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.
For the rest of this story, and more tales of hope and despair, you can pick up a copy of Pulling the Rug II.