Mrs. Dave is off traveling again, as of this morning. I’m not entirely thrilled with this, and Wee Dave is distinctly unenthused. Wee-er Dave could not be reached for comment, having disappeared into her classroom to find her best-friend-of-the-week. I expect that bird to come home to roost between retrieval and the Witching Hour. Still, they’re both in school for a good chunk of the day, and I’m well stocked up on mac’n’cheese and whiskey. We’ll split those supplies, though. I don’t need much pasta, after all, and they just can’t hold their liquor.
As is, I’m having a lot of trouble focusing, today. I managed the morning more or less by rote. As with most mornings, honestly. Which is a frustration, and one I’m not entirely sure how to deal with. I’ve got some plans, though. I’m hoping to manage to put a few habits into – well, back into play. Might help. Not gonna swear to it. Y’know, the upside to all of this military thing is I may actually get enough practice at shifting gears to become fairly decent. We’ll see.
How do you write when you can’t tell if it’s any good? Me, I mostly just bull through. The story gets told as the story requires. Somewhere along the line, I flipped a mental switch. It doesn’t matter if it’s any good, at least while I’m writing it. Afterwards, I can freak out as much as necessary to keep going. Asn long as everything else is turning over. Once things start to get at all unbalanced, it takes extra effort to keep word making with the sentences and bigger bits, and I find things taking longer than I feel they should. Like now.
Chapter 10: Cracks Appear
A tap on the shoulder about startled the life out of me. If I was right about what was under the rock, here, it might well have startled the life out of all of us. I very carefully relaxed my grip on the trigger and pulled the pick back from the face. I didn’t quite glare as I turned, but whomever it was would get a few choice words once we were back topside. Nothing doing down here. Between the masks and the picks, we communicated mostly by hand signals. I suspected it was part of the way Jaems maintained power over prisoners equipped with what were really rather powerful makeshift weapons.
Winger, the shift foreman, didn’t spare me his glare. He shook his fist, and then pointed at his watch, making several “what the hell are you doing, idiot” gestures. Winger, a civilian, had a watch. I had a chrono built into my pick, which I looked at. Sure enough, we were several minutes past the end of shift.
He waved, and pointed back up the tunnel toward the lift up to the prison facilities. It wasn’t that they’d leave us down there. Procedure required an entire crew in the elevator before the operator up top would bring us back up. Fortunately, the process took a while, what with Jaems’ thirst for control. Each crew of a dozen would wait their turn. So long as the prison produced its quota of Tartarium, nobody was going to change anything. After all, it was another half hour or so when we were more or less left alone.
Winger just didn’t want to get reamed taking too long, which I understood. It was just that I really didn’t trust anybody else to uncover what I expected without setting it off. I thought furiously for a half a second, and then signaled that I wanted to make another cut. I made the signal for money, and he stared hard at me for a second, then looked at the face I’d been working for hours. I was ankle deep in fractured rock, and the space in front of me was a torture device of spikes.
Winger knew all of this as well as I did. Better. We had plenty of time before our presence was missed and commented on. He nodded and stepped back. He didn’t go anywhere, though, which I expected. Prisoners received a reduction in sentence for finding Tartarium. The free foremen got paid a percentage of the value. Not a large once, but when we’re talking about the seemingly magic metal fueling the Theban war machine, it was significant. At least he was out of my way.
I took a deep breath, and set the tip of the pick against the face, powered it, and ran it into the rock at an angle. I hit the same point of increasing density, but instead of pulling the pick out, I tried something a little risky. I pulled the pick across the face, dragging the blade through the stone. It was possible I’d hit a protrusion of ore and blow us all to hell and gone, but I was willing to take the risk. I didn’t think Winger was, but he was too canny to jump in and stop me with a powered blade.
Rock dust cascaded down to join the pile covering my boots. As soon as the blade started to slow, I pulled it out, reversed direction, and started another cut. I pushed it as hard as I dared. The next shift would be coming down to work this face, and I could practically feel the stuff just a few inches into the rock. As little pleased as I was with the direction my life had recently taken, I didn’t want it to end, and somebody else would just screw this up.
Two more similar cuts, and I had a lopsided triangle, with the lines running well past the points. The trick was keeping the blade depth consistent, despite the peaks-and-valleys cross section I’d left across the face. I released the trigger and depowered the pick, and set it down. A glance at the chrono on the pick told me I’d taken very little additional time. Which was a good thing. Winger had to be getting impatient. More impatient.
I blinked sweat out of my eyes as I moved my hands over the stone. The gloves they provided for us got in the way. They were big, bulky, and protective, and of course we couldn’t do the damn work in them. Mine were tucked into a pocket of my coveralls. The uneven stone face I’d left offered an excess of handholds, and I tried a couple.
There seemed to be some give where I’d cut into the face, and I pulled sideways. And then pushed. There was give: something had broken loose from whatever was underneath. We’d been told kinetic impact could set off the Tartarium, but I didn’t buy it. Nothing that volatile stayed locked up underground in rock. Despite how barren the planet was, from what I’d managed to glean from training and conversations. I took a deep breath, and kicked the face, just to the right of the triangle. Even through the masks and their built-in hearing protection, I could hear Winger’s cry of shock and fear.
Winger’s hands knotted in the back of my coveralls and he dragged me away from the face. He was screaming obscenities inside his mask, but only a murmur made it through to my ears. Decent hearing protection, however it managed to get in the way of communication. I made placating gestures and pointed. He slowly turned to see what I was pointing at. The sandstone face had cracked, and chunks crumbled and fell down, exposing a mass of roughened, pitted, and sand-caked metal. I must have weakened the face, as more of the covering sandstone crumbled away, revealing a couple square meters of what I presumed to be Tartarium.