torso, legs -- while simultaneously rubbing his back against the tank wall, crushing as many of the ravenous minutia as possible.
There were too many. He had to buy time. The tank was divided into eight compartments by steel baffles that rose from the floor partway to the roof. These prevented water from sloshing violently from end to end, thereby putting less strain on the Worm’s drive train and smoothing out the ride. The baffles had crude ladders welded to each face, allowing one to climb over them when inspecting the car. Gerro clambered over four baffles to reach the front of the car. Once there, with his back to the concave front wall, he knew he would have to fight. He whipped off his jacket and wielded it as a sort of fly swatter, smashing the grongeduke hordes as they scrabbled over the baffle and swarmed toward him.
It seemed an endless struggle. Grongedukes kept pouring down the face of the baffle. And, as all were co-eating their nearest neighbors, they were growing larger. Soon, many were inches long, and it took multiple swats to kill them. The sound was deafening -- grongeduke-grongeduke-grongeduke! Gerro found himself thinking, “They do sound like that!”
He kept swatting and swinging, arms burning with exhaustion. He knew he couldn't keep it up forever.
But at last there was a perverse respite. As the grongedukes grew larger and more deadly, it became harder for them to get over the baffles. They turned more to eating one another in the other seven compartments. His personal onslaught diminished.
He sagged to the floor, smacking the occasional straggler. But he hadn't won. Not yet. There were still hundreds of the voracious devils in the car with him.
A new sound threaded its way through the grongeduke din -– the grating whine of the C-zipper outside.
Gerro could hardly believe it. Smythe was still alive?
Smythe shared only one trait with Gerro, a survivor’s tenacity. He had fought his way up the slope of the wash and, upon reaching level ground, had performed continuous hunched-over pirouettes, the shrieking C-zipper held at ankle height, inching his way toward the Water Worm. His cutting tool's wholesale grongeduke slaughter saved him from being overwhelmed and borne to the ground. To be sure, many hundreds found their way up his legs, but they were still small. The bites were painful but not life-threatening.
His original goal had been to get to the Water Worm's high chair and seal himself in. But it was quickly obvious that the bloom was too immense, and that goal too distant. More and more grongedukes were boarding him, and he daren’t release his grip on the C-zipper’s trigger to swat them off. His fallback goal became the FCF. He knew that on the starboard side of its encircling catwalk was a dead-end alcove, partially roofed to protect the car’s on-board control panel from the sun.
At last reaching the car, he dashed up the ladder, along the catwalk, and into the alcove; then spun about with his back to the control panel. There, he could be approached from only one direction, and there he made his stand, desperately running the C-zipper’s blade round and round the alcove entrance, atomizing untold numbers of grongedukes while he squirmed his back against the panel and rubbed his legs together to squish unwelcome cargo. He became a bizarre humanoid caricature, completely enveloped in gloppy grongeduke gore. This had an unexpected benefit, however, in that the grongedukes that got past his blade mostly feasted on the easily edible gore rather than on him.
On went the onslaught. The number of the beasts was inconceivable. Smythe feared that the C-zipper's battery would fail before they stopped attacking.
But the bloom finally began to subside. The tank's voluminous load of water had at last been consumed.
Smythe remained tensely on alert. The grongedukes that found their way to him now were the size of small dogs. He became expert at anticipating their attack moves as they scuttled around the corner of the catwalk and charged headlong into his alcove. He caught each one with the leading edge of his blade, slicing their stalk-eyed heads neatly in half. His defense became less desperate as subsequent attackers paused to chow down on the growing stack of bodies in front of him, making themselves easy targets.
After another eternity, even this brutal stage of the battle ended. No more grongedukes appeared. Smythe tentatively switched off the C-zipper and listened. He could hear isolated scrabbling and chomping, but the previously deafening grongeduke cacophony was gone.
He dared to creep forward and peek out of his alcove. And saw, all around the Worm, hundreds of large grongedukes engaged in the next essential stage of the bloom, laying eggs. Even as they did so, the ground beneath them writhed and foamed, and they appeared to dissolve into it. Smythe, who had no interest in Ticket biology, did not know what was happening. It looked to him like the grongedukes were mysteriously disintegrating. In fact, of course, they were being consumed by the miniscule clean-up grongedukes, just now hatching to perform the final act of the bloom.
The only thing that mattered to Smythe was that the visible grongedukes were dying. The war was over. He'd won. And now he could kill Gerro, whom he hated more than ever, since he assumed that Gerro had deliberately unleashed the horde upon him.
For Gerro, the battle was not over, because the clean-up grongedukes that were giving Smythe a reprieve were locked out of the tank car. In its unnatural confines, the grongeduke cannibal orgy had continued in all the compartments except the one Gerro was defending. The top grongeduke finalists had continued duking it out.
In the end, even as overall noise subsided, he now heard one unsettling sound, a heavy, methodical scrape-and-thud, scrape-and-thud. It was the crab-leg stride of a single grongeduke. A big one.
The animal faced a grongeduke conundrum. All available food was gone, but there was no sandy soil in which to lay eggs. It began hauling itself up over the tank car's steel baffles in search of suitable laying grounds.
What it found was more food. Gerro.
He was appalled when he saw the size of the eye stalks that curled over the top of the baffle. The monster was six feet long. Gerro He readied himself for a fight, twirling his jacket into a tightly knotted rope, hoping to make it more like a club than a swatter.
The grongeduke clamped some fore-claws onto the baffle's top edge and hauled itself up and over. Gerro swung his jacket at it, but his blow glanced pathetically off the armored body. The brute dropped down beside him. He swung again and again. Even pounded it with his fists. But he could not break the shell. Its penis-tentacles whorled out and entangled his right arm, yanking it into the hell-hole mouth.
He screamed as multiple tooth-claws ripped his flesh, and with his free hand jammed his jacket into the maw. As the ratcheting mouth parts sucked his jacket inward like some slaughter house conveyor belt, he was able to yank his arm free.
He dodged aside and climbed over the baffle. But the food-inspired grongeduke, with terrifying energy, instantly clabber-scuttled after him. As it thudded to the floor behind him, Gerro desperately scrambled over the next baffle. And the next. It was a death race he knew he could not sustain. Back and forth they would go from one end of the tank car to the other, until he missed his footing or collapsed from exhaustion.
You can’t argue with what is. He had to try something else.
First he continued over the remaining baffles to the opposite end of the tank car. The grongeduke relentlessly followed, its chitinous scrabbling claws making an awful screeching on the metal.
Gerro waited tensely for the grongeduke to pull itself over the last baffle. The instant it clumsily landed beside him, he reversed course and leapt-climbed back to the central compartment where the inspection ladder led up to the exit hatch. He hoped to be fast enough to reach the ladder, get out through the hatch, slam it behind him, and trap the thing inside the car.
Up he went. And heaved against the hatch. And felt the ladder shudder with the monster's weight. He forced the hatch open. Blinding sunlight cascaded in.
Gerro flopped belly-first onto the top of the tank car. But before he could roll over and close the hatch, the grongeduke’s claws flailed up through the opening. Modifying his plan even as he nearly slid off the car, Gerro grasped the hatch lid as an anchor, swung around and drew his legs up.
The grongeduke could barely fit through the opening, wriggling from side to side as it lurched upward. Gerro waited, judging when the thing would be far enough out to be off balance.
Then, with both feet, he kicked with all his might.
His blow sent the grongeduke skittering, clawing, scratching down the curved side of the car to land in a clattering heap. Gerro dove right back down the hatch, yanking it shut behind him.
And lost his grip.
And landed hard. Painfully sucking wind, he gave only a moment's thought to his successful reprieve from being eaten, and shifted his focus to the next most pressing problem: bandaging his lacerated arm. Even so, he welcomed the silence outside. The bloom was over. And the huge grongeduke he'd out-maneuvered should soon be devoured by the clean-up crew.
Several cars forward, Smythe was now standing at the top of the ladder to the FCF car's catwalk, watching the last body parts of the egg-laying grongedukes melt into the sand all around.
As he welcomed the glorious, life-affirming silence, a nervous laugh escaped him. The Long Run was his! Gerro’s high-ranking DSal job was his. Maybe, with a little patience, even Gerro’s stocky-but-otherwise-good-looking soon-to-be forlorn mother was his.
But now he flinched, for he heard faltering irregular footsteps approaching from behind the wheels of the next closest tank car. Had Gerro somehow survived the bloom, too? Unarmed? It seemed impossible. Well, no matter, the C-zipper would tidy things up. He crouched at the top of the ladder and waited until the footsteps were close. Then jumped down, triumphantly ready to strike.
And became the second person on Ticket to see the biggest grongeduke ever.
In the tank car, Gerro was examining his arm. The gashes were many, but not too deep. No arteries severed. He had reclaimed what was left of his jacket, and wadded up a sleeve to press against his deepest cuts, slowing the bleeding.
Then, he was utterly astonished to hear the C-zipper fire up once again outside. Smythe was still alive! This was profoundly disheartening. Exhausted Gerro sagged back, his head hitting the metal tank wall with a church-bell-solemn gong. For the first time, he considered accepting that he’d met his end.
But another unexpected sound was added to the C-zipper’s ululating whine -- Smythe’s shrieks, even more piteous than before.
Confusion was compounded: the C-zipper's motor stopped, but Smythe’s screams did not. It was quite awful to hear. And continued for an excruciatingly long time.
When at last Hurricane's normal smothering silence finally re-established itself, Gerro still waited, taking short shallow breaths as he listened intently for the slightest grongeduke scrabble or Smythian footstep.
All remained quiet. But he waited another tenth-spin before he dared go up and raise the hatch. He took his time climbing down the outside ladder, pausing warily at every step. He couldn’t be sure the giant grongeduke was dead. He couldn’t even be sure Smythe was dead. It was minutes longer before he grudgingly let go of the lowest rung.
Now he crept forward toward the FCF, moving from wheel to wheel, always peering ahead under the Worm's belly. When he finally spotted the grongeduke’s hind legs, he could hardly believe his eyes. The thing was three times bigger than when he'd last seen it. Plus, a two meter high pile of foaming, snot-green globules billowed around its hind quarters – grongeduke eggs, gigantic ones. Gerro knew the beast should have buried them. Why hadn't it? And why hadn't the clean-up grongedukes consumed the monster?
He cautiously moved on, keeping his distance, edging along the full length of the immense creature. When he reached its front, it took a moment to recognize all that remained of Smythe -- his head and part of his right shoulder, held tight in the grongeduke’s rigor-mortised jaw-claws. Smythe’s C-zipper was buried at the base of one of the monster’s eyestalks. Five other severed stalks lay on the ground. It was clear that Smythe had desperately sliced off the stalks, not knowing that a grongeduke’s eyes are expendable in battle. And it was also clear why Smythe’s screaming had gone on so long: the zipper had finally jammed and he'd been slowly, inexorably, eaten alive, legs first.
It was only later that Gerro surmised explanations for the other mysteries. The giant hadn’t buried its eggs because it was still eating Smythe as it was laying. It had been simultaneously eating, growing, and laying in a grotesque perversion of the grongeduke life cycle. But Smythe had proven to be more food than a single grongeduke had ever enjoyed. And this one had begun its last meal after it was already bigger than any grongeduke in history, indeed after it was already supposed to start laying eggs. With the short-lived clean-up grongedukes already dead, this outsized anomaly had exceeded its design limits. It had kept on eating, growing, and spewing forth eggs until its internal organs simply failed.
Gerro gazed for a time at the unprecedented sight. But while he recognized that the grongeduke might be of considerable value, he could not ignore his immediate problem: the ruptured fuel line. Having already canvassed what was available on the Water Worm, he went directly to Smythe’s topcar to look for anything he might salvage – and was astonished to find precisely the pipes and fittings he needed for the repair. While the extent of Smythe’s treachery was now obvious, the reasons behind it were still unfathomable to Gerro.
The repair was now absurdly simple. In less than an hour, the triple high chairs' engines hummed to life, and the control cab's cooling system brought salvation from Hurricane's deadly heat. Confident that he would now survive, Gerro turned his attention to the most astonishing biological find in Ticket's recorded history. There was no time to get to Jelly or Far Town and return with proper equipment. The heat was already withering the grongeduke's softer parts. If he left, it would be a heap of parboiled exoskeleton long before he could get back.
Once again he pondered what was. It struck him that he had an empty tank car that was large enough to contain the body. But how to get the monster into it? It took all of Gerro's considerable ingenuity, but he devised a plan.
First he decoupled the train behind the empty car and pulled the front section forward. Then he backed up so that the empty car's rear was lined up with the grongeduke.
Next, he decoupled the empty car itself, pulling the front part of the train forward again. Then, using the repaired C-zipper Smythe had provided, he laboriously cut off the empty car's rear end, then cut the baffles out of the interior. From the baffles he made a ramp that led from the rear of the car down to the monster grongeduke. The work required frequent retreats into the control cab to cool off. But Gerro was patient. He knew his plan would work.
The Fuel Cell Farm car had an abundance of carbon-fiber straps holding the stacks of cells in place. He repurposed the strong bands into a net, which he draped over the grongeduke's body.
Gerro now cut a smaller hole in the forward end of the empty tank car and threaded the straps of his net through it, hooking them to the next car of the Water Worm. Then he was able to use the powerful Worm itself to drag the grongeduke up his makeshift ramp and into the tank car. Finally he ran a crude vent line from the cooling system of his high chair back to the tank car to keep the grongeduke's body in a pristine near frozen state.
With the grongeduke safely aboard, Gerro re-coupled the Worm into one vehicle. As an afterthought, he gathered up some of the oversized eggs, the grongeduke eyestalks Smythe had sliced off, and even, after some hesitation, Smythe’s meager remains. Those he wrapped in a sheet of insulation and placed in a tool box, expecting that he would duly report the incident when he reached Jelly Mine. You never hid anything from the Crush Co C-rexes. It just wasn't done. At least not by Gerro's family.
The rest of the run to Jelly was uneventful -- until he got there. As he piloted the Worm into the mine site, he was astonished to see a phalanx of mine execs waiting -- out in the sun no less. At the head was the mine’s manager, a woman he’d never even met.
He hurriedly shut down his engines and opened his high chair's door, intending to dash down and see what she wanted. But to his further surprise, she hurried up the long access stairway and entered the cab, awkwardly explaining she wanted to speak to him alone.
The woman was solemn and uncomfortable, for she had bad news. She grimly intoned, "There has been some sort of terrible accident at DSal 42. It is extensively damaged, and we're almost certain that your employee, Kent Smythe, has been killed."
Gerro remained silent. Given the inexplicable nature of the information, he deemed it unwise to mention that he had assorted pieces of Smythe in the tool box next to which the lady was standing. He solemnly thanked her for her delicate handling of the matter, and then rather more nervously reported that he'd suffered damage to a tank car en route and lost its cargo of water. Before he could elaborate, the manager tossed his admission off as a minor mishap and hurried back out, her duty done.
As Gerro moved to close the door, he caught sight of a squat, red-topped, DSal-suited shape bulleting up the steps. Kiata collided with him, driving him backward into the cab in a headlong hug-rush, plastering him with kisses.
To Gerro, Kiata's presence was even more amazing than the elite manager's face-to-face greeting. But she explained, with a matter-of-factness she'd long ago adopted from him, "When you went overdue, I called the Main Town C-rex of Special Flights. Told him the Water Worm was lost and I could only make a proper search outta Jelly, and if he didn't authorize a G-banger to get me there, the Worm would probably be destroyed, and Jelly'd be for almost sure, you know, shut down for no water." It had been an overstatement to say the least, but with Jelly's production at risk, no C-rex in his/her right mind would have gambled against its veracity for the minor cost of a G-banger flight.
Kiata was also able to give Gerro the details of Smythe's "death." He had indeed gone out to work at DSal 42, responding, he had said, to a communications sensor alert. Unexpectedly, sensor readings went wild after he got there. It turned out that 42 had lowered the local water level so much that an enormous section of the steep-walled pool from which it drew had collapsed. The resultant mini-tsunami had obliterated six intake domes. The backwash had sucked most of the debris into the briny depths. A rescue crew had gotten there as fast as possible, but no sign of Smythe or his topcar had been found. It was assumed he'd been in or near the domes when the disaster struck. No one could explain why he hadn't been working in the undamaged communications bay to which he had said he was going.
Gerro now quietly closed the high chair door, drew Kiata over to the tool box, and showed her what was inside. She gaped in silence for but a moment -- then easily deduced the full depth of and even the motivation for Smyth's plot. It was difficult to convince her painfully trusting lover of the truth, but in the end Gerro had to accept her assessment of Smythe's evil. And he quickly made up his mind that no one else would know if it. The story behind Gerro’s Giant Grongeduke would not be sullied by sordid details of human failing that belonged in those irrelevant media dramas he'd never cared for.
The Water Worm's cargo was off-loaded, skipping the "damaged" empty tank car. Per routine, a load of slurried ore was then taken aboard, again with that car skipped. Then Kiata and Gerro set out together in the Worm for the return trip to Far Town.
Back in Hurricane Canyon, Gerro stopped again at Hammet's grave, and asked Kiata to wait in the high chair cab. He had decided to bury the few pounds of Smythe in an unmarked spot on the opposite side of the canyon and he did not want her complicit, at least physically, in that morally debatable act. Kiata waited patiently, awed by the crystalline majesty of Hurricane towering around her, she being only the fourth human ever to see it.
Gerro returned, and now solemnly took Kiata to his father's grave. They stood quietly there for quite some time, despite the crushing heat, both deeply moved to be there together, and struck by the oddness of circumstances that had brought this about.
Then Gerro abruptly knelt down and asked Kiata to marry him. He apologized for not having the foresight to have a ring with him. He felt sure his father would have had such foresight.
Nonetheless, the proposal was the most romantic Kiata could have imagined. She instantly accepted and, hand in hand, they re-boarded the Worm.
During the return to Far Town, they agreed upon the official, simplified, version of the Giant Grongeduke Legend: Gerro, on his way to Jelly, had simply come upon the specimen in Hurricane. He had dumped a tank car's load in order to be able to transport it. He had failed to report its discovery upon reaching Jelly because he'd been so upset to learn of employee Smythe's death.
The story stuck. The Far Town grongeduke museum was established. Gerro and Kiata were married. Since he now ran the museum full time, she took over the Long Run, but neither she nor Gerro saw any incongruity in this. DSal's mission was still top priority. Gerro did, however, insist she tow two topcar "lifeboats" behind the Worm so that, in the event of a breakdown, she could easily make it either to Jelly or back Far Town.
And so life, as it tends to, went on. Gerro's Giant Grongeduke became the most famous curiosity on Ticket. Less noted were two other milestones arguably as noteworthy. One: Despite Gerro's insistence that Ginny could quit working the day he opened his museum, she never fully trusted in its success. Hence, she became the first Ticket employee ever (after nearly 5 generations of TempRs) to work long enough to retire with full benefits. Two: despite Gerro and Kiata being regularly separated by the demands of the Long Run, a certain baby, named Giata, was the first female to be born on the planet.
In only six loops Giata would spark the so-called Worm Righter movement that successfully wrested control of Ticket from its original owners and eventually spawned the system-wide settler revolution that is beyond the scope of this narrative.