The weather has turned. I’m wearing flannel, and a coat to keep the rain off. The furnace has been turned on. I’m not … entirely … upset about this. I prefer being dry, myself, but I also enjoy the shift in seasons. Mrs. Dave is home this week, though not next, and not for a few after that. Also, there are costumes to plan and make, and school fund-raisers to raise. Basically, I’m heckin’ busy, fren, and I’m not sure when (or really if) that’s going to change.
Winger’s jaw dropped, then he released me and bolted back up the tunnel toward the lift. I assumed he was going to get on the communication line to above. Exhaustion settled on my shoulders. I’d just uncovered the single largest deposit of Tartarium ever. Even if it was a millimeter thick, Winger had just made enough money to retire and live like a prince, assuming Jaems let him keep any of it.
And I wasn’t even here under a legitimate sentence. I reached up behind my head and released the tensioner on the mask. The thing was for the dust, after all, and that had all settled. I pulled the mask off and took the two steps necessary to lay it by my discarded vibropick. The dry smell of the rock dust, and the funk of my own, unwashed body assaulted my nostrils in equal measure.
With the mask off, and work stopped during shift change, I could hear the distant commotion as Winger presumably forced his way to the communicator. His excitement would be contagious, especially since it had been weeks since the last find. The prisoners would start milling around. Hopefully, nobody started getting froggy. The few guards at the bottom of the lift wouldn’t hesitate to incapacitate anybody who thought it an opportune moment to settle some score, real or imagined. If that happened, everybody was going to have a bad day, as Jaems would send in Crind with his flying squad of the most unpleasant guards, the kind you find in every organization. The scum that floats to the top.
All this passed through my head as I knelt at the Tartarium surface. It was very strange. For one, it didn’t look like any ore I’d ever seen. Planetary deposits looked, well, they often didn’t look like much, unless you knew what you were looking for. The more inert the metal, the more they’d look like one would expect. Gold formed bands through a rock face, for example.
This stuff, though-
During our training, Mr. Grenton had held up a chunk of the stuff from a recent find. It was all of the size of my smallest fingernail, and if he hadn’t had a good projector, nobody would have actually seen it. He’d immediately put it into a heavy, military lockbox after we’d seen it. I’d thought then that it looked like a congealed droplet, for all its roughened surface. I leaned in for a closer look.
Bits of the sandstone clung to the ore in front of me, to include larger pebbles of harder rock caught in the matrix. What metal showed through was pitted and uneven, but in a way that sparked a memory. When I was a young man, we’d toured a memorial from the Last War. I’d asked how they knew, and been summarily shushed, which I’d though mightily unfair. Still, they’d had the hull paneling of one of the ships caught on the ground during the initial strike.
The UNS Arctus hadn’t survived the ambush strike from their poorly treated colonies. Even then, the ship had been on the very fringe of the strike zone, and suffered more damage from the blast wave and secondaries than it had from the orbital strike. If I was remembering correctly, it bore a striking resemblance to the Tartarium in front of me.
Unease blossomed in my gut, sending tension creeping through me. It wasn’t the exhaustion of a long shift, followed by the elation of the find. Something was off about this. I leaned back and the breath whooshed audibly out of my lungs. There was a patch in the middle, right around my cuts, where the sandstone hadn’t broken off. Not completely. There was almost a plate of aggregate clinging to the silvery metal. It was almost a perfect rectangle.
The edges were rough, and the corners rounded, but the angles were regular. I’d bet if measured, they’d be ninety degrees. I reached out a hand and pulled at the edge of the plate. The sandstone resisted for a moment, then came away, crumbling to pieces in my hand. At first, I couldn’t process what I was seeing.
Underneath a metamorphic rock formation that had lain untouched for an unknown length of distant time was a touchpad. Made of metal. It was a rectangle, just smaller than the sandstone one I’d pulled off. In the exact middle was a hand-shaped depression. Five digits, one slightly shorter than the other four.
The pad itself bore few of the scars that marred the rest of the – metal. It had to be a worked metal. It couldn’t be a natural ore. Not with this. It looked worn, but it was hard to tell. It was clean, unlike the surrounding metal. There were none of the flecks of stone or grit clinging to it. But it was incontrovertible proof that whatever we were mining, it wasn’t a natural ore. Which meant all of the qualities of the Tartarium so vital to Perseus’ war machine were the result of some civilization long, long gone. And I’d just become more than a relatively minor fly in the ointment.
Things were about to get very interesting, and I was almost certain Perseus’ order to Jaems about keeping me alive was about to go into abeyance.
“Who uncovered it?”
My head snapped up as I recognized Jaems’ voice echoing down the tunnel, distant though the shout had been. My mind raced. Crind would be with him. Jaems never mixed with the prisoners, but his attack dog was at his heels. Just about any find of the precious substance would bring Jaems to see it with his own eyes, but one this massive?
My heart pounded as I reviewed my options. I couldn’t hide anywhere they couldn’t find me. I could back away and lie down, and hope the worst I got was a control rod hangover when I woke up.
My gaze flicked back to the touchpad. Or …
I pressed my hand firmly into the depression in the pad.