Tuesday, July 11, 2023

“Strange Tractors” • by Gustavo Bondoni

Redman sweated at the controls. No amount of insulation could fully keep the heat of this place out of the cabin.
He pulled hard on the joystick, causing the massive floating spider to scurry a thousand meters to the west on its ceramic floats. He peered into the opaque red surface below him, trying to spot the telltale grey streaks that denoted an ore-rich eddy in the viscous liquid.

The plume was breaching the surface. Soon, the liquid rock and metal would mix with the surface flow, creating a current, ten or fifteen meters deep, easily mined. He had to act now.

He continued to stare at the surface, trying to time his moment, not wanting to lose his position. The tractor shuddered as it floated on the roiling liquid, but he refused to let that disturb his concentration.

Wait for it. Wait for it.

There! He pressed a button on the control panel and pushed the joystick forward once more. A huge, gear-driven apparatus that looked a lot like a ventilation fan with the blades set at an aggressive angle lowered itself into the molten mass of stone and metal that composed the hellish surface of the planet.

The spider-like tractor shuddered as power was transferred to the mixer. Redman coaxed the stick from one side to the other, trying to create the perfect initial conditions. 

Despite all the technology available to channel the flow of lava, and all the diagnostics available to predict where the river with the richest mineral deposits would go, the most efficient way of mining this planet was to create the rich flow where you wanted it—so that it passed right under where you’d already placed your mining plant.

And the only way to make the chaotic, roiling convection current go in the preferred direction was to attack it at its source and make the initial conditions right.

Computer simulations had been used extensively to predict the chaotic behavior of the molten metal. Initial conditions had been studied, and predictions made. The model was ready for field-testing.

The computers had failed miserably. The cost of airlifting the mining sites to the distant rivers of highly concentrated valuable metal had nearly bankrupted the operation. Only the fact that the planet really was a mother lode managed to keep the system viable.

Redman was part of the solution, one so simple that it was nearly silly. Some human engineers, who’d been on the planet for the whole construction phase of the project, with nothing to do but study the flow of molten metal and rock, which they called lava, of course, had taken one look at the simulations and said: ‘That’s never going to work. You need to push the top of the plume that way.’ After the nth failure in which the computer simulation sent a river of rich lava almost in exactly the wrong direction, an engineer had been sent out on one of the tractors to try it his way.

The perfect bulls-eye had made the station immediately hyperprofitable, and the company had been extremely interested to know how he’d done it.

“It just felt right,” the man had replied, and thus had been born the Teaser’s union.

Redman was a Teaser. He was a good Teaser with a great feel for how to nudge any system to get a good river going in the right direction. But ‘it just feels right’ left little room for certainty. Certainty was something rarely found in chaotic systems of any kind. He understood how the weathermen from Earth must have felt, at the mercy of the capricious forces of chaotic nature. The main difference was that they had better models back home, having had much more time in which to study the behavior of cold fronts and depressions.

He watched the plume he’d teased, tension building, sweat dripping off the point of his nose. Would the upwelling of dense metal coalesce into a single shallow river, aimed in the right direction, and moving at the right speed? Had he tweaked the initial conditions sufficiently? Not stirring hard enough could make the river sluggish, too full of dense elements, and less profitable to mine on an hourly basis. Too much stirring could demolish the flow, splitting it into smaller rivers, none of which would pay the bills. Of course, stirring in the wrong place would affect the initial conditions sufficiently to send the river off in any direction. And, of course, controlling chaos was all about getting the initial conditions exactly right.

Well, there was nothing more he could do about it. This game of Russian Roulette had been played, the trigger pulled. 

Teasing was a high-stakes game. Not on the safety side, of course, at least not anymore—the capsules were sink-proof and the insulation could last for hours if they capsized, much more than the time needed for rescue. No. The gamble was economics. A good river would earn a huge bonus. A bad one would not cover your costs, and lower your chances of getting the next job. Capsizing meant bankruptcy.

Redman had had five good rivers and one marginal one in the last year. He was probably the richest individual on this infernal molten rock. He could have anything available on the planet.

But this plume, this river was the one he needed to nail to get the one thing he wanted most.  The bonus on this one, plus the sale value of his tractor, would scrape the money together to make his dream come true.

This one would allow him to buy his ticket back to Earth.



Gustavo Bondoni is novelist and short story writer with over three hundred stories published in fifteen countries, in seven languages.  He is a member of Codex and an Active Member of SFWA.His latest novel is a dark historic fantasy entitled The Swords of Rasna (2022). He has also published five science fiction novels, four monster books and a thriller entitled Timeless. His short fiction is collected in Pale Reflection (2020), Off the Beaten Path (2019), Tenth Orbit and Other Faraway Places (2010) and Virtuoso and Other Stories (2011).
In 2019, Gustavo was awarded second place in the Jim Baen Memorial Contest and in 2018 he received a Judges Commendation (and second place) in The James White Award. He was also a 2019 finalist in the Writers of the Future Contest.

His website is at www.gustavobondoni.com

This story was originally published in 2008 in Golden Visions, a now-defunct print magazine, and appears here by permission of the author. Gustavo has become a regular contributor to Stupefying Stories and we have quite a few stories of his stories on our site. Check them out!


If you like the stories we’re publishing, subscribe today. We do Stupefying Stories out of pure love for genre fiction, but in publishing as in tennis, love means nothing. To keep Stupefying Stories going at this level we need to raise at least $500 USD monthly, and rather than doing so with pledge breaks or crowd-funding campaigns, we’d rather have subscribers. If just 100 people commit to just $5 monthly, we can keep going at this level indefinitely. If we raise more, we will pay our authors more.

Please don’t make me escalate to posting pictures of sad kittens and puppies… 


If you liked this story, share it!
These buttons work!


Made in DNA said...

That elusive dream... a return home. Does one EVER really hit the perfect jackpot, or is there always "just one more" to chase?

~brb said...

i think that's something deeply embedded in our DNA by four-and-a-half-million years of hominid evolution. We're always striving to get just one more thing, pick one more banana, work one more year until we retire. Just one more big score, and then we'll be satisfied.

After all, if our brains weren't wired that way, we'd still be sitting on our haunches in Olduvai Gorge, picking fleas out of each other's fur and debating the questionable merits of this newfangled "walking upright" thing.

Mr. Naron said...

The first two sentences perfectly describe driving a tractor in the Mississippi Delta this time of year. I don’t think they have to much anymore, fortunately.