This was life in the mines. Noise. Work. Sleep. Finding the time for a sip, or a bite, or a quickie in the darkness. Some of the slaves did lead responsible lives, and even raised families here. Others, like Cali, were alone; and when you were a slave down in the bowels of a mine, working your life away for an enemy empire, Cali had decided you were more alone than almost anyone else in the known universe.
She marched, doing her rounds, pushing the cart on its rails. The cart was full of tools. Some would be needed, some not; you never knew. In the mines, you never really knew. One minute working, the next minute caved in. It could be safe for years, because the mines and the slaves were valuable commodities and there’d be a reckoning for anyone found to endanger either one, but they all knew there’d come a moment somewhere, sometime, where it was suddenly not very safe at all. Perhaps they’d have no more than that single moment to realize it before the end. Perhaps they’d have plenty of time, fading into exhausted bliss from lack of oxygen, or clawing their own throats out as the Vitoc withdrawal set in.
They were worked to the bone but not mistreated, not severely. No beatings to speak of if you kept your mouth shut and your mind on the mine, no capital punishment unless you really overstepped the line, and nobody dying by the wayside like an animal. The mine owners were tasked with a certain level of output, to ensure the continued prosperity of the Amarr Empire, and they had neither the inclination nor the profit margins to abuse, starve, or permanently damage their workers.
The caverns deprived them of the feel, smell, sights, and sounds of daily planetside life, but the air was at least kept clean down here, and the massive full-spectrum lamps hanging from the ceilings high above helped keep everyone’s diurnal cycle and sanity intact. Work was done in rotating shifts—the overhead lighting had graduated to late evening by now—but a minimum rest period was mandated. They had holidays, too—there’d be a revolt if they didn’t—but any slave who spent those doing anything worthwhile would be shunned by others, and considered unworthy of the time off. Most people spent their holidays hanging around and abusing the extra Vitoc meant to last them for trips into the city and back again.
If anyone’s health started to fail due to age or ongoing illness, they would still not be allowed to transfer out of the mine, but they might be moved to easier tasks. This was not only because the Amarr wanted to squeeze every last drop of life out of their work force, but because they’d found that the Minmatar who’d been slaves to the empire all their lives had a really hard time handling any kind of freedom, and had been inculcated with an unyielding, albeit guilty, need to constantly be of use to somebody.
So they might still be used as tutors for other slaves, or as fetchers if they’d retained their strength, or even as planners for new projects, because they would have had a lot of experience in knowing what new slaves were likely to accept. Cali had learned from one of those: How to scour for new seams, how to blast open a tunnel without having it cave in or ruin the materials you were after, and how to tell when a seam was starting to run low and it was time to prepare for going deeper yet again. If she’d wanted, she could have picked up metallurgy, geology, even business, and taken a (limited) part in oiling and running the great, smog-wreathed machine she was enmeshed in. She had opportunities, restricted though they were, and she had a facsimile of some kind of life here, albeit one tethered to the Amarr Empire from beginning to end.
She thought of another life that would soon be tethered from beginning to end, down in this mine. One of those quickies in the darkness had come with consequences. She stopped by a group of workers who were picking at the last few trails of a once-rewarding seam. Several of them picked up finer excavating equipment from her cart, and tossed back in the crude tools they’d been using. They’d be there for a long time, extracting every possible speck of valuable material. There were increasing numbers of those kinds of extractions, she’d noticed.
Cali rearranged the contents of her cart, took out an empty bag, and scooped up some of the materials the workers had unearthed. She added a couple of raw rocks, glistening in the evening’s false light.
One of the miners said, “Don’t know why anyone bothers testing it. They’re clean samples, pretty dense, but they’re not going to surprise anyone or change their plans.” Cali shrugged. “You all right on supplies?” she asked. Vitoc wasn’t mentioned by name.
The miner spat and said, “We’re good. Can hold out right until they gas us.”
Insorum was a renowned antidote for Vitoc use. It had been used in crop dustings over slave colonies in the Amarr Empire by Minmatar rebel forces, and had resulted in mass uprisings and an exodus of slaves fleeing back to the homeland. According to rumors, the remaining stores of Insorum were kept under lock and key in the Minmatar Republic, and according to even more tenuous rumors, there was a grand plan to repeat the crop dusting at a larger scale.
It was a cruel truth, acerbically acknowledged by Cali and everyone she knew, that this possibility would not much impact their lives, no matter what happened, for the mine openings had excellent atmospheric controls that could be instantly sealed. Anyone who wanted to get out would need, among a myriad of other unavailable things, enough stockpiled Vitoc to last them while they got to the city and chased down several unlikely candidates for an illicit ride off the planet. Vitoc was not a thing you stockpiled. Vitoc was a thing you planned to stockpile, until that eventual moment when you had to take your regular allotted dose and the churning panic in the pit of your stomach reminded you what would happen if you cut back so much as a fifth.
Cali moved on with her rounds, mainly handing out fine tools and picking up heavier gear instead, including a large sledgehammer that the bearer tossed in with a deep sigh.
“Only a question of time till they bring in more people,” said the person who’d thrown in the hammer. “Cali, you’ve been in excavations for years. What do you think? We’ve run dry with these seams; need to hammer out new ones?”
Cali looked at him, and said, “Listen. We all work hard. They know that. We get asked to dig deeper, that’s what we’ll do, because we’re the ones who know how.”
The hammer holder nodded. Of course it wasn’t about the mine. More excavations was just a reminder that they’d never get out, only spend their lives digging deeper in, and this was best not thought of. But more excavations meant more people, which meant a fresh crop of slaves, likely as not entirely green in the ways of handling heavy equipment, unstable digs, explosives, even their new Vitoc addictions. It meant accidents, and fights, and the disruption of a dogged routine that was sometimes the only thing keeping the current occupants from losing their goddamned minds.
“We know how,” the hammer holder repeated after her.
“We’re the ones who made all this.” Cali waved an arm around. “We’re the ones with experience. We’re the ones who’re resourceful. We’re the ones who know the materials, the equipment, everything. Something breaks, we’re the ones they trust.”
The hammer man nodded, and Cali moved on. She pushed the cart toward the supply warehouse in this sector of the cave— this dig, after many years, really had grown to an impressive size, she thought—and waved to the guard, who waved back.
“Nothing new,” she said as she rolled the cart up to the warehouse door. “Need less crude tools, more equipment for fine-grain excavating.”
“Gets emptier every day,” the guard said. “Let me just sign these out, then I’ll come carry them with you.”
Cali froze for a moment, wondering if he knew about her condition, but the guard didn’t comment further. He ran a hand over a dust-covered scanner, then pushed and held a button.
The warehouse doors slowly slid open, revealing the storage racks within—not a gargantuan space, but certainly the size of a three-floor building—and a shack off to the side that held small crates and paperwork.
The guard walked into the shack, checked a data pad, and started keying in numbers. When he was halfway through, a distant bang reverberated through the shack. He looked up and glanced out the window, said, “Hey, you hear—,” and Cali said, “Yeah,” and she stepped into the shack, walked fast up to him, and swung a big rock so hard at the back of his head that it connected with a sickening crunch. He fell face down, his head bouncing off the floor.
Blood immediately began gushing, in rhythmic spouts that covered his neck and quickly pooled around him. Cali noted with cold detachment that a large flap of skin—a scalp, a piece of scalp—had been torn off, revealing a mess that was probably muscles or tendons, and above it, a whitish-gray area mottled in a maroon coating. It was his skull. She was staring at his bare skull.
Cali knelt, vomited, dry heaved twice, spat, then rose again and looked around. No other guards were present.
The slave who’d given her the sledgehammer walked in, far quieter than someone his size should have been able to. He looked at her, looked at the body on the floor. Then he grabbed hold of the body’s ankles and quickly dragged it out of the shack and into the darkness somewhere.
Cali glanced at the overhead monitors. They were small— this was a storage area, not a security outpost—and one of them showed, in clear green light, a part of the mine that was now covered in thick, pluming smoke.
She ran out, grabbed a crowbar from the cart, and swiftly carried it into the warehouse. The hammer man returned, wiping his bloody hands on his pants. Over his shoulders he carried two large burlap bags.
A mine expansion meant more slaves, and more slaves meant more Vitoc; and to a small, close-knit group of slaves with the like-minded interests of not dying of old age in an enemy mine, someone had brought intel that a secret shipment was coming in on this day. It was Vitoc. There was no way they would bring in a shipment of frightened, unstable, easily angered new addicts without having copious supplies ready and waiting.
Cali hefted the crowbar and looked at the crates. The shipment would be enough for everyone in her group. They couldn’t do a series of robberies, because after the first one security would be bulked up, and before too long Cali would have one more person to worry about. One shot at getting out, and lasting long enough to find passage off planet. A hidden shipment for the entire new work force, quietly kept in local storage until it could be distributed. No fuss, no attention, no extra guards: the appearance of business as usual.
Most of the crates were marked MINING EQUIPMENT, but Cali had worked with these materials for long enough, and she quickly spotted a crate whose stamped-on, scuffed, and faded itemization code indicated it had been assembled in another district on the planet.
She grinned. Hefting the crowbar, she tore off the crate’s opening. Her accomplice came up behind her and shone a light into the crate. It was packed tight, and full to the brim. With explosives.
Neither of them said a word. Cali shook her head, unable to comprehend it. The company would be expanding the mine, yes. They’d be bringing in a new work force, yes. Of course they’d be prepared. Of course they’d bring in materials ahead of time, and in secret, because these were hazardous to handle. Of course. It was obvious. And she still couldn’t grasp it.
Her group had prepared and rehearsed. They’d figured out a way to create nonpoisonous fumes by combining materials in the mines with stolen supplies. They’d figured out how to create an explosion that wouldn’t endanger anyone, and how to release the fumes so nobody would see what was going on and everyone would run there to check. They’d planned this out. This one shot. And now they had a secret crate full of explosives, and a mining corridor full of dense fumes that would soon start to evaporate, and a guard’s body lying somewhere under a bed of rocks, completely hidden from sight, even that torn-open patch at the back of his head where his skull shone through.
She ran back to the cart, hauled out the sledgehammer, and began swinging it at random crates. Mining equipment. Canned goods. Bottled water. Power sources. Replacement parts. Nothing. Nothing. No Vitoc. Nothing.
A child would be born and put to work forever, in this wretched place.
Her accomplice stood by, frozen on the spot. She ran into the shack, and she screamed when she saw the pool of blood coagulating on the floor. She swung the sledgehammer back and forth, destroying the interiors, pulverizing the monitors, tearing through circuitry, punching holes through the wooden floor.
And in the dim light in that shack, she stopped midswing, because she’d seen something through one of those holes. Something whitish-gray, covered in secure wrapping.
She flung herself to the floor and shoved her hand through the hole. Her fingers brushed the wrapping. She pushed, reaching a little further, and managed to grasp one of them. She pulled it up closer, leaned back so the light could shine on it, but she was only confirming what she already knew. She recognized the packages inside, and remembered the way her mouth would always dry up whenever she saw the guards open them and hand out their contents.
Cali stood, swung the sledgehammer at the floor, again, and again. The wood splintered easily, and the way it broke apart eventually showed her how this section of the floor had been specially fitted to create a hidden trapdoor. She went to her knees, pulled away the debris as fast as she could, and felt that traitorous spark of hope slowly extinguish from her chest.
It was Vitoc. A backup, in case of shortage. Enough to last this part of the mine for . . . she tried counting the packages beneath the wrappers . . . a day, maybe two.
Not enough for a half-dozen people to trek to the city and wait out a manhunt before trying their luck at off-planet passage. Not unless they had an incredible, unbelievable run of luck.
That one shot. Never again.
A shadow cast over her crouched form. She turned. Her accomplice was standing there, staring through her, unbelieving. She saw the thoughts written on his face, and they were her own.
Except for that small one at the very end. That little spark, fluttering briefly into life.
That one shot, for the two of them.
He looked her in the eyes and he knew, and as he took a step back she rose and grabbed the sledgehammer and swung it at him as hard as she could. It went in a wide arc that was punctuated not by a crunch but an explosion, and she let it go and it flew off into the wall, a spatter of blood and matter following in its wake.
She didn’t even bother to watch the rest of his body fall down. She grabbed hold of one of the bags, shoved all the Vitoc into it, tied it shut, and swung it onto her back. She had to be sensible. They’d think it was a drug robbery gone wrong. They’d be looking for a near-catatonic thief, blissed out and covered in blood. Nobody would know she was gone for a good while yet. Nobody could know. Nobody could be allowed to know. Nobody could be allowed to talk.
Cali realized that as she’d been thinking this, she’d been walking back to that crate, stuffed with explosives. The fog would be starting to thin out, and she imagined dark shapes coming out of it, wanting their cut, wanting explanations. She’d learned well, here in the mine. She’d learned what she wanted more than anything else in this world. She’d learned what it took to make a life for herself, however long she had to wait. She’d studied the trade, and all its techniques and equipment.
With practiced movements she assembled a number of explosives and detonators, then carefully placed them into her bag, on top of the Vitoc. She knew exactly how much it would take to close a tunnel. Not collapse it; just close it. Definitely not collapse it.
There were cameras, but when there was panic in a mine, people ran all over. There would be guards, but most of them would be trying to figure out what had happened. They would not be watching for a single slave quietly setting timers on little packages and leaving them at the mouth of a deep tunnel. And by the time anyone was in a state to talk, they could talk. She would be far away and set for however long the wait might be.
She ran off, bag slung over her shoulder, knowing she had turned into something beyond description. Not believing she was going to do this, and not daring to think what would happen if she didn’t.