A crack like a gunshot ricocheted through the mine. The sound ripped through Haydin Rice’s nervous system like an electric charge, priming him with adrenaline. Even after five years in the mines, he had to fight back a primal urge to flee to the fresh air of the mountainside above. Haydin tamped down all extraneous thought, focused on the mine around him. He took a deep breath. A tangy hint of phosphate mingled with the mustier smell of earth. It was an indelible perfume that permeated Haydin’s hair, his clothes, his home, his life.
He waited breathlessly for another sound from the mine, but all he could hear was the resonant voice of the faceboss, Mike, directing his team farther inby. They were moving a borer into position at the first pillar off the working face. After a good three minutes, Haydin let his breath out slowly. Twin feelings of relief and calm swept through him. Even though he knew the feelings were manufactured—merely one aspect of his Imprint—Haydin was grateful for them. They kept him from panicking—from letting his thoughts wander to the millions of tons of rock hanging just inches above his head.
He turned his attention back to the machine before him. The steel-alloy miner was a massive feat of technology. Its thick rubber treads rose as high as Haydin’s shoulders, and a chassis almost as long as a house stretched into the mine ahead. At 23, Haydin had spent five years working his way up from hourly hand to belt man, and today he’d spent his shift doing maintenance on the miner’s conveyor belt in preparation for the night shift’s work.
Haydin tightened the last bolt and straightened, rubbing at the ache in his shoulder. It felt strange. Since starting at the mine, Haydin had worked section 18 exclusively. It had produced, and produced well, for close to ten years. Tonight, they’d be pulling the first pillar to mine the rubble for its valuable phosphate, beginning the long process of closing down section 18 for good.
Haydin glanced up as a faint clatter echoed through the honeycombed labyrinth of the mine’s rooms and pillars. Somewhere, a handful of loose debris had finally given up its hold, scattering a collection of pebble-sized crumbs of earth onto the tunnel floor. Nothing to worry him. The lamp on his cap cut through the darkness as he turned back to the far edge of the mine. He watched, fascinated, as Mike powered up the borer. It was a much smaller machine than the massive miner, but no less impressive. Light glinted off the borer’s four-foot drill bit as it stood, ready to work. Mike finished entering the bore pattern and stood back, motioning his team to follow suit. The men retreated up the tunnel toward Haydin, averting their eyes. Without warning, the borer shot a fan of blistering blue-green light across the face of the rock pillar, mapping the exact dimensions of its rough-hewn surface. Haydin winced, reflexively throwing his hand up to block the searing light from view.
Just as suddenly as it had appeared, the brilliant blue-green light snapped off, and Haydin could hear the whine of the borer’s motor spinning up. It took a moment for Haydin’s vision to return. By the time he could see again, Mike and his team were leaning against the tunnel wall nearby.
The borer moved with fluid precision, spearing the drill bit perpendicularly into the wall. The drill made a strangely muffled scream as it drove into the rock, spitting out a fine dust that would soon coat everything in the tunnel. The drill bit retracted, making way for a thin tube out of which a faintly gleaming yellow jelly was injected into the hole. The blasting jelly was extremely stable until ignited with a proprietary chemical fuse, but it still made the skin on Haydin’s neck crawl to be so close to that much explosive power. After the jelly had been injected, the borer’s arm retracted, repositioned, and advanced again, cutting a second hole. Each four-foot deep hole was dug and injected with jelly in less than eight seconds.
Haydin watched the borer laid a grid of evenly spaced holes into the rock’s face until the tunnel’s string lights flickered overhead. Shift change.
“Didn’t realize it was so late.” Mike glanced at his watch, then up at Haydin. “Hey, Rice, you headed out?”
“Yeah.” Haydin slung his tool belt over one shoulder, balancing the load easily. “What do you need?”
“Could you take a message to Joe for me?”
“No problem.” Much as he liked Mike, Haydin fought the urge to frown. He had no love for the shiftboss. Something about Joe set Haydin’s teeth on edge—and had from his first day on the job. Joe ran the crew efficiently enough, but whenever there was a problem he was on the phone with management, covering his own ass. Haydin kept his dislike to himself, though. You don’t last long in a company town without a company job. Haydin forced a smile for Mike. “What do you want me to tell him?”
“We’re still good to pull the first pillar as soon as the crew is topside, but we had a calibration issue with the borer. Might be down here longer than he anticipated.”
“I’ll let him know, Be safe.”
The faceboss spread his arms wide. “You don’t get to be my age any other way.”
“Fair point.” Haydin made his way through the winding tunnel, back toward the cage elevator that would return him to the surface. He passed other mined sections braced with massive hydraulic props at even intervals. As he walked, he felt his muscles unknot, anticipating unwinding over a beer with Eli at the pub.
He was walking past the entrance to section 13 when he heard it again. The faint groan sent another wave of goosebumps cascading down his arms. He stopped, unsure if the groan was a low whistle of wind moving through the empty section, or something else. The section was dark, ribboned off. The pillars here were thinner—company engineers had determined the rock in this section was comprised of a stronger aggregate and had pushed for more aggressive mining to strip as much of the valuable phosphate ore from the section as possible. But if they’d miscalculated? If it was the rock that was groaning, it could indicate an impending pillar failure.
Haydin held his breath, listening harder. Nothing. Reporting a potential cave-in would mean evacuating the mine and losing precious time in the race to hit their quota. Failing to report it… If it was roof squeeze, anything in these lower sections would be crushed flat under the weight of the mountain.
“Shit.” Haydin couldn’t pretend he hadn’t heard that groan. He sighed and resolved to take the matter to Joe. Let the shiftboss make the call. It was above Haydin’s pay grade.
The closer Haydin got to the shaft, the fresher the air seemed. Deep down, he knew it was a trick of his mind. Powerful ventilators kept air circulating at a precise purity throughout the mine.
He stepped into the steel elevator and hit the button for the surface. The cage rose steadily for a good two minutes, climbing slowly out of the deep section mine as raw earth scrolled by just beyond the steel mesh. Haydin uncorked his canteen and splashed a handful of water over his face, scrubbing off as much of the mine as he could without soap and a pumice stone.
The temperature dropped sharply as the cage ascended the final ten feet of the shaft, and then he was out. In the mine, it was all darkness and grit and muffled sound. Nothing lived below, and the temperature held steady, unmoved by the blistering heat of summer or the frigid drifts of winter snow.
Emerging from the crypt-like mine, the sheer magnitude of sensation momentarily overwhelmed Haydin, as it did after every shift. Fall had arrived and with it the first hints of a colder wind that heralded winter’s approach. A sharp piney scent laced through the breeze. It smelled clean and wild. At the far edge of the mountain range, a fat orange sun dropped low to kiss the horizon, painting the land in rich amber light. The watery calls of western meadowlarks threaded through a wild chorus of birds, eager to be heard before the approaching night silenced them.
Haydin let his lungs fill with the brisk mountain air. He opened the lift doors and stepped out of the cage, flipping up his jacket collar to ward against the breeze.
Behind the elevator shaft, the mountain rose sharply against the sky. A mix of coniferous and deciduous trees ringed the yard that opened up below. The yard itself was paved in crushed gravel, with several metal sheds lined up against the edge farthest from the mine’s entrance. Most were empty—the vehicles they housed were at work in the mines below—but one held the mine’s newest acquisition. The molecular excavator—christened “the Mole”—must have recently finished its maiden voyage cutting the new shaft farther to the west into what would become section 19.
Haydin glanced at it, feeling the familiar swell of frustration. He’d been tapped for this, for working advanced mech. But until Joe promoted him, he was stuck at the bottom of the mine, running basic maintenance protocols shift after shift.
Haydin walked across the yard to the site HQ. The large metal shed housed a long stainless steel sink, an industrial kitchen nook, a medical bay, and Joe’s glassed-in office. Haydin walked inside, enveloped in the warmth of HQ’s furnace. Around him, miners prepared for the shift change. Some filled canteens with coffee, ready to get started. Others scrubbed a day’s worth of dust off their hands, ready to go home.
Haydin headed straight for Joe’s office, passing a retinal scanner. The RetScan flashed, automatically recording the end of his shift.
As he passed the long sink, Haydin saw a young miner scrubbing diligently at his hands. Haydin struggled to recall the kid’s name.
“Hey.” Haydin had to snap to get his attention.
“Yeah?” The kid looked up, training bloodshot eyes on Haydin’s face. His sleeves were pushed up past his elbows, revealing wiry arms that hadn’t yet built up the muscles most miners took for granted. Staring at him, Haydin remembered his own first weeks at the mines. The intense physical labor, the exhaustion, the aching arms and legs and back and head. Recognition flashed in the kid’s eyes and he straightened. “Haydin Rice, right? How’s Mattie doing? She’s up soon, isn’t she?”
“She’s good. Up in a week.” Haydin smiled thinly. The kid was so earnest. Of course, he’d know Mattie—they couldn’t be more than a few months apart in age. “Listen, uh—” Haydin grimaced, reaching for the kid’s name.
“Right. Xav. You work on Eli’s crew?”
The kid’s expression brightened. “Yeah.”
Haydin felt himself smile. Eli elicited that reaction from everyone. He was impossible not to like, Eli. “Has he left yet?”
“No, he’s still inby. Should be out soon.” Xav sluiced water over his hands, rinsing away the gray lather.
Haydin, already half-turned away, hesitated. “Inby? I thought you guys were on slurry detail.”
The kid nodded. “Yeah. We are.”
“Joe has you guys processing ore? In the mine?”
“Yeah. It’s supposed to save a lot of time. No hauling phosphate out, no hauling slurry back in.” The kid read Haydin’s face, and doubt shadowed his eyes. “Why, is that not a good way do it?”
Goosebumps washed over Haydin’s shoulders. “No,” he said. “That’s not a good way to do it.”
There were a few ways of separating phosphate from waste rock, but the fastest and cheapest was called floating. It involved pumping a mixture of water and chemicals through the ore and “floating” the lighter phosphate nuggets out of the slurry. Once the slurry was processed, the muddy waste was often returned to fill the mined sections. Of course, Joe would suggest floating in the mine. The process generally upped a mine’s productivity by a factor of ten. But intra-mine floating was only ever attempted at sites without ongoing excavation, and Joe had three active sections including the section Eli was working right now.
Haydin felt an anger kindling within him—until a sudden headache overtook it. He lifted a hand to his temple and shrugged, letting the anger go. “I’m sure Joe knows what he’s doing.” The ache receded to a dull throbbing and Haydin glanced back at Joe’s office. “If you see Eli, tell him to hold up. I’ve got to take Joe a message.”
The kid smiled, eager to help. “You guys going to the pub? Maybe I’ll see you there.”
“Sure.” One of the perks of landing a mining job was the pub. Miners drank on the company dime. After five years, he’d grown used to it, but—looking at Xav’s gleaming eyes—he could still remember the pride he felt ordering that first miner’s draft.
“Okay. Cool.” Xav bent back over his hands, redoubling his efforts to scrub them clean.
Haydin’s smile faded. He turned toward the glassed-in office and set his shoulders.
Joe was alone, sitting at his desk with his feet kicked up, when Haydin reached the door. He was watching something on his handscreen, something that seemed to amuse him. Joe was a big man—even after seven years as shiftboss he still carried the muscle he’d built up as a deep section miner.
Haydin knocked crisply on the glass door to announce himself.
Joe held up a finger, not taking his eyes off the screen. After a moment he smiled and gave a faint chuckle, then palmed the screen off and glanced up. “What is it, Rice?”
“The faceboss in 18 wanted you to know they had some trouble calibrating the borer, but it’s up and running now.”
Joe’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t recall putting a belt man on borer duty.”
Haydin forced the tension out of his shoulders. “Just delivering a message, boss.”
Joe regarded Haydin with a cold glare. “Next time, tell the faceboss to send a qualified messenger boy.” Joe palmed his screen on again, ignoring Haydin.
“Excuse me, sir, but there’s something else.”
Joe scowled and set the handscreen down. “What?”
“I heard a groan at the opening to 13,” Haydin began. Joe leaned forward, listening. “Could have been a breeze, but it’s possible we’re looking at a potential pillar failure.”
“It’s possible?” Joe steepled his fingers. “So now you’re second-guessing our engineers. You want to do everyone’s job but your own.”
“Sir?” Haydin felt his hands clench into fists at his side.
“You think I don’t know you consider belt man a—what was it—a shit assignment?”
Haydin swallowed. Maybe two weeks ago he’d had a bit too much to drink, and he remembered saying something like that to a few guys from the mine. He’d thought he was among friends. Clearly, someone had taken this back to Joe.
“Maybe instead of bitching and moaning, you should just man up and do the job you’ve been assigned.” Joe glanced back at his screen, dismissing Haydin with a wave of his hand.
Haydin turned to leave. Stopped. “You know I’m L3, right?”
Joe’s eyes lifted from the screen. “Excuse me?”
“My Imprint. It’s L3.” Haydin met Joe’s stare without flinching. “I was tapped to work with advanced mech and you’ve got me maintaining a glorified conveyor belt.”
“The high-and-mighty Rice family.” Joe kept his voice low, even as he rose to his feet. He towered over Haydin by a good six inches. “Your father had an inflated sense of self-worth, too. A burr in my dad’s side for a dozen years before he learned to tow the line. And just to be clear: I’m not as patient as my old man was.”
Haydin could feel the blood rushing to his face. “The company gave me this Imprint, you don’t think they want it used?”
“I think they trust my judgment.” Joe speared a finger into Haydin’s chest. “You want to keep your job? Work whatever shit assignment I give you with a smile on your face. Are we clear, Rice?”
Haydin dropped his gaze to the floor. He didn’t want to find out what Joe would do if he saw the rage boiling behind his eyes. “Clear.”
“Then get out.”
Haydin walked out of the office, almost blinded by his fury. He managed to make it outside without driving his fist into a wall. Haydin’s future unspooled in his mind’s eye, cutting a bleak path through the life he’d hoped to lead. Joe held the brake that could slow or stop Haydin’s career advancement. Unless one or the other of them was promoted away from Halo Creek, Haydin faced the equally unappealing options of spending his career as a belt man—or kissing Joe’s ass for the next thirty years in hopes of currying a minor promotion every five years or so.
Haydin made his way to the security gate, a dark mood gathering around him. As he walked, he resolved to wait for Eli, head to the pub, and drink until he couldn’t remember his own name.
But as soon as he spotted the gate, he saw his little sister perched like a bird on the low branch of an oak, and his dark mood lifted.
“Mattie.” Haydin tried to push a note of disapproval into his voice, but he couldn’t disguise his affection. “You shouldn’t be here. Do Mom and Dad know where you are?”
“I want to see it.” Mattie hopped off the branch, refusing to acknowledge the rebuke. She was a contradiction in action—bursting with a boundless energy and wild intellect that seemed artificially constrained within her wispy frame. A mad-philosopher pixie. “I heard they’re pulling a pillar today. In your section, right?”
“Section 18.” Haydin shrugged. “I wouldn’t call it my section. And there’s not going to be much to see. It’s half a mile down.”
“But we’ll hear it from here? The explosion?”
“I—” Haydin read the eager curiosity in her eyes and sighed, smiling. “Yeah. We should be able to hear it.”
“You think we could get a little closer?” Mattie actually batted her eyes, trying for an innocent look. “I mean, who knows? After next week, I could be working here, with you.”
Haydin snorted. “Nice try, Mattie. You know the rules.”
Mattie sagged back against the oak branch, glancing down at her fingernails, trying to hide her disappointment. “Right.”
Haydin felt a pang as he studied her. This was it. These were her last few nights as a child, and no matter what she thought, he knew she’d never set foot in a mine. Not with a tool belt slung over her shoulder, anyway. “You know, there’s a rise maybe thirty yards down the fence. Should give us a clear view of the entrance.”
“Yeah?” And just like that, Mattie’s eyes lit up again.
“Just stay close.” Haydin led the way and Mattie trailed after him. He cut through a grassy meadow, heading for a thicket of mountain ash trees. The trees’ limbs were heavy with their annual flush of red-orange berries—it would be a good place to watch without being seen.
The yard’s security fence ran right up to the thicket, but they didn’t need to get any closer. From here, they had a clear view of the entrances to all three working sections.
“That’s 18, right?” Mattie pointed at the mine’s entrance, set into the side of the mountain. Her finger must have brushed the invisible perimeter above the fence because there was the unmistakable flash of a RetScan, followed by a warning chime.
“Matilda Rice, this is a restricted area. Please return to the town and observe the town limits, which were—”
Mattie scowled, reciting the last lines of the standard warning along with the synthetic female voice; “—established by the company for your protection.” She gave her head a little, irritated shake. “I wish she’d stop calling me Matilda.”
The lights flanking the entrance to section 18 started flashing.
Mattie clutched Haydin’s arm, giddy. “What’s happening? Tell me everything!”
Haydin scanned the yard, pointing when he spotted Mike. “Okay, that guy there, he’s the faceboss. He’s in charge of the miners inby. And there, that machine—?” Haydin guided Mattie’s gaze to a large skid emerging from the mine. The flat metal truck carried the borer and the rest of the borer team out into the open air. It rolled slowly to the end of its track. The team worked quickly to secure the skid, then began unloading the borer. “That’s what they used to inject the blasting gel into the rock. When they’ve got the equipment clear, the shiftboss will give the go-ahead, and that’s when the fireboss ignites the fuses.”
Mattie’s eyes roamed the yard. “And what’s that for?”
Haydin followed her gaze. The pumps supplying the chem-mix for flotation were still in full operation. “That’s for flotation—there’s a slurry team down in 17. But they should be evacuating before detonation.” Haydin leaned closer, trying to make sense of what he was seeing. One large pipe drew in the liquid, shuttling it down hundreds of feet into the mine below. A second group of smaller pipes worked to return the wastewater at the same rate. There was no indication the process was being shut down. He glanced back at Joe in the yard.
Joe stood in front of Mike, gesticulating sharply as he talked. Mike was nodding, tight-lipped, as his men finished warehousing the borer. Joe smacked a handscreen against Mike’s chest and pushed past him.
Haydin took a step forward, inadvertently brushing against the security fence. The fence’s alarm beeped as it took Haydin’s RetScan.
“Haydin Rice, this is a restricted area. Please enter through the main gate when your shift resumes at six o’clock tomorrow morning.”
Mattie grinned at Haydin’s side. “Careful, Hay, you’re making her mad.”
“No,” Haydin breathed. Joe was talking with the fireboss, nodding. And then Mike called to his men, and everyone withdrew from the mine’s entrance. They were going to blow the fuses.
Without thinking, Haydin swung himself up into the ash tree and vaulted over the fence. An alarm blared behind him, but Haydin didn’t stop. He barreled forward toward Joe.
Joe turned toward the alarm. When he saw Haydin racing forward, his lips curved into a deep scowl.
“Hold the shot!” Haydin skidded to a stop before Joe and the fireboss.
“Rice? What the hell are you—?”
Haydin sucked in a breath, trying to recover from his sprint. “You’ve got a slurry team inby.”
“Yes, thank you, Mr. Rice,” Joe sneered. “Now get off my yard.”
“You’re going to leave them down there?” Haydin’s incredulous rage drew the attention of the other miners in the yard. Heads turned; the miners waited to hear Joe’s answer.
Joe’s eyes cut to the men gathering around them. He drew himself up to his full height. “Not that I owe you any explanations, Rice,” he growled. “But we’ve got the engineers’ go ahead. The sections are isolated. Pulling a pillar from 18 should have no impact on the work in 17. So if you don’t mind, we’ve got a job to do.”
Joe turned back to the fireboss.
Haydin caught his arm. Joe glared at him, furious. Haydin released him, acutely aware of the other men, watching. Joe wouldn’t forgive a direct challenge to his authority.
“I’m sorry.” Haydin dropped his voice. “Look, Joe, it’s a loss of an hour or two’s work,” he murmured. “That’s all. The company has to understand. You really want to risk all those lives?”
The strangest look passed over Joe’s face, an amused condescension that sent a chill straight to Haydin’s bones. “Your shift is over, belt man. Go home.” Joe planted a hand on Haydin’s chest and shoved. Haydin staggered back. Before he could manage another word, Joe turned to the fireboss. “Light it up.”
The fireboss’s eyes flicked to Haydin, but half a second later he drew in a deep breath. “Fire in the hole!” He thumbed his ID into the handscreen and authorized ignition.
The gravel jumped beneath their feet as a rolling series of explosions detonated within the mountain.
Joe allowed himself a self-satisfied smile.
And then all hell broke loose.
The slurry return lines shrieked a collective whine and—as Haydin watched—the wastewater slowed to a trickle and stopped. Haydin turned, numb. The feed line supplying the slurry team below continued to pour a flood of chem-mix into the mine.
“Shut it down!” Haydin bellowed, racing toward the intercom. He passed a maintenance man, frozen by shock. Haydin grabbed the man by the front of his shirt and shook him. “Shut it down! There are men down there!”
The man’s eyes snapped to Haydin’s face. He leapt into action. Men raced for the feed line’s emergency shut off. But even when the failsafe had been engaged, it took a good minute for the deluge to slow to a trickle.
Somewhere, in the back of his mind, Haydin heard the fence alarm go off again. He ignored it, grabbing the intercom and pressing the button for section 17. The crude system was reserved for emergencies; it broadcast communication across the yard and throughout the mine. Anyone below should be able to hear the message, and their response would be automatically transmitted up to the yard.
“Eli!” Haydin shouted into the intercom. The system’s aging speakers whined as they trumpeted his voice across the yard.
“Haydin?!” Eli’s voice poured out of the speakers a moment later, hoarse with terror. “I think we’re in trouble.”
Mattie skidded to a stop in front of Haydin, ashen. “Eli’s down there?”
Haydin turned away from the anguish on her face. “We killed the feed line,” Haydin said into the intercom. “But it doesn’t look like the return is operating.”
“Yeah, we got water rising fast in here.” Eli’s breath was ragged. The miners in the yard stared at the speakers, transfixed. They could only listen, helpless, until they knew the extent of the problem.
Haydin squeezed his eyes shut, struggling to keep his voice calm. “Can you get out?”
“Uh… I don’t know. I’ve got Jamison and Briggs scouting—wait. They’re here.”
“It’s no good,” Jamison’s voice cut across the yard. “Everything’s blocked past crosscut 107. Looks like a cave in.”
Haydin gripped the intercom handset tightly. “What about the shaft?”
“It’s underwater.” Eli’s voice broke then. “Not sure what I should be doing here. Any ideas?”
Joe ripped the handset out of Haydin’s grasp. “Eli, it’s Joe. I need you to find the highest ground you can and hole up. Don’t worry. We’re weighing our options right now.”
There was a moment’s hesitation. Then Eli’s voice, crisp with fear. “Just don’t weigh too long.”
Joe glanced at the entrance to the mine, eyes tight. “Eli. Tell your team to limit conversation and movement. We don’t know whether your oxygen was compromised. We’ll check back with you in five minutes.” Joe thumbed the intercom off and the speakers fell silent with an ominous click. He turned to the assembled miners. The men were ready, waiting for an order. “Okay,” Joe started. He ran a hand through his hair and Haydin saw it tremble. “Just… give me a second.”
Haydin grabbed a pencil and the shift schedule, pinned up beside the intercom. He flipped the page over to the blank side and sketched out some quick figures.
“Okay,” Joe started again. “I need a team of volunteers to head down to 18, see how bad the cave in is. Once we establish the extent of the damage, we can figure out a plan of action—”
“No.” Haydin shoved the sheet into Joe’s hands. Joe looked down at it blankly. It was covered with a few hastily scribbled equations. “We don’t have any time to waste. Given the volume of water in that pipe, the fact that the shaft is already submerged—”
“What?” Joe looked up at Haydin, bewildered. “What are you saying?”
“If we don’t get them out now, they’re going to drown before they have time to asphyxiate.” His words silenced the miners in the yard.
Joe glanced back at the sheet of figures in his hands, but they didn’t seem to register. “How long?”
Haydin shook his head, grim. “30 minutes. If we’re lucky.”
Mattie pointed straight at the molecular excavator. “What’s that?”
Joe seemed to see Mattie for the first time. His eyes cut to Haydin, narrowing dangerously. “Is that your sister?”
Haydin glanced at Mattie, distracted. “Mattie. Get on home, okay?”
“It’s a molecular excavator, isn’t it?” Mattie scrutinized the Mole, her expression urgent. “How fast does it work?”
Joe glared at Haydin. “Get her out of here, Rice. Don’t make me tell you again.” Joe turned his back on Haydin, calling for a group of volunteers.
Haydin gestured for Mattie to join him, but she was still staring at the Mole. When she didn’t move, he caught her arm, propelling her forward. She resisted, forcing Haydin to pull her toward the gate.
“Haydin. How fast?”
Haydin shook his head. His attention was focused on the mine behind them. “Maybe five kilometers an hour through stone aggregate.”
“I don’t see how,” Haydin said, growing impatient with her. “Even if we could maneuver it down to the cave in, we’d run the risk of severing the remaining braces. The Mole’s good at boring through stone, but if the roof drops on it it’ll be crushed like any other tin can.”
“No.” Mattie dug her heels in, facing Haydin. “Getting the men out isn’t your problem.”
Haydin stared at her. “What?”
“Your problem,” she said, urgency giving every word weight, “is the water. Use the Mole. Dig straight through the mountain and come up under the miners. You can make a drain—”
Haydin didn’t wait for her to finish the thought. He sprinted back to Joe. The shiftboss and his volunteers were suited up, heading for the cage that would take them down to section 18.
“She’s right.” Haydin skidded to a stop in front of Joe, blocking his path to the mine entrance. “We can use the Mole.”
“Out of the way, Rice,” Joe growled softly. “It’s been decided.”
“By the time you’ve assessed the damage, they’ll be dead,” Haydin spat back. “If we go in through the mountain, underneath the section, we could—”
“That’s prime phosphate ore,” Joe stated it simply.
“You’ll never get company permission to drive a molecular excavator through a vein of pure phosphate.”
“Joe.” Haydin’s voice came out raw with emotion. “They’re going to die.”
Joe looked over Haydin’s shoulder and waved a site security guard forward. “Get him off my job site.”
“Yes, sir.” The security guard gripped Haydin’s arm, holding him fast. Joe and the miners headed for the cage.
“Let’s go.” The security guard angled his head toward the gate at the far end of the yard.
Haydin’s gaze landed on Mattie. Her eyes were flooding with tears. She raised her fists to her mouth, muffling a grief that threatened to choke her.
“They’re alive.” Haydin spoke the thought aloud, numb.
“You can’t help here, son,” the security guard murmured. “Best stay out of the way.”
Haydin let the security guard march him toward the gate, offering no resistance.
The Mole sat just ahead. Haydin’s eyes raked the frame. He felt a strange prickling sensation over the back of his neck.
Half a second later, he had pulled his arm free of the guard and was sprinting toward the Mole. The guard, caught by surprise, was two steps too far behind to stop him.
Haydin yanked the door open, climbed into the cab of the Mole, and palmed the pressure acclimator on.
The last thing Haydin saw before the door slid shut and sealed itself was the startled face of the guard and—beyond him—Mattie’s flaring hope.
The inside of the Mole was pitch black, and for a moment, Haydin doubted himself. But then he took a deep breath, reached out, and found the small control pad to his left. The heads-up display flickered to life, filling the sleek front of the cab with pristine digital readouts. One tiny display in a corner of the HUD ran video feed from the outside of the Mole. The security guard pounded on the side of the Mole. Haydin could barely hear the noise from the cab’s interior. He thumbed the display over, focusing on the other digital windows. One was a timer. He set it to 30 minutes, then activated it. The timer counted down, ticking off the seconds to the miners’ deaths in crisp, green numbers.
“Just hang on, Eli.”
A message scrolled across the bottom of the grayed-out main display: TAKING GEOPHYSICAL MEASUREMENTS. While the Mole gathered data for its survey, Haydin maneuvered himself into the pilot’s seat. It was more of a harness, or a hammock, than chair. There were cushioned rests to cradle his body in any position. He hesitated, wracking his brain for the correct way of strapping in. He’d never seen the inside of a Mole before, but that didn’t matter. His Imprint contained everything he should need to pilot it. He touched one of the harness straps, and a familiar feeling rose up out of the back of his mind. Haydin climbed into the tangle of straps, his confidence growing.
As he worked to secure his body in the harness, the mountain appeared before him in vivid color on the HUD. Not as it would appear to the naked eye; the Mole was mapping the interior of the mountain, coloring mineral deposits by type. Haydin watched as blue streaks of iron threaded through large gray fields of aggregate. And then, there in the heart of the mountain, he saw the golden bloom of a phosphate deposit.
He stared at it for a moment, awed by the sheer volume of the precious mineral—and what it would mean to a world on the brink of starvation. Fertilizer enough to keep the world’s farms producing for another year, at least. Billions of lives—if not saved—extended until more phosphate could be located and mined.
Haydin squeezed his eyes shut, blocking out the sight of the rich ore. He needed to concentrate. Five years he’d lived with his Imprint, only tapping the surface of the knowledge it had written into his brain. In any other circumstance, he’d be learning to pilot the Mole with an instructor at his side, guiding him through the motions as his hands “remembered” the feel of the controls.
Instead, Haydin was on his own. He scanned the interior of the cab quickly. The controls were deceptively simple; two round gel-pads a little larger than his hands, backed by powerful electromagnets. He placed his palms on the control pads, and the Mole shuddered to life around him.
“Rice! What the hell do you think you’re doing?! That’s a multi-million dollar—” Joe’s voice blared out of the cab’s radio. Without thinking it through, Haydin reached out his left hand and made a swiping gesture, silencing the intrusion. Haydin smiled, surprised. It felt so strange, doing something the first time by remembering how to do it, but that was the gift of the Imprint. His confidence fueled, Haydin tweaked the map settings, illuminating the various mineral deposits and looking for the safest path in.
Ready now, Haydin replaced both hands onto the control pads. He pushed down into the gel, feeling an immediate resistance as the Mole nosed down into the dirt.
Even though he knew the Mole worked by providing haptic feedback, it was still a surprise when he could feel the molecular excavator making contact with the side of the mountain. In that instant, the combination of visuals and the haptic feedback worked together to create a perfect illusion, that he and the machine were one. That his hands, not the molecular excavator, were actually penetrating the side of the mountain. The gel-pads vibrated beneath his fingers, the motion calibrated to deliver specific sensations.
As Haydin eased the Mole into the rock, it felt like he was pushing against half-dry cement, a gritty sort of resistance that gave way slowly. He angled the mole almost straight down, hanging head down from the harness. The cab vibrated as the molecular cannon on the nose of the excavator disassembled the earth in front of him on an atomic level. The Mole worked by severing the bonds holding molecules together, scattering atomic dust in its wake and leaving a tunnel behind with walls as sheer as glass.
Haydin couldn’t help but grin. He knew this feeling, even though he’d never touched a haptic-enabled machine before. This memory was burned into his neural pathways along with everything else he would need to know in order to operate the Mole with precision.
Once he’d reached the right depth, Haydin angled the Mole back up. His plan, spotty as it was, was to carve a tunnel in a steady incline until he reached the area just beneath the miners. That would give the slurry wastewater a long run to drain into, buying the men time until Joe and his team of volunteers could get to them.
As he began his ascent, he hit pockets of stone and aggregates, potash and residual coal. The haptic feedback changed each time the Mole hit a new type of mineral deposit. Potash felt like bread dough right after rising. Talc felt like the fine silt that gathered in the corners of the company showers at shift change.
Haydin pushed forward, keeping one eye on the clock. The minutes seemed to melt away. A fine sweat had broken out across Haydin’s forehead, but he didn’t want to take the time to remove one hand from the control-pads to wipe it away. He was making headway, but it wasn’t fast enough.
And then the Mole struck the phosphate vein. It felt like butter beneath his fingers. The Mole had been specifically calibrated to warn operators whenever they came into contact with Phosphate. As soon as he felt the slippery, buttery feeling beneath his fingers, Haydin felt the strong compulsion to stop advancing.
But he wasn’t here to mine phosphate. Haydin pushed the thought down and guided the Mole forward into the rich ore. The phosphate was much softer than the aggregate farther out, and suddenly the Mole was making up time.
Haydin found himself positioned beneath the miners with ten minutes to spare. But before he could breach the compartment, he had to warn the men—give them time to find something to hold onto.
He thumbed the radio back on. Wondering, for a split second, whether Joe would even be listening.
“Joe, it’s Haydin. Are you there?”
“You stupid son of a bitch,” Joe snarled over the radio. “You just burned through nearly 200 cubic meters of prime phosphate! That was on the company’s balance sheet and—”
“Shut up and listen, Joe.” Haydin made his voice hard. “I’m positioned at the base of the section. Tell Eli and the others to find something to hold onto. 60 seconds, then I’m ending this. Tell me you understand.”
“60 seconds,” Joe growled. “And if you survive this, you’re answering to me.”
The radio clicked off, leaving Haydin in silence. He swallowed. If I survive. Of course, some part of him had known what he was doing. You don’t work the mines without facing your own mortality—it’s part of the life of a miner. Haydin reached out and refreshed the timer.
Haydin sat in the dark heart of a mountain, under the crushing weight of hundreds of thousands of gallons of slurry wastewater, and waited. Suddenly, those 60 seconds seemed both too short and too long. Mattie’s face rose to the surface of Haydin’s thoughts. He felt a sharp pang. If he died here, would she hold herself responsible?
Haydin was reaching for the radio controls when his eye caught on the HUD display. He leaned forward, the radio forgotten. The display showed faint forms of human beings in the compartment ahead. It must be reading the calcium and other minerals in their bodies as deposits. He watched the still forms, not daring to breathe. Was he already too late? Were they past saving? Seconds ticked down. Nothing.
And then one of the forms moved. He sat up, then turned toward the others. Movement spread through the group. Hot tears pricked the corners of his eyes as Haydin watched the men fall to their knees, embrace, dance. He didn’t need to hear them to know their jubilation.
They were saved.
The timer clicked down to zero.
Haydin thumbed it off. His stomach twisted beneath his ribs. He ignored it. Placed his hands back on the control pads.
Haydin hesitated for a moment. “What the hell. We all have to die.”
He pressed his fingers into the gel of the control pads and the Mole inched up toward the miners.
The control pads beneath his fingers went soupy—and then the Mole was slammed back as a massive flood of wastewater surged into the newly excavated tunnel. Haydin released the control pads, clutching tight to his harness. The water was in charge now. With sudden terror, Haydin realized that he’d failed to factor in the pressure of the water or the lack of friction offered by the smooth walls of the tunnel. He was traveling like a projectile through the barrel of a gun. His thoughts raced ahead. The tunnel he’d dug was too perfect. The Mole was propelled back by the force of the water, faster and faster. The HUD, still active, painted a vivid picture of their velocity. He watched as the Mole shot back through the phosphate field, through the talc, through the potash, through the aggregate streaked with iron—
Any minute now they’d reach the upturn and Haydin would be launched out of the side of the mountain like a cork from a warm bottle of Champaign. There was no telling how high he’d travel—or how far he’d fall before impacting with the unforgiving granite of the mountainside.
Haydin braced for the ejection.
“Come on, baby.” Haydin laid the palm of one hand against the shuddering hull of the Mole. “We got this far—”
With a wrenching crash, Haydin was slammed against the harness, hard enough that it knocked the wind from his lungs. This wasn’t right—
The Mole shuddered violently, and then the HUD went dark. Haydin fought the harness, blind and restrained. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the emergency glow-stick that was a part of every miner’s kit. He cracked the stick and it fell from his hands. He heard it splash below, but it wasn’t until the glow-stick began to emanate light that Haydin saw the growing puddle of muddy water at his feet.
That’s when Haydin realized there was something worse than being ejected from the tunnel. The Mole must have gotten lodged in the sharp corner Haydin had made when he’d changed from digging straight down to digging the gentle incline. Haydin was trapped. Poisonous water battered the hull of the Mole, clawing its way past the excavator to fill the tunnel beyond. Something cold struck Haydin’s cheek. He lifted a hand to wipe it away and saw the fine spray shooting in from the wall of the cab. The Mole shuddered violently again. With a shearing scream, one edge of the Mole crumpled and scraped free from its perch. Once more the water took the capsule and shot it along the tunnel.
The turbulent flood swelled against the crumbled side of the Mole, spinning it sideways— and with another wrenching jar, the Mole caught in the tunnel again.
Haydin rocked against the harness, and something in the Mole gave way. Water surged into the cabin. Haydin clawed at the straps holding him in place. He could barely even make out the glow stick, now submerged under several feet of murky water. Haydin wrestled free of the harness, took a deep breath, and plunged into the bottom of the Mole for the glow stick.
He came up gasping, scraping the burning slurry water out of his eyes. Indecision tore through Haydin. He had no idea how far down the tunnel he was. He could maybe hold his breath for a minute—and then his lungs would fill with the wastewater, and even if he managed somehow to reach the surface without drowning, the poison would have done its work. But staying inside the Mole was not an option; the cabin was filling at an alarming rate, and Haydin wasn’t eager to make this Mole his eternal resting place.
He took several quick breaths, priming his lungs with what oxygen remained in the cab, then filled them with a great breath and kicked at the door.
It gave way on the third impact.
Water ripped Haydin from the Mole, spinning him into terrifying, frigid darkness. Haydin curled himself into a ball, arms crossed over his head. There was no fighting the current. No light. He was buffeted through the tunnel, slammed against the walls only to be whipped around again and shot forward. The only mercy was the fact that the walls themselves were smooth. Had they had even a moderate texture, his skin would have been shredded from his bones within seconds.
Haydin’s lungs burned. He lowered one hand, clamping it over his mouth, pinching his nose closed. Every second mattered. Every second shot him closer and closer to the surface—to air.
And then, miraculously, he was out, sprawling against the gravel yard, clawing himself out of the stream of wastewater. His ears were full of the roar of the slurry. His arms and legs were barely strong enough to propel him to dry ground.
But he was conscious enough to hear Mattie scream his name. And then hands were wrapping around him, pulling him up, carrying him to a waiting medic. Over their shoulders, he could see the mouth of the tunnel he’d carved. Slurry water gushed from it, like blood from a punctured artery.
“Lay him down. The gurney.”
Hands settled Haydin on a soft surface. He looked up as a stocky woman in an EMT’s coat stuck leads against his head, the side of his neck, down into his shirt.
“Your hands are warm,” he murmured.
The medic spared him a tight smile. “Just relax. You’re in shock.”
Mike leaned into view, gripping Haydin’s hand tightly.
“They’re okay. The water is receding. You saved their lives, Rice.”
Someone had hold of his other hand. He turned his head. Mattie gave him a watery smile.
“Make a drain,” he murmured.
“I’m an idiot,” Mattie said, beaming. Despite her smile, tears streamed freely down her face. “Never listen to me again.”
“That is a deal.” He patted her hand, surprised to find an IV line taped to the back of his hand. But before he could ask about this, he closed his eyes and darkness overcame him.
Thank you for reading.