Right Behind You – Matthew Gomez

Right Behind You – Matthew Gomez

November 2021

Carlos sat in the grav-lift, the orange light of sodium lamps pushing through his closed eyelids. He imagined the light was a sunrise back home in El Salvador and that he was sitting next to his wife and daughter at their kitchen table. He smelled fried plantains and charred pupusas instead of the stale air recirculating through his exo-suit. With concentration, he could reach out and run his fingers through his wife’s hair, put his hand on his daughter’s tiny shoulder—a memory he cherished. One he didn’t mind reliving again and again.

He savored the illusion until his new partner settled into the grav-lift bench opposite him, and Carlos’s comms filled with the familiar, incessant crackle of a Geiger counter. At ground-level, the device emitted the quiet static of a radio losing reception. As the grav-lift surged downward, carrying Carlos and his partner deeper into the hot zone, the Geiger counter’s crackle grew. The orange glow of the lights strobed as the cart picked up speed, and Carlos’s imagination faltered. He was no longer in El Salvador, but heading for the reactor meltdown the cart carried them toward.

Once touted as the answer to North America’s energy crisis, the underground reactor had been built close enough to the Pacific to pipe in water for cooling but far enough underground it would be sequestered from any natural disasters that might disturb its cores. In the unlikely event that something went wrong, its builders promised, the reactors would stay safe.

The promise had held for six months.

During the first seismic rumblings of the Great Quakes, managers at the reactor smiled and congratulated themselves on the facility’s safety. When those rumblings grew into earth-shattering quakes, cracking the ground open like the surface of a dried lakebed, the whole western hemisphere risked radioactive poisoning. It was why Carlos and hundreds of other immigrant workers just like him now found themselves tunneling through a mountain of underground rock to install a containment barrier.

“You drill where we say, and we plug up the holes,” a bored engineer had said to Carlos during orientation nearly two years ago. “Do what we say, and you’ll stay safe. Before you know it, you’ll be holding a green card and can put all this behind you.”

Carlos, yanked from his memory of home by the Geiger counter’s hissing crackle, opened his eyes in annoyance. “Turn that fucking thing off,” he said in Spanish, looking through the dense glass of his visor into the brown eyes of his young partner.

The kid obediently moved his hand to his wrist console, but he paused. Sweat beaded on his forehead, his eyes wide with nerves like a rabbit surveying the sky over an open field. “The foreman told us to leave it on,” he responded, his accent familiar. “Said it’s a safety regulation.”

“It’s annoying and useless,” Carlos said. “We’re descending toward a nuclear meltdown. There’s radiation—lots of it. Now turn it off.”

The Geiger counters were one of many supposed safety protocols meant to protect the workers. They were there for show, just like the air circulators, bulky med kits, and alarms conspicuously placed in the tunnels below. If a collapse occurred or the reactor faced some unexpected explosion, none of it would save the workers. The only equipment that mattered was the exo-suits Carlos and his partner wore. With hydraulic joints, embedded lead plating, and powerful filters, they were the only thing separating the workers from the radioactive air in the tunnels.

The kid obeyed and turned off his Geiger counter. The crackle playing through Carlos’s comms was replaced by the kid’s rapid, shallow breathing and the whir of air rushing past their bulky exo-suits.

The sound reminded Carlos of the swelling panic he’d felt his first time down. The orange lamps had illuminated the tunnel ahead, but it might as well have been a black hole drawing him toward inevitable doom. Only time and repetition made things easier, but those first dozen trips down were hell. Carlos didn’t feel bad about putting the kid in his place, but he needed to play nice for now, or his plan would fall apart before it really got started.

“We’re going to be fine,” Carlos said, working to subdue the grit in his voice. “I know it’s your first time down, but I’ve done it hundreds of times. We’ll be back surface-side before you know it.”

“It doesn’t seem worth it,” the kid said, his voice cracking. “I shouldn’t have come.”

Carlos shook his head. As dangerous as the excavation work was, it was worth it. Signing up had bought him and his family temporary US citizenship, with the promise of full citizenship after he completed his contract. His wife and daughter were in family housing 1,500 miles away in Texas, safe from the violent gangs that had run them out of El Salvador. Carlos had gladly traded the risks of the excavation for the extortion he faced back home. Anything to protect his family.

“Do what I say, and you’ll be fine,” Carlos grunted. He hoped the confidence in his voice was enough to mask his intentions—mask the plan he’d set in motion when he selected the kid as his partner.

After so many trips down, the rebreather on Carlos’s exo-suit was beginning to fail, which was a death sentence for someone that spent the bulk of each day in subterranean tunnels over a radioactive meltdown. He’d tried going to the foreman for a replacement, but he’d burned that bridge long ago, which left Carlos only one other option: take one for himself.

Finding the kid—his mark—had been easy. At the first sign of his rebreather filter failing, Carlos had started hanging around the shuttle drop-off at the main gate of the workers’ camp. Every evening he’d watched new recruits spill out of their gleaming metal shuttles, looking for the crown tattoo that would ease his conscience. He didn’t need to know anything else about his victim. The mark of the gang that had driven him here was enough. Carlos’s whole body had trembled when he saw the kid emerge from the shuttle, the crown tattoo on his forehead peeking out from behind black bangs. He was younger than Carlos had hoped for, but the boy’s hard expression conveyed the exact violence Carlos had run from. The kid was young, but that didn’t make him innocent.

Carlos’s wrist console beeped a warning about his rebreather filter as the grav-lift continued its descent, and he slapped it quiet with a gloved hand.

“What was that?” the kid asked.

“Your accent sounds familiar,” Carlos responded, ignoring the question. “Salvadoran?”

The kid looked up, his tense expression easing. “Guatemalan.”

“What’s your name?”

“Miguel,” the kid mumbled.

“I’m Carlos. We’re going to be fine. Just breathe.”

“You’ve really been down hundreds of times?” Miguel asked.

“It’ll be two years in a few weeks, and I’ll be finished.”

“Guess you know what you’re doing.”

Carlos nodded. Playing nice with the kid took more restraint than he had expected. For the first time since Carlos had spotted Miguel, they were close enough that Carlos could reach out, wrap his reinforced fingers around Miguel’s throat until his body went limp, then strip his suit of its new rebreather filter—all before they reached the bottom of the grav-lift track. But then he’d be left with a body and no way to get rid of the evidence. That wouldn’t do. If he were caught, his shot at citizenship would disintegrate, so instead he clenched his jaw, gripped the edge of the cart to steady his trembling hands, and focused on the gentle sway of the grav-lift, ruminating on the real work ahead of him.

1,000 Feet

A red light flashed ahead, illuminating a reflective placard glowing through a fine coating of dust: 1,000 feet below surface.

“Is all the housing as bad as mine, or do they stick the new guys in the worst units?” Miguel asked, tapping through a series of menus on his wrist console.

The fidgeting reminded Carlos of the way his daughter distracted herself with her favorite toy: a pink plastic horse, the joints of its limbs worn loose. The memory peeled open the hurt he felt from being away for so long and flared up the anger he’d been working to subdue. If it weren’t for Los Reyes, the gang comprised of countless vicious punks just like Miguel, he’d be home and able to see his daughter—wrap her up in his arms until she giggled and squirmed free.

“What do you think?” Carlos spat.

Miguel looked up, his eyebrows knitted. “Sorry, just wondering.”

Play nice, Carlos reminded himself, a sigh creeping past his lips. “They’re all shitholes. Just enough to keep the weather out and our stink in. Everyone’s too exhausted at the end of a shift to bother cleaning.”

“Doesn’t the foreman say anything?”

Just the mention of the foreman made Carlos’s hands tighten into fists. The guy was a sociopath. When he felt particularly irritable, Carlos liked to imagine what he might do if he found himself in a locked room with the guy.

“He couldn’t care less. To him and everyone else running this mess we’re just bodies. They call us ‘backs’ when they think we’re not listening.”

“ ‘Backs’?”

Carlos twisted to the side and tapped a reinforced finger against the flexible section of exo-suit covering his back. “It’s all they think we’re good for in this country—we’re strong and we’ll do the work their poor won’t touch. It’s always been that way here. Ask the Chinese in the 1800s. Ask our great-grandparents and their parents, who picked crops for American stomachs. Ask our parents, who built the desalinization plants off the coast when the rivers dried up. Then ask yourself what the foreman thinks of you.”

“I don’t care what the foreman thinks as long as I get mine,” Miguel said.

Typical, Carlos thought. “You should,” he said. “You give your humanity to someone like the foreman, and you’ll never get it back.”

Carlos knew from experience. Soon after he’d started, he’d gone to the foreman to complain about a number of broken safety regulations he’d witnessed: tunnelers like himself working without scanners to get more done in less time and areas not being cordoned off properly during excavations, to name just a couple. The foreman made it clear that results were all that mattered.

“If you’re that upset about how I’m running things here, you can go back to your shithole country,” the foreman had said. The auto-translator box on the foreman’s desk leeched the venom from his tone as it spat out the words in a monotone Spanish, but Carlos got the point. “No one’s forcing you to stay here. Last thing I need is another back that doesn’t know how to keep his fuckin’ mouth shut.”

Back then, Carlos had thought the foreman had to be an anomaly. Not everyone could be so careless about regulations, not with so many lives at risk. So he waited, keeping a tally of the broken safety measures until he could tell someone who would actually listen.

He’d found his chance at the end of a shift in the tunnels when he ran across a group of officials wrapping up one of their regular inspections. They were gathered at the equipment check-out stands and stood out like black flies in a bowl of crema. Their gloved fingers were too clean and their postures too upright. The heaviest thing they’d lifted that day were the tablets they scribbled on as they moved through the hot zone.

Carlos had walked up, tapped one on the shoulder, and begun the speech he’d been running through his head since his conversation with the foreman. The officials translated Carlos’s statement with their tablets, nodding along as he spoke. When he finished, he noticed one of the officials shaking his head and chuckling to himself. Carlos couldn’t figure out why. And it wasn’t until he woke up the next morning being shaken awake by the foreman that he understood. The officials hadn’t taken their findings to any regulators at higher offices of government. They’d taken it straight to the foreman.

Carlos could still remember the expression on the foreman’s face as he’d leaned over him, his face blood red. Without an auto-translator, Carlos didn’t understand what the foreman was muttering, but he knew it wasn’t good. The foreman didn’t yell, which made the even cadence of his words even more terrifying.

Carlos had hoped the foreman might eventually forget, but that was wishful thinking at best, willful ignorance at worst. That foreman’s ability to hold a grudge had proved stronger than Carlos expected, and he regretted ever thinking he could make a difference.

“It’s worth it, though,” Miguel said, snapping Carlos back to the present. “Land of opportunity and all.” The kid’s optimism was an annoying reminder of how Carlos had felt when he’d signed on.

Carlos scoffed. “It better be.” Suddenly he was the one breathing hard.

“You seem too smart for this.”

The compliment caught Carlos off-guard. He liked it better when the kid fit the gangster image Carlos had crafted in his head. He shifted uncomfortably in the cart. “I studied history back home. Wanted to be a teacher.”

“Why this, then?”

Carlos clenched his jaw, replaying for the thousandth time in his head his final interaction with Los Reyes—the reason he’d fled with his wife and daughter to the United States. “There weren’t any other options.”

“It was that bad in El Salvador?”

“We’re going almost two miles underground to excavate tunnels above a nuclear meltdown. Yeah. It was really bad.”

Miguel nodded.

“You know that tattoo won’t do you any favors if you live long enough to get citizenship,” Carlos said before the kid could ask another stupid question.

Miguel reached up, putting a gloved hand against the lead glass of his visor, his fingers massaging the spot directly over the crown. For the first time since he’d sat across from Carlos, Miguel seemed to run out of things to say.

Carlos’s wrist console beeped, and he slapped it silent once more.

“Something wrong with your suit?” Miguel asked, dropping his hand to his lap.

“It’s fine,” Carlos lied. He’d gone to the foreman for a replacement a month ago, but as Carlos was explaining the problems with his suit, the foreman lifted a hand to silence him, took a deep breath, then leaned in close to the auto-translator.

“Damn thing seems to be on the fritz,” the foreman said, his words translated into perfect Spanish. He slapped the speaker with false irritation. “Everything you’re saying is coming out garbled.”

The foreman flicked the power switch off, and the auto-translator went dead. He pointed a finger at Carlos. With the auto-translator off, Carlos didn’t understand what the foreman said next, but the expression he wore—the sweat beading on his red face—was enough to let Carlos know he wasn’t getting a new rebreather filter.

Every breath since then felt borrowed, another grain of sand dropped from the dwindling top of an hourglass. He kicked at the silt-covered bottom of the grav-lift and wondered how much radioactive dust he’d inhale when his rebreather finally stopped working. He wondered how long he’d live afterward. He wondered if he’d live long enough to see his family again if it came to that.

The exo-suit suddenly felt too small, too cramped, and Carlos’s pulse throbbed in his neck. A shiver ran down his back, and he grew lightheaded as anxiety surged its way through his body. Holding his breath, Carlos looked up, afraid Miguel might have sensed something odd about the sudden silence.

Miguel was fiddling with the console on his wrist, the light from its panel illuminating the rebreather jutting from his chest—the one containing a fresh set of filters. Carlos’s eyes locked onto the rebreather. Only then did his shoulders relax, and the painful knot in his chest begin to loosen.

7,000 Feet

The sub-surface air pumping into Carlos’s exo-suit grew warmer the further they descended, the collapsed radioactive cores dumping heat into the network of tunnels like a raging furnace.

To pass the time and hopefully stave off his swelling anxiety, Carlos scanned his exo-suit for damage, running his fingers over the thousands of scrapes and dings that scarred its metal exterior. Despite the countless abrasions, the suit still functioned. It kept the radiation out, and its hydraulic pistons multiplied the output of his well-toned muscles. Without a new rebreather filter, though, the suit would be little more than a walking coffin, which the foreman had made clear was no concern of his. Carlos didn’t need the auto-translator to know that if he died in the suit, the foreman would have a line of other “backs” eager to stuff themselves inside it.

Carlos had gone to some of the partners he’d worked with to see if they might request a new filter for him, but each attempt had been met with averted eyes and a half-hearted excuse. It wasn’t that they didn’t care or didn’t want to help, but Carlos’s status with the foreman had become well-known by that point, and helping Carlos might mean risking their own chance at citizenship—their own chance at survival. Carlos had hoped that an unspoken sense of solidarity might eventually cause one of them to change their mind, but it turned out that a little sympathy wasn’t quite strong enough to loosen desperation’s grip.

As they passed the 7,000-foot placard, the sign’s blinking red light cast his body in a devilish glow.

“So how’d you get your crown?” Carlos asked. Just mentioning the tattoo steeled Carlos’s resolve, loosened that knot in his chest a fraction more. “You have to earn it, right?”

The tattoo was enough justification for what Carlos planned to do, but he found himself thinking of his wife and daughter. If they asked him how he’d survived the mines, he’d damn well better have a better answer than, “I killed my young partner because he was a piece of shit gangster that deserved it.” Carlos knew the tattoo wasn’t some casual sign of affiliation with Los Reyes, but he’d sleep better if he had a better grasp on just how rotten Miguel really was.

Miguel looked up from the floor of the grav-lift, his eyes only briefly connecting with Carlos’s. It was the same look Carlos’s daughter gave him when she’d done something wrong. It was almost like Miguel was afraid of disappointing Carlos with the truth.

“Don’t want to talk about it,” Miguel muttered, returning his gaze to the floor.

“Oh, come on,” Carlos said. “What was it? You rob a bank? Steal some poor kid’s bicycle?”

“I said I don’t want to talk about it,” Miguel growled.

Carlos could feel Miguel reaching his tipping point. He just needed a little push. “Beat up one of your gang’s rivals? Burn their house down?”

“I fucking killed someone,” Miguel blurted. His tone caught Carlos off-guard. It wasn’t boastful. Instead, the words seemed to barely squeeze past the kid’s clenched throat.

You rat, Carlos thought. Probably murdered some poor bastard in the street and took off before you got fingered for the act. He shook his head and rolled his eyes. “So you ran? Afraid you’d get caught and actually have to own up to what you did?”

“Yeah, I ran,” Miguel responded. “But not because I was afraid of getting caught. I ran because I didn’t want to have to do it again.” He looked up from the floor of the grav-lift and locked eyes with Carlos. It was hard to tell through the thick glass of his visor, but it looked like the whites of his eyes had gone red.

Just the light, Carlos thought.

“My mom died when I was little,” Miguel continued. “I never knew my dad. My older brother did what he could to take care of us, but he was just a kid himself. This crown doesn’t mean what you think. I know to you it just makes me a thug, but to my brother and me, it was our only ticket to food, a place to sleep, protection. And without money to pay for any of it, it had to be earned one way or another. I’m not proud of it, and if I could have figured out a way to get by without Los Reyes, I promise you I wouldn’t have done what I did. But it’s too late for that now. So here I am.”

For the first time that day, Carlos didn’t know how to respond, and for the briefest moment, the scorching anger he’d felt toward Miguel waned. He understood what it meant to sacrifice a part of yourself to survive. It was why he’d taken this job in the first place. Digging out the tunnels gave him a path toward a better future with his family. Without it, he’d have been left at the mercy of Los Reyes or whatever gang might eventually come along to take their place.

Carlos wished his brain had a console like his exo-suit. If he could, he’d shut it off to stop the thought spiral sucking him in toward its center: if Carlos and his wife had died back in El Salvador, how would his daughter have gotten by? Would he blame her for joining a gang if it meant she would be fed and have a safe place to sleep? Of course not.

Both men fell silent as the grav-lift descended further.

Eventually the staging area, another few hundred feet down, glowed beneath a halo of lights. The sudden glare snapped Carlos out of his thoughts, reminded him of the plan he’d set in motion. The light anchored him. It renewed his sense of purpose—reminded him that it was time to act. Nothing the kid had said had changed anything. None of it made him less guilty. He was a murderer, after all. The person Miguel killed could have just as easily been Carlos. It could have been his wife. It could have been his daughter.

Carlos squeezed his hands tight enough to crack his knuckles. “When we get down, hop in line for a mag-hammer and a battery bank,” he said, reciting the lines he’d scripted for himself. “I’ll grab our drill.”

“I should get a scanner, too, right?”

“Weren’t you saying just a few minutes ago that you were glad to be with someone experienced?” Carlos asked. “If you’re gonna slow me down, I can find someone else to hold your hand.”

“No, no,” Miguel said. “It’s fine.”

The grav-lift slowed its rapid descent, coming to a complete stop against a set of worn rubber bumpers at the end of the grav-track. Carlos stood, mashed a button to open the grav-lift’s door, then stepped onto the staging platform. Ahead were two equipment distribution stalls. Carlos departed without a word to check out their drill and lights.

Standing in line, Carlos felt anxiety swelling in him again, his legs wobbly even with the exo-suit’s hydraulic assistance. He watched Miguel approach the check-out for mag-hammers, battery banks, and scanners.

The worker handing out the equipment lifted all three onto the counter, but Miguel only scooped up the mag-hammer and battery bank. As he turned toward Carlos, the distribution worker called out, holding up the scanner.

Please, Carlos thought. Leave it.

Miguel shook his head at the worker and turned back toward Carlos. The worker shrugged and replaced the scanner on the rack behind him.

Carlos let out the breath he’d been holding, and he nodded at Miguel.

“We’re in tunnel 67C,” Carlos said as Miguel approached. “We’ll take the elevator down the last few hundred feet, then get to work.” Carlos signed for a drill and a pair of high-output LED lamps, and they set off toward a wide elevator platform that would carry them toward a spiderweb of connected tunnels that spread over the fractured reactor cores below.

“Guess the real work is about to start,” Miguel said as he and Carlos stepped off the elevator and walked down a dimly lit feeder tunnel toward 67C.

Carlos looked down at his wrist console, the screen red with its relentless warning. “You could say that,” he replied. Miguel’s murder confession bubbled back into his thoughts, and the familiar anger Carlos felt toward Los Reyes simmered once more to life.

8,500 Feet

Carlos enjoyed the drill’s unyielding vibrations. It numbed his arms up to his shoulders and drowned out the pounding of his pulse.

Before starting, he’d trained the pair of LED lamps at the craggy rock at the end of the tunnel and plotted out the holes he would drill, mapping out a constellation that would collapse at the precise moment he needed.

Without a scanner’s LiDAR and sub-seismic readings feeding into his heads-up display, nothing would warn Carlos of an imminent collapse, but, more importantly, it wouldn’t warn Miguel either. Carlos had only his instincts and a thousand hours of muscle memory to guide his hands.

Over and over, he buried the drill’s diamond-crusted tip into the rock, watching ribbons of silt drift down as he yanked the tool free. He might as well have been drilling into his own nerves, each hole a gamble that could render his plan useless and snuff out his chances of seeing his wife and daughter again.

As usual, Carlos’s thoughts drifted toward El Salvador as his hands instinctively drove the drill into the rock. It was his mind’s attempt to find peace amongst the cacophony and danger of the tunnels. He pictured the home he’d left behind: the exterior the color of the sky, the terra-cotta roof gleaming red in the sun.

What should have been a happy memory always led to the same chain reaction of images. He saw the exterior of the home, then the front door, slightly ajar. Next he was striding inside, his heartbeat accelerating, then turning the corner. There, two men stood in his kitchen, guns pointed at his wife and daughter. Los Reyes. The Kings.

Even with his eyes focused on the wall of rock ahead of him as he drilled, Carlos could see the crowns tattooed on the men’s foreheads in perfect, crystalline detail. He could see the way one of the crowns lifted as the leader of the pair—a rail-thin man with pock-marked skin and bulging veins—conveyed a final warning. With a grimace that twisted into a smile, the man explained exactly what would happen if Carlos didn’t cough up the ‘protection’ money he owed.

“Bang,” he’d said, the gun aimed at Carlos’s wife, his hand jerking back with an imaginary recoil. Then he pivoted the gun toward Carlos’s daughter. “Bang,” and another imaginary recoil.

Carlos normally dreaded the memory’s inevitable turn, but this time he welcomed it and the familiar way it strengthened his resolve and numbed his fears.

Carlos yanked the drill free of the wall and spun to face Miguel, the crown on his forehead lit with the blue glow of his exo-suit’s HUD lights. “You’re up,” Carlos said, sweat cascading down his forehead and soaking into the undershirt he wore beneath his Tyvek coveralls. He shoved the drill against Miguel’s chest hard enough to scratch the pristine paint coating the kid’s refurbished exo-suit.

Miguel got that same rabbit-in-an-open-field look on his face, but he traded the mag-hammer he’d been holding for the drill without question.

Carlos pointed at the small section of wall he’d left untouched. “Start here and stay within this area.” He traced a square against the rock with his finger. “I’ll make sure you’re good. When you finish, we’ll mag-hammer the shit out of the wall and be that much closer to calling it a day.”

Miguel nodded, lifted the drill, and leaned into the rock with the full force of his exo-suit.

With Miguel distracted, Carlos aimed the mag-hammer at the ribbed material covering Miguel’s neck. It’ll be over quickly, he told himself. Painless.

He rested his thumb next to the mag-hammer’s trigger, its chiseled tip poised to pierce the soft, unexpecting flesh of his young partner. One twitch of his finger, and Carlos could steal the kid’s rebreather and bury the evidence beneath a small mountain of rock.

That godawful memory of his daughter sitting at the kitchen table with a gun pointed at her head, her pink toy horse in her lap, played once more in his mind. He sucked in a breath and moved his finger over the trigger, but a sound rang out before he smashed it down.

Miguel was laughing.

The sound made Carlos hesitate, and instead of pressing the mag-hammer’s trigger, he froze.

Miguel yanked the drill free and turned around suddenly, a smile spread across his face. “My brother would love this thing,” he said.

Carlos dropped the mag-hammer to his side. “Your brother?” he asked, stumbling over the words as he feigned an inspection of the mag-hammer.

“Yeah, man,” Miguel said. “He got a job doing construction a few months before I left. I thought it sounded horrible, but he said he loved the chaos of the work sites. Something about the way he and the other workers could take a bare patch of earth and create something new.” He returned his attention to the wall and resumed drilling.

“Why’s he not here with you, then?” Carlos asked, hoping to keep Miguel distracted. “Preferred the company of Los Reyes back home?”

Miguel ripped the drill out of the wall, the rock groaning with the sudden movement. “Fuck Los Reyes,” Miguel said, slamming an armored forearm against the tunnel wall.

Another groan emanated from the rock, and Carlos instinctively took a step back, moving Miguel out of reach of the mag-hammer’s tip.

“Me and my brother would be here together if it weren’t for them,” Miguel said through clenched teeth. “Here we may just be ‘backs’ but back home people like me are knives. We’re weapons—used up until we’re dull,” his voice cracked. “Or broken.” He turned once more toward Carlos and stared at him, his visor fogged with heated breaths.

Through two layers of leaded glass, Carlos inspected Miguel’s face. Maybe it was the fogged visor, but the crown on his forehead looked less like ink and more like a brand—a keloid scar marking Miguel’s loyalty, willing or not.

The rock overhead released a cloud of silt, and the walls of the tunnel groaned, this time loud enough for Miguel to notice. “That doesn’t sound good,” he muttered.

Pebbles raining on his shoulders, Carlos dropped the mag-hammer, grabbed Miguel’s exo-suit, and yanked. He and the kid stumbled backward as the rock overhead collapsed with a thunderous shudder. Dust and debris blasted outward, ricocheting off Carlos’s suit and smothering the yellow light of the lamps Carlos had set up.

“My god!” Miguel screamed, his legs buried beneath a massive rock and a thousand crumbling stones.

Carlos scrambled to his feet and saw Miguel through the blanketing dust. The red warning light on Carlos’s wrist blinked, strobing the walls in crimson. Dust from the collapse plugged the last working portions of his rebreather filter, leaving Carlos only the stale air that remained in his suit.

“Help!” Miguel screamed, his voice rattling the speakers in Carlos’s helmet. “I can’t move! My legs, man! My fucking legs are stuck!”

Carlos’s eyes darted between the mag-hammer he had kicked free of the collapse and the kid. Not too late, he thought. He snatched the mag-hammer off the ground and held it over the back of Miguel’s head.

“Help me!” Miguel screamed.

Carlos tried to ignore the shrill cries. He tried to focus on what needed to be done. He tried to focus on the hope he still felt at seeing his wife and daughter again. He could end Miguel’s suffering. He could take away the kid’s pain—save him from another two years toiling beneath a mountain of rock. And in doing so, he could preserve his own future, the one he’d worked so hard to earn.

He breathed hard, sucking in borrowed breaths as he did his best to hold the tip of the hammer steady, ensuring it would strike true, penetrate Miguel’s helmet and end the kid’s suffering. If he wanted to see his family again, he just needed to pull the trigger—just like he’d done so many thousands of times over the past two years.

But as he worked up the courage to act, that same image of his home in El Salvador crept into his mind, only this time Miguel sat at the table, and instead of the gunman, Carlos himself stood in the center of the kitchen, the mag-hammer pointed at Miguel’s temple.

“Fuck!” Carlos screamed, the residual air in his suit thinning. It was all he could say. Torn between self-preservation and becoming the very thing he’d been running from, he froze, unable to act.

None of the tunnel workers signed up to spend their days miles underground next to a nuclear meltdown because it sounded like good work. They were all running from something, and in a weird twist of fate, it seemed Carlos and Miguel were both running from Los Reyes.

The tip of the mag-hammer dipped as Carlos’s vision swam, his HUD flashing red warnings about his oxygen levels. The chiseled tip hit Miguel’s helmet, scraping a shallow rut in the metal, and Miguel let out a moan that snapped Carlos back into reality. “I’m sorry,” Carlos muttered, though he wasn’t sure whether he was directing the sentiment at Miguel, himself, or his wife and daughter.

He lifted the mag-hammer and pointed it toward the boulder pinning the kid’s legs. He pressed the trigger, and the rock shattered into fragments as Carlos’s visor fogged over completely. He searched for Miguel’s hands, found them, and pulled. The kid screamed as he was jerked free of the debris, his legs mangled.

Carlos wheezed as he dragged Miguel toward the tunnel’s mouth, the kid’s screams muted as Carlos’s consciousness wavered.

When they reached relative safety, the valves containing the air in Carlos’s suit finally gave way, popping open with a violent hiss. The suit’s fail-safes gave way as his HUD went solid red and his wrist console screeched in warning. Carlos sucked in a lungful of radioactive air, and as oxygen once again permeated his body, his thoughts turned immediately toward his wife and daughter.

Workers in the nearby tunnels emerged, running toward the dust-covered pair at the mouth of 67C.

“He saved me,” Miguel croaked as the workers descended on them.

Carlos, supported by a ring of workers, stumbled toward the elevator that would carry him and Miguel to the staging area. As they moved, he heard Miguel whimpering over and over about how Carlos had rescued him.

Carlos drew in another long, quivering breath. As he exhaled, he stared at his hands through tears that welled in his eyes. He knew the kid was wrong. He’d nearly killed Miguel, maybe crippled him.

But then that same old memory came flashing back, only the gangsters were gone, and at the table sat his wife, his daughter, and Miguel.

The workers assisting Carlos and Miguel led them toward a waiting grav-lift at the staging area, where they eased Carlos onto the grav-lift’s empty bench and laid Miguel down as gingerly as they could onto the floor. Carlos’s head swam with each breath, the radiation he inhaled contaminating his cells with poison, and he knew he’d die before he saw his wife and daughter again.

As the grav-lift began its long ascent, Carlos fought off a sudden rush of nausea and leaned over Miguel. “Finish your contract and do something with your life,” Carlos wheezed.

Miguel’s eyes were wide with pain and panic, but he seemed to understand, though he only nodded in response.

“And the next time you’re in a position to help someone, you do it, even if it hurts,” Carlos continued. “Because if we don’t watch each other’s backs, no one else will, and you’ll find yourself right back where you started: letting someone use your back for their gain.”

Miguel managed another nod before squeezing his eyes shut and succumbing to the pain wracking his crushed legs.

Carlos sucked in a shuddering breath, sat back against the grav-lift’s bench, and slapped his wrist console quiet for the last time. He focused on his breathing, and once more, the sodium lamps became the sunrise cresting over the hills, and the air rushing past his exo-suit became a breeze through his kitchen window.

Your thoughts?

%d bloggers like this: