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Crax shook their hands just outside his office. “Feels good being free, that right? Remember, you’re one of us now, boys, so let’s hope we don’t see each other no more. Now come on, off you go. Join the others.” He shooed them away, then went back inside.
Unlike before, this time they weren’t prisoners. They were free men. Workers. No different than the others, so they decided to have a look around. But the moment they turned the corner, they noticed the town was now crowded with people. There were no women, only men, all walking lifelessly in the same direction.
They joined the horde of the walking workers and noticed the sunlight revealed other anomalies as well. The streets showed absolutely no signs of vandalism. No carvings in wood, no torn down posters, no litter on the ground, … Not even a single cigarette butt. The street was as clean as a laboratory, and everything was in perfect order.
Every now and again they caught a glimpse of a woman inside a house, and they all wore similar clothing. A long robe in any bright vivid color. Some wore pink, some green, others blue or red, or even yellow. Judging by the constant yelling, they appeared to be very busy with the children – which there were plenty of. Looking at the many children inside, they then realized that walking amongst them were children also, no older than 14. All men, and children, capable of working were out on the streets and on their way.
Walking through town, they got a sense of just how huge it actually was. After every corner they turned there was another, longer, street, similar to the one they just came from. There were many fewer saloons that they were used to as well. Nearly all buildings were domestic, and there were many new ones being built all around.
They tried striking a conversation with several men, but to no avail, until one of the children made out that they were new and lost, and approached them on his own.
“Not from around here, ey?” The boy who couldn’t have been older than 15 spoke like a 40 year old adult. “Let me guess, you came from the outside?”
“That obvious?” Tom replied, to which the boy nodded “yeah,” then shook his head no, accompanied by a quiet “stupid.”
“Do you know anyone beside us that also came here from the outside?” James asked right away.
“Not personally, no, but I heard stories.”
“Stories? What do you mean?”
The boy looked at them, tired and bored, and sighed. “Fine. It’s not like we don’t have the time, so I might as well tell you, I guess. See, the rumor has it that long, long, long ago our former king Fishnick possessed some kind of unearthly powers, and created this place in the middle of fucking nowhere. There was nothing here. But one by one, just like the two of you now, people have been coming here from the outside and ultimately created,” the boy looked around himself and spread his arms, trying to emphasize his surroundings, “this. We’re all descendants of the people who came here in search of salvation. Of people who wanted to come here.”
“Wait.” Tom and James were left puzzled. They had so many questions they didn’t know where to begin. “You mean to say Fishnick didn’t create this dome here to rule over you people? Everyone came because they wanted to?” James asked, awaiting an answer with his next question ready.
“That’s how the story goes, yeah. Crazy, right?”
“But why the fence then? Why keep all the people here and don’t let them leave?”
“I don’t know, might even be for our best. Or maybe there’s secrets to be kept.”
“Secrets? What do you mean?” James enquired.
The boy sighed again. “Look, I don’t know. I’m just a worker here. A miner. I go to the mines, I dig and excavate, and I go back home. I don’t ask any questions.” The boy turned around and waved to a friend of his. Before heading over in his direction, he said one final thing to the two gunslingers. “And trust me, neither should you.”
They moved around the mass of people, searching for a person who could potentially hold the answers to their questions. They approached several of the workers each, but to no avail. With time they grew somewhat careless and just spoke to everyone they met eyes with, yet still no success. People either didn't wish to talk to them at all, didn't wish to talk about the topic, or didn't know.
They have been eyeing the guards accompanying the herd of men, making sure they didn't try and run, hesitant to approach because of the possible consequences. But without any success with the common folk, they were near forced to confront one of them. They decided it was best for James to try his luck first, because he was older, then if he failed, it was Tom's turn.
“Excuse me,” James approached one of the guards, “can I ask you-…”
“Get back in line.” The guard interrupted him mid-sentence and showed him away.
James returned to Tom, and somewhat happily reminded him it was now his turn with another guard. Unfortunately, however, the outcome was the same. The guards must have been instructed not to talk with the workers, and they haven’t. Like everyone else, they too respected the hierarchy.
They were eager to come up with new plans and ideas to learn more – pickpocketing the guards for any documents, attempt to run away from the horde of men, or even steal try and steal the guns and threaten them – but just as they got to the top of the hill and they wanted to take action, they were met with the sight of dozens of watchtowers laid out in a circle around the biggest hole in the ground they had ever seen.
Thousands of workers the size of ants, barely even visible at that distance, smashing their pickaxes against the ground, or carrying the newly mined ore toward the surface through one of the organized routes. Every so often they could also hear an explosion coming from the depths of the mine, but it was at too low a depth for the blast to be visible from the surface.
While some were working diligently, the others were waiting in line, supposedly to get their pay for the day, and leaving the premises one by one without their tools, forming a line of men such as the one James and Tom were also part of. Their shift was over and they were readying to go home.
Looking down the hill they also got the idea of just how many they were in the herd – the line was several hundreds of feet long and just as packed with men at the beginning as in the end.
The child they spoke with back in town noticed their dropped jaws, and stepped closer.
“Astonishing, isn’t it?” He asked still from a distance, but didn’t wait long enough for them to respond. “At first sight and from a distance, most definitely.” he remarked shortly after. “So feast your eyes now, because after a single shift here,” he paused and let the anticipation build up, “never mind. See for yourself.”
“Just how long is the shift?” Asked Tom.
“About thirty six hours. Then you get to rest for twelve and have some fun, though, really, you’ll just want to sleep for twelve hours straight.”
While Tom was muttering a silent “What the fuck,” to himself, James had another question arise. “What’s in it for you – I mean us? What’s the pay?”
“Living to see another day.” The boy giggled, but seeing as James didn’t, and was expecting a follow-up answer, he continued. “Five ribes a shift.”
“Yes. Coins. Money. Our currency. I don’t have any with me now, but you’ll see when you’re done.”
“And just what can you buy with that?”
“Just enough to take care of your family, really. And some whiskey on the weekends.” The young boy smiled slyly.
Tom and James laughed along with his remark, and Tom added: “So if we got no family, all the more money for whiskey, right?” By this time they have both already been missing the taste of the hard liquor.
“You got a place to stay?”
“No, but we can sleep outside.”
“Outside? No. You can’t. You can’t sleep outside.” He chuckled to himself. “You’ll have to stay in a hotel, and that’s four ribes per twelve hours. For one.” He then looked at the clothes they were wearing, measuring them from head to toe. “You’ll also need some new clothes to fit in around here. That’s 5 ribes a piece. You’ll need some general goods too, and those aren’t cheap either. Oh, and-…” Tom interrupted him.
“Wait, wait. You lost me. What do you mean we can’t sleep outside?”
“Well, unless you wish to work overtime or get shot, you can’t. You pick.”
“So you’re telling us we need to spend all the money we make just to survive? And be able to work more?”
“Quite literally, yeah.”
“Bullshit!” Tom got reckless. “How about your place? Can we crash there a couple nights?”
The boy hesitated to answer at first, but then realized it was a potential opportunity to make some money on the side. “I’ll talk to my father and brothers, but for 7 ribes a night I’m sure we can figure something out.”
The two were appalled about the price being only a single ribe cheaper than the hotel, but they both knew they could use the potential information they could get from him and his family, so they both nodded in agreement. They didn’t intend to work for long anyway.
“Great. I’m Jimmy, by the way.” They shook hands. “It’s a little crowded already, so you’ll have to sleep on the floor, but the food is better than the hotel’s. The Pritta my mum makes is out of this world!” His eyes glowed bright and his mouth visibly salivated.
“Pritta? Don’t tell me it’s that weird cabbage soup we got fed today.” Tom jerked with the memory of the morning broth’s taste.
“No. Chicken tenders cooked on low heat for eight hours and smothered in a red wine sauce. Marvelous.” Jimmy had to swallow at that point not to drown in his own saliva.
“Red wine minus the meat and cooking sounds just fine to me.” James remarked and they all chuckled.
Judging by a large swarm of guards near two watchtowers they were nearing one of the entrances. It was the exact same situation as the one at the gates of the dome. All guards but one dressed in all black, the latter wearing golden accessories. Unlike Jax, however, this guard had plenty more medals and golden buttons. A real dude.
Jimmy told them to find him after their shift was over, then headed back to his friend.
They were somewhere in the middle of the crowd, allowing them for a good look at what the procedures to enter the mine were. They were all first required to empty their pockets for safety evaluation, which were mostly empty to begin with, then salute to the guard in gold and proceed through the first of many gates one by one. Behind the first set of iron bars there was a guard sitting behind a table with a couple very thick books in front of him. All workers were required to show him their tattoos and he diligently noted down their presence, upon which they left through another set of gates. Tom and James were too far away to make out what had been going on there.
They reached into their pockets prior to it being their turn to step up as a safety precaution, but as much as they felt relief when their pockets were empty, they also felt grief because all their gimmicks were gone.
Reaching the entrance they turned their pockets inside out and saluted just like everyone before them, then headed through the door to the sitting guard. They were told to show their identification numbers – their tattoos – and the guard in question then hastily browsed through the book before him. To the surprise of both, their numbers were not only already listed in the spreadsheet, they had dozens of “X” marks already that they presumed marked their attendance. But, for both Tom and James alike, these “X” marks next to their identification numbers had a few blank spaces before the “X” the guard marked when they approached him. They noticed some of the other identification numbers had similar patterns too – they were missing anywhere from 4 to 7 attendances in a row, and then they were consistent again. ”They must’ve given us numbers of someone already dead,” they both thought. Once booked, they were instructed to proceed through the next door and further into the mines.
After they were booked, their next checkpoint included getting food. They were both instructed to pick up a one strap linen bag at the entrance, then pick one item from each of the several baskets lined up in the hallways before the next checkpoint. The baskets were filled with different foods – bread, dry meat, fruit and the like – thumb sized chunks of Lyterite and unclean iron cups. The cloth bags were quite heavy after they filled them up, as they should be, since they represented all the food they were getting for the next 36 hours.
The last and final checkpoint was them getting a hold of their tool – the pickaxe – and since they were new, it was the only tool they were allowed. James shook his head no and sighed when he picked it up, and the guard asked him whether he would rather drive the wheelbarrow, to which he hastily replied with a resounding no. At least with the pickaxe he could stay in one place and work, not have to drag a wheelbarrow full of ore up and down the mine, especially during the day in the scorching sun.
Walking out towards the pit, the path was wider than they expected it to be. They walked side by side with one another and there was still plenty of room for people with empty wheelbarrows to accompany them at the inner side of the wall – they were walking at the outer side, with about two feet distance to the edge of the path still.
As they advanced deeper into the mine they got an even better idea of just how big it was. After what must have been at least a five minute walk downhill, they still couldn’t see its bottom – it appeared as if they travelled no distance at all. Looking over at the other side of the mine, they could see workers going up – pushing wheelbarrows full of whatever ore they were excavating from the depths.
Near the bottom of the pit, the mine spread into several tunnels. There was another guard before each entrance, and they were instructed to go inside the third. Whereas before they were hot, the surrounding air was now much colder, and there was no sun to keep them warm. The tunnel grew very dark very fast, and their eyes needed a while to adapt.
Several workers in front of them began lighting up their Lyterite by striking it against the wall to produce the sparks needed to ignite. Many of them also threw them into the wall in the hopes of igniting it so as to avoid scraping their nails against the rock wall. When their eyes finally adjusted to the lower brightness, and they weren't as distracted anymore, they looked up and saw distinct veins inside the bedrock all around them. They were a deep shade of blue – near purple – and it appeared as if they emitted light on their own. The two looked at the glowing veins and then back at each other several times before they were finally convinced that what they were seeing was in fact real, and not an illusion. When the workers reached the end of the tunnel, they simply dropped the ignited Lyterite on the floor to illuminate their workplace.
Soon after they stopped moving forth the men with the wheelbarrows showed up. There was one wheelbarrow per every two miners and they just positioned them behind their backs. There was a bucket of water in every one of them that the men placed behind the miners' feet and then just waited for them to start filling the wheelbarrows. Some struck up a conversation, others sat down to catch a breath, again third lied down on the ground in hopes to catch a quick nap.
Tom and James were fairly certain they were to mine the glowing ore, but they still watched the others work first before wielding the pickaxe on their own. The workers pounded the heavy iron tool straight into the veins of the material, causing the bedrock to break into several fist sized chunks that crumbled to their feet. They then crouched or sat down on the floor and broke the ore either by hand or by slamming it against the ground and split it into the two components – the glowing blue ore and the worthless rock. Each piece was then thrown into the wheelbarrow – the precious ore in one and the waste in another.
They didn't have much choice but to follow suit. The work was monotonous and once the initial excitement wore off they found themselves bored to tears, and tired.
The skill they acquired during their long riding trips came very handy in the mining situation as well. Their minds wandered off and it was as if they put themselves on autopilot. It appeared the other workers developed the same skill. They were all surprised and brought out of their trance when the wheelbarrows suddenly started moving. They hadn't even noticed the ones with the rocks were full and needed be hauled out.
All the mining work suddenly stopped and the workers sat down on the ground. They reached into their linen bags for their apples or bread, or just chewed on the sugar cane to replenish the lost glucose and satisfy their sweet tooth. Tom and James lied down as well and both treated themselves to a slice of bread and a cup of water.
They talked some more about the glowing ore, which was very cold to touch, and asked their neighboring workers for more information, but they were either too tired to talk or didn't know anything to begin with. It wasn't long before there were new, empty wheelbarrows being towed inside the tunnel and the work needed be continued. With them in place they all went back to work, smashing their iron tools against the bedrock. Wielding the pickaxe was tedious and even ten minutes seemed like an hour whereas the break went by so fast they could hardly finish their meal in peace. With no watch, or even the sun, they had no idea how long they had been working already, or how long the break was – they have completely lost their track of time.
It seemed, however, that the break time came faster the second time around, and even faster the later times. It wasn't because they were working faster – they were more sluggish with every passing minute – but because they got much better at putting their mind on idle. Instead of counting hours as they would otherwise, they kept track of the number of breaks that they had.
Over time they noticed that some areas were very rich with the desired ore, while the others were completely deficient of it. It definitely seemed as if the further they dug, the less ore there was. Looking back they also realized how much of the rock they had already excavated – the tunnel had widened substantially – and because they were using no support at all they tried their best not to think about the possibility of a cave in.
With every break they were increasingly more tired, but at the same time cared about it less and so resembled brain-dead robots always more. On the 30th break, however, the miners started leaving alongside the other workers and James and Tom happily followed suit. ”Is our shift over?” They were wondering quietly, both with a subtle smile on their face. The light outside was blinding and they were squinting their eyes hard, but before they could adjust to the light again, they were instructed into a new tunnel and had to start with mining all over again.
Because they were near the beginning of the group, they were positioned very far inside the tunnel again – right next to the designated toilet at the very end of it – and judging by the smell and the width of the tunnel they could tell there was already a group of workers mining there before them.
The work was definitely slower, the breaks definitely went by much faster, and they were running out of food. By the fifth break in the second tunnel, they were down to just a single piece of sugar cane each that they left for last to savor its sweet taste. With no food left and no cigarettes whatsoever there was also nothing to look forward to during work. The grind from now on could only get worse.
Luckily, though, their fear of working on an empty stomach with no reward at all was somewhat mitigated by looking at the others who were also out of food. They were certain that because it wasn't their first time, they had to be better at estimating time and therefore must've known the end of their shift was near.
Every next minute from their last meal on was worse than the previous. Their stomachs were rumbling, both their eyelids weighed at least a tonne each, and the pickaxe was heavier with every swing. They had cramps in the muscles they never knew existed and their throats were dry no matter how much water they drank. The ever stronger reek of excrements at the end of the tunnel was of no help either. There was no doubt their bodies were slowly shutting down.
The breaks were dull and they caught themselves dozing off as soon as they sat or lied down. Instead of work being easier after the break, it was actually harder to get up and start mining again after a brief pause.
It was with the onset of the 10th break in the second tunnel that the workers finally started to move outside again, but after what had happened before they didn’t want to get too excited – nor could they due to tiredness. The light was less blinding than before as the sun was just setting and the part of the mine they were at was in the shade.
They were instructed to move toward the other side of the mine, and judging by the people already moving toward the surface they had to be finished and on their way home.
The pickaxe was too heavy to carry at that point, so the two instead dragged it behind them. They were exhausted and in pain, but still determined to find out as much as possible about the place, mainly where they take the ore and what it is used for. Their best bet was observing the men with the wheelbarrows and watch where they go.
Reaching ground level, they got a better visual over the situation. The wheelbarrows full of ore and those full of rock went separate ways – they were loaded onto separate trains, heading separate directions, but they couldn't tell much more than that. Their minds were telling them to try and escape, but their bodies strongly disagreed. Escaping after a day and a half of work was near impossible. Their best bet was getting a hold of a wheelbarrow themselves and investigating some more.
The exit was in fact an entrance, only they now approached it from the other side, and all the procedures were exactly the same, only reversed. They first gave away the pickaxes, proceeded to the room with the baskets – that were empty – and hanged the linen bags onto the hooks, then went outside for the final check, turning their pockets inside out to prove they didn't take any of the ore.
After passing their final security check, they moved forth to a counter to collect their earnings. The sweater gave them no more than the promised amount of five coins. There was a portrait of a fish standing on its two tail fins as if human on one side, and a number 1 on the other. Five ribes.
They moved away from the exit just enough not to be in the way of the leaving men, yet close enough to spot Jimmy when he came out the door. Standing there, they kept looking at the measly amount of money they received for their hard work and both knew they needed to act quickly. No way they would last an entire week working like that. With that in mind, they have then looked at the people in front of them with far more respect than before – especially the children.
Waiting for Jimmy could've taken only a couple minutes, but it felt like a couple hours instead. He was with another person that time around, and introduced him as his father, Chuck. They shook hands, but due to their extreme exhaustion they didn't speak any more then, only joined in with the rest of the workers heading home.
“So…” James finally spoke up, about half an hour from the entryway. “Is it okay we stay at your place?”
“Jimmy told me, yeah.” A long pause followed before Chuck spoke again. “7 ribes, right?”
The two wanted to object and try to bargain, but were too tired to, and just nodded instead.
Chuck didn’t reply at all, or even acknowledge their nod, and just kept on walking as if they discussed nothing. It was only when James and Tom reached in their pockets and pulled out the money that he began communicating again. The clanking of the coins against one another when they passed them over to Chuck was one of the most depressing sounds they have ever had to witness.
“Thank you. You can share Jimmy’s mattress, and he’ll share his brother’s.”
The two didn’t reply again. The physical exhaustion was too great to speak. For all they cared they could’ve fallen asleep right then and there, standing up or lying down, mattress or no mattress.
The road back to town was a silent and long journey. The men were sluggish, but at the same time wanted to get home as fast as possible and be able use their 12 hours of free time.
Note: The link will become active once Chapter 7 is written in full.
Disclaimer: This text is part of a work in progress. All content tentative to change.
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