But now I’m getting older. The safe plays, the low risk situations, and even the luster of money have lost their appeal. Now I’m in it for the adrenaline. For the game. To be known as a maverick in the economic playing field, whose hands really could and would turn anything to gold.
And now, I was buying a mine.
The mine had been closed as the result of collapse two decades ago. There had been little opposition to the shutting of its gates- even without the collapse and subsequent death of thirty miners, experts predicted that the mine was all but dry and the little silver that remained would have been excavated within the next year. Fighting the lawsuits would have cost much more than that silver.
But I had brought my own expert to survey the land. Mining techniques had changed much in the last twenty years, and to my dismay he arrived at the same conclusion as the original experts. There was little silver left, and it was not worth the expense.
But, after examining a stock room filled with dirt samples from each of the branches of tunnels, he discovered something else. In a jar marked with the date the day before the collapse, and signed by an Ash Sterling, we found something past generations would have discarded as trash.
In that final tunnel there was a concentration of rare metals with percentages that made my expert’s eyebrows raise higher than their significance on the charts.
“Sir,” He said, punching numbers into a laptop computer with pudgy fingers, “This is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Highly unusual. The levels of Neodymium, Europium, and others are unreal. I’ll have to recalibrate my equipment to be sure.”
“Neodymium. Elemental rarities. Only made valuable in the past few years, with the advent of computers. But extremely profitable. To say you are sitting on a gold mine would be an understatement.”
“So what does that entail, exactly? Do I mine it like silver?”
“Oh no, no. You’ll have to mine it, then process it. Real nasty stuff, but well worth the while. And you’ll have to purchase the land first, then obtain the mineral rights, then a slew of other legal obstacles due to the accident.”
“Won’t be a problem.” I said, feeling the weight of my wallet deep in my pocket as I rolled my shoulders, “I can afford the land. And, more importantly, I can afford the signatures.”
“I’d like to bring my first witness to the stand,” I said, standing up.
“This is a town hall meeting, not a court case, Mr. ….”
“Lawrence,” I said, flashing a smile, “And I ask that you give my representative a moment to speak.”
“Granted,” The town representative said, grudgingly, looking down at me from her thick glasses, “Though the mine was closed permanently due to its danger.”
“I wish to change your mind,” I said, and she huffed in disapproval, the air turbulence disturbing the fine hairs on her upper lip, “The mine itself is and was no danger. The catastrophe was caused by a lunatic, and I have proof.”
I flourished a leather bound notebook in my hand, flipping through the pages until I arrived at the last one.
“Mr. Lawrence, this is a office of law, not a dramatic television series.”
“Hear my out,” I said, and read the final journal entry of Ash Sterling.
“Those very words are from the mouth of a man clearly insane. And now, from a man on his team until the day of the collapse.”
I pointed into the assembly behind me, and a man with greying hair stood among their ranks. He wore a tattered flannel shirt, and his face was marked with deep wrinkles premature for his age.
“And who are you?” Intoned the representative, as the bags under her eyes grew deeper. Her patience was wearing thin, while I had enough material for hours of presentation.
“Leroy Burgesson,” Said the man, in a gruff voice and a tip of his hat, “And
I testify that Ash Sterling, my former employer, acted in a manner dangerous to both himself and his crew, and was not right in the head.”
He recited the words almost perfectly, just as I had rehearsed with him an hour before, and shifted in his position. His hands were in his pockets, where he clenched a fresh wad of twenties adding up to five hundred dollars.
Leroy recounted his story, leaving out the superstitious bits from Ash’s journal as I had instructed. The representative did not bother to question him, so I did myself, extending the amount of time he took the floor.
“Enough,” She said, “We’ll put the matter to a vote.”
“Excellent.” I responded, “but before you do, how long is it before I can call for a revote?”
“A year, Mr. Lawrence.”
“At this location?”
“Yes.” She frowned, and I could see her reaching the conclusion that if she did not allow me the right to purchase the mine as well as the town’s approval to seek further action in development, that I would be back next year with an even longer and more painful case.
The representatives left for a back room, and when they returned, the vote was unanimous in my favor. I flashed her my bright smile, packed my briefcase, and departed.
For most people it would take years to obtain the necessary permits to open the mine, plus another year to prepare. But I knew where to put my money to use, and the signatures dropped onto paper faster than the bills slid behind counters.
Then the groundbreaking ceremony began, a small celebration over the boarded up entrance to the mine. Drafts from the the tunnels wafted upwards as I popped the first bottle of champagne, and I could catch a hint of sulfur in the air. The first boards were pried loose, creaking against the nails that held them in place as spiders fled the gaps, and I peered down the tunnel. It was dark, save for a single pin prick of red light in the distance that had continued operation after we switched the electricity back on.
We started drilling immediately. The earth was soft, and I followed the directions in Ash’s mining journal. My equipment was top of the line, taking a fifth of the time his crew had needed to reach the same depths. Each day I waited in my office as John, the leader of the mining team, brought me samples from the depths. Then my expert analyzed them, shaking his head silently as each proved inadequate.
After a week there was a knock on my door, and John poked his head inside my office. He was in his middle thirties, with a kind face and broad shoulders that made him shuffle sideways through the narrow door frame.
“John,” I said, twirling a gold pen in my fingers, “It’s just barely after lunch. Shouldn’t you still be down in the shafts?”
“Well yes, sir. But we’ve been having some, er, problems.”
“Yes, you see, the drill bits on our machine have broken five times already this morning. They’re each supposed to last several hours, but none lasted longer than minutes. It seems we hit a wall.”
“As in tough rocks?”
“Well, er, no sir. A literal wall. There’s some metal formation down there. A sheet of it, if you will. There’s a gap in the middle, an archway, if you will, large enough for my men to get through but not the machines. And each time we try to break through, well each time the bit snaps.”
“You do have explosives, correct?”
“You have my permission to use them. Carry on, and keep me notified of the status.”
Several hours later my phone rang, and I answered it to John’s voice.
“Well, er, sir, we tried using the explosives.”
“And it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen. The explosives barely put a dent in it. It’s large enough for one machine to pass through now, though, but it will bottleneck progress.”
“Drill through, and report anything you might find.” I drummed my fingers on my desk, and when the sample was brought up at the end of the day, my expert nodded his head.
“We’ve struck it,” He said, “Absolutely ridiculous it even exists. If I didn’t know better, I’d say it was man made. Doesn’t seem natural.”
“Doesn’t matter what it seems like,” I said, “It’ll sell for the same price.” With that success I began planning for a refinery on top of the mine. The season had turned to winter, and though the region was notoriously known for its blizzards and ice storms, no snow fell that year. It was the warmest year in a century, and the only other one that even compared was the year the town had been founded.
And it must have been the inordinately good weather, but an influx of homeless people started gathering in the town. Typically they would freeze at this time of year, keeping the streets clear, but with each month their presence grew.
Most of them were older, with silvery hair, and dirt that clung about them like blankets and left trails in the streets. They stood in the shadows, in groups of five of six, and barely acknowledged passerbies. I never saw one beg, and someone must have been feeding them, because they were bringing in no income on their own.
The town representative called me, accusing me for the presence due to the influx of jobs from the mide.
“We don’t know where they come from, and they certainly have not been here before.” She said.
“Well I did not bring them.”
“Then how did they get here? There isn’t a proper city for a hundred miles. There’s no bus route here. Are you saying they walked here? Don’t you think we would have noticed such a migration?”
“I don’t know, miss, and frankly I don’t care.” I said, and slammed down the receiver. We continued work, and soon the refinery was finished, and the true meaning could begin.
“Sir,” said John, rapping on my door, “In order to mine deeper, I need more bodies. I sent out some inquiries, but there’s no responses here, minus some of the, er, the homeless people.”
“John, I don’t wish to have homeless people on my staff.”
“Well, sir, well they came to me actually. A few of them. With years of mining experience, mind you. They’ve been out of work for some time, so their concepts are somewhat older, but they seem to know what they’re talking about. A few of them even seem to be experts, if you will.”
“Do as you will, John. However you think you can be most effective, do it.” And so a handful of the homeless men joined John’s team. And, after some time, a handful began working in the refinery. And, in the town, their numbers grew a handful at a time. And when I walked past in the streets, their eyes followed me.
We ramped up production, and I began touring the refinery to overlook my supervisors.
Removing the metals from earth called for a slew of chemicals, each increasing in hostility to the human form. And one day, in a particularly nasty segment of the refinery, as I let my eyes wander while a supervisor explained why efficiencies had been low that month, I saw the impossible.
There was a woman working a chemical bench, wearing elbow length gloves and a facemask as she poured liquid from a larger jar to several smaller ones. I recognized the chemical, an acid, and one that would eat straight through skin as if it were wet paper. And as she poured the last bottle, I saw something drop from her mouth.
It was pink, and it bobbed in the acid for an instant before her gloved hands scooped it out. Then she lifted her facemask, and I blinked as I saw her pop the piece of gum back into her mouth. Gum that should have corroded her mouth, burned holes in her tongue, and sent her screaming.
But instead she met my gaze, her chilling eyes staring at me, and she cracked a knowing smile meant only for me before returning to work. In the days after I noticed more incidents, always out of the corner of my eye on the refining floor. People reaching into chemicals with their bare hands, then continuing their jobs as if nothing had happened. A report of a man falling down four flights of stairs, then standing up and resuming work as if nothing had happened.
And then there were the anonymous surveys, the ones that asked about the job environment and were answered by employees. Most seemed normal, bubbled in with satisfactory answers about the quality of work. Even the answers to the obligatory “Why do you want to be a contributing part of Lawrence Refining?” seemed normal, except for the handful that answered, “To help us go deeper.”
I grew uneasy touring the factory, and instead turned my attention to the mines, where John showed me operations. We walked deep into the caves, and as I passed a few of the previously homeless people I felt their gaze follow me down the corridor, followed by whispers. Around a curve, I thought I could barely just make out a single sentence. “Thank you, Lawrence.”
“Almost there,” Said John, as the air around me grew hotter. The tunnel narrowed, and we passed through the archway he had described. Grooves covered its surface, and as I walked underneath it I heard the sounds behind me die away as if muffled. The screaming of three drills echoed ahead in the distance, making its way up to us. One of them sounded different than the others, more of a screeching, and the bit must have been wearing down.
“It’s strange,” Said John, “Those new men, they’re the best workers I’ve ever had. Would work all night if I let them. Even caught a few here after hours, digging with old pick axes they found among the rubble.”
“Strange indeed,” I said.
“They like you a lot Mr. Lawrence. Always talking about how you freed them, from homelessness and financial chains, I suppose. And Hell, they have a nose for where this metal deposit goes deeper. Almost as if they know, I swear, they could be hunting dogs.” I remained silent, and we reached the deepest part of the tunnel, where a machine was waiting for an operator.
“All three of our drills have been working splendidly.” Continued John, “No more broken bits.” Before I had a chance to reply, my foot caught on a depression in the ground, and I stumbled forward. John caught me with a hand, and cursed.
“Somebody must’ve left a tool on the ground. I’m sorry sir. Here, let me get some light.” He produced a flashlight, and scanned the ground. My heart stopped when I saw what had caused my stumble.
There, melted into the bare rock, was a footprint. Slag crept up along its edges, and it as if the rock had turned to liquid lava and rapidly solidified.
“The Hell?” Said John, and swept his light across the floor. Behind the first, there was a second that went even deeper into the rock. Then a third. And a fourth, tracing back to the wall at the deepest part, where they disappeared into the barrier. But rather from walking downhill, to the wall, they walked away from it, each step decreasing in heat and depth into the rock.
“Stop, give me that light,” I said, and took the flashlight from John. I examined the ground closer, where there were hundreds of small ridges that I had not noticed in the dim conditions. But now, bending over, I saw they too were melted footprints, just shallower that the one I had stumbled on. At least a hundred pairs led from the wall, and back up the tunnel, back towards daylight and decreasing in depth as they went until the stone became smooth.
I shivered, placing my hand on the drilling machine for balance. My breaths the only noise besides the screeching of the three drills down the tunnel, and the third one continued wailing in and out of tune, the echoes distorting it to sound like many sounds instead of one.
“John,” I said, “How many drilling machines did you say we had down here?”
“Is one not right here?”
“Why yes sir.”
“Tell your men to turn the two running off,” I said, starting towards the exit, my feet following the melted footsteps, and the screaming chorus following me until I passed back through the arch.