What a week. Not my favorite. Mind your self-care, friends. Make doubly sure you are getting the fiddly bits slotted into the right places so you keel is even. It makes everything less onerous. Perhaps not easy, per se, but much easier than otherwise. Let us say the Wee Horde is adjusting to change, perhaps better than I am.
I found myself in a rather significant depressive episode. Did I play guitar, I would have been exclusively playing the blues. The weather was poor, sleep was disturbed, and probably worst of all, I let myself get off my feed. Again: manage your self-care. It helps more than anything I know to smooth the bumps and potholes of daily fortune, and get us writing, which is the point.
Chapter 9: Hard Labor
Rock dust tastes flat. It always had, even when I’d been wildcatting with my family back in the Belt. Flat and dry, even inside the respirators we wore in the mines. Even mixed with the sweat that beaded under the masks. I didn’t understand how that worked, when the damn things were supposed to keep out everything up to and including nerve agents and biologicals. Oh, sure, some gases always managed to get inside, so you’d end up smelling whatever environment was outside the mask, at least a bit.
The worst part was I couldn’t spit to clear my mouth, and water was strictly rationed. I’d caught onto that one quick, but a couple of my fellow prisoners had passed out and had to be carried to the infirmary. I’d managed a quick nod at the Chief when I’d been detailed to carry one of them, but hadn’t managed to catch more than a glimpse of the good doctor’s scowl.
It was one of the ways Jaems and his goons maintained control. Hard to foment a riot when you couldn’t think for the dehydration. At least the water was good and clean. Chow was acceptable. Not great, but that was more a matter of lack of imagination than poor ingredients. I presumed the warden and his favorites got better stuff than mere prisoners.
I held my breath as I leaned on the vibropick. The blade slid into the surface with minimal effort, a shower of dissociated dust spilling away to hang in the still air. The face was almost all some kind of aggregate. I’d have said it looked like a kind of natural concrete, with larger chunks of harder stone mixed into the sandstone that bound it all together.
I pulled the blade out of the rock and gave it just the little twist it needed to pull loose. There was a pop as the light force snapped the chunk of rock lose from the face, and I stepped to the side as the short spike of stone broke off and fell to the tunnel floor. The face looked like some kind of bizarre art installation, with the wall in front of me half covered in rough, blunt spikes of more or less regular shape.
Sharper cracks sounded around me as the rest of my crew did the same. If you didn’t give the blade that twist, and especially if you didn’t keep the power to the blade, the weight of the rock would press on the blade and trap the pick in the face. Applying power then would only vibrate the body of the pick, and then the wielder. It had happened a few times, and we’d all had a chance to experience the uncomfortable feeling of running power to a bound vibropick. I swear I could feel my joints buzzing, and the effects on my guts nearly precipitated an emergency.
I released the trigger, and let the pick retract on its sling. One corner of my mouth twitched up in a sardonic half-smile. They were the same as the ones issued to the Assault Corps troops, down to the manufacturer’s mark on the little electromagnetic clasp point where it attached to the pick. The vibropick itself was about twice as heavy as an AC rifle, which was still taking some getting used to.
I straightened from the face and stretched my arms overhead, my fingertips brushing the low ceiling. Every couple of meters, duraplast frames held up the tons and tons of stone between us and the surface of our prison. Crossbracing between the upright frames kept the ceiling where it was supposed to be. The picks were actually most useful for cutting channels to install those, though the process was as slow and tenuous as mining, and for the same reasons.
Tartarium was just hard to find. We’d been working this tunnel for weeks now, and had only managed to bring out a few kilos. I’d find some, myself, though not for several days. The stuff was that damned elusive. It didn’t help that it wasn’t all that much more dense than a lot of the larger fragments of stone in the face.
We’d found that Mr. Grenton had not been totally forthcoming with us during the shock session back in the chow hall. You could actually just nudge a chunk of Tartarium. If you were very, very gentle about it. More than just fingertip pressure would set it off, though, and gods all help you if you put your shoulder into it and hit a big pocket.
“Get back to work, Avendur.”
The foremen were all civilians, though they’d often appoint a straw boss for the shift to actually deal with the prisoners. Such a joyous responsibility had fallen to me. Dammit.
I waved in his direction and bent back to the face. The foremen swapped shifts frequently enough that we only saw them once in a while. One the good decisions to come down from on high – though I suspected from Mr. Grenton, who actually knew his ass from the hole we now occupied – was that prisoners would work the same shift. Period. It kept accidents down, and there were already enough ways to die when mining Tartarium.
I wished again that we had some sort of useful diagnostic tool for finding the ore we were after. I knew Tartarium seemed to defy the known laws of physics, but I didn’t understand how it managed to hide on penetrating EM wave mapping seemed to be a bust, and anything more energetic was “a bad idea” according to the people running this operation.
I gripped the pick and set the tip of the blade against the face a few handspans from my last hole. I took a breath, squeezed the trigger, and the pick started to hum. I pushed it in, keeping the pressure constant and light. The blade was about halfway into the face when I encountered something more dense than the sandstone matrix. Easing off the pressure, I slid the blade straight out, moved it a handful of centimeters farther over, and repeated the process. When that cut slowed, I did it again. And again.
After several minutes of sweaty work, I pulled the blade out, released the trigger, and sat back on my heels. Nearly a square meter of the face was pocked with the short incisions of my exploratory cuts, and I’d hit something dense with every one. Or some things, though I didn’t think so.
Now I was in a quandary, though. I could finish the pattern and find out what was underneath it. If it was a chunk of Tartarium that big, though, it could probably get somebody’s entire sentence remitted. And that somebody would most definitely not be me. I knew I had to get out of Tartarus, but I had no idea how that was going to happen. It certainly wasn’t going to be through the system. Jaems and Perseus had made that much clear.
On the other hand, if I left it for somebody else to attempt, that much Tartarium in one place could be a very, very bad thing under the wrong hands. And frankly, I didn’t trust most of these poor bastards with it. Honestly, the only person I trusted it with besides me was Mr. Grenton, and he didn’t come into the mines anymore. He’d earned his freedom, and I wished him well of it. The last thought decided me, and I put my pick back against the face and took a breath.