It’s been a week, and I’m tired. Lots tired. It’s unfair how much more tired I am than last week, and the week before. And the week before that. It’s tired, all the way down. I blame Mrs. Dave, for marrying me, the Wee Horde, for being alive and needing parenting so badly, and the universe. For existing for me to be tired in, mostly. I think that’s reasonable. No? More sleep would be good, and more writing, too.
“So why use a glorified tuning fork that makes the valuable stuff go kaboom?”
It took me a moment to recognize the voice as mine. Mr. Grenton’s head swiveled like a well lubed turret to focus on me. His calculating stare was disconcerting, but I manfully ignored it and kept looking at the image in the viewspace. There was a surprising amount of blood strewn liberally about, and I wondered if anybody had slowed down the recording to see what had actually happened.
I noticed many of my ersatz cohort had turned to stare at me, as well, and I started to wonder if I hadn’t made a mistake. I’d been through war at more or less the sharp end, and dealt with the horrors there. Meanwhile, Bertran Avendur had been convicted of fraud, and while I couldn’t imagine a man willing to scam people out of their hard earned savings was particularly soft, so-called soft crimes weren’t usually undertaken by those willing to commit violence. Even if the guy only existed in a set of carefully forged entries in various databases through the Theban autocracy.
“A good question, Prisoner Avendur,” Mr. Grenton said after letting the silence draw out to an uncomfortable length. I wasn’t thrilled to find out the instructor knew my name. I’d been operating under the assumption it was best those in authority don’t know your name. Like basic training. I suppose I should have known better. No doubt Jaems had warned everyone to keep an eye on me.
“And the answer,” he continued, eyes boring through me, “is that to date, other methods of excavation have failed. Tartarium seems to be highly volatile in its raw state. We’ve tried everything: lasers, chemical, reactant, subsonics, ultrasonics, they all set off the ore. The vibropick is purely for dissociating the encasing earth. If ever, ever you think you’re close to a pocket or vein of Tartarium, you call over a foreman. If you’re wrong, and especially starting out, you’ll be wrong a lot, worst that happens is you maybe irritate the foreman for wasting his time. Best that happens is you don’t die, shredded by an explosion. If you do set off a chunk of Tartarium and survive the resulting blast, the cost is calculated based on lives lost, resulting medical expenses, and probable size of the lost ore, and added to your sentence.”
Silence gripped the room. I finally let my gaze wander from the gory still in the viewspace. Shock mixed with outrage
“That can’t be legal.” Again, I opened my fat mouth, but that was ridiculous. At least Andi had given me a choice. If I had the option, I’d be having a long chat with both Warden Jaems and High Highness, Prince Perseus. With fists.
Mr. Grenton’s face was unreadable.
“I’m not a lawyer, Prisoner Avendur; I’m only telling you policy here at Tartarus. If it helps, the odds of survival are pretty low. I can tell you that Tartarium is far more valuable than you know, and the loss of even an ounce is of such importance to the Empire that a free citizen, even Prince Perseus himself, would face execution.” Mr. Grenton’s words rang with iron conviction.
Which would have been impressive, if I hadn’t known that Perseus would never face such a fate. I was nearly certain there was the making of a decent human being somewhere inside the persona of Perseus, Prince of Thebes, but I hadn’t managed to crack his shell during the years I’d spent in the Guard. I wasn’t sure what it would take.
Also, that wasn’t exactly how Tartarium worked. The big heads working for Andi deep in the bowels of the Tower had explained it to me once, and while I was no slouch, it hadn’t made a whole lot of sense. Basically, they mixed it with stuff, a little at a time, and it made it better. Want communications that seemed to defy physics? Mix in a little – a very little – Tartarium. Want armor that shrugged off energy weapons, or blades that carved hull steel like wax? Mix in Tartarium. There was a reason the stuff was valuable. I also knew about the relative volatility, and had wondered aloud at how they’d overcome it. The head researched had looked uncomfortable and changed the subject. Looks like I’d learned at least part of it. I wondered if they had a facility somewhere close by.
“-over the next two weeks, you’ll have plenty of opportunity to get familiar with the vibropick.” The lead instructor had begun speaking again, and I’d missed a chunk of it while thinking. “We build them here, with most of the fabrication happening on site. Be aware each and every one is serialized, and all the parts are scanned when the one assigned to you is checked out for your shift. Try to take any apart, and the onboard computer will know it, and you’ll go in the Hole. Try to smuggle parts, and you go in the Hole. Use one on anything other than dirt, you go in the Hole. Now, are there any questions?”
“How do I get out of this chicken-shit unit?”
One corner of Grenton’s mouth curled up. It might have been a smirk, if it hadn’t held so much sympathy. Not much, really, but enough.
“Any relevant questions?” He waited for a moment, but I kept my mouth shut. “Good. Everything important will be covered in your training.”
The guards hustled us up and back to our cells through the featureless hallways of the prisoner barracks. I was glad the lighting was full-spectrum, as there weren’t any external windows that I’d seen. Of course, from my brief time outside Tartarus, there wasn’t much to see.
I wondered if Mr. Grenton knew he’d been lying, there at the end. Not everything important would be covered in training. Why in the void was Thebes using convicted prisoners to mine Tartarium? And if it was so dangerous, was there any way out for me?