Author : Rick Tobin

Bright yellow sulfur combined with duller golden salts into a drifting, wispy fog around the genetically modified mules. Their packs glistened with the settling, bitter powders. Additional chartreuse dusts escaped from the gills on their fetlocks as they converted IO’s caustic soup into a replacement for Earth’s atmosphere. Solid wastes exhausted from their massive nostrils, flowing behind them on their open bags packed with giant watermelon tourmalines, sparkling Jupiter’s reflected light. Two mule skinners looked up to the stars perforating the inky sky, while focusing on the specks of their home planets: Earth and Mars. Constant, controlled breathing filled their masks. One miner was lean and long-legged, pulling the lead rope continuously. The other, shorter and stout, with a slower gait, applied electric prodding when necessary to encourage the mule train progress back to the exit rendezvous.

“Easy prodding, Avila, we need them quiet.” Nix Olympicas 235 pointed his silver finger at his restless Earther assistant. Nix studied the mule’s eyes, ensuring they remained bright red. Sedative depletion turned them black.

“This job stinks. I can’t breathe in this suit. You Martians can handle it. You’ve been away from Earth for three hundred years, eating that fungus in smelly, wet caves. I can’t even call you a gringo. Your skin is green.” Carlos Avilla struggled to keep up with the train while nervously studying the terrain.

“Easy, Sancho Panza. You knew the risks. We don’t know what the Danii will do, but we can’t resist. I watched the videos. You struggle and they devour. Be passive and be rewarded.” Nix’s tones were strong, but soothing, as the surface around them erupted with silent swirls of black filigrees, sometimes mist and then suddenly solid tentacles wrapping around the mules and alien miners. Avilla’s screams and fruitless arm flapping filled Nix’s visor.

“Windmill. You are a windmill!” Nix screamed to Avila. Post-hypnotic suggestions let his partner float motionless in the vortex assault. Storms of black specters tore through the bags of gems, replacing them with piles of black debris.
“I am a windmill,” Nix repeated in his mind as the Danaii lifted him above the mules and then set him back gently, next to Avila and the new, heavier packs. The black assault disappeared without a trace.

“Borneo, Carlos.” Nix stood next to his partner so he would not collapse, exiting out of his trance.

“They came…I remember floating. What?” Avilla peered over the mule packs now bulging with black coal. “¡Dios mío! Is that really…”

“Absolutely,” replied Nix as he steadied Carlos by his elbow, turning him back on the trail. “We’ll be rich if we get back alive. I don’t know what the Danaii are, and I don’t care, but they love tourmalines enough to exchange them with black diamonds. When the carbonado ran out on Earth for asteroid defense weapons they became the most valuable commodity. It’s our pay day. We lived. Let’s head back. Be quiet and stay alert.”

“You still going back to those rotten tunnels filled with stinging slickrin worms?”

“Mars is all I know, Carlos. I’ve got scars from the slickrin stings from childhood, but you’ll have to come to Mars to see a sunset, as the skies get bluer each day, while you go back to a world that has gray haze for a ceiling.”

“Don’t worry, green boy, the Basque Free State has high peaks looking over ruins of the Mediterranean. We still see blue occasionally…but for now, vamos. The mules and I are going to be hungry after hauling these leftovers back to the ship.”

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