Chuck Wendig’s flash fiction challenge on the Terribleminds blog, this week was to write a short story, in 1,000 words or less, in response to, and including, a prompt created by this random sentence generator.
My random sentence was: Should the mum divert the drill?
I received the sentence on the morning of the 11th of March, 2013, and completed a rough hand-written draft of the story at around midnight, just before I went to bed, after spending the day mulling it over, in fits and starts. I made very few changes when I typed it up on the 12th.
I admit to being a little consternated as to where the story was in this sentence, but then I broke the sentence down. A ‘mum’ could be a mother, while ‘mum’ also had the meaning of ‘silence’, as in to ‘keep mum’. If you really stretched it, ‘mum’ could also be considered a diminutive of the term for mimes, or actors in silent plays, known as ‘mummers’. I decided that all these terms could be used to refer to a race, or sub-species, of human, who could not speak.
‘Divert the drill’ posed a slightly greater problem, until I thought of how drills could be used. In this case, I chose construction over dentistry, and then had to work out the cause for why, or why not, the mum would need to divert one, in the first place. I also had to consider what might be at stake, if the drill was not diverted, and that gave me the story’s problem. I think, though, that I was more interested in the concept of ‘the mum’ than in anything else, and that comes through, so I’m not sure this story is as strong as it might be.
No one knows where the mums come from. Some say they’re a genetic aberration unique to Freon, but no-one’s ever been able to discover the cause. Others say they’re proof the aliens interfered with the earthlings—or vice versa. There’s no evidence to support either theory, and the mums themselves aren’t saying.
They’re mute, the whole sub-species, all very capable, but utterly devoid of the ability to make a single sound—and, as a race, as completely uncooperative in advancing the scientific understanding of their race. Obstructive even, the whole lot, from the newest born to the crustiest survivor.
Our mum was no different. She drove the drill, and ruled the rest of the plant equipment with an iron fist—and the largest spanner she could find. No one hid her spanners to save the machinery, not since Jansen tried, and we found him, head wedged under a maintenance hatch with mum kicking his backside in voiceless outrage, as she calibrated the engine, one solid body-bouncing thump after another. It had taken Jansen a month before he could walk in a straight line, three, before he could breathe engine fumes without gagging.
Some said the mums were psychic. I can’t say, for sure, if that applied to ours, but she could suss the cause of an engine problem out in minutes, and get to the root of a plant failure in under half an hour. She was something, but I’m not sure psychic describes it. Attuned, maybe, at one with machines, earth-moving zen.
The mums are mostly female, or the strongest, most caring males I’ve ever met. Gay? Maybe; I’ve never been game to ask, not that it matters; they’re all mothers right to the core—in both senses of the word. We should never have asked ours to ignore what was in front of the bit and keep drilling.
They might be mute, hence the name—‘mum’, short for ‘mummers’, or ‘keeping mum’—but each one is a bone-deep mother-and-a-half to deal with once their mind is set. Company profit be damned.
So, we’re building a new toll route, express, all the bells and whistles, and our mum hits a chunk of something more solid than earth, but not rock. Foreman says keep drilling. Mum gives him a look, but gets back in the cab, and soon we’re moving forward again. Not quite on schedule, but close enough we can catch up.
Next thing I know, there’s a high-pitched squeal as the drill bites through metal, shrieking its way through a hull built for deep space and star-length journeys, and the drill rattles to a stop. This time, the mum stays put in the cab.
I figure, if she were all human, we’d hear her cussing a mile-wide streak of blue. As it is, we hear the keyboard, as she lights up the boss’s message screen. He sure as hell starts cussing a blue streak, one that rapidly shades to purple.
We’re not supposed to tunnel through alien artifacts. We’re supposed to shut down the site, re-route construction, and the super-lucrative, one-of-a-kind-express-super-highway toll route be damned—along with everything cent invested into it. Not if the boss can help it.
I run the scan, confirming this is the biggest damned artifact on record. Boss says, artifact be damned, we got a road to build, and a deadline to meet, and no horse-hockey artifact is going to stand in the way. We can put the metal through the crusher, seed it into the road surface. No one need ever know.
Mum belts out two words, making the keyboard shake, making me shake, too: ‘lifeforms’ ‘stasis’. When she gets no response, she adds: ‘Drill diversion possible’, and follows it with a series of equations and 3D diagrams that just prove she’s been spending too much time with the engineers.
We don’t have a hope in Hades of stopping her. She might be a real mother to work with, but she’s got a mother’s heart. Looks to me like she’s just adopted a whole new bunch of kids, and wants the old ones to play nice.
I remember Jansen’s foray with the engine hatch, and glance over at the boss. It’s protocol; someone has to ask it. Ain’t gonna be anyone else, so I just open my mouth and say it.
“Should the mum divert the drill?” I ask. And now it’s on the record—even though the response won’t be. The boss just nods and shrugs. From the look on his face, he’s remembering Jansen, too, and the way our mum wields a spanner.
Profits be damned. If our mum wants to enact out a well thought-out diversion, it’s not up to us kids to get in her way. We’ve been taught to listen to our mum.
Even when she doesn’t speak a word.
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