The Mole groaned and farted and belched noxious fumes as its diamond edged teeth ground their way slowly through the sandy subsoil. As it dug, a series of precisely placed nozzles sprayed a sticky mixture of polymers and ground rock onto the walls of the freshly-made tunnel stabilising it an inch at a time. As the monster inched its way forward, a rattling, clanging conveyer belt shot surplus material into a closely following fleet of lorries.
Up high, in what would have been the head if the Mole was a living animal, a strangely-conformed man plied the controls with the virtuosity of a maestro. He was thick necked and heavy chested, with almost unnaturally long, muscular arms. His legs, on the other hand, were thin and twisted and would certainly not support his weight should he need to walk anywhere. But he never walked. He never left the Mole. He was Driver, symbiotically linked to the great metal digging machine and as incapable of living outside the confines of the behemoth as it was incapable of functioning without him.
They were the most successful of the dozen experiments in symbiosis that had been carried out a decade previously, and were the only partnership left in existence. If that partnership caused ethical worries in some quarters, those voices were soon hushed by those who appreciated the profitability of the gigantic earth mover.
As the present digging conditions were easy, Driver and Mole were entertaining themselves by playing chess. This would very probably have been frowned on by their masters, but neither man nor machine ever saw fit to mention it. Nor did they mention their musical evenings, or the books they read together. Some things, they reasoned, were just nobody’s business but their own.
For most of the morning, progress continued to be excellent and the giant machine chewed its way through the earth at a comfortable five miles an hour whilst beating its operator at chess for the nth time in their partnership. Right about lunchtime, things changed. Driver was shovelling a doorstep of bread and cheese between his busy teeth when the note from the engines changed and the Mole slowed.
The driver picked up his communicator.
“Rock,” he grunted “speed cut by four fifths.”
He cut off the protesting squawk from five miles above his head and carried on with his sandwich. When he had finished his lunch, he toggled his communicator.
“It’s rock. Hard rock. Ain’t a thing anybody can do. Just send the water bowsers we need to cool the cutters.”
“There’s no rock down there.”
The driver sighed and switched on the powerful lights that formed the Mole’s ‘eyes’.
“Video on,” he said grumpily.
The watchers in the office on the surface were treated to a view of the Mole’s teeth biting into a solid rock face.
“Okay. Water bowsers ordered.”
Some five hours later, as Driver was considering his options for supper, the engine note changed again. He toggled his communicator.
“We’re through. Speed increase to two miles per hour. Putting Mole on auto. Signing out for night.”
He didn’t wait for a reply, shutting communications down and swinging to the floor. As his stomach started to rumble, he heard a knock on the Mole’s metallic outer skin far below him. He opened the door and stuck his head out. Down at ground level he could see a foreshortened figure standing on the bottom step of the ladder that led to his cabin. He whistled. The figure looked up, and he recognised the homely features of his own brother.
“Chu want bro?”
“Nuffink. I got a pot of Mam’s rabbit stew for ya. Chuck down the rope.”
Driver grinned toothily and dropped a thick rope with a hook on the end. His brother ducked and then attached a large bucket to the hook before stepping back. Driver flicked a switch and a small motor purred into life, gently hauling in the rope and its savoury burden up the fifty feet to the cab door. When the bucket reached his feet he lifted it in gently. Ma’s rabbit stew wasn’t to be treated with contempt. His brother gave him a thumbs-up and stepped away from the rumbling, grumbling monster.
Driver went arm-over-arm into his cramped living quarters and tenderly removed the lid from the big enamel pail. It contained several carefully packed items. First there was a brown crock of butter and a loaf of soft, fresh bread. Then he lifted out a heroically sized hunk of fruit cake and a pot of clotted cream. The bottom of the bucket yielded a lidded dish of thick, savoury stew and a letter in his mother’s careful printing.
He inhaled a lungful of savoury steam and reached for a spoon. After about half the bowl, he leaned back in his chair and gave a replete sigh.
“Ma,” he said reverently “I love you”.
A deeply feminine, and richly amused, contralto voice, which seemed to emanate from the very air around him, chuckled appreciatively before speaking.
“What’s it worth not to tell Ma you only love her when your belly is full?”
“She knows already, Mole. You can’t never pull the wool over Ma’s eyes.”
The laughter in the ether went on for quite some time, and it cheered Driver as he went about clearing up after himself and storing the bounty from the bucket.
“And now,” he said contentedly “we got a letter from Ma to read. Will I read aloud or will you read over my shoulder?”
Driver could all but hear Mole thinking.
“Read aloud please.”
And that was how they spent the evening, a misshapen man and an artificial intelligence enjoying each other’s company as they read the homely tidings from the woman they both called Ma.
Meanwhile, in an office in uptown New York, six men were deep in discussion about the Mole’s next assignment.
“The sea tunnel is ahead of schedule, and as long as the team on the ground can keep the local workforce from interfering with the Mole, our success bonus is in the bag.”
“No problems, then?”
“I didn’t say that…”
“Religious fundamentalists. Digging at the partnership. Preaching the sins of symbiosis. Again. Went after Driver’s family. Who stonewalled. But it might prove politic to remove the Mole from these shores for a while.”
“Is there a job on offer?”
“Several but the big payer would be a 1000-mile railway tunnel in Russia.”
“What about the language barrier?”
“For the Mole partnership there is none. It has simultaneous translation inbuilt.”
“Very well then.”
Which is why, three months later Mole and Driver were on a flatbed freight transport, which was carefully traversing the country on the trans-Siberian railway. Once they were sure nobody was listening, Mole spoke.
“You cold, Driver?”
“No. I’m fine. You are keeping the temperature just about perfect… You wanna read a book?”
“Please. What do we have?”
“Anna Karenina. I thought it would be appropriate…”
The trip across the frozen plains was wearisome to put it mildly, and the Mole partnership could perfectly well understand the reasons for wanting a nice safe tunnel under the permafrost. Their only concern was maps. Or to be more precise the lack of maps. The cartography of the region seemed to be sadly lacking and they spent hours accessing anything they could find on the worldwide web. By the time they reached the shores of the ocean, they were as prepared as they could possibly be.
A small reception committee awaited, and its members watched suspiciously as the Mole unloaded itself from the flatbed. The five hard-faced men marched over to the dinged and dinted side of the earth mover and stood in silence, awaiting who knew what.
“I think they want to come in,” Mole suggested.
“Not happening. I ain’t having hard men with shooters in here. Lemme think.”
After some moments of cogitation he snarled.
“I reckon them bastards think they can wait us out.”
“What a novel idea. In which case?”
“Precisely. Let’s play a game shall we?”
Two hours later, the reception committee was still milling around and Mole had won two games of chess. Driver decided it was time to be proactive and toggled his communicator. He had a brief conversation with somebody in New York, then sat back grinning.
“What did they say?”
“You mean you didn’t listen?”
“No. I do have some manners.”
Driver grinned appreciatively.
“Yes ma’am. Well. They said to sit tight. They are sending somebody.”
It took several hours, but eventually a long black limousine slid into position alongside the Mole. Two enormously muscular and obviously gun-toting thugs, dressed from head to toe in black, jumped out and opened one of the rear doors. An expensively tailored and hugely fat man stepped onto the tarmac. He stood on surprisingly tiny feet, regarding the world through two inimical black eyes, barely visible between of rolls of fat. The members of the reception committee all looked as if their worst nightmare had just come true and cast down their eyes. The fat man said two words and they all suddenly found somewhere else they needed to be. He turned to the Mole and bowed his head twice before getting back into the car. One of his guards came to the bottom of the ladder and looked up.
Driver opened the door, and the thuggish man began to climb. He reached the cabin in record time, and he was barely breathing heavily at all. Driver was impressed and snapped a salute. To his surprise, the Russian grinned tautly before handing him an envelope.
The man started back down the ladder.
“Good day to you too,” Driver called.
Shutting the door, Driver slit the envelope with his thumbnail. He removed the three sheets of paper and fed them one by one into a slot amongst the bank of dials and buttons that fronted his work seat. There was silence for some moments, then Mole spoke.
“Better. Our back up crew will be here tomorrow morning and then we can start digging. But still no maps.”
“Fine. We’ll do without. Now who was the type in the limo?”
“To be honest I don’t know. But the reaction of that reception committee said FSB to me.”
“Me too. I’ll be bloody glad to get back underground and out of the reach of politics.”
“One is never out of the reach of politics.”
Mole chuckled and Driver joined in. Then he sobered.
“And now, how about whatever it is you have carefully avoided telling me.”
Mole sighed. “It seems that the reason we can’t find any maps is what might be hidden under the ground here.”
“Mass graves. Stores of weapons. Bunkers. Nobody knows.”
“So the deal appears to be that whatever we come across we just tunnel through it and say nothing.”
Driver shrugged his heavyset shoulders.
“Shouldn’t be too difficult. I’m more concerned about six months at least without any of Ma’s rabbit stew.”
“You really didn’t look at what you stored in the freezers did you?”
“No. Why? You aren’t telling me there’s stew?”
Mole’s voice was both patient and long suffering.
Driver did his happy dance.
He might have been less happy if he had heard the conversation in a windowless room a thousand miles to the south and east of him. Two men were discussing the Mole, while a third was paring his fingernails with a flick knife.
The youngest man was speaking in the arrogant tones of one who is used to getting his own way.
“I need the digging machine. With that under my hand our profits will soar. All the bank vaults and deep cellars will be a piece of cake.”
The man who sat across the table from him was thin, precise and perfectly tailored. He had accountant written all over him.
“If the capo agrees, you shall have it. But it digs the railway tunnel first.”
“Very well. He will agree. And for now I’m going to put a man on board to learn how it works.”
The third man laughed, a short unamused bark.
“How do you propose to do that then?”
“We just tell the operator.”
“From what my spies tell me you can say what you like, but nobody gets inside the machine.”
“The driver will have to come out some time. And then we will teach him his manners.”
A thrown knife landed neatly between his fingers. He stared down at it for a long moment before moving his hand.
“What was that for?”
“Stupidity. Laziness. Complaisance. You decide. That machine dug the tunnel under the Arctic Circle. It was underground for nine months. In all that time the driver never left his cab. The man is linked to his machine. It is the only living symbiotic partnership. If we want the machine we will have to make the man ours as well.”
“Symbiotic. What nonsense is that?”
This time his short-tempered colleague reached across the table and lifted him out of his chair with one careless hand.
“You, my friend, had better stop reacting like the spoilt brat we all know you are. Your uncle will not always be in charge, and it behoves you to remember that. You will make no move towards the digging machine until the trans-Siberian tunnel is dug. Do I make myself clear.”
Unable to speak, the younger man nodded.
“Good. Now go away. I find your face offends me.”
The young man scuttled off, leaving the accountant to stare at his confederate in some perplexity.
“He’ll only run straight to his uncle.”
“Won’t matter if he does. The old man retired this morning.”
The big man laughed again, this time in genuine amusement.
“Dead men can’t be capo. As for the digging machine, we do indeed want it. And I suspect we will have to kill its driver to get it. But I want it above ground and with the tunnel dug before we make any such attempt.”
He got up to leave. At the door he turned.
“And don’t get any silly ideas. I have very big ears.”
The accountant shrugged then grinned.
“I’m in this for money, not lumps.”
The next morning a procession of lorries, and water bowsers, and dumper trucks, and small digging machines followed the Mole as it made its stately way to the map reference at which it was to begin digging. There was a hastily convened reception committee, also a brass band and a crowd of schoolchildren happily waving flags. The diggers waited politely as a a fat man with a white beard made a long and rambling speech before a woman of immense pulchritude cut a white ribbon that had been strung across the hillside.
With immaculate timing, and an inbuilt sense of occasion, the Mole moved into position and tooted its massive air horns before beginning to cut its way into the earth with almost breathtaking speed. In fact, such was its dispatch that two huge earth moving lorries only just managed to get themselves into position as the conveyer belts began spewing earth and rocks.
In a remarkably short space of time the Mole had disappeared and the watching humanity had very little choice but to return to its places of work. There was a distinct sense of anticlimax, and the ribbon cutter even went so far as to remark on the boringness of the occasion. Her white-haired gentleman friend patted her on the thigh and pacified her with a piece of rather fine jewellery purloined from his wife’s safety deposit box.
Inside the Mole there was quiet, and Driver allowed himself a moment of relaxation.
“You okay Driver?”
“Am. But I have a worry. I don’t like this country. I think we hafta be even more careful than usual.”
He could feel Mole thinking. It took a longish while.
“What do you think they want?”
“But I do not function without you. We are as one…”
“We are. However. They are unlikely to understand or believe that. So we need to be very, very careful.”
Mole’s voice, when it came, was adamantine.
“We are one. We will not be parted. We will be careful.”
“Yeah. Yeah. We will. But don’t fret about it. We are strong together.”
He thought he heard a whisper at the back of his mind.
For two weeks the digging went smoothly and the tunnel progressed apace. There were a couple of occasions when Driver thought there may have been people sneaking around the Mole, but the digging machine was capable of protecting itself without his say so and he kept quiet.
The matter of such protection was never discussed again, but Driver knew Mole hadn’t forgotten the conversation and he did wonder how his partner would react if there was a more frontal attack.
The next move came quite late one evening and was heralded by a respectful tap on the Mole’s superstructure. Driver stuck his head out of the window and looked down on two figures in the back of a small jeep-like vehicle which kept pace with the Mole’s stately four miles per hour.
“Comforts for a lonely man.”
“What sort of comforts?”
The man who had bee speaking pulled the coat off the shoulders of the person beside him revealing a full-breasted figure in clinging draperies.
Driver could feel the waves of indignation emanating from his partner and he grunted.
“I never ordered no whore.”
“All paid for,” the man gloated. “A present from the railroad company.”
“Well you better make use of her yourself. I have no need.”
Driver pulled his head in and slammed the window.
He could hear Mole fulminating and grinned inwardly.
“Hush Mole,” he said quietly, “you oughter have more faith in me than that. Let’s just see what our visitors do next.”
It was actually anticlimactic, as, after a very few moments, the vehicle stopped keeping station with the Mole and returned to the following convoy.
“I suppose I should have expected that,” Driver mused.
Mole’s voice was very small when it finally spoke.
“If it wasn’t for me…”
“If it wasn’t for you, what?”
“If it wasn’t for me would you have had that woman up here?”
“No. I wouldn’t. Never wanted paid love.”
“Is it love if it’s bought?” Mole sounded genuinely curious.
“No. Course it ain’t. But it’s the only kind I could ever expect looking like I do.”
Mole said nothing but Driver could feel the puzzlement.
“My legs,” he said matter-of-factly “they are deformed, you know. But I don’t wanna talk about it. Let’s play Scrabble.”
They played four games, and Driver won the first three. He suspected that he had been allowed to win, but was wise enough to say nothing.
It seemed for a while as if the prostitute was the last throw of the dice from the seemingly inept conspirators and the Mole worked on in comparative peace for some days.
It was about a week later and fully night when Driver was awoken by Mole’s urgent whisper.
“Somebody climbing me.”
“Underneath. Left-hand side. Just past the polymer guns.”
“Okay. Give me ears outside will you?”
The Mole complied and Driver could hear heavy breathing and vague metallic noises. He snarled.
“Let’s give our passenger a little tickle, shall we?”
“Yes. Electrify your outer skin. Let’s see if our climber can cope with that.”
If machines were able to grin, the Mole would have shown its teeth as it pumped power into its skin. Came a faint scream and a thump as a body fell on the conveyer belt among the soil and rocks.
Driver switched on the rear infra red cameras and watched as a smallish stocky figure scrambled off the belt and ran as fast as its leg could carry it.
“They ain’t giving up, are they,” he mused.
“I’ll fry the next one,” Mole fumed.
“You are not supposed to be able to feel anger,” Driver commented drily.
“I’m not supposed to be able to feel anything. Now just go back to sleep. I’ve got this covered.”
Driver rolled himself back into his bunk, grinning wryly and hoping that his partner wouldn’t actually kill anyone.
After that little episode, things really did settle down and the digging continued apace for some six weeks or so. Progress wasn’t particularly swift, as the soil was so cold that it could easily have broken the Mole’s digging teeth if sufficient care wasn’t taken.
Driver was beginning to calculate how long it would be until the Mole was out of the permafrost, when they hit rock. Water on the cutting teeth would be in danger of freezing, so he ordered up oil bowsers to cool and lubricate the diamond edged cutting teeth as progress slowed to a crawl.
Driver toggled his communicator.
“Rock. Speed reduced to one kilometre per hour.”
He ignored the squawk from the surface and shut down communication.
“Steady my lovely,” he murmured, “take your time, there’s no hurry”.
The Mole grunted and Driver heard the engine note slow slightly as his advice went home.
After three days of depressingly slow progress, they broke through the rock. Driver immediately got the feeling of space where there should have been earth and rock. Instinct prompted him to switch off the cameras, and snarl a malfunction message into his communicator. Then he gasped as his windowed cab emerged into an enormous cavern.
“What have we here?”
Mole turned its shining eyes and spotlighted the contents of the cave. Driver sucked in a breath through his over-large teeth.
“Sheesh, Mole. It’s a friggin’ arsenal.”
He looked around the walls and decided that the cradles held too many bombs to count.
“Oh yes,” even Mole contrived to sound shocked. “All nukes and all armed ready to go.”
Driver ignored the squawking in his headset.
“And what do you suppose we do now?”
“Hush Mole. I’m thinking. We have a decision to make and precious little time to make it.”
He turned off the headlights and toggled his communicator.
“System malfunction. I effing told you. Now wait,” he snarled before shutting off the voices from above.
“What must we do?”
“I dunno Mole. But I do know I’m a dead man walking. Once they know what I’ve seen it’s only a matter of time.”
There was silence for a long moment before Mole spoke again.
“Are you sure they will kill you?”
It was in an entirely different voice from her usual briskly amused commentary on life: this was the tone a woman would use to her lover, soft and gentle and cadenced with an almost heartbreaking tenderness.
For a moment Driver could not reply, and when he did his answer held as great a depth of emotion.
“Shall we die together, then, my darling?”
The multi-megaton explosion deafened everyone within a ten-mile radius and the mushroom cloud could be seen halfway across the world…